MAY 8, 2011
I wasn't planning on watching two Asylum movies this weekend (after Friday's The Hitchhiker) but in my defense I didn't even know Shapeshifter was one of theirs until it started. How could I have known? It's not a direct copy of any big theatrical release from 2005 that I know of, and it's not like a movie without any names I recognized is an Asylum trademark, especially on Netflix Instant (Asylum movies are actually MORE professional than a lot of the shit I've found in there over the past couple years).
That's not to say it didn't sound like a ripoff, however. In fact the synopsis made it sound like a cross between two of the best Carpenter flicks: The Thing and Assault On Precinct 13. I'm always up for movies in the vein of either story, and in the few hours in between discovering it and watching it, I wasn't able to think of another movie that combined those type of plots; the "two enemies teaming up against a common enemy" of P13 (which incidentally was the backbone of yesterday's movie, The Horde) and the "you don't know who is still human" of The Thing.
Unfortunately, the synopsis (and in turn, title) was a bit misleading, as the monster is not a traditional shapeshifter in that he cannot assume anyone's form. He's either a big, hairy, demonic monster, or a street punk looking dude with the douchiest hair imaginable, and there was no discernible rhyme or reason for when he'd turn from one to another, so it's more of a Jekyll & Hyde type thing. I don't know if giving him the ability to assume other folks' forms and play them against each other would have improved the movie, but it certainly would have freed up some dough for the budget - the monster is actually kind of impressive for these sort of things, and thankfully practical. But the limitations of the budget/production don't allow him to do much, so it's kind of a waste of a good costume.
The "cops and crooks team up" angle was also kind of botched, as there are only three cops but about eight prisoners, and two of the cops bite it almost instantly. This leaves only one female officer, and to the movie's credit, they don't go the expected route of having her be dominated (or worse) by the criminal population (with maybe one "heart of gold" type prisoner who protects her from the others). Instead, all of these hardened criminals not only treat her with respect as a human (i.e. they don't attack her), but they all pretty much stay in line and do what she says. The script only allows for a few of the characters to explain what they are in for, but you gotta assume at least ONE of these guys is a murderer or rapist or something - the lack of any real tension from this scenario was quite unexpected. But it also doesn't leave much in terms of "having to put aside their differences to team up", either, because they never seem like enemies to begin with; they are the most laid back bunch of prisoners ever. You get the impression that once they find a way out of the prison, the cons would simply drop to the ground and put their hands behind their heads before even being prompted to do so, when we should be worried about what will happen once the monster threat is removed.
But again, this is The Asylum here - botching a potentially cool concept is nothing new. And to be fair, the movie's fairly entertaining, albeit in unintentional ways just as often as not. There's a wonderfully inept bit where a guy immediately coughs up blood after being bitten on the leg, and the opening, where we see multiple shots of a hooker whipping her john (at his request) in a scene that goes on forever, is just pure bad movie heaven. But on the other hand, it moves along, the monster/makeup FX are above average (love the head smashing near the end), and it's pretty hard to tell which prisoners will die. As I mentioned in the Horde review, I liked the movie a lot but the fact that I could spot not only who would die but also the order in which they did so was disappointing, so it was nice to have the opposite effect today; I was actually surprised by a couple of deaths.
I also have to admit I was wrong about something for once. I've complained several times about using prisoners as protagonists, because I often find them loathsome and thus don't give two shits if they die. But here, while I didn't exactly shed a tear over any of them, I found about half of them actually pretty charming in their own way, particularly Mohammad, a spiritual guy who did his best to try to bring calm to the others. There was also another guy, I forget his name but he was the requisite "tank" type character who sat in his cell reading comic books during the monster's first couple of attacks - awesome.
The low budget really hurts it at times though. There's a bit where they are trying to break some bars or something near the ceiling in order to get from the cell where they had barricaded themselves into another part of the prison, but it's impossible to tell what they are doing (or why they are running into difficulty) because there's no close-ups of the bars (grate? I don't even know) to show what they are dealing with. Then they decide to trick "Tank" into helping by having one of the prisoners talk shit about him until he gets mad enough to leave his cell and enter theirs, but then there's a cut and suddenly most of them are crawling through the ventilation duct. So I guess his plan worked! And then later there's a big reveal about one of the prisoners, and our heroine confronts him, they fight for maybe 12 seconds, and then everyone just runs back to the room they were just in, rendering the entire "fight" pointless.
It also just looks cheap throughout the entire movie, which sucked me right out of the movie on several occasions. The prison is supposedly high security but the cells look barely adequate to be a holding tank for Otis the town drunk, and it's just pitiful when a guard asks for a door to be buzzed open when it's clearly not connected to any sort of security or electric devices. Then there's a bit where they find the prison security system, which runs on VHS and a few CRT monitors, I guess (also note the timecode when they play back - it doesn't change even a millisecond). It's also in this scene where an actor flubs his line and even makes a "oh shit, sorry" face, but a 2nd take clearly wasn't bothered with. I also laughed out loud when they decide to "take down this stuff", referring to the barricade they have made in a hole in the wall, and then they just sort of brush the stuff aside - they couldn't even bother to pretend it was heavy and/or secured to the wall; it wouldn't have kept out a determined infant let alone a giant monster. It's like, they designed a cool monster and even wrote a halfway decent script (the monster's motives are so batshit ridiculous I actually found it kind of awesome - it's certainly the first of its kind that I've seen), but then the production itself is barely more professional than that of a student film.
But I dunno, I got the sense the folks making it were having fun and actually trying to make a decent little monster movie with what they had available to them; a lack of noticeable cynicism is always a plus. At 80 minutes it certainly doesn't wear out its welcome, and any movie that points out the silliness of the "any similarity to actual events is purely coincidental" disclaimer in a movie of this sort ("coincidental" is followed by "and very weird") automatically gets some love from me.
Now, someone do the Thing/Assault on Precinct 13 hybrid I had in my head!
What say you?
Warning - trailer is NSFW, so if your boss/co-workers are OK with you watching horror movie trailers while on the clock but not if they have some nudity, wait til you get home!