JUNE 11, 2011
SOURCE: CABLE (SYFY)
It's very rare that I watch any movie (let alone HMADs) with a group of people in a gathering setting (public place, a party, etc). Because folks talk and I actually like things like dialogue and character development, and I can't pause it to go check Twitter or whatever if it starts getting boring (or I start getting drowsy). But it was interesting watching Ice Road Terror with about a dozen people at a pizza joint, because most of them were not privy to the usual Syfy fare and thus I had to keep explaining that this one really wasn't all that bad.
For starters, it goes against the principle laid down by Corman (relating the Syfy producers' MO) that you need to have a kill every 10 minutes or else people will tune out, opting for a more Jaws-like low-body count approach with lots of chases and near misses, while keeping up a relatively (but still admirably) fast pace compared to the usual stop n' start monster movies they air every week. There's a big opening massacre where nearly an entire construction crew is wiped out, but from then on, there are no anonymous victims. There are only another 5 deaths after that opening bit, but you'll know their names and even the story of how they met their spouses in one case. Sure, you can spot the two survivors before they even appear thanks to their credit placement, but it doesn't make it any less of a bummer when a couple of the others get offed near the end. One kill is actually downright mean-spirited because the character was so kind and sweet (and by that I mean I laughed out loud when it happened).
The setting has a lot to do with the lowered body count. Instead of the usual sunny locale that prompts college aged kids to go surfing or skinny dipping, this is set on the ice roads of Alaska, where anonymous fodder is hard to come by. Hell I would have even forgiven a pair of cross country skiers getting chomped around the halfway point, but Keith Shaw's script sticks with our heroes at all times, even if it means going to commercial at the end of a heart to heart conversation instead of some anonymous asshole getting eaten by the rampaging monster. In fact, it almost would have HELPED to have something like this, because it seems after a while that the monster (a prehistoric lizard/dinosaur thing) is specifically trying to kill our heroes and thus it gets a bit silly.
Hell, it even had a real structure! I usually feel that these things can be edited in any order because the stories are so flimsy, but Ice Road Terror had three distinct acts. In the first, we have the big construction massacre, plus we meet our heroes and get them to the construction site (300 miles away from civilization) with a bit of minor foreshadowing about the melting ice roads, and then have them meet up with the monster. The second act is essentially a long (and fairly exciting) chase scene, with the two trucks battling the elements and the monster who keeps popping up and putting giant holes in the road and such (plus one of them catches fire - they are hauling explosives for the construction crew). And then the third is a siege movie of sorts, with the trio holing up with an elderly couple operates a truck stop and waiting for rescue as the monster tries to get inside to eat them. Apart from some clunky editing back and forth between the massacre and the character intros in the first act, it's very tight; you couldn't just swap scenes around at random like you could with Sharktopus or whatever.
I also noticed some attention to detail that is often lacking from these things. One guy is sprayed with the blood of a coworker when he is hiding in between some palettes, and then for the rest of his time in the movie he has a perfectly even bloodspray across the top of his face, which is how it would work since the boards covered part of his face (think a guy with a clean, goggle shaped part of his face after driving a motorcycle through a windstorm). And Michael Hogan's character, who lives in an isolated cabin on a permanently snowy mountain, had a pink flamingo half buried in his front yard, a cute little sight gag that again shows a little more effort than I've come to expect from anything that premieres on a Saturday night on the Syfy channel.
Indeed, Hogan's casting makes that distinction even more apparent, since he was of course one of the main cast members of Battlestar Galactica, the one thing that has given the channel a bit of respect in the past decade. He is joined by BSG supporting player Ty Olsson (Capt. Kelly), and at one point I thought I heard Hogan make a joke about shooting "a viper", but it was "black bear" (knowing that it would be tough to write a review based on a movie I watched with a dozen others in a public place, I had the foresight to record it and re-watch a few chunks later). They are joined by a largely familiar cast, including Halloween II's Brea Grant and Dawson's Creek's Dylan Neal (Pacey's "gay" brother), plus Grace's Malcolm Stewart, another thing that gives this one its own identity - I recognized just about every person in the film! Was this really a Syfy Original?
Don't get me wrong, it's not something you'd proudly put next to Jaws on your shelf (Jaws 3 or 4, however...). The FX actually seem worse than usual; they don't change the thing's size too much, but there is precisely ONE shot in the entire movie where he looks pretty good, and when it's bad it's REALLY bad; hell with PS2, some of the shots would have been a bit laughable on a PS*1* cutscene. There are also a few insanely nonsensical moments, such as when Olsson falls while jumping from one truck to the other (his is on fire) only to suddenly reappear on the TOP of the damn thing. One hero's death makes little sense (he's climbing some stairs and the monster breaks down a wall, but he just sits there and gets eaten rather than finish the climb he had plenty of time for), and the monster seemingly can travel the same speed of the truck since he keeps catching up to them. There are a couple of glaringly bad gaffes too, such as when two characters barricade a door that opens out the other way, or when director Terry Ingram cuts to a monster POV shot but the footage is someone running TOWARD the camera, which suggests they were just throwing the obligatory "monster-vision" colored filters over shots at random.
But I bring this up because it just sort of backs up my point that this one is above average. I wouldn't notice/care about such things after a while unless the movie was actually worth thinking about for a second or two. The brief pauses in the action to let the characters dish out some of their gloomy backstory (Grant is running from bad relationship, Olsson is a divorced dad trying to make ends meet) gives them a bit of dimension that at least half of all modern horror movies lack, not just Syfy originals, which in turn makes it easier to care about what's going on. Whether that will satisfy the folks who tune in just to see a bunch of assholes get killed every 10 minutes is doubtful, but for the folks who watch these things every day, that little bit of effort was much appreciated.
But fear not - during the broadcast they showed many promos for Swamp Shark (starring Kristy Swanson!), which looks to be more in line with what I expect from a Syfy Original - folks in swimsuits, some sort of festival that is in danger of being ruined by the water monster, characters with names like "Girl In Boat", and an 80s tough guy (Robert Davi!) as some sort of asshole. Status quo!
What say you?