AUGUST 19, 2011
Part of why I always listen to commentary tracks is because they might explain (or at least hint) at the reasons why a movie came close to being really good, but for one reason or another just didn't quite hit the mark. Usually it's financially related, or maybe the shooting schedule was reduced by a few days halfway through production. And thus, I wish I hadn't watched Voodoo Moon via Netflix Instant, because I don't have access to the commentary, which COULD have explained why a cool/interesting idea had such a clunky presentation. Or it might have just been the director narrating the movie; I will probably never know.
I also could have seen a good transfer instead of this Starz shit that Netflix offers. Seriously, why are these transfers always so goddamn bad? I may be harsher than most on the service as a whole, but I can recognize (and acknowledge) a good transfer when I see one. However, these Starz ones are always awful (and almost always cropped, UGH). Netflix - believe me: you are never ever going to even be a serious contender to replace physical media as long as you offer such sub-standard shit as a major part of your library. Fix these transfers or just get rid of them entirely.
Anyway, as I said, the concept is pretty interesting. Our heroes are a brother/sister pair, Cole and Heather, who are the only survivors of a massacre in their small town when they were children. She's moved on, he's committed his life to finding the demon who did it. To do so, Cole studies ancient magic and things of that sort, and believes/practices multiple religions as well, the combination of which have given him minor superpowers as well as tracking skills. So the two of them go on the road looking for him, meeting up with a rogue's gallery of folks that Cole has helped along the way (many played by familiar character actors like Jeffrey Combs and Dee Wallace), who aid him in the final battle. Oh, and the villain can turn people into zombie helpers, so there's more action than the usual single villain plot would allow for.
Pretty cool, right? Well, unfortunately it never fully connects, because the movie as a whole feels like the feature version wrapup to a TV show (or a comic book, as writer/director Kevin VanHook hails from that world). There are lengthy flashbacks and bouts of exposition that don't seem like natural elements to a stand-alone film, but more like catch up dialogue for series newcomers. Sort of like that one scene in the first X-Files movie where Mulder gets drunk and explains the entire history of the show up until that point, except we get these sort of scenes 4-5 times over the course of the movie. Most of the "survivors" explain how Cole helped them (often with flashbacks and stories that seem like they could have been their own little movie, or TV episode/comic book issue), and the epilogue of the movie goes on forever, as if it was the last time we would ever be seeing these beloved, fan favorite characters.
Likewise, it also often feels like we're coming in to a story in progress. I actually had to check the IMDb after about a half hour to make sure that this wasn't a non-numbered sequel to some other movie ("Voodoo Dawn" or something), because I had trouble understanding what was going on and why certain scenes seemed to be inserted from another movie. Take Combs' first scene - they suddenly cut to him in some location apart from our other characters, he gets out of his car and walks up toward a motel, only to be pushed down the stairs and seemingly killed by one of the bad guy's minions. Um, OK? Who was he? Why did they cut to this? It's as if we should have already known who he was and then been shocked by his seeming death (he actually survives and resurfaces in the third act, broken neck and all). I guess since it's Combs we can sort of apply a bit of our familiarity/fondness for the guy to make up for such an awkward introduction, but it doesn't change the fact that it keeps the audience at a bit of a distance.
So without the commentary or any real information on its Wiki or IMDb pages, I just have to guess why the movie was so clunky, and that would be money. VanHook himself said on the IMDb that this was NOT based on one of his comics, though I suppose it could have been a comic idea that he decided to make as a movie instead. But there are several clues throughout the flick that suggest that they didn't have the dough to fully realize the ambitious idea. For starters, the FX are pretty bad throughout the flick, particularly in the big climax where Cole and the demon finally face off. Not only are they hovering above the ground (bad green-screen!) but their fight is not a physical one - it's magic based. So it sort of looks like The Covenant, with two dudes just lobbying giant balls of "magic" at each other, and they don't look particularly good either. I mean, I can take bad FX throughout a movie, but they should at least make sure the climax looks good, since that's what A. the movie is building toward and B. what you will most likely remember later. I mean, there's a decent transformation from man to crow (the Prophecy films seem to be an influence), but months from now I won't remember that, I'll only remember Eric Mabius' badly composited image shooting a silly looking translucent ball at the other guy.
There's also some baffling editing in a few spots, particularly in a big massacre/siege at the farm where all of Cole's survivors have met up. There's a big fight in the cornfield, heroes are getting killed... and then all of a sudden there's a cut to the next morning, where one of our heroes (Cole's former lover) is calmly sipping a coffee. Huh? It's like a 5 minute chunk of the film was removed (I checked the runtime, there's nothing to suggest this was an actual edit). A lot of the violence also occurs off-screen, which can be confusing at times, like when one guy (Frank Collison, the hot dog enthusiast from The Happening) just wanders into the cornfield and then we see some digital blood flying into the air. I thought the villain was turning folks into helpers? Why did they seemingly eviscerate him? Or did he actually win that fight? That's why it's a good idea to SHOW things in a movie. Visual medium, folks.
(Interestingly, this same sort of problem plagued the woeful The Graves, which was helmed by Brian Pulido, who is also a comic book artist. Maybe these dudes just don't understand fluid action or something since they're so used to having to reduce everything to a single shot?)
But as long as you can get past the fact that the movie seems to be intentionally keeping you at arm's length, it's not too bad, especially for a film that debuted on the Syfy Channel (back when it was still Sci-Fi, in fact!). The last thing I ever expect to think after watching one of these movies is "this script deserved a better production", so I give props to VanHook for coming up with an interesting concept instead of the usual giant monster run amok things that they do. I also dug the fact that our heroes were brother and sister, sparing us any obnoxious romantic drama and giving a different dynamic to their scenes together than we usually see.
And I liked that Combs seemed to be in a different movie entirely. While everyone else is pretty serious and plays their roles straight (though John Amos gets to tell that "You blew a seal" joke about the penguin with car trouble), Combs acts like he just wandered in from the climax of Death Becomes Her, walking around with his head cocked at a nearly 90 degree angle but still trying to act normal, playing cards with Amos and even attempting an arrest. It's a wonderfully out of nowhere (and somewhat ill-fitting) dose of morbid humor, and just proves that having Combs in your movie automatically makes it a little more memorable. How he never managed to work steadily in big budget features (in character roles, not the lead) is beyond me, though his stage work as Poe in Nevermore might open up some doors for him.
It's a shame that the Syfy movies are almost never this outside the box. As Roger Corman explained, they have to keep the audience interested (meaning: show a kill) every 10-15 minutes, before the commercial breaks, or else they will change the channel, so I get why they don't try to get TOO creative. But there's no reason a movie like this (which has no obvious points to put a commercial) couldn't be modified to fit their criteria by simply showing the demon turn someone into one of his zombie helpers whenever they had to keep the audience's finger off the remote. Also, the fact that they are the "Syfy" channel means that they can't really dip into slasher or survival horror territories; monsters and mad scientists are pretty much all they can really do without straying too far outside of their brand. Hopefully the Chiller and Fearnet channels take off and start their own original movie series; there is a certain charm to these things, and I'd love to see it applied to a type of movie where having good FX or a great looking giant monster isn't necessary.
What say you?