APRIL 30, 2013
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (PRESS SCREENING)
It's a shame that Hemlock Grove was such a disaster (well, creatively - if folks are actually signing up for Netflix to see it, I guess it's a success), because since he's not overly interested in directing anymore (yeah he's got Green Inferno coming, but it's his first directorial effort in six years and he doesn't even pretend to want to do Thanksgiving anymore), I'm all for Eli Roth using his clout in the horror genre to trying other things (TV shows, producing smaller efforts that could use the attention his name brings to them, etc). Except for Hemlock, I've liked just about everything he's done so far (can we even count Last Exorcism 2? He couldn't possibly have had much input on something so shockingly dull and "safe"), and for the most park Aftershock fits that bill - it's an ambitious attempt to blend the disaster movie and a survival horror film in the vein of his Hostels, and when it works, it does so quite well.
Unfortunately Roth gave himself one of the lead roles as Gringo, the American who is visiting his friend in Chile when everything goes to hell. He doesn't speak the language and is clearly a boring individual (he tries to explain a merger while dancing with a Russian model), so it probably would have been wiser to cast pretty much anyone BUT himself. Maybe it's supposed to be funny to see Eli Roth striking out with the ladies, but he's not exactly the best actor in the world, so it's impossible to separate the persona from the character - I was almost surprised to see that his character was billed as "Gringo" rather than "Himself" in the end credits. On the other hand, like just about everyone in the movie, he doesn't exactly walk away without a scratch, so if you've ever wanted to see Eli Roth get seriously injured, Aftershock has got you covered (as someone who blew a weekend on Hemlock Grove, I found one moment quite cathartic).
More problematic than his self-casting, however, are the odd tonal shifts that occur once the quake finally occurs at around the 40 minute mark. Like any good disaster film, we spend a lot of time getting to know the characters before the tragedy hits (Poseidon is a rare exception, though the box office returns suggest it won't be something anyone attempts again), but when folks start getting picked off, it's played for laughs via Final Destination style splatter kills. I mean, sure, some assholes in the crowd probably laughed when Leo bit the dust in Titanic, but we're not SUPPOSED to be cheering and laughing at his or anyone else's demise, unlike here where the deaths are almost all engineered as "shock" kills akin to Amanda Detmer getting hit by a bus in the first Destination. And despite the long setup, I can't think of anyone that I was really sad to see go; they each have their own little moments and personal dramas (two of them have kids! One had an abortion!), but after a while it's clear that they were approaching their script not unlike a slasher film, complete with the obvious Final Girl (who doesn't drink and wants her younger sister to be more responsible, like her!). A good disaster film offers up a big ensemble so that we're not sure who will live or die, become a hero or villain, etc - but we just focus on these six friends the entire time; any other characters that pop up are pretty much killed instantly (like an elderly cleaning lady who shows them how to get out of the club and is, natch, suddenly hit by a vehicle for her trouble). I'm all for mean-spirited carnage, but it only works when they take that approach for the entire movie, instead of splitting the difference between that and attempts to make this as a real dramatic thriller (including a rape scene, because of course there is).
However, if you look past the tonal issues and Roth's distracting performance, it's a solid bit of "true" survival horror. The low budget doesn't allow for any huge destruction setpieces - even though it was shot in the same area as the actual devastating Chilean earthquake from a few years back, the journey and devastation are relatively compact. The initial quake occurs inside the nightclub (no exterior shots for scope), and subsequent aftershocks are depicted via a shaking camera and stone pillars falling over. There's a big sequence set on an elevating cable car that snaps loose, but otherwise it's refreshingly free of "disaster porn" sequences like 2012 or whatever - for better or worse, they keep it focused on these six characters and their attempts to get to safety before the threatened tsunami wipes everyone out. This can make some of the danger feel a bit generic - particularly when a gang of thugs begins tracking them down - but the tsunami warning alarm and continued aftershocks never let the viewer forget that just because they're on their feet doesn't mean they're safe. A lot of the movies this is trying to fit in with often get so bogged down with the more traditional horror elements that it's easy to forget that the monster/shark/mutant hillbilly isn't the only thing they have to worry about, but as with something like The Descent, it could have eschewed the "living" threat entirely and still felt pretty scary, letting Mother Nature itself be the slasher (indeed, the human villains are the ones that throw it off - old ladies being smooshed by trucks are funny, but gang rape? Not so much.)
Also, everyone besides Eli is pretty solid and believable - I didn't recognize any of them, making it easier to buy them as their thinly drawn characters. Pollo was easily the best of the lot - as the spoiled rich guy who gets them into the clubs and tries to buy his way out of situations, he had the most interesting arc of all of them, though the character who had an abortion gets to endure one of the silliest "gets past her tragedy" metaphors in history - she finds herself in a tunnel known for being filled of fetuses that were the product of illicit hookups between local nuns and priests. There are also some decent minor suspense scenes of the "What would *I* do in this situation?" variety, like when two of our group stumble across a fireman who is trapped in his truck - he pleads for their help but they are trying to find something to save their own trapped friend. And like any good disaster film, some of the danger comes not from psychos who are taking advantage of the situation, but from scared innocent people who merely want to protect their own. The lack of a true ensemble may make it easy to pick who lives and dies, but Roth and co-writer/director Nicholas Lopez manage to find ways to make up for it with these bits, and even though the final "human enemy" is ridiculous (with the real antagonists given a rather abrupt sendoff), the casual approach to murdering everyone in sight actually made the final battle more suspenseful than the average slasher - would she REALLY be a "final" girl or get offed like everyone else?
I forget what I did instead when the film screened at Fantastic Fest last year, but I remember friends coming out and saying they hated it, and it's not hard to see why. The tonal shifts and occasional unpleasantness, plus the long setup, could make for a very grueling experience. But my love of mean spirited splatter (the Final Destinations, Silent Night Deadly Night, See No Evil, etc) and for the disaster film - which has been largely in a state of moratorium for a while now - provided me with enough entertainment to give it a pass. I'd probably never bother watching it again, but I've certainly seen worse examples of all the different kinds of movies it was trying to be; an amusing mess is still amusing.
What say you?