JUNE 16, 2014
The hardest thing for me to wrap my head around when I see an adaptation of a famous story (particularly one that's been spoofed) is that it exists in a world where that's not a story. Dracula is probably the easiest example to make - more than likely, any non-comedic Dracula film will take place in a world where there aren't 3000 Dracula movies (perhaps even any vampire movies/novels/TV shows/etc at all), so you have to remember that the name "Dracula" has a very different meaning to the characters than it does to us. To a lesser but still similar extent, for The Monkey's Paw to work, you have to remember that the characters aren't already aware that these things are no good and should never be activated, because what you wish for will come with deadly consequences.
But the genius thing about this version is that one character IS aware of this trickery, as it's sort of a sequel to the original story. If you've never read it, the basic gist is that a guy wishes for his house payment, which comes in the form of an insurance check stemming from the death of his son. The 2nd wish is for the dead man to come back, and I refuse to spoil it further for you. But I will say that the character played by Daniel Hugh Kelly more or less plays the younger brother of that dead man, and knows that it's not something to be tampered with. So how does anything happen in the movie? Well, he gets a bit drunk after being laid off from his job, and while he's still kind of foreboding about it, he hands it over to one of his former co-workers. And that's where the fun begins, as he makes his first wish for a new car, and said new car gets his friend (Stephen Lang) killed. Guess what wish #2 is?
What's great is that all of this is the first 20, 25 minutes of the film, allowing the rest of it to play out as a revenge film of sorts; Lang's resurrection follows Pet Sematary rules and thus he comes back as a killer, forcing hero Jake (C.J. Thomason) to try to keep his loved ones safe while avoiding the cops, who suspect him of the murders Lang is committing (such as the husband of Jake's ex). But the cool thing is that Lang has a decent motive for what he's doing: he wants Jake to use up the 3rd wish to help him reunite with his estranged son, whom he is not allowed near due to a restraining order. Jake knows that the wish will backfire in some way, but Lang won't listen to reason, and there's the movie - the paw is just the means of getting the plot started, with wishes and curses left more or less in the background for a while. Indeed, Jake tosses the thing away early on and doesn't retrieve it until near the end, which also helped me forget that none of these people are aware of how these things always work.
Another thing that impressed me was that it, like Dead Souls, was a cable movie (for Chiller) that didn't follow the "rule" that states something exciting or cliffhanger-y needs to happen before every commercial break to keep people from changing the channel. If not for a few fadeouts, you'd probably never even know this was made for TV - it gives the characters and story time to breathe, doesn't toss in random kills for no reason, etc. I know saying "it plays like a real movie" is a weird thing to say, but it's sadly the exception, not the rule, for this sort of fare. Any Syfy monster movie will cut to an anonymous person being munched/stomped if it's time for a commercial, which might be fine for when you're actually watching it live - but it makes for a thoroughly obnoxious experience when watching on DVD. Not the case here; we stick with our core group of 6-7 characters throughout, and know the names of every person Lang kills.
Oh, and it's shot in New Orleans but doesn't dwell on the usual locales. The French Quarter makes a brief appearance, of course, but otherwise it sticks to the outskirts and not as cinematically overused areas in the city (such as Louis Armstrong Park), and focuses on blue collar types that the audience can more likely relate to. The economic hardships in the area play a part, but that sort of stuff isn't the main focus - like the paw itself, it paves the way to the real story, but doesn't take center stage. Director Brett Simmons (who previously impressed with Husk) and screenwriter Macon Blair (currently seen in the terrific Blue Ruin) seem to have understood that we've seen that stuff in a dozen other movies recently, so they do their best to stick to something less cliche and more interesting. Sure, if you were to write a 2 line synopsis it would sound like a typical "Back from the dead to seek revenge" type movie, but by grounding it in things we can sympathize with (the guy just wants to see his kid!) and keeping the supernatural elements to a minimum*, it ended up being far more compelling than I expected.
As this is a Scream Factory release, we get some extras - the trailer and a brief making of aren't anything special, but the commentary by Simmons, Thomason, and DP Scott Winig is pretty entertaining and very much worth a listen. They heap praise on the actors (Lang in particular), discuss the challenges of shooting in the area and within their budget (more than one location was "stolen"), and generally just have a good time - there isn't as much ball-busting as you often hear when there are 3 guys on a track together, but I still found it more enjoyable than average (discussion of Lang's method acting style has a great payoff when after 3-4 real examples they claim he really cut off an actor's head). It's a shame we don't hear from Blair, however - it's his sole feature writing credit and I'm curious if he planned to star in it himself at any point.
I recently lost the Chiller channel when I downgraded my cable package (I wanted to reduce it even further but alas), which is a shame if they're going to be making movies as solid as this. It's not gonna make my top 10 list or anything (actually, maybe it MIGHT since I barely get to see anything these days!), but when stacked against whatever shitty end of the world or shark movie was airing on Syfy at the same time, it's a minor classic. It's got some good actors running through a story that held my attention, a few nasty kills for good measure, and it found a way to make an oft-used story compelling once again - that's a success in my book. Hopefully Scream continues to release their films on disc for those who couldn't catch them on cable - they might look a little misplaced in their line (alongside Sleepaway Camp and Evilspeak, two of their other recent releases that baby-land has kept me from reviewing), but I'm glad that they get that extra bit of exposure, unlike the Syfy films which Anchor Bay often releases to zero fanfare alongside their (of late, often terrible) independent pickups.
What say you?
*There's even a hint that the paw is just junk and that NOTHING supernatural actually happened - I almost wish they went full force with it, but then the movie probably wouldn't have gotten made.