FEBRUARY 11, 2015
Because John Carpenter is a god, somewhere over the years the usual NOTLD plot (itself inspired from Stagecoach) of folks holed up against a common enemy became more of an Assault on Precinct 13 riff, where the people who were banded together were usually enemies of some sort before they had to put aside their differences. Not that there's anything wrong with that - I myself am always won over by "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" type plotting (it's why I loved Prison Break so much) - but I must admit I was kind of relieved to see that Animal went back to the NOTLD way, where there's one guy that's an asshole, but otherwise there's no major conflict to overcome, no big speeches about how they have to work together or they'll die, etc. It's just a bunch of folks, trapped in a cabin, trying to stave off a big ol' monster. Simple, easy... and surprisingly effective.
No, it won't win any points for originality with regards to its plot; in fact it starts off so generic I almost relegated it to "something on in the background while I play with my Legos" (I got THESE for Christmas; I am now making little 'sets' for them to hang out in). It had the Carpenter font, which is getting way overused now that all the people who grew up on JC are making their own movies, and also a group of five college-aged kids heading off into the woods for camping, i.e. the most generic horror setup of all time (and, nothing against Chiller, but I wouldn't bet on them pulling a Cabin in the Woods level twist on us anytime soon). The only reason I opted to give it a few more minutes was because the male hero was Parker Young, who was the youngest brother on the great, sadly canceled Enlisted. He played kind of an idiot on that show, so it was fun to see him as an alpha male type here.
But what REALLY kept me going was (spoiler) the fact that he was the first to go. It's hardly the first movie to pull this stunt, and honestly I would have pegged him to die first if I had gotten to that point, but the movie did it much earlier than I was expecting, and on a solid jump scare to boot. And then the others run into a cabin where they meet up with a trio of older folks (including an actual Prison Break cast member! Amaury "Sucre" Nolasco to be precise), at which point I realized that the opening bit, where we see four familiar actors running from the monster (and one of them dying) WASN'T a flash forward, as I originally thought/lamented, and finally realized that a lot of the generic seeming stuff was indeed meant to throw us off. Well played, screenwriters. Then again, I should have known better since it was directed by Brett Simmons, who is now 3 for 3 in my book after the solid Husk and quite enjoyable Monkey's Paw (the latter also for Chiller). Like Sheldon Wilson, he's proven supplier of what I think of as "B+ horror", where he takes something that could be the most anonymous and forgettable movie ever and gives it enough of its own identity to be memorable. These aren't films that will blow you away, but they're a damn sight better than the stuff they'll be lumped with, and shows how much just a little bit of effort can turn a routine movie into one that I can happily recommend to fans looking for some monster action.
Part of that effort is easy to spot - the monster is a practical beast (by Gary Tunnicliffe), instead of the CGI thing that Syfy would offer us. I'm sure it had some digital touch-ups, but what's important is that there was an actual thing tearing at our actors and banging on the makeshift means of protection they cobbled together, giving them something real to react to instead of a tennis ball or whatever. And it's actually not that bad looking; it's kind of a cross between Pumpkinhead (the original, not the Asylum mockbuster version seen in Bloodwings) and a rat, but it's got hoof type feet and shark like teeth. You could easily assume that there will be a secret lab introduced in the 3rd act where we find out that the monster is a genetic hybrid created to be the perfect killing machine or whatever, but thankfully there's no exposition or backstory - it just IS. On the commentary (or maybe the making of, I forget now) it is pointed out that whenever there's a big disaster on the ocean they discover all these new forms of sea life, so the idea was that as the deforestation process gets deeper and deeper into the woods, some previously undiscovered animals would be found now that their habitat was destroyed. It's a good enough explanation for me, and it's not even in the movie!
Simmons and writers Thommy Hutson & Catherine Trillo also keep finding ways of giving usual cliches a little bit of extra character, which doesn't really change the fact that they are cliches, but at least proves they're smart enough to avoid doing carbon copies. I see so many movies where I have to wonder if the writers think they're the first to come up with something or if they're just incredibly lazy, so it's nice to see one where they seem to be saying "We know we're not the first, but we might be the first to do it this way!". For example, as with all modern horror movies featuring a group of pals, there's some infidelity going on, but the particulars are inspired (and even a bit daring), and the final girl is seen primping herself and explaining that her average looks need to be enhanced, unlike her more naturally beautiful pal. It's an unusual touch, and while they make some unsuccessful attempts to make us think she's NOT the final girl, it's a lot better than the usual virginal prude.
The other thing that I appreciated has to do with the body count, so skip this paragraph if you want to go in more blind. For those still reading, I liked how they sort of had their cake and ate it too with regards to the deaths; for a while it seemed like they were going for a more Tremors kind of thing where they let more survive than they kill off; out of the nine people in the movie I think six of them are still standing when there's only 15 minutes left before the credits start to roll. But then the monster just goes apeshit and knocks off all but one in the span of like 10 minutes! You start to get the impression that maybe there won't even BE a Final Girl, but they don't quite go that far (however, on the commentary Simmons explains that they debated over which of the final two characters to kill, so there's something).
I keep mentioning the commentary, and for good reason - it's a pretty solid track, especially considering it's a solo one. Simmons immediately points out the Carpenter font, putting me at ease, and says he wanted to have full credits over black because you never see them anymore (and he's right!), so I was on board with him pretty quickly. He barely ever pauses as he goes into detail about the locations (all practical), the monster, the cast, the production (apparently fans of the actors would hang out in the woods wearing dark clothes and facepaint hoping to sneak glimpses at them), his influences, etc. You can tell he's proud of the movie, and rightfully so - it does exactly what it set out to do and did it well, which is more than we can say for a great deal of modern horror movies (even bigger theatrical ones). It may LOOK like a generic monster movie on the surface, but the devil's in the details, and they got a lot of those right.
The commentary is the only extra worth your time, however; if you select "cast interviews" you'll be treated to what is essentially the film's trailer (also provided) with MAYBE 20 seconds' worth of interview footage sprinkled throughout, where the actors basically say their name and who they play, with maybe one piece of info about them for good measure. And then there's a teaser trailer that bizarrely makes the film look like a found footage entry (no one in the movie has a video camera, and none of the footage is in the film). The making of is OK I guess, but it's too brief (4 minutes?) to be of any real use unless you want a couple of quick glimpses at the creature design process (something that deserved its own featurette). But I must admit I liked that there were no deleted scenes - a movie this to the point, made by people who know the genre well? I'd be willing to bet there weren't any, because they all knew better than to write/film/digitize stuff they'd eventually toss anyway. Good stuff.
What say you?