FEBRUARY 1, 2016
I've said it plenty of times before, but I don't know if I have regular readers anymore so I'll repeat: if you stick a bunch of strangers together in one location and force them to band together to fight off a common enemy, chances are I'll like it (bonus points if the group includes cops/prisoners). And with The Descent being my favorite horror movie of the '00s (or second to Inside, depends on my mood), it's probably pointless to explain that I enjoyed Howl, which reunites Descent's star (Shauna MacDonald) with its FX creator for a story about, you guessed it, a bunch of strangers stuck in one spot (a disabled train) and forced to band together to fight off a common enemy, in this case werewolves. A B-movie to be sure, but a GOOD B-movie. A B+ movie, if you will.
The aforementioned FX guru, Paul Hyett, made his directorial debut on The Seasoning House, which wasn't really my cup of tea (it focused on a group of woman who were forced to be prostitutes for soldiers, some of them very awful people) but I admired that he went against tradition for his debut, making a movie that centered on character and narrative instead of creatures and other effects. For his followup, he split the difference, directing a story that allowed him to put his considerable FX backdrop (he did all of Neil Marshall's films, Attack the Block, etc.) to good use without losing sight of the characters. Over 90 rather fast-paced minutes, we get to care about the folks on board the doomed train (it hits a deer and they're unable to get it going again due to damage caused by...SOMETHING!), and by focusing more on the chase/evasion parts than the kills for the first 65-70 minutes, it's harder to peg who will live or die (or, at least, the order in which it will happen).
If anything I was kind of disappointed that (spoiler) just about everyone dies. For so much of the movie, Hyett seems more interested in letting the characters bounce off each other and prove their merit (or dickishness) than offing them one by one, with casualties being rare compared to "defend yourself against the monster and get away" types. Hell, even when they all get off the train and try to make it back to town only to get scared back, no one dies - and that's actually a perfectly good place to off someone! Nothing can keep someone from wanting to try to go back outside like seeing one of their fellow passengers get torn to shreds, so the fact that Hyett (and screenwriters Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler) lets them all survive that sequence was rather refreshing. Not to mention more suspenseful; I was so sure someone would die that when hero Ed Speleers was taking time to get back on the train, I wondered if they would pull a Psycho and let him be the first* to go to hammer home the "no one is safe" idea.
Well, they don't do that. Speleers gets back on the train, but one of the other passengers is injured in the scuffle and starts getting sick, so you can probably figure out what's going to happen there. Interestingly, the werewolves are much more man-like than I've usually seen - the injured passenger transforms but it's not the usual "look", with lots of hair and a wolf head and all that. No, it's almost exactly dead center between man and beast, almost like a hairy caveman more than anything else. It's... OK, it's kind of a silly looking design, if I'm being perfectly honest, but I love the attempt at doing something different (and of course, the fact that it's practical), so as long as you don't look too closely at the face (for some reason it made me think of Garbage Pail Kids) it should satisfy anyone looking for some basic creature action. Hyett doesn't blow his wad early - the first couple of attacks are POV-driven, or in one of the movie's best death scenes, from inside the train as the monster outside attempts to pull a passenger through the mostly closed door. Jaws it is not, but most of these things barely top Jaws: The Revenge, so keep your expectations grounded and you'll easily recognize that the movie is doing more right than wrong.
Same goes for the logic. We're told that the nearest station is only a couple miles away, but that might as well be a thousand to the ill-prepared passengers. They're all coming home from work, so it's late, they're tired, and most importantly they have no supplies or anything to defend themselves. Even making a run for it while the werewolf is distracted with bait (one of the elderly passengers; at least, that's what the resident dickhead character keeps suggesting) isn't a sound plan, as (spoiler, though revealed early) he's got buddies out there. So even though no one dies when they first try to make a run for it (before they even know there's anything out there beyond the dead deer), you get why they stay inside for the rest of the movie, and of course there's no cell signal in the spot they've stopped, because come on, it's a horror movie. At this point saying aloud that there isn't a signal where everyone is located is no more necessary than pointing out that a monster has claws. It's just understood.
The ensemble cast is pretty good; Speleers should probably be a bigger star but the failure of Eragon (his first movie, and the central point of the marketing due to his handsome looks) has kept him off the A-list, and now he's probably losing parts to the kid from Kingsman. But he's got the chops and is a notch or two above who we can usually expect from a Syfy-level movie like this (budget-wise, I mean, not quality). MacDonald is a lot of fun as a kind of bitchy career woman, and Elliot Cowan is a great asshole; you ALMOST like the guy at times, because he makes no apologies for his alpha male bullshit and philandering ways. Late in the movie we learn that MacDonald's character actually had an interview to work for him, but when he suggested continuing the application process at his apartment (the one he keeps separate from his wife and children), she left. Normally this would end the scene, with our asshole character put in his place, but instead he doubles down, explaining why he acts like this (in short, he's tired of female execs being trained/counted on and then leaving for months after they have a child, so he wants to know that a woman wants the job badly enough to stoop to his cutthroat level), and you can't help but respect his honesty. You know he'll get his just desserts eventually, so why not let him be as slimy as possible? It's kind of refreshing.
The Blu has about a half hour's worth of behind the scenes material, nothing too interesting or revealing, but I like that they spend time on the coloring/grading process, an oft-overlooked part of the movie's creation (and in some movies' case, a process that's never done at all). Hyett and his FX team also go into some basic detail about the creature design, going deeper into the "half-man" look and offering some amusing behind the scenes footage that shows the full creatures terrorizing the cast while wearing bright green boots (the design has some CGI embellishments). They're OK, basically; if you loved the movie you'll enjoy the extra look at its creation, for sure, but it's hardly essential viewing. Mostly, I'm just happy they offered that much, as the physical disc market continues to dwindle and even big movies have next to nothing included on them (the Poltergeist remake, for example, had not one bit of production-related material on it) it's actually something of a surprise to see anything but the trailer on the "bonus material" section of the Blu menu.
Hyett has another movie in the can already, a period piece that sounds like it's about witchcraft, so that will hopefully be another minor gem from this increasingly dependable filmmaker. There aren't a lot of FX guys who go on to make solid movies, but he's two for two (Seasoning House IS a good movie, but falls into that Serbian Film/Dear Zachary (not horror) category of movies that just bum me out way too much to want to see again), and I like that he's exploring different sub-genres each time out. Maybe he'll rope in ALL of the Descent cast (the cast's chemistry is an oft-underrated aspect of that movie) for a slasher someday! A man can dream...
What say you?
*Sean Pertwee is actually the first to die, as the train's conductor who goes out to investigate what he hit. But I don't think he even speaks an on-screen line before getting offed, so he barely counts as a character. Also, don't watch the movie if you're excited to see Pertwee take on werewolves again, because it's a very poor attempt at stunt casting. Obviously the nameless conductor is going to die. They needed to pull an "Eric Dane in Feast" move with Pertwee to really mess with the audience's expectations.