JULY 21, 2016
I like home invasion films, but they need to be relatively rare due to the fact that they're even more limited than the slasher film, which is saying something. The location trapping alone boxes in filmmakers, and since the best ones tend to offer stripped down plotting, copycat attempts often follow suit - the focus remains on the intensity and scares, not plot twists and long speeches. Needless to say, you don't have to worry about The Pack being any different, since it's a home invasion film where the attackers aren't masked strangers, but a pack of feral and very hungry dogs. They haven't been "sent" there, there's no voodoo curse or anything at work - they're just hungry, and our hero family of four... well, they're home.
But swap the dogs for the usual guys and there's really not much separating this from any number of others that have cropped up over the years, which is a bummer. It's an Australian horror flick, which are usually more than just serviceable, but that's all this one is, really. It goes through the motions established by Ils, The Strangers, You're Next, etc - just with dogs instead. We get the opening scene kill of the neighbors, the ominous buildup, the "let's run for the shed to get help", the doomed police officer who arrives and is killed before he can help... it's all the same things you've seen before, so once the novelty of the dogs wears off it gets a bit too routine. The only momentum is, grim as it sounds, wondering who, if any, of the family unit will die. You can assume the two kids will be OK, but the Kiefer Sutherland/Sean Pertwee looking dad or the Essie Davis-y mom are fair game for sure. Plus, again, it's an Aussie movie, which means NOT a Hollywood studio one, so even the kids MIGHT get chomped if the filmmakers want to risk angry viewers.
I won't spoil which of them die (again, if any), but I will thank the screenwriter for adding in some obvious dead meat in the form of a suit who comes to their home to tell them that the bank is about to take back their house and farm due to lack of payments. It's a standard horror movie character beat (I swear I've seen "Final Notice" in more horror movies than all other genres combined), but I like that it actually has something to do with the plot - the reason that they're not making money is because their livestock keeps getting killed by the damn dogs. Anyway, you know this asshole is a goner, but I like that they don't keep him in the house when the attacks come, because then it'd just lead to even more cliches. He'd lock the door behind him and leave one of the family members to die, or waste their limited ammo by firing wildly, or whatever - you just know one or all of those things would come into play. Instead, he leaves after giving the bad news and gets killed after stopping on the side of the road to piss, sparing us the antagonistic human character for the bulk of the proceedings.
This decision also cuts down on the film's amount of dialogue. I swear there are like 40 lines in the movie, most of them during that guy's scene with the parents. I watched a lot of it with "subtitles" (actually closed captioning, because no one knows the difference) because of the AC, and nine times out of ten that text appeared on-screen it was of the "[wind rustling]" or "[dog growling]" variety (also a lot of "[sheep bleating]", which I somehow never knew was the word for the sound sheep make. I am learning!). The family gets separated throughout the house fairly shortly after the dogs show up, and the characters go against horror movie tradition and don't even talk to themselves all that much - it's kind of nice to see people go get bullets without saying "OK, I need bullets" like many of their horror movie peers have done in the past. Since the dogs are kind of a known problem they don't even really have to explain things to their children (read: the audience) when they show up. Opening text tells us that feral dogs are a problem in the area, and that's all we ever need to know - there is no need for further explanation once they show up at the family's farm, so our heroes can spring right into action.
And by action I mean they hide for a bit, then run for a shed. Overhead shots show that their place is HUGE, but alas it's underutilized; I wish they could have done more with its hallways and nooks and crannies. There's a nice bit where the mom tricks one into a room and shuts the door (thankfully, they're not as smart as raptors), and a tense scene where another dog (there are four or so, I think?) finds the kids' hiding spot in a closet, but too much of the action is given to the shed or the immediate area around the window that looks out at the two available vehicles (and that damn shed). I can see the logic when picking these locations: bigger the house, the more potential for the scare scenes, but more often than not the budget and actual shooting logistics (lighting, equipment, etc.) keep them from actually getting to use that space to any meaningful degree. That's why the house for Strangers was perfect - it was mid-sized, allowing them to use almost all of it and thus maximize the suspense that could be generated. We in the audience knew our way around their place after 15-20 minutes - we never get that sense of the geography of this house, making the "invasion" of it less terrifying.
The dogs are good though. As I suspected, and later confirmed on the brief making of, they are a mix of the three obvious elements: real dogs, puppet dogs, and CGI dogs, with the filmmakers careful to use the two fake versions sparingly and maintain the illusion, rather than say "Hey we got this CGI dog that can do anything!" and blow it. Amusingly, the CGI dogs were mostly used for shots where it'd be dangerous for the real ones, standing near fire or whatever - I'm not sure if there are any CGI dogs in a shot with a human. And the puppet heads look real good but would probably fall apart if used extensively, so everything works together to create a pretty realistic depiction. Of course, that means we don't see them exactly tearing someone's face off, but there's a tangibility during the encounter scenes that keeps them threatening. There's a great face-off near the end, with both actor and growling dog in the same frame (possibly a split screen effect, to be fair, but a convincing one if so), and it's legitimately scary in that Roar kind of way, because they didn't cheat with a digital animal. Like Burning Bright, an underrated (and HMAD-book certified!) flick that similarly combines the home invasion movie with killer animals, the minimal action involving the animal actually causing harm to the characters is more than offset by wow factor of just seeing them in the same shot, something that you can't replicate with CGI beasties no matter how good they look or how well the direction/editing is for that scene.
I can't help but think the movie needed another threat, however. Like Cujo; the kid is sick and they're trapped in the hot car - there's something else to worry about besides the title character. Not the case here; their financial issues aren't exactly pressing once the dog shows up, and no one needs to get to any medication or anything like that. It might even be told in real time, more or less, now that I think of it - it's almost TOO straightforward, which I think works better when you're less certain about the safety of the cast (a real-time slasher or Descent type, with a group of pals instead of a family unit, could be terrifying if done right). Even the rare injuries they get aren't severe; no one gets incapacitated and in turn gives them a major hurdle in escaping or anything like that. Dammit, movie - complicate matters!
But hey, for "blue collar" horror, it's a winner. There's nothing BAD about the movie, it's well made and checks the boxes, and the characters are likeable (and actually kind of look like a real family, which is worth a letter grade on its own). Weightless and even routine in spots, sure, but again, the home invasion movie is as boxed in as their characters, and within those parameters (plus the limitations of using live animals as much as possible), it should satisfy its intended audience. Plus, it's been a long time since I've seen a modern killer dog flick (the woeful The Breed is the only one coming to mind, but I'm sure there's another), and it's always good for me to be reminded that man's best friends can also be ruthless killing machines, because I can't help but instantly try to pat any dog I see. Movies like this can help me learn!
What say you?