SEPTEMBER 26, 2016
So far I've liked but have not loved what I've seen from the Astron-6 team, and The Void follows suit - I can list as many things I liked about it as I can things that annoyed me, but thankfully my main takeaway is a positive one. And that's the fact that they're not doing the same thing over and over, giving each of their films a unique feel instead of going the Robert Rodriguez route and making it hard to tell their movies apart after a while (that there are five or six guys in revolving roles probably makes that possible). Even if I never really love any of their films, if they keep that attitude I'll always be happy to follow their newest endeavors and hope for the best, rather than go in with the weariness I do some other filmmakers who I like more on paper than in their actual output.
It is unfortunate, however, that The Void starts stronger than it finishes - the film ultimately lost me not because of an aesthetic choice (like Manborg - I just got tired of looking at that style after a while) or performance, but simply by going off the rails in its 2nd half, more or less dropping everything that was working for me in favor of Fulci/Lovecraft-inspired weirdness. I'm sure for many of you that may sound like an even bigger reason to see the film, but the first half is strictly Carpenter-tinged, and if you know anything about me you'd know that in my house Carpenter > everything that isn't Carpenter. Plus, it's worth noting that I DO quite like Fulci (Lovecraft I'm kinda iffy on), but his films are batshit from the start - having that kind of thing suddenly wedged into a previously straightforward narrative doesn't quite work - I think I need to be settled in with that kind of thing from the get-go.
And when I say it's Carpenter-y, I don't mean they steal the font and have a synth score, I mean it's literally like a stew of Carpenter's previous plots. The setting is a hospital with a skeleton crew because it's being closed down in favor of another place twenty miles away, making it Assault on Precinct 13 AND Halloween II combined, and then the creature FX are very much Thing-inspired, while the white-robed cult (no, not THAT one) that begins surrounding the joint recalls Prince of Darkness. No points for originality, sure, but the mix-and-match formula was working well, and it didn't hurt that they cast great character actors like Art Hindle and Kenneth Welsh in smaller roles, while handing the lead to Aaron Poole from Rosalind Leigh, who I believe is a newcomer to this group (that's the other thing I like - they don't just cast the same five people in every movie). And as an avowed P13 fan (it's in my top FIVE Carpenter films), I loved seeing that they were paying homage to the individual characters and not just the basic plot (which Carpenter took from other movies anyway): Ellen Wong's character is a lot like Nancy Loomis' in that film, Hindle's character is clearly inspired by Charles Cyphers', etc. This allows us in the audience to both appreciate a nod to one of the master's lesser name-checked films and be surprised when those characters turn out to have different fates.
But almost exactly at the halfway point, the movie takes a weird turn, turning one human character into not just a villain, but a skinless demon-thing that wouldn't look out of place in Hellraiser (and just as prone to silly-sounding speeches about eternity and darkness and all that stuff), more or less dropping the weirdo cult dudes, and transitioning the homage approach to something closer to flat-out ripoff; the film's closing shot is so close to The Beyond that they might as well have just used Fulci's footage to save some money. Ironically, for once the team played things relatively straight - there are a few character-driven laughs, but otherwise this is "serious" horror (with a tinge of sci-fi) as opposed to their usual shtick, and I can't help but wonder if the callbacks would play better in a film that could add "comedy" to its list of genres. It's kind of hard to get really scared or even that tense when you're either smiling or rolling your eyes at yet another reference to a film you saw just like they did, but in a comedic context (like The Editor) it tends to go down easier. I'd be curious to see if the film played better to people who had never actually seen all of those aforementioned films; it's one thing to make your influences obvious, as they did in the first half - it's another to just start swiping whole shots as they do in the second.
One thing I think everyone can agree on, I think, is that the film deserves lots of love and praise for delivering giant practical monsters. Sure it's another lift (The Thing), but it's not like they just broke into Rob Bottin's house and stole his old puppets - they had to design and operate these oversized beasts, and they look pretty great. Lots of real fake blood is strewn about as well; there's a pregnancy gone awry bit that rivaled Inside for "discharge", and while not without some digital enhancements here and there they do things the right way throughout the film - even when I couldn't even really tell what was going on anymore, I was able to at least appreciate the film on a visual level. Had they started tossing CGI at us left and right, my opinion would go from "Flawed but worth seeing" to "You guys owe me money and I didn't even pay to watch it" (well, unless you count my burger and shake - my last Alamo meal as this was my last movie of the festival). Not that I'm vehemently anti-CGI, but when a movie starts to flounder, anything else that's less than ideal seems worse. The script may fall apart, but at least they didn't lose their way across the board, you know?
If nothing else, the film demonstrates Astron-6's uncanny ability to get every dollar of their meager budgets (the creature FX were crowdfunded, in fact) on-screen, resulting in a film that looks more professional and stylish than other indie horror movies with 2-3x the money (often wasted on securing 90 second cameos from the likes of Tony Todd or whoever). It's possible even some of the script's lapses were the result of having to choose between shooting another cool monster scene or a lengthy bit of dialogue and/or a grander character exit (I swear one guy just disappears, and I am 99% sure I saw a character in the background of the climax who otherwise wasn't part of the scene, suggesting a hasty reshoot). I know they plan a sequel, based on the wording of their IndieGogo for the monsters, and I'd be open to checking it out - but hopefully it's not their next movie. I like that they jump around, and would love to see that trend continue as they gradually get better at what they do. Like Ti West, I might not love any of the movies, but I know they're on the right track and offer enough to keep coming back, which is more than I can say for many of their peers. And it was a fine way to close out my return trip to Fantastic Fest (first time back in three years), because I hadn't been able to see too many straight up horror movies and was somewhat disappointed about that. I don't get to see the indie stuff as often as I'd like these days, so I was counting on this trip (my first away from my son!) to get me up to speed, only to end up seeing a lot of action flicks and documentaries. All good, mind you, but I was hoping I'd have at least 2-3 HMAD entries as a result of going, instead of just this one. Luckily, Beyond Fest and Screamfest (plus the New Bev All Nighter, which always yields at least one film I've never seen) should keep this place busy for the October season.
What say you?