Red Sands (2009)

FEBRUARY 24, 2009


Back in 2005, I bought myself a festival pass for the Boston Film Festival. In retrospect I’m not sure why - I can honestly only remember three movies I saw there*, and none of them were movies I had heard about and wanted to see. Good ol disposable income, how I miss thee! Anyway, one of the movies was Dead Birds, which was a pretty solid ghost/supernatural film set during the Civil War, with a great cast and, rare at that time, genuine suspense and atmosphere. So I was pretty excited to see Red Sands, which reteams Birds’ director Alex Turner and writer Simon Barrett.

Sadly, it’s not as successful as Birds. As DTV horror movies go, it’s practically Oscar-worthy, but I felt their previous film showed more promise. Not that it’s a bad film by any means - there are a lot of great standalone scenes and moments, and Turner is clearly a director who can wring good performances out of his cast, but it just doesn’t add up to a total success.

For starters, the whole movie is spoiled in the first 5 minutes. Not only are we told what sort of horror we are dealing with (a Djinn) via an opening crawl, but then we are also told that Shane West’s character is the only survivor. So uh... why keep watching? Tom Sawyer and his fellow soldiers fight Wishmaster, and he survives. Done. The great thing about Dead Birds (which shares a fairly similar structure with this film, as well as the war setting, though in this case it's Iraq) was that it DIDN’T hold the audience’s hand and explain everything away. I’m kind of a smart guy, and I like when I see a horror movie that sort of rewards (or at least assumes) that intelligence. Needless to say, I wasn’t too surprised to learn (via the commentary track) that the opening scenes, and several other “yeah, DUH!” moments in the film were studio enforced reshoots/re-edits. I’m actually kind of surprised that a studio would give so much shit to a low budget film that they probably had no plans of theatrically releasing, but there you go.

Luckily, just enough of it works to qualify it as a success, minor as it may be. As I said, the performances are good (particularly Aldis Hodge, who already won me over with his supporting role on Friday Night Lights), and since the effects are pretty fucking terrible, it’s a good thing that most of the scares are of the atmospheric and subtle nature. There’s a scene in the film that I can’t possibly do justice via description, but it’s a terrific little “freaky” moment involving an underlit section of a room (if you watch the film, it occurs around the 45 minute mark). I love stuff like that, and the presence of such moments makes it easier to forgive things like this:

I guess Sony wanted to burn off unused PS1 FMVs?

Also, Shane West’s character is the one to stare longingly at a photo of his girl back home. Since we know his character survives, this makes Red Sands a truly rare film in that regard, since “soldier that has a picture of his girl” is pretty much THE defining trait of movie characters that are about to get shot or blown up.

Another actor who pops up is the great JK Simmons, who you may know as Jonah in the Spider-Man movies, or as the guy who delivers the best line in Burn After Reading (“Call me... I dunno. When it makes sense.”). His entire role consists of two scenes, one at the beginning and one at the end. It takes longer to read this paragraph about his role than it does to actually watch his scenes. Again, this is revealed to be a studio mandated sequence - Sony asked for another “name” and Turner called in a favor to Simmons, whom he had worked with on a short film. The moral of the story is: JK Simmons is now a “name”, and that’s awesome.

As you might have guessed, the commentary is hardly one of those “We shot this here and everyone was so great and I really like this scene” rambles. Turner and Barrett speak pretty freely, but not to the extent that you feel like they are whining about their misfortunes. They praise those who should be praised, talk about edits, explain why things look less than stellar, etc. If you hated the film, it won’t change your mind, but you can at least take comfort in knowing that the creators aren’t entirely happy with it either. There are also a handful of deleted/alternate scenes, all of which are from the first 20 minutes of the movie and thus don’t help explain any of the more puzzling developments from later in the movie. Barrett provides a 20 minute behind the scenes that’s kind of interesting (it’s just a nearly wordless collection of moments from the set, many of them charmingly mundane like recording room tone), and then another “home movies from set” video, this one by co-star Noel G., round things out.

If you like your horror movies to be fast paced and violent, then steer clear. If you enjoyed Dead Birds, and/or don’t mind being a bit patient, then you should enjoy this. It’s not great... but let’s put it this way: Sony has included the trailers for abysmal stuff like Anaconda 4, Vacancy 2, Screamers 2... etc. Considering the company it’s lumped with, it’s amazing that it’s even watchable, let alone decent.

What say you?

*One of those other movies was a half documentary/half comedy-drama called The Hole Story. It’s a great fucking movie and why it never found wider distribution is beyond me, but you can check it out HERE, and also rent it thru Netflix. Please do so.

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