Curse Of Alcatraz (2007)

MARCH 24, 2011


As I inch closer to exhausting the entire horror section at my preferred Blockbuster (for real), I am actually getting kind of excited. Online, I can rent stuff like Curse Of Alcatraz without the soul-crushing moment where the clerk double-checks to make sure I’m renting what I thought I was renting ("And you're renting Curse of... Alcatraz. Correct?"). Yes, I am of sound mind and body, renting Curse Of Alcatraz. And next week I’ll finally tackle that Freakshow movie, just a heads up. However, it IS a shame that Blockbuster (at least, this particular one) is no longer bothering to order even a single copy of newer DTV/indie horror movies, because I feel the occasional gem like Frayed or Baby Blues will slip past me.

Curse, of course, is not a gem, but it’s not the bottom of the barrel either – it’s just the type of OK movie that you just don’t bother to go out of your way to watch, especially 4 years after it hit shelves. But to be fair, for a half hour or so I was kind of digging it. For starters, it was shot on film, which automatically puts it a notch or two above most other indie horror films of this sort. I know it’s a simple thing (and, yes, a preference), but to me it instantly says “we are trying, here”. Any schmuck can pop a tape in and get decent footage with a DV or HD camera, but to get good looking footage with film, at least SOMEONE on the crew definitely knew what they were doing, and for a low budget production, that they were willing to put a good chunk of their dough into film is quite laudable.

And it was unfolding slowly, not unlike an old 70s haunted house movie or maybe something from Hammer/AIP. But the characters weren’t just endlessly dicking around either; something minor occurs early on, with a guy pricking his finger on the teeth of a recently uncovered skeleton (our heroes are archaeology students), and the 60-90 seconds we spend watching him bandage it up lets us know that this is going to be important. But he doesn’t turn villain instantly, instead we continue to learn more about the skeleton, the island/prison itself, etc. It may not be particularly exciting, but it’s different, and I liked that they were keeping the usual hijinks to a minimum. One guy wants to bang one other girl, but otherwise they stick to business. Sort of reminded me of Session 9 at times in that manner; so many horror movies come up with a reason for the protagonists to be wherever they are but never bother to show them actually doing anything related to that after 5 minutes, but even at the top of the 3rd act they’re still dusting bones and such.

The 3rd act, unfortunately, is also where it loses steam. Basically, a couple of folks become infected and run around killing each other, while our two final heroes get locked in a cell and start spouting endless exposition to one another. The audio on the movie isn’t the best, making it hard to understand what they are saying at times, and the girl has a thick accent on top of that (attempts to use subtitles had a hilarious result – it crashed the DVD-ROM player, as if to suggest that it too couldn’t understand what they were saying). Some of the deaths are surprisingly gory, but it just got a bit monotonous watching poorly lit scene after poorly lit scene of these folks taking each other out in succession.

And the dialogue I COULD understand tended to be insufferable. The final girl has an inexplicably profane mouth, even referring to her friends with four letter word intensifiers (“It’s fucking Tiffany!”), which got obnoxious. Plus there were some just plain awful lines, like when another character (fucking Tiffany, I think) shouts “Control panel? I don’t even know what a control panel IS!”. On the other hand, they DID have a better excuse than normal for not having cell phones – the thick walls and often underground locales they were exploring kept them from being able to get a signal, and they’d have to go outside to get one, which was unsafe at night due to the lack of lights and such. Hey, I’ll take it.

Speaking of the locale, it’s kind of interesting that Alcatraz is visible from the very bright, populated San Francisco mainland. Most horror films are built around isolation of some sort, and inner city horrors tend to avoid these sort of “trapped” situations because of that. So even though it’s not a plot point or anything, there’s something kind of intriguing about our heroes being isolated and alone when you can see this major (but inaccessible) metropolis in the background. On the commentary, the director points out that the prisoners who could see the city from their cell windows tended to get violent or suicidal more often than the rest of the population, because the “so close yet so far” sight of the city would drive them mad.

That’s just one of many little tidbits or insights that makes the commentary worth a listen (provided you could stand the movie – the IMDb board is, of course, loaded with “Worst movie ever made!” type drivel). Director Daniel Zirilli and screenwriter Glase Lomond are up front with a few of the movie’s shortcomings (not all), and also provide helpful info for would-be filmmakers (one of them points out that they are, after all, the target audience for commentaries, something I wish more filmmakers would realize), such as imploring them not to waste time getting cool, showy shots that serve no purpose to the movie when you’re on location and on a tight budget – get that sort of stuff if you have time/money when the important stuff is done. They also confirmed something I suspected when watching – some of the interiors were not at Alcatraz but in an Oakland correctional facility. How did I know this? Because the characters ran by the same, oddly grade school-like cafeteria that I mocked nearly four years ago in the god-awful Death Row, which was also shot there! I love how I can remember THAT but it took me until this morning to remember to mail in the Netflix disc that I watched on Monday (Penance). Stupid BC.

Anyway, as these things go, it’s passable. There’s more effort and attempt at telling a good story than I tend to expect from Lionsgate releases of this sort, though I think only a guy watching them all the time would recognize its relative quality.

What say you?


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