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The Ninth Annual After Dark Film Festival

Directed by Jordan Rubin

Rarely as enjoyable as its title might've indicated, Zombeavers follows a group of friends as they arrive at a riverside cabin and are subsequently attacked by the title mutations. It's clear immediately that filmmaker Jordan Rubin is going for a so-bad-it's-good type of vibe, but, as becomes increasingly obvious, the movie's surfeit of hopelessly incompetent elements drains the proceedings of anything resembling fun - with Zombeavers instead, for the majority of its padded-out running time, coming off as nothing less than a total chore to sit through. In addition to its amateurish performances and lack of compelling production values, Zombeavers suffers from an absolute dearth of engaging characters that (naturally) proves disastrous - as Rubin has infused each and every one of the movie's protagonists with a one-dimensional, wholly stereotypical feel (which, in turn, makes it impossible to root for or sympathize with any of these people). And although some of the stuff involving the title creatures is agreeably silly - the puppets are as ridiculous and over-the-top as one might've hoped - Zombeavers' second half devolves into a series of hopelessly tedious sequences involving the surviving characters' relentless arguing and ongoing efforts at extricating themselves from the situation. The end result is an absolutely abhorrent piece of work that seems to be trying way too hard to become a cult item, with the film's massive failure confirming its place as a missed opportunity of epic proportions (ie given the title and the premise, this could and should have been a Tremors-like creature feature).

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The Drownsman
Directed by Chad Archibald

The Drownsman follows several characters as they're stalked and murdered by the title figure, with the movie detailing the survivors' efforts at uncovering the killer's murky past and, eventually, putting a stop to his watery reign of terror. Director Chad Archibald kicks The Drownsman off with a seriously underwhelming opening that immediately sets a tone of incompetence and pointlessness, with the filmmaker offering up a generic narrative that's almost entirely lacking in compelling elements. (There's a seance sequence that stands as a nigh incongruously intriguing exception to this feeling.) The run-of-the-mill vibe - this is, after all, just a poorly-conceived riff on A Nightmare on Elm Street - is compounded by an unreasonably deliberate pace and a flat, hopelessly non-threatening villain, with, in terms of the latter, scripters Archibald and Cody Calahan unable to transform the character into a wholeheartedly frightening figure. (It doesn't help, either, that his backstory and powers remain oddly undefined.) There's little doubt, as well, that The Drownsman suffers from a tedious midsection revolving around the protagonists' investigation into their stalker's upbringing, while the increased emphasis on hoary plot twists and instances of dialogue ensure that one's patience grows awfully thin as time (slowly) progresses. The seemingly endless climactic stretch confirms The Drownsman's place as a rather worthless homegrown endeavor, and it's difficult not to wonder why this or any other film festival would willingly screen it.

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Directed by Michael and Peter Spierig

Based on Robert Heinlein's All You Zombies, Predestination follows Ethan Hawke's time-traveling temporal agent as he sets out to stop a notorious (and mysterious) figure known only as the Fizzle Bomber. There's much, much more to the film than that, however, and filmmakers Michael and Peter Spiereg use the basic plot as a springboard for a convoluted and confusing sci-fi drama - with the movie's oddball atmosphere ultimately holding the viewer at arms length from start to finish. It doesn't help, certainly, that the majority of Predestination's first half is devoted to a long and seemingly pointless flashback into the adolescence of Sarah Snook's unnamed character, with this portion of the proceedings, though sporadically intriguing, proving a test to the viewer's patience and forcing one to wonder if the Spierig brothers have a concrete destination in mind. And although the pieces do eventually fall into place, Predestination isn't quite able to recover from the erratically-paced and momentum-killing first half - which does ensure that it becomes more and more difficult to care as the revelations come fast and furious in the film's climactic stretch. The interesting yet fairly nonsensical conclusion confirms the movie's place as an ambitious failure, and it's finally clear that Heinlein's notoriously difficult short story just isn't feature-length film material.

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Let Us Prey
Directed by Brian O'Malley

Though it kicks off with a stylish, attention-grabbing opening, Let Us Prey eventually devolves into a stagy and wholly uninvolving mess that's something of a chore to sit through. The film, which details the chaos that ensues after a mysterious stranger (Liam Cunningham) is arrested and placed in a local jail, suffers from a first half that seems to consist entirely of setup, as director Brian O'Malley, working from a screenplay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson, places a heavy emphasis on the contentious relationships between the myriad of central characters - and yet it's impossible to work up any real interest in any of this primarily because most of these people are just aggressively unlikable. And while there is some entertainment to be derived from the mystery surrounding Cunningham's malevolent figure, Let Us Prey's almost total lack of momentum paves the way for a disjointed final half hour that drags in a palpably (and seriously) epic way. By the time the noisy, pointlessly violent climax rolls around, Let Us Prey has completed its transformation into an oppressive and misguided piece of work - which is too bad, certainly, given Cunningham's sinister performance and the initial promise of the film's premise.

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The Babadook
Directed by Jennifer Kent

A solid (if derivative) little thriller, The Babadook details the exploits of a single mother (Essie Davis' Amelia) and her young, hyperactive son (Daniel Henshall's Robbie) - with trouble ensuing after the title figure, a character from a sinister children's book, begins insinuating himself into their lives. Filmmaker Jennifer Kent does a superb job of initially luring the viewer into the deliberately-paced proceedings, as The Babadook's first half, which is more drama than thriller, effectively establishes the strained dynamic between the protagonists and the toll that the increasingly ominous happenings takes on Amelia. It's clear, too, that the movie benefits substantially from Davis' often spellbinding turn as the central character, with the actress deftly transforming Amelia into a Jack Torrance-like figure whose sanity seems to be crumbling by the second. There does reach a point, however, at which the narrative essentially plateaus; Kent elects to push the movie's more overtly frightening elements to the background and instead emphasizes the mystery surrounding the Babadook's very existence (ie is this creature real or is it just a physical manifestation of Amelia's growing madness?) The Babadook is, then, more concerned with psychological tension than with overt scares, which is fine, certainly, and yet one can't help but feel a little disappointed given the initial creepiness of the title creature - thus confirming the film's place as an exceptionally well-acted thriller that provides little in the way of genuine scares.

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© David Nusair