Indigenous (2014)

Every few years, some enterprising horror director decides that they’re going to tackle a story and do what no director has done before – manage to make the Chupacabra legend scary. Director Alastair Orr is the latest in a long line with Indigenous. To be fair, the film makes a solid attempt. The acting is decent, the locations well shot even if the editing gets chaotic towards the end, and the monster effects look good when shot from a distance or in silhouette – less so in the climatic battle, which featured too many close-up shots for its own good. The plot is your standard idiot tourists in peril story, where our group of intrepid and vaguely likable characters set off into the jungles of Panama while on vacation in search of a mythical waterfall – despite the warnings of the locals that the place is dangerous and off limits for a reason.

Up until the last twenty minutes, that is.

See, it turns out that one of our otherwise forgettable heroes is working on a social media app. And the SOS message he’s sent out has gone viral.

Now, this part had the potential to make Indigenous something special. For about twenty minutes, the film takes a good look at the power of the viral video – and the responses that the locals take to the events that have propelled them into accidental fame. The fact that the locals – including the police force – already knew about the monsters but didn’t do anything until a group of wealthy Americans go missing – with the entire world watching the situation – could have been an opportunity to discuss the role of privilege in disasters, as well as the politics behind public sympathy. Which tragedies get media attention and which are ignored? Might race and economics have something to do with that? Hmmm.

Unfortunately, this development comes too late in the film to really add anything to the story the conclusion feels as chaotic and forced as the editing. Indigenous has some interesting ideas, but sadly doesn’t spend the time to come to any conclusions about them. While I’m glad that these questions were posed in the first place, I do wish they’d been explored a bit as well.

In all honesty, Indigenous is a solid B offering. A decent film, but not quite creative enough to merit a second viewing.

 

 

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12 Days of Terror (2004)

A shark terrorized a New Jersey shoreline for twelve days during the summer of 1916. These events eventually led Peter Benchley to write the novel that would, in time, inspire the first summer blockbuster – Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), and one of my all time favorite horror films. Standing up against the strange but inescapable truth of the historical record and the cult following of Jaws – loyal to this day – it would seem that 12 Days of Terror would be swamped by its competition. Especially for a made-for-TV movie, with the subsequent budget, actors, and special effects one can come to expect from such a project. And yet, despite all its competition, 12 Days of Terror puts forth a solid effort. The acting is a bit too melodramatic for my tastes, but the costumes are wonderful, the writing acceptable, and this movie really does work as a period piece. It’s clear that a great deal of research went into making this movie feel like it takes place in 1916. On that note, I cannot praise 12 Days of Terror enough. It manages to include a great deal of world-building and subtext in small but effective ways – a feat that many large budget films with similar topics simply fail to address in the first place.

Whether intentional or not, the cinematography and set design work as a homage to Spielberg’s earlier work – 12 Days of Terror and Jaws share a similar aesthetic and composition style. In other films it might come off as copying, but 12 Days of Terror makes the comparison feel like genuine tribute – attempting to expand the legend and feel of Jaws without creating an entirely new world.

On the other end of things, the acting in 12 Days of Terror isn’t great, the characters don’t have much in the way of story arcs, and what were likely intended as perfectly reasonable lines become soap-opera like clichés in the delivery. It’s not a great movie, but 12 Days of Terror packs a heavy bunch for a film created solely for TV. The costumes are great, the set design is some of the best I’ve seen, and the plot isn’t half bad. It’s no Jaws, but it’s a fun ride nonetheless.

Wer (2013)

Wer opens to a jarring, brutal beat and continues on with the song right until the end. This is a movie that returns to the brutality of the early werewolf legends, cutting out the more recent attempts at humanizing the monster, or making the story more palatable to audiences. Make no mistake, Wer is absolutely relentless in its brutality. To my surprise, I also found it to be well plotted and extensively researched. Despite a few egregious jump-scares, Wer is one of the better werewolf films to be released in the last ten years.

The plot is deceptively simple. An American family has been attacked while on vacation in France. A local man, Talan Gwynek, has been arrested for the crime, all though the evidence is shaky at best, and the local police strangely reluctant to cooperate. The attorney hired to represent Talan is mounting a defense arguing that the family was killed in an animal attack and that Talan was a convenient (and, it turns out, extremely profitable) scapegoat. However, things are never as clear-cut as they seem.

I’d argue that Wer is one of director William Brent Bell’s more thought out projects, though it loses momentum and a lot of its coherence in the second half. For better or worse, Wer does its best work in the first half of the film. The plotting is tighter, the dialog more nuanced, and the tension develops in natural ways.

Though this is not spelled out in the film, the circumstances of Talan’s case mirror those of several historical “werewolf” murders. It’s established early on that Talan is disabled, suffering from undiagnosed porphyria, and has been socially isolated almost his entire life due to the physical symptoms of the disease (limited mobility, excessive hair growth, seizures, etc.). Additionally, Talan’s family is composed of immigrants from Romania, not native Frenchmen. Though Talan appears fairly intelligent and speaks near perfect English, he is not especially educated. It also becomes apparent that his family is relatively poor – with an interesting caveat. While the Gwyneks themselves don’t have a lot of money, their land is extremely valuable, and the surrounding community would benefit greatly if it were to be sold. However, the Gwyneks refuse to do so. This, added with the fact that Talan’s father died under extremely suspicious conditions, gives the surrounding community no reason to love Talan and every reason to want him gone.

In essence, what we have is a poor, socially isolated family in a country that is not especially known for its tolerance of immigrants, surrounded by a community that would benefit financially from their expulsion. The situation resembles the one faced by Giles Garnier, often called the Werewolf of Dole. Garnier was accused and eventually confessed to killing at least four children in 1572. He was found guilty and executed, along with his wife. Garnier was a poor man of limited means, socially isolated, and disliked by his community. It was also possible that he was mentally ill. It also resembles the situation faced by Peter Stumpp, the Werewolf of Bedburg, in 1589. Peter Stumpp was a German farmer, and a fairly well to do Protestant in a time and place where Protestants were not well liked. Peter Stumpp was also disabled, missing a hand from a farming accident. It is likely “Stumpp” was a nickname referring to the injury, rather than his given name. He confessed under torture to killing fourteen children and two women, and was later executed in 1598, along with his entire family.

Now, whether or not these men were serial killers is debatable. Certainly there were deaths that occurred in these time periods, but whether beasts or these specific men were involved cannot be known for certain. Too much time has passed. However, what we can know is that the circumstances involving these two historical cases mirror the fictional case in Wer quite closely. Though this is not spelled out in the film, it’s clear that a great deal of research went into the story.

Curiously, both Giles Garnier and Talan are French. It’s unclear exactly where the events of Wer are meant to have taken place, but I find it significant that they occurred in the same country. For what it’s worth, the film was shot in Romania, likely for financial reasons. Draw your own connections.

To its credit, Wer doesn’t shy away the complicating factors surrounding the case. It’s clear from the beginning that the community stands to benefit from Talan’s conviction – the payoff being in the millions if the family relinquishes the land, which they may have to do anyway in order to pay the legal bills. It’s also clear that Talan’s isolation, disability, and limited social skills leave him in a difficult position; in essence, he’s presented as a tempting target, with few means of defending himself. Additionally, there are the jurisdictional complications with accusing a French citizen (especially one with immigrant parents) of the murder of three American citizens on French soil. The characters deal with these issues as they pop up in ways that allow for natural character development and cohesive world building. In the first half of this film, we have a very clear picture of who these people are, the stakes they face, and how their world operates.

The second half of Wer challenges this a bit. While I’m the last person to be arguing against creating sympathetic villains, Talan’s shift from sympathetic plot device to violent, murderous plot device comes too quickly to be effectively processed, and not enough of the details of his story are wrapped up before the carnage starts showing up. Which is a problem here, because Wer unfortunately lets itself get distracted by the brutality of the gore, and forgets to spend time on the more delicate details of the plot. Now, this move does have its advantages; the scenes of chaos are beautifully and effectively shot and I enjoyed the experience of watching them in the moment. The audience gets pulled into the chaos right alongside the characters, something few movies manage to accomplish. However, Wer doesn’t seem to know how to pull itself back on track and return to more cohesive storytelling after the fact. Too many questions are left unanswered, and none of the character arcs are completed.

I’m also curious about the choice to make Talan guilty of the crimes, despite (or perhaps because of) the importance that Wer placed on understanding his precarious social situation. It’s clear from the beginning that Talan was targeted because he, for various reasons, made for a convenient scapegoat. It’s also left unclear whether or not Talan even understood his own actions, or had any recollection of the murders. Wer establishes that at least one trigger for the werewolf transformation is Talan’s seizures – is he in control? To what extent? The audience just doesn’t know. This complicates the story, as we have no idea if Talan (and everyone else around him) is a tragic victim of his disease, or if he finally snapped under the pressing reality of his situation. Wer made a choice to leave that ambiguous, a move I’m not fond of.

For all its nuance in the beginning, Wer comes dangerously close to falling into stereotypes about disability, immigration, and poverty being directly related to violent and depraved behavior. While I don’t believe this was the intention of the director, the sloppiness of the second half gives the film an unfortunate reading of the situation. As filmmakers, we have an obligation to realize what we are saying with our art, and how it might be interpreted. Fiction has been a way for people to gage the acceptability of their beliefs and actions since the invention of storytelling; the things we say have influence on the society around us, whether we realize it or not. Our stories, even the ones about werewolves, are never without impact. Wer’s use of historical cases complicates this even further.

Was this intentional? Maybe, maybe not. I’d go out on a limb and say most filmmakers don’t create stories with the intent of causing harm to anyone. And on the whole, Wer doesn’t do anything terribly egregious – it doesn’t indicate that immigrants or poor people are inherently violent. However, Wer does fit into a pattern of stereotypes in storytelling that have a historical basis; after a while, these things add up. And they have an impact.

So, what does that mean about the movie? Honestly, that’s up to you. I’ve seen films that are intentionally and blatantly racist, or otherwise harmful to minority groups. Wer is not one of those. It’s a thoughtful, carefully plotted story, and a fun watch. However, the stereotypes it eventually falls into have a long and troubled history, which should be kept in mind. These things shouldn’t prevent anyone from enjoying the film, but it is important to realize that they do have an impact and can – in great enough number – cause harm to real, living people. Stereotypes influence how we view the world, which impacts how we treat people. Keep that in mind.

Technically speaking, Wer takes more than a few risks, blending first person shaky-cams and an aborted, confusing soundtrack to convey the emotional situations that the characters find themselves in. The camera works as a direct indicator of the emotional read of whatever scene it happens to be shooting, instead of an unbiased observer. The soundtrack fades in and out, though this works surprisingly well in Wer.

The musician Brian Scott O’Connor presents a subdued, careful performance of Talan, and surprising amount of nuance given that Wer is apparently his first film. It’s a rare actor that can convincingly portray a nearly silent character for the length of a feature film, but O’Conner pulls it off. Relying entirely on physicality in lieu of dialog is a difficult skill, and one that many actors – however seasoned – tend to struggle with. This role bodes well for O’Conner’s acting resume, should he choose to continue with it. I hope to see him acting again, as he had a great screen presence. That being said, the script doesn’t give him nearly enough to do in the second half, essentially abandoning his character arc in favor of chasing the gore.

In general, Wer has interesting, though flawed, things to say, and it’s a fun watch besides. I very much recommend it, though ask that you give it some critical thought afterwards.

 

The Beast of X Moor (2014)

A pair of documentary filmmakers team up with an unhinged guide to hunt a mythical black panther in the remote New Devon moor, only to accidentally stumble – or perhaps not so accidentally – into a serial killer’s dump site. A great idea with a not-so-great execution. Most of these problems are technical, though a lot of the lore and history in the film refuses to acknowledge its origins.

The Beast is a proud member of a time-honored tradition that attributes the horrific crimes of human beings to fantastical monsters. Even before the term “serial killer” entered the popular consciousness, crimes committed by men and women who would eventually fall under that category were largely considered to have been committed by werewolves. Among that category we have Gilles Garnier, a hermit convicted of killing four children and accused of about fifty more, who was executed in 1573, and Peter Stumpp, a Roman farmer who was accused of killing eighteen people and executed in 1589. There was also the man known only as the Demon Tailor, or the Werewolf of Chalons, who murdered and cannibalized an unknown number of children. All records of his life were destroyed after the execution. None of these people were actually werewolves in the traditional sense; they were human beings who committed, or were accused of committing, horrible crimes – mostly against children. Gilles Garnier claimed to have made a deal with the devil that allowed him to transform into a great wolf, and Peter Stumpp confessed to something similar after being tortured. Allegedly, the Werewolf of Chalons never considered himself to be a wolf of any sort, but the moniker was attached to his legend due to the brutality of his crimes, of which he was supposedly unrepentant.

Now, a lot is unknown about these crimes. It’s entirely possible that some of the men accused were innocent and picked as convenient scapegoats due to the political climate of the time, something that has been theorized extensively about Peter Stumpp’s case. He was a wealthy Protestant in a country where Protestants were not well liked. On the other side of things, Gilles Garnier was a poor man, mentally ill, and disliked by his community. It’s possible that these men were serial killers in a time before people had come up with a word for that, but it’s also possible that they were simply caught up in a situation over which they had no control, and condemned to death by communities that had no love for them. This far in the past, it’s nearly impossible to tell. We do know that the confession that condemned Peter Stumpp was extracted under torture, and also condemned the rest of his family to execution along with him. We know next to nothing about the Werewolf of Chalons. Even his name has been lost to history.

What we do know, however, is that people have been attributing the bloody acts of men to those of mythical monsters before we even had the words to describe a serial killer. In that sense, The Beast of X Moor is only playing on an age-old tradition. However, the film doesn’t acknowledge that in any way. There’s a brief conversation about cryptozoology, and how it’s easier to go hunting for Bigfoot than to understand that the monster hiding in the dark “drives a Land Rover.” Which is a good point, but doesn’t acknowledge that this conundrum outdates cryptozoology by a long margin. The Beast of X Moor doesn’t have that much to say about cryptozoology either, only to laugh at it. This could have been an opportunity to look at why certain people are so invested in searching for myths to explain horrific events, but it devolves into your traditional slasher without pausing to examine the origins of these ideas, or even explore them in any meaningful way.

When a film brings up a concept with such a rich and nuanced history as this, the least it can do is, you know, talk about it.

The Beast of X Moor does not.

The scenery is beautiful and gloomy in the daytime shots, but unfortunately the majority of the film takes place at night, with little to no lighting. One of the unfortunate facts of video cameras is that, in certain situations, they’re actually weaker than the human eye. The human eye can adjust quite well to almost complete darkness under the right circumstances. A camera?

Yeah, not so much.

There were several sequences in The Beast of X Moor that were so dark that I literally couldn’t see what was happening. I fully believe that the actors and crew could see, but that doesn’t mean that the camera did.

To put it simply, this movie had issues. The ending was the worst kind of deus ex machina, I really don’t know why one character was introduced or what purpose she served in the narrative, and the characters weren’t as developed as I would have liked. That’s not even getting into the frankly strange costume choices that were made because damn, it’s not a real horror movie unless we see a woman running around half naked! The Beast of X Moor has an excellent premise and moody sort of creepiness that can’t quite make up for its less than stellar execution. See it, but don’t come in with high expectations.

Barracuda (1978)

 

Your average animals attack story, with a coastal town under siege by a giant barracuda, and the sheriff and marine biologist who team up to take down the fish and the chemical company that created it. Think of it as the younger, more annoying cousin of Jaws. It’s on obvious attempt to make the ocean look scary again and cash in on the summer blockbuster phenomena after the massive success that Jaws enjoyed.

Sadly, Barracuda lacks the tight script and masterful filmmaking that made Jaws so compelling. This film had some of the worst sound design I’ve ever come across, the props weren’t realistic, and none of the story had the dark undertones or hell, any undertones at all. The anti-pollution message was layered on pretty heavy at the top, but the discussion failed to touch on anything new or interesting. Even in 1978, the debate would have seemed dated.

The characters are as flat as their acting, the story rambles on without establishing any real tension or memorable conflict, and the monster looked awful on screen. I was surprised at the level of gore included in a film from this time period, but that didn’t add anything to the story. Plus, it was pretty easy to tell which “pieces” where plastic and which were cow bones.

Skip this one. Go watch Jaws.

Into The Grizzly Maze (2015)

Originally titled Red Machine. Also called “Jaws but for bears” in a few reviews, but I feel that simplifies things a little too much. The plot is, quite literally, “Jaws but for bears”, but films – horror and otherwise – are always more than just their plot descriptions. Into The Grizzly Maze concerns two brothers, their respective love interests, and a grumpy and possibly psychotic hunter wandering around the Alaskan forest in search of a rogue, homicidal bear. The group is stuck – some of them willingly and others less so – in a section of the forest called the Grizzly Maze because “even grizzlies can get lost down there.” Though most of the characters are experienced hunters, the grizzly proves to be more cunning, ruthless, and perhaps a little smarter than the humans chasing it at every turn.

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To be clear, there is nothing supernatural in this film. The grizzly – listed as Red Machine in the credits but not named in the film – has adapted out of sheer necessity as a vanishing habitat means fewer and fewer meal opportunities – and boy, when you get hungry enough, those loggers look just like Happy Meals on legs…

Mhmm, tasty.
Mhmm, tasty.

The film doesn’t really explain why the grizzly doesn’t just terrorize the local dump, as most Alaskan bears will do, instead of going after food with the annoying habits of A) running away and B) packing guns. But then we wouldn’t have a story.

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This isn’t to belittle the impressive achievements of this film; rather the contrary. Grizzly Maze does something that very few animal-as-villain movies actually manage: it makes a trained animal look terrifying on screen.

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See, there’s a limit to how convincingly scary you can make an animal look on film, while at the same time keeping things safe enough to actually, you know, film a scene with human actors and a live grizzly in the same room. The amount to which these films succeed is dependent almost entirely on their editing team, and the discretion of the camera-person. No matter how much sound editing you apply, a happy animal isn’t going to look like anything but a happy animal on screen. This is a problem a lot of horror films have to deal with. Cujo in particular struggled with this – they tried nearly everything to make a St. Bernard look scary, and possibly invented some new swear words in the process.

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With that in mind, Grizzly Maze is excellent. It chooses careful shots of the bear and keeps the animal out of sight for the majority of the film, leaving the audience to listen to the grunting and growling. Like with Jaws, the audience fills in the blanks for what they can’t clearly see.

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Bart the Bear does excellent work as the villain, alongside his human costars. Piper Perabo stole more than a few scenes with her portrayal of the deaf Michelle, which makes me regret that the film chose not to make her a more central character. Billy Bob Thorton hammed it up as Douglass, a bear hunter with more than a few issues, and James Marsden and Thomas Jane gave a convincing portrayal of estranged brothers. However, the characters toss around grand speeches about the nature of evil, hunting, and preservationists without really coming to any conclusions about any of the above, and the only real character development could have happened at the beginning – if the two brothers weren’t such fans of avoiding meaningful conversation. As much as I liked Michelle’s character and applaud a decent portrayal of a disabled character on screen, her role is consistently the damsel in distress. We’re told repeatedly that she changed her husband for the better, but don’t see which parts of her character actually prompted this change, or even what she wants from life. The other love interest, Kaley, is there simply to be rescued and then reunited with her childhood sweetheart. She has no character arc whatsoever.

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The scenery is beautiful, though fails to give an accurate sense of the scale that the story is dealing with. If the Grizzly Maze is so dense and difficult that only the locals can safely navigate it, then why does the forest look like your average national park, or that thicket next to the train tracks by my house. There’s a beautiful scene towards the end where the characters are being stalked in a thick fog, surrounded by dark trees, that truly conveys the isolation and beauty of the place they are stuck in. The problem is, that’s one scene among hundreds, and the entire film should have looked like that.

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Though the characters talk a big game about the nature of evil and the ethics of poaching, a lot of the nuance is lost in process. None of the characters have those small, human issues that make them relateable, and the film doesn’t go into why so many of the characters might turn a blind eye to poaching and extreme logging. It’s clear in the subtext that all of the locals are dealing with the threat of poverty and are resorting to measures that go against their beliefs, but Grizzly Maze doesn’t do more than graze the surface of that.

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In short, Grizzly Maze is a decent monster movie about a giant bear that hasn’t quite managed to make its characters human-sized. Go see it.