Welcome to HorrorFest 2009.
One of the films that played Fantastic Fest also played the LA Screamfest this week, and there are reports that the version that's playing is a work in progress, a little different and a little more finished each of the times it's screened. For the purposes of this review, I'll be discussing the version that played in Austin last month.
Not that anyone involved should worry. The film plays, and if they're fine-tuning it, that just means it's going to play even better. One would hope, anyway.
"The Revenant" is a movie that covers a lot of genre territory, shifting gears narratively several times over the course of the film. One of the things I admire most about it is the way the film seems sort of fearless in regards to tone. Bart (David Anders) goes off to war. Bart comes home in a box. Bart's best friend Joey (Chris Wylde) and Bart's girlfriend Janet (Louise Griffiths) are broken up about it. Bart comes back, and he goes to Joey for help.
When I say "Bart comes back," I mean " from the freakin' grave," of course, since this is ostensibly a horror film. There's no explanation or backstory to why he comes back, which is just the first of many choices that I think make the film work. By leaving out any elaborate mythology, the film focuses instead on the human-scale implications of a return from the grave. There are rules, but they take a while to sort out for Bart. He eventually realizes that he needs to drink human blood to keep from decomposing. After a drink, he looks almost alive again, but when he's desperately in need of a drink, he looks horrible, rotten, decayed. Even worse, when it's daylight, Bart appears to be dead, immobile and without any signs of life. It's only when the sun goes down that he is able to move about on his own.
Joey is thrilled to have his friend back after a brief period of deeply-freaked-out, and they settle back into the rhythms of life-long buddies hanging out. First question: where do you get fresh human blood to drink? The film plays to both the reality of that and the absurdity of it, and then when Bart realizes that he's sort of invulnerable to harm, he decides that playing superhero might be fun for a while, and Joey wants in. That left turn would be enough for some films, but scene after scene, "The Revenant" seems determined to confound expectations, and it does so with real skill and style. What's great is that there are rules no one knows until the results play out, and Bart and Joey eventually learn that their freedom comes with some terrible price tags attached.
D. Kerry Prior is the writer/director/producer/editor of the film, and it's fair to call it a one-man show. His background in visual effects and special effects shines through clearly as he finds any number of simple but effective ways to bring his more outrageous moments to life (the vibrator voice-box scene is a stand-out), but the real surprise here is how good he is with the simple human moments. I'm not familiar with Chris Wylde's work, but someone described him to me before the film as a "really bad Pauly Shore wannabe." Maybe that's true of earlier work, but here, he fully embodies a type I know well, and he does so with a zeal that keeps the film's pulse steady. Without him, the movie would fall apart. He and David Anders (so good as Mr. Sark on "Alias") have an easy chemistry that Prior exploits as much as possible, and that strong foundation makes it possible for the audience to hang no matter where Prior takes the narrative.
I'm not sure the coda to the film makes any sense at all, but that's a small complaint when so much of the rest of the film is so strong. Putrefactory, the company that made the film, should make a strong distribution deal once the film is 100% ready, bolstered by the strong word-of-mouth and reviews out of the festivals where it's played so far. The cut of the film I saw could have used a wee bit of a tighten-up in the middle, but that's all. Otherwise, it's a great example of a small film that feels bigger, and that deserves a shot at real mainstream commercial success.
HorrorFest 2009 runs every day of October 2009. Except when it doesn't.
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