The week between Christmas and New Years is a terrible time for horror news, but it's a great time for catching up on watching movies. I spent the holiday rewatching Takeshi Kitano films (because I can't watch horror all day every day) but I did find time to fit in a few scary movies during the holiday break. During the course of working on my year's best list I checked out two films that didn't make the list (but were in the running) and spent some time with an old low-budget gore flick, Leif Jonker's Darkness.
This was my second viewing of the film (which played earlier this year through IFC Direct and will make its Blu-ray debut in March) and I worried that it wouldn't be quite as magical the second time through since I knew what was coming. My fears were misplaced, as I Sell the Dead benefits not so much from its surprise factor, but the power of its cast and the humor of its writing and situations. McQuaid and company are clearly having fun on the set and that mood permeates every frame of the finished project.
The film's only major shortcoming is a reliance on telling the story through extended flashbacks, which is fine in the first act, but tends to rob the third act's narrative revelations of dramatic thrust. The final scenes of the film are climactic, but the disjointed structure created by the reliance on flashbacks robs the tale of a proper build up to its resolution. This doesn't ruin I Sell the Dead, but it is a small problem that's worth talking about. Once you get past that, you wind up with one of the more entertaining under-the-radar horror flicks of 2009. Here's to hoping it finds an audience when it hits the home theater market.
Murderous children are essentially a cliché at this point-which doesn't mean that good films can't be made using them as a plot device, but does mean that using them requires a filmmaker to bring something new to the table. Shankland's film doesn't really have anything new to say about killer kids, so it tries to shock us a bit by showing off a lot of violence against the little savages instead. I'm all for that-kill kids and dogs in your movie and I'm suddenly thinking "hey, maybe anything can happen here" and I'm all in.
However, The Children doesn't really push the envelope beyond child violence, and once you see that first kid buy the farm in a horrible way, the next few appearances of the plot device have diminishing returns. This isn't to say that The Children is a failure as a film-it's just a little too familiar for me. The film does succeed in other areas-it's very well shot with crisp scene compositions and interesting choices in setting (the film is shot primarily in daylight as opposed to the more traditional darkness) and the acting is better than I expected. The Children may not be "best of the year" material for me, but it is something I recommend checking out.
Shot on Super 8MM, the film makes no attempts to hide its ultra low-budget origins-it's poorly lit (some scenes are nearly inscrutable) and there's not one person in the thing who can act, but Jonker loves splatter and I think he spent about 98% of his budget on the materials to make blood. Yet, despite these budgetary shortcomings and technical deficiencies, Darkness still looks better than almost every shot on video gore movie released in the past decade. The story won't win any awards (kid's family is slaughtered by vampires, he survives and sets out to kill the head bloodsucker. Unable to do it alone, he enlists the aid of some kids coming home from a rock concert), but if you're watching something like Darkness for the story, you've already failed.
What makes Darkness fun (and a film I return to once every year or two) is the carnage. Chainsaws rip people up, heads explode, there's a vampire meltdown at the climax that is just completely insane-it's like a low-budget gore fan's wet dream. Darkness isn't for everyone-those folks who want big budget effects and name actors aren't going to be interested in this film at all. However, if you're one of those people like me-the guys who prowl the dusty corners of the video store looking for low budget oddities and love blood and guts that look like Kool-Aid and butcher shop castoffs, this is probably a film worth tracking down.