Saturday, November 19, 2016

Let Us Prey

Let Us Prey (2014)
Dir. Brian O’Malley
Written by Fiona Watson, David Cairns
Starring Liam Cunningham, Pollyanna McIntosh, Douglas Russell

So here’s one of those modern high-concept indie horror joints from an ambitious first-time feature director who managed to get a couple low-profile genre actors and stick em into a Twilight Zone kinda scenario which doesn’t require a lot of locations or setpieces or anything. We’ve been looking at a lot of these lately. This one’s a little less mumblecore and a little less concerned with gritty realism than some; the performances are broader, the dialogue (by first-time feature writers Fiona Watson and David Cairns) is a little more self-consciously overwritten, the colors are more stylized (lots of vivid green and orange lighting without a clear source), the violence is more over-the-top. But still, it seems like any number of movies like this; competently crafted but not nearly as clever as it thinks it is, moderately entertaining but too derivative to leave much of an impact. Until suddenly, it isn’t like those other films anymore, and everything has gone crazy and it turns out to be a pretty fun time. You’ll have to wait to get there, but trust me, it will get there.

The predictable part of the movie concerns a mysterious, nameless drifter (old workhorse Liam Cunningham, DOG SOLDIERS and THE CARD PLAYER to me, but probably best known to you as Ser Davos from Game Of Thrones) who shows up mysteriously at a small-town Scottish police station where PC* Heggie (Pollyanna McIntosh, THE WOMAN herself!) has just arrived for her first night on the job. This is going to bode badly for everyone in the joint --the highly competent rookie, the tightly-wound sargent (Douglas Russell, VALHALLA RISING, making a great case for bigger roles here), the handful of assholes locked up in the downstairs jail, or the dickhead other cops who are no better than the prisoners. It’s one of those movies where everybody has a secret which is going to be dragged out of them by a malevolent trickster type character acting as a catalyst. Guess who that might be.

Cunningham is kinda a Lance Henriksen or Peter Cushing type actor, the sort of hard-working pro who will show up in your cheapie horror film and will always put in the effort to class things up. But I think he makes a miscalculation here by underplaying the drifter character, offering a restrained performance laced with quiet menace instead of a mustache-twirling hammy one. It’s a good performance, of course --I don’t think he’s capable of anything else-- but probably not the right one for this movie. The general tone here is not one which lends itself well to quiet intimations; it mostly oscillates between over-the-top misery porn and over-the-top splattercore. These are two distinct impulses which don’t necessarily work together all that comfortably, but the one thing they have in common is that they’re not subtle. Everything here is cranked up about as loud and on-the-nose as it can go. These can’t just be ordinary asshole cops, they have to be corrupt, sexed-up, drug-taking, suspect-beating, gleefully murderous cops. The drunken asshole in the can can’t just be a irresponsible lout, he’s got to be a cartoonish parody of smirking juvenile delinquency. Any little detail the movie can settle on is going to be pushed to its most outrageous limit. I mean, look at the silly, nonsensical pun in the film’s title, for God’s sake! This is no place for nuance.

Unfortunately, Cunningham’s character doesn’t seem to have gotten that memo, which is a problem since he ought to to be the focal point here. Everyone else is louder, but they add up to less. That leaves the beginning of the film feeling a little flat, a workable premise in search of an organizing vision. And that leaves you ample brainpower to consider that it’s also pretty derivative of a million other low-budget movies with a premise sort of like this (the crappy 2010 Val Kilmer movie THE TRAVELER has nearly the exact same premise, right down to the police station setting). It’s not bad, exactly, just kinda dumb and predictable and middling.

But. The film keeps having little flashes of weirdness that hint at a director who is more inclined towards EVIL DEAD cartoonish mayhem than the didactic, gloomy screenplay would imply. One character is revealed to have killed his family, which is the standard thing that would happen in any movie like this. But would another movie have us visit the home to find that he’s lopped off the top of his son’s skull and propped up his exposed brain in front of the TV? Would another movie have a different character who turns out to have a fridge full of dismembered body parts in plastic bags? Granted, these bits are staged with a bunch of irritating avid farts and speed-ramping nonsense, but that’s an instinct for glorious overkill in a movie which otherwise seems to be written with an eye toward bleakness rather than goofy bad taste. They’re gone just as quickly as they arise, though, and the movie returns to being a more sober and responsible (and not-especially-insightful) examination of guilt, and you might be tempted to assume these are just odd little aberrations, not statements of intent.

Fortunately, the bad taste wins in the end, because (vague spoilers) right as the movie starts to become unbearably tiresome in its rote moralizing flashbacks, suddenly someone shows up out of fuckin’ nowhere bare-chested and wrapped in bloody barbed wire with a shotgun, and a bunch of aggro-electronic dance music starts cranking up, and it turns into a deliciously over-the-top bloodbath for the final 20 minutes or so. It’s idiotic, of course, but it’s also much more honest about what it wants to be than the run-up, as evidenced by the guy who gets dealt moral retribution via the medium of a shotgun blast to the dick. This is clearly much closer to director O’Malley’s speed than all the ominous chit-chat that lards up the front half of his film, and he digs into it with such obvious gusto that you can hardly help but be delighted by it, if seeing a crazy guy wrapped in barbed wire graphically murdering a police station full of assholes is something that you might enjoy. Obviously I, for one, fall into this category. Once that’s done with (and yes, of course there’s a huge fireball at the end, do you even have to ask?) there’s even a cheerfully ridiculous twist ending which finally allows Cunningham and McIntosh (who also plays things pretty straight) a little more room to ham it up and have some fun. I approve.

Anyway, I’d hesitate to call this a good one, exactly; there’s way too much clichéd and obvious nonsense weighing down the front end, and the movie’s “ooh, this is dark!” pretensions are about at the level of a particularly unimaginative Insane Clown Posse number. And even its better instincts towards over-the-top carnage don’t sit well with some of its more grounded (but still asinine) subplots about domestic abuse and fucking child rape. The movie wants to go way over the line in every direction, but your ability to enjoy the better parts might depend on your tolerance for its decision to also go pretty extreme (though less graphic, thankfully) with the more depressing stuff. If you can’t get past that, well, you’re probably a better person than I am, but if they ever made a movie about a crazed shotgun killer wrapped in bloody barbed wire that couldn’t win me over, I ain’t met it yet. I feel a little weird telling someone “hey, this movie is a total hoot if you can get past the boring part and the child rape!” but I guess that’s what I have to do here. Hopefully that will give O’Malley the confidence he needs to ditch the clutter and embrace his inner trashiness the next time he steps behind the camera. The world doesn’t really need a lot more stagey faux-intellectual indie horror morality plays, but we are always badly in need of gleefully irresponsible bloodbaths. And I think this guy’s got exactly the right mix of boisterous tastelessness to deliver one.

*In the UK, PC means “Police Constable,” not, “It is literally white genocide that I can’t tell racist jokes in public without people getting mad at me.”

Good Kill Hunting

Darkness Shall Rise
Totally meaningless
UK/ Ireland
Whatever the one is where some mysterious stranger shows up and turns everyone against each other by revealing their evil secrets. Does that setup have a name? I feel like it ought to.
Liam Cunningham, Pollyanna McIntosh
Cunningham is always followed around by a bunch of crows, but they never get involved in the action
Oh yeah.
None, unless you wanna count the Santa-Claus like implications of supernatural figures who know your darkest secrets.
It’s probably for the best that British cops don’t carry guns.

I don't think I can quite push this into four-thumb territory, but it's close. Think C+ / B- 

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