Friday, October 27, 2017

Dying Breed

Dying Breed (2008)
Dir Jody Dwyer
Written by Michael Boughen, Rod Morris
Starring Leigh Whannell, Mirrah Foulkes, Nathan Phillips, Melanie Vallejo

DYING BREED is one of those movies they made for those After Dark Horrorfests they used to have for a little while in the mid-2000’s, arriving the same year as FROM WITHIN and a year after BORDERLANDS. And “one of those movies” really is a pretty good description of it. Like the vast majority of AFTER DARK HORRORFEST entries (or, if we're being entirely honest, most horror movies produced in the 2000s), it’s generally competent without exactly being effective, serious-minded without exactly being interesting, gritty without exactly being scary, and based on a decent concept which never exactly develops into an actual plot. The kind of thing which is good enough that you wish it was either better or worse, instead of just sort of there.

I do like the hook, though. The film begins in Tasmania in the early 1800s, with infamous escaped convict and confessed cannibal Alexander Pearce (sporting what look to be straight-up monster teeth) killing a victim and then using the flesh to befriend the local predacious Thylacines (better known as Tasmanian Tigers). Though it’s executed without much elegance, this is clearly the opening to what can only be a pretty badass movie. Except that it then immediately abandons this setup and leaps forward in time to present day (2008), where Nina (Mirrah Foulkes, THE GIFT[ 2015]) is traveling to the Tasmanian wilderness in an effort to find proof that the Tasmanian Tiger (believe to be extinct since 1930) actually lives on, hidden, in the isolated countryside. Obviously this is a worthwhile endeavor, but she also has a personal flashback-related reason to do this: her older sister died doing the same thing several years earlier. I don't know about you, but when I have a friend or loved one die while doing something stupid and dangerous, I avoid doing that thing instead of rushing out immediately to exactly repeat the experience, but you know how it is in crazy mixed-up upside-down Australia-land. Along for the ride are her accommodating boyfriend (Leigh Whannell, COOTIES, at his most bland), his obnoxious crossbow-toting alpha male buddy Jack (Nathan Phillips, SNAKES ON A PLANE), and Jack’s cannon-fodder girlfriend (Melanie Vallejo, apparently star of one of the dozens or hundreds of Power Ranger variations). They will quickly discover evidence of the elusive Tasmanian Tiger, but even more quickly discover that the DYING BREED of the title is in fact not the elusive marsupial, but actually the backwoods inbred cannibals still indigenous to the area.

And that’s actually a shame, because there’s something genuinely intriguing going on here, thematically linking the gradual extinction of the Tasmanian Tiger (nobody ever calls it a Thylacine, because that’s the kind of movie we’re dealing with here) with the slowly dying Tasmanian wilderness village culture, killed off by encroaching modernity and a lack of fresh blood, and just as vicious as the Tasmanian Tiger when cornered. It could almost be a sort of ode to the feral outback culture which --like the Tiger itself-- became a key staple of Australian identity only as it was in its death throes (it's certainly part of the DNA of 2011's THE HUNTER, which also focuses on a hunt for the Thylacine). And tying the infamous Pearce into that history (it’s implied that he founded the film's community of inbred [spoiler] cannibals, though in reality he was captured and hanged less than a year after his escape) smartly weaves a bit of Australian home-grown folklore into the mix.

Writers Michael Boughen (Producer of THE LOVED ONES) and Rod Morris (second unit director here, in his only screenplay) and director Jody Dwyer (a few short films and nothing else) definitely seem to understand there’s something tantalizing going on here with these connections, which after all have no real narrative reason to be here and seem to be included purely for thematic purposes. Unfortunately, after having neatly assembled the raw pieces of an interesting theme, they're frustratingly unable to figure out how to actually weave them into something coherent, let alone do so within the context of a plot. And unable to think of anything interesting to do with the premise they’ve set up, they retreat almost immediately into an unexceptional HILLS HAVE EYES retread. All that stuff with the opening in 1822, the maybe not-quite-extinct Tasmanian Tiger, the talk of a dying culture… it never meaningfully informs the rest of the movie. Instead, all you get is four victims being gradually picked off by a clan of murderous inbred backwoods psychos in the most standard possible mode. It’s respectable enough as far as these things go, I suppose, but it’s not a genre I have a lot of affection for; like so many things from this era of horror, it’s too cruel and humorless to be much fun, but also way too silly and phony to be seriously disturbing. It wants to shock and horrify, it really does, and it doesn’t skimp on the sadism or the gore, but it lacks much imagination for either of those things and the merely adequate filmmaking can’t make up the difference.

This was, after all, the heyday of what came to be called, fairly or unfairly, “torture porn,” and there’s certainly more than a little of that impulse on display here. Superficially, the Redneck Inbred Cannibal Killer subgenre has a lot in common with the Slasher subgenre: a group of victims get killed off one by one in gorey, over-the-top ways by a colorful villain in both of them. But to me, there’s a crucial difference between the two subgenres in the actual mechanics of the horror. Slashers tend to be structured, at their most fundamental level, as suspense movies; we know the killer is stalking the horny teens, but mostly they don’t realize what’s going on until the big climax, when the “final girl” has to confront and escape the killer in what is hopefully an exciting chase. The Cannibal Killer subgenre, on the other hand --taking its cues from HILLS HAVE EYES and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE-- tends to eschew suspense in favor of creating a harrowing experience. The victims typically know they’re in danger almost immediately, but are unable to do much about it. They spend the whole film being terrorized and brutalized by their tormentors, completely disempowered or at least only falteringly able to offer defense. Which really describes “torture porn” at its most definitional level too, no? The emphasis is on the victim’s suffering, not necessarily on the tension over how and if they will escape, since most of the time escape, or even defense, is simply impossible. I know there are people who go for that sort of thing, and certainly in a few select cases it’s resulted in real masterpieces (TEXAS CHAINSAW, obviously), but at least to me, grueling is a much less engaging mode than gripping. And grueling is definitely what’s on DYING BREED’s agenda, but it’s just not smart or creative or well-made enough to achieve the kind of visceral potency that approach requires.

I’ll give it this, though: it’s mostly pretty rote and uninspired, but it does have one thing that it’s just great at: bear traps. Its solitary two sequences of any real potency are both bear trap porn, the first being a journey through a long, black tunnel full of them which our heroes have to gingerly navigate (and will eventually have to flee desperately through), which is a fine, sturdy bit of cringe-inducing setpiecery. Later, the film’s only “good kill” comes from one of our victims stepping in a bear trap… and then falling face-first into another bear-trap. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this little antic before in some other movie (pretty sure they do that in PUMPKINHEAD IV, for example), but it’s definitely a good one, and this time I really noticed the appealing crunching sound a human skull makes when it attempts to resist the iron teeth of death. A good show, there.

Otherwise, though, it’s a film in search of a reason to exist. Despite the exotic location and the intriguing setup, there’s not much to distinguish it from any given WRONG TURN sequel, except that with only four victims it takes way too long to get going and suffers from a lack of potential victims. Most of it isn’t very well staged (the climax, in particular, feels clunky and fragmented and confusing, like maybe they couldn’t really shoot everything they wanted and just had to make do with the bits they had) and although it is appreciably gory in places, it’s just not interesting enough to make its sadism anything but a turn-off. Case in point: its idea of the obligatory dark final twist at the end is that [spoiler] Nina survives, but only to be repeated raped and used as breeding stock by giggling toothless yokels until her death. She’s barely even a character (the story seems to posit her as the protagonist, but inexplicably dumps her to follow the men once the genre stuff gets going) but even so, that’s just no fun. The movie seems pretty pleased with itself for going there, but I dunno man, maybe I’m just getting old, but sometimes going there simply for the sake of going there isn’t enough. You need a reason to go there, and DYING BREED never really comes up with one.

Still, a good bear trap death is a good bear trap death. I’d probably watch a sequel, I dunno.

There are no martini glasses in the movie, unfortunately.


The Discreet Charm of the Killing Spree

Every BODY has different taste, emphasis theirs. Also, Some Species Are Better Off Dead, which seems unnecessarily harsh.
Inbred Cannibal Psychos (just a hair’s breath from CABIN IN THE WOODS ‘Zombie Redneck Torture Family’)
Leigh Whannell counts, I think.
Just as a dismembered corpse.
Yeah, pretty bad scene there, even if it’s not graphic
Animals figure heavily into the plot, but tend to be victims instead of perpetrators of violence. Think there might be a jump scare with a growling dog, though.
Someone is said to be watching this couple bone
If your sister died a horrible painful death while doing something incredibly dangerous, stop for a minute and ask yourself if you should now do the exact same thing which just killed her.

No comments:

Post a Comment