Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Mummy (2017)

THE MUMMY (2017)
Dir Alex Kurtzman
Screenplay by David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, Dylan Kussman, Story by Jon Spaihts, Alex Kurtzman, Jenny Lumet (uh oh)
Starring Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Jake Johnson, Russell Crowe.

            Let us steel our nerves and consider, for a moment, THE MUMMY. No, not THE MUMMY (1911), nor THE MUMMY (1932) nor THE MUMMY (1959), nor THE MUMMY (1999), though you’d be forgiven some confusion. And in fact, I’d wager that confusion is not unintentional; every Mummy film ever made since the first one has been animated primarily by the cynical hope of coasting off the good name of another Mummy film and hoping that vague recognition alone will be enough to inspire good will in audiences. The whole concept is simulacrum made flesh (and then desiccated and mummified and revived years later believing that some British blonde is is the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian princess, but that’s neither here nor there).

But there has always been one fatal flaw in that logic: there is no “good name of another Mummy film.” And that’s because every single extant mummy film is terrible.* Even the “classic” 1932 Boris Karloff version is, let’s face it, even more boring than it is racist, and frankly has maintained its iconic standing more through association with its worthier peers in the Universal Monsters canon than through any inherent value in the film proper. The Mummy itself --all caps as a proper noun, for the concept is by this point an intrinsic part of the American cultural psyche far more than it is a reference to any specific artistic work-- may well have the singular distinction among the horror icons of achieving its lofty status without ever at any point actually being associated with a single film which was any damn good at all. It is, I have come to believe after an absolutely exhausting survey of Mummy fiction, a trope which has always owed its entire existence to hustling coattails-riding. It’s never been good, but somehow it did manage to become familiar, which in marketing terms is just about the same thing.

            With all that in mind, THE MUMMY (2017) starts to make a little more sense. But even still, only a little more sense. There is, I guess, a certain sadistic logic in making a new movie called THE MUMMY, in that it is, you know, a name people would sort of generally recognize and with which they might perhaps harbor vague positive associations without being able to explicitly name any concrete reason as to why. In fact, even its ostensible creators may have had a pretty hazy idea of what, exactly, there were supposed to be ripping off: it was originally billed as a “reboot of Universal’s ‘Mummy’ Franchise,” though whether that referred to Universal’s original 1932 Mummy series or Stephen Sommers’ 1999 series starring Brendan Fraser was never made clear, and may in fact never have been explicitly decided one way or another by any of the 60 or so people who manifestly had a controlling stake in what could generously be called the “creative process” here. It certainly hews closer to the latter’s mix of corny action beats and desperate comedy, but really resembles neither in any meaningful way except through the incidental presence of, you know, a The Mummy. Which, of course, is the sole reason for its existence in the first place; this was not a story told because someone had an idea for a story; it was a story told because someone had to write a story to justify the existence of that title. But if we must simply remake every single thing that has ever existed and wormed its way, however undeservedly, into the broader cultural consciousness, this was inevitable anyway and we might as well have gotten it out of the way in 2017 as any other time.

So sure, it all makes a kind of nihilistic sense, radiating a kind of soporific calculation so inescapable you can basically watch it unfold on-screen in real time. And yet, even knowing all that, even having written it all down in black and white, I still can’t quite overcome the unbelievable wrongheadedness of taking a classic horror icon and trying to fluff it into a huge-budget action franchise vehicle. I mean, how could anyone ever have thought this was going to work? To the extent that the Universal Monsters are known at all, it is as clearly and starkly as horror icons as anything fiction has ever produced. What in the world would make anyone think they would (or should!) have any salience outside that context? I get why Universal Studios would want them to (money), but even at that most cynical, mercenary level, surely someone had to see that this was hopeless. I can see why they’d want to sell it, but who in the world did they imagine would actually want to buy it?

 Let’s just say what we mean here: this 2017 movie currently enjoying our critical attention exists thoroughly and unreservedly to fulfill some Universal executive’s dream of having a popular shared-universe franchise (embarrassingly branded the “Dark Universe”) just like Disney has with Marvel. And since Universal didn’t buy superheroes, they’re banking on their stable of classic monster movies to generate the distasteful but unavoidable “content” necessary for there to be a universe to share. This is the goal --the entire motivating force behind the existence of THE MUMMY (2017)-- and the marketing guys have sunk their teeth into this plan and aren’t gonna let it go til it ain’t moving.

But the thing is, nobody except Universal executives and their associated marketing teams have ever showed the slightest bit of interest. They keep starting this thing, failing spectacularly to find an audience, abandoning it in disorganized, humiliating defeat, and then inexplicably starting over (the 2004 VAN HELSING debacle, the 2010 WOLFMAN debacle, the 2014 DRACULA UNTOLD debacle, and now this too died at the box office). But no matter how often it fizzles, they can’t seem to accept that the problem is in the fundamental idea. All the money in the world can’t convince people that they want something which has no practical reason to exist.** Just because something enjoys a wide name-recognition among the lucrative 18-34 demographic doesn’t mean you can utterly upend its context and still maintain its original power, no matter how much you might wish otherwise. And I just can’t imagine any sane writer or director feels otherwise. Nobody had a burning passion to make this movie any more than anyone had a burning passion to see it. But in order for it to be marketed, it had to be made, so here is it. All Hollywood movies are made for crass commercial reason, of course, but it’s rare indeed to find so many resources being spent to craft a work of art entirely at the behest of the marketing department.

Well, and at the behest of Tom Cruise, the only marquee brand here whose name is not THE MUMMY. In the wake of the movie’s failure, people seem to have been eager to shift the blame to the actor, who supposedly exerted a huge amount of control over the finished product, from re-writing the script to supervising the editing. And that seems like a pretty plausible theory; It’s not at all hard to see some very distinct parallels with the star’s recent MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and JACK REACHER pictures and their similarly relentless march of globetrotting nonsense stringing together a parade of mostly-practical stunt-work setpieces. This sort of wham-bang blockbuster cinema is laughably out of place in a movie about a Mummy, of course, with its very best sequence (a legitimately cool uncut take of Cruise and a bunch of stunt-people tossed around weightless --for real!-- in a crashing plane) having almost nothing to do with the title character at all. But even if you want to blame the entirety of the film’s misplaced action-movie ambitions on Cruise, he’d still only be responsible for one of the three or four completely unrelated movies vying for supremacy during the film’s unexpectedly demure 110-minute runtime (practically a short film by the standards of modern blockbusters). And it’s by no means the worst of them.

Those four unrelated movies are as follows, in descending order of tolerability: A mummy movie, an action vehicle, a prequel to a mummy movie, and a labored franchise-servicing purgatory starring Russell Crowe. All are bad in their own way, of course, but some are rather more exotically dismal than others. In the first of these movies, a couple of incessantly quipping mooks --Cruise (AUSTIN POWERS IN GOLDMEMBER), Annabelle Wallis (ANNABELLE [and niece of Richard Harris!]) and Jake Johnson (that smarmy millenial fuck-o from JURASSIC WORLD***) find a --hey! what have we here?-- mummy’s tomb [!] due to some sort of convoluted horseshit about the US military in Iraq,**** and get themselves cursed in the process. Standard mummy stuff, but made tolerable by its likable cast, by-the-book plotting, and surprising deftness for horror staging. You’ll notice, in fact, that this simple premise would be comfortably sufficient to fill out an entire movie. But this is a big studio blockbuster in the year of our Lord 2017, so “enough” is, of course, never enough until it’s “far too much.” And thus we get three additional movies competing with the only one which has any real legitimate reason to exist.

 The second movie is some kind of setpiece blockbuster doggedly committed to hurling frantic stunt sequences at us every now and again, and mostly indifferent to the fact that it’s about a The Mummy or whatever. These sequences are pretty middling by Crusie’s usual standards, but the plane crash bit is a winner, and there’s even a rambling chase sequence that occasionally remembers that it’s in a horror movie and uses its mammoth budget to give us some enjoyable zombie mayhem which you could never get in a movie with a normal zombie budget, so not a total wash. Third, we have, intermittently, the story and --ominously, as longtime Mummywatchers are all too aware-- the backstory of the title character (Sofia Boutella, CLIMAX). Supposedly this was once a more prominent part of the movie, as in the final product Boutella has almost nothing to do but stand around looking menacing and flash back to the origins of her Mummying in a rather wearying repetitive manner. Here we might actually be able to thank Cruise for jealously excising his co-star’s tiresome life story from the final cut, because this is, of course, utterly dire stuff. Still, it’s a venerable and --more to the point-- inescapable part of the basic Mummy movie boilerplate, so we could hardly be surprised that it remains, even in the year 2017, an inconvenience that veteran connoisseurs of mummy fiction expect and resign themselves to endure.

The final movie, though, is something wholly unexpected. This is because, crudely sutured into this thoroughly quotidian paint-by-numbers Mummy Movie yarn, we find something exponentially weirder, a subplot about a secret society of monster hunters which feels like the jarring intrusion of a completely separate movie, because that’s in fact what it is: the covetous tendrils of the “Dark Universe” creeping their way into a unambitious self-contained little thriller to force the world, against its better judgement, to acknowledge the existence of a shared universe which does not, by God, actually exist yet, and may never exist. And thus it is that before we meet a single character who will actually be germaine to this particular tale, we encounter one Dr. Henry Jekyll***** (Russell Crowe, NOAH) owner and operator of a monster-hunting franchise called “Prodigium” which appears to be quite a lucrative venture judging from their expansive, well-appointed headquarters with enough jumpsuit-sporting henchmen and technological goo-gahs to handily pass for a Bond Villain’s lair.

Crowe is, for whatever reason (possibly alcohol-related), obviously having a ball hamming up a performance which consists wholly and without exception of tedious exposition, most of it necessary only to explain his own incongruous presence in this mummy movie. He’s clearly decided that the only possible means of survival is to turn the thing into some kind of high camp parody of a terribly-written exposition-spewing non-character crammed into a movie that has neither need or space for him, entirely in a labored effort towards servicing a franchise which may never actually exist. But while this is obviously the correct approach, and does something to render this little sub-movie slightly short of instantly lethal, everything about this plotline is useless and burdensome and completely stops the movie dead in its tracks, efficiently euthanizing any lingering bits of momentum that might have been building up while the creative team wasn’t paying attention. Without it, THE MUMMY 2017 would simply be unfocused mediocrity; with it, it becomes something closer to a genuine boondoggle, something which will seem absolutely confounding to a hypothetical future audience who does not have the proper context to understand why there’s a 30-minute teaser commercial for a non-existent franchise jammed into the back half of an otherwise stock mummy flick.

In a way, a spectacular disaster is a more interesting thing to have in the world than a middling studio flick too unimaginative to embarrass itself in any noteworthy way, which passes unremarked upon through cinemas and promptly vanishes from human memory. But you know, there are moments -- and only moments, to be sure-- where one wonders if perhaps “middling mediocrity” and “staggering folly” weren’t the only two possible outcomes here, if there wasn’t an actual good movie to be found here, if only someone had stopped to notice it. Those moments have little to do with Tom Cruise stunts --which are found in profusion, and in rather more colorful array, in other movies better suited to their charms-- and are certainly never found in the enervating mummy backstory or even in the disposable clutter or the basic plot. Where they are found is the only real surprise in the whole film, because they turn up in the one place the movie seems least interested: its mostly-forgotten origins as a horror movie.

For whatever reason (craftsman’s pride, perhaps, or simple boredom, but surely not a deep sense of belief in the project’s artistic merit) “creature designer” Mark 'Crash' McCreery (JURASSIC PARK, LADY IN THE WATER) actually designed some pretty great-looking reanimated corpses which make full use of the film’s indefensible budget to offer us a range of impossible herky-jerky movements and imaginative demises that are simply out of reach for horror films that don’t employ an army of visual effects artists. I also very much like the double-iris eyes which makes for the film's most striking visual. Most important, though, THE MUMMY 2017 offers something that almost no other Mummy film has so far been able to convincingly produce: a skinny, desiccated, unwrapped mummy lurching around on brittle bones like a malevolent spider on the hunt. It looks, in other words, like a genuine mummified corpse, not like some beefy guy wrapped in toilet paper, a distinction which lends it an unexpected visual potency despite its familiarity.

 The image of a spindly, half-skeletal ghoul has actually been part of Mummy fiction for quite some time; Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1892 gothic classic Lot No. 249 --which comprises, along with Bram Stoker’s 1903 Jewel Of The Seven Stars, the baseline popular origin of the genre******-- describes just such a creature, which would have, in fact, likely been more familiar to the Victorian Egyptophiles of his time (who delighted in “mummy unwrapping parties” -- a pass-time only slightly less morbid than today's "unboxing videos" ) than the bandage-swaddled version which has since become the standard iteration of the concept (and certainly saw its high-water mark with Christopher Lee’s imposingly buffness in Hammer’s 1959 THE MUMMY). McCreery, cinematographer Ben Seresin (PAIN AND GAIN) and director Alex Kurtzman (first-time director,******* but long-time bane of screenwriting as part of the dreaded Orci/Kurtzman duo) make the most of the exotic design by highlighting its boney, impossible movements against --why, what have we here?-- gothic swirling mists in an old abandoned churchyard! Holy shit, it’s almost like this was the correct context for a century-old horror icon all along! Who woulda thunk it?

It’s a trivial thing, of course, in the face of so very much howling sound and fury signifying nothing, but it’s also a frustrating glimpse of the simple pleasures which were right at the filmmakers’ fingertips, had they bothered to notice them. For all the miserable, inept mummy movies that have been made (and they’re all miserable an inept), there is something about this concept that has continued to stir the imagination of generations of horror fans. At a particularly low point in my journey through mummy fiction, I lamented that a mummy is basically just a solitary zombie that can’t bite you, and maybe we ought to admit it simply isn’t a cinematic concept worthy of much more exploration. But that’s not really true; or anyway, not entirely true, though it’s certainly a fitting complaint for virtually every single iteration of the concept I’ve ever seen on screen.

Fundamentally, a reanimated mummy should (or could, at least) have a little more resonance than that. A mummy doesn’t just traffic in our discomfort with dead bodies and the appalling wrongness of their return to some sort of unnatural half-life (though of course it does this too, and with a unique tactile quality perhaps better embodied in this movie than any other, of a body not rotting or mutilated, but rather desiccated, drained of its vital fluids in an uncanny parody of preserving vitality). More than our fear of dead things, it traffics in an almost Lovecraftian sense of unknowable antiquity reaching into the present in unanticipated, incomprehensible ways.******** Very nearly 200 years after Jane C. Loudoun published The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (the earliest tale of a reanimated mummy that I can identify) our knowledge of the ancient Egyptian culture has grown exponentially, but it still maintains its ability to mystify and intrigue us, as evidenced by its integral place in the essential folklore of our time, from conspiracy theories to ancient alien hypotheses. For all our technological progress, we are still awed and humbled by the scale and permanence of what they achieved, and the level of sophistication they reached literally thousands of years before our time.

A mummy, then, is less a metaphor for our fears of death and loss of personal identity than it is a cultural avatar from a forgotten past, challenging our smug certainty that we are the unquestioned masters of creation. In a chapter of Jewel Of The Seven Stars which he deleted from subsequent editions, Stoker actually makes this point explicit: if, in fact, the central mummy succeeds in using the unknown magic of antiquity to revive itself, the staunch Englishmen don’t just lose a battle, they lose their very sense of identity. Their belief in the essential correctness of their culture, religion, and basic understanding of the mechanics of the universe, get swept away into a terrifying chaos of uncertainty. This, I think, is the key to The Mummy’s persistence as a iconic figure despite a century of dull film iterations; at its core, the Mummy symbolically challenges not only the frailty of human life, but the fragility and vulnerability of our most fundamental assumptions about ourselves and the world. It is an alien, an other, emerging from a world out of time, a world utterly unfamiliar and remote but so manifestly remarkable that its very existence is a challenge to our innate sense of superiority. If the mummy bests us, we’re not just in physical danger, we’re existentially at risk of being forced to relinquish our place as the arbiter of civilization to its rightful heir.

All this was right there for the makers of this film, which had every conceivable resource to realize these themes if any film ever put to (digital) celluloid could ever be so described. And the most infuriating thing is that the ingredients are all unmistakably there; the film has a great sense of the disturbing corporeal wrongness of the mummy’s reanimated remains (when the filmmakers bother to try for it), and even adopts Stoker’s essential structure of a possession tale, personalizing the basic metaphor of culture being supplanted by the malevolent manifestation of the ancient primordial past. Hell, it even goes one step further and adds the unnecessary but intriguing detail that this is the product of imperial overreach: for the Victorian and Edwardian Brits presiding over an uneasy globe-straddling empire, anxieties that the “natives are restless” found outlets in the “Imperial Gothic” tales of the time which provided the fertile soil from which sprung the origins of mummy fiction. But in 2017’s THE MUMMY, we find the inciting incident to be the product of a different type of colonizer: a US soldier looting native treasures in American-occupied Iraq. It’s almost enough to tempt one to wonder if someone here, writing some far-removed early version of the script from which these tiny vestigial details were retained even absent their original significance --as a dozen more writers brazenly re-shaped the tortured mass into new and ever more contorted convolutions-- knew what they were doing. But probably they just happened to blindly snare a couple key ideas in their brute trawl of every possible cliche their predecessors had yet devised.*********

So it has the right ingredients to actually make something of its premise, though hopelessly mixed into a haphazard, overflowing pile of unrelated and contradictory detritus. As I have admonished so many times in the past, however, ingredients are not a meal. And it will come as no surprise to you that despite these potentially salient elements being present at various points in the plot, the movie makes absolutely not the slightest thing of any of them.The uniqueness and majesty of Ancient Egypt, in particular, is woefully neglected; though we do get some requisite flashbacks, the Egypt our antagonist occupies is a bland, undefined space, filled mostly with medium-sized candle-lit rooms which are furnished almost exclusively with billowing curtains (which actually seems like kind of a fire hazard, but I guess you worry a lot less about that in houses built of giant limestone and granite slabs). With the exception of name-checking notorious Egyptian heel-god Set (sometimes also called Seth), “Princess Ahmanet” might as well be a villainous witch from any time and place in history, or, perhaps more likely, from no specific time and place at all. And if it can’t even be bothered to engage with the one essential element of its own basic premise, you can hardly expect it to do any better with the more tangential elements: The film abandons its promising horror imagery almost as quickly as it stumbles upon it, and shrinks away from its provocative Iraqi war elements with a pronounced discomfort which is almost palpable.   

Which is, I realize, not telling you anything you don’t already know. 2017’s THE MUMMY is dumb and bad, just like all mummy movies are dumb and bad, which was already so obvious to you that you’ve never even considered seeing this piece of crap and have only read this far into this review in the vain hopes of trying to understand why I would so unwisely do so. And yes, it’s dumb and bad. But I’m sorry to say you’re going to have to see it anyway, and I’ll tell you why: for reasons too pointless to get into, the action eventually moves to a secret crypt hidden under London’s subway system, where the bodies of returned crusaders have been interred. And what does the Mummy do when she arrives? Why, raises the departed knights from their tomb, of course. And just like her, they’re ancient, eyeless, desiccated corpses still wearing the symbols of the ancient Templar order to which they belonged. You see where I’m going with this? Undead, eyeless Templars! This is basically the fifth BLIND DEAD movie!********** And at one point Tom Cruise punches one of them and gets his hand stuck in his ribcage! So it’s not all bad news. In fact, compared with the rest of the BLIND DEAD movies, this is probably one of the two or three best! As both reanimated mummies and the filmmakers behind the venerably lowbrow subgrene of Mummy fiction almost always eventually discover, context really is everything.


* THE MUMMY (1911), being a lost film and therefore unseen my me, is a possible exception, though the plot synopsis does not exactly inspire confidence.

**  Or anyway, can’t always do it; that the BEAUTY AND THE BEAST remake from 2017 grossed over a billion dollars provides ample evidence that it certainly can be done, and also also as a bonus definitively proves that there is no God and we live in a cold, indifferent amoral universe where ‘justice’ and ‘right’ are empty, meaningless abstractions which crumble like dry leaves before the might of Lord C’thulhu.

*** He did play “Jesus Christ” in A VERY HAROLD AND KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS, though, so I can’t be too mad at him.

**** A weirdly tone-deaf plot device by any metric, and made even weirder by its absolute needlessness and total irrelevance to the rest of the so-called story.

***** Dr. Jekyll, of course, was never part of the Universal Horror canon (there was a 1931 Paramount version with Fredric March and a 1941 MGM version with Spencer Tracy) though, as with VAN HELSING, Universal Executives seem absolutely convinced to the contrary. Perhaps they’re getting confused by the existence of 1953’s ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, as near as I can tell the only classic Universal production to ever include the character? But if meeting Abbott and Costello is all it takes to be considered a iconic Universal Monster, the Keystone Kops may also turn up in the “Dark Universe.”

****** Of course, we can trace the lineage back further than that, as I intend to do in my forthcoming book-length A Cultural Anthropology of the Mummy. But for today’s purposes, I think it’s fair to call those two stories the basis of the modern conception of “The Mummy” as a distinct boogeyman of the horror genre. (Bonus trivia: Louisa May Alcott, of Little Women fame, wrote a very early “Mummy’s Curse” story called Lost in a Pyramid; or, The Mummy's Curse in 1869, decades before either Doyle or Stoker. It does not, however, feature a resurrected, ambulatory mummy seeking revenge)

******* And why not hire a first-time director for a huge franchise-inaugurating iteration of an iconic screen classic with a budget of $200 million?

******** Indeed, Lovecraft himself wrote (or co-wrote/ghost-wrote, with Hazel Heald) a mummy story of his own: 1935’s Out of the Aeons. Of course, Lovecraft was racist enough that he damn sure wasn’t going to situate a great lost civilization in Africa, so it’s a mummy from the lost continent of Mu. But we know damn well where mummies come from, Howard. UPDATE: As commenter Matthew points out, Lovecraft too knew where mummies come from; early in his career, he ghostwrote a story called Imprisoned With The Pharaohs (1924) for none other than Harry Houdini.

********* A quest which also snared, I might add, some decidedly non-mummy related fiction; how else do we explain the brazen daylight robbery of several specific plot elements and even scenes from AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON? Did one of the writers misread the memo and start watching werewolf movies before someone corrected him about the genre he was supposed to be ripping off?

********** Or sixth, if you want to count the other unofficial BLIND DEAD sequel, John Gilling’s 1975 La cruz del diablo.***********

*********** By the way, I want to point out that that tenth footnote marks a decisive record for most ever footnotes on a single piece I’ve written! Thanks, THE MUMMY!

SHAMELESS PLUG: If you enjoy my thoughts on cinema, you can also follow me on Letterboxd, where I post shorter-form reviews of a wider range of films.

Friday, May 3, 2019

The Barn (2018)

The Barn (2019)
Dir. Matt Beurois
Writers: Auregan, Matt Beurois
Starring Ken Samuels, Guillaume Faure, Piper Lincoln, Auregan

The Amazon Prime summary of THE BARN reads, "A serial killer strikes Sugar Grove, Virginia. As the number of victims increases, a journalist is send [sic] to cover the story. Her investigation will shake the local comm..."  [it cuts off there, as though the writer was suddenly struck down in mid-sentence by the very serial killer he or she was summarizing]

Now, two things about that blurb caught my notice.

First, I want to draw your attention to the fucking balls it takes for one of the world's largest corporations to give so little of a shit about their streaming service that they would include a typo in the two-and-a-half sentence plot summary. It’s only 29 words, for fuck’s sake, can we just do one fucking readthrough before we click “publish”? Second, I noticed the prominence of Sugar Grove, VA in the synopsis, which made me laugh because I've lived in or around Virginia for something like 30 years now and had never heard of such a place, making one wonder why the blurb-writer thought it was such a huge selling point. I assumed that it was either a patronizing name some Hollywood dirtbag made up for a dimly imagined Real America, or, hopefully, it was a real place and this movie was one of those small-town regional horror movies made by some amateur first-time filmmaker who got the whole town to participate. "Let's look it up," said I, capriciously. "If it turn out it's a real place, we'll watch this piece of shit."

Well, turns out Sugar Grove is a census-designated place (CDP) in Smyth County, Virginia, United States. The population was 758 at the 2010 census. We watched the movie.

Unfortunately THE BARN does not turn out to be a passion project of the residents of Sugar Grove, Virginia. Instead, two very unexpected things become clear almost immediately. First, it’s actually a French production, meaning the residents of “Sugar Grove, Virginia” will be played entirely by French actors, each with their own unique idea of what they imagine an American accent (let alone a Sugar Grove, Virginia accent) might sound like. Definitely was not expecting that. Second, it’s actually a zombie movie at least as much (and probably more) than it is a serial killer movie (and in fact, it’s not really either, but first things first).

            We’ll actually get to the zombies long before we get to the serial killer. Although the trailers barely hint at zombies and the plot summary ignores them completely, the film opens in the traditional Zombie Movie style. By which I mean, an opening montage of fictional news reports to bring us up to speed, which starts with real footage of the World Trade Center exploding (!) and then tells us that “one year after 9/11” a zombie outbreak started affecting the world’s children. They have a quick clip of Obama saying the phrase “CDC” (so looks like he still got elected, even in the midst of a zombie nightmare!) and then they tell us that the infected kids have been isolated in camps somewhere in Texas, and that the contagion has been contained, although it darkly implies that many people may not have been happy to have their zombie children snatched and quarantined by the army. And just in case opening with footage from fucking 9/11 wasn’t on-the-nose enough, it then cuts directly to a full-screen shot of a large American flag, hung over the door of a sinister THE BARN. So yeah, I’m thinking this might be some kind of political metaphor.

            But wait, so this is, what, a serial killer movie set in a world where a zombie outbreak has happened, but is now over? Don’t worry, I’ll explain. You see, this particular THE BARN is owned by local Sugar Grove resident Gil Perry (Ken Samuels, who had a bit part in DOUBLE TEAM and appears to be attempting something approximating the Cajun accent Seagal used to do on Steven Seagal: Lawman), and despite its ramshackle appearance this building is important to the plot in that it is currently housing small flock of zombie youngsters, who Gil has been hiding from the authorities and training not to be so bitey (including co-writer and French singer-songwriter Auregan). Gil's mute brother Earl (Yannik Mazzilli, OPIUM, whose American accent must have been too untenable even for this movie), lives there too, but seems to hate the zombies for reasons which are never explained, and likes to throw stones at the barn when Gil’s not looking. He also has a penchant for standing around in the background of scenes menacingly holding a chainsaw. Did I mention there’s a serial killer on the loose?

        But wait, what about the serial killer? I was just getting to that. Turns out that somebody has been murdering the local women of Sugar Grove, VA, (I think they say there have been something like 15 murders!) which has been causing local sheriff Benjamin Clarkson (Guillaume Faure, “reluctant surgeon” in DR. STRANGE, sporting a PepĂ© Le Pew accent so outrageous that one of the characters is forced to comment on it, a fact made even more absurd when the dialogue makes it clear he grew up in Sugar Grove!) to crouch next to the bodies, staring thoughtfully into the middle distance. Which, if I have learned anything from movie cops, is like 60% of what detectives do during any given day.

The murders have also brought a nosey reporter from Richmond, VA (Piper Lincoln, daughter of Lar Park-Lincoln of FRIDAY THE 13th PART VII fame, but perhaps less an actress than “an American exchange student who happened to be staying near the French filming location”), who keeps trying for an interview with the sheriff or Gil or somebody, bless her little heart. Richmond is well in excess of 4 hours away from Sugar Grove (approximately the same amount of time it’d take to drive from Paris to Cologne, to put it in terms that the filmmakers could relate to), so you gotta give credit to this local news station for making the effort. Especially since poor Sheriff “Clarkson” seems to be the only law enforcement anywhere in sight, despite the fact that 15 murders is almost 2% of the total population of Sugar Grove!* But I guess the feds are busy with the zombie camps and all that.

            Anyway, all this happens by the 10 minute mark. Which raises the eternal question: “What the fuck is this movie actually about?

This is a question which you could fairly put to a critic like me, because it is part and parcel to this noble profession that we should learn the answer by watching the movie, and then report it back to you, the loyal reader. But every now and again, a movie --say, a movie pretending to be an American movie about a serial killer which is actually a French movie about a zombie farmer-- comes along and really makes that process a far more onerous one than it has any right to be. By which I mean, I watched this thing, and I still couldn’t really tell you what it’s actually about. IMDB claims the tagline is “Some search for the serial killer. Some protect the zombies” ** which is… I guess kinda correct. Certainly, those are the only really noteworthy things that can be said to happen during the runtime, but the movie also seem weirdly disinterested in both its possible plotlines. What actually happens, mostly, is character get together in groups of no more than two and have quiet elliptical non-conversations in grammatically correct but awkwardly phrased English. And then Gil will walk around his surprisingly tastefully decorated --...farmhouse doesn’t sound quite right, French villa seems like a closer fit-- and have a glass of wine while staring apprehensively into the middle distance (there is a lot of wine drinking in this movie, which I choose to interpret as the French filmmakers’ hearty salute to the Virginia Wine Renaissance). Things happen, people die, but the film never seems to really be about any of it; it’s almost breathtakingly lacking in tension or momentum, with event after event stubbornly refusing to add up to any kind of plot. The music and camerawork seem to think it’s some kind of anxious, slow-burn thriller, but at no point does it suggest what it is, exactly, that is supposed to be thrilling us.

            There is a serial killer on the loose, but at no point does the movie treat this as a murder investigation with clues and whatnot (there are only three male characters anyway, so odds are it’s one of them). And there are a couple docile zombies in THE BARN, but they’re apparently domesticated and don’t really pose a threat to anyone. At some point, the young reporter from Richmond seems dangerously close to discovering Gil’s zombie herd and it briefly seems like the movie might be establishing some sort of stakes. “Can Gil keep a prying Big City middle-sized-city reporter away from his not-very-well-hidden secret tame zombie barn” would be a very weird focus of conflict in a movie which has both a serial killer and zombies, but at least it would be a conflict. But then she never finds them and nothing much comes of it, and her plotline abruptly ends. So whatever the movie is about, it’s definitely not about that. (SPOILERS) Near the end, Gil does figure out who the killer is, and it seems like maybe he’ll sic the zombies on him and that would at least explain why there are zombies in this movie. But then he doesn’t and nothing much happens, he just shoots the guy and that’s the end of it. (END SPOILERS)

There seems to be some implication that the original zombie outbreak started in this town, and the locals are touchy about the army because of it, but I’m sure I don’t know what to make of any of that, and the movie sure doesn’t seem eager to make any suggestions about it. Also it’s mentioned that Gil’s dad killed his mom 42 years ago, but as far as I can tell that never really ends up mattering either. It’s possible that the characters understand how these things are meaningfully related, but since they never mention it and just circuitously talk around the point, there’s really no way for the audience to know what the fuck any of this is supposed to mean. Virtually the entire cast manages to die, and yet the movie remains imperturbably low-key and absent of any clear point, or narrative, or hook, or even genre. How is that even possible?

            Heck, even the metaphor is completely obscure to me. I guess the zombies are terrorists locked up at Guantanamo? But what’s with the zombie whisperer who can make them harmless, and what does any of that have to do with an unrelated non-zombie serial killer? I can only assume that the entire population of France would immediately understand this, and that, despite the language barrier, this movie is targeted exclusively towards them.

            But maybe it’d play in Sugar Grove, too, I dunno. Never been. Doesn’t look like the Richmond Post-Dispatch has done a lot of reporting there, either, but they did visit for at least one story that I can find (warning: depressing). That’s probably not the episode Sugar Grove would prefer to to be known for in Richmond, so maybe the whole zombie farm angle isn’t such a bad thing have on the tourism brochure after all. I’d like to offer something better, but an excruciating lengthy online investigation revealed virtually no substantial information about the place.*** Still, I have to believe they deserve better than this.

* For comparison: if a serial killer got 2% of the population of Chicago, there would be roughly 54,000 dead.

** The poster, for the record, just has the generic “Fear What’s Inside” which still isn’t really accurate.

*** There’s an “Au-Some Mini Carnaval” at Oak Point Elementary school tomorrow, but that’s in neighboring Marion, VA. Also a “1st annual Kentucky Derby Party” at a bar called “27 Lions,” which seems like an oddly specific number of lions and I’d love to know the story there. Their website claims to have 27 taps and it’s a pretty good beer list, but come on guys, you’re burying the lede here, what’s up with the lions?