**/**** Image C+ Sound B+ Extras C+
starring Balthazar Getty, Henry Rollins, Navi Rawat, Clu Gulager
screenplay by Patrick Melton & Marcus Dunstan
directed by John Gulager
***½/**** Image A Sound A+
starring Agnes Bruckner, Patricia Clarkson, Rachel Nichols, Bruce Campbell
screenplay by David Ross
directed by Lucky McKee
by Walter Chaw I'm surprised that more great films aren't shuttled to the direct-to-video twilight zone, seeing as how mainstream taste-makers, particularly in regards to genre pictures, seem primarily invested in churning out the same pre-masticated gruel. At the very least, prefab garbage like School for Scoundrels might as well have been dumped on the home market without a ripple in the fabric of daily life. (Something like Liliana Cavani's Ripley's Game, on the other hand, deserved a theatrical release: Disguised as a dtv unload, it's the best thriller in years.) Between their low budgets, how they perform without bankable leads, and how they pretty much guarantee a healthy return on their investments, it's almost inexplicable that horror movies get exiled to Blockbuster as often as they do. You can learn a lot about a people from the mythologies they construct to frighten and warn, although because horror films are bankable product (and always were), they fall prey to the same venal, filthy lucre-inspired pitfalls of formula drudgery. Still, I like to refer to them as the "indicator species" of our cultural swamp in that they're not only ugly, dirty, bottom-feeding, what have you, but also the first species of entertainment to reflect the elements polluting the spirit of this exact moment in our social history. If you can find the pulse of it, a horror movie will tell you a lot about that quickening in your own chest when you watch the evening news.
That intense contemporary meta-currency might be the most interesting thing about John Gulager's serviceable Feast, the harvest of the third and final season of "Project Greenlight", Live Planet's reality show in which a series of stupid decisions pairs a few mismatched aspirants in the marathon of producing a feature-length motion picture. Too intimate a knowledge of the struggles in making Feast colour it with endless distractions: is heroine Tuffy (Krista Allen), for instance, wearing the bra that shows her nipples from scene-to-scene? And why did I have no idea that its star, Henry Rollins, was even in the thing despite having watched every episode? Gulager on the program comes off as something of a nebbish initially, blossoming into a minor hero standing up for his vision against the monolithic Weinsteins--and the first thing that comes clear in the picture is that, just visually, it looks remarkably good. It lost me early, though, with a series of character-introduction title cards that, besides being over-written, felt a little desperate to be too cool for itself, actually functioning a time or two as silent-movie exposition or, worse, commentary from the god of snark. The way that films like Feast work is that, tongue in cheek or not, they present themselves as deadly serious. Once you wink, you look embarrassed and, moreover, insecure and ashamed.
Tuffy is a single mom, truck-stop waitress, and sometime-whore who, along with the usual suspects, finds herself barricaded in a remote honkytonk while toothy beasties do their best to break in. It's only a matter of time, of course, until she's called into action in the Ripley mold. Spam-in-a-cabin in every gory aspect of the sub-genre, the film works when it works because its cast is committed and, in the case of Rollins, not to mention (John's dad) Clu Gulager as a grizzled barkeep with a pump-action hog-leg in his drink, inspired. Stealing the show is Jenny Wade as "piece of ass" Honey Pie, the victim of the Guignol equivalent of a money shot and possessor of the moment that is the best, most canny and hilarious commentary on the genre in a film that, most of the time, tries too hard. As for the goods, the action sequences, alas, are so confused and hyperactive that it's impossible to commit to the mayhem--more's the pity, as once the ill-defined monsters are brought at last into focus, they prove themselves well-conceived and fearsome. The consequences, especially, of the creature's attacks (including a particularly funny fate for actor Jason Mewes, playing himself) are ugly enough, and the feeling pervasive is that if Feast had only trusted the meat of the text to provide the extratextual exegesis on its own, we might have really had something here.
As it is, the picture is smarter than you expect--funnier and nastier, too; a minor diversion, if also a minor disappointment. In terms of the Weinsteins' release philosophy, however, favouring the bigger-budgeted stinker Pulse over Feast (the former getting a splashy theatrical release, the latter relegated to a couple of midnight screenings before its prompt banishment to DVD), the film suddenly attains cult cachet: proof again that little engines that could don't make it over that pass in the dream factory. Should Feast gain an audience on video, credit its treatment and, by direct comparison, its relative worthiness. Maybe the Weinsteins know what they're doing, after all.
It's hard to say the same about the braintrust at Sony that would drop Lucky McKee's exceptional The Woods (produced under UA stewardship and left to founder, much as Feast was born to Miramax and retained by the Weinstein Group) without so much as a midnight peek. Just the sound design and visuals would merit this film a screening or two (no direct-to-video picture since Ripley's Game has so deserved the big screen), but the picture, McKee's follow-up to the well-regarded May, is genuinely frightening, sharp as a tack, and impeccably executed. The very fairytale for a young girl's sexual awakening that its title suggests, The Woods centres around troubled Heather (Agnes Bruckner, exceptional), exiled to exclusive boarding school Falburn Academy after she sets fire to a tree in her front yard. Her long-suffering parents (Bruce and Emma Campbell, apparently no relation) entrust her to the icy ministrations of headmistress Ms. Traverse (Patricia Clarkson) and her staff of twitchy, patrician harridans. Shades of Suspiria, to be sure (and late-night flights through haunted woods dominate the middle portion), but shades, too, of Heathers in bullying blonde Samantha (Rachel Nichols), before the picture brushes up against the similar pubescent humiliations and vengeance-taking of Carrie.
A splash of blood on a wrinkled parchment initiates the proceedings: a metaphor for menstruation, of course, or the loss of virginity, and only the first of several startlingly evocative images McKee tosses onto the screen. Though strange happenings and missing students are the bedrock for this strain of genre edifice, the ivy through the cracks of The Woods incorporates a couple of creepy/loaded Leslie Gore tunes that Heather and sadsack pal Marcy (budding star Lauren Birkell) listen to in private rapture--and the most lascivious use of tree roots since The Evil Dead. Of course the milk is poisoned, of course the hand that silences is split like a ripe fruit, and of course the voices in Heather's head suggest an initiation into the mysteries of the feminine. Yet The Woods isn't bereft of originality as much as it is rich with archetype. It's a repository of genre intelligence and a repackaging of superstitions surrounding the practice and abuse of witchcraft, transforming the fires that are its bookend into an echo of the historical remedy--in addition to the suggestion of cleansing and rebirth that said remedy purported to deliver. Consider its Oedipal coda, with Heather's father the would-be rescuer of this maiden-fair following the dispatching of her mother via the tentacled limb of a rogue tree: it's something as breathless and charged in its own way as Bruce Campbell's return to the axe-wielding avatar that remains his most enduring creation.
THE DVD - FEAST
The extras on Dimension's "Unrated" DVD release of Feast cautiously embrace the movie's televised origins, with the self-promotional "Horror Under the Spotlight: Making Feast" (11 mins.) functioning as an epilogue-cum-corrective to the series, first by presenting a weird sort of paradox (cast members confessing a fear to the DVD crew documenting the TV crew documenting the production proper that "Project Greenlight" is going to twist their candid remarks around), then by attempting to redeem director Gulager and pre-emptively rehabilitate his career through ample demonstration that he conceived and executed some of the best stuff in Feast with a skeleton crew away from the prying eyes of the American public.
It joins an 8-minute helping of "deleted" scenes ("Blood on the Cutting Room Floor") that, besides containing little in the way of previously-unseen footage, calls into question the point of overly tautening a film destined to bypass theatres, anyway; "The Blood and Guts of Gary Tunnicliffe" (10 mins.), which reveals nothing novel save how the veteran F/X man's burgeoning interest in "makeup" led to a misunderstanding with his homophobic father; and "A Small Feast of Outtakes" (3 mins.)--funniest, if funny at all, when the gaffes result in Monty Python geysers of blood. These featurettes supplement a murky, compressed-looking 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that requires enough ocular compensation as to be almost blinding whenever the film cuts to one of its patented overexposed freeze-frames. The accompanying Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is comparatively rich, yet the mix itself is so unrelentingly active that it becomes white noise after a while--much like the attendant commentary track featuring Gulager, Tunnicliffe, producers Michael Leahy and Joel Soisson, and co-screenwriters Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton. Against all odds, their discussion is often snarkier than Feast itself ("That's our emotional arc," goes a typically contemptuous refrain), mostly because would-be iconoclasts Dunstan and Melton lord over the proceedings. Trailers for Killshot, Pulse, Clerks II, Scary Movie 4, and Wolf Creek cue up on startup and repeat under a section of previews.
THE DVD - THE WOODS
Credit Sony this: they've treated The Woods to a magnificent, if disappointingly barren, DVD presentation. Its 2.37:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer reproduces McKee's vibrant, digitally-tweaked colour schemes with logic and vivid separation. The red of Bruckner's lips, in particular, stand in stark relief against the softer reds of her hair and the greens of the sweater she wears in the opening frames. The luridness of the translation, I'd argue, has a lot to do with the knee-jerk comparisons it demands to Dario Argento's work. Not that that's a bad thing. It's all the more impressive for the fact that it shares space with a fullscreen version on the same side of the disc. (Shot in Super35, the film is cropped with far more artistry in widescreen.) The DD 5.1 audio is the star of the show, however, with every channel used to alarming effect. Atmospherics are powerful, and if there are a few minor digital edging issues in a few background passes, the mix is nonetheless a showcase for the six-track soundstage. A trailer for Wah Wah (what a Richard Grant comedy of manners has to do with a coming-of-age horror flick, I'll never know) starts up upon insertion while previews for I'll Always Know What You Did Last Summer, the intriguing-looking The Dark, and Population 436 round out the platter. Originally published: October 9, 2006.