Thursday, October 20, 2011

Halloween Havoc: WILD COUNTRY (2005)

In a market where actors are getting younger and younger and producers embarrassingly show how out of touch they are, desperate to pander to their barely cognizant target audience, it’s refreshing to see someone do the youth horror thing without it being gimmicky. In addition, how often to you see any movies, much less a horror movie come out of Scotland? Granted I’d probably see more if I were, oh, say, living in Scotland, but still, my point stands.

Opening in a hospital room teen mom Kelly (Samantha Shields) is delivering her baby which will be given up for adoption. After telling the consoling priest, Father Steve (Peter Capaldi), to “get the hell out”, we figure she’s due for some life lessons. Sure enough, the very next scene has Kelly along with fellow chums David (Kevin Quinn), Louise (Nicola Muldoon), and Mark (Jamie Quinn) off in the parish short bus with Father Steve at the wheel. As they drive through the country Father Steve tells them a story about this very area being home to the (real) Scottish legend of Sawney Bean. Bean as the story goes was a family man, who kept his kin well fed on the flesh of wayward travelers. Having had enough, the villagers got out their torches and pitchforks, raided Bean’s home slaughtering his family and dragging Bean back to the village. The villagers burned Bean alive and some witnesses claim to have seen Bean gnawing on his own charred arm. The thing is, some believe that a few of the inbred grandchildren esacaped and are still out there somewhere. Well shit-howdy! We have THE MOORS HAVE EYES going here, I’m totally down for that. See; I’m easy! Inbred cannibal killers in the moors of Scotland? Bring it!

Faster than you can say something about a witch project, the kids are dropped off in the middle of nowhere with maps and bedrolls and told to make their way to an inn several miles off. I’m not familiar with Scottish parish field-trips, but I’m beginning to think Father Steve is a bit of a prick. At this point I have to say I was a bit fired up. They got the hook right in me. The cast is rock solid in their parts and there are no grating MTV teen stereotypes, no canned comic relief, plus Scottish moors, inbred cannibals, and because of the marketing I know that there is a werewolf involved somewhere too. And this, my fiends, is where things start to go to pieces.

Kelly’s ex-boyfriend, and father of their child, Lee (Martin Compston), shows up to add some drama to the mix. After running across a creepy shepherd who Lee chases off with a switchblade (hey, where’d you get that?), the group decides to make camp. Of course there are beers passed around and Kelly decides to go off alone to answer the call of nature. Yeah, it's a major cliche, but I can deal with that old saw if you have something else to offer. While doing her business, Kelly realizes that Mr. Creepy Shepherd Dude is watching her water the vegetation. Suddenly, just when you think she is about to end up in a cannibal campout, a large hairy beast rips out the shepherd's throat and drags him off into the darkness. Hmmm… ok, so much for a subplot about inbred cannibal freaks. Hey, ya know that Father Steve seemed to be casting a shadow, maybe there will be an interesting subplot about him... Or not.

After spending a lot of time running from the shambling beast, the kids stumble across a castle containing human remains, including bits of our buddy the shepherd, and a crying baby. Kelly’s maternal instincts kick in and she takes the baby, rescuing it from it's presumed horrible fate. Essentially, the rest of the movie is Kelly and Lee, and baby makes three, running scared while the other friends are picked off one by one. But what about the cannibals? Nope, you get nothing. That was just a set-up to throw you off the scent, or maybe they are the wolf-thingies. The movie doesn't even bother to hint in that direction, so who knows? The real killer is supposed to be a wolf and while it seems that the HOWLING sequels were unwise to refrain from showing their raison d’etres, here they give the creature a lot of exposure and perhaps they really shouldn’t have. I hate to kick special effects head Dave Bonneywell (who worked on KILLER TONGUE [1996] and the 2010 CLASH OF THE TITANS remake) in the teeth here. I realize the budget was very low, and I know it actually isn’t called a wolf anywhere in the script, but it does in fact look like a giant, shambling possum. Granted, I grew up near the hills and I’ve had more than one run-in with a possum in the middle of the night and truth be told their naked, toothy grins scare the shit out of me, but giant rubber ones in movies? Not so much. The saddest thing here is that the gore effects are flat-out stunning. They are all physical, no digital crap, properly lit, very detailed and could go toe-to-toe with anything out of a mega-buck Hollywood production.

The other major disappointment is that after going to lengths to ensure that the characters were real (though, inconceivably, out of five teenagers only one has a cell phone), that the acting was on an even keel, and the story was nicely set up, we are delivered a blend of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) meets AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981), except with less plot than either one! Father Steve, who could have provided a subplot, shows up again at the end of the movie to provide a somewhat comic comeuppance that completely goes against the grain of what has come before it. Matter of fact the whole ending (which includes a twist that I won’t spoil, but you can see coming a country mile off) seems as if it was written and shot by another crew. The surprisingly film-like shot-on-video production looks great and is well shot in all respects. However the last 15 minutes of the movie features a shakey-cam chase with lots of video bleed indicating that there were some significant reshoots done quickly with inferior equipment. I wouldn't be surprised if those reshoots weren't due to a re-written ending, perhaps at the behest of some financial backers. Then again, that ending probably sounded much better on paper.

WILD COUNTRY could have been (and still for the most part, is) the antithesis of THE HOWLING REBORN (2011). It plays everything straight and unpretentious, the dialogue is realistic, the attacks are gruesome and there are some genuinely effective moments. Because of this, all of the blunders writer-director Craig Strachan makes in this, his freshman effort, become even more dissapointing. It is a teen film (there are four adults briefly seen in the movie, none of whom are role-models), but done without the Hollywood cynicism. Not something you see very often.

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