Tuesday, December 10, 2013

December to Dismember: THE BLACKOUT (2009)

One of my favorite films is ALIEN (1979). Not exactly a shocker, it's been somewhat popular over the years, from what I understand. One of the many things I like about it is the fact that created a template for the modern monster movie, by being a reworking of the "old dark house" films. Better still that template meant cheap, exploitation knock-offs. Suddenly, black, toothy creatures with no love for peanut butter candies were tearing up humankind from astronauts to hillbillies. Actually more like astronauts or hillbillies. Until now...

Christmas in Los Angeles can be hell. A massive heatwave of over 100ยบ causes rolling brownouts and constant tremors shake the city threatening to cause hair to fall out of place. Regardless of this, the residents of the Ravenwood apartment complex in downtown LA are throwing a Christmas party and have invited the neighbors. Note this is a Christmas party, not a birthday party and nobody says "my hair stinks" (mainly because they are in LA and nobody has bad hair). Invited to the party are the uber-douchey married couple, Daniel and Elizabeth (Barbara Streifel Sanders and Joseph Dunn) who are barely tolerating an allegedly homeless, alcoholic loser brother-in-law Dylan (Ian Malcolm), who actually looks quite fit and healthy and is stylishly dressed and coiffed. I guess it is LA, so even barflies have to look good. So how do the filmmakers express that he's a deadbeat? He farts while sleeping on the sofa in the afternoon. Brilliant, right? If Sergei Eisenstein had been able to use sound, I have no doubt that someone would have farted during the Odessa Steps sequence. Naturally, they decide also to have him show heroic qualities once the proverbial shit goes down.

Next up is the uber-douchey trendy couple. He wears a small-brim fedora and she wears one of those low-cut, quasi-maternity blouses that were all the rage back in the pre-twenty teens. Oh and it doesn't stop there. We have another couple in their early 30s who are constantly fighting and on the verge of a divorce, we have a George Zimmerman wannabe who shows up at the party with his presumably adopted brother (Ace Gibson) that nobody likes and two loaded glocks. Guess which one is perceived as worse? Right. It's LA, guns are fine, it's the socially awkward black man that is the pariah of the party.

Tonight we're going to party like it's 2009
Why nobody likes this guy is ever explained, also unexplained is why people keep saying they know who this roid-rage gun-nut is. Who is he? Who knows? Certainly not the audience. If this hadn't been made three years prior to the Zimmerman case, I'd say they were making a statement of some kind, but no. Screenwriter Jim Beck (who went on to script a few episodes of a new "Pink Panther" cartoon series the following year) is aiming for simultaneously higher and lower brow stuff. Oh yeah, and there's the Super, who is from London, his electrician, another maintenance guy, a nerd who has his apartment set up with "high-tech" ham radio set-up... am I forgetting any of these utterly forgettable characters?

The audience reacts to the dialogue scenes
With all of these characters, I'm sure screenwriter Jim Beck was thinking that he was breaking into Robert Altman territory, when in fact he is simply creating an abattoir of subplots that never go anywhere and are simply more vehicles for his pre-SAT level dialogue. Honestly, it takes a lot to get me to bitch about dialogue in a monster movie. Oh wait, did I not tell you? Yes, this is supposed to be a monster movie. It will be, but it sure does take a while to get there. Meanwhile we have to wade through exchanges that are painful to listen to. For example, when we are being introduced to the trendy couple whose names I can't even be bothered to remember: 
Guy: "Tell me again why we have to go to this thing?"
Girl: " I told you."
Guy: "Oh yeah, right, so everybody can check out your rack and you get promoted."
Girl: "[explains how the job is really important to her]...besides you love checking out this rack."
Guy: "I told you, you don't have to work, I can support you."
Girl: "And then I'd have to blow you, like every day. What would that make me?"
Guy: "Full?"
It doesn't get any better than this folks! Of the film's 78 minutes, this sort of thing comprises nearly an hour of it.

The action finally kicks in when the married couple send their son, by himself during brownouts and earthquakes, down to retrieve a Christmas present that's been locked in a trunk that is just sitting in the middle of the empty basement of the highrise. Of course if you've seen THE ALIEN'S DEADLY SPAWN (1983) or any other monster movies with a basement, you know what happens next. Apparently in addition to everything else the rumblings are causing fissures to open up in the earth and one has cracked a hole in the basement floor allowing a big nasty, toothy creature that looks incredibly familiar, to invade the complex. It takes a while for the parents to start wondering what the hell happened to their kid, dad manages to misplace the daughter as well and heads back to the apartment as the creature attacks the party. Presumably attracted by sounds of merriment, or possibly just annoyed by all of the cliches. Cliches such as the survivors of the attack running over to the married couple's apartment and having a confrontation ala NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). The final half of the movie consists of the survivors running up and down stairs (and ultimately a CG elevator shaft) with the creature picking off stragglers one by one while they alternately panic and discuss theories as to what these things are (turns out there is more than one).

In spite of the community theater acting and the 8th grade script, the movie is surprisingly watchable. It feels like it should be headlining an After Dark film fest. It's that... uhhh... good. Perhaps it's due to the fact that everything feels like it was copped straight out of the '80s. The opening title sequence (which amusingly powers down briefly), showing a view of earth from space with lights winking out in a wave is effective in setting the stage for what is to come and is reminiscent of the opening of John Carpenter's THE THING (1982). The highrise setting was huge in the '80s with DEMONS 2 (1986), POLTERGEIST III (1988), and GREMLINS 2 (1990) to name a few. The alien is cool enough, but an obvious Giger rip-off and the even the idea of having this horror happen on Christmas is an '80s convention. The most disappointing part is that the Christmas setting is barely even utilized. You'd think, if it's Christmas there would be, I don't know, Christmas decorations everywhere? Sure, we get a random Christmas trees at the alleged Christmas party, but that's it! You'd think that someone would maybe bleed out under the mistletoe or maybe be feasted on in the middle of a nativity scene, but sadly there is none of that '80s juxtaposing the (alleged) joyous holiday with the horror at hand.

The cinematography for a digital feature is more than adequate, although the dreaded shakey-cam rears it's head, and the creature and gore effects are surprisingly good. Though, honestly, if you can't nail down a good camera man and effects team in freakin' Los Angeles, you shouldn't give up your day job. The big let-down here is that some of the gore is practical and some is CG. Clearly they couldn't afford to hire Weta Digital, so we end up with some really lamentable gags. Some of the CG looks even worse than they normally would because the director (Robert David Sanders, also of "Pink Panther and Friends" fame) has a cheap, crappy CG effect directly following a nicely executed practical effect. The bad CG ending is actually rather bleak, which is pretty cool, but I feel like I've seen it a million times before. This feeling of deja vu permeates the movie with children in peril, drunks redeeming themselves,  and couples professing eternal love before being killed, not to mention the fact that the title BLACKOUT has been used by at least 30 feature films and scores of shorts over the past century of filmmaking. Plus there's that Scorpions album. I guess that is to be expected since it was made in the shadow of Hollywood by folks who mostly work in children's television. As much of a mixed bag as it is, it's surprising that this has never shown up in the US. Like I said before, it would be perfect fodder for After Dark and would be right at home in NetFlix's new streaming line-up.

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