Monster

Feral

feral

A group of medical school students venture into the woods for a camping trip. On the first night they are attacked by something. Once bitten, they become infected with a strange disease and it’s changing them into dangerous creatures. The students will have to use their medical knowledge and whatever survival skills they have to escape with their lives.

This tale of survival is directed by Mark H. Young (Tooth and Nail, Wicked Blood) and written by both Young and first-time screenwriter Adam Frazier. On the surface, the plot will seem very familiar. A group of college kids going into the woods and then being terrorized by some unknown creature is a concept that has been done time and time again. There are some thrilling and frightening moments mixed in with some more predictable ones (such as the obvious foreshadowing of who the first victims will be). The filmmakers use two methods to try to make Feral stand apart; the leading couple is a lesbian couple, and instead of just a monster in the woods there is a “feral virus.”

When it comes to having a prominent lesbian couple, the film has some high and low points. First and foremost is that the couple doesn’t fall into the typical stereotypes commonly found in film. There isn’t one woman that is more “butch” and one that is more “femme,” they are not man-hating, and their sexual orientation isn’t all they talk about or what defines them. In this way, the couple is very well developed compared to other films. The biggest drawback is the fact that they are two women in a relationship was brought up to much by other other characters, putting it in the spotlight and focusing a lot of the non-monster drama on that relationship and what others thought of it.

The virus itself is very interesting. Calling it a “feral” virus implies it might be some kind of rabies-like virus that infects the host and makes them hyper-violent. This is somewhat true in the film, but the virus also kills the host then brings them back to life as a bloodthirsty creature. There are even physical changes such as hair loss, yellow eyes, pale skin, elongated ears, and razor sharp teeth and claws. It honestly comes across as very muddled, like it is a rabies virus that turns the victims into zombie-vampire monsters. The origin of the virus is also underdeveloped. We learn that some creature in the woods bit a man, and that is supposedly how it all started. This opens up so many questions. What was the creature? Why do humans seem to be the only ones affected? Why hasn’t the virus reached outside the forest? It is good to leave some mystery for viewers, but this origin is simply too vague. Unfortunately, by trying to create something new and original, instead audiences will get something that is more confusing than anything else.

The origin of the creatures may be a bit fuzzy, but the creature design itself is pretty creepy. The makeup design does a great job of making each infected individual look similar, showing how the virus physically changes a person in the same way. The overall look reminds me of a vampire, but much more wild and ferocious than one would normally expect. The first time a creature is shown on screen is probably the most frightening part of the entire film. You can just barely make it out in the darkness as it stares down its victim. By the time you get a good look at the creature, it’s too late. There is also a healthy amount of blood and gore in the film. They do a great job of showing the attack wounds and how those eventually translate to an infected creature.

This film has some great actors who have made a name for themselves in the horror industry. Scout Taylor-Compton (Halloween, Cynthia) plays the main character, Alice. What makes Taylor-Compton’s performance stand out is how natural she portrays Alice. She is the most comfortable in the woods and remains cool under the most stressful circumstances, taking a natural leadership role in the group without any unnecessary bravado. She also has fantastic on-screen chemistry with Olivia Luccardi (It Follows, Chanel Zero: Butcher’s Block), who plays Jules. She stands out because Jules is the only one not part of the original group of friends. She is really only there because of her relationship with Alice. Luccardi portrays Jules as the outsider of the group, which makes her attempts to step up and be strong even more compelling. The most surprising performance of the film is Lew Temple (The Devil’s Rejects, 31) as Talbot. The character is interesting because Talbot functions as the harbinger archetype commonly found in horror films, but he is developed even further into a main character. Temple does a great job of making Talbot a strange mixture of sympathetic and ominous, which is not easy to achieve. The film has an overall well-rounded cast who know how to bring intensity to their performances.

Feral brings excitement and terror to the “monster in the woods” subgenre of horror. It successfully brings some elements to the plot that make it stand out from other similar films, such as including LGBTQ characters and changing up the familiar harbinger trope. There are also some standout performances from horror actors fans know and love, and creepy creature design that will make you not want to go into the woods. Where the film falls short is in the virus that creates the frightening creature. The underdeveloped background almost takes away from the fear of the virus and what it does because it simply doesn’t make sense. The film is entertaining enough, but it will likely be forgotten by the end of the year.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10

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The Monster

A mother and her young daughter have a tumultuous relationship. The mother is a neglectful alcoholic, and the daughter essentially has to take care of her mother. They come to the decision that the daughter should go stay with her dad for a while. On the drive there they get into a car accident. They are stranded on a lonely road in the middle of the woods, in the dark and rain. It soon becomes clear that there is something hunting them from the woods. The mother and daughter will have to rely on each other in order to survive the monster in the darkness.

Writer/director Bryan Bertino (The Strangers) knows how to create a character-driven horror film. Yes, there is a terrifying monster trying to kill the characters in the story, but the real focus is the relationship between the mother and daughter. The mother, Kathy, is a raging alcoholic who can’t seem to get it together. This leaves the very young daughter, Lizzy, to not only care for herself, but also care for her train wreck of a mother. There relationship is very volatile and typically consists of screaming matches, and sometimes even violence. We learn much about how they ended up on the road, hating each other, through a series of flashbacks from both the mother’s and daughter’s point of view. When the two are thrown into survival mode as they fight for their lives against a dangerous monster,  it forces them to not only face the danger at hand, but their relationship as well.

While I am technically a film critic, sometimes I get annoyed with film critics because they tend to read too much into films. I saw The Monster as part of the International Horror and Scifi Film Festival’s Horror Showcase. After the film there was a discussion about what people thought and many of the viewers were also film critics. While I agree with many of the people there that believe the monster was a physical embodiment (or a metaphor) for the alcoholism and addiction that is tearing the mother and daughter apart the other film critics lost me when they said things like the monster didn’t exist at all or other out-there theories. Yes, the monster was a physical representation of what the family was going through, but it was also simply a monster. The two things are not mutually exclusive in horror films.

The monster itself was very well done. The filmmakers chose to go the route of practical effects, which was necessary in a film like this that is so grounded in emotions. The creature design was also very well done. The face was frightening and vicious. There were a few flaws. It was very clear in many scenes where you see the full body of the monster that you can clearly tell it is a man in a monster suite. Despite that, I still appreciate that they chose this over CGI. The only other issues I had with the monster had more to do with inconsistencies in the story. It appears that when light is shined in the monster’s face, it runs off. Whether it is scared of the light or the light hurts it, we never know. My issue is that, while it is afraid of the light from a flashlight and flame, it doesn’t seem to be bothered much by street lights or headlights. Possible it is only effected by light shined directly in it’s eyes, but if that was the case it should have been made more clear.

When a story takes places primarily in the dark, it is common for a lot to be lost in the darkness. This is not the case for The Monster. The cinematography is stunning. They did an amazing job of making sure things can be seen clearly throughout the film no matter how dark it was. There was also a lot of play with light and darkness that brought a lot of beauty to the scenes. One scene specifically stands out in my mind after watching the film. Kathy gets out of the car to investigate something and she is standing in the light of the headlights, the forest illuminated behind her. It seems like she should be safe in the light, but the deeper into the forest you look the darker it gets. It is clear that there is danger nearby. The shot was so simple yet something about it is absolutely gorgeous.

The two leads in this film gave absolutely marvelous performances. Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks, What If) blew me away as the drunken mother, Kathy. Kazan portrayed Kathy’s internal struggle of wanting to be a good mother while also having no control over her addiction. This was a role I wouldn’t have thought Kazan to be in, but now I can’t imagine it with anyone else. Ella Ballentine (The Captive, Standoff) was quite a surprise as the daughter, Lizzy. I had never seen her in a film before, and she had such a strong presence on the screen. Ballentine was so powerful because she is portrayed in most of the film as the “adult” because she has to take care of her alcoholic mother. She then goes from being strong and independent to a scared little girl when she realizes monsters are real. The two actresses together made the perfect duo.

What makes The Monster such a masterful film is that it throws people who don’t want to be around each other into a terrifying situation where they have to rely on each other to survive. It is something that Bertino also did in The Strangers. While there are horrifying events happening around them, the true focus of the film is the relationship between the mother and daughter. Because of this, I am able to look past the couple flaws involving the monster and see the masterpiece this film truly is. Horror and non-horror fans alike will appreciate this film and likely relate to the relationships that we as the audience witness.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

Animal

A group of friends decide to go on a camping trip. Upon arrival, they find out the camp grounds are closed, so they go on a hike instead. Their hike was poorly planned, and they end up hiking back to the car after dark. The friends soon realize there is something in the woods. It is some kind of predator they have never seen, and it will stop at nothing to hunt them all. The friends get chased to a cabin where they find other survivors. The group must band together in order to keep the creature at bay and find a way to escape.

This movie was fun and gory, as most monster movies should be, but it was all painfully predictable. I forced my husband to watch this film with me, and I found myself on multiple occasions looking at him and saying, “I bet this is about to happen,” only to have that exact thing happen two seconds later. To be fair, I watch a lot of horror movies so I can usually predict what is about to happen even with the more unique movies, but this one was one big monster movie stereotype. It made it very simple to determine where the storyline was going to go. Looking back, I believe there was only one scene in the movie that actually surprised me.

Even the characters in the film were stereotypes. You have the nice smart girl, the slutty girl, the jock, the boy next door, the gay friend (a more recent horror movie stereotype), and the jerk that you can’t wait to watch die. The acting was surprisingly good considering it is a monster horror movie. This made up for the lackluster character stereotypes, at least a little bit. There wasn’t a single performance I felt was done poorly, but there wasn’t necessarily a standout performance either. I think a majority of my issues with the characters had to do with the writing and directing, as opposed to the acting.

When it comes to the creature itself, I loved the practical effects. I know this is something I rave about in almost any movie that uses practical effects, but I believe it is a dying art that needs to be appreciated. You can tell the creature is a person with masks and prosthetics, but the only area you can truly tell it is a person is in the arms. The look of the monster was very stylish and cool, which made it enjoyable. The only thing about the creature that really bothered me was that the film never explained what it is.

Just like the use of practical effects, I am also a stickler about plot holes. There are many times during the film where they make a point of saying at least one character had gone to this area for years (and clearly never encountered the monster), and someone obviously lived in the cabin they find before this monster came around. So where did the monster come from? They do make a point of saying the forest area is closed, and at one point one of the characters finds a Marine Corps backpack. This is possibly a hint that the creature is part of some military experiment, but they never bring it up again. I wish they had made it more explicit. Is the creature a military experiment gone wrong, is it an alien, or is it a forest protector awakened because of deforestation? I will never know, and it kills me.

This film is predictable, stereotypical, and has some plot holes that drove me nuts. Despite these shortcomings, the acting, practical effects, and healthy amount of gore still make the film fun to watch. Don’t watch this movie if you are looking for a unique horror movie that surprises you at every turn. This is more the kind of horror movie you watch when you are in the mood for a mindless blood-fest with a monster hunting down some idiot co-eds. Enjoy it for what it is, but don’t expect it to blow your mind.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10