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Thursday, 17 May 2012

Monster Brawl (2011)

Director: Jesse T Cook
Stars: Dave Foley, Art Hindle, Jimmy Hart, Robert Maillet, Herb Dean, Kevin Nash, Lance Henriksen and Jason Brown
This film was an official selection at the 8th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
I'll 'fess up, I wanted to see Monster Brawl after seeing the trailer. I even told people I wanted to see it. I pointed them to the trailer online. I showed them when it was playing at the International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival and suggested they give it a shot. Boy, did I end up looking like a prize idiot. Sure, it looked stupid, but it looked stupid in a glorious way, like the ultimate fan film. Watching the trailer afresh, after having seen the entire film, I still want to watch the movie that it generated in my head. Whatever that movie is, it isn't this one. You seriously couldn't pay me to sit through Monster Brawl again. I can't remember when I last felt more conscious of just how long ninety minutes can be, when my will to remain in a theatre seat was so threatened, or when I was more strongly aware that there were people watching this movie because I'd irresponsibly suggested it. I formulated an exit strategy that would allow me to leave without being lynched.

What's so sad is that it should have been awesome: a riotous, thrill-a-minute, horror comedy set up as a wrestling pay-per-view. C'mon, who wouldn't want to watch a pay-per-view event where eight iconic monsters battle it out in a cursed graveyard? I shouldn't even have to add that there are real wrestlers on board, including Kevin 'Diesel' Nash and Robert 'Kurrgan' Maillet, two of the biggest in the business, and they're far from the only names who signed up. To introduce the match ups is the legendary Mouth of the South, Jimmy Hart, with his trademark megaphone and a couple of lovely ring girls, both of whom have appeared on Naked News. The referee is Herb Dean, in real life one of the most respected referees in MMA. There's comedian Dave Foley to call the play by play, and narrating both film and trailer is the ever-reliable Lance Henriksen. It stuns me, documenting that talent here, that it could be wasted so absolutely.

And yes, it really is that bad. The entire picture is almost nothing more than a consistent set of missed opportunities, an incessant barrage of missteps and lost directions, a disappointment in almost every way. It's hard to explain how the filmmakers could have gone more wrong, but in the interests of journalistic integrity, I'll try to explain the few things they got right. For a while, Jimmy Hart's eyes steal the show. He always did know just how to make himself noticed and he manages it pretty well here, regardless how effectively his ring girls flex and pose by his sides. The graphics are well constructed, from the opening credits to the rundowns of stats on each of the monsters via a host of intros, segues, comparisons, the works. The sound effects are solid and some of the gore effects are pretty good too, though those are less consistent. The framing shots are capable. Best of all are Lance Henriksen's Mortal Kombat style voiceovers.

So it's certainly not all bad, but to compare those measly positive aspects to the overwhelming negative ones in the metaphor of the film, they'd be destroyed before they even made it to the Hillside Necropolis ring. In fact, if you exclude Henriksen's contribution, a genuine pleasure that could only be enhanced by the copious consumption of alcohol, thus suggesting that this entire movie should be viewed as a drinking game, all those plus points would seriously be outweighed by a single flaw: that the film is resoundingly, cavernously, echoingly empty. It's Monster Crawl. I have no doubt that its quality would double by simply adding a crowd. Real wrestlers play their audience far more than they ever spend performing wrestling moves in the ring. How can they do that when there's no crowd? The fan film feel of the trailer does extend to the movie, but if writer/director Jesse T Cook is a fan, why in the Hulkster's name did he not rope in 500 extras?

In the emptiness that this non-existent crowd constantly highlights, Dave Foley is tasked with keeping our interest as commentator Buzz Chambers. Even though he's partnered with former champion, Sasquatch Sid Tucker, played by movie veteran Art Hindle, he fails miserably to do anything except make us cringe. While he ably provides us with far more detail than we ever care to know about the fighters and his professional banter is peppered with the expected bad puns, names of specialty moves and backstage theatrics, he's not a highlight. His lines are slow, his timing is off and we quickly realise that all he's really doing is slowing the whole thing down, presumably because $200,000 Canadian only buys so much in the way of monster costumes and effects. At the end of the day, there's not a heck of a lot of brawling in this monster brawl. We're in Swamp Gut's swamp longer than we are the ring. At least it's imaginative and funny there.
It feels like forever before we get there for the first match. We're stuck with explanations of the event's structure that go on forever, accompanied by music that doesn't remotely fit. Who cares that there are four undead characters and four legendary monsters, split up by category and by weight? We just want to see them in the squared circle, delivering some of the testosterone that the trailer promised. When Cyclops faced off against Witch Bitch, I realised just how much better this would have been in claymation like Celebrity Deathmatch. The first contest is nothing but a warm up, setting the stage for the rest with a few moves, a few cheats and a finisher. Only when Lady Vampire takes on the Mummy in the second match do we really get any actual wrestling, courtesy of real wrestlers Kelly Couture and R J Skinner. Unfortunately it's over too soon and we don't get a lot more later on, just more delaying tactics to hide that the budget was all gone.

Well, at least we're going to get Kevin Nash against Robert Maillet, right? I mean, it's a size thing. A former WWF wrestler, Maillet is 6' 11" tall and so is a great choice for the role of Frankenstein. Unfortunately in this take on Jack Pierce's iconic make up, he looks rather like Martin Landau as Frankenstein's monster, which does diffuse his impact somewhat. Nash, a world champion both in WWF and WCW, is only 6' 10", meaning that he actually has to look up at Maillet, something he can't be too used to doing. How can this matchup not happen? Well, I won't spoil it, but I'll point out that the filmmakers do. It's nothing but promise, just as all the other hints are nothing but promise, like the missing necrophiliac serial kiler, the severe storm heading in towards Lake Michigan and Herb Dean's blood on the cursed necropolis soil. Cook's writing sets us up for so much that either never arrives at all or shows up in such a way that we simply don't care any more.

With so much wrong, it's hard to really focus in on the root of it all. Surely Cook has to be the prime culprit, as writer, producer and director, but then it's his imagination that set the whole thing up and really it's only the imagination that can leave the Hillside Necropolis with its head held high. Would this have been the riot it could have been if he came up with all the gimmicks but let someone else direct or write the script ? I don't know. I'm sure it would have been a darn sight better if someone had reallocated some of the effects budget into filling up the movie with extras. I don't care how cool the cemetery set looks like, I want to see it full of fans holding up hand written signs for a swooping camera to pick up, screaming their lungs out as each of the monsters walks down to the ring and serving as props for them to play off. It looks really sucky when wrestlers play off invisible crowds, trust me. More wrestling wouldn't have hurt either.

A crowd would have brought a sense of life to the picture. It would have removed the need for a soundtrack, or at least most of the need. Todor Kobakov's score is unfairly tasked with keeping us awake and it can't do it. Without anything to attach to, it feels like he was told to compose a score without seeing the film it needed to accompany. Screaming fans would have stopped the film feeling like it was playing out in slow motion or I'd been ruthied with speed on the way into the theatre. Having the lead commentator be bored and depressed was never a good idea. He should have been the opposite: hopped up and hyper. Unfortunately we don't get any of that, which leaves us wondering if the approach taken would have been better if the film would have been crushed down to half an hour. My thinking is that it shouldn't really have been a movie at all, but rather a recurring skit on Robot Chicken. That would be legendary.

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