Sunday 5 September 2010

El Monstro del Mar! (2010)

Director: Stuart Simpson
Stars: Nelli Scarlet, Kyrie Capri, Karli Madden, Kate Watts and Norman Yemm
This film was an official selection at the 6th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.

The DVD case made El Monstro del Mar! seem like a Tarantino movie but it only took a few minutes to realise that the initial influence is Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! We're treated to the sight of three delightfully tough looking young ladies, all tattoos, muscles and menace, waiting at the side of an Australian back road with their broken down car. Two are dark haired and the blonde one dances on the bonnet. One is built like an amazon, the other two a little slighter. It couldn't be more obvious if Stuart Simpson had wanted it, unless he chose to avoid camera movement and imply it instead with cuts. He's emphatically the man behind this film, as producer, director, writer, editor and cinematographer, though he doesn't act. The troubled trio are Blondie, Snowball and Beretta, and we discover their true colours when Dave and Jim arrive to help them out. They slice the throats of their would be saviours and the film turns from black and white to colour.

Before they die Dave and Jim raise the idea of going swimming in a secret waterhole that only the locals know about. Sure enough the girls go swimming, but in the ocean when they run out of road. Two of them strip down to their underwear and dive in but old Joseph in his wheelchair rolls out from next door to warn them. He doesn't offer details. 'You just don't go in there, that's all.' When they inevitably ignore him entirely, he resorts to grumbles. 'Damn whores,' he mutters. 'They don't know what the hell they're getting into.' They don't pay attention, of course, and his wholesome granddaughter Hannah isn't quite sure how serious everything is either. Her parents drowned in the ocean and she's always been told to keep away from the water out of respect for the dead. Then again she's kept away from alcohol too, but one night with the terrible trio sees her drunk and dancing in the moonlight. Beretta sets her up to reclaim her life by embracing the sea.

The film is technically solid and does all the right things, especially visually. These characters look great, the actors not just cast for their skills but very much for their appearance too. The lead trio are outlandish but believable, like roller derby girls with their tattoos, foul mouths and dangerous demeanour, but somehow they're still human, however extreme their drug flashbacks get. They've done some seriously bad things but they remain our heroes nonetheless. The impression is that actors Karli Madden, Kate Watts and Nelli Scarlet had awesome fun being bad bad bitches but are probably some of the nicest people in the world if you met them in real life. Kyrie Capri is excellent as Hannah, the sort of 17 year old granddaughter anyone would want to have, squeaky clean but not painfully so. Yet behind the caring, she has rebellious inner demons that don't take too much prompting to surface. All four are excellent and it's refreshing to have four female leads.
The fifth lead is Joseph, Hannah's grandfather, who is the only one who knows what's really out there and what really happened to turn the town fifteen years ago into a ghost of its former self. Norman Yemm plays a believably worried old man with the weight of the past on his shoulders and the weight of the future too, especially as he doesn't have the agility to do anything about it any more. He nails the part, stubborn enough to remain in his home after massive tragedy but not able enough to do more than warn and complain when the monster comes back. And yes, there's a monster, called Monstro. It doesn't take a lot of Spanish to translate this film's title, not that it's technically accurate. Fortunately writer/director Stuart Simpson knows how monster movies work and so he builds his film slowly but surely without ever giving in to the urge to reveal the monster too soon. We never see the whole thing but we see more and more as the film runs on.

There are flaws on the technical side. At points the soundtrack, whether natural or musical, often drowns out the dialogue, which becomes a little hard to catch. The pace of the film builds solidly, as the real story starts to unfold, but a few scenes seem a little slow at points. Perhaps if the sound was more consistent, the pace wouldn't flag at those points. These are minor concerns, though, in the grand scheme of things, and I thoroughly enjoyed this trip down memory lane in the hands of a filmmaker who obviously has a love of film. I don't want to conjure up some hokey portmanteau title to describe the picture, like Faster, Tentacles! Kill! Kill!, Tremors Beach Party or even Beauties and the Beast, but Simpson obviously wanted to create a portmanteau of his own. It begins as a Russ Meyer-esque homage to strong women but turns into a monster movie. There's no sex or nudity but there's violence that begins explicitly only to disappear as Simpson restrains himself.
This is Simpson's third film, after a feature called The Demons Among Us (that has been described as The Evil Dead co-directed by David Lynch) and a short called Context. Nick Kocsis has been with him all along as a special makeup effects artist and he deserves special mention here for his work on the creature design without any recourse to CGI. There are reference points to other monsters, most notably to the graboids in Tremors and in the finale to Cthulhu himself, but it ends up its own creature and refreshingly so. Both men are obviously talents to watch and I look forward to their careers growing, especially as they get inevitably bigger budgets to work with. One pointer to the budget is the prominent use of public domain music, which runs a cool curve from psychobilly to Pinetop Perkins. I'm not sure how much money they had to play with here but I get the feeling that they didn't have much and they did a lot with what they had, paying notable attention to detail.

The actors are mostly new, all four of the leading ladies making their feature debuts in this film. Three of them are models: Kyrie Capri, Kate Watts and Nelli Scarlet, who is also a photographer as well as being the frontwoman for an Aussie punk rock band called The Scarlets. Only Karli Madden came out of nowhere, hired through an internet casting call. All four obviously have so much fun working that their performances become contagious. For a change, most of the men in the film are only there to be victims, even filmmaker Richard Wolstencroft who gets a little fun as a fisherman named Dick before he's taken. He has an interesting filmography, including titles like Extremism Breaks My Balls and Lesbo-A-Go-Go, but then he's the founder of the Melbourne Underground Film Festival (MUFF), so that fits. He introduced Simpson to Norman Yemm, by far the most experienced member of the cast and who, as Joseph, plays the only male character with any real substance.

For a film without a lot of story, this plays very well indeed, mostly because it has its heart very much in the right place and does things old school. It may be the first monster movie with all female protagonists, unless you want to count something like The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent, which technically had a few men to counter Roger Corman's feminist leanings and play to macho stereotypes. It may be a scant framework but the characters develop and the inevitable sequel could actually be a worthy successor, with plenty of potential to build the story instead of just retreading existing ground. For a film that pays enough attention to ensure that beheaded corpses continue to spurt blood and shotguns always need to be reloaded, that bodes well for a sequel. I hope El Monstro del Mar! succeeds sufficiently on the festival circuit to warrant the financing needed to put that into place.

1 comment:

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Update: apparently the slight sound issues have been fixed and I'd love to validate that if the folks behind the film wanted to send me a copy... : )