Thursday 16 September 2010

The Graves (2009)

Director: Brian Pulido
Stars: Clare Grant, Jillian Murray, Bill Moseley, Amanda Wyss, Shane Stevens, D Randall Blythe, Patti Tindall and Tony Todd

Brian Pulido's first feature, made five years after his horror short, There's Something Out There, and released to DVD as one of After Dark HorrorFest 4's 8 Films to Die For, seems to have got a raw deal from the fans. I was disheartened to see so many negative reviews on IMDb, especially as I'd already seen the film and enjoyed it. Admittedly, as it's a local Arizona movie, I was lucky enough to be at the premiere with many of the cast and crew present, so the enthusiasm and energy was running high as people got to see themselves on screen, some for the first time. A more sober viewing on DVD makes the holes far more apparent but the film still deserves better treatment, the opening five minutes excepted. While Pulido rocks, as a filmmaker and a person, this is outrageous self promotion: here's Atomic Comics, with racks of his comics, there's Halo Piercing, over yonder Brian and his lovely wife Francisca introducing Calabrese at the Sets.

Officially these scenes are there to provide background material for the leading ladies, plural as we get two for the price of one: the Graves sisters from Scottsdale, Megan and Abby, played by Clare Grant and Jillian Murray respectively. Megan is the life of the party, tough, outgoing and always up for an adventure, which is why she's heading across the country to New York City to start a new job. Abby is the skittish one who's going to be lost without her elder sister to keep the light in her life, so they're celebrating their last night together by hanging out at the sort of places nerdy horror fans dream lovely young ladies like them hang out at. Next day they head off into the Arizona desert for a final hurrah by visiting the world's largest thermometer, between Barstow and Las Vegas, but they get lost, as heroines in horror movies tend to do, and instead find themselves in the town of Unity (population 239) which boasts the Skull City Mine.

Everything here is old school, right down to the conveniently creepy names: the lead characters are the Graves, the central location is the Skull City Mine and they find out about it at Screamers Diner. Admittedly Screamers is a real place and the Skull City Mine is really the Historic Vulture Gold Mine in Wickenburg so perhaps it's inevitability, but the whole thing still plays out like a 1989 movie rather than a 2009 movie. That's refreshing in many ways but like so many 1989 movies it leaves us wanting at the end. The only modern touches are the scenes seen through Abby's video camera and the fact that it's structured in three sections, each defined by the boss who gets killed at the end of it, just like levels in a video game. Fortunately the former is used sparingly, though Adam Goldfine's handheld camerawork was better in There's Something Out There than here. The latter are self contained but don't sit too well with each other.
The first section is the best, once those gratuitous first five minutes are over, because the story unfolds nicely and there's so much happening behind it. Grant and Murray are engaging leads, believably close though believably different, and they're great on the eyes. No, I don't buy into them being beautiful nerds, but they're engaging nonetheless and Grant especially succeeds in finding that elusive level of sassiness that doesn't become frickin' annoying. She's a delightful counterpoint to the downhome feel at Screamers Diner, at least until Rev Abraham Stockton walks in with Becka Crane and the atmosphere turns sinister. Becka is another peach of a part for Patti Tindall though unfortunately not a very big one. Big is an adjective better reserved for Rev Stockton, given that he's played by 6'5" Tony Todd. All Tindall's good scenes are early on and she does wonders with them, but they're quickly over; all Todd's come much later.

It's the waitress at Screamers who sends them to the Skull City Mine, irresistible not just because it's a gold mine but because it's both abandoned and haunted and because it has a cheesy loop broadcast over the PA which is joyously kitsch. The place is creepy in a safe, preserved kind of way, closer to The Goonies than to what Rob Zombie might do with it. It's run by Mama, with her wild hair and yellow teeth, and there's a real live working blacksmith called Jonah Lee Atwood who does demonstrations every hour. We saw before the credits what he does in between times but the Graves girls don't until they see him out of a window hacking to death 'one of the cute guys from the diner' (read: one of the producers). Shane Stevens may not be the greatest actor in the world but he doesn't need to be and he does everything required of him. 'I don't take no pleasure in this and that's the honest truth,' says Jonah. That's why he doesn't last too long.
The death itself brings a freaky rush of sound effects and Megan turns the body over to show us hollowed out eyes and greyed skin. More follow, as we discover why the Ronalds Brothers are more renowned as producers than actors. Strange things are afoot at the Skull City Mine and they soon get stranger still, as Bill Moseley replaces Stevens for the second section. Moseley is the other big name in this film, an ever memorable screen nutjob. He's a riot as Jonah's brother Caleb, better known as Cookie, bringing his own pig snout along for fun. It takes a special actor to play a role like this, with no inherent depth but every opportunity to turn into a memorable characterisation. Most actors would screw it up, but Moseley steals the film. He lets the Graves girls run, then traipses along after them, singing Baby Please Don't Go and snorting at them. As much fun as Clare Grant has been thus far, she fades in comparison. He knows it too.

Part of the problem may be that Brian Pulido is so good at writing female characters that grow over time and through experience to find the strength that they didn't know they had. Here that means Abby, because he crafts her way out from her sister's shadow well. What he's less good at is keeping us interested in female characters that were strong to begin with, and Megan, the focus early on, gradually fades in interest from here on out. The rest of the problem is that there is absolutely nobody to follow Moseley, not even Tony Todd. I didn't like him here as much as I've liked him elsewhere, not just in Candyman but other, very different films like The Man from Earth. He bounces around like a fundamentalist preacher should, while Randy Blythe, the lead singer of Lamb of God, is merely annoying as his deacon, like a goth version of Iggy Pop. These scenes are too empty though as if all the momentum was lost after the great nose biting scene.

There's much to enjoy here, far more than you'd expect reading those IMDb reviews. There's a real joie de vivre in the first section that continues into the second and fans of old school horror aren't going to be disappointed. The characters and settings are memorable and the portrayals range from decent to joyous. Moseley is great fun to watch, with a host of great lines that often feel improvised and fresh. It's as the second section winds down and the third takes over that the film starts to fall apart at the seams. Blythe is annoying, Tindall is wasted, the Graves girls don't get much to do and everything starts to become predictable and convenient. Yet while the explanations may not really satisfy, there are still plenty of interesting shots to pay attention to. Perhaps it's just easier to remember the downward slope than to remember how high it began and how it still doesn't really descend to the depths that so many lesser horror films do.

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