Sunday 17 October 2010

Ashes (2010)

Director: Elias Matar
Star: Brian Krause
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.
A young Spanish boy called Jesus touches a stranded jellyfish on a beach and ends up in hospital. Fortunately when he's dropped anonymously inside the door, Dr Andrew Stanton is right there to take a look. He appears to be a pretty good doctor: he's played by Brian Krause from Charmed and he's dedicated enough to his work that he doesn't get home until long after his wife and daughter have gone to sleep. Even then his mind won't let him join them so he just grabs a coffee and goes back to work. He might as well sleep at the hospital too. It isn't just patients though; he's working on a cure for AIDS and apparently doing pretty well at it, enough so that a seemingly very able and very realistic colleague mentions a Nobel Prize in his future. His mistake is to grant young Jesus a fighting chance. 'It's not your fault,' he tells this minor, whose family has not yet been identified, as he injects him with an experimental AIDS vaccine to boost his immune system.

We know something is wrong when Jesus goes into almost immediate shock. We know something is really wrong when he bites Dr Stanton, hard enough to break the skin through his lab coat. Never mind that there's a limited supply of vaccine that's earmarked for Steven Dupree, his sole test subject, so he has to start skipping treatments, there's just no way this isn't going to come back to bite him later, pun well and truly intended. It fades into the background for a little while first though, so we can watch some normal stuff, like Andrew and Nicole Stanton dealing with a marriage that isn't being nurtured. Even their daughter Islay asks him if her mother is a trophy wife as he rarely spends time at home and they never talk about the same things. She's a sharp cookie but there are plenty of sharp cookies around Dr Stanton. None of them help though, as Jesus dies that night and he simultaneously starts seeing things. Here's where it all begins.
As a story this is a slow burner. There's a great deal of attention given to setup and background, much of which seems to have nothing to do with anything, but it gradually starts to focus. We realise that it's all tightening in like a spiral until Stanton is about to be forced into making a real bitch of a choice: die or infect yourself with AIDS. AIDS would be the cure. It's such a peach that I expected it to be the spark to the story by Edward E Romer and director Elias Matar but it's promptly ignored, which is rather surprising and the only reason I point it out. In fact compared to this choice, all the little subplots about corrupt hospital officialdom and conspiracy theories about AIDS really don't amount to anything. What matters is that this is a zombie movie that ignores the brain munching and concentrates on the origin story, building slowly but surely with brutal honesty and a willingness to make tough decisions of the sort that zombie movies never make.

It's refreshing to see a zombie movie that ends with the apocalypse and doesn't rely on special effects, the closest we get to that here being sharp editing and a tendency to play with the focus. Mostly it's told through story and good acting. Brian Krause is decent as the driven doctor but his sidekicks are even better: Julia Parker as his long suffering nurse, Hana, and Kadeem Hardison as his long suffering lab assistant, Matthew. I can't really complain about a script that manages to mention both Cthulhu and the Darwin Awards, not to mention a 'post apocalyptic erector set', but as good as some of it was, there was also some wasted opportunity. For most of the second half of the picture I was loving how much of it was right, but when it finished I still had questions, less about why they did it that way and more about why they didn't elaborate on some of the more twisted parts. I know that the choice they didn't follow through on is what will stick with me most.

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