Saturday 30 August 2014

Sacrifice (2010)

Director: Bob Nelson
Stars: Brent Heffron, Shanda Munson, Heather Liebenow, Noel Allison, Idena Thatcher, Jack Pauly and Lester Scott
I'm horrendously overdue with a review of Sacrifice, a Mesa monster movie that I've seen a few times and somehow haven't got round to reviewing yet. To be fair, on my first time through, it didn't have an ending but I've had the DVD forever and that's no excuse. Last time, I watched it as part of a trio of Quetzalcoatl movies: Q: The Winged Serpent, The Lost Treasure of the Grand Canyon and Sacrifice. Yeah, you weren't expecting three of those to exist, right? Well, the first of the trio is by far the best, Larry Cohen's shlocky 1982 picture benefitting from a stellar cast that included Michael Moriarty, Candy Clark, David Carradine and Richard Roundtree. The middle one was made for TV in 2008 and only boasted lesser names such as Michael Shanks and Shannen Doherty. It could be seen as the opposite of this film because it has a really stupid story but surprisingly good effects work, while this microbudget local feature boasts a surprisingly strong story but suffers from the worst monster effects outside of Birdemic: Shock and Terror.

I should highlight here that this film is absolutely not 'from the Palm d'Or winning director of Farewell My Concubine', as the default poster at IMDb suggests; that's a completely unrelated Sacrifice, also made in 2010. Chen Kaige can surely afford much better effects work, so this was made by Bob Nelson, the head honcho of Brick Cave Media, who released it for free online viewing this weekend. Now Bob helped me a lot as I expanded Apocalypse Later from blog into print, by talking me through the publishing process, so I owe him a debt of thanks. However this review, as always, will be completely free of bias. Just because I like someone doesn't mean their movie doesn't suck. What I got out of my first viewing was that this was a learning process for Bob, who I didn't know at the time. Transplanting his love of kaiju flicks and sci-fi B movies into a story appropriate for the American southwest, he tried to get that vision onto the screen. I saw this first in a theatre, so he succeeded, but it really can't hide its microbudget.

There's good and bad obvious immediately. The opening credit sequence, horrible kerning aside, is good, mixing strong music with an imaginative approach. The picture proper kicks off with stock footage, which helps to cement a higher budget in our minds, but the new narration that kicks in is not well done. When we're whisked off to the Satellite Command Room of Task Force STOM, the first original visuals, we notice capable costuming but pixellated greenscreen. Lt Gen George Olendorf is about to activate STOM-1, the new Subterranean Object Mapping satellite designed to locate chemicals used to build weapons of mass destruction up to two miles underground. He explains to invited guests that the technology cost billions, which is believable for the the Apple hardware we see on control room desks. The general, the onlookers and the technicians are rarely shown in the same shot as the camerawork is static. The actors look their parts and have good intonation, though they often pause or falter. Nelson needed more takes.
Even this early, the strongest aspect is the story, which was written by Nelson with contributions from his better half, novelist Sharon Skinner. It's quintessential fifties sci-fi, right down to the running time, a short 67 minutes. Not for the first time, I wonder if it would have played better in black and white. Temporarily ignoring the technical issues, like the blockiness and the siren that drowns out the tech's lines, this would have played very authentically had it been in black and white. I've even seen sci-fi movies from the fifties that had the same stumbling over lines, so flaws like those could have been interpreted merely as quirky authenticities. Certainly the build is very reminiscent: a military man introduces new technology to folk who question the ethics of its use and, on activation, it immediately discovers a threat within the United States. Here, that's a cache of plutonium buried in Arizona, which immediately prompts an investigation and connects the military with the civilian side of the film.

Even on my fourth viewing, I find myself totally on board with the story, even as I cringe at the technical quality behind it. Sound especially continues to be a problem throughout, but the visuals need work too. The camera doesn't move enough and the composition of frame is not always what it could be. Lighting is often inconsistent, manifesting odd issues like when graduate student Atzi Olin and her boyfriend, Dr Kyle Broughnam, walk out of a room and into a corridor, while their clothes change from green to blue. They're the same clothes; it's just that they're lit completely differently. At least the editing is capable, if not special, and the acting does improve. All these actors were new to me when I first saw Sacrifice, but I've seen many since, often improving as they go. Shanda Lee Munson is the exception, as she's better here as Atzi than I've seen in anything since. Brent Heffron, Kat Bingham and Bob Barr have all moved onto better things, notably The Sum of Its Parts, Dust Jacket and The Crate respectively.

It's Heffron's character, Kyle, who the Air Force immediately comes to see. They're looking for help with their 'interesting geological puzzle' from a scientific expert and he's appropriate because he's already in Arizona and he's familiar with what STOM-1 does as he worked on the project. Atzi gets roped in because the plutonium is a couple of miles underneath the small town of Desert Cove, where she grew up. I liked Heather Liebenow as the lead Air Force officer, Col Lene, even though she overdoes the precision of her presentation. As she points out, 'We're the military. We're all about overkill.' Noel Allison, a strong lead in Pattern: Response, seems to be acting out a different role to the one he was given and Heffron seems to be inexplicably channelling Elvis Presley. I haven't a clue how solid Kat Bingham is, because she's not in the film enough and she's mostly lost under the air conditioning of Queens Pizzeria in Mesa, I mean the breakfast place in Desert Cove. She has character, at least, which shows through the obscured dialogue.
The good and the bad continues in Desert Cove, highlighting both the mistakes Nelson made as he shot this film and the things he learned as he progressed. The worst is always on the technical side, with the sound and lighting inconsistent. There's lots of back and forth during the conversations, which creates a distance that doesn't deserve to be there. The first major digital effects show up after half an hour in the form of an obviously overlaid graphic of a huge drill that they'll use to tunnel into the earth. The displays haven't been great and other overlays are similarly poor, but the really awful effects work is reserved for the monster. On the plus side, the helicopters, trucks and military camp sites appear to be real, as Nelson managed to find some solid assistance from all the right people. The quality of lighting is bizarrely better in the dark underground scenes, the sort of shots that even professional films tend to screw up. Dialogue isn't always great but it is always natural and the majority of the cast deliver it well.

Again, it's the story that stands out for special notice. We know that the plutonium isn't being used by an al-Qa'ida group, but as the Air Force drill into a mysterious tunnel leading into the ground, we find that it has ties to the ancient Mayans, from whom Atzi is descended. I like how Nelson blends ancient myth with modern science, because it's a great idea for a monster movie, far more believable than most of what the fifties B movies gifted us. I'll take the accidental resurrection of a creature conjured up by the Mayans to defeat the Spanish invaders over trans-dimensional turkey monsters from outer space any day, let alone invisible aliens, gorillas wearing diving helmets or giant turd monsters that creep slower than the victims they somehow catch. It also gives the script a solid ending, a particularly human one which renders the otherwise generic title rather appropriate. Sure, I can find issues without trying too hard, but it's a strong script that plays better than many of the sci-fi B movies that inspired it.

Of course, it's impossible to look past the bad effects work. The Lost Treasure of the Grand Canyon would have been much better had it stolen the script to Sacrifice, which in turn would have been much better if Emily Albee, who did the creature animation for the bigger budget movie, had done the same here. She's local-ish, knows exactly what she's doing and can work wonders on a low budget. Just watch Kaze, Ghost Warrior to see what I'm talking about, which was entirely created on her home computer. Nothing in this film compares to that; the monster is better than those in Birdemic: Shock and Terror, but on occasions not by much. Without an expert to create a believable monster, Nelson would have done better with a man in a rubber suit. The analogue approach would have fit the tone of the movie too, which should have played out in black and white. He has moved on to better work, especially his new short, The Sum of Its Parts, written by J A Giunta and directed by Johnny Skinner. This was his learning curve: he did some things right and a lot wrong, but he learned from all of it.

Sacrifice can be viewed for free on YouTube this holiday weekend.

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