Thursday, January 22, 2009

Sundance 2009: Creep Shows

Last year, I suggested that considering Sundance's reputation as a place for earnest dramas and quirky comedies, it's actually a pretty good place to see scary movies. And I'm kind of wondering what the hell I was thinking.

Maybe it was the extraordinarily fond memories I have of The Blair Witch Project talking (if one can describe a memory of walking out of a midnight screening, getting a fallen branch caught on my pant leg, and nearly pissing myself in fright as "fond"). But despite my enthusiasm for seeing the horror films and psychological/supernatural thrillers every year, they've let me down lately. This year, Grace looked like a promising concept: A woman whose baby dies in utero during a car accident gives birth to something that may be a zombie. I mean, how bad can a zombie-baby movie be?

Not bad, as it turns out, but certainly not particularly good, either. Writer/director Paul Solet realizes he's got something as ridiculous as it is creepy on his hands, and he definitely has fun with some of the more over-the-top moments (think vampiric breast-feeding). He also seems to be tweaking vegans and new-agers, but does so in such a haphazzard way that it's not clear what kind of point, if any, he's trying to make on the subject. While the final 15 minutes turn into a gory-hilarious set piece, it's hard to shake the feeling that the whole thing was one big shaggy-dog set up for the final punch line. Which, admittedly, is pretty freaking funny.

Maybe Grace also looks better in comparison to its Midnight category-mate The Killing Room. The set-up is one of those Saw-like premises that traps strangers together in some bizarre experiment, the point of which is not entirely clear to them. In this version, however, we're also getting the point of view of the hands pulling the strings, as a veteran military scientist (Peter Stormare) breaks in a new recruit (Big Love's Chloe Sevigny).

And good for screenwriters Gus Krieger and Ann Peacock for shaking up the idea -- except that it doesn't actually work. The story ends up spending a lot of time on whether or not Sevigny's character will reject the moral implications of the mysterious experiment, but doesn't provide nearly enough insight into that character. So we're left to watch the frightened lab rats -- including Timothy Hutton and Nick Cannon -- try to figure out the point of it all. The scariest thing is that the big reveal inspires something more like a shrug than a shudder. (Scott Renshaw)

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