Written by: Thommy Hutson, Catherine Trillo
Directed by: Brett Simmons
Starring: Joey Lauren Adams, Elizabeth Gillies, and Keke Palmer
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Fear lives in the dark.
Animal is an antidote for the notion that horror films need be reflexively self-aware when confronting brazen familiarity. Itís a cabin-in-the-woods movie that seeks to reclaim the premise from the domain of smart-asses and return it to a more natural habitat that breeds dopey victims and gore instead of clever commentary. Note that this isnít an inherent criticism but merely an observation: sometimes, you really just want to watch a monster eat dummies in the woods. Animal delivers this with ruthless competence.
How insistent is Animal on adhering to the basics? Letís just say itís essentially Pumpkinhead without a backstory. Or, hell, any story. Five friends head off into the woods. One discovers a curiously half-buried Army knapsack before a razor-toothed monster emerges from the woods and rips one of them to shreds. The rest flee to a conveniently placed cabin, where they join another group of fellow survivors and look to fortify the ramshackle place against the creatureís further attacks.
Obviously, Animal is remarkably lean, with its group dynamics effectively reducing everyone to the sum of their relationships with each other. This Guy is That Girlís boyfriend, while That Other Guy is That Girlís brother. The Single Guy functions as a fifth wheel, though it is worth noting that heís an uncloseted gay man, which feels like progress. Also noteworthy is how this group isnít completely unbearable: with so many movies taking the diametrically opposite approach from The Cabin in the Woods by populating themselves with insufferably broad caricatures and lame, hyper-ironic humor, itís refreshing to see one that resists this temptation by dialing things back. Itís a dumb creature feature that doesnít know itís a dumb creature feature because itís at least trying to be a good, dumb creature feature. Having characters and actors that donít actively court disdain goes a long way in accomplishing that, and co-leads Elizabeth Gilles and Keke Palmer are solid anchors in underwritten roles.
The rest of director Brett Simmonsís efforts are hit-and-miss, with the decision to craft a practical monster representing a much-needed hit. However, you quite literally miss this creature thanks to some low-lit, shaky camerawork that renders the proceedings a bit nauseating and obscure. Such an approach doesnít even seem to be in the service of concealing the monster since Simmons provides a decent, early glimpse of it before reducing it to a jigsaw puzzle with jagged editing and hand-held photography. What we see of it is a nice throwback to the man-in-suit era, its rubber practicality a welcome sight for eyes that have been too often trained on unsightly digital monstrosities. The Gary Tunnicliffe designówhich crossbreeds Pumpkinhead with the creature from Feastóisnít all that distinctive, but it hardly deserves being so obscured alongside the slick gore effects. Nobody enters a funhouse with the intention of wearing a blindfold, after all.
When the creature isnít terrorizing the cast, theyíre predictably terrorizing each other. Joey Lauren Adams and on-screen husband Thorsten Kaye represent the voice of reason among the adult set, while Douglas (Amaury Nolasco) is the hot-tempered dissenter who sees his fellow survivors as a practical means of escape. Heís an agitator who pushes the group into some bad decisions and serves as the Real Villain, as these sorts often do. An especially nasty variation on this familiar theme, Nolasco at least provides one of the few startling moments during a surprising turn of events that left me momentarily jolted. In a film where gore is plentiful (a giant monster tearing victims to shreds will do that), itís surprising that it manages a genuine shock, even if that moment isn't given a chance to linger (a giant monster tends to cause that, too).
Less surprising is that there are precious few other surprises, save perhaps for Drew Barrymoreís name popping up in the credits. Unless you count the general competence of Animal, of course: what does it say about this sub-genre that a film can just take itself seriously and deliver decent practical effects and be hailed as somewhat refreshing? It certainly says more about the situation than it does about Animal itself, a film thatís as purposely lean and generic as its title suggests. It moves, it feeds, and it leaves the door open for a sequel.
If a follow-up happens, one would assume itíll follow in this filmís footsteps by airing on Chiller. Between Animal and Beneath, the station has become something of a safe haven for creature features, and Scream Factory has done a fine job in further preserving them on home video. Arriving on Blu-ray with a solid presentation (its transfer is generally fine but canít shake the flat, digital HD aesthetic of many Chiller productions), it's supplemented by an audio commentary from Simmons, a behind-the-scenes featurette, two trailers, and reversible cover art.
While Animal doesn't bear the torch for the resurgence of this genre, it at least reveals a path away from the hyper-ironic dregs of SyFy originals. For that, I'll even let its undeserved swiping of John Carpenter's signature credits slide. Rent it!
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