2017’s Fantasia Film Festival runs July 13th through August 2nd.
A man stumbles through the night while a woman decked head to toe in armor follows behind. She’s not alone though — she has a zombified friend on a leash with her, and the night comes to a close as she sicks her “pet” on the terrified man. The next morning sees teenage Jason (Matthew Nelson-Mahood) meeting up with his friend Colin’s (Gabriel LaBelle) family for a weekend trip to a cabin in the woods. They’re having fun, but there’s friction too — Jason not-so secretly likes Colin’s sister, Summer (Lizzie Boys), and the siblings aren’t too keen on their dad’s (Donavon Stinson) new girlfriend, Lisa (Valerie Tian).
Bored of the cabin’s austerity within minutes, the kids head out for a hike and find themselves sneaking around a neighbor’s (Lauren Holly) remote homestead. A quick peek in her window offers up a nightmare sight, and soon the kids are on the run.
Some films build to greatness while others start strong and fizzle out. Unfortunately, the new Canadian horror/comedy, Dead Shack, falls in the latter pile. The character dynamic is a tenuous mix of laughs and thrills early on, but as the minutes tick by and the action grows crueler the film struggles to keep viewers laughing. It keeps trying with diminishing returns and instead makes its characters less and less likable.
Director/co-writer Peter Ricq builds an engaging-enough setup with its unlikely killer — she at one point tells a potential victim who’s threatened to call the cops that “They’ll never suspect me. They’re all sexist.” — and her even stranger modus operandi, but the ball is dropped on the protagonist side of things. Narrative threads involving friendship, teen romance, and commentary on economic woes are scuttled by the realization that these people are all assholes.
Everyone’s mean to each other or selfish in their actions, and ongoing attempts at comedy in the face of tragedy leave audiences with neither laughs nor empathy. The not-so occasional poor decision can be forgiven, but the constant beratement and mistreatment grows tiresome, nowhere more so than with everyone’s attitude towards Lisa. It’s bad enough she’s a stereotypical Asian stepmom-to-be after nothing but money and status, but she’s treated as a punchline long past the point of “funny.” To that end, all three female characters catch the brunt of the film’s verbal mistreatment giving the impression the filmmakers never evolved beyond their pre-teen years.
It’s a shame the script betrays their characters as the cast is pretty solid throughout. Stinson has the Canadian Jake Johnson shtick down perfectly — seriously, swap him in for an episode of New Girl, and half the country won’t even notice — and all three of the youths show some comedic chops early on before things get hairy. Holly and Tian are somewhat stuck in one-note roles, but they do fine work with them.
The film does manage some fun set-pieces — the expected suiting up montage is notably silly — and delivers a few worthwhile gore gags, but ultimately Dead Shack limps across the finish line as a half-baked horror/comedy. Early potential and promise give way to a careless and unfunny sense of humor. Laughs and horrible happenings can go hand in hand, but it’s a delicate balance that they find impossible to maintain.
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