The best film hitting theaters this weekend, whether in wide or limited release, is the ridiculously funny faux-documentary from New Zealand, What We Do in the Shadows. We’ve already covered it here at FSR (see Chris Campbell’s spot-on review here) so I’m not including it below, but trust us – if it’s playing in your area you should gather up your friends and family and go see it. You will laugh. A lot.
Instead, I’m looking at three smaller films opening on Friday. All of them are getting limited theatrical runs along with VOD releases, but that’s where their similarities end. One’s a Hugh Grant-led romantic comedy that somehow traveled through time from the ’90s, one’s a puritanical slasher set in a 24/7 subscription-based porn house and one’s a zombie flick from down under.
Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead
Barry (Jay Gallagher) goes to bed a happily married man with a lovely wife and precocious daughter, but he’s woken in the middle of the night to a world that’s no longer so pleasant. Something in the air is affecting the majority of the population in a very specific way – they’re turning into ravenous, murderous zombie-like creatures interested only in tearing you limb from limb. A call from his sister, Brooke (Bianca Bradey), reveals that she somehow avoided the airborne plague, but his wife and daughter aren’t as lucky. Alone, furious at the world and unaware that Brooke has been abducted by a mad scientist and his military stooges, Barry heads out into this bloody new world in search of his sister and some answers.
There are surface elements in Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead that feel familiar – the “monsters” have a distinct 28 Days Later-vibe to them, the energetic camerawork echoes Dead Alive-era Peter Jackson – and you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking movies about the zombie apocalypse have passed their saturation point, but creativity, talent and personality go a long way towards making the mundane feel fresh and exciting. This Australian import is proof of that.
Director Kiah Roache-Turner and his co-writer/brother Tristan Roache-Turner have crafted a low-budget, grue-filled gem that moves with the power and speed of a souped-up muscle car. The automobile vibe continues as our hero teams up with another survivor, the goofy and ill-fitted for the apocalypse Benny (Leon Burchill), to turn a normal car into a Road Warrior-worthy assault vehicle that actually runs on the infected. Seriously.
Brooke meanwhile is the focus of some fresh “zombie” mythology that infuses the tale with science and psychic phenomena. The leads give solid performances, but Bradey is a real stand-out with an aggressively physical turn that balances her femininity and ass-kickery as well as the film itself balances horror, action and dark comedy – which is to say very well indeed. Moments of blackly comic humor are sprinkled throughout, but they never interfere with the emotion of losing a loved one or the bloody money shots of someone getting their head blown off.
The film does start wobbly though thanks to an unnecessary “in medias res” opening and an attempt at appearing stylish and cool right out of the gate. It’s meant as a tease of what’s to come before flashing back to show us what led up to Barry dressing in home-made armor and mowing down a dozen wild-eyed, frothing at the mouth creepers, but it’s not nearly a dramatic-enough point to make us eager to reach it again. Luckily while the movie starts rough it quickly finds its footing and begins kicking ass.
The film moves us back and forth between Barry and Brooke’s storylines until the two come head to head, and the journey never drags along the way. There’s a relentless energy here – in the story, characters and camerawork – and it makes for a wildly enjoyable ride for fans of old-school Jackson, Raimi and the like – which I guess makes me a fan of new-school Roache-Turner?
Keith Michaels (Hugh Grant) won an Oscar for his first screenplay, a critically acclaimed and immensely popular film called Paradise Misplaced, but years later he finds himself divorced and in a rut of endless pitch meetings and a lack of offers. His agent suggests a sabbatical away from Hollywood to the only place currently willing to pay for his services – a university on the East Coast wants him to teach a screenwriting class – and with no one else beating a path to his door, not to mention a large chip on his shoulder having to lower himself to the level of the masses, Keith reluctantly says yes.
And wouldn’t you know it? Outside of the Hollywood bubble and against the backdrop of vague writing lessons – including that talent can’t be taught – Keith learns that, gosh darnit, it might not be too late to do some revisions on his own life.
Writer/director Marc Lawrence continues his ongoing collaboration with Grant and delivers a comedy that fits somewhere behind Two Weeks Notice and well ahead of Did You Hear About the Morgans? (Sorry Music and Lyrics, I never got around to seeing you.) The framework is visible from the very first minutes as Keith crosses paths with a fawning student with daddy issues, a more age-appropriate student/love interest (Marisa Tomei) and a stuffy fellow teacher (Allison Janney). We know where each of these storylines will lead, but at least we’re on this predictable ride with an immensely talented cast (also including JK Simmons and Chris Elliott).
Grant is the core of it all though, and say what you will about his assembly line project choices the man plays a witty and charming cad better than anyone else alive. You never question why ladies young and old fall for his routine, and even as the script moves through its routine paces around him he remains immensely watchable.
He’s fighting a mostly losing battle though against Lawrence’s rote script and character work, and while Grant ultimately makes the film an endurable experience he can’t stop it from being a forgettable one. Keith teaches his class to look for the script’s true meaning, the real reason for its existence outside of simply telling a story, and you just hope he also included a lesson on how to avoid making that point so damn on the nose.
Kylie Atkins (Ali Cobrin) is a good girl, but after her father’s death money for school is hard to come by. Against her better judgement she accepts an offer to live in Girlhouse – a house wired with cameras capturing her every move and beamed to subscribers paying monthly fees to watch the “show.” Think Big Brother but populated solely by girls who play to the camera for attention, tips and private chats. Sexy shenanigans are optional of course, but that’s where the big bucks are so Kylie begins interacting with fans and showing them a good time. One viewer, a basement dweller with the screen name “Loverboy” (Slaine), has something of a skewed perception of his relationship with the girls, and when he discovers they’re making fun of him off-camera he puts his psychopathic skills to use. Oh, and his hacking skills too.
Director Trevor Matthews’ Girlhouse (written by Nick Gordon) is something of a confused genre effort. It looks and plays out like so many slasher films have in the past, but it also puts on airs about the role pornography and sex play in the creation and enabling of violence against women. It opens with a quote from Ted Bundy stating as much, and multiple dialogue exchanges feature characters riffing on similar topics as if to set up the torture and killings to come. The film opens with a chubby boy tricked into showing his pecker to a couple of manipulative girls, and when he kills one of them we’re almost meant to agree that of course she deserved it. That mentality carries on as the boy, now the adult Loverboy, once again strikes out against mean girls who belittle his masculinity.
This not-so-subtle subtext is nothing new in the genre, but here it feels as if the filmmakers are stressing it far too hard. Do they themselves believe it? It’s unclear, but it’s also irrelevant to the film itself. It’s unfortunate and frustrating all around but mostly because everything else about the movie is pretty damn solid.
Performances are strong across the board, a rarity for a slasher, and several of the characters feel unique from each other and deeper than expected. The film also looks great in general and especially during the action. The third act, basically the Loverboy in the house section, features some genuinely scary imagery thanks to the production values and the masked killer’s movements.
The mask itself is mildly unsettling, but the killer moves with unpredictable speed towards the camera, and it’s there where the visual terror is found. (It’s meant to be Slaine behind the mask, but the killer’s onscreen speed and agility suggest otherwise.) He’s truly menacing and attacks in silence, and his kills are far from clean and gentle. The film fully embraces its love of blood and gore with some stellar practical effects work that serves to heighten the horror.
Girlhouse is a well-made and entertaining slasher, and while it doesn’t break new ground it does good work with what we all know already works. Its biggest stumbling block is a script that suggests rather blatantly that these women have charted their own voyage towards death, that their career choice bears responsibility for leading them into the path of a mentally ill madman. Again, the idea isn’t foreign to a genre built on the backs of characters being punished for having sex while the good girl survives, but here the blame game is played far too heavy.