Young couple takes a long drive through the desert only to meet a drifter who changes their lives forever.
So, I keep seeing Blood River classified as a "slasher" and "serial killer" film but, that doesn't really get to the heart of it for me. When I think about "slasher movies" I think about Prom Night or My Bloody Valentine, something with excessive gore for gore's sake alone. I think of a killer who is roaming around, mindlessly wielding a weapon. And if we're going to talk about serial killer movies I expect a killer who is smart and savvy, killing in some creative ways (Kiss the Girls or Silence of the Lambs style).
I'd be more apt to classify Blood River as a "supernatural thriller" and by that I mean a "thriller" with supernatural elements. And I'm okay with that. Our killer, Andrew Howard (Joseph), isn't some mindless slasher working his way through a crop of nubile young fodder nor is he some super genius serial killer targeting blondes who remind him of his whore mother. He's actually an agent of god. Which makes a good segue into the writing.
A good script goes a long way
The writing was tolerable. I didn't detest the story but I wasn't sure that the writers actually knew what story they were trying to tell. Off the bat, it did seem they were trying to sell me on the killer being a standard "serial killer" but somewhere along the way they seem to have switched gears and decided that he's actually an agent of god. And that story worked. And it was somewhat compelling. And somewhat interesting. And their commitment to it made me buy into the story with them.
I was impressed that I never felt beat over the head with a "repent" message, despite the religious tract the movie took.
There were a few real gems in the script: I actually loved the very first moment that Tess Panzer (Summer) and Ian Duncan (Clark) encounter the killer on the road (he's a creepy hitchhiker) and they opt not to pick him up. It's nice to see some real-world thinking, on occasion, in a horror flick.
I've read a handful of reviews that really came down on the fact that so much is unexplained in Blood River but, I actually appreciate that ambiguity. I'm an educated viewer, I have an imagination, I'd rather have to figure things out for myself.
One of the things people harped on the most was time: according to the written synopsis, the movie takes place in the 60's but the visual indicators in the film don't really articulate that point. Which, again, I'm okay with because they actually lend to a sense on timelessness and surreality which work as a great backdrop to the plot.
A good cast
When you've got a movie that only has three people in it, they better be good.
Early on in the movie, Tess and Ian have great chemistry as a couple but that really fell apart quickly. This was, I assume, partially meant to reflect the deteriorating relationship between their characters but they really just seemed to forget how to work together as the movie progressed. It did allow for Tess and Joseph to develop a great on screen chemistry, however complicated their character relationship is.
I found Tess Panzer to be alternately terrific (very poised) and terrible (the moments in which she was supposed to be emotional in one extreme or another she seemed simply unable to perform.) She had moments where she brought a definite strength to her character and I really wanted to like her. I can settle on, I didn't hate her.
Ian Duncan was completely okay. He wasn't stand out to me in any way. I disliked his character and I'm not sure if that's writing or acting or a combination of the two. He did make a solid switch from quiet guy to out of control towards the end of the movie. I've also read some complain about his reaction to the body in his trunk and I'll have to agree here that the emotion he's chosen to play doesn't quite work with the plot.
Andrew Howard was great. He played a killer reminiscent of Henry (Michael Rooker) or Early Grayce (Brad Pitt). He was charming with an undertone of menace; he was quietly threatening. He never seemed over the top.
Overall, the pacing was slow but not awful. And the look of the movie was constantly straddling the line between so cheap it's clearly independent and so faux cheap it may be an atmospheric big-budget flick. It worked. In the same way that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer works.
Now, I've mentioned both Henry and Kalifornia in this discussion and I'd like to end on this idea that both those films played heavily into the shaping of Blood River; it's like the ugly offspring of those two movies.
Two sisters investigate the disappearance of one's husband only to uncover something supernatural and sinister.
Early warning signs
So, last month I was writing that a movie written by, directed by, and starring the same person should be approached with trepidation. Well, this month I bring back that warning in the form of, "a movie written, directed, and edited by the same person should be approached with extreme trepidation." Wearing all three of these creative control hats at once means absolutely no "sanity check" on your work.
But, I'll concede here that I never felt, during the movie, that any of those elements were lacking or suffering. Which is not to write that I agreed with all of his directorial or editorial decisions. But hats off to Mike Flanagan, overall, for wearing many hats very successfully.
The writing, it's not flawless. But it's good. The story was interesting and unique enough that I never felt like, "hey, I've seen this movie a million times before." I was pleasantly surprised by the direction he chose to go with "supernatural" elements, making them more fantasy-based than ghostly or alien-based.
When I started the movie I was worried this would be another stupid alien abduction movie or possibly an evil ghost movie. But it wasn't either, at all. I also really appreciated that he went with a mythological creature and an uncommon one at that.
Flanagan also has a great sense for atmosphere. There are moments of silence, moments of stillness, glimpses of motion out of the corner of your eye, strange sounds, etc. It's not just atmosphere, it's timing. He really knows when to keep things unexplained and when to reveal them.
For example, the boy with the trash bag. The first time you see him, you don't know what's in the bag but you can sort of guess (because you've probably watched a horror movie or two.) When things are already going a bit insane in the movie you get to see the contents and it's become twice as terrible because of when it's been revealed.
I also want to applaud his choice never to actually, fully reveal the monster. Nothing saves a horror movie, and preserves the fear, like keeping the audience from seeing what they are afraid of.
When I realized that I was really enjoying this movie, I was terrified that the ending would ruin it for me. Some big wrap up with a happy ending, etc. There was that typical horror film moment when Callie (Katie Parker) figures out what's going on and goes off to fight the monster and it looks like we're headed smack into a happy ending. And then it doesn't happen.
The cast was very good. Morgan Brown was fantastic. He is broken and terrified and sufficiently creepy.
As I mentioned, I don't want to give too much away here but I will end with this amazing thought: I'd actually watch this movie a second time.
Rejected this month:
Consider my promise broken.
Kid plays video game in which he helps Satan kill people. Kid also has a creepy crush on his sister. Kid befriends a serial killer dressed as Satan and helps him kill people.
Satan's Little Helper was one of the worst movies I've ever subjected myself to; the acting was atrocious, the writing may actually have been done by a 10-year old, and somebody (the director, the editor, the producer, etc.) should have cut this train wreck down by at least 25 minutes.
Casting, a lesson or two
Hiring well-know and experienced people will not save your shitty movie. Without the structure of a good script or the guidance of a skilled director, even the best actors can flounder.
Amanda Plummer (star of TV, stage, and movies since the early '80s) is capable and talented. Often playing the quirky and eccentric characters, you can see her in things like Pulp Fiction, So I Married An Axe Murderer, The Prophecy, Freejack, and The Fisher King.
Man oh man did someone behind the scenes of this movie try to leverage this resume of ecentricity, writing a character reminiscent of the mother in Sleepaway Camp but falling woefully short. Her character needed to be 110% more bizarre or 100% more believable. As it stands, she's just poorly written. Even leading lady Katheryn Winnick has a modest career and a fair acting ability that aren't able to save her character from being as flat as the mid-west.
And another thing. If you're going to cast a child as your lead actor, please - PLEASE - find one that can act! They are out there, I promise.
The one thing that worked
I will give credit to (whomever) for creating a masked killer that remains masked for the entire movie. While occasionally, heavy-handedly implying who the killer may be, they never actually confirm his (or her) identity and never show the killer's face.
I will also confess to a small bit of appreciation for the killer's on-again, off-again humor. There were times that I actually liked the killer: his constant thumbs up-ing, his gleeful posing for photos with his victims, his shopping cart rampage... we was sort of cute and lovable.
Honestly, I'm worried that writing any more about this movie may entice you to actually watch it - and I don't wish that on anyone. Ever.