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Making its world premiere tonight at Montreal’s Fantasia
festival, David Bryant’s VICTIMS is an
ambitious single-take thriller about a man’s mysterious abduction. It’s the solo
directorial debut for Bryant, who previously served as part of the
three-filmmaker team behind 2007’s DEAD WOOD; see Michael Gingold’s previous
review of the DVD below.
DEAD WOOD is a rather risky title to put on movie belonging
to a subgenre (kids go to the woods…kids get dead, to borrow the title of a
recent satire/homage to the form) that has seen plenty of dead wood of its own.
This particular example, crafted by three British film-school pals, doesn’t
blaze any trails of originality, but the movie—and especially the special
features on Lionsgate’s DVD—suggests that as fledgling feature-makers, they’re
on the right path.
Following the expected opening teaser in which a hapless
victim (David Bryant, who scripted DEAD WOOD and directed, produced,
photographed and edited it with Sebastian Smith and Richard Stiles) meets his
maker, we’re introduced to our vanful of protagonists. Webb (Fergus March) and
Larri (Emily Juniper) are an established couple, while their weekend camping
trip is something of a blind date for her cousin Milk (John Samuel Worsey) and
friend Jess (Rebecca Craven). Their scenes together are lower-key than usual for
this sort of film, and while there’s nothing terribly memorable about any of
the characters, they’re easy enough to spend time with. Their drive up does
have a rude interruption when they hit a deer on the road, and Webb has to put
it out of its misery; this may be the offense that leads them to bigger trouble
later, though the movie is pleasingly ambiguous about any specific connection.
Rather than a human or semihuman stalker, it’s a deadly
supernatural presence that ultimately threatens the quartet, in the manner of
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. In fact, quite a bit of DEAD WOOD is very much in the
manner of BLAIR WITCH, with a few ominous zooms through the trees that are very
EVIL DEAD. When an Asian girl (Nina Kwok), who claims to be looking for her missing
boyfriend—the prologue victim—turns up at the friends’ campsite and inevitably
proves to have threatening ulterior motives, there are echoes of Far East
fright fare as well. All the familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, exactly, but
it prevents DEAD WOOD from achieving the impact it might have. At its best, it
engenders a quiet chill and builds a palpable lost-in-the-middle-of-nowhere
atmosphere in places, while even the “biggest” frights are subtle ones, with a
minimum of makeup FX and just a few CGI scares (albeit well-wrought ones for
the tiny budget).
The project’s digitally lensed origins result in a picture
(presented in anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen) that’s a tad soft and flat, though
undue slickness might have worked against the simplicity of its storytelling;
the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is equally unemphatic, but gets the job done. A
second track contains a commentary by Bryant, Smith and Stiles that reveals
just how grassroots DEAD WOOD was; often working as the only crew, the trio
took four years to put the movie together, thanks to casting snafus (they lost
all but one of their leads two weeks before the first shoot), the necessity of
extensive reshoots and an extreme amount of postproduction, with almost all of
the sound and dialogue redone after the fact. Yet their discussion also reveals
their stick-to-it-iveness, as well as their ingenuity in dealing with issues
they didn’t expect and that the average viewer might not consider. For example,
to capture shots in which Webb, driving the van, keeps taking his eyes off the
road, the filmmakers had him sit in the front passenger seat with a fake
steering wheel, and flipped the image.
The frustration and perseverance of this team is in even
greater evidence in the 35-minute “DEAD WOOD Diaries” documentary. From dubious
start (no one shows up for the initial day of auditions, and the first shoot,
way back in 2003, gets rained out) to triumphant finish (the screening of the
completed feature, of which Stiles says they “pulled it back from the dead”),
every facet of the production is covered with a true you-are-there feeling.
There are any number of fun little revelations—including one putting the lie to
the scene that turns up in DEAD WOOD and every film like it, as one of the gang
is able to get cell-phone reception in the middle of the woods to order food
for the cast and crew.
A selection of deleted footage (with optional commentary by
the trio) is largely concerned with glimpses of the characters in their London
lives before their ill-fated vacation; it’ll be up to the individual viewer to
decide whether these snippets, which offer a little more insight into the
protagonists’ personalities but don’t quite fit the tone of the bulk of the
movie, were rightly or wrongly removed. There’s also an alternate ending that
pays off Jess’ trimmed introduction and has the right spirit, but doesn’t make
a whole lot of sense. The bonus features are topped off with outtakes that
aren’t especially funny and special FX comparisons that present a few moments
with and without CG augmentation, but don’t demonstrate the process in between.
DVD/ Blu-ray Reviews
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