Friday, February 22, 2008

FURNACE (2006) d. William Butler

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

It is hard work making a genre film today. Most of the great ideas have been used and reused over the years and establishing new story and filming trends requires ingenuity and intellect. Following the trends can be done effectively, but treading that thin ice requires a dexterity that is impossibly agile. Instead of paying homage to the pathfinders, most films just look derivative if they’re lucky. When you’re trying to do too much AND following the plow horse down the furrow, a whole lot of potential is not going to come to fruition.

FURNACE is the story of Detective Michael Turner played by Michael Pare, a cop haunted by the past, who stumbles upon unexplainable deaths at Blackgate Prison. As guards and inmates meet grisly ends, Turner teams up with prison psychologist Dr. Ashley Carter, played by Jenny McShane, to unravel twisted threads and ghastly secrets buried in the old wing of the prison. As the ashes of the history are sifted, guards on the take, simmering prison tensions and specters of bygone days bent on revenge bring Blackgate Prison to the very brink of Hell on Earth.

When it concentrates on being a ghost story wrapped in a somewhat tired and threadbare external tale of molestation and murder, FURNACE has some redeeming moments. The combination of ghosts pursuing the denizens of a prison who can’t escape their fates recalls some of the best elements of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and THE RING. Just as the characters in both of those fine forerunners could not run from The Reaper, the incarcerated and emancipated of Blackgate Prison stumble about like folks straying in quicksand. Just as a dreamer can’t elude the sinister shadow overtaking them when their legs turn to lead, the unfortunates of FURNACE not only can’t escape the two ghostly beings scything through the prison populace, they must mine through murky mysteries in the heart of evil itself, the furnace room. Like a Greek Tragedy from which you can’t turn away, the malevolence that you can’t avoid is a powerful story idea. Coupled with a cast that are mostly adults, screen veterans like Michael Pare and Tom Sizemore, who can give workmanlike performances, FURNACE had the potential to be a solid if unsophisticated and unsurprising addition to the modern horror canon. Unfortunately, there are too many weaknesses and overly mined trends that allow this film to sink into the mire.

One of the blood-lusting ghosts in FURNACE is that of a child terribly wronged long ago. The evil child-villain was a wonderful icon once upon a time, but it has run its course and it is time to retire it to the pasture where it has earned its rest. In addition, overly gloomy photography goes beyond atmosphere and just makes this film hard to see at times, so that between the herky-jerky “creatures”, the darkling corridors and the low lighting even when it’s an exterior set, it is a chore to grasp what is happening visually. Just as the evil child has outlived its day, so has the music video style of feature film camera work gone to the well once too often. Take the nag out behind the barn and put it out of its misery! The overly muddy scenes keep this old but enjoyable story idea from being successful. Instead of suspense being patiently but inexorably developed, it is frustration that rears its disappointed head. Finally, the trend that should sink into the LaBrea Tar Pits is the “rapper turned actor” used simply to market a film to a “wider audience”. Jeffrey “Ja Rule” Atkins is following in the footsteps of “rap artists” who have morphed into thespians like Busta Rhymes, DMX and Ludacris, but none of these people are actors. All they add to a film is name recognition needed to push the product. While the producers and some of the “actors” like Ja Rule are taking home a paycheck, painting by numbers does not create “grocer goodwill” with the movie consumer. It is better to find capable young actors who don’t command a big paycheck so you can use that saved cash to market your film in a more inventive manner, one that allows the film product to be of higher quality and the film viewer to feel truly satisfied.

Added to these weaknesses is a stable of extraneous story superfluities that detract from the story instead of adding to it. The subplot of Michael Pare’s character’s tragic past is horribly underdeveloped and seems more of a pretext for inserting an unneeded and just as undeveloped romance with Jenny McShane’s Dr. Carter. Neither story line adds anything to the film and takes away exceedingly precious time and energy from the central story elements. In addition, Tom Sizemore’s “crooked guard dealing drugs” story and the resultant prison riot stemming from his malevolent machinations feels like a last minute attempt to graft ATTICA to THE RING and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Just as any hiker wants to make sure they’ve got a map that can guide them through the twists of a trail system, a film story has to guide the viewer around the corners so that they don’t feel like you’ve been dumped into the Minotaur’s Labyrinth. By the end of FURNACE, you’re in that Labyrinth, and instead of a pleasingly simple yarn with some back story that fits the tale like a glove, what emerges is a pizza with too many toppings, colloquially known as a “mess”.

FURNACE has a small extras menu that also suffers from quality control issues. There are three cast interviews with Danny Trejo, Ja Rule and Tom Sizemore, each about fifteen minutes in length. The overly simplistic stock questions lettered across the screen don’t really plumb any depths and two of the three interviews suffer from audio problems. The six alternate scenes were mildly interesting, but the most fun to be had in the extras menu came from one of the four trailers in the “vault”. I found myself wishing I had watched CROC instead after viewing that wonderfully silly trailer. Despite the weak offerings of the extras menu, at least there was something, which is not often the case. Putting together a few tidbits always makes me feel that the film makers weren’t just going through the motions.

FURNACE was not a bad experience, but a missed opportunity. There were times when I enjoyed the crimson lighting, the flickering flames and the sense of inevitable peril. Too often, I felt like chances were wasted, leaving an end product that could have been so much better but whose bright promise faded like the cold ashes of a fire long extinguished.

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