Sunday, February 24, 2008

HALLOWED GROUND (2007) d. David Benullo

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Vince Lombardi once said that an offensive line’s success was dependant on them working as a team and not getting off the blocks “like a typewriter”. Putting together a successful feature film is a little like that for it is essential for everyone in the cast and on the crew to do their job well or the end result can be flawed or even a failure. HALLOWED GROUND, written and directed by David Benullo and starring Jaimie Alexander, is an example of a film that has A LOT of strong components, but just enough technical flaws to ruin an otherwise impressive effort.

HALLOWED GROUND is the story of troubled drifter Liz Chambers who is stranded in the town of Hope, a place of dastardly deeds over a century ago. It is not long before history repeats itself and Liz must do battle with malevolent minions of a preternatural preacher cloaking themselves in “faith” and doing “God’s Work” in their town. Souls and skins are at stake in a town where even the cornfields hold dire menace.

At first, it seemed like HALLOWED GROUND was going to be a tired “scarecrow come to life as an unstoppable slasher” film, but it took a pleasant left turn and invoked the Power of Pictures like THE WICKER MAN. Soon, the story was the tried but true “town of miserable creeps against the unaware newcomer” and from that point the story became a lot of fun. Added to the excitement was an evil soul that can swap bodies, which provided from some predictable but still enjoyable plot twists. Jaimie Alexander’s character Liz was plucky and tough but not invincible and unbelievable. Liz’s escapes from dire peril are managed by good fortune as much as by hard work. Ethan Phillips of STAR TREK: VOYAGER fame added a small but sinister performance and the other actors do their jobs efficiently. It was in the nuts and bolts of HALLOWED GROUND that things went terribly wrong.

When John Carpenter made THE FOG, he knew that much of the film would be taking place at night, so he carefully lit scenes so that they “looked dark” but so that you could SEE what was happening. William Friedkin’s THE EXCORCIST was similarly lit with skill and forethought. When the scenes of HALLOWED GROUND take place in full sunlight, they may be a little overexposed at times, but at least I can SEE what is happening. Once the action goes indoors or shifts to night, the film becomes visually incomprehensible and that was INFURIATING because I wanted this film to work by then. Unlike most of its contemporaries that utilize herky-jerky camera work and horrendously composed close-ups, HALLOWED GROUND didn’t have too much of that nonsense, so its chances of success were higher, but not if the cinematographer can’t correctly light and shoot “atmospheric” scenes. Someone needs to explain to the film makers of today that there is a BIG difference between mood and darkness.

Added to these visual flaws were problems with the audio mix which could have either been the film or dvd sound mixer. During regular speech, the audio was a little weak, but it could be heard. Once people started whispering or talking low for dramatic effect, I had to smash down the “volume up” key on my remote or engage the subtitling key. Some may point to my declining hearing as the culprit, but to prove my point, I popped in superbly mixed dvd like Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA and realized I could hear everything in that film. Clearly, the person at the controls of the audio in one of the stages of production didn’t know their job or was asleep at the wheel. If you can’t see a film properly, nor can it be heard as it should be, a film isn’t going to work no matter how good the story is or how good the performances are.

Like so many direct-to-dvd movies out there today, the extras menu is as empty as my cat’s stomach after she has just coughed up a hairball. When you take into account the technical problems and the bareness of the extras menu, this film screams “cheap” and not in a good way. An interview with comely Jaimie Alexander would have been a nice addition or since David Benullo was writer and director, it is likely that he had some interesting things to say in a comentary. Maybe the producers didn’t want him to spill the beans.

Just as Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers wouldn’t win a championship until they solved their teamwork issues, films like HALLOWED GROUND can’t be the successes they should have been without all the production pieces being put in their rightful places. Hollywood is remake-mad right now, why doesn’t someone remake this film with exactly the same story, the same cast and the same direction, but with some money behind the nuts and bolts? What you would have is a horror movie that might make back its investment and be a worthwhile trip to the theater, but I suppose we can’t expect The Suits to do something like that. Taking money away from their new ivory backscratchers would be money wasted in their small, pig-like eyes.

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