Friday, September 26, 2008
NECROVILLE (2007) d. Billy Garberina & Richard Griffin
Reviewed by Rick Trottier
Creating a horror-comedy poses some unique challenges. Beyond the fact that the legions of horror genre fans have very eclectic tastes and are famously hard to please, everyone has their own ideas as to what they think is funny. For some people it’s the subtle nature of tongue-in-cheek humor that fits the bill, while others prefer the pratfalls of slapstick. A segment of the population finds laughter in razor-sharp satire, while others get their jollies from the juvenile avenue of “bodily functions” comedy. Since the horror-comedy clearly has the unenviable reality of not being able to please everyone, and yet that is what most films try to do is catch a sizable audience, it takes some pretty careful planning to find the best mix of chilling and chortling story components and imagery. Even more thoughtful consideration must go into the audience you want to reach and how best to do that. NECROVILLE will score a few points with a surprising variety of people who like horror-comedies, but because it never really chooses which brand of humor it wants to mine, it may eventually disappoint a large number of viewers too.
NECROVILLE is the story of Jack and Alex, two friends who can’t seem to catch a break. In addition to their shared problems of losing jobs on a regular basis, they each have their own individual problems. Alex is a slovenly, slug of a loser with no real prospects in sight, despite an excellent knowledge of firearms. Jack is enslaved to a shrewish girlfriend named Penny who controls every aspect of his day, and despite being a martial arts expert, he seems more helpless than a cornered mouse. To make matters worse, Jack and Alex live in Necroville, outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, a city infested with zombies, vampires and werewolves. Then the pals find a bit of luck and land a job as exterminators with “Zom-B-Gone”, patrolling the city and helping folks rid their lives of the murderous vermin that make like in Necroville rather hazardous to one’s health. Between fighting off hordes of the undead and gunning down lycanthropes, Jack and Alex are forced to tackle a “master” vampire, who holds all the rest of the city’s bloodsuckers under his sway. Jack and Alex are forced to use every tactic and resource available to them to win this all-out grudge match to the death.
NECROVILLE is a very uneven film, which is to its credit, because the vast majority of low-budget, “cast is the crew” flicks I have seen are uniformly miserable. When NECROVILLE concentrates its comedy laser to a focused beam and keeps the energy levels high, it can be surprisingly funny at times. For example, there are numerous zombie mockeries, the best of which was the bdsm zombies, but the helpless zombie set upon by the phalanx of “girl guides” was also quite humorous. In addition, the Paul Bunyan reference was rather funny and had a nice twist on the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake. Best of all was the implacable savaging that vampires, goth culture and all the numbskulls in between took at the hands of NECROVILLE. The insufferably melodramatic and horrendously haughty Euro-cool nature of these poseurs was lampooned time and again with some very incisive sarcasm. Add to these strengths some very silly and wonderfully ridiculous battle scenes and some over-the-top gore that was liberally troweled throughout the film and there are some reasons to like NECROVILLE.
On the so-so side were the camera work and the scenery. Low budget films often have little to work with when it comes to interior and exterior sets, and NECROVILLE isn’t a boon for the eyes, but it wasn’t tragically dull and unappealing either. While there some moments where the close-ups were a little too tight and the editing was a little too fast, I chalked this up to the need to cover the lack of stunt experts for the hand-to-hand fights and an equal lack of cash for more involved special effects since the budget was clearly spent on gore and makeup. That is where the real visual strengths of this film lay. The zombies look like mouldering and scabrous shambling corpses and there is blood, guts and bodily effluent aplenty so that anyone looking for a gore-filled chum-fest will be pleased. The werewolves and vampires are not as impressive looking but that seems to be intentional, and part of the mechanism for mocking these horror icons.
What didn’t work were a series of story problems coupled with character concepts. Keeping in mind the low budget nature of this film, there is still room for reconsideration of how a project is put together. The main characters of Jack and Alex may be down-on-their-luck losers, but they don’t have to be unappealing turds, which is what they were to a greater degree. Making characters absolute jerks does not make them funnier, especially when you’re talking about a wild romp through a fantasy story-line. Viewers don’t need to be reminded of the real world of pain, they want escape, and characters should be a vehicle for that getaway. There were times when Jack’s character had a bumbling good-natured quality, but Alex was never anything but detestable and obnoxious, and when the two characters were engaged in their infantile arguments and bitch-slapping of each other, the momentum of the movie was brought to a screeching halt. When Gilligan and The Skipper would disagree, it was carefully constructed comedy, but when Alex and Jack squabbled, it felt more like rancid meat left in the pig trough for too many days or even worse, it may remind you of your children who you are trying to take a break from. In addition, while most of the average populace of our fine country curse and swear more than they should, making both characters, especially Alex, constantly foul-mouthed belies the effort to create characters who are really winners unfortunately covered in the aura of losers. Incessantly cursing characters come across as imbeciles at best, and at worst the viewer grows to dislike them and won’t fully relate to them. Moreover, it was painfully obvious where the direction of the Penny character was headed and the reason for Penny and Jack’s arguments was just as evident. I understand why she had to be an unsympathetic character, but forward momentum in any film is important, and in a horror-comedy it is absolutely essential. Every time Jack and Penny began their descent into relationship ferret-fighting, the pace of NECROVILLE slowed to the point where it was almost collapsed into the ditch. What might have worked better would have been shorter, slightly more intense scenes where mood can be developed, but we return briskly to the horror and the comedy.
Some other problems stemmed from taking the low road instead of the middle or higher ways. Drug humor, like the buddy cop or the wise cracking sidekick or the adorable animal partner or the rapper-turned-actor, has come to the end of the line and needs a mercy-killing. There may be just as many people out there taking drugs today as there has always has been, but that avenue of humor has run its course and has depleted its power source. Since most power sources are non-renewable and/or non-rechargeable, its time to find a new source, so drop the drug humor because that is another way to slam your story momentum into a brick wall. That means the stoner-boss needed to be slightly altered. Make him an airhead, an absent-minded type or even an aged burn-out due to his time working in a benzene factory, but drop the drug humor, it doesn’t work. The other story criticism I have is the bodily-functions humor of the victory scene at the end of the penultimate battle. Again, this was an obvious outcome of plot devices “sprinkled” throughout the story that could only lead to this result. Taking that humor device out of the film wouldn’t have made sense, but making the “shower” scene as long as it was became moronically gratuitous. Stick with your idea, make it “short & sweet”, and then as the vampire is melting, have the “dynamic duo” give him a series of atomic knee-drops and other ridiculous wrestling moves, or have them take turns slamming the decaying body into the side of the building while singing "Ding, Dong the Witch is Dead” or something ludicrous that goes with much of the sharper humor that worked so well earlier in the film. Going down the low road with no hope of re-ascending the higher ways means you run the risk of losing a diverse viewing population. There are a lot of horror fans that don’t want their horror-comedies to feel like they are going the way of YOU, ME & DUPREE and Owen Wilson, which is one of the meanest things I can say about any element of any film.
The bonus features menu of NECROVILLE is amazingly deep, giving people who enjoy this film or Shock-O-Rama features another reason to like it even more. In addition to an audio commentary with Billy Garberina, there are two outtakes and five deleted scenes collected into a short section. There are no less than two featurettes and two short films. One featurette is a 4 ½ minute piece called “Fun with actor Mark Chavez”, which is really a series of humorous outtakes with the actor. The other featurette is another 4 ½ minute segment called “NECROVILLE Visual FX” with Neil Garcia, which really is a montage of the better constructed special effects set pieces of the feature film. There two short films are the 17 minute “The Legend of Aerreus Kane”, a sepia-toned silent film and the 4 minute “Cum-uppance”, a rather odd little trinket. Finally there is the ubiquitous Shock-O-Rama trailer vault and a liner notes booklet by Billy Garberina which is a lot of fun. One of the things I continue to enjoy about most of my dealings with dvds from the PopCinema universe is that even if I don’t like a film, which wasn’t entirely the case with NECROVILLE, I can find some solace in the extras menu.
NECROVILLE had a lot more going for it than most low-budget Shock-O-Rama films than I’ve seen and it is to be hoped that Billy Garberina, Richard Griffin and Adam Jarmon Brown are able to sharpen the points of their comedy rapiers so that their next project continues to be funny, but is more consistently so, continues to mock some worthy buffoons, but maintains its momentum while doing it and sloughs off some old and tired mechanisms, like any good snake would shed its useless skin. Staying with the serpent analogy, what makes a viper so deadly is its ability to strike swiftly but to leave a lasting impression that is lethal. A good horror-comedy is just like that, it lances in with blade-sharp humor, pulls back and arms itself for the next strike, and keeps striking with surgical accuracy until the end. NECROVILLE was a little more like a Gila Monster, who does not have injector fangs, so the poison in its saliva must work very slowly. I got the point and laughed here and there, but for too much of the film I was waiting for something good to come again and as we all know waiting for anything brings an increase in entropy.