Tuesday, January 27, 2009

BLACK SWARM (2007) d. David Winning

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Cross pollination is one of the most important and beneficial adaptations in the plant community. Incredibly successful variations on original botanical species have arisen because a busy little bee stopped at one pear tree, crawled about on a blossom, got dusty with pollen and then flew to another pear tree and carelessly left that genetic material behind. The resulting permutations gave rise to a better generation of pear trees and fruit, and so it continues. In the world of writing and producing film scripts and screenplays, cross pollination can be a treacherous trail to trip along. Watering down your primary theme through a cross pollination of ideas can lead to a messy end product, but mating two concepts can also strengthen an initially weak story premise. BLACK SWARM is able to benefit from a degree of cinematic cross pollination, but so much swapping of screenplay chromosomes leads to a mongoloid that may not be as entertaining for everyone as the creators hoped.

BLACK SWARM is the story of young widow Jane Kozik, who returns to her childhood home of Black Stone, NY with her ten year old daughter Kelsey in tow. Once back in town, Jane takes on the mantle of her new job as deputy sheriff even as Kelsey tries to adjust to new faces and places. What is especially strange to the precocious youngster are the many shambling and vacant looking citizens of Black Stone, all of whom sport large stingwounds, an unhealthy pallor and emit a strange buzzing sound. Soon, Jane is reunited with an old flame/friend while Kelsey is making the acquaintance of people who are all part of a diabolic plot to lose upon the world a weapon of frightening deadliness, uncontrollable power and uncertain purpose that is no bigger than the common paper wasp.

Typical of most of the RHI-TV movies of the past few years that work very hard to mine the old formulas of the TV films of yore, BLACK SWARM is as much a drama as it is a horror movie. There is a rich tapestry of interpersonal connections and exchanges between the characters that is replete with feelings of lost love and sorrow, desire and guilt, confusion and caring, and when this already complex web of emotions is grafted onto a story of intrigue, science-gone-wrong and a classic “creature feature” plot line, you’ve got a Mulligan’s Stew that may be a bit too involved. Indeed, one of the “weaknesses” of BLACK SWARM is that the horror elements are only punctuation marks against the backdrop of the dramatic interplay that dominates the first two-thirds of the movie. Now I am all for a good dramatic story and far too many horror films overdose on the action, creating a thrill ride that is more like cotton candy than a heaping portion of cherry pie. BLACK SWARM starts patiently and develops a sense of threat and danger nicely, but just as the pace begins to really intensify and the viewer’s pulse quickens, the melodrama reasserts itself a little too forcefully. The constant back and forth never allows a clear conflict to emerge from a unified narrative, which eventually leads to an ending that is messy and anti-climactic. It is a shame that BLACK SWARM was not a more focused effort for there were many things to like about this hybrid of story ideas.

When you’ve got deadly wasps as the primary “monster” in a film like BLACK SWARM, just as in THE BEES or THE NAKED JUNGLE or THEM, direct contact with the baddies is what brings about the death and injury, and so it does this time, but the most frightening imagery that inspires dread and horror in BLACK SWARM are the “wasp zombies” created by the stings of those insidious flyers. There are several scenes of pallid, ungainly and horribly twisted humans under the control of their wasp masters that were far more effective in creating a feeling of menace than the clouds of angry buzzers. The “wasp zombie” makeup and the performances of the secondary characters acting like “drones” was arguably the best part of the film. Cross pollinating the ideas of killer wasps and zombie humans might seem on the surface to be a risky venture, but it works far better than the blend of emotional drama and creature feature. It also doesn’t hurt to have CGI effects of the wasps that were also surprisingly convincing and didn’t detract from overall aura of the movie. Had there been more “wasp zombie” moments and a little less of the romantic and nostalgic story devices, BLACK SWARM could have been a real zinger.

The performances were also a mixed bag as was the use of the characters in the story. Robert Englund gives an amazingly complex and quirky portrayal of Eli the Beekeeper lending an air of legitimacy to BLACK SWARM, his complicated character doing more to add to confusion of who is really the villain in the plot and keeping you on the edge of your seat. Sarah Allen (Jane Kozik) has a supremely appealing “apple pie and the girl next door” attractiveness and her trim yet womanly figure doesn’t hurt a film that needs a little kick every now and then. Ms. Allen is at her best when she is the take charge deputy sheriff, but has less impact on the film when she becomes entangled in the romantic melodrama. Rebecca Windheim plays little Kelsey and as a young actress she appears to have a degree of potential. When she is portraying a bright and pleasant youngster, she is surprisingly endearing and she has one hell of a good scream, but her early petulance and sourness almost derail any sympathy a viewer might engender for her. Certainly, her character is meant to be a bit sad and possibly bitter about an unwanted move, but it comes across as spoiled and moody. What was less welcome was how dependant the plot was on her character. In the early stages of the film, this left me a little less pleased, but after Kelsey’s connection to Eli is established, their chemistry is far more electric than the forced romance between Jane and Devin. Sebastien Roberts (Devin Hall) and Jayne Heitmeyer (Katherine Randell) give stable if unimpressive performances in their roles, but Devin’s relations with Sarah and Katherine are unconvincing and it is likely that the problem stems from a screenplay that was too elaborate and not from actors unable to do their jobs.

As with the last Genius Products “maneater” DVD I reviewed, YETI, there isn’t much to be had in the extras menu, but it isn’t entirely empty. There are three auto-play trailers that engage before the main menu and included on that main menu is the original film trailer for BLACK SWARM. While this does not really constitute a true extras menu, and after the immense vaults of goodies to be found on COLD PREY from Anchor Bay and DEAD OF NIGHT from Dark Sky Films the extras on BLACK SWARM felt thinner than the gossamer wings of a bee. I do remember the absolutely bare bones discs at the beginning of the “maneater” series and still hold out hope that future Genius and/or RHI-TV discs might have more for the fans than just a trailer. I do recall that DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE had a Dougray Scott interview that was pretty engaging and I cheered that foray into the bonus features wilderness mightily. I hope my praise didn’t fall on deaf ears.

BLACK SWARM is probably not for people expecting a thrill ride, but if you like your horror films heavily laced with character drama, this may be up your alley. If you are expecting loads of gore, you’ll be disappointed, but if you want to see a zombie priest and a zombie ice cream man because zombies give you the chills, there will be some scares in this for you. If you want to see a less lurid and licentious take on INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS, but with pretty Sarah Allen in tight jeans and a tighter t-shirt this might be your cup of tea. Don’t go expecting the best of the “maneater” series because this isn’t it, but if you are a fan of “insects take over the world” kind of flicks, then you will probably enjoy this film to a degree if you don’t expect too much of it.


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