Wednesday, March 25, 2009

SWAMP DEVIL (2008) d. David Winning

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Swamps are vitally important habitats that are absolutely essential to the health of regional and global environments. They are also places of mystery and sinister imagery. Whether it’s the moss-covered trees, laden with living and dead leaves or the gloomy and greasy pools of murky water, swamps are not usually high on most people’s lists as places they’d like to vacation. What makes a swamp even more darkly compelling are the secrets that lie just beneath the surface of its sullen waters. Below the muddy and viscous liquid that looks like grimy, glazed glass are layers of ooze and muck into which bodies of animals and people can sink, never to be seen again. SWAMP DEVIL, the 13th installment in the Maneater Series, trades on that fear of bogs and marshes, and while it has more to do with other movie elements than horror and marsh tales, it has a degree of success in weaving a yarn that will keep you glued like swamp slop to your seat.

SWAMP DEVIL is the story of young Melanie Blaime (played by Cindy Sampson) and her father Howard (portrayed by the venerable Bruce Dern). After a long estrangement from her father for reasons not entirely clear, Melanie returns to her childhood home of Gibbington, Vermont to confront the realization that her father is wanted for murder. As Melanie digs a little more deeply into the stories of the past, she uncovers a tale wound about the town like Spanish moss, that is composed of secrets and lies, murder and revenge. As Melanie is drawn deeper into the story of Gibbington, she becomes closer friends with the enigmatic Jimmy Fuller (played by Nicholas Wright), even as she discovers more about her father and his connection to Jimmy. In the end, it comes to a showdown between sides that each have a profoundly vested interest in vengeance with Melanie as the prize laid out between them.

SWAMP DEVIL is pure TV Movie and if you’ve seen any of the RHI-TV relatives of this flick, you know exactly what to expect, but it in the end it doesn’t matter that this flick is predictable, has a few plot holes and has some serious visual flaws. SWAMP DEVIL delivers on that most important of properties necessary to a cash-strapped TV Movie; character interplay and melodrama. The vast majority of the narrative is centered upon Melanie, her reluctant return to her roots, her emotional issues revolving around her relationship with her father and the mysterious death of her mother, her friendship with Jimmy and his idiosyncratic nature and her response to the vigilante mob of townsfolk who wish to bring her father to justice. Thrown in for good measure in the earlier stages of the plot are some moments of “monster mayhem” that help to firmly anchor this film in the horror canon and even more effectively used are lightly sprinkled scenes which assist a steady development of suspense and mood bordering on menace. SWAMP DEVIL is not Hitchcock or Argento, it is classic TV Movie fare that is just as much akin to a Soap Opera as it is the theatrically release horror or even “creature feature” films of yore. As the story progresses, the pace picks up and over the last one-third of the film, the action begins to step up. In some ways, this is where the movie declines ever so slightly for just as we are treated to longer scenes with Bruce Dern who was fairly absent in the beginning, he is asked to be just as much an action hero as he is an actor and that is too bad. The man is a gifted and experienced thespian and the more of his presence we could have enjoyed the better I would have liked SWAMP DEVIL. As the action intensified, we were also forced to endure the great fault of SWAMP DEVIL.

From a visual standpoint, there were alternating strengths and weaknesses to this film. The greatest failing was the CGI swamp monster and its fake tendrils. Computer Generated Imaging must be getting both easier and far cheaper to utilize for I see it more and more, especially in TV Movies like SWAMP DEVIL. At times it can be effectively used, like in VIPERS or HIVE, but at other times like EYE OF THE BEAST or YETI it can be a distraction and a failure. In SWAMP DEVIL, the exterior sets chosen to create a sense of Vermont, but that were actually in and around Montreal, were attractive, verdant and created a very persuasive aura of sylvan beauty and forested threat. Unfortunately, the swamp monster looked a lot more like a badly crafted piece of silly topiary. As a result, the action sequences with the beast were just not convincing. In the end it is too bad for SWAMP DEVIL was effectively and competently shot under the guiding hand of David Winning who was at the helm for SOMETHING BENEATH and BLACK SWARM. It was Mr. Winning’s effective camera work that led to one of the great strengths of SWAMP DEVIL, the focus on the faces and expressions of the characters. Franco Nero once said that Italian Westerns were great because the emotional impact of the films was carried in the cinematography of the actors’ countenances. It was the eyes and other facial elements that “have it” in SWAMP DEVIL, especially those of Cindy Sampson. Beyond the fact that Miss Sampson is incredibly lovely, with a torrent of glossy, dark hair and a trim, comely figure it is her soul-piercing eyes and the tough but vulnerable expressions on her face that carry a great deal of force. Add to that the insouciant looks of Nicholas Wright, the revenge-crazed gaze of Bruce Dern and the myriad of other emotions conveyed by the expressions of the cast and more of a palpable feeling of atmosphere was created by the performers than was by the garden ornament of a swamp monster. Kudos must be given to the camera team, the director and the actors for their efforts in propelling the narrative of SWAMP DEVIL. It was a fairly predictable story and the pacing was a little uneven at times, but the drama was effectively energized by the portrayals, interactions and responses we see on the screen, making SWAMP DEVIL a lot more like its low budget horror movie cousins of long ago like MONOLITH MONSTERS or DIE MONSTER DIE.

Like so many other Maneater or RHI-TV TV Movies brought to DVD, SWAMP DEVIL has no bonus features menu. There are two trailers that come up before the main menu, both of which are action film trailers and have nothing to do with the horror genre. While I applaud the people who authored this disc for not bathing us in more overused Maneater imagery and that is probably because there is a newly launched Maneater website, when you’ve got a horror movie in peoples’ hands, you probably want to put horror trailers on that disc. After the trailers, there are two film company ads for Dragon Dynasty and Dimension Extreme, both of which made me even more irritated, for I don’t want the sell-job when I watch a disc, I want to be inundated by a good story and even better visual components, and then I want to learn more about the project I just experienced. With a director like David Winning leading the pack, an actor of the caliber of Bruce Dern, an actor playing Sheriff Nelson who looks suspiciously like Ed Lauter but isn’t and a stunning beauty like Cindy Sampson, there is more than enough fodder for cast interviews, a “behind the scenes” featurette or some kind of tidbit. While I enjoyed SWAMP DEVIL to a greater rather than lesser degree, this lack of supplemental features left me more than typically indignant. I have had the pleasure of seeing some SUPERB extras on quite a few discs recently, most of which are connected to small releasing companies and even more obscure titles. For a company as large as RHI-TV to not put some kind of bonus features on this disc simply stinks. Probably RHI-TV or whatever entity made SWAMP DEVIL is and/or was profitable, but not having the chance to enjoy something more about this flick made me feel a little soiled, as if I had taken a tumble in the bog.

SWAMP DEVIL is the kind of film you watch when you really just want to get away from reality and get involved in a drama of simplistic but still appealing proportions. It isn’t what I’d call classic “turn off the lights late at night” fare, more of a late Saturday morning, low budget “creature feature” kind of movie. It had a capable cast who brought to life characters I liked and grew to care about. When I cheer for characters and don’t want them to get the chop, something is being done right. While it wasn’t as scary as it was just generally fun, I still felt entertained. Just as a grilled cheese sandwich isn’t the summit of culinary delights, it is still a meal that can satisfy, so I suppose one can say that SWAMP DEVIL is a little like sitting down to a tried and true favorite like grilled cheese. You know what you’re going to get and there won’t be any surprises, but you’ll like the outcome just fine. I’ll take that.

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