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‘Animals’ (2008) – for those nights when Cinemax is playing real movies.

2010/06/23

 

Other than the pale, bloated face of latter day Val Kilmer, nothing says ‘Instant Watch’ to this viewer more than the casting of Marc Blucas in a modestly budgeted film that hovers just right of the divide between Thriller and Horror.  (‘Th3e,’ ‘Deadline’)  Arguably, I have been under his thrall since his best known role as Riley Finn on Buffy, but I happen to think he’s quite good as an actor.*  As a chooser of acting projects, though, he’s a bit shaky.   Not Sarah Michelle Gellar shaky, the way I see it. 

   

 Thus, with the most tentative of enthusiasm, I dove into ‘Animals,’ a self-identified “erotic horror,” based on a novel by believe me when I say two guys.  

Blucas is top-billed and stars as he has begun to be typecast:  as a sort of white-trash version of Riley Finn – say if he grew up in a trailer in Iowa instead of a nice farm; worked construction, and possibly used quasi-swear words such as “Dag!” I recognize Eva (firstborn of Susan Sarandon) Amurri’s name from the credits.  Naveen Andrews gets an “and.”  Nice.  It’s in HD, so it could sink or swim just on special effects, but I predict the pooled star power of these three actors is likely enough to support a complete viewing.    

 ‘Animals’ presents a set of characters who fall in and out of sexual and violent interest, often for reasons that aren’t clear.  In large part, it is only about the basic story of man embracing his inner animal, i.e. lots of sex, hunting, and sport kills.  There is an arc to this, to the film’s credit, which is that our hero Syd Jarrett (dag!), is not in touch with his animal side until Nora (Nicki Aycox, apparently of ‘Joyride 2: Dead Ahead’) bites him.   ‘Animals’ starts with the image of an eye with a strange blue iris and presents its premise in roughly the following terms:  

“Each of us carries buried deep within us the seed of our animal nature.  Evolution and civilization have domesticated our impulse to feed, fight, and breed without conscience or reason.  There still lurks a rare kind that can change at will.  Some will follow the natural order in live in peace; others, corrupted by the taste of human blood, hunt for flesh and pleasure.  They are predators and they lure us across the line few cross and fewer survive – the line between man and ANIMALS.”  Cue heavy metal and titles – I’M IN. 

 Jarrett is a sort of dead-end hometown hero who came back “with his tail between his legs” when an injury cut his football career short.  His opening voice-over line,  “What if you knew the rest of your life was going to suck?” could use a little fleshing out, but we’re left to understand that he’s suicidal or at least restless or maybe just reading some existential philosophy, who knows.    Jarrett’s life, as the movie begins, seems to consist of hanging out at his best friend’s bar and showing up late to work, which his a-hole boss has a problem with – not sure why, since Jarrett’s job is bashing rocks with a sledgehammer, but punctuality is important in any job, I suppose.   Jarrett carries a lukewarm affection for Jane (Amurri), the waitress at said friend’s bar, because “everyone hits on her and she never says yes.”  (Note to Jarrett, that is what is known in the service industry as “working at a bar.”)  Elsewhere, in somewhat livelier Reno, Nevada, we meet Nick (Andrews) and Nora (Aycox), who appear to be coupled up, but Nora opens by telling him listlessly, “I can’t do this anymore.”  He pushes her through the movie’s first two-victim kill sequence, which she barely seems to notice, let alone enjoy.  Afterward, she informs him that she effing hates him for making her an effing monster like him.  He tells her he’s splitting town for awhile; they exchange ultimatums, Nick promising to find her and kill whoever she’s with.  So romantic! 

Segue to Nora wandering into the tavern with about a thousand necklaces on and target locking immediately onto Jarrett.  They go back to Jarrett’s place and have weird, everyone-keeps-all-their-clothes-on sex.  At a particular point in the scene, she gets the electric blue animals eyes and bites him.  He doesn’t really seem to like the biting.  The next morning, when his eyes blink awake, he’s got ‘em too.  Oh, snap – another sex scene (this time, no clothes anywhere) and he’s going to be late for work again.  He’s finally fired, and apparently feels powerless to do anything about it other than sit at Jules’ bar and do more shots than usual.  Come on, Jarrett.  Time to animal up. 

No idea who these people are.

A couple of deranged sex scenes later (and if deranged sounds exciting, I should choose a different word), Nick shows back up as promised, and Jarrett has to figure out how to go all-out animal.  Ironically enough, it is Jane who is able to guide Jarrett in this respect, after revealing she too is “ANIMAL” and she and Nora fight each other nearly to death.   (This leads to one of my favorite lines of the film, when Jarrett carries a badly bleeding Jane into the hospital, where an ER nurse takes one look at her and says without a hint of calm, “OMG SHE’S TORN TO PIECES!”)   

Compared with mainstream horror films, the story here is especially lacking in depth, originality, and interest.  Those comparisons have to be made because of the cast; but, truly, the film’s more natural comparators are erotic thrillers like those generated by the Lifetime Movie Network and Skinemax.  There just isn’t a tight metaphor, for one thing – if being an animal was bad, then only the bad guys would be animals?  Or, even if Jarrett is an animal by way of innocent victim, why would he choose one animal mate over another?  And if eating humans was bad, then why would Nora, who “can’t do this anymore,” eventually fry up and feed to Jarrett his asshat boss’ tongue?  And wtf was he thinking eating it?  Even the most mentally challenged of dead-end hometown heroes should be able to tell that tongue is not any other meat that normally appears on the breakfast table.   No, our hero’s all “mmmmm!”   As I suspected, this is going to come down to FX. 

 The competently handled aspects include the half-morphed look – when the characters haven’t gone completely animal, but it’s coming; this mostly involves the recently popular use of big, scary CG mouths.  There were a couple interesting uses of sh’loads of fake blood – in particular, one shot features a refreshing variation on the slip-and-fall-in-blood thing.  (Side rant: I don’t mean to be fussy, but can we put a moratorium on the following sequence:  character slips and disappears from shot; cut to character recovering from fall by, naturally, raising a shaking hand in front of his/her face to see what might be dripping from it.  It’s beyond overused, and it was really only effective when WE, the viewers, are surprised to find blood on the floor, the likelihood of which these days is inversely proportional to the number of times we’ve seen that sequence.) 

Unfortunately, the representation of the fully morphed animals is completely disappointing.  First of all, they are either badly designed or badly rendered, because they look like something I would have doodled in seventh grade math.   Next:  can’t tell the characters apart once they morph.  Lastly, the animals?  They’re all the same, a sort of ephemeral spirit dog – big dogs, mind you – weredogs, perhaps, or, like, grizzly dogs, if I can coin the identity of a fictional species.  And since they didn’t go full-out “men are dogs,” (it really didn’t even go full-out “people are dogs” – i.e. the moon is referenced visually once or twice, but nothing else suggests it plays any role in the mythology) it just seems like a mentally or graphically lazy choice, one that all by itself cost the film a star in my review.  More to the point, the title is “Animals,” not “Grizzly Dogs,” so I had hoped there was going to be a menagerie of sorts, and spent some time at the beginning of the film eagerly anticipating the actor to species matchups – like, say, Eva Amurri as a sugar glider.   

All in all, it’s an easy three stars for Instant Watch.  It’s the kind of lazy writing and filmmaking that I feel is becoming more and more typical of American horror films.  Sometimes, someone with a good script or concept can get something made with enough dollars to push it onto the Instant Watch market.  In this case, I think it was casting alone that got it done, and I’m fine with that.  

Not much else can sell this.  Except:  tack on an extra star if, like me, you are moved to do so by Jarrett’s observation about his friend’s bar, “It’s turning into the ‘Double Douche’ in here.”   

Still the best.

 

I think I’ll probably end up seeing ‘Knight and Day’ tonight, for two reasons:  one, it’s opening on my birthday, which is sort of like someone you don’t enjoy hanging out with throwing you a party.  You can’t really say no.  The second reason, of course, is Marc Blucas is in it, and playing a mustached man named Rodney, at that.  

*Admittedly, I could not make it through ’First Daughter.”  I also want to acknowledge that the vastly more popular response to Blucas on Buffy was vitriolic disregard.

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