If you can look past the (somewhat warranted) comparisons to the better known and similarly themed Thin Red Line, you'll find that Jeff Burr's Straight Into Darkness is a pretty interesting and very dark with that is sometimes confusing, sometimes heavy handed, but at the very least always interesting. Though known primarily for his horror movie sequels like Pumpkinhead II and Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, Burr proves with this film that he's able to deliver more than just a tie in film every now and then, and with this movie he shows substantial growth as a writer and director.
The film begins with some American Military Police escorting two infantrymen across a war torn area of Europe during the Second World War. Flashback's give us a rough idea of what they've done and we know that one of the men, Losey (Ryan Francis of Face The Music), is being charged with deserting his platoon while the other man, Deming (Scott MacDonald of Jarhead), appears to just be more or less a psychopath. At any rate, they're being transported by Jeep through a war zone and as luck would have it, the hit a land mine. The MP's are killed but the two soldiers manage to crawl out of the field with their lives, Deming forcing Losey to go with him by commandeering one of the dead MP's pistols and waving it in his face.
They decide that they're going to try and get away from the war, find some British officers to take them in and not return to the American forces who will surely charge them. As they try to figure out where they are and find some allies, they end up in a bombed out old church where the only one left alive is a crazed old priest who has resorted to cannibalism. He follows them as they head into the woods and when they come across the site of a mass suicide by hanging, he joins the ranks of the dead by putting a noose around his own neck. From there, alone again, the two soldiers find a massive concrete building that appears to be abandoned. They take refuge there for the night but the next morning they see an older man and a woman out the window. The elderly couple comes into the building and Deming tries to rape the lady at gunpoint. His fun is interrupted when an army of children, each one either mentally or physically handicapped, shows up behind him with their rifles aimed at him. The soldiers are tied up until a battalion of Nazi's show up outside the building, a tank accompanying them. The elderly couple, Deacon (David Warner of The Omen) and Maria (Linda Thorson of Half Past Dead) untie them on the condition that they fight alongside them, and reluctantly they agree, but there's more to this situation than simply defeating the Germans, particularly when the lives of children are at stake.
A dark film dealing with dark subject matter, Straight Into Darkness blends elements of Thin Red Line, Full Metal Jacket, with Todd Browning's Freaks to create a unique and unusual movie that, while not without its flaws, at least tries somewhat successfully to do something a little bit different. The film starts off easily enough as a straight forward war story but once the two soldiers venture out on their own, their quest for freedom away from the war takes on a rather sinister tone and their past comes very close to catching up with them in a few spots. This makes for an interesting story and while it gets a little convoluted and heavy handed towards the end it at least remains unique.
At the same time, the film contradicts itself. We're supposed to feel sorry for the army of handicapped children and initially, as Deacon and Maria explain how they took them in and started a school to help them, we do. Later on, however, Deacon explains to us that to many of these kids the war is just a game, which takes away from some of the sympathies we develop for them. Instead of caring for kids who have grown up too fast and been forced into a situation that they really should have nothing to do with we instead see them as all too eager to kick into action and take down the German's in much the same way that a gung-ho Marine would do. It might work in the context of the story as far as the narrative is concerned but it seems at odds with how we're usually asked to feel or see children involved in war and it almost feels like an exploitative element – hey, look at the kid with no legs work that rifle and kill those Nazi's! Hey, look at the girl in the Eyes Without A Face Mask kick it into overdrive and fight, fight fight!
In the film's favor, however, are the Romanian locations and the performances from the two leads. The bombed out empty shells of buildings that were once alive and the eeriness of the dark Eastern European woods that surround them make for a great place to film a war movie and Francis and MacDonald are very well suited to their parts. In the end the movie takes itself just a bit too seriously for its own good but still manages to be stylish, moody and though provoking. It's flawed to be sure but it's definitely worth checking out for the good qualities mentioned, even if the over reliance on flashback scenes tends to be a little overbearing in spots.
For the most part the anamorphic 1.78.1 widescreen image is pretty strong though there are some scenes with some moderate grain on display. Throughout the movie the director has chosen to use a lot of flare effects and some twitchy editing techniques which results in what you can only assume is some intentionally degraded video quality – this appears to have been a stylistic choice, and isn't really an authoring fault. Color reproduction is good except for the scenes where it's been muted on purpose and black levels stay strong. Some heavy aliasing and moderate edge enhancement is present throughout but there aren't any compression artifacts to complain about. Not a perfect image, but a decent one.
The English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix is rock solid. Never overly aggressive this track still manages to place some well timed directional effects in just the right places at just the right time to really enhance a few key scenes such as the opening part with the mine field and a few of the shoot outs. Dialogue is clean, clear and free of any hiss or distortion. Bass levels are strong throughout and the lower end packs a nice punch. The only complaint is that there are a couple of spots where the child performers get a little bit buried behind some of the sound effects, but thankfully this doesn't happen to often and for the most part this track is very good. A less impressive but still well done Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track is also included, there are no alternate language options or subtitles provided though English closed captioning is supplied for the feature only.
The supplements on this release start of with a director's commentary courtesy of Jeff Burr who does a pretty good job of explaining where a lot of the ideas from the movie came from and detailing the history of the shoot. Burr comes across as a pretty amicable sort and while there are some moments of dead air here and there, for the most part he manages to keep things moving at a good pace and provides a lot of decent information on the film and its genesis.
Complimenting that commentary track nicely is a making of documentary, Path Into Darkness that manages to squeeze in some interviews with the key cast and crewmembers as well as some nice behind the scenes footage. The director is interviewed here as are a few of the performers and they give an interesting look at the making of the film through some interesting clips. This hour long piece follows the production from start to finish, even going so far as to include footage from the movie's premiere in Hollywood. On a side note it was pretty cool to see Damon Packard of Reflections Of Evil thanked in the end credit scrawl. Interesting enough, Burr talks about how this is sort of his mid-life crisis film, in that it's something he felt he should have made earlier in his life. The test footage of the child actors used in the film is also neat to see.
Also included on this disc is a short film entitled Child's Play that was shot on 8mm in 1981. It's a scratchy, grainy affair that features a group of boys playing army, which inspires an older man, a vet likely, to flashback to the graves of his fallen comrades before storming outside and ruining the kids' game. This runs just six and a half minutes and is an interesting, if heavy handed, anti-war short film.
Rounding out the extra features are a few minutes worth out outtakes, a music video, a still gallery, and trailers for a few other DVD releases.
Straight Into Darkness is an interesting and at times almost surreal war film that does a good job of mixing horror movie elements with some serious drama. Unfortunately it gets a little buried under its own message but that doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile. The performances are good enough and the atmosphere is rich enough that this well put together disc is worthy of a recommendation for genre fans and would definitely make a solid rental for everyone else.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.