Movie Fact: Unhelpful small-town folk are always a sign that something sinister is going on. And yet, people in movies never seem to figure it out until it's too late. Despite dirty looks from gas station proprietors and weirdly guilty local lawmen, Steve Cady (Jeremy Sisto, wonderful in May and HBO's "Six Feet Under") is a big city fella who works for the Census Bureau, sent to tiny Rockwell Falls to do some rather vague business involving computer records. Haunted by the death of his wife and daughter in an accident, he shows up just in time for the town's Harvest Festival, flirts with the pretty daughter of his landlady, and puzzles over the odd fact that the town's population has held at exactly 436 for decades. Then a local with an ailing wife comes after Cady with a shotgun, shouting, "It's the prophecy, I tells ya!" and Cady gets a little curious. But only a little – frankly, he's not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and it takes him a good long time to get worried, even after seeing a classroom full of children reciting Lovecraftian "holy words" as part of their studies.
Population 436 is a puzzler. It's not a terribly good movie but it is beautifully shot, making the most of gorgeous Canadian locations (filling in for the midwestern United States) and creating a palpably claustrophobic tension. Sisto is very good as a frustrated city boy stuck in Creepytown, U.S.A, but third act goofiness, involving Cady trying to leave Rockwell Falls as the local law plots to kill him, drags down what could have been a terrific supernatural thriller into a dumb suspense flick.
Sharing top billing with Sisto is Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, and if you're like me you'll have to check the credits to figure out which character he's playing (yeah, yeah, I know ... all the kids are listening to that crazy rock 'n roll music, and I'm an old biddy who's behind the times. You can't see it, but I'm shaking my cane at you in rage). Durst is actually pretty darn good as a sensitive young sheriff's deputy who Cady befriends. Had this been a decent movie, this might have been a great career jump for him.
But it's not a good movie. In fact, it takes almost all of the film's running time to get around to explaining the plot and when it does, it fizzles out. The final 20 minutes or so is nothing more than an extended chase scene, and much of the cooler aspects of the story (like the eerie, memorized Cthulhuian chants by those schoolkids) are never explained or returned to again. It's a film that never really comes into its own, sadly, never being scary enough or bloody enough to be a horror film, but too full of supernatural elements to be a mainstream thriller. Ultimately, it just ends up being a waste of time.
Video: If nothing else, it's a gorgeous disc featuring a remastered high-def transfer in anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen. The color is beautiful, the blacks are deep and rich and the picture is beautifully sharp. It may not be a very good movie, but the cinematography is often gorgeous.
Audio: The Dolby Digital 5.1 and French 2.0 Dolby Surround audio are both excellent (English, French or Portuguese, with optional subtitles in English, French, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish). There's not a lot going on in this film to give your speakers a real workout, but it's presented well, with nice ambient sounds coming from the rear channels and good, clear dialogue.
Bonus features: The only extra is an alternate ending which, frankly, made more sense than the one that was used. Frankly, either ending would have worked for the theatrical release, and it's nice that they offered it for comparison.
Final Thoughts: It's a bit of a shame that Population 436 doesn't reach its full potential -- the first third of the picture is a good, creepy, tense set-up that, sadly, never delivers. Fans of Sisto won't be disappointed by his work here, though, and it really is beautifully photographed. It would have been nice to have a director's commentary track on this release, just to find out what went so wrong between page and screen