Even after decades redefining itself as something creative and artistic, the horror genre remains the most obvious moviemaking shortcut for the film first timer or the amateur 'auteur'. The old adage that fright flicks represent potentially quick cashback for the fiscally frugal appears to still be true, and in the new post-millennial age where technology has tempted even the most ill-prepared production, there's more terror being manufactured in basements and backyards than all the other cinematic categories combined. Yet even higher up on the filmmaking food chain, past the homemade hacks and ersatz indie visionaries, the talented and already tested are using fear to forward their flailing fortunes. Ethan Wiley is one such 'been there, done that' dynamo. Having tripped around Tinsel Town since the mid '80s, his name has been associated with surprise hit scarefests and unnecessary franchise sequels. Now, after almost a decade away from the industry, he's back vying for meaning in the macabre realm. After experiencing his latest effort, the murderous madman mystery Brutal, one remains unsure of his future fortunes.
In a small town in Northern California, Sheriff Jimmy Fleck is facing an election year crisis. His affair with fellow officer Zoe Adams threatens to undermine his campaign, and now a sadistic serial killer may be on the loose. Bodies have been turning up all over town, their torn apart torsos revealing the removal of the victim's heart. In addition, specific types of flowers have been found on every corpse, calling cards meant to symbolize something significant. Too confused over how to handle things, Jimmy hems and haws, while Zoe tries to solve the case. She enlists town outcast Leroy Calhoun, a man whose mental capacities may be limited, but whose hound dogs excel at search and rescue. As the murderer continues on his senseless spree, leaving more and more death in his wake, tensions grow between our secret lovers. Zoe wants a commitment. Jimmy may have a more "permanent" solution to his problem. All the while, the psychopath continues on his mission of misguided convergence. His actions will be brazen. They will be bloody. And they will be Brutal.
Brutal spends a lot of time being anything other than your typical serial killer film. It digs into backwoods politics, human sexuality, ancient mathematical theories, and small town adultery as much as it does body parts and motive. It focuses on characters and individual interaction more than gore and grizzly discoveries. Even better, it contains acting that circumvents the standard direct to DVD ideal, exploring the intriguing dramatic arch of more than one engaging personality, and it piles on the local color with its shot in an isolated setting spatial ambience. And yet Ethan Wiley, writer of decent '80s horror spoof House (and creator of sequels House II: The Second Story and Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror) can't help falling into some sloppy fright flick clichés. His female victims are all slutty examples of moralistic sloth. His killer is a cold, calculating SOB who fails to hold his tongue all throughout the last act denouement (see: 'expositional evildoer' under 'fear formulas'). Even his more than able actors - brilliant turns delivered here by Michael Berryman, Jeffrey Combs, Evan Lange, and Sarah Thompson - are undermined by flabby dialogue and derivative narrative twists. It all creates a kind of talent tug of war. On the one hand you're waiting for it to transcend its b-movie trappings. On the other you're anticipating its full out flop sweat and failure.
Frustratingly enough, neither happens. Instead, Brutal begins strong and then treads water for 80 minutes. Interspersed among the stagnant circumstances are explosions of emotion, glimpses of potential directorial flare, and proof that performers outside the mainstream can more than handle the rigors of real acting. It bears repeating how good the cast is. Combs essays a slimy selfish sheriff with just enough pathos that we care about the creep. Similarly, Lange's everyman maniac holds enough veiled wickedness behind his stoic façade that you genuinely fear for the people he interacts with. Thompson tries to be more than mere eye candy, and while her believability as a cop on the hunt may be stretched to maximum, her forthright focus really sells us on Zoe's dedication. And then there is Berryman. Best known for his turn as one of the cruel cannibal mutants in Wes Craven's original Hills Have Eyes, the big, bald bad-ass, often mistaken as a pinhead or other type of human oddity (he has a rare, incurable condition known as Hypohidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasia, that's all) make his quizzical character, the autistic savant bloodhound trainer Leroy, into a three dimensional delight. Between his Obsessive Compulsive tendencies and his world weary wisdom, he practically steals the film from the rest of the cast.
Yet it's Wiley who ends up working against his capable company. Pacing is a problem for this relative novice. He'll spend excessive time on ancillary elements (a pair of lesbian targets making out with each other) while giving short shrift to other, more important story elements (the whole adultery angle between Combs' policeman and Thompson's deputy). He excels at repeated visual themes (the whole flower/gardening motif) while missing potential payoffs in location and logistics. If one had to point to a single substandard concept inherent in Brutal, it would be the lack of real shivers. This is more of a thriller without suspense than a full blown human vivisection horror film. Sure, Wiley gives us a moment or two of biological debasement, especially in one scene where our fiend fishes out a woman's heart from her torn open torso. But he spends an equal amount of effort on gags that don't deliver (a young man ODs...on Viagra) and plot points that go nowhere (reporter Rick's fascination with Zoe). It's hard to say what could be done to tighten up this tenuous experiment in terror. With so much good in place, it's just impossible to fathom why the failures frequently derail it. Brutal wants to have its creative creature feature cake and copycat it too. The resulting confusion countermands the cinematic stalwarts in place.
Glossy, slick, and pretty impressive for a low budget effort, the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation from Lionsgate is actually very good. Probably formed on digital equipment, but given a nice celluloid sheen in post-production, the film has a nice level of atmosphere and dire desert mood. Even the night scenes avoid the standard grain and glare of lo-fi filmmaking to come across professional and powerful.
There is nothing really interesting about the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix. The lack of directional or other aural elements really undermines the attempted suspense, and yet the dialogue is easily discernible and the conversations are crystal clear. Anyone who has suffered through a multichannel massacre that looses everything important in the overall sonic assault will be glad of this back to basics approach. Home Theater aficionados may balk a little, however.
As for added content, Lionsgate steps up and gives the cast and crew of Brutal a chance to speak for themselves. Writer/director Wiley gets a solo audio commentary, and it's a compelling listen. He talks about the casting process, about how a website devoted to his first film House led him, in part, to the secluded California location, and the reasons for making this kind of horror movie. He's an engaging, amiable presence, perhaps a little too in love with the final film to be completely reliable. As for everyone else involved, a Behind the Scenes featurette delivers the Q&A quips. Interspersed with glimpses into actual onset moviemaking, many in the cast compliment Wiley and praise his approach to fear. Genre fans, on the other hand, may take issue with such stellar assessments. Along with a typical collection of trailers, this DVD delivers a solid set of bonuses.
Since it strives to be more than your standard slasher slice and dice, and because so much good material and so many good performances are locked inside this movie's frequently faltering conceits, it's hard to put a clear critical summation on something like Brutal. It wasn't bad, never boring, and frequently felt like a well meaning mainstream effort. On the other hand, cover art comparisons to Silence of the Lambs and Hostel are laughable at best. In many ways, this is an expertly helmed Lifetime Movie, salacious subject matter balanced with chunky chick flick choices. Still, fright fans will get a kick out of the acting and the premise, so a Recommended rating is warranted. Wiley may understand the basics of fright, but he has a long way to go before reviving his place in the movie macabre pantheon. Brutal is a good first step. On the other hand, it's far from a complete redemption.
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