"My mantra for this film was 'terrible beauty'...you look at it,
it's something like a bloody, impressionistic, colorful painting
that I find just absolutely fascinating."
- director Adam Gierasch
Just a few weeks ago, I watched and reviewed Slaughter, one of eight supposed "films to die for" from the third annual After Dark Horrorfest. I had plenty of problems with the film, but one of my pet peeves stuck out like a severed thumb: the filmmaker's clichéd choice of playing classical music (in this case, Carmen) over a torture porn scene straight out of the latest Saw sequel.
So image my amusement when, just this week, I popped in Autopsy--another entry in the After Dark Horrorfest--and was greeted with a sequence in which a hospital henchman puts on a Puccini record while a demented doctor drills into the head of a young woman. I groaned from my couch, throwing my hands up in the air as I waved my white flag. It's a novice mistake, but we're dealing with novice filmmakers. Still, as far as After Dark flicks go, this is one of the better entries you'll see (which is kind of like saying Kourtney is the least annoying Kardashian, so don't get too excited). And it has Jeanette Goldstein and Robert Patrick, so it can't be that bad, right?!
First-timer Adam Gierasch (who some horror geeks might recognize from his modest acting career) gets the ball rolling nice and quick: After an opening montage shows five young friends partying in New Orleans, we wake up from the credits to the scene of a car wreck on a dark and lonely stretch of State Route 53. The gang soon realizes that their cell phones aren't getting a signal--and a hospital patient is buried under their car. Faster than you can say "convenient", an ambulance driven by two creepy orderlies flies around the corner to the rescue, carting away the frazzled kids and the panicking patient (who clearly prefers his odds bleeding out on the pavement).
The stupid youngsters agree to get checked out at a mysteriously deserted hospital nearby. Overseen by a Nurse Ratched in training (Goldstein of Aliens, Near Dark and Terminator 2), it's been operating on a skeleton crew run by Dr. Benway (fellow T2er and resident bad guy Robert Patrick) ever since Hurricane Katrina. The two authority figures try to keep their staff of two--tattooed Scott (Robert LaSardo, who you might recognize from a slew of popular TV shows) and follower Travis (Michael Bowen)--busy with work. And since the stoic doc has been cited for advances in transplant surgery and also has a wife trying to beat cancer, you know what that means.
Soon, the interchangeable kids are split up as they're called in for exams or decide to wander aimlessly around the facility in search of drugs or each other. Instead, they find zombie-like patients roaming the quiet halls. There's final girl Emily (The new 90210's Jessica Lowndes, whose spends a third of the film with her chest caked in puke), a med school dropout whose father recently died of lung cancer; boyfriend Bobby (Ross Kohn), the first to be carted away; Rancid fan and drug-hungry Jude (Ross McCall, who comes across as Edward Burns' annoying younger brother); dullard Dimitry (credited as just Arkasha), a random Russian; and his girlfriend Clare (Ashley Schneider, seen in The House Bunny as "Girl at Panhellenic").
Don't worry about distinguishing them--Gierasch clearly isn't concerned with character development, making it hard to feel any fear for them. These are cardboard characters, and their continued stupidity--not screaming for help, not collecting a bevy of sharp weapons at their immediate disposal for self-defense, not running out the front door to the police, not refusing to let an oddball doc puncture your lumbar--won't endear you to their plight. Ditto Officer Jacobs (Eric F. Adams), a cop with the worst instincts in the history of the world (he makes the Keystones look sharp in the film's most unforgiveable scene).
So much here is by the hospital horror manual--there are a lot of long, lingering shots of empty hallways, and Gierasch uses a few tricks we've seen before (not surprising considering he likes Argento; he was one of the five writers--along with co-writer Jace Anderson--on Mother of Tears). One scene is lifted straight out of Halloween II, which you'll sometimes wish you were watching (along with Visiting Hours, another of my favorite medical meanies).
While I don't dare compare this with the classy Coma, other recent films both solid (Diary of the Dead) and subpar (Red Mist) have also explored hospital horror (After Dark is also no stranger to medical shenanigans: see Unrest). But Autopsy probably has the most in common with the far-superior Anatomy, the 2000 German thriller with Franka Potente.
Not all is lost--Autopsy looks very impressive considering the low budget. It has a few visually arresting set pieces and shots, thanks in part to accomplished director of photography Anthony B. Richmond (who sports a much better pedigree than we usually see in the Horrorfest). And while so much of the intended jumps and edits are painfully predictable (Jude's discovering of a breathing body bag is suffocated of all its suspense), Gierasch manages to throw in a few successful curveballs (hey, I love me some naked men!). Those minor successes allow you to temporarily forgive the weak points.
Not that I expect a lot of logic in these films, but this one makes it sometimes tough to forgive (one of many nonsensical sequences has Jude casually walking by an imperiled Emily). The gore is sometimes subdued (and more successful, like the glass shard) but more often over the top (hinting at Herschell Gordon Lewis proportions in a few spots); this is the unrated edition, so I'm guessing most of the added footage is bloodletting. The film also has some violence (and language) that's borderline misogynistic--Emily in particular takes an unnecessarily brutal beating to the face after a nasty scene ("No, it's not misogynist," objects Gierasch to another contributor in the audio commentary. "She just happens to be a woman!").
Additionally, the stabs at humor fail more often than they succeed: Nurse Marion isn't as funny as the film thinks, and I was immune to the yuck horror and yuk yuk humor of the drill scene ("Relax...it's not like this is brain surgery!"). But I did enjoy an exchange between Jude and Scott ("That guy bled in my mouth..."), and Autopsy also has an eye-roll inducing catchphrase (wait for it around the 1-hour, 15-minue mark) that sounds like Sigourney Weaver crossed with Arnold Schwarzenegger (I'll let you decide whether that's good or bad).
And it's a shame that Patrick--a great casting catch and a great villain--is so bland here. The rest of the cast members are mostly middling, and I was particularly disappointed with the victims' inability to act (and react) with a genuine sense of fear and urgency. Gierasch also doesn't seem sure of how to end the film (even a few of the audio commentators voice their opinion on what they think the final shot should have been, with one nothing "This movie had a thousand endings"). Already a short 80 minutes, Autopsy starts to stumble a little bit in the final scenes, which don't flow together as well as they should (and you know the one "surprise" that's coming).
But at least the final standoff is invigorated with aggression (although one shot doesn't look quite right), and everyone here is having fun. Gierasch certainly has the talent, and with a little more focus could be a genre force--hopefully his upcoming remake of Night of the Demons won't disappoint. I gave Slaughter one star, which was probably generous. Autopsy isn't really a good film, but saying it's twice as good as Slaughter sounds about right--so I'll slap on two stars, cue the Pachelbel music and call it a night.
The anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer probably looks about as good as the film was intended to look. Much of the image is grey and dim, with more intense colors and light used at various points throughout. There is a lot of grain, and the black levels aren't as deep as they could be, but overall a decent enough image.
The 5.1 track is strong with sounds both subtle (crickets) and powerful (thunder), and the rear channels are frequently used to good effect. But the dialogue isn't as strong and distinct as it should be--lines are sometimes overpowered, or just too weak in spots. Not terrible, but enough that'll you'll have to sometimes concentrate. Subtitles are provided in English and Spanish.
An alternate ending (4:40) actually delivers a truly different conclusion, not just minor alterations. It's definitely worth a look, although one trick and one set-piece are recycled from the rest of the feature, so they don't have nearly as much impact (but some of you might actually prefer it...I like pieces of both endings).
Behind the Scenes: In the Operating Room (19:53, non-anamorphic widescreen) features most of the cast (Jessica Lowndes and Jenette Goldstein get the most time) and a lot of the crew. "Everything I make is all about the horror, whether or not it's psychological or blood and guts, or just something very deeply disturbing on a psychosexual level," says writer/director Adam Gierasch. "Seems like everything I come up with is nasty and disturbing. I hope that doesn't say too much about me."
In an interesting side story, Gierasch talks about his acting career--and how his very first scene was with Robert Patrick in Silent Room (later renamed Asylum). "I do recall the first time I did a scene with Adam," notes Patrick. "Um, and I understand now why he is a director and writer."
Much of the cast talks about character motivation (Patrick notes he always tries to finds something sympathetic about his character) and their interest in the project. Director of photography Anthony B. Richmond notes that the film's visual style attracted him: "There is this beauty whilst death, destruction and blood is going on, and that really grabbed me." Adds makeup/effects designer Gary J. Tunnicliffe: "With any horror film, hopefully it's not necessary, the blood and guts--but the way in which it's done, with originality of the sequences. That was really what appealed to me." (Not sure I'd agree with that assessment of the film, which relies heavily on blood and guts.)
The feature's most interesting segment has the group talking about the on-location shoot at a full-functioning mental hospital in Louisiana, part of Gierasch's aim to keep things real. I wish the director spoke more about his inspiration for the story and his decisions in the film, some of which are touched up in the...
...audio commentary, which features Gierasch, producer Jessica Horowitz, actor Ross McCall and writers Jace Anderson and Evan Katz. It's a moderately entertaining listen that shares some film facts and has a few funny moments (listen to the director point out some of the dirty photographs in one scene), worth a listen if you really liked the film. The gang has a nice rapport with each other and a good sense of humor (they talk about some logic lapses in the story), and you can just feel Gierasch's energy and enthusiasm (whatever you think of the film, you have to acknowledge his love for the genre). He notes that he intentionally paid homage to Argento's Tenebre (also watch for a Vertigo shot).
It's a big love fest for the cast and crew, with Gierasch complimenting everyone (he also notes that he and Goldstein agreed not to make her character another Nurse Ratched). A lot of talk centers on the hospital setting (expanding on the featurette); the film's color schemes (Richmond is given due accolades); the cuts that had to be made for an R rating; and the initial script--which was a ghost story (and included a scene with Dr. Benway doing surgery while dancing to The Blue Danube...sigh!).
Also included as an extra is the lame Miss Horrorfest Webisodes (57:46, full frame) that the other Horrorfest III DVD's have, and the same batch of trailers.
Saying Autopsy is better than a lot of entries in the After Dark Horrofest isn't saying much. Director Adam Gierasch shows some talent with a few sick set pieces and bursts of aggression, but some comatose performances, predictable jumps and a slightly aimless final third keep this in stable condition. As far as hospital horror goes, this one doesn't hold a scalpel to Anatomy, Halloween II or Visiting Hours, but it still packs a few scares and everyone is having a fun time. Rent It.