With the horror genre collapsing under the weight of endless zombie and found-footage films, low-budget and first-time filmmakers have had to turn to a new genre in hopes of striking a direct-to-video fortune. Enter the thriller, which uses the same set of tools (a single location, some fake blood, a couple of recognizable faces), but might stand out a bit more in a less crowded field. Today's entry is The Aggression Scale, a decent home invasion story that gets more credit for having some crazy ideas than it does for taking advantage of them.
For a second, it seems as if Lloyd (Dana Ashbrook) is the man on the "aggression scale," defined by the opening titles as "a psychological test measuring the frequency of overt aggressive behaviors that may result in physical or mental injury to others." Lloyd is first seen driving around with a shotgun and a Polaroid camera taking out a number of people. A flashback dispels that notion: Lloyd is only an employee of Mr. Bellavance (Ashbrook's "Twin Peaks" co-star Ray Wise), a mobster determined to find out who stole some of his money and get out of Dodge before the police discover he's up to his old tricks.
Enter the Rutledge family. Bill (Boyd Kestner, who looks like a mishmash of Chris Pine and Rob Lowe) and Maggie (Lisa Rotondi) are getting married, and they're dragging their kids Owen (Ryan Hartwig) and Lauren (Fabienne Therese) along with them. Unfortunately for all of them, Bill is the guy Lloyd and his crew (Derek Mears, Jacob Reynolds, Joseph McKelheer) are looking for, and they show up at his new country home looking for trouble. What they don't expect is Owen: a potentially disturbed kid who's about to find a constructive outlet for his penchant for brutality.
It's an interesting choice for a film to make a violent sociopath into the "hero." Director Steven C. Miller and screenwriter Ben Powell pull no punches in this regard: Owen is an intelligent, creative, and deeply disturbed kid who gets an enjoyment out of his violent takedown of Lloyd's crew, even if Lloyd's crew aren't exactly friendly themselves. At the same time, Miller and Powell don't allow us into Owen as a person at all: he doesn't speak a word and hardly shows a single emotion. The hope seems to be that the audience will gain a bit of emotional attachment for the character because they're technically on "his side" and he's protective of his step-sister, but it doesn't work. It's also distracting how obnoxiously incompetent Lauren is often, yelling at all the wrong moments, leaving weapons behind, etc. It would be more fun if she picked up some of Owen's tricks as the film progressed.
Owen sets traps throughout the film, which will give viewers a good goosing, but Miller's midsection drags when he finally cuts from Lloyd taking care of business to a long-winded introduction of the Rutledges and a document of the strained relationships between many of the family members. It's always strange to wish a film had less character development, but the film succeeds when it's thrilling. Still, Miller makes good use of his budget with simple but entertaining action sequences involving a rolling truck and a used car lot, and shoots everything with a refreshing directorial clarity missing from far too many Hollywood movies.
The artwork for The Aggression Scale looks fine, with bold orange and red imagery, but it hardly gives an impression of the film. Full color might've given a better impression of thugs invading a domestic paradise. The disc comes in a standard eco-friendly Blu-Ray case (the kind with holes punched in it), and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Anchor Bay's AVC 1080p 2.35:1 transfer of The Aggression Scale is very impressive. Miller and cinematographer Jeff Dolen have chosen an "overcooked" look for the film, which usually means poor contrast, but the black levels here are rich, giving the image a lovely sense of depth. Colors are eye-poppingly vibrant but just short of oversaturated, fine detail is incredible, and I couldn't spot any posterization, artifacting, or noise. The image jumps out less in the second half (the color saturation pulls back as the events of the movie get darker), but this is an unexpectedly excellent transfer.
Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio has some mild source issues (a few lines of dialogue sound canned or muffled), but this is a nice aural experience that feels like someone put some effort into it. The score, by Kevin Riepl, gets the most of the spotlight, with some interesting, vibrating bassy sounds and electric guitars, while the film's sound design works to create a tense atmosphere throughout with ambient silence and harsh ringing noises. I would've liked some of the gunshots to pack a bit more of a punch, but it's a small criticism of an otherwise good track. A bigger complaint would be the lack of subtitles on the disc, which only offers Spanish Dolby 2.0 Surround in the realm of other language options.
Only one extra is included: "The Making of The Aggression Scale" (14:49), a potentially entertaining but horribly-shot series of interviews, almost all of which have atrocious audio.
Trailers for The Wicker Tree, Battle Royale, and Seeking Justice play before the main menu. No trailer for The Aggression Scale is included.
Nothing in The Aggression Scale reinvents the wheel, but the finished product still spins impressively smoothly. Recommended.
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