Hatchet
Starz / Anchor Bay // Unrated // $29.97 // September 7, 2010
Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 4, 2010
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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R E V I E W S
Graphical Version
A
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bunch of twentysomethings. A swamp. A hideously deformed mutant. A hatchet. That's pretty much all the plot summary you need.

Okay, there's a little more than that to Hatchet, a love letter sopping with blood to '80s backwoods slashers like Madman, The Burning, and Friday the 13th-plus-some-Roman-numerals. See, this kinda gangly nice guy named Ben (Joel David Moore) has been dragged by a bunch of his friends down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. The kid's still reeling from a nasty breakup, and the whole point of this thing is to distract him from all that with beads, booze, and boobs. Ben's not really going for it, and looking for...well, literally anything else to do, he remembers some old pals talking about a night swamp tour they really dug. With his longtime buddy Marcus (Deon Richmond) very reluctantly tagging along and nudged in the right direction by the gravelly-voiced Reverend Zombie (Tony Todd), Ben finally tracks down one of these tours. A party bus it's not so much. There's a jolly, middle-aged married couple yanked straight out of a '50s sitcom. The guy over there with the camera is directing a low-rent Girls Gone Wild knockoff and prodding a couple of nubile broads (Joleigh Fioravanti and Mercedes McNab) to show their tits every couple of minutes. There's also Marybeth (Tamara Feldman), a gorgeous but kinda intense girl who keeps to herself off in the corner. Ben awkwardly tries to chat her up, but...nope. Not happening.

Anyway, after being barked at by one of the, uh, colorful and kinda unhinged local types, the tour gets underway. The guy leading the way (Parry Shen) is shamelessly reading off note cards and has a Cajun-fried accent he must've picked up by watching The Waterboy on TBS a few times too many. Marybeth corrects the kid when he starts mangling the local legend of Victor Crowley. Many, many years ago, there was a disfigured little boy who lived in this remote stretch of the swamp who the local kids would torture and torment relentlessly. One of their pranks went wrong. Victor wound up taking a hatchet to the face and was burned alive. They say on quiet nights when you drift past the old Crowley house, you can still hear Victor's voice howling in the wind, crying out for his father... Oh! And if your sketchy tour boat sinks in alligator-infested waters and you have to trudge through the swamp in search of something resembling civilization, maybe you'll be ripped to fucking shreds by Victor Crowley yourself.

Anyone who's been paying attention to horror over the past few years has come across writer/director Adam Green...maybe from his commentary track on Friday The 13th Part IV, maybe from the extras on the criminally overlooked Grace, maybe from the convention circuit, or maybe from...well, Hatchet. This isn't a case of some music video director wanting to break into Hollywood and helming the first remake that came along. Hell, Hatchet didn't even have a studio behind it when cameras started rolling. This is the work of someone with such an intense love of the genre that he had to make his own '80s-flavored slasher. That sort of passion is seared into every last frame of Hatchet. I mean, that's Kane Hodder -- the man who donned Jason's hockey mask more than any another actor -- behind Victor Crowley's hideously deformed face, and he even gets a shot at a rare dramatic turn without a mask. There are cameos by Robert England and Tony Todd too, so that's Jason, Freddy, and the Candyman all in the same flick. Seasoned genre vet John Carl Buechler (Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood) tackles Hatchet's hyperambitious and batshit insane splatter effects. Green remembers those days when horror flicks were fun, and that's really
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what he sets out to do with Hatchet. He wants the audience to laugh. He wants the audience to scream. And...why not? He wants to see arms get ripped off, he wants to see impalings, he wants to see decapitations. My kinda guy.

Some gorehounds may grouse at the pace of Hatchet, and admittedly, it doesn't stick to the usual slasher formula of someone being hacked apart every eight-to-ten minutes. Once the buckets of blood from the opening kills have been washed away, there's not another attack for fortysomething minutes. For most slashers, this'd be fatal. I mean, who wants to sit through a bunch of endless scenes with clunky, stilted comedy and...well, even clunkier, even more stilted acting? I'd normally be right there with you, but here's the thing: Hatchet doesn't drag in the middle. A lot of the build-up is played for laughs, and it works. I know! Shocking. Unprecedented. A horror flick with a sense of humor that actually connects. It's hit-or-miss, sure, but probably half of the jokes had me cracking up, and that's a stronger percentage than most out-and-out comedies. Hatchet's also crammed together a remarkably talented cast. There aren't any weak links. No one stumbles through their lines. If anything, they're so immediately likeable that they take some pretty good material and elevate it into something great. So what if the body count stays flat for half the movie? I had fun palling around with these characters as long as I did. If you ever do get bored, there's at least the guarantee of a couple of boobs every few minutes to wake you up.

The construction of Hatchet kind of demands that things go this way too. It's all about the build-up...the anticipation. Hatchet ratchets it up to a fever pitch, and that'd be deflated if Crowley had carved one of these poor bastards apart twenty minutes earlier. There's not much of a place in the story where Crowley could've swooped in earlier than he does anyway. Adam Green winds it up and winds it up. When he finally does let go, Hatchet is completely unhinged and unrelenting. Hatchet doesn't cut away. It doesn't trip over any subplots. The last half hour is nothing but Crowley chasing a few straggling survivors through the woods and carving them apart. Think...I don't know, a highlight reel of the best kills from the entire Friday the 13th franchise fused with the dementedly over-the-top splatter of Dead Alive. The kills straight across the board are so cacklingly insane. Especially for such a low-budget and fiercely independent production, the gore is incredibly ambitious, and not even a little bit of it has been augmented or replaced with CGI. There are some computer-generated atmospherics and stuff, but the actual splatter...? All in-camera. The word is that more than fifty gallons of blood are sloshed around. One woman's head is split apart at the jaw like a Muppet. There's gas-powered-belt-sander fu, a cinematic first. Crowley unscrews one guy's head. Limb-rending. Multiple decapitations. Hell, Hatchet seems kind of annoyed that there are only so many actors on the bill to dismember, so following what would be the kill in any other slasher, Crowley keeps going. Half the murders are followed by a different splatter effect, so it's like getting two kills in one. Why settle for just sanding off someone's jaw when you can go ahead and skewer her afterwards too? The kills are so gruesome and
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wildly imaginative that I kept wanting to rewind and watch 'em again.

The downside...? Not much. In fact, for pretty much everything that'd normally be a complaint, Hatchet manages to rework into a point of strength. There really isn't any doubt that the kills are the top draw here, and sure, I would've liked to have seen a lot more of 'em. Like I said, though, I get the reason for that, and I don't think it ultimately hurts the movie that the body count doesn't really start racking up until forty-five minutes in. The Victor Crowley make-up is ambitious and very well-designed -- think a country-fried Elephant Man on Monday Night Raw -- although it is kind of stiff and rubbery. That's not too much of a distraction, and when the camera is pulled in on him, Crowley is usually...y'know, dismembering someone, so your eyes are kinda focused elsewhere. I've read some gripes about how Hatchet isn't exactly scary, and I don't disagree. I don't think finger-wagglingly sca-a-a-a-ary is what it's going for, though. I know it's a cliché and all, but Hatchet is a thrill ride. It's about jolts and screams, not unnerving suspense. The barrel drums of splatter are brilliant, the jump scares frequently suckered me in, and that isolated, unforgiving sense of atmosphere it sets works well enough. At the end of the day, a lot of the elements from '80s slashers creep in here too, so our heroes are constantly knocking Crowley down, leaving him for dead, but never swooping in with a killing blow. There's a reason for that, but if you're going to gripe about characters in a slasher flick not thinking things through, then you're kind of following the wrong genre. Nothing here is any more irrational than you'd get in a genuine, authentic slasher from the mid-'80s, and I love some of the genre homages like the climax in a cemetery and the way it one-ups the final scare from the first Friday....

If there were a contest for the most demented splatter-comedy of the past few years, I'd have to give the nod to Wrong Turn 2. To be fair, though, that was a bigger budgeted movie with studio support and a heftier budget. There's also the whole thing where I don't have to choose just one, and I'm very glad to have both on my shelf. Hatchet is a hell of a lot of fun, and although the seams definitely do show at times, it's so sharp, so ambitious, and so well-realized that I was surprised to learn that it was produced completely independently...that it was helmed by a relatively inexperienced feature filmmaker. Green shows enormous promise in what's more or less his debut, and I'm really looking forward to taking a look at the movies he's hammered out since. (For anyone keeping track at home, I should have a review of Green's Frozen up in the next week or so.) Everyone involved with Hatchet clearly had a blast making it, and that's infectious. I'm enough of a child of the '80s to have grown up with the same slashers that inspired Hatchet, and what's not to love? I mean, Kane Hodder, Robert England, and Tony Todd all appear in the same movie for the first time in a decade. There's all that inspired splatter and a really great sense of humor. I really dug Hatchet, I'm definitely going to make it a point to check out the sequel due this October if it shows up in any theaters in my neck of the woods, and this Blu-ray disc...? Highly Recommended.


Video
Most of the '80s slashers that have washed up on Blu-ray so far have been really soft, grainy, and kinda muddy. Hatchet may take a lot of its cues from those gutslingers, but the way it turned out in high-def...? Not one of 'em. My kneejerk reaction was that with as ridiculously clear and detailed as Hatchet is on Blu-ray, I assumed for the first few minutes that it had to have been shot on digital video. Nope. This is 35mm, just like it oughtta be. Though admittedly a handful of shots don't impress in quite that same way when the camera eases back -- probably just because of some run-and-gun lighting and camerawork -- Hatchet generally looks incredible on Blu-ray. Definition and detail are both consistently strong. There's a punchier and more vibrant palette than I'm used to spotting in slashers anymore. So many of these movies are desaturated or tinted blue or whatever, so it's a welcomed change of pace to spot one that's more colorful when it ought to be. So much of Hatchet is set in the dead of night that opening the film with brighter, sunnier colors helps keep things from looking stale. It's also worth noting that the latex and barrel drums of splatter hold up under the scrutiny of high-def too. I couldn't spot any hiccups in the compression, smeary noise reduction artifacts, or ringing from any edge enhancement either. There's no speckling or wear worth griping about. Just enough grain is present to remind you that Hatchet was shot on film, but there's never enough to distract, and it doesn't look as if any of that grit has been filtered away. It's not as warm and filmic as I would've expected out of a 35mm production, but whatever. There's a really strong sense of texture about the whole thing too, and the image still holds up really well under limited light. So, yeah. I'm impressed.

Hatchet is served up on a single layer disc, and the unmatted 1.78:1 video has been encoded with AVC.


Audio
So, here's a reaction I'm not really sure I've had before: awesome sound design, kinda mediocre mix. Hatchet is lugging around a six-channel, 24-bit Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, and the design is every bit as aggressive as that disfigured nutjob. The swamp is teeming with sloshy, skittering sounds in every channel. There's a really heavy emphasis on atmosphere: chirping frogs, rain, claps of thunder...that sort of thing. There's an emphasis on directionality -- I mean, really dropping you in the middle of a scene with discrete effects swarming from every speaker -- that trumps most big-budget action flicks. The design and construction of this 5.1 soundtrack is nothing short of phenomenal. The actual recording, though...? The mix...? That's kind of a different story. The dialogue and music frequently wind up sounding kind of brittle...just doesn't have that full-bodied heft I'm used to hearing on Blu-ray. The strange thing is that the synth-heavy score and some of the licensed music frequently pack a meaty low-end -- especially those colossal jump scares! -- but still feel thin at the end of the day. A few lines sound a little clipped too. What Hatchet manages to do with all of these individual elements is really remarkable -- again, this is one of the most effective, endlessly immersive soundtracks I've stumbled upon in ages -- but the fidelity of elements themselves doesn't quite live up to those same standards. Still sounds good, tho', and this is a very strong effort by any standard but especially for such a fiercely independent production.

Aside from a couple of audio commentaries, there aren't any alternate soundtracks: no dubs or downmixes this time around. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH) and Spanish.


Extras
Anchor Bay has been really stingy when it comes to carrying over extras to their Blu-ray releases. Loaded DVD special editions like Behind the Mask had literally everything yanked out when they were dumped on Blu-ray, not even serving up so much as a menu screen. No need to fret with Hatchet, though. Not only does this Blu-ray disc carry over everything from the DVD from a few years back, but Anchor Bay even ponied up for a new audio commentary.

There are right at four hours of extras in total, and every single one of 'em is great. No filler. No vapid promotional stuff. Every last thing on this disc is essential viewing.
  • Featurettes (74 min.; SD): Hatchet's stack of making-of featurettes in total run just about as long as the film itself. Technically, there are five different segments, but Anchor Bay was nice enough to let you play them individually or all at once, and I like the way it feels as a feature-length doc.

    Clocking in right at 40 minutes is "The Making of Hatchet", and it's in the running as one of the best making-of pieces I've seen in the past couple of years. For one, it knows that you've already watched the movie, so its runtime isn't padded out with clips from the flick. All killer, no filler, like the kids say. "The Making of Hatchet" runs through everything. There's a lot more that goes into putting a movie together than just showing up on a film set, and none of that's glossed over: Green dreaming up the concept when he was just eight years old (and nearly getting booted out of summer camp for it!), shooting a teaser trailer to prove to investors that they really could make a movie, the completely unconventional backdrop where the voiceover for the trailer was recorded, and building pre-pre-release buzz online. It's heavy on home video footage that lets you see the things everyone's talking about as they happen, from location scouting to chatting up Robert Englund on the phone for the first time.
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    Lining up a cast, juggling that mix of comedy and horror, taking over Bourbon St., passing off a Californian desert as a muggy swamp, the manically high energy on the set...not too much is left unturned aside from the talking points that score featurettes of their own. I really like how teeming with personality it all is too. "The Making of Hatchet" really gives you a sense of what these people are like and how it must've felt to have been a part of this shoot, and it's pretty infectious.

    The most interesting revelation in "Meeting Victor Crowley" is that...well, even Hatchet's cast didn't meet the undead psychopath until cameras were rolling. Their horrified reactions on-camera really are their very first times seeing Kane Hodder in all that mangled make-up. This featurette delves into the look of Victor Crowley, complete with some conceptual sketches, along with the way Hodder kept his distance from the cast when in full make-up as well as all of the pranks he pulled on 'em throughout the course of the shoot. Since pretty much everything was being documented along the way, you don't just get to hear about some of these pranks but even get a chance to see them too.

    "Guts and Gore", meanwhile, focuses on all the batshit insane kills. The cast and crew chat about every department on the shoot sloshing around the red stuff, the headaches of trying to keep all those gallons of blood from spattering the camera lens, building a kinda-sorta gas-powered belt sander, and knocking out all of these gloriously gruesome murders without ever once leaning on CG. All of that leads directly into "Anatomy of a Kill", which follows Hatchet's most ambitious effect: one poor victim's head being split open at the jaw like a Pez dispenser. Gene Simmons and Britney Spears are both nice enough to show off how the whole thing's gonna work too.

    Finally, there's "A Twisted Tale". It seems at first like it's just going to be one really amazing story about the massive impact Dee Snider had on Adam Green's life, but then it turns into a series of several awesome, intertwining tales that span pretty much all of Green's life. Dee Snider is interviewed on camera for this, by the way.

  • Audio Commentaries: First to bat is the commentary track from the 2007 DVD with co-producer/writer/director Adam Green, co-producer/director of photography Will Barratt, and actors Tamara Feldman, Joel David Moore, and Deon Richmond. Green is a constant presence, and the other chairs are swapped out a couple of times. The emphasis is placed most intensely on production, and it's overflowing with ridiculously brilliant stories: rebuilding a ramshackle house in a parking lot, Girls Gone Wild refusing to associate their name with a movie this raunchy, axing an out-of-step racist subplot, actual on-camera vomiting, faking a cemetery...hell, even the story of the commentary itself is pretty amazing, getting power during a storm courtesy of a car battery. Impressively, there's next to no overlap with the making-of featurettes too.

    The second commentary, recorded in April '10, is exclusive to this Blu-ray release. Green returns once again, this time with Kane Hodder, and there's just about zero overlap with the original track. The first commentary was recorded a few weeks before Hatchet hacked its way into theaters, and this new one is bowing just before the premiere of Hatchet II. The original commentary revolves around the making of Hatchet; this new one focuses instead on the aftermath of its release and how Hatchet very deliberately laid the groundwork for a sequel. Green didn't want to throw together a lazy follow-up, so he tried to come up with an idea for what would make it into a sequel beforehand, and he points out some of the foundation that was set up in the original movie. The only downside is that Green does talk a fair bit about what happens in the sequel, so you might want to wait to catch Hatchet II in theaters before giving this track a spin. Green goes into much, much greater detail about his battles with the MPAA, and he speaks at length about the process of lining up a distributor and his dissatisfaction with Hatchet's theatrical release. The Hatchet Army, how Kane Hodder wound up with a copy of the screenplay in his hands, a one-eyed, pint-sized Crowley doing Hodder's own mutant make-up, a slew of demented fan stories...again, everything about it's great. Green quips in the original track that he didn't want to be one of those directors who churns out five commentaries for one of his movies, but I'm definitely glad he recorded this second one. It complements the first commentary really well and attacks Hatchet from a completely different direction.

  • Gag Reel (4 min.; SD): Lotsa different riffs and improvs are belted out here, along with failed takes at vomiting and coughing up blood. I guess what I'm getting at is that it's the best gag reel ever.

  • Trailer (2 min.; SD): Last up is a theatrical trailer. Oh, yeah, and this Blu-ray disc opens with a few other trailers, including one for Adam Green's Frozen.

The Final Word
So many horror movies these days are grim, self-serious, kinda pretentious, and unrelentingly sadistic. Hatchet, meanwhile, is a blood-drenched Valentine to the backwoods slashers of the '80s -- y'know, when horror was fun and wasn't watered down for the PG-13 crowd. You know how most horror-comedies really aren't funny and aren't even a little bit scary? Hatchet's unhinged sense of humor frequently connects, there are some devastatingly effective jump scares, and the gore is deliriously, cacklingly, and dementedly over-the-top. All I do is devour horror flicks, and I can't remember the last time I came across one this gruesome and gory. Hatchet is just an endlessly infectious blast and, like Slither, Feast, and Wrong Turn 2 before it, some of the most fun I've had watching a horror movie in years. The hours of extras make Hatchet all that much more worth buying, and the fact that the movie looks so great in high-def and sports a shiny new audio commentary makes it a pretty worthy upgrade over the DVD too. Very, very Highly Recommended.


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