Vicious
MTI // R // $24.95 // December 30, 2003
Review by Bill Gibron | posted February 1, 2004
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R E V I E W S
Graphical Version
Ever since Sam Raimi bolted a camera to a 2x4 and dragged it through the Tennessee woods, future filmmakers looking to break into the business have decided to stain and strain the horror genre for their own career arch. Seems that anyone with a whim and an under-developed screenplay can find some financing solace when they pick at the scabby sore that is the state of terror in 2004. Blame can be laid at a lot of duplex doorsteps, but it's blatantly obvious that all this independent ickiness came to a callous, mere marketing ploy head when a couple of Florida film buffs trapped their actors in the Massachusetts wilderness with some video cameras and tales of a sinister sorceress. Add a million f-words and a website full of mediocre medicine show ballyhoo and VOILA, The Blair Witch Project was born - kind of like the Antichrist - unto the unsuspecting world (maybe it was real after all...RIGHT? Right...). That 40K gambit, which paid off in spoiled spades made it safe for all manner of awkward auteurs to fidget with fright and call it gore gonzo. Vicious is a direct result of this digital DIY mentality. It is the festering response to the necessity for a film school education or a working knowledge of technical skill. France Ford Coppola once said that, in the future, any kid with a video camera and a vision would be making movies in their spare time. Thanks for that bit of Nostradamus nonsense, Fran the man. You keep encouraging crap like this and you'll be out of a job soon. Oh wait...

The DVD:
Doug and his friends, Steve and Hal, are off for a little non-erotic male bonding in the wooded lakes of Anydamnplace, USA. Unfortunately, someone – namely Doug – forgot to tell his fiancé/girlfriend/significant other/ball and chain Barbara. She tags along for the ride and, in typical female fashion, lays down a bunch of touchy-feely laws that the now unhappy camper dudes are having a hard time with. No crude comments. No gas passing. And the most heinous of all – NO BEER! Well, it's not long before Hal and Steve go lager loony and traipse off to town for some pop with the foam on top. There they meet a mysterious man dressed in black leather. His name is Kane and he tells them that the fishing is better near a lake where he hangs out. Naturally, our two titans of failed internal warning signals make a beeline for the rumored croppies.

In the meantime, a general and a government bureaucrat argue over who has the most thankless job (kind of a microcosm of the Federal System in action). The paper pusher wants the warmonger to clean up a situation in an area surrounding a secret base that houses an "experimental" weapon of an animalistic nature. Marines are dispatched with one clear mission: kill the beast and terminate Kane's commission. KANE you say? The guy from the bar? That's right. Our boozing black ops badass has been running around in the forest, feeding friendly tourists and calm campers to a mutated military monster, a multi-teethed terror with its festering heart set on fresh human tartar. When Steve and Hal fail to return to tent city (gee, I wonder why?) Mr. Pussy Whipped and his too soon to be spouse Babs go on a dead manhunt. They soon run into Kane...and some corpses. Do they become the next courses in the beastie's buffet? Are these forest fools constantly avoiding bear scat?

Vicious violates so many of the tenants of the horror hierarchy that it is probably better to highlight what it gets right and just ignore the rest. But then, that wouldn't be much of a review, so we'll get to director Matt Green's genre grievances in a minute. But first it's time for some praise, faint as it may be. The one positive position a fan can fleece from Vicious is that Mr. Green sure knows how to round out a cast. He gives cult icons like Brinke Stevens, Bill Mosley (Choptop from Saw II) and Brian Bremer (Ed Harley's under-aged guide in Pumpkinhead) a chance to maintain their SAG cards (and accompanying health and dental benefits) for another year. He places Tom Savini, horror icon extraordinaire in a performance only capacity and let's him chew the scenery and cigars with relish. While it's true that Tom offers none of his usual masterful slice and dice gore greatness, his presence ups the movie's monster moxie ten-fold. And when it sticks to physical effects, the creature creation in the film is no better or worse than a myriad of other low-budget beast bashes. Vicious manages to tell an almost linear narrative, pours the blood on thick and heavy (even if the kills are all off-screen, graphic wise) and uses an evocative Georgia forest locale to efficient ends.

But Green has bigger ambitions here, grandiose ideals surrounding his skills as a filmmaker that subvert his movie, turning it from good goofy bad to intolerable cruelty mediocre. Jumping on the inkjet bandwagon with all the digital dynamics of the blue screen of death, the CGI work in Vicious is Apple IIe atrocious. In the commentary track, Green tries to talk his way out of the computer poop by saying that this version of the film, the so-called "Japanese" cut (how culturally insensitive: our friends to the East deserve better than this) was the only MPAA approved print, therefore this is what we are forced to watch. There is a director's edition coming out in a few months and the animated animal will look "great" when it is shown there. Unfortunately, that's a whole lot of caring and a must-be-joking double dip away. What we get here blows monkeys. The bosses in the regular Nintendo version of Super Mario Brothers are more realistic... and threatening. Third graders on constantly crashing public school PCs sketch stuff scarier than this to go along with their fan fiction. There is no detail, no shading or attempt to render something sensible. The military mutant resembles a cartoon version of one of those walking catfish we heard so much about a few months back. Honestly, the effects are so not special that they are a complete distraction, taking away what little genre goodwill the film achieves.

Green's other shortcoming, however, is his failure to understand the basic requirements of a low budget horror romp. It is rare when a cheaply financed feature can get by on atmosphere and ambiance alone. Usually, there must be perks, tawdry little tidbits for the general public to munch on while you try to work your more or less nonsense suspense. Boobs are a good place to start. A nice nude set of jugs, giggling and pert in the morning dew will go a long way in gaining the independent fright flicker a temporary pass. Too many, and suddenly you've got the The Bare Wench Project. Green eschews the breast for evocative shots of tree lines and scenes where government big wigs yell at each other (zzzzzzz). Intestine-tearing gore and grue is another audience appeasement device. Your monster could look like Porky Pig with a lack of bladder control, and as long as it takes huge chunks of gloppy human flesh from its victims when it attacks (with every arterial spray and gaping wound captured in extreme close-up) the fans will always forgive you. But Jack Valenti must be appeased and the undeserved R that this film earned (cut out the cursing and this is a bad episode of Yuppies Go Camping) means that all the massacre merriment is left to occur off-screen, or in jumpy edits. Green believes it is "creepier" that way. Right, and the best part of a zombie movie is when the characters settle in for a little exposition. People coming to a horror film expect to be mentally spattered, Gallagher-style, with some organs and offal. It's part of fright's fate. The non-Sledgeomatic treatment here is just as big a gyp as that aforementioned bowler headed buffoon. Like his so-called comedy act, it is pointless and non-entertaining.

In the end, though, the reason Vicious is so substandard is that it really fails to deliver anything of substance. There is no directorial vision, no experimental artistry that would take an otherwise standard creature on the loose film and turn it into David Lynch's personal night terror. The plot meanders along from scene to scene never building up anything other than cinematic hit points for the next time director Green goes role playing for a movie making job. The military experiment gone awry is about as old as Madonna's underarm waddle and twice as acrid. Nothing inventive is done with this elderly plot premise, nor is it very well explained (the "ultimate weapon" angle just doesn't cut it anymore). But perhaps the biggest sin committed here is that Vicious is not very scary. Oh sure, it tries for a mood of dread and death, that is, whenever the fat guy, Hal, can stop prattling on about needing tall cold ones (this guy doesn't just have a beer belly, his DNA is made up of hops and malt) and Green has gathered up all the talent trappings to at least make something semi-interesting. But this by the number, routine ride into the backwoods of balderdash skips too many of the scare steps to make seasoned veterans of the horror wars stand up and salute. Vicious promises monster chills, action spills, tree filled terror and Tom Savini...the actor. Half of one out of four is just pathetic.

The Video:
According to the commentary tracks and making of featurette, Vicious was filmed in 16mm, transferred to the digital medium and then edited on a laptop. All this is painfully obvious in the print presented here. Grainy with way too much color correction (the actors look bright pink in certain scenes and the trees are far too neon green) the faux widescreen image is badly matted (the bottom portion looks especially out of whack, with images looking cut in half) and non-anamorphic. Green admits to blowing up, digitally, a few scenes to correct the framing and you can tell these sequences instantaneously – the compression specks grows to unnatural sizes. The horrid image means that we must put up with a lack of depth and details, and when the stank hole CGI enters into it, the piss poor opticals are abysmal. OK, ok, this is a no budget film made under extreme circumstances. And a new version, all clean and pristine is supposedly in the works. So we will give Vicious the slightest benefit of the indebted doubt. But the update better be miraculous.

The Audio:
Rarely has Dolby Digital Stereo sounded so flat as it does here. Many of the scenes suffered from "overdubbed later" laziness that renders the interactions, the vocal quality and the tone completely false. You can tell when it is "live" and when it's rerecorded. The music is also intrusive. It tends to overwhelm the action scenes and subvert the more sedate sections. While it may be the most professional part of the production (aside from the acting), its sore thumb qualities are aggravating.

The Extras:
MTI, the company who released this DVD, gives it more bells and whistles than it really deserves. Along with the film, we get a selection of trailers, a behind the scenes making of featurette, a selection of cast biographies and a full length audio commentary with director Green and star Tom Savini. While the cast info is mostly publicity machine puke (Brinke Stevens has the right idea: her item is a small sentence or two and a link to her website) everything else has its moments. The trailers consist of adverts for more independent horror/terror fodder, including such winners as Lucky and Detour, each one looking more unintentionally humorous than the next. The behind the scenes material features interviews with Savini, Green and stars Brian Bremer and Melanie Parker. There is a great deal of backslapping and butt kissing going on here. Everyone was apparently happy and helpful. But when we break up the love fest and head to the set, we actually get to see how several of the key action scenes were done, including the van crashing into the lake as part of the finale. So if you can put up with the mutual admiration society, you'll get something out of this 20-minute mini-documentary.

But what most fans are probably salivating over is the chance to hear their hero, Tom Savini, rip this movie a new cast-hole in the commentary track. He is, almost always, an articulate and honest narrator. Well, it's with a heavy head that I have to say "sorry" my fellow horror mavens, but Savini is under the weather and under the influence of director Green here, and he actually finds Vicious an acceptable cinematic endeavor. Sure, he is critical of some of the camera work and has nothing but praise for his fellow actors and friends. But about 50- minutes into this track, he fades into the background, as if to quietly sneak out while the filmmaker is not looking and gracefully depart (or else, leave him standing with his idiotic flick in the wind). For Green though, this whole track is atonement and a tease for what is supposed to be forthcoming. He constantly apologizes for how bad the CGI is and promises a much better monster in the Special Edition DVD. He has nice things to say about Bill Mosley, bad things to say about Bruce Campbell and believes he has made a good film, filled with horror heftiness, for the cost of what is, essentially, Hollywood blockbuster cab fare. His stories of production yeahs and nays are entertaining, but his name in the credits has blinded him, creatively, to this film's foibles. Vicious is bad, but you would never know it based on the comments here.

Final Thoughts:
Poor horror. The dead horse genre just keeps getting beaten over and over again by rank amateurs (and occasional professional players) all of whom see a quick buck, a fat resume and a pre-sold audience salivating in rote anticipation that the next supposed wave of terror is just a ticket purchase away. Problem is, most don't want to take the time to make something unique or special. It's all serial killer this, psycho slasher that and mutant Hellbeast in the wilderness whatever. At one time, a horror film was more than just a series of scares: it was a social commentary, a direct reflection of what the world feared, be it outer space, the atom or each other. Today, a digital camera, a couple of below scale working cult icons and a stolen premise are all one needs to make something murky and muddled. Slap on a scare label and watch Pavlov's peons pant in anticipation. Vicious is such a stupid experience in supposed suspense. It may have been made by someone with a true love for the genre and a desire to jolt the jingles out of you, but you would never know that here. From the Amiga animated animal to the waste of an excellent cast and the lack of any real juicy bloodletting, all that we have are beautiful woodlands and baneful excuses for fright. It's hard to image how this movie could have worked and yet so many times, other offbeat terror companies (Troma, Tempe) seem able to deliver the gory, gruesome goods. Matt Green has made a movie that few will love, but many will falsely flock to. Tom Savini is a fan fave effects guru and a relatively good actor. But his presence alone is not enough to recommend this horrible horror film. The only thing Vicious you'll experience is your reaction after the closing credits.



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