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As horror fans, we're used to it: head-scratching decisions by idiot teenagers that make us feel (maybe just a tiny bit) that they sort of deserve it when they get slaughtered. Nighttime skinny dipping in an isolated pond, visits to the cellar when there's no power and suspicious activity, staying in a house that's clearly haunted...all of them unbelievable actions that have no basis in reality. But we turn the other way and accept them because we need to get from Point A to Point H in a hurry, logic be damned.
In the case of Prowl--the latest from the After Dark Horrorfest, joining the very similarly structured Husk as the first DVD releases in the fifth series--the eye-rolling development we're supposed to swallow is a doozy: After their car breaks down on their way to the big city, six friends talk themselves into the back of a tractor-trailer driven by an "aw-shucks ain't he nice!" dude named Bernard. What could possibly go wrong?
The main reason for the gang's urgency? Sad Amber (Courtney Hope) needs to get out of Dodge (a.k.a. Famfield, Illinois, which looks a lot like Bulgaria) right quick. Tired of her dead-end life, her dead-end job and her deadbeat alcoholic mom, she dreams of bigger and better things in Chicago. She's found the perfect apartment to rent, too...but has to get the deposit to the landlord within the next 24 hours or apparently her dreams will die (seriously, there's only one apartment option?). Yeah, she's kind of an annoying spaz--and once we realize she's also a selfish brat primarily concerned with her own agenda (using her friends to get what she wants ASAP), we're not quite as "on her side" as director Patrik Syversen and writer Tim Tori want us to be. "You don't understand!" she whines. "I'm finally getting out of Famfield! I've already waited too long! If I let anything else get in my way..." Boo hoo!
Nonetheless, her friends have her back. They include best bud Suzy (Ruta Gedmintas), who brings along jock boyfriend Peter (Joshua Bowman); pothead lovebirds Fiona (Perdita Weeks) and Ray (Jamie Blackley), whose names escaped me the entire film as I simply referred to them as Stoner 1 and Stoner 2 (who at least has a great line of dialogue after their van breaks down, the script having some bright spots amid all its familiarity and stupidity); and a nerdy guy (George Oliver) who I had a similar recognition issues with (his name is apparently "Runt", but I just called him "Nerdy Guy"). He's got a thing for Amber, but she's totally not into him...which is probably why she doesn't care when he's forced to sit in the front cabin with driver Bernard (Bruce Payne). The country bumpkin has just one rule: Don't mess with those cardboard boxes in the back, okay?
All seems fine for a little while, our friends partying in the back en route to the Windy City. But when a bumpy ride raises their suspicions, and a peep out of the glory holes in the truck's walls raise their suspicions (hmm, that sparse countryside looks a lot like Bulgaria, not Chicago!), and Bernard's odd responses when they try to call Nerdy Guy up front raises their suspicions, and their cell phones suddenly stop working (apparently AT&T doesn't have good service in Sofia) and raise their suspicions, and they open up those mysterious cardboard boxes to make a shocking discovery...then they realize that they probably made a bad decision. The semi comes to a stop and the back door rolls up, leading the frightened passengers out into a dark and not-quite abandoned warehouse where things quickly get out of control.
By now, we know (unfortunately) that this is Amber's film. In addition to the opening shot of her running--a painfully hammered-home metaphor for so many of the themes we see coming a mile (excuse me, kilometer) away--she also has these weird premonitions/nightmares (which deserve more explanation in the script) about scary vampire-like creatures and muddy battles that allow her to show how tough she is, getting down and dirty like that chick from The Descent. And when drunk mom blurts out that Amber is adopted, that whole "family" theme takes over, too: "It makes sense. I knew they couldn't be my real parents," she confides to Suzy, who offers this sage advice sure to please adopted kids everywhere: "Just another reason to move out, right?" Oh, now I get it! "Famville" sort of sounds like "family", and she's trying to escape it! Run, Amber! Run!!! (Hmm, I wonder if she'll have some self-discovery, learn some hard lessons and realize that things probably weren't as bad as she thought...)
It's annoying, because she's the least likable character of the bunch--and the rest of the cast is actually pretty entertaining. Despite our protagonist's constant complaining, the opening scenes with the friends at home play out nicely. There's honesty in the way their lazy days are captured, a strong sense of resignation and near-defeat making me wish this was a drama about small-town kids trying to find themselves. But that annoying Amber has to ruin it for the rest of us: "This town eats people alive," she moans, a far-from-subtle wink at the violence to come (oh Amber, how are you going to feel when your friends are actually eaten alive?!).
Oops, did I spoil it? While I never like to unnecessarily divulge plot developments, it's probably safe to assume that you know something's coming. And it comes fast and quick, the majority of the gang being wiped out so fast, you better not blink. It's a gory fun time, but from a viewer's perspective it probably isn't the wisest decision: There were some entertaining personalities that I would have enjoyed at least a little more time with, and it further fractures the film into two distinct halves that give it even more of a lower-budget TV series feel--and with the inevitable comparisons to True Blood already a given, that doesn't help. Prowl plays like two episodes of a horror series pasted together, losing some of that cinematic feel.
Amber spends the rest of the film trying to escape, with an injured Suzy by her side (it's almost comical how long she remains so alert and coherent with blood constantly oozing from that giant gash in her neck...can you at least give her a tissue, Amber?). But the carnage that Syversen and Tori unleash early in the warehouse is so severe, there's an immediate sense of hopelessness that leads us to believe there are only two possible outcomes at stake (you'll undoubtedly see where this is going). While I'm okay with bleak films, I think they work far better when we're at given at least a shred of hope and some likeable personalities to cling to...Prowl wipes most of that out pretty quickly.
So we're left with Amber trying to act all tough as she wards off vampires led by an icy woman named Veronica (a deliciously icy Saxon Trainor) and a henchman named Max (played by badass genre vet Atanas Srebrev). And because of the aforementioned violent excess, that makes some scenes laughable--like when Amber thinks she has leverage after roughing up one of the weaker wall-crawlers: "I've got one of your people!" she says, voice shaking. "I'm just gonna walk away...I won't say anything to anyone! I just wanna go home!" (Oh, now you like home! That adoption ain't looking so bad now, is it?) And writer Tori--probably sensing that we have a few reasons to "Blame Amber" (a ditty I constantly sang in my head, sung to the tune of South Park's Oscar-nominated gem)--inserts an apology scene from Suzy, who tries to take the blame for their predicament (you're a good friend Suz, but Amber is right...it is all her fault!).
Prowl has its moments and certainly kept my interest to a degree--its short 77-minute running time was a wise idea, even if it was misused. The lead-up to the realization of terror is solid, the supporting characters are fun and the first half of the film is solid. And for the most part, it makes decent use of its low budget--although there are more than a few cheats, like some probable day-for-night shots and an over-abundance of jerky camerawork and quick edits that gave me whiplash (the most annoying part of the second half). Also annoying? The sometimes poor balance with the loud score and the dialogue--it's not a major distraction, but despite frequent replays, I still have no idea what the last line is (although I'm sure I know the gist).
Like so many of the After Dark entries, this one has potential, style and some bright spots--but also suffers from predictability, stupidity and obvious influences. But any movie that makes me think of the last line of The Howling and a memorable chant (itself an homage to a classic horror film) from one of the best "Treehouse of Horror" episodes ever can't be all that bad, right?
The anamorphic 2.35:1 image looks gritty, which I'm assuming is the intention. This is an extremely dark-looking picture with almost an absence of color. Close-ups reveal some nice detail like the freckles on actress Courtney Hope's face, but longer shots don't impress nearly as much and often drown in darkness. I can't really fault the image for any major mistakes, but it isn't really an impressive looking film.
The 5.1 track (2.0 is also available) makes some nice use of rear channels, placing us in the middle of the night amongst the crickets. But the track feels uneven at times, sometimes too loud and sometimes too soft--especially when it comes to dialogue, which isn't always as crystal clear as it should be (especially that last line!). Subtitles come in English and Spanish.
The audio commentary joins writer Tim Tori with actors Courtney Hope (the lone American in the cast) and Josh Bowman. Director Patrik Syversen also appears a handful of times via voicemail messages from Tori's cell phone. He was unable to attend while on location for another film, but despite the voicemails his physical absence is felt. The trio just doesn't have enough to say, even acknowledging their silence on more than one occasion: "Whenever I'm watching commentary and the people stop talking and are just watching their movie, I understand why now," says Tori. "It pisses me off when I'm watching it, and I'm going like, 'Dude! Say something! I'm watching your commentary track, I've already seen the film!'" Adds Hope: "They're gonna be like, 'These people suck!'" (Also listen for "Somebody say something!" and "Sorry for the long pauses!")
You get the sense that there's so much to share--about the location, about the cast, about the influences--yet you come away feeling unsatisfied. Tori acknowledges a much greater mythology exists for his story, one that wasn't explored in the film--but he isn't sure he wants to share it because he might want to use it elsewhere. He also notes that he initially wanted to create a new creature but didn't, so he just let them be vampires. You also hear about a lot of adlibbing and improv from the cast, another nugget that makes you further wonder how cohesive the working script was (the film was previously titled Slaughterhouse and The Strays). A few interesting stories are shared (steel in the air...yikes!), but despite a few flashes of charm from Hope and Bowman the track probably isn't worth your time.
The Making of Prowl (2:33) is a very brief collection of interviews with some of the cast and crew. Tori shares that the creatures are "descendents of night-feeding birds from 1,000 years ago" who would "feed on children", while Syversen shares his method for working with actors: "If they suck, I tell them to do it again."Trailers round out the package.
A short running time and a definitive shift in tone only make it easier to describe Prowl as two episodes of True Blood strung together. I don't buy the writer's assertion that this is a coming of age story at heart, especially when the protagonist doesn't come off very well for the bulk of the feature--one of its biggest obstacles to enjoyment. Still, the film draws you in with otherwise enjoyable characters that keep you invested, and the film's speed (unfortunately accompanied by whiplash editing and handheld footage) keeps you engaged enough so that you're never bored. Prowl isn't bad, it just isn't focused enough to pull off its grander ambitions--and lets go of its biggest asset far too soon. Rent It.