No Way Back
Troma // Unrated // $14.95 // June 28, 2005
Review by Bill Gibron | posted July 22, 2005
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Graphical Version
There is only one genre of movie that has very little value, cinematically speaking. While fans can argue over such a statement, and critics can point to a couple of examples of excellence, for the most part the hick flick has minimal amusement factors. Such a belief may be myopic, and reflect a rather cursory look over the titles that make up this filmic fundus, but the reality is relatively clear. Save for the odd entry here and there, the rest of the cracker canon is pretty crappy.

Whether it's a story centering on callous cosmopolitan rubes returning to the rustic - and repellant - agriculture of America, or the 'he-yuck yuck' hi-jinx of the bumpkin discovering life outside the familial farm (and gene pool), the moonshine motion picture is definitely not the royalty of the celluloid set. Where's the mastery in barnyard hay rolling? How is a narrative formed out of brother/sister fornication meaningful? Instead, the redneck film is mostly seen as a sleazy and exploitative way of making gross overgeneralizations about rural morals and temperament. They are rarely an actual or authentic exploration of US country culture.

No Way Back would like to change all that. It believes in the viability of vittles-based variety and sees no problem with tapping into the entire cow and chicken concept of Four-H feature filmmaking. It also wants to add a little supernatural sway to the storyline. The results, more or less, speak for themselves. Heady, inventive and occasionally corny, this is still a strangely effective movie. While it doesn't successfully dust all the manure and compost off of past forays into farmyard fiction, it does deliver something more intelligent and artful than the usual pig in a poke panorama.

The DVD:
Joe and Fletcher have been friends since high school. As they've aged, they've grown apart. Now, in their late 20s, each man hopes to rekindle their camaraderie with a hunting trip. Joe has never really left his earthy ideals, while Fletcher is a yuppie in every vile variant of the term. As they start out into the Appalachian Mountains, they hope to get back to the basics of their relationship, as well as figure out who they really are as individuals. A sudden run-in with some locals changes everything. Fletcher is wounded and winds up in the house of the Campbell clan - father, son Zebediah and daughter Hallie.

As they nurse the stuck-up stockbroker back to health, Fletcher starts to notice things. The family lives in a kind of cultural vacuum, acting like it was 50 years in the past. Even worse, they have an ongoing feud with the neighboring McDonalds, who don't appreciate an "outsider" getting involved in their affairs. As Fletcher falls for Hallie, tensions between the broods bubble over. Guns drawn and sides taken, our hero soon learns that there's No Way Back - either for him or the 'haunting' woman he loves.

No Way Back is a movie that has to be seen more than once to be appreciated. The first time through, the film brings with it certain baggage that, frankly, it has no control over. The way Troma treats it, you'd think this story of hunters and their run in with a haunted hollow was a low budget Deliverance duplicate. Or worse, with Lloyd and Company's low budget horror pedigree wrapped around its release, one can easily see a Redneck Zombies style romp (the DVD cover even refers to the film as "An Undead Hillbilly Ghost Story"). But in reality, No Way Back is none of those things. Original working titles like Feud and Evil Valley, U.S.A. don't do it justice either. What we have here is an attempt to make a subtle, stylish ghost story that circumvents pretension to show heart, heroism and hope. Surprisingly, it manages all three emotions rather well.

But - boy! - is it hard to get the ass-raping inbred hooligans of John Boorman's 1972 opus out of your head when you first settle in. Indeed, fans of exploitation will additionally infer all manner of monkey loving and malfeasance into this movie, using countrified cheese like The Pigkeeper's Daughter and Moonshine Mountain as the basis for the backwoods bedlam. The closest this comes to Herschell Gordon Lewis and company is a somewhat similar set up to Two Thousand Maniacs (which itself stole its premise from Brigadoon). Otherwise, screenwriter Morgan Sloane and director Michael Borden have created their own inventive interpretation of the Hatfields and McCoys. In essence, No Way Back is a stranger in a strange land saga juxtaposed with folklore and urban legend. It takes decidedly city-slicked jerks and teaches them both lessons in the land, and the people who once populated it.

It's not giving anything away to note that everyone Fletcher comes across during his hunting trip is a ghost. Director Borden places so many hints in the opening shots, the fading in and out of figures in the distance, that we immediately get the idea of something supernatural in the air. Indeed, what this filmmaker hopes to do is shift the sentiments toward his characters. If we can get involved in their wants and needs, their hopes and dreams, the otherworldly dimension will still have its impact, even if we more or less know it in advance. Thanks to some brilliantly minimalist writing from Sloane (who doesn't make her screenplay explicit as much as implicit) and some nicely realized acting from the entire cast, Borden manages to transcend the trashy trappings of the subject and deliver a deep and humble drama. This is not a movie based on a trick ending or sudden final revelation. Instead, it is a carefully constructed story that hopes to resonate emotionally once the final denouncement is delivered.

Don't get the wrong impression, however. No Way Back is not some manner of forgotten masterpiece. This is not a work of unqualified genius merely waiting to be recognized as such. There are flaws all along the way, elements that lessen the movie's impact and power. For one, Sloane and Borden may be telling TOO simple a story. At about the one-hour mark, we need another subplot to stumble in and misdirect the action. As it plays, once Fletcher finds himself in the Campbell clan, it's a direct line to the final showdown with the menacing McDonalds. Had the filmmakers found a way to introduce some kind of sideline - an illicit relationship for Hallie's brother Zeb with a McDonald girl, a sympathetic member of either family trying to double-cross and/or calm the turmoil - we'd have a near perfect set of cinematic parameters. The ending battle would have more relevance, and perhaps we wouldn't need to have our hero single-handedly kill 10 or 12 men to create the final one-on-one standoff.

Also, a little more in the arena of tradition would have helped. Sloane uses an actual feud that still exists in Scotland (that explains all the kilts at the big Family Reunion that's at the center of the film's second act) as the basis for her bad blood. But we never learn the actual basis for the grudge, nor how there came to be only three members of the Campbell lineage left. Usually a film attempting to recreate an era throws in lots of temporal details - tools, tendencies - to illustrate its period particulars. But aside from a very rural setting, and lots of bib overalls, we never get a real feel for the rustic nature of the narrative. There are also a couple of lingering questions raised by No Way Back, ideas that ghost logic and the low budget facets of the filmmaking just don't address. The dialogue contains hints of moonshining, government interference and other "outsider" elements. These appear to be buzzwords however, lazy lip service to the genre concept inherent in the story. Borden and Sloane leave them unattended and unanswered.

At least the creative team found actors who could truly deliver on their designs. Campbell Scott, in one of his first roles, does a nice, understated job as Fletcher. He finds the needy core to his cold stockbroker soul and slowly allows it to warm over the course of the narrative. Equally impressive is Virginia Lantry, who must manage the tricky part of Hallie. One of the more interesting conceits used by Borden was the decision to make all the 'ghost' heroes homely, and all the evil entities attractive. So Lantry is lost in a plain Jane persona that must radiate with the kind of love and longing that would instantly grab a guy like Fletcher. She provides such presence with kindness and control. Elsewhere, semi-Seinfeld/Everybody Loves Raymond regular Len Lesser is very good as the head of the Campbell crew, while B-movie favorite John Durbin is dead-on as Hallie's brother Zebediah. Together with Sloane's serviceable script and Borden's basic direction (he's no visionary) we end up with a very well essayed exercise.

So don't let the deceptive cover art fool you. Avoid preconceived notions about haunted hillbillies and family feuding. No Way Back may not be a flawless film, but it does deliver a quiet, quaint story with persuasion and passion. One could easily see this story modified into mainstream Hollywood fare, with a hunky lead falling for a fetching Indie icon as all manner of bucolic falderal is tossed into the background. Naturally, the violence would be amplified, and the sexuality switched from simple courting to out and out copulation. It's a testament to Borden and Sloane's talent that, even without the blockbuster bolster, their movie more or less works. Fans of gore or gratuitous goofiness should steer clear, however. No Way Back is not a typical Troma title, no matter how hard those mavens of maverick moviemaking try to make it so. If you erase your bias and go in clean, you'll truly enjoy this straightforward story.

The Video:
There is something a little odd about the DVD presentation of No Way Back. Troma releases a fairly clean, if somewhat fuzzy 1.33:1 full screen image that is perfectly fine as direct to video films go. But somewhere along the line, either in the mastering or the original editing, several overlapping shots were left in. For example, a character will do one action, the scene will cut, and then when we cut back, the character is doing the initial motion over again. This mostly happens at the beginning of the film, and in any of the action scenes. It is a little disquieting at first, as you get the feeling that something is wrong with your DVD player. But after testing it on several machines, it is clear that this is part of someone's plan. Whether it is Troma, or Borden, is another matter all together.

The Audio:
As with most low budget cinema, No Way Back has a plain and simple Dolby Digital Stereo mix. No major channel challenging, no subwoofer workout or speaker-to-speaker spunk. The dialogue, for the most part, is clear and decipherable and the musical cues add a nice ambience to the film's many moods. While the aural attributes are really nothing special, this is still a professional sounding product.

The Extras:
The good news here is that Troma treats No Way Back with a decent amount of respect. Aside from all their usual merchandising material (Web Monkey's Bananas, Make Your Own Damn Movie ads) we actually get a compendium of contextual materials. The bad news is that the sound on several of these bonus features is pretty bad. Campbell Scott is corralled by Troma king Lloyd Kaufman for a 10 minute interview. When we can HEAR what the actor has to say, he more or less dismisses No Way Back as that most feared-of famous face factors - the flawed first film. He is genial and genuine while discussing other aspects of his career however. Next up is a sitdown with Sloane and Borden. They are a wealth of information on how the film was financed (they were approached by a producer who said he wanted "90 minutes of exposed film, 5 killings, and a supernatural angle") and the basis for the story.

Equally interesting is the full-length audio commentary by the couple. Borden is a regular encyclopedia, remembering almost everything from a shoot that occurred 18 years ago. Sloane adds her occasionally artistic statements (who she based characters on, what story elements came out of real life) and the pair seem really pleased with the final product. For a further look behind the scenes, Troma offers a nice little Making-Of featurette that shows us the how-to for several of the film's key scenes (with comparisons to the final product after each one). Seeing the filmmakers so young adds more weight to what they eventually accomplished, and puts No Way Back into perfect perspective. It's rare when a non-Troma film (one that the company did not make, but merely distributes) gets such a broad background treatment. The added elements really add to the value of this DVD release.

Final Thoughts:
It's a very close call on No Way Back. It is easy to see how someone could be fooled by Troma's terror tag and feel ripped off and let down with the movie's actual magic realism mannerisms. It is also possible that fans who know full well what they're getting into will still dismiss this film as a hackneyed attempt to carve meaning out of what is basically the cinematic equivalent to the lyrics of a bluegrass song. Yet for anyone looking for a respite from the Daisy May/Lil' Abner atrocities that fill the cornpone category of motion pictures, No Way Back is just such a potent poltice. It may not 'waller in the holler' like other examples of Southern hospitality hokum, but it is an inventive and engaging entertainment. As long as you know what you're getting from the start, you should thoroughly enjoy yourself. As off-title tales go, this one is pretty close to hog heaven, which is really saying a great deal for such an otherwise gangrenous genre.

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