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Eric Stanze definitely deserves the title of auteur. Over the years, he has delivered some startlingly original genre efforts. From the psychological science fiction of Ice from the Sun to the effective Evil Dead mimicry of Savage Harvest, he is one of the most visionary directors in the outsider realm. But low budget production is a harsh mistress, and a body's gotta pay the bills somehow. Entering into a deal with DVD distributor Sub Rosa Extreme, and given the standard mandate (make some quick, fly by night exploitation titles) he oversaw the completion of over a half dozen direct to digital offerings. With names like Inbred Redneck Alien Abduction, Bizarre Lusts of a Sexual Deviant, and Insaniac, there was as much creativity as crap present, and very few of these films deserve a second mention. That's definitely the case with Stanze produced The Undertow. While channeling the classic Friday the 13th slasher idiom, this mediocre offering usurps much of the material that could make it a worthwhile terror treat.
When a group of campers come to Old Mines for a float trip, the local populace puts up a fuss. Seems they've been living under the dogmatic auspices of a redolent redneck mayor who believes all tourists are evil. Not only that, he has used his inbred mutant son, known only as "The Boy", to dispatch these undesirables in particularly gruesome ways. After a run in with the law, our out-of-towners take off down the river. Soon, they come into contact with monster's sister, a willowy waif of a gal named Billie. She warns everyone - her brother will kill them without a second thought. Even worse, The Boy has decided to take out everyone in the town, and now no one is safe.
The Undertow is a perfect example of a trade-off title. How the final balancing act resolves itself will indicate whether you like or loathe this little backwoods slasher flick. On the plus side (at least in this critic's eyes) are the amazing locations, the dependable cast of Wicked Pixel regulars, and the frequently impressive gore. There is even something to be said for Jeremy Wallace's convention-defying direction. Here is a filmmaker who will keep his camera as far away from the action as possible, bringing a real voyeuristic nature to the narrative. Yet for every plausible positive, this indie horror film finds a way to wreck its effectiveness. First up is the hideous dialogue, a combination of scripted statements and elongated gaps of aggravating improvisation. Motivations are repeated so often and so amateurishly that we hope for the killer's quick arrival. In conjunction with these bumbling conversations is the acting. Left to their own devices, many in the company turn talentless. Without words to guide them, they flail about before finally flopping. Lastly, there is a real lack of dread. For every ambient mood the gorgeous wilderness backdrop provides, the punk rock prissiness of the characters creates a distasteful countermand.
So where does The Undertow end up? On what side of the aesthetic assessment does this low budget effort land? Well, at least from this perspective, the bad barely bests the good. There is a wonderful mood created by the Old Mines, Missouri countryside, a real sense of displacement and foreboding. Even during the more tranquil moments, when our cast is floating down the lazy river, we feel nature closing in. Similarly, Wallace is working with some seasoned Pixel players. Jason Christ, Emily Haack, Robin Garrels, and Todd Tevlin all have long standing associations with Eric Stanze and the gang. We expect more out of them than this. Finally, Wallace does work in a very interesting way. Several scenes are filmed from across the water, camera set up on the opposite bank to capture the chaos in all its "as it's happening" horror. His iconic creation, the pillowcase wearing "Boy" has potential, but never gets developed beyond the standard childhood punishment parameters. He's too attached to the whole Myers/Voorhees school of slayers to stand out. At least the plentiful grue is well done. There is a particularly nasty head gag that gives new meaning to the word "brainless", and another character has all her organs ripped out while semi-submerged.
Still, The Undertow is underwhelming, and most of this comes from the lack of a cohesive narrative. We get a good set up, even if the cop stop (and subsequent beer banishment) lacks any real menace. In addition, the whole town conspiracy can work - just ask Herschell Gordon Lewis and Dave Friedman. It's what makes 2000 Maniacs a considered classic. But here, Wallace works way too off the cuff. Rumor has it that Undertow was meant as a horror spoof, but once production began, a more serious strategy was employed. If that's true, you can really tell. During the middle act camp out, the dialogue is so meandering and pointless that you can feel the film literally padding its running time. When hillbilly heroine Billie Hovis (the uncomfortably anorexic Trudy Bequette) shows up to endlessly repeat her pointless warnings, we beg for something splattery to happen. When it finally does, it fails to enliven the already deadened air. For everything it has going for it - the close knit corrupt community, the homunculus killer, the ample arterial spray, the proffered professionalism - The Undertow just can't compensate for its aspects of awfulness. There will be those who forgive its failings, chalking them up to budget and genre basics. But consider the talent involved, it should have been much better.
Pleasant to look at, Sub Rosa provides a professional 1.33:1 full screen image that truly illustrates Wallace's work behind the lens. Sure, there is some grain during the darker sequences, and daylight causes some casual flaring, but otherwise, the video transfer looks terrific. It should also be noted that Wallace has an excellent way with composition and framing. Several shots here rival the visual acumen of even the most accomplished Hollywood heavy hitter.
On the sound side of things, there is not much that can be done with an internal microphone recording dynamic. Conversations get dropped, several lines of dialogue are more or less indecipherable, and the amenable score can drown out the occasional plot point. Still, we get the basic idea, the Dolby Digital Stereo keeping everything within a certain degree of comprehension.
Typical of most Wicked Pixel inspired product, there are some intriguing bits of added content featured on this DVD. The Behind the Scenes featurette shows just how arduous (and hot) the shoot really was, and the blooper reel proves that not all the ad libbing went off without a hitch. A few deleted scenes flesh out the characters and their backstory, while the still gallery and trailers deliver the standard advertising elements. While a commentary from Wallace would have been nice, overall, it's hard to argue with this collection of bonus material.
Going out on a limb and suggesting that many fright fans will agree with such an assessment, The Undertow earns a respectable rating of Rent It. It's the easiest way to guarantee a pre-purchase sense of satisfaction. Those who end up loving it won't mind the test trial, while anyone who ultimately finds the film unsatisfying will enjoy the fact that they paid so little for said knowledge. No one faults Stanze and company for cranking out the product, even if it's as middling as this movie. Reputations are built on trial and error, and for every Deadwood Park, there has to be an I Spit on Your Corpse, I Piss On Your Grave. And since it was produced five years ago, we now recognize that everyone went on to bigger - and more importantly, better - things. Those who worship old school scares will probably adore The Undertow. Post-modern macabre lovers may not agree.
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