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Suffering (or benefiting) from the usual wintertime madness at our house, I find myself alone with the TV as the wife goes to bed at 9pm. See, she's got a cold, which I think gives us an unbroken three months of illness in the house, as bugs whip back and forth between her and our daughter, occasionally hitting me as well. Which has meant plenty of nights with everyone but me in bed - for what? To watch crummy movies, that's what! Looking like it might fit into that crummy mold is Live Animals, a movie that in some ways typifies low-budget horror filmmaking in the aughts.
What this movie doesn't typify is the mean-spirited crappiness of many of these films. If slashers ruled the '80s, torture porn was the horror hero of the aughts, ushered in by Saw and Hostel. Slasher movies include a lot of time-wasting things like stalking and building up tension, while torture porn movies tend to cannily cut ALL the fat - just trap your victims and spend the rest of the movie cuttin' 'em up. With the success of these movies, every Craven and Cunningham wannabe grabbed their digicams, ran credit cards up to about 5 grand for budget, and chained a nude girl in the basement. Horror fans gave up in disgust. But not Live Animals writer/ director Jeremy Benson. Instead of knocking out a cynical, tedious cash-grab, Benson's crafted a schizophrenic mash that scampers crazily from ugly to arty to exhilarating to just plain weird. You can't call it boring, that's for sure.
Borrowing from the teen-kill playbook, Benson sends a bunch of horny young adults off to party in the woods, wherein a hulking, masked killer lurks. Effective cat-and-mouse activity follows, but instead of being deposited on meat hooks, our protagonists are shipped off to a horse farm, where they're looked up in stalls and humiliated for a good half-hour. At this point, I begin to crawl behind the couch, not because I'm scared, but because I get tired of watching briefly sketched-in characters debased for thrills. Grim, slow and methodical, these sequences feature lots of pointless "leave her alone!" screaming, nasty implied violence and bargain-priced gore. If that's all Animals has to offer, I'm ready to hit 'stop' and move on to my 'unwatched movie pile' instead. But Benson's got a few tricks up his sleeve; mournful, slow, requiem-style musical meditations, out-of-control stylistic switchbacks, an incredibly silly, logic-defying twist, and - dare I mention - an evil-never-dies ending.
Maybe being insane isn't this movie's wisest defense, but insanity is a unique and entertaining way for a movie to avoid becoming just another misogynistic freakshow of lurid torture. Live Animals makes the right choice. And despite its low-budget roots, Animals has one or two other things going for it, primarily some decent performances. Nothing's more uncomfortable than watching amateur thespians struggle through their first feature, something trash horror fans are well familiar with, but won't have to put up with here. Villainous portrayals fare poorly, but the victims are essayed solidly and with believability. Unfortunately, our sadistic slave-trading torturers come off as a little bland, bureaucratic and a bit too cool, almost disinterested. As rote degradation delivered by this maniacal business man begins to wear thin, things thankfully liven up, get weird, and turn corners you'd never expect. Live Animals doesn't rank near the best, but as a low-budget lark that doesn't seem to take itself too seriously, the movie takes you on a crazy ride.
Here's another odd thing about Live Animals, the DVD comes in a 2.35:1 widescreen presentation, rather than the bog-standard 16 x 9 (which spiritually should be fullscreen anyway) of most DTDVD movies. Unfortunately widescreen doesn't mean pristine, as this picture sports plenty of digital grain, occasional aliasing, and fluctuating black levels with some scenes tending to gray-out, while others have deep black levels. Colors are stylistically drab and washed out.
Dolby Digital Stereo Audio fares much better than the picture in quality. The level of audio activity is expectedly limited in stereo, but dialog and screams are all clearly audible and distortion-free, while the artistic, evocative soundtrack is mixed nicely, with a strong mid-range.
Three fairly interesting extras add almost an hour of fun to your experience, which runs about 17 minutes. Writer/ Director Benson and producer Mark Williams, plus various actors dish on origins of the story, casting and the usual low-budget woes. A little bit of gory magic (especially a great drill-bit-through-hand gag) is also examined. 15 minutes of Deleted Scenes include an alternate title-sequence and more sexiness, among other things. Most unique is Behind the Digital Curtain a 22-minute mini-tutorial on doing digital effects. A fairly brief jaunt through desktop compositing, removals, (of boom mics in this case) and the addition of gun-shots and blood-splatter, comprises this clever extra. Not only do they show you how it's done, they tell you how to do it, while assuring you that a beefy computer, software and time is all you need. The information won't be enough to allow you to immediately do it yourself, but this skewed-to-the-already-semi-informed among you should be enough to give you confidence and send you off in the right direction.
Torture porn is a tired genre. Yet this expectation-defying low-budget exemplar skirts related issues such as crassness and lameness by ultimately trading its grim, artistic, and somewhat plodding first half for kooky genre mania, goofball twists and bizarre choices. Gore, except in a few cases, is fairly restrained, but degradation is in full force, something aided by overall good performances. Though the killers are a bit too blasé for my tastes the rest of this off-the-wall, schizophrenic exploitationer makes up for it, meaning horror fans may safely heed my Rent It vote.