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When it comes to autumn-themed horror, I'm a pretty easy sell. Throw in a pumpkin, some howling wind and rustling leaves and I'm good to go. And scarecrows? Peeing in my pants just thinking about 'em. (If you haven't acquainted yourself with Dark Night of the Scarecrow--one of my favorite fright flicks of all time--do yourself a favor and buy the disc now.) So it was with ample excitement that I sat down to watch Husk, one of the eight "films to die for" in the latest crop from the After Dark Horrorfest--now rebranded under the After Dark Originals banner with staggered releases to DVD (this entry joins Prowl as the first two efforts from the fifth series to hit home theaters).
And I have to give writer/director Brett Simmons (who based this feature on his short of the same name) credit for the atmosphere he sets, placing us smack in the middle of cawing crows, giant cornfields and a creepy isolated house in the countryside. Husk gets off to a fine if familiar start as four young and attractive friends make their way to a lake house for a little rest and relaxation. Driver Chris (C.J. Thomason, perhaps most familiar to genre fans from the fun CBS series Harper's Island) leads the way with pal Johnny (Ben Easter)--who's determined to face his fears and finally do a lake jump this time--at his side (that line a dialogue one of Simmons' nice misdirections). In the back sit bespectacled Scotty (Devon Graye, a.k.a. teenage Dexter!) and bud Brian (Wes Chatham), who has brought along girlfriend Natalie (Tammin Sursok, cast in the probably-won't-happen Sleepaway Camp Reunion). They seem like a pretty likable bunch and aren't immediately annoying, which is a pretty big accomplishment for low-budget horror.
Too bad about that pack of rabid crows that fly into their windshield, sending their SUV off the side of the road. It's an inciting incident that Simmons wastes no time throwing our way, unsettling us almost instantly. When the passed-out gang finally awakens from the crash, they're in desperate need of a tow truck--and of Johnny, who has mysteriously gone missing. Brian and Scotty head off into the cornfield first, eventually stumbling upon a cool scarecrow that sends shivers down my spine. That landmark leads them in the direction of a small house in the distance. But far from providing the help they hoped for, the old and apparently abandoned home offers little but more questions--and when the duo stumbles into a sewing room upstairs (hmm, isn't that one of the rooms from the Clue board game?), a shock is in store.
Meanwhile, back at the SUV a pill-popping Natalie stumbles across a few disturbing discoveries at the edge of the cornfield. Throwing caution--and common sense--to the wind, she flings herself inside to go find Brian, with a confused and hesitant Chris soon in hot pursuit. A few screams later, the friends are alone and scared at the house--trapped amid a surrounding sea of cornfields where murderous scarecrows swim under the cover of darkness. There's a story behind it all, of course--one hinted at in the old family photographs that line the walls, and one that inexplicably plays out in Scotty's mind at various points throughout the night (why just him? Must be the glasses?).
There are a few surprises in Husk, especially with how Simmons shifts the character focus. The influence of films like the aforementioned Scarecrow (and Children of the Corn, at least in setting) are apparent, but the film is still steeped in its own eerie atmosphere. That mood and the visuals really sell the film's great location. For a while, Simmons lets the simplicity speak for itself, the style doing more than enough to keep the film moving at the perfect speed. The annoying little problems arise once the characters are forced to think and make some sort of plan, which they aren't very good at doing. They become unnecessarily stupid, and in an age of self-aware horror I can't recall a recent film where so many people in obvious peril split up so often (it almost reaches laughable levels in a few spots).
But far worse is the boneheaded Brian, who almost immediately jumps from "likable guy" to "unbearable ass". Simmons doesn't script the transformation believably enough (this is where the lack of character development in the beginning comes back to hurt us). The development leads to the film's most laughable scene and line of dialogue ("If you're not gonna help him, I will!" tops "He's losing it!" in the silly department), an unfortunate distraction in a film that has a lot going for it. But it manages to recover, and the characters still manage to come off better than they do in most other genre pics.
Simmons sets things up well, but isn't quite as assured once the straw hits the fan; the scenes don't always flow quite as well as they could. At 79 minutes, the film is nice and lean, but Husk doesn't maintain the connective tissue to help you overlook some of its flaws. That stinks, because it doesn't require too much fixing...just greater attention to character interaction and motivation. Most of the movie handles the film's speed surprisingly well, but there's also one misfire of a scene where the panicked men communicate between a closed door; it feels amateurish, making the characters look like indecisive idiots and pushing the "pause" button on tension.
Simmons also feels the need to spell too much out for us at the end, ruining some of the mystique and insulting our intelligence in the process (Scotty also lays out some obvious deductions long after we've figured it out, his chess analogy an eye-roller). The Biblical backstory has a few moments but is perhaps overdone a tad, and the flashbacks have too much of a modern feel for my taste; I wish they had a more raw vibe. And the score is a little too theatrical in some spots--powerful, for sure...but some of the harsh cues over-do it (although to his credit, Simmons beautifully utilizes silence in a few key scenes). Still, you can sense confidence behind the camera, which helps trick us into buying the moments that don't always make sense.
And best of all, the film looks great. Simmons does a lot right even if so much of it (like the ending) is predictable. Some of these scenes pack a nice punch, like Natalie's early encounter, Brian's reunion and--my personal favorite--Chris's cornfield standoff in a pickup truck with a particularly aggressive scarecrow (excerpt for my notes: "Damn!!!"). And while the sewing room spook and the film's calling card (nails hammered through fingers used as weapons) becomes less effective along the way, I like some of the themes and ideas behind the overarching mythology--which I wish the film explored more. The director gets a lot of mileage out of the scarecrow imagery (they look bad ass), one of the many darkly beautiful visual touches. I could rattle off more than a handful of individual shots and sequences that are stunning, but I won't spoil the fun--just know that they come early (beak in the windshield? Awesome!) and often. Also intriguing: my changing assumption of who the lead character was.
Those are just some of the film's elements that keep it on a solid foundation, just like those creepy men made of burlap and straw that Husk employs so well. While the film ultimately let me down a little, it comes close enough. It never had a chance to be a modern classic, but with smarter characters, a greater sense of structure in its second half, more time in the cornfield and less time spelling things out, it would have been a homerun. The ingredients and talent are certainly here. As it stands, Husk shows promise--it's one of the more decent After Dark films I've seen--but doesn't quite live up to its sizable potential. Still, the stylish Simmons is one to keep an eye on.
Beautiful! The anamorphic 1.78:1 picture is rich with fall colors and has a darker look to it, combining a healthy grain with some crisp detail that is noticeable. Detail on leaves, cobwebs, skin and body hair all show off impressively. Watch for a shot indie the dark house, with an open door framing a burst of detailed color in the background--it shows us the best of both worlds that the film has to offer.
You can choose between 5.1 and 2.0 options, and the former is a solid track that keeps us inside the wind and rustling leaves. It also likes to show off the score (a little too aggressively at times for my taste), and overall is a solid effort.
An audio commentary brings writer/director Brett Simmons together with actors C.J. Thomason, Devon Graye and Wes Chatham, all of whom have passion for the project. Their enthusiasm is engaging, and opened me up to a few perspectives I didn't consider upon first viewing--primarily the dynamic between the three main characters and how audience members might be divided on who they relate to, each character perhaps justified in their behavior (I still strongly see it from one view, but am open to recognizing others). That adds a nice little element that encourages repeated viewings, and it's interesting to hear them discuss how the characters change (and how that influences the audience/story).
Simmons talks about his love of horror and getting the project off the ground, and how the story changed over the years. He also points out how he was trying to turn horror conventions on their head in many spots, which gives the film a few nice surprises. I was a little stunned that Dark Night of the Scarecrow wasn't even mentioned in this track (really?!), while the director notes he never saw Children of the Corn (a far more forgivable omission). I liked his tribute to John Carpenter's The Thing in a scene that works well, and it was also interesting to hear how he wanted to avoid the way Signs used cornfields (where the characters always seemed to be in an aisle) and make them more imposing.
The actors gush (rightly so) over many shots, and I was particularly taken with Thomason's energy--he constantly likes to ask questions and share stories from the shoot, and comes across very genuine and excited by the film. That seems to stem from Simmons, whose passion for the film extended to all of those around him. The production design work gets ample attention, while the director notes he intentionally wanted a thematic score, not an atmospheric one (not sure I agree, but you gotta admire and appreciate his confidence). He also addresses one of the key questions I had about the backstory in the film.
Plenty of fun little side stories and laughs are also here (including lines about a leopard print Snuggie and the Forrest Gump soundtrack), including the weather, an unanticipated re-shoot of the film's most memorable scene and the work of the costume designer and other crew members--stunt coordinator G. Peter King got to drive the DeLorean in Back to the Future Parts 2 and 3, two of his first jobs as a young kid just entering the business. Simmons also discusses the other ending for the film (which sounds like it's just an "earlier" ending, although I don't find the film's final shot as ambiguous as he does).
Up next is The Making of Husk (11:47), which combines behind-the-scenes footage with some fresh interviews with Simmons, Graye and Chatham. Most interesting is watching Simmons direct the film's memorable truck standoff. Also included are sketches and storyboards, a photo gallery, the film's trailer and trailers for other films and the After Dark Horrorfest 4.
When a film is as stylish and confident as Husk is, it's a lot easier to overlook the character and story flaws that will have you scratching your head. Fast and forceful, it's a simple yet vicious After Dark entry that looks beautiful and makes the most of its powerful imagery. Writer/director Brett Simmons does a lot familiar here, but he also throws a few surprises at us. The film can't connect its great sequences as well as it should (and you really wish the likable characters were smarter), but on their own those scenes and shots are chilling enough to make the ride well worthwhile. There's a simplicity to the scares here that I love, and the scarecrows look badass. Once you accept the film's flaws and move on, it's easier to appreciate all of the things it does so well and enjoy it even more on repeated viewings. Recommended, with a slight rating boost for its look, style and atmosphere.