Sunday, October 18, 2009
Although I've never read any of his books, I guess I've gotten into the habit of watching all the films based on the work of horror writer Jack Ketchum. This started a few years ago, when I caught THE LOST, which I didn't really like, and the New York Horror Film Festival, which I didn't especially enjoy. After that it was THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, which wasn't really a film meant to be enjoyed per se, being as it is about horrific child abuse, but I did find fairly effective and disturbing. Now there's OFFSPRING, which sort of splits the difference between the two. It's not an especially bad nor an especially good film, a lot of it is pretty clunky and doesn't work, and it's extremely violent in a way that's sort of obvious with really being too disturbing, but it's hard to entirely write off too.
OFFSPRING is very much cut from the same cloth as the original HILLS HAVE EYES. In both films, relatively average people are confronted with violence from backwards, inbred clams of modern-day savages, and have to resort to violence in order to survive. HILLS HAVE EYES is pretty streamlined, there isn't much plot to get in the way of the action, it's a pretty lean and mean picture. OFFSPRING, meanwhile, has all kinds of plot going on, all sorts of ancillary characters, backstory etc., and it sort of trips itself up over all of this. There are a number of story threads but there also isn't a lot of time spent establishing or nurturing these, so that they matter. Everything is spelled out pretty much in shorthand, with broad strokes.
One character, for instance, is escaping an abusive, alcoholic husband with her baby. That's pretty much all we know about her, and we know even less about the friends whose house she escapes to, except that they are her friends and relatively decent people. They have a son who becomes somewhat central to the action later in the film, but there's nothing especially special about him either, he's just a kid. Art Hingle, of BLACK CHRISTMAS and THE BROOD, plays an ex-cop who has some kind of past connection to the case of the backwoods clan, but this isn't especially developed either, he's just established as crusty, the way that old cops in movies always are, and determined. And for some reason he wears an undershirt with a pocket on it, which struck me as odd.
The only character who is given any kind of development is actually the alcoholic husband. On his way to find the wife, we witness him pickup and subsequently torment a young female hitchhiker. The scene is uncomfortable, largely because of the female characters vulnerability- she's trapped in a moving car with a driver who turns out to be not only drunk, but lecherous and out, if nothing else, to humiliate her, but also because it is so seemingly unnecessary to the rest of the film. In a movie that is otherwise somewhat streamlined in terms of character development, a healthy number of onscreen minutes are put towards showing what an evil fuck the husband is, though it's difficult to tell exactly what point of view this scene is coming from. I identified with the victim, but feel entirely comfortable saying that this was the intention of the filmmakers.
I think this scene represents one of OFFSPRING's greatest flaws, which is that, ultimately, I don't think the film was really about anything except setting up scenarios to witness atrocities. It's like all the other character development at the beginning of the film was just filler to get to the point where they can show the immoral character behaving immorally. The violence in the film works in much the same way. It comes quickly and furiously, but there's very little behind it. When the backwoods clan first attacks the family, we really haven't been given much to make us care about them, and the only really effectiveness of the violence is that it is brutal and graphic. This provides some cheap thrills in and of itself, but I think the film is based too much around cheap thrills, and though they are cheap, they aren't really thrilling enough to sustain interest in a feature film.
OFFSPRING tries to shock the viewer. In particular, there is a lot of violence revolving around babies. The killers have some kind of thing about babies, they sacrifice them or something, I guess for, I don't know, the harvest, or something, good luck? Anyway, there are several scenes where babies are put into harm's way, and we're eventually treated to a full-on shot of a dead, bloodied baby corpse in a plastic bag. This whole narrative thread is also very similar to HILLS HAVE EYES, but I suppose takes it a step further by showing actual dead babies. And by and large one gets the impression that the only intent of these scenes was to take things a step further. This isn't a film like GRACE, which plays into very natural concerns about childbirth, motherhood and the presumed vulnerability of small things. OFFSPRING is more like, let's show a dead baby, because that would be fucked up. But it's not really that fucked up. I mean, it's fucked up, dead babies, but not as much as the filmmakers seem to think. After watching so many films like this, I guess you build up a tolerance to supposedly shocking imagery, and if there's nothing really motivating said imagery, nothing to do with the characters or some kind of deeper psychological or intellectual imperative, it just fails to shock.
Being a film that only intends to shock, and mostly fails to shock, OFFSPRING opens itself up to greater scrutiny. The whole concept of the nomadic tribe of cannibals that moves up and down the Canadian coast killing people, for decades no less, without getting caught, or raising much more than passing suspicion from the local authorities, is pretty much ridiculous. And the clan seems so entirely divorced from modernity, they wear loincloths and stuff, they have their own language, so where did they get the plastic bag they kept the dead baby in?
Anyway, OFFSPRING is pretty stupid, and it's not fun exactly, but it's far from boring and relatively short, so that's something. I'm not really recommending it and I'm not really saying it totally sucks either.