AVAILABLE ON DVD AND ON DEMAND: 27th July
RUNNING TIME: 72 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
IT technician Chris has lived in fear of the dark since childhood when he witnessed his father brutally murder his mother on the night Halley’s comet passed by the planet. Ten years later, he works from home as a recluse, only going out to buy more junk food. When news of another comet passing closely by Paris fills the airwaves, Chris starts to notice some odd behaviour amongst the locals. Then his neighbour Claire, whom he likes to spy on, invites him to a party. There, the guests start behaving in a manner which can’t be put down to just a gravitational change or too much alcohol….
I know I’ve probably said this a couple of times before, but, while I try not to read any reviews in detail of a film that I’m just about to review [I don’t want to be influenced too much by other writers], I do sometimes skim a few reviews just to get an idea of the general response to a movie. Dead Shadows seems to have had what could be called a ‘diverse’ response, but with rather more people considering the film to be quite bad, namely calling it cheap and, particularly in the case of its special effects, shoddy, which I don’t think is quite fair. I personally seem to find myself becoming more and more disposed to filmmaking at the lower budget end of the scale, and more and more inclined to letting a cheap film off lightly compared to a big Hollywood blockbuster which by rights shouldn’t have many flaws at all considering the amount of time and money that’s been spent on it. Dead Shadows certainly is a cheap picture, but that shouldn’t automatically be taken as a flaw, and as for the effects – well, they’re hardly ILM standard, and considering that cheap CGI always looks worse to me than cheap practical effects, I wish that the filmmakers had totally gone down the latter route, but they aren’t that bad really except for a couple of very lame shots, while you can tell that there is some practical stuff in there too. The effects are certainly a little better than what you find in your average SyFy effort, and benefit from mostly being not dwelled upon, while Dead Shadows also bravely avoids the temptation of laughing at itself.
Of course David Cholewa’s debut feature film, shot in 14 days and running just 72 minutes, has no shame in parading its influences. It’s been described as The Thing meets Dawn Of The Dead, but also seems spawned from the DNA of Shivers, Night Of The Comet, Shaun Of The Dead, the Resident Evil series, many of John Carpenter’s other films [to which there are quite a few references], and even some anime like Urotsukidôji and Wicked City, while we’re not far from the world of H.P.Lovecraft either. It’s undoubtedly very derivative then, but every now and again Vincent Jule’s screenplay does manage the odd original idea or a twist on a familiar one. And the film really shows Cholewa as a name to watch. He may be a bit too ambitious for his own good for this picture, with time and budget not always allowing for everything to be realised properly, but he shows a real talent for creating both an unsettling atmosphere and for staging action which just need a really good screenplay to flourish. I hope enough people see Dead Shadows so that the man is given the opportunity to really show what he can do.
Dead Shadows has a very well conceived and even quite well executed opening. In space, a meteor leaves a huge tentacled….well, it’s hard to tell what it is as it’s so dark but I’m assuming it’s either some kind of planet or some kind of creature….thing to land on earth. The movie’s titles are then intercut with shots of nebulae, some more convincing than others, before we arrive at a very strong scene which really did make me realise that I was watching a better film than the prevailing opinion suggested. Some tentacled monster is partly shown in shadow outside a house before we witness a young boy creep downstairs to where his parents are arguing, and the tension is well achieved as he overhears the mother saying: “put the knife down” and the boy opens the lounge door to be confronted by the sight of dad stabbing mum! The scene is not very graphic, but it ends with the very sinister sight of the father looking at the boy and grinning. This is all quite well done and has an effectively nasty edge to it. It’s small wonder that when we rejoin Chris ten years later, he’s a little messed up. From here on the film takes its time to to the action – in fact, around half of its running time – but gradually accumulates a succession of eerie details with various people behaving oddly, a creepy woman in a park coming across as especially uncanny. There’s a really strong atmosphere about these scenes, even in a calm moment with a boy and his father with a telescope, and I almost wished the film had continued in this vein.
But no, we have to get to the action, and our hero Chris finds himself invited to a party by his pretty neighbour Claire. He thinks her apartment’s been burgled because the door’s open and goes in to find himself not at all unwelcome. There’s a really well played scene with the two here, stars Fabian Wolfrom and Blandine Marmigere possessing a rather off-beat sort of chemistry, with Wolfrom especially good at conveying his character’s awkwardness. It’s possible this is the first time he’s ever been in a woman’s place of abode, not to mention have a woman seem interested in him [she seems to get over her ex pretty quickly though]. Anyway, we eventually arrive at the party, Chris entering in slow motion which nicely showing his uncertainty, and things now kick off as some people begin to get very interested in each other but in doing so show a monstrous side. A moment where two people fall onto a bed and a worm-like thing comes out of the man’s trousers is genuinely queasy, and there’s a really startling [and probably practical] shot of a melting face, though the budget doesn’t really stretch to doing the whole sequence justice – we only see a few partygoers change – and it then all turns into your usual zombie-type movie as Chris and a neighbour have to stay alive in an apartment block full of the undead, albeit a zombie movie where a zombie is just as likely to reveal some alien growth as try to eat you. The ‘creeping around in the dark stuff’ does come off well and we even get a bit of Found Footage thrown in there which is actually surprisingly welcome and well pulled off.
The film is a little confused about its monsters and I would have appreciated a bit more detail about them. It seems that there are these parasites – they resemble the things from Shivers with eyes in one scene – which can therefore be passed from person to person, whereupon the people die and then come back to life as zombies, but said zombies also seem to be part alien as they can spout anything from tentacles to – in a genuinely horrific moment straight out of Japanese anime involving a naked woman – large spider legs. Towards the end the budget really is stretched to breaking point in a film which would possibly have been better off remaining in its central apartment block locale, but at least we don’t get a stupid happy ending. It’s not much, really, but being one who’s getting sick of more and more ‘major’ films seeing fit to tack on a dumb smiley finish which jars with what has come before [Self/less being the most recent example], I certainly appreciated it even if leaves you with as many questions as answers and could have been given far more power than it actually has. There are clumsy moments throughout the whole film – Chris rescues a man from zombies but never checks on him – and to be honest I didn’t think that the second half fulfilled the promise of the third – but Dead Shadows is always entertaining and its confrontations with zombies do manage to be quite exciting even if it’s daft how the formerly reclusive Chris is suddenly really adept with his hands, his feet and a baseball bat.
Though only sometimes visually stylish such as with the prevalent red lighting for some of the party scenes [plus that almost obligatory – for films like this – blue shading for many of the night time scenes], Dead Shadows does show Cholewa and his cinematographer Thomas Rames doing a very professional job. Overall the performances are quite good, while Kevin Riepl’s often pulsating score tends to sound like a more modern John Carpenter work, something perhaps not very surprising as the guy credited for doing sound design is Alan Howarth who collaborated with Carpenter on some of his stuff, though actually some of the sound effects struck me as being rather poor. I think it’s fair to say that Cholewa doesn’t really pull off all that he wanted to with Dead Shadows, though a lot of that is because he just didn’t have a large enough budget, nor a good enough script, to do so. He has though made a thoroughly enjoyable ‘B’ sci-fi/horror which is nothing at all to be ashamed of and certainly gave me a good time. I’m certainly interested to see what Cholewa does next. Perhaps a slightly bigger and better remake of this film, ironing out some of the flaws and really letting the special effects take flight?
Dead Shadows comes to Region B DVD courtesy of Signature Entertainment. The digitally shot film looks very sharp and clean except for a few night time moments which seem to lack contrast. Sadly Signature have been unable to either access the special features included on Scream Factory’s Region A disc [interviews, featurettes, deleted scenes], but you do get the option of seeing the film in its original French language, which is a far better watch than the middling English dubbed version, which I looked at for a few minutes.