AVAILABLE ON DVD: 22nd January, from BULLDOG FILMS
RUNNING TIME: 92 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
1989, in the tiny town of Babylon, Florida. Fourteen-year-old Margaret Larkin goes missing, only to be found murdered and thrown in the river, tied to her own bicycle. Margaret’s grandmother Evelyn suspects that Nathan Redfield did it as part of his plan to seize her land. Indeed the culprit is Nathan. His father James has fallen ill and Nathan has taken control of the land he owns and his assets which include the local bank, but he’s haunted by the ghost of his victim along with the ghosts of others who have died in the river. He decides to pin blame for his crime on teacher Walter Perry whom Margaret had been visiting periodically….
Cold Moon could have been superb. It features all the ingredients for a good supernaturally-tinged thriller: a small town where nothing bad has happened up to now, a killer who is losing it, vengeful ghosts [or are they?], squabbles over land, a good cast. And it is entertaining and at times even a bit creepy. Director Griff Furst is best known for several Sy-Fy efforts including the awesomely bad [or is that just awesome] Ghost Shark, so this is probably his best work so far. With the exception of its special effects, he’s put together a slick looking picture which sometimes looks more expensive than it probably was. You could do far worse than watch it. However, it doesn’t really fulfill its potential and this gets rather frustrating. It sometimes feels like a three hour movie cut down to an hour and a half, with subplots that go nowhere and which as they stand now almost needn’t be in the film at all. Certain ambiguities seem to be more signs of carelessness rather than intentional, the story telling is often awkward, and the film really is a good argument against the now almost totally prevalent use of CGI in such films because it’s very poor indeed.
Still, the set-up is extremely promising. The film was based on a 1980 novel called Cold Moon Over Babylon by Michael McDowell who also did a fair bit of screenwriting [Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas] and the setting has been moved forward just a bit to 1989, yet one unusual thing is that, aside from the absence of mobile phones and the like, the events could be taking place today because there’s virtually no effort to evoke the year. I found this to be rather refreshing as I’m seriously tiring of this ’80’s nostalgia lark that’s been going on for some time now. Anyway, siblings Ben and his slightly older sister Margaret Larkin live in this small town with their poor grandmother Evelyn who is eight months in debt with a loan from the bank owned by the decidedly un-compassionate Nathan Redfield , setting up a sub-theme of the divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots” which, like much else in this film, eventually disappears. Margaret goes off on her bike, it begins to pour down with rain and, in what is quite a shock, she’s suddenly knocked off her bike by a man in a mask who begins to strangle her but sees a car coming so pushes her off the bridge they’re on into the river, then jumps in after her to finish the job. It’s not a graphically gruesome scene but it’s quite disturbing and nicely intercut with Evelyn receiving a visit from Felicia, the caretaker of Nathan’s ill father James, though Felicia is one of these annoying female characters that just parades around trying to be sexy without actually achieving the desired effect [well, not for me anyway].
So far so good though, and the film then does something very clever, shifting our main point of view away from Evelyn and Ben to Nathan, having a fun time with Felicia in the woods….well, only for a short while, because Nathan keeps seeing things, generally either blood or ghosts. Immediately though there seems to be some confusion, as Felicia also seems to see inexplicable visions for a couple of minutes though nobody anywhere else in the film does so until the very end, and, while it’s clear that one of the ghosts who keeps on showing up to torment Nathan is Margaret’s, who are all these other spooks? It seems to be suggested that they could also have been victims of Nathan, but then why do we later have a flashback showing Nathan with Margaret and us being presented with a reason for his killing of her, but not any of the others? Rather than leaving us to make up our minds about certain things, it just seems like some stuff here hasn’t been worked out properly because Furst just wants to show us as many creepy ghost moments [he even has a ghost rise up out of the water with seemingly nobody present] as he possibly can. And there are undoubtedly a few eerie moments, like a game of chicken with Margaret’s ghost riding an invisible bicycle, a visit to a cemetery with flickering lanterns which is one of the most sinister graveyards I’ve seen on a film in a while, and a nice scare when the person who turns around and reveals herself as the ghost isn’t the one we expect.
However, it soon becomes apparent that, as the subplots mostly disappear, the film is really going to offer much more than all this J-Horror type imagery with perhaps a few nods to What Lies Beneath and even The Evil Dead. It would be nice, for example, to have had some more scenes involving Sheriff Ted Hale who’s investigating the case and the teacher who’s been arrested for the killings. And for the black comedy aspect to have been given just a bit more prominence a la A Hatchet For The Honeymoon, especially considering that, while certain moments do cause a chill or a mild jolt, we’re never actually scared for this maniac. And two other things don’t help whatsoever. Josh Stewart is clearly having fun in the part of Nathan, but it’s often hard to hear what the hell he’s saying, the actor choosing to mumble too many of his lines. And then there’s the CGI. Very quick editing helps to mask the deficiencies of some of the imagery, but the keen eye will still be able to spot the poor quality of the work on offer, especially some shots involving snakes. It’s possible that the moderate budget didn’t stretch to having good computer imagery, or that the stuff was rushed, but then surely some practical effects could have worked better? Much like when I saw It, a film that I did enjoy but which also made me a little depressed, I found the fact that virtually every effect was done on a computer very sad. It really is a shame that so many horror filmmakers now seem to be automatically going for the digital option.
The scariest scene actually involves nothing more than a torchlight being waved about outside a house while somebody is terrified inside it, a good example of how the most utilised things can still work and also of how well Furst can do this stuff. You wouldn’t know it from his previous work, but he could possibly make a rather good job of a “straight” horror film. Even more worthy of note is Thomas L. Calloway’s cinematography. Around three quarters of the film takes place at night, and often without much light around at all, but the compositions are always clear and sometimes quite artful, Calloway making very fine use of black almost in the fashion of an old film noir. I wonder if some line shadows falling across Nathan’s face while he’s plotting some evil was intended to be a little bit amusing? I almost chuckled. Performance-wise things are generally pretty good too, Frank Whaley being especially strong as Ted even though, like some of the other cast members, he doesn’t really have much of a character to play. And Christopher Lloyd isn’t really in it much at all, having only one short scene until the final quarter, though he does make the most of every second of his screen time.
Furst composed the musical score himself and it’s very prevalent throughout, ranging from conventional orchestral [or rather a synthesiser trying to sound orchestral] stuff to deliberately unpleasant industrial throbbings. Some may find it too prevalent, though I rather enjoyed the way the score was almost telling the story too in the old manner. It probably sounds like I’ve been rather too hard on Cold Moon and I don’t think you’ll entirely regret checking it out. It’s never boring, having obviously been made as tight as possible, though at times it’s too tight, if that makes sense. There are also some completely unexpected occurrences, which is always a good thing. Furst shows some serious promise, though the film he did afterwards [this one was actually shot two years ago] was…Trailer Park Shark! I think though that the script needed at least one final going over, and they should have seriously taken another look at those effects.