Devil’s Gate (2017)


Bridget Regan is having a bad hair day.

(2017) Horror (IFC) Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Schull, Shawn Ashmore, Bridget Regan, Jonathan Frakes, Javier Botet, Spencer Drever, Adam Hurtig, Will Woytowich, Scott Johnson, Sarah Constible, Beverly Ndukwu, Jean-François Ferland, Jan Skene. Directed by Clay Staub

 

There’s something about creepy old farms that just seem to lend themselves to horror movies Old time farm implements like pitchforks, scythes and rakes become all the more sinister hanging in a barn when someone is being stalked by a creature or a serial killer. American Gothic has more than one subtext, after all.

A local farmer’s wife, Maria Pritchard (Regan) and her son Jonah (Drever) have disappeared and suspect number one is the husband, abusive but devout Jackson Pritchard (Ventimiglia). They’ve owned their piece of land in Devil’s Gate, North Dakota for generations and while Jackson awaits the arrival of angels to make his barren soil fertile the FBI in the person of Special Agent Daria Francis (Schull) to investigate the disappearance.

One wonders who called her in; it certainly wasn’t good ol’ boy Sheriff Gruenwell (Frakes) who not-so-subtly warns her to stay away from Pritchard; reluctantly, he allows Deputy Colt Salter (Ashmore) to accompany her. The Deputy warns the Special Agent that Jackson, whom he went to high school with, is a little bit twitchy and is known for his explosive temper. Still, nobody is prepared for the police cruiser they arrive on the farm in to be struck by numerous bolts of lightning. I mean, lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice, right?

Well, it does in Devil’s Lake and more to the point on the Pritchard place. Soon it becomes apparent that Jackson may not be as crazy as everyone thinks he is; there are most definitely some things lurking in his basement. There are also beings coming from the sky but they might not be the angels Jackson thinks they are.

The cast is pretty strong with some TV veterans as well as Ashmore who cut his teeth on the X-Men movies. Surprisingly, Ventimiglia chews the scenery more than I’ve ever seen him do before. He was such a compelling figure in Heroes but here he truly embraces the crazy. A fairly high percentage of his dialogue is shrieked rather than stated and when he’s quiet, it’s because he’s giving a menacing mumble. Beyond that, it’s great to see Frakes in a role that isn’t named Will Riker although it is a bit disturbing to realize that 31 years has passed since he originated that role in Star Trek: The Next Generation and the years are definitely taking their toll.

The actors for the most part do their jobs well but they aren’t given a whole lot to work with; the characters really aren’t developed much as writer-director Staub and his co-writer Peter Aperlo don’t give them much in the way of character development to hang their hats on. There are other compensations however; the creature effects are pretty damn good and reminiscent of the work of Guillermo del Toro. There’s also some nifty storm effects although they don’t really break any new ground there.

It’s not an entirely well-filmed movie though. The cinematography ranges from outdoor shots that are so overlit that they look like the sun’s exploding, or indoor shots that look like they were lit by candlelight. Less extremes on both ends would have been sincerely appreciated.

For the most part this is a fairly entertaining sci-fi/horror creature feature, set on a desolate farm in the middle of nowhere a la Texas Chainsaw Massacre loaded with traps a la Saw and some slimy monsters a la Pan’s Labyrinth. This isn’t a rocket science kind of movie but it is a decent enough thrill ride nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the special effects are pretty impressive. It is good to see Jonathan Frakes in a non-Star Trek role.
REASONS TO STAY: Ventimiglia is more than a little bit over-the-top. The cinematography is either virtually washed out or just  about too dark to see.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of violence and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The town itself is fictional but there is a town in North Dakota called Devil’s Lake.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Exorcism
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
For the Love of George

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Star Trek: Insurrection


Data has a bad day.

Data has a bad day.

(1998) Science Fiction (Paramount) Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, Levar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, F. Murray Abraham, Donna Murphy, Anthony Zerbe, Gregg Henry, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Michael Welch, Mark Deakins, Stephanie Niznik, Michael Horton, Bruce French, Tom Morello, Jennifer Tung. Directed by Jonathan Frakes

I sometimes like to characterize myself as a Trekker with both eyes wide open. In other words, I love the world that Gene Roddenberry created, but I don’t love it blindly.

“Insurrection,” the ninth movie in Paramount’s cash-cow franchise, posits a race (the Baku) who are being studied in secret by the Federation and their new allies, the Son’a. When Data (Spiner), a member of the study team and as all good Trekkers know, an integral part of the crew of the Enterprise-D goes berserk. Captain Picard (Stewart) abruptly leaves a diplomatic mission to go and see what’s goin’ on, to quote Marvin Gaye.

What’s going on is that a smarmy Starfleet admiral (Zerbe) has put the Federation in bed with the nasty Son’a (you know they’re nasty because they use subspace weapons and even the Borg don’t stoop to that), with the intention of forcing the peaceful Baku to another world. It seems that particles in the rings of the Baku planet give off an energy that, properly processed, can reverse the aging process … indefinitely. In short, a kind of stellar Fountain of Youth.

Picard objects strenuously, but because of the planet’s location in a remote corner of the quadrant, communication with the Powers That Be in the Federation is impossible. Picard must rely on his own code of ethics to guide him. The title should tell you which direction he leans toward.

Producer Rick Berman may have been too overloaded when making this movie, with two television series and the feature film to contend with, along with the opening of a then-new attraction in Las Vegas. Insurrection is unable to break the curse of the odd-numbered Trek movies – the worst films in the franchise to this point are all odd numbered. Insurrection isn’t as bad as The Final Frontier, but it doesn’t really distinguish itself, either.

The trouble with the Trek movies is that too many of them have a perspective too influenced by the television screen. They don’t really fill up the big screen all that well, unless Nicholas Meyer is directing them. But then, unlike many of the Trek directors, Meyer already had a couple of feature films under his belt before tackling Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that Paramount has often had to offer the directing reins to actors in order to get them to play ball. This leads to the odd situation of having some of the studio’s most valuable properties in the hands of inexperienced directors.

It’s not that director Jonathan Frakes (who also plays First Officer Riker) is incompetent, it’s just that I’d wanted to see more cinematic sweep to a Star Trek movie than heretofore had been shown. For example, Insurrection alludes to a Federation that is desperate for allies after being decimated by the Borg and is involved with a life-or-death struggle with the Dominion. Against that background, you’d think you could get a better plot than one that basically says that forced relocation is a bad thing. I think most of us have already figured that one out.

In a situation like the one described above, you’d also think that the Federation’s premier starship would be on the front lines instead of making diplomatic contact with second-rate species, but that’s just a minor point. The problem here is that once again it seems to be the Picard-Data-Worf (Dorn) show, as LaForge (Burton), Dr. Crusher (McFadden) and Counselor Troi (Sirtis) are given almost nothing to do. Riker is kind of involved but for the most part, it’s all platitudes and posturing and not enough gee whiz.

At the time this was made, I really wanted to see Star Trek movies become more like Major Events with storylines that directly influenced the television shows without forcing the audience to be immersed in the show (as the X-Files movie did). That, sadly, never came to pass which might be just as well; the last two Star Trek movies which have rebooted the cinematic franchise have become Event Films. Part of the problem with Insurrection was the miserly budget which in many ways was justified – up to that point the cinematic Star Trek wasn’t pulling in enough box office for the most part to justify nine figure budgets. The reality was that Trekkers were getting more than their fix of the franchise on TV and the TV version was in many ways superior to what was going up on the big screen. Why pay to see something you can see for free at home, and it’s hard to blame audiences for that. Still, seeing what Marvel is doing with their franchise tells me that it could have been done. Ah well, I suppose in this case I was slightly ahead of my time – or overreaching the grasp of my beloved franchise.

WHY RENT THIS: You’re a Trekker completist. Holds up well among the Next Generation movies.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks cinematic scope, playing as an extended TV episode. Tame action scenes.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sci-fi violence, a few mildly bad words and a bit of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The first Star Trek movie in which all of the outer space shots were computer generated. Among the firms providing CGI and software support were Blue Sky Studios and Pixar, both of which would go on to be major CGI animation studios.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 2-disc DVD Collector’s edition includes a look at Alien women in the Star Trek universe and fairly detailed looks at how some of the special effects were created. The Blu-Ray edition (available as part of a collection of Star Trek: Next Generation films) adds a Trek Roundtable in which fans and experts discuss the film with an eye to its place in the overall Star Trek universe and a Star Trek Academy feature which is set up as an Academy lecture on the origins of the conflict between the Baku and the Son’a.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $112.6M on a $58M production budget; the movie pretty much broke even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rabbit-Proof Fence

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Good Neighbours