Thursday, November 20, 2008

Evilution (2008): or, How to Manage an Apocalypse

A few weeks back I was fortunate enough to get a look at a new slasher flick from Island Gateway Films, the fun, well-made, and still criminally sans-distributor Basement Jack. In my positive review of that movie I mentioned my happy discovery that the flick was the second in a projected trilogy from the production company's Black Gate Entertainment division, all written by Brian O'Toole and centering around various strange happenings at The Necropolitan, a mysterious, ancient hotel-cum-apartment building overseen by the equally mysterious and enigmatic character known only as The Manager (Nathan Bexton). Luckily my prayers to the Movie Gods were answered when not long after posting that review I received a screener of the first installment in the Necropolitan franchise, Chris Conlee's 2008 effort Evilution.

Having seen two of Island Gateway's offerings now, I can without reservation count myself a fan of their horror output. Where Basement Jack took the time-honored slasher formula and added enough odd and exploitastic elements to make it fresh and contemporary, Evilution combines biozombies, mad science, and alien invasion elements to lift itself well out of the 28 Days Later/Dawn of the Dead Remake-rehash rut it could easily have fallen into. Bloody, exciting, and most of all FUN, Evilution is another winner from Black Gate that should leave horror fans with a smile on their faces.

Plus--more Manager. Can you dig it?

We open in a military installation in Iraq, where a top secret biohazardous experiment has already gone disastrously wrong. In the hospital wing we find a white-coated scientist running for his life, the equipment around him toppled and destroyed, the bedsheets and walls bearing ominous sprays of blood. Less than 28 seconds later a group of wild-eyed, bloodstained zombie-types block his exit from the building, giving chase with acrobatic tumbling runs and wire-fu gurney-vaults as the doctor runs for his life. He's not fast enough, though, and is soon overrun by the bloodthirsty horde, which proceeds to tear out his throat, his abdomen, and any other part they can get their hands on, treating us to some nice chunky gore and energetic arterial spray.

Take all you want, eat all you take.

Outside, the guards don't yet know what's going on, but they're conscientious enough to stop Dr. Darren Hall (Eric Peter-Kaiser) at the exit, clued in by his lack of traveling orders and his stammering, shell-shocked manner. When they discover a vial of glowing red liquid clearly marked "BIOHAZARD" in his possession, they're ready to throw him in the stockade--but before they can the zombies burst out of the main building and start performing their horrific floor exercises, tearing the guards to pieces and allowing the Doc to escape. Moments later a passing US bomber drops its payload on the installation, following the ROTLD-1985 Protocol for Undead Infection Containment.

Backstory done, after the opening credits we find ourselves at THE NECROPOLITAN, where the somehow-made-it-out-alive Darren is taking up residence. He is welcomed by your favorite superintendent and mine, The Manager, played with typical weird, endearing priggishness by Nathan Bexton. I made no secret of my Bexton-fandom after my viewing of Basement Jack, and everything I loved about that performance is also in evidence here, with the sole exception of his exciting facial hair. The Manager leads Darren to his basement apartment, all the while dropping tantalizing hints about the building's history. (Manager: "There are some who say this building just appeared here, sometime after World War II." Darren: "You'd think somebody would have to build it!" Manager [with a meaningful smirk]: "You'd think.")

"My Awesome--Let Me Show You It."

On the way downstairs Darren meets fellow resident Maddie, played by the SMOKIN' HAWT Sandra Ramírez. Commenting on the strong smell of ammonia and chlorine, Darren learns that there used to be a swimming pool in the basement, and some of the chemicals were sealed in the walls when it was filled in. ("You'll get used to it," the Manager assures him. "Most of them did--do.") Darren moves in and quickly runs afoul of some Latino gangbangers headed by Random (Noel G), who don't appreciate his having taken residence in their former party pad. These thugs also take a strong interest when they see Darren accept delivery of a mysterious package, which the audience learns contains his military uniform, his service revolver, and a vial of the glowing red liquid the military hoped had been destroyed.

Conlee does a good job early on establishing the tone of the movie, walking a line between the horrific imagery of the biozombie attach and the off-kilter comedy of Darren's moving-in experiences. Though some of the comedy is perhaps a bit too broad--Darren gets locked out of his apartment and spends a good deal of time outside, in his underwear, for instance--other bits, such as Maddie's dressing-down of the poseur gangstas and the Manager's helpful note to Darren (which he discovers taped to his chest on waking after his first night) work a little better.

Romance blooms between Darren and Maddie, as one would expect. Despite being RIDICULOUSLY HAWT, Maddie apparently has trouble getting dates, and wastes no time throwing herself at her shy, reserved housemate. In an improbably heavy first-date conversation we learn that Darren is emotionally scarred by his mother's suicide and was inspired at an early age to become a scientist after witnessing a lightning strike destroying a massive tree in the middle of a field. (A nice allusion to Frankenstein, the novel, by O'Toole, there.) Even though Maddie is obviously willing to let him practice his filthy creation on her, IYKWIM, Darren begs off to go downstairs and finish setting up his apartment. Because he doesn't want to seem easy, I guess.

"Jesus, what have I got to do? Put magnets in 'em and feed the dude BBs?"

So now we have the motivation for Darren to smuggle the dangerous stuff out of Iraq and back to his own basement lab--like Victor Frankenstein and Herbert West before him, he hopes to harness this blasphemous power to conquer death, in this case in memory of his beloved mother who as a child he could not save. As mad scientist origins go it works for me--and since any glowing vial containing the secret of life is sure to call up associations with Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator, it's good to know that the filmmakers realize this and embrace it. (Some of Peter-Kaiser's mannerisms and actions, particularly when injecting a rat with a sample of his formula, definitely recall Jeffrey Combs's iconic performance.)

It's not long before the gang breaks in and steals Darren's stuff, leading to a mis-identification of the biohazard as primo drugs and the offer to become the Doc's distributors. That doesn't pan out, but the Doc does gain points with the group for patching Random up after a gangland shooting. But when a follow-up shooting leaves the gangsta beyond repair, Darren just can't help giving that good ol' life-juice a try...

Evilution is fast-paced, engaging, and never boring, vacillating between scenes of Darren pursuing his obsession, romantic misunderstandings with Maddie, and the gang trio's comedy-tinged conversations. There's also a parallel plot with the military trying to track Hall down, sending an army assassin after him to tie up that last loose end. Through some footage the army brass watches from the apocalypse at the original installation we also learn that the compound utilized in the Army of the Dead project was of extraterrestrial origin...always a good idea to shoot that into human subjects! We also get a nice mad scientist rant from the head of the Army project, who theorizes that this will be "The next step in the evolution of man!" As you would, naturally--I mean, that kinda goes without saying, doesn't it? Pity that the next step in evolution is so blasted vulnerable to chlorine and ammonia...

I can kinda see how cleaning products would be the bane of these zombies...

Once the biohazard's out of the vial things pick up in a hurry, and soon the Necropolitan is crawling with the agile alien undead. We get more good gore, chlorine-filled condom-bombs, and a rooftop final confrontation that is not terribly surprising but that I still found satisfying. Add a couple of Manager segments and a coda in his own personal Mütter Museum and I finished up the proceedings with a well-entertained smile on my face.

One thing that leapt out at me differentiating Evilution from Basement Jack was the superiority of the FX here. Apart from the "death from above" conclusion of the opening segment, I didn't notice any CG effects in the flick. Everything else seemed to be done with practical effects, and most of them--with the infected tearing chunks out of their victims' throats, ripping at abdomens, etc.--were very chunky and convincing. The pacing is better too, as the story moves along at a very brisk clip throughout to the frenetic us-against-them conclusion.

The acting has its ups and downs. Eric Peter-Kaiser is a little bland as the boyish, shy mad scientist, reacting to most developments with the same blank expression; this worked when he played Basement Jack Riley, but here not as much. However, I was quite engaged by Sandra Ramírez's take on Maddie---Ramírez gives the character a wounded depth behind her goofy, defensive humor and shows she's much more than a pretty face and well-filled tank top--though SWEET JESUS GOD she's certainly THAT as well. Noel G was also in Basement Jack as one of the denigrating detectives, but in the role of Random he gets to flex his muscles more and flesh out a potentially two-dimensional character with flashes of vicious ambition. (His speech about the Meaning of Life, for instance, is delivered with conviction born of hard experience.) His sidekicks James Duval and Guillermo Díaz provide some comic relief that occasionally works, but other times can be grating--your mileage will vary depending on your tolerance for juvenile humor. (FWIW, the Vicar's tolerance for such is very, very high.)

The Manager preserves his distilled awesomeness for posterity.

And then there's THE BEXX--Nathan Bexton as The Manager, who continues to climb the Vicar's list of favorite horror movie icons with his quirky, hilarious, subtext-rich portrayal. Again making the most of minimal screentime, Bexton OWNS every scene he's in, particularly when he suffers another annoying interruption in the film's third act while the zombies are overrunning The Necropolitan. His frustrated babysitter brush-off of the tenants who come banging on his door has me even more excited about the prospect of the third and final Necropolitan movie, in which we're promised we'll finally learn the history of the Man, the Myth, the Manager. Awesome.

It's not all wine and roses--there's a bit of silliness with a tattooed junkie played by Billy Morrison, one of those guys who will apparently shoot up ANYTHING, mainlining the Glowing Red Stuff because "if it laid [Random] low, it *has* to be good stuff!" A little bit weak, especially when it would have been just as easy to have him infected in the more traditional, tooth-centric way. And while I see where the military subplot was necessary and it did have some great moments (watch for a random act of violence against a bonsai tree!), the character of the assassin sent to take care of Darren never really clicked for me, and I never really felt our hero was in much danger from that avenue.

Still, there's a fun to be had here if you go along for the ride, and like Basement Jack, Evilution is a better-made, more entertaining horror flick than many I've seen with nation-wide distribution. 2.5 thumbs, and here's hoping someday soon a distributor will wise up and start putting these flicks in front of the wider viewing public. If you get a chance to catch either on the festival circuit, do yourself a favor. And tell 'em the Vicar sent you.

Sign me up.

(All Images © Island Gateway Films.)

1 comment:

Karswell said...

I'll definitely have to check these out.

And regarding Basement Jack, I finally heard back from Lynn Lowry and she says she "...just won Best Supporting Actress at the Terror Film Festival in Philly for Basement Jack" and it was also chosen "Best Horror Film at the Appalacian Film Festival." So maybe all this award stuff will get these films a bigger and badder bit o'press exposure too.

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