I saw three films on Day 3 of Fantastic Fest. Two movies were family-friendly films, that had different approaches in being a friend to families. One felt reminiscent of the Disney films that aimed to give families a fun scare, while the other was a more mature “Harry Potter”-esque fantasy of monsters and freaks. Then, I ended it with the latest from the zombie grandmaster whose movie didn’t really want to be a friend to families. Read my reaction to “Under the Mountain”, “The Vampire’s Assistant: Cirque Du Freak”, and “Survival of the Dead” after the jump.
Under the Mountain
Based on the 1958 novel of the same name, which was also turned into a short television series in the early 80s in New Zealand, the film chronicles a teenage twin brother and sister that have moved to an area of New Zealand that is surrounded by seven inactive volcanoes. They moved in with their aunt, uncle, and cousin of like age after the unexpected death of their mother, and almost immediately become aware of the eerie old house on the opposite side of the lake, as well as the ever-increasing earthquakes that are getting steadily worse. Then, upon coming into contact with a man that looks like the same person the brother twin found in a photo dated from the 19th century, they learn about the history and nature of the inhabitants in the house across the way, and what roles the two will play in saving the planet from otherworldly entities.
“Under The Mountain” is a moderately successful attempt at capturing the kinds of films Disney was producing a few decades ago with film adaptations of novels like “Something Wicked This Way Comes”. It’s an occasionally creepy sci-fi/fantasy children’s adventure that’s probably more good than it is fully enjoyable. There isn’t anything technically wrong with any of its mechanics as the acting, the story, and the visual effects (provided by WETA) are all no less than decent. The only major problem is that it builds to a major confrontation that doesn’t majorly pay off, and it isn’t always as fun or creepy as it seems to want to be. That being said, I’m also no longer ten years old and may be judging the film too harshly if I consider that if I was ten years old I would probably love it.
Overall, the acting and visual effects are probably its strongest features, and it’s good enough on both accounts to forget that you’re not watching a particularly great film. However, given its intended audience it’s an admirable attempt to provide some more mature content to the family feature. It’s about as close as one can get to showing a pre-teen a film that might make them feel a little freaked without feeling bad about it.
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant
John C. Reilly is Crepsley, a real-life vampire traveling with a circus of anatomical freaks; such as an obscurely tall Asian, a teenage boy with lizard skin, a man whose mid-section is only about as thick as his spine, and a bearded woman so voluptuous she can make you question your sexuality (thank you, Salma Hayek). When Darren and Steve pay to enter the Cirque Du Freak their entrancement of the show compels them to individually enter the room of Crepsley (for different reasons), and get themselves involved in a long war between different vampire breeds with consequences that extend far beyond typical life and death; and tests the commitment of Darren and Steve to each other’s friendship, as well as the sacrifices of choosing life over family.
Like the above mentioned “Under the Mountain”, “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” also feels reminiscent of an older time period of family film. It’s even a similar time period, but a different kind of family film. Where “Under the Mountain” was akin to the horror/family film aiming for tension and scares for the young ones “Cirque Du Freak” is a combination of the humor found in films like “The Monster Squad” and “The Goonies” with the fantasy storytelling structure of the “Harry Potter” films. The biggest piece that keeps me from equating “Cirque Du Freak” to something like “The Monster Squad” is that the main characters (the kids) are the least entertaining part of “Cirque Du Freak”. By no means bad, just outshined by the interesting universe that’s displayed and the adult cast; especially by John C. Reilly’s wit, Salma Hayek’s…..charm, and Michael Cerveris as the mysterious string-tugger Mr. Tiny.
“Cirque Du Freak” feels like a combination between the deathly maturity of one of the later “Harry Potter” films mixed with the more wonder-filled, and less threatening and dreary visual aspects of an early “Harry Potter” film. It has story elements that feel more mature than the audience it’s intended to play to, but is presented in a way that makes it easier for them to accept; which was apparently deliberate as I’ve heard the book series the film is based on is significantly darker, and less light-hearted. However, the decision to make the film more comical than its original text didn’t feel at odds with one’s ability to enjoy it.
Survival of the Dead
So, a zombie takeover is taking place, a group of defiant military soldiers are looking for safety, and George Romero is behind the camera. However, don’t stop me if you’ve heard this before because there is a little more to it. Taking place not long after Romero’s “Diary of the Dead” this film focuses on the military group that hijacked the supplies of the film students in “Diary of the Dead” after the events of that film, as well as a new story that crosses theirs about a pair of dueling Irish families that occupy a small island off the Eastern coast. The military group is seeking refuge while the clashing Irish families are at odds with what to do about their undead kin.
It appears as George Romero gets older his zombie films get more tongue-in-cheek. Not necessarily less facetious, in fact his “messages” are getting less subtextual, however his approach is getting more playful. He seems to be taking the events less seriously while also making his social themes more overt, which in the case of “Survival of the Dead” is creating a series of films that are more playfully satiric. The ideas that Romero wants to get across with “Survival” and “Diary” aren’t as under-the-surface as those of his original zombie quadrilogy (more so the original trilogy), but at the same time these have a tendency to want to feel more farcical. More so than any other Romero film I can recall I laughed out loud either from character actions, or zombie deaths which doesn’t feel like Romero, but also isn’t unwelcome. I felt less sympathy for the situation, but just as entertained in what Romero wanted to accomplish.
“Survival of the Dead” isn’t a return to form for Romero so much as the same told differently. Not much new territory is explored in this 6th zombie story that he hasn’t already done from one of Romero’s prior zombie films, but it is familiar elements explored from a different storytelling approach. This new film feels like a more comically in-tune mind telling a Romero story, which appears to be what Romero was going for, but may not be what fans are hoping for depending on the type of fan. What we’re seeing now, for better or worse, is Romero treading familiar territory but with a new outlook on how to tell a story.