Survival Movie Review
Written by Milos Jovanovic
Directed by Joe Francis
Written by Kevin Woods and Joe Francis
2006, 79 minutes, Not Rated
Matt McClure as Jake
Ian C. King as Brian
Vanelle as Lauren
Hannah Reynolds as Wendy
Vic Aviles as Dr. Richard Belial
Don Prentiss as Rufus Belial
Ember Seaman as Charlie Belial
College students, Jake, Lauren, Wendy and Brian take off for a camping trip somewhere in the North Carolina wild. They plan to meet up with old friends, Adam and Greg, who departed one day earlier. While looking for them, Lauren hurts her foot by stepping on a rusty nail, and a mysterious local named Rufus takes them all to his house, where his father Richard, a surgeon by trade, will look after them. Little do they know that Greg and Adam are also visiting — Rufus, a legitimate hick maniac in the best tradition of Leatherface and such, is holding them captive in the basement, ready to conduct some experiments. Before they are even aware of it, the camping crew is trapped in the web of backwoods horror, with Rufus and his sister, Charlie, on the prowl for some fresh meat, and the good doctor Richard pulling the strings...
In one of my earlier reviews, I mentioned the fact that the grindhouse subgenre of horror is definitely making a comeback. The forgotten bastard offspring of the '70s, with main themes centering around, well, someone being slowly mangled, raped, stuck in a forest without a way out, you name it, is back into the major leagues, with Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez entrenching its position even further with their recent "Grindhouse" collaboration. However, as you may know by now, the major league titles go to Horror DNA.com major leaguers, and triple-A call-ups like me get stuck with shot-on-DV efforts, so it is no surprise that my latest review deals with another indie flick. Do not despair, however, because Joe Francis' directorial debut, the aptly titled Survival, is not a half bad way to spend an hour and 10 minutes with.
On the plot originality scale, Survival falls somewhere between "stale" and "rehashed", but that is forgivable considering this is a genre with limited circulation of topics to explore. Yet, this little flick manages to distinguish itself primarily because of Francis' direction, which is definitely above-average. Francis, who, as I mentioned before, is a first-timer, seems to have an acute grasp of some basic-to-advanced directorial techniques, and manages to execute them deftly enough in order for the film to proceed smoothly. More importantly, Francis does not commit the most common mistake by rookie directors — he does not overplay his hand and keeps things relatively simple, without grandiose tracking shots or overly complex compositions.
Francis is aided by the cinematography of another rookie, Joe Hamann. Hamann, serving as a director of photography, successfully re-creates the "grindhousey" feel one likely associates with such pictures, presenting us the story of hapless campers through a very dirty lens, with picture loaded with speckles, dirt and physical damage — hell, there's even a faux-missing reel incident midway through. Francis helped along with the editing, which just like the direction, keeps it relatively simple and efficient.
That said, not everything is all great here. First and foremost, the makers are trying to sell a rare breed to the horror crowd — an exploitation/grindhouse film...without, well, exploitation. There is one simple reason people flock to see these pictures, and that is to get their fix of nudity, sex, slaughter and gore. Due to likely budgetary and morality restraints, Survival never goes further than some amateurish slashing and implied sexual innuendo, which certainly brings it down a little bit.
The acting in the film is about par for the course when it comes to indie horror. Vic Aviles, playing the Belial family pater familias, is one of the better parts, along with the other male leads. Vanelle, who plays Lauren, is yet another token "whiney girl which gets hacked", and is easily the weakest link in the picture. Speaking of the actors, there is one thing I'm not quite certain about...Aviles is supposed to the father of characters played by Don Prentiss and Ember Seaman, yet he does not look five years older than them. Whether this is a failure of casting, or a grindhousey gimmick (backwood hicks reproducing often and early), I do not know. On a sidenote, Prentiss looks quite like Brad Pitt in Kalifornia.
Survival, in the end, falls short of being a genre classic or a serious contender ("no rape, no sale!", as some more hardcore fans might say), but it is a healthy start for Francis and his crew, who famously produced this film by selling credits via eBay. There is certainly more to come from this guy, and if he gets a proper backing and some major cash, his career might just soar. I'm looking forward to it.
Audio, video and special features will not be graded as this is a screener.
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