Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Horror Movies That Don't Suck: Rogue

During the torture horror wave Dimension EXTREME and Lion's Gate had a tendency to buy out a lot of horror movies and utterly shaft them on the distribution. Greg McLean's 2007 follow up to Wolf Creek, the giant killer croc film Rogue, was one such film. As I recall, it went straight to video in the US, and as the used copy sitting on my desk can account, it was given the most misleadingly terrible cover art they could possibly have given it, but more on that in a moment.

The giant killer corc/gator sub-genre is roughly a step above the giant killer snake sub-genre and a step or two below the werewolf picture. Few people wouldn't be hard pressed to come up with more than two titles worth your time of day. There is Cujo director Lewis Teague's 1980 classic, Alligator, and then their is Steve Miner's 1999 return to comedy horror, Lake Placid. For all the Robert Forster glory of Teague's gator-in-the-sewer flick, it hasn't aged well at all. Miner's can almost be considered the American Werewolf in London of giant croc films, and should probably be considered the best, except that unlike Werewolf in London, it never tries to mix real scares along with its humor; it's just a fun crazy film. Beyond these two though, it's mostly just terrible Sci-fi Channel schlock. The same year as Rogue brought us another larger budgeted attempt to make a scary croc film with Primeval, which I think did get a go in the theaters. It's a film that, while not totally terrible, doesn't really satisfy. Partially because the characters have a human element to face along with their croc, something that worked in Anaconda, and even makes sense considering the premise of Primeval (thousands of bodies dumped in the Burundi marshes by a warlord lead to a croc overfeeding and developing a taste for human flesh, which then attacks reporters investigating the mass graves... or something like that) the action element is ultimately a little distracting. Not a terrible film, but one that doesn't induce any kind of real desire to return to it again.

And then there is Rogue.

I. Really. Like. Rogue.

It doesn't water itself down with a subplot about military warlords, it doesn't avoid taking itself seriously with absurd comical moments (though there are laughs to be found now and then). It's just a straight up film about a tour boat taking a wrong turn in the Northern Territory of Australia to investigate a distress flare, getting attack by a 7 meter rogue saltwater crocodile and the survivors fending for themselves on a small patch of land as the tide comes in. It's a simple good old fashion monster movie, but a surprisingly well made one. Surprising not in the sense of McLean's competence (say what you will about Wolf Creek, but it was shot well, the teens were some of the most believable characters of any torture horror film of the period, and it was pretty damn scary) but rather in how he approaches the film. Contrary to what one might expect from the premise, there are no long agonizing scenes of half devoured people bleeding all over the sand, screaming to their loved ones as their guts spill out. In fact, their is really little gore in this film at all. Some deaths actually happen off camera and the gore of what is shown feels more practical than gratuitous. People forget that despite Ebert's rant about its utter cruelty, Wolf Creek was actually quite tame in literal gore compared to the Hostel or Saw films. For all its very gruesome scenes, what made the film the hardest to watch of nearly all the films from the wave was that it made characters you cared for, and pulled no punches with them. It succeeded in giving the (original) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre experience to a modern horror going audience. This time out, McLean isn't even going for that. He is simply making a good monster film--a love letter to Jaws even, and while it is unquestionably inferior to that classic, it has something that that film never even showed an interest in having: a stiff shot of reality. Rogue crocodiles are a phenomenon that is real, and as crazy as it is to imagine, McLean's restraint on the gore is also carried over into his monster's size. There was supposedly a crocodile reported in the Northern Territory as big as 7.5 meters. As huge as his beasties is, they do get bigger than it.

(NOTE: spoiler heavy paragraph)

When the film does drift into the realm of disbelief suspending fantasy, it is largely on a symbolic level. The formulaic male weakling from the city (Michael Vartan) does ultimately go toe to toe with the croc, in a cave, to save the female lead (Radha Mitchell), the dragon slayer feel of it is strangely aesthetically pleasing. There isn't really a sense of feminist guilt to be had. The scene is practically saturated in psychoanalytical imagery (something I always welcome in horror films when smartly executed) but Mitchell plays the tour boat captain as a strong woman whose moment of distress doesn't seem to bare any judgment on her femininity. That the two leads do not for all their chemistry become a couple at the end further aids the film in escaping the knight saves the princess formula, leaving instead a pure exploration of male impudence. The protagonist enters an unmodernized world where and combats primal nature, but the heroics that he rises to are not the heroics of a man saving a woman, but of a human being saving another human being. The phallic and yonic symbolism persists not as a literal stand in for sexual organs and their respected sexes, but as the narrativized geography of the psyche.

(End spoilers.)

Like Wolf Creek, McLean, with late cinematographer Will Gibson, use the scenery to great effect within the film. Horror cinema has been in an unfortunate rut when it comes to mise-en-scene with many films simply revising the same basic approach of eclectic decay. It worked in Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs, and was perhaps utilized best in Se7en, where the obsessiveness of John Doe's (Kevin Spacey) apartment was used to contrast the pristine library that serves as pursuing Detective Summerset's (Morgan Freeman) own lair. Horror movies like the new TCM, and Saw and more recently (and most mind bogglingly) the remake of Friday the 13th (oh god, don't get me started on that one) today adopt the aesthetic without offering any intellectual content. McLean doesn't do this so much. With Rogue he continues to use Australia in much the same way that Peter Jackson uses New Zealand, to take us to another world. Much of the Northern Territory, including where a great deal of the film is shot, is tribally owned and normally off limits. It is a real corner of the world where dinosaurs are alive, and the photography revels in all the Heart of Darkness, modernist colonial anxiety of the jungle, the dark water that you can't see the bottom of. This is Jaws territory.

The casting is also quite nice for your basic monster movie. It's a delight see Radha Mitchell, not needing to try and hide her Aussie accent. Most of the rest of the cast is a little stock, from snarky guy turned hero, to nervous breakdown girl, to the all time favorite: arrogant asshole that doesn't stick to the plan and almost (or does) get everyone killed in a moment of utter stupidity guy. (Oh, why does he always have to come along for the ride?) Still, they are largely good stock, interesting enough to watch stock. They each get a moment or two to make them likable on some level. The real surprise though is John Jaratt, the guy who played the serial killer Mick Taylor (or as I like to call him Crocodile Dundee-McF*@k-You-Up-My-God-He's-Evil). His unrecognizable performance as the pudgy widow who is sometimes a jerk and at other times quite likable officially makes me interested in the actor. He really steals the show, offering almost uncharacteristically tender moments to the a genre known for cartoonish dog chompings off camera (not that this film would stoop to such lowbrow humor... really...).

Rogue isn't perfect of course. The line between good old fashion horror and formulaic horror is a tough one to walk. The CGI is... CGI, but the painstaking work taken to capture how crocodiles really behave pays off, creating a monster with a lot of personality that moves realistically enough to overlook its other budgetary limitations. The obligatory moment where someone does something stupid, for all its suspense, is frustrating to watch unfold. And while it can be cop-out to say this, it simply isn't JAWS. Still, people that see that horrible box cover, with its bloody mouth implying hundreds of gallons of blood and guts (there are body parts and parts of bodies... but it's seriously not that bad), and the BS "UNRATED" edition label, are more likely than not going to give it a complete pass in the rental, and that is a shame. This isn't torture horror. This isn't Sci-fi Channel schlock. It's a genuinely decent monster movie that tries to be great, with beautiful cinematography--the last work of an artist who died tragically too soon--and many entertaining moments of acting, horror, and action (I unapologetically love the final showdown). McLean can do more than Wolf Creek, and this film shows that. From the range of his first two major film, horror fans should be greatly anticipating whatever he does next. I know I am.

I.e., it doesn't suck.


Anonymous hanum said...

a little bit scary movie ;)

2:49 AM  
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