Some films are destined never to be able to live up to their fantastically schlocky titles. Take Snakes On A Plane for example, a film I thoroughly enjoyed; yet despite its self-explanatory title, it never quite managed to achieve the dizzying heights of stupidity that it promised, or to fulfil the overblown B-movie potential that my brain had already visualised.
It’s always a danger, and one that makes me think back to old Spectrum computer games where the cover artwork promised full scale, full colour alien invasions and then delivered simplistic graphics and a handful of colours if you were lucky.
So along comes Jack Brooks Monster Slayer, with its glorious poster and moniker, a film I couldn’t help but be drawn to (especially as I missed FrightFest this year and it was one of the few titles that grabbed me) regardless of previous disappointments, and how did it fare? Not too badly.
Jack Brooks wears its heart on its sleeve, openly showing its love for 80s horror, especially of the Evil Dead variety, with Raimi-esque camera angles, old fashioned gooey gore effects without any awful CGI (hooray!) and women who scream more than they get to talk. Casting Robert Englund in an extended cameo is fast becoming fashionable again for the horror film directors of my generation, after Hatchet and the recent Zombie Strippers, Englund really is a good way of signalling a directors’ intentions and influences and to be fair there’s no way I’d turn down the opportunity to cast Freddy Krueger in a film, given the chance.
Here he has a bit more to do than usual, as his character Professor Crowley (apparently the filmmakers might love Hatchet too) is slowly possessed by an evil black heart that leaves him drooling, vomiting and eating his dog, giving Englund the chance to ham up his acting to new heights, the results of which are similar to how I felt about the film as a whole – a mixed blessing.
The problem is that while Brooks has a great sense of fun and one that made me smile throughout, it never manages to rise to any level above average. The comedy is very hit and miss, mostly down to the character of Jack Brooks himself who as an average Joe (with added rage issues) is neither as funny or sympathetic as he should be.
The character seems to be attempting to channel aspects of Bruce Campbell’s Ash, but whereas Ash was a loveable ass, Brooks seems to be slightly more unbalanced and veers towards the unlikable.
Trevor Matthews as Jack turns in a performance that reminded me of an early Trey Parker (sharing a slight physical resemblance too), which wasn’t a bad association for me in a comedy, but it seemed like the direction of his character was a bit aimless as well as his interaction with everyone else. Indeed, despite the obvious ‘he needs to find a way to channel his rage’ set up, the first encounter with the monsters has him flee the scene rather than letting fly like the bottle of corked anger he’s supposed to be, and by the time he’s had his flashback and turned around to face his demons there’s only about ten minutes of the film left, which hardly warrants the title or the poster. An origin story it may be, but never before has it taken so long for a film to get to the moment of revelation.
It seemed like the filmmakers were so intent on throwing random characters and effects on the screen that the whole thing was almost like watching a montage of 80s horror clichés. Though that’s not something I object to on principle, nothing exciting actually happens until just under an hour in, and 18 minutes later the credits are rolling.
If you’re going to populate a film with one-dimensional characters, then at least set them up quickly and start with the monster-slaying as quickly as possible, I found it strange that anyone who’s attempting a homage to The Evil Dead wouldn’t have at least have figured that much out. Even James Gunn’s Slither (another film that Brooks has a lot in common with scene wise) had a pitch-perfect pace between setting up the main monster, the characters and then the monster outbreak – and in only 95 minutes too. I have no idea how an hour passed in Jack Brooks without a single monster being slain.
I really don’t like sounding so harsh, as the film kept me smiling throughout; the opening scene involving the Brooks family massacre – to the sound of Darin’s Beyond The Sea – really worked, as did the main monster in that disturbing 80s Troll/Freaky Fairy Tales style, which has evidently left unsettling scars on me. It’s one of those films that’s likeable more for its enthusiasm and sense of fun than on any critical merit, and so I have to add an extra star to the rating and only hope that if they make a sequel, it will contain all the monster-slaying joy that the poster promised and the film didn’t quite deliver.
The commentary is very much like the movie: moderately entertaining but more like a long in-joke that’s always more entertaining to those involved and lacks depth. It can border on annoying as the cast and crew keep themselves amused and consistently congratulate themselves; I was expecting a more self-aware and enthused ramble about all the films they were influenced by. I managed about 15 minutes before resorting to the ‘making of’ features for more insight.
The behind the scenes feature is, by contrast, far more enjoyable and runs at a substantial fifty minutes. It shows the filmmakers’ admirable ambition and the enjoyment that everyone took out of the film’s lunacy, and includes breakdowns by the director, producers, actors, effects team etc. There are also two other separate features focusing on the special effects/monster creation and the music of the film (which was curiously recorded by a full orchestra). Both are entertaining enough and the head of effects and composer are likeable and informative subjects.
On top of a trailer and storyboard comparison (which aptly demonstrates the lack of artistic skill needed to knock up a workable storyboard), there are also five deleted scenes of varying merit. One contains a nice scene between the Brooks family as a whole, two add only a few seconds to existing scenes, another contains some quality hamming by Englund in a restaurant which really should have made the final cut – and finally there is an overlong (and badly acted) scene, some of which was needed in the story, as it shows Jack and his girlfriend interacting as a couple – a dynamic completely missing from the film; but both of them come across as irritating and unlikable, sadly.
I made the mistake of watching their short film first (13 mins), which really was bad and left me slightly more concerned about the feature than I would have been beforehand. The quality is to the standard of ‘friends messing around with bad fake blood in the woods and a cheap camera’, which is all well and good if they hadn’t then revealed on the commentary that it had a budget of $7000! Spending money to shoot on film is admirable, but I couldn’t help but be a little surprised that there was any money behind it or for that matter any time spent on writing a story. There’s a behind-the-scenes feature for this too, but I skipped through it at speed, I’m afraid, as I couldn’t conceive any reason to waste more of my time watching anything to do with the short. However I did notice that the fake blood looked more realistic on the camera this footage was shot on, compared to the pink looking and massively over-exposed blood on the film itself.
Jack Brooks Monster Slayer is released on 29th of September