Serena And The Ratts (2012)

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We watch a lot of low-budget garbage here at the ISCFC. We’ve seen every trick in the book – water treatment plants doubling as everything from a military nerve centre to the deck of a ship; every CGI monster looking identical; the apocalypse happening while a normal busy city street can be seen 20 yards away. So when you find a film like “Serena And The Ratts” which has a budget which probably couldn’t buy you a day’s catering on your average Hollywood effort, and has you still thinking about it the next day, then that’s something pretty unique.

We are huge Evalena Marie fans too. She was amazing in the SyFy Channel original movie “Dark Haul”, and once again is the best thing about the movie. She’s Serena, an assassin working for “Boss” (Jonathan Thomson, also great), brought in and trained “Nikita”-style. A group called the Ratts (Rebels Against Time Travel) is attempting to assassinate all the scientists involved in this apparently newly invented science; at the same time one of those scientists has hired a hitman to go back in time and kill Hitler. YES! Anyway, Serena and her partner Leonard are tasked with stopping the killer, and it’s the conversation they have that is an early indicator of the movie’s quality. They discuss killing Hitler and whether his death would make things better; or if social forces are more important than individuals, the Nazis would still rise and their new boss could be even better.

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Giving us the backstory in a non-linear fashion, as well as not really giving us any clues to which bit we’re watching, encourages you to actually pay attention, by no means a given in the world of the micro-budget. Learning more about Serena’s (and Boss’s) story subtly makes you view things you learned before in a new light – no roadmap with this movie – but as if to make sure your brain doesn’t give up from the complexity, there’s a sweet training montage about halfway through too. I do love a montage! There is the idea that time travel alters things we haven’t seen, too, as if the movie is a take 2, or take 10, of some previous movie, where the person with the machine can make sure events play out in a certain way. I think the movie uses the time travel conceit on the very fabric of the movie itself, is the point I’m clumsily trying to get across.

I think it’s fantastic that the filmmakers used their low budget as a plus and didn’t try to just fill it with very cheap special effects. The movie takes place in shabby apartments and weirdly fake-looking offices and dirty back streets and disused factories; not only did they find good places to film, but the camerawork is superb, with a great overall visual, some interesting angles and good use of (presumably budget-saving) extreme closeups.

I’m still trying to puzzle some of the movie out, which is in itself a good thing. But, if I had to offer any criticism at all, is that they’ve tried to do too much. It’s the best possible reason to come up short, I suppose – but there’s a lot of nuance in the script, and when you’re relying on non-professional actors to dish out meaty monologues, there’s going to be problems. Plus, there’s a fight near the end where the result we get seems unlikely, based on the skill levels of the people involved. You can tell I liked it, I’m trying to avoid spoilers!

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I think it succeeds a huge amount more than it fails, though. It’s an extraordinarily ambitious film with a really confident director and a star who is so good and able to elevate where others perhaps can’t, that she could be knocking it out of the park on much bigger projects. What’s wrong with you, Hollywood casting people?

Rating: thumbs up

 

GIVE THESE PEOPLE YOUR MONEY – 2012 was when it was released and did the festival circuit, but it’s only been available to buy for a few months. Read about the production here  and support genuinely inventive low-budget filmmaking and give these people some of your cash here.

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Dark Haul (2014)

(aka “Monster Truck”, apparently)

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I’ve seen so many terrible SyFy Channel films – devoid of any craft, tedious, humourless, lazy – that to watch one that’s good on purpose is still a bit of a shock. The gradual sense of “hold on, I’m enjoying this” is the equivalent of going into a burnt-out McDonalds and finding someone in there who’s serving a perfect steak.

In 1735, a 13th child is born to a 13th child, and this is triggers some ancient prophecy, apparently. I always liked the 7th son of a 7th son thing, myself, but anyway! Tearing itself out of the mother’s belly is a…creature…of some sort, and it does a fair bit of damage before it’s subdued by a group of monks. Also inside the mother is a human-looking baby girl, the only difference being that she has a tail.

The opening credits give us, in animated and voiceover form, their life for the next 270+ years – they’re effectively immortal and able to gradually regenerate from most injuries, with no explanation given. They’re guarded by the same religious order, and the prophecy is always there in the background, that there will come a final battle between man and beast, on the spot where the beast was born. The brother escapes from time to time and starts the legend of the Jersey Devil, but the sister – Zib – is able to control him, by and large.

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The order has a collection of religious relics which look like the sort of tat you’d be able to buy in a gift shop in Rome, but seem to work to an extent, and are the only thing that offer protection against the “Halos”, which are the hallucinations that the brother is able to place in peoples’ minds. Well, the other thing is weakening both of them, and they have rather an unpleasant way of doing that – he gets his wings chopped off, and she has a tailectomy.

He’s becoming too powerful even with all their plans, so after a discussion they decide to take him to a new base, and this involves a large sigil-encrusted cell being placed in the back of a truck. This journey, where the armed wing of the order tries to keep him under control is really effective – with a great scene at a petrol station, and eventually a pretty spectacular (by SyFy standards) truck stunt, as they are plagued with hallucinations and try to fight them off while keeping the journey going. He’s able to manipulate things so he gets closer and closer to the site of his birth and the culmination of the prophecy, while Zib has an extremely conflicted relationship with both her captors and her brother.

Not only is this a tense thriller, but it’s also a pretty original idea – something you can say about very very few SyFy films. And it’s all anchored by an amazing central performance from Evalena Marie as Zib. She’s a physical force, and you can see how she’s torn between love for and fear of her brother, hatred and admiration of her captors and the alternating desire to save the world or watch it burn for how it treated her. She’s just brilliant, and I look forward to seeing her in more films. Her captors are, after all, good religious people who’ve given up their lives to keep the two of them under lock and key for the world’s benefit, and as they fight amongst themselves as to the best way of dealing with the Jersey Devil, and try and hold themselves together while their chaotic journey rumbles on, it dawns on you that they’re having a serious conversation about a serious topic, it’s well written, well performed and not just filling time to the next fight scene. The use of the “haloes” to trick and confuse both the guards and the viewers is a neat little trick too.

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It wouldn’t be a SyFy review without the “well, it’s not all good” section. The second tier of acting is pretty ropey, and the special effects aren’t all they could be. Tom Sizemore, as the “bad” side of the religious protectors, is a bit too evil sometimes, but that might just be how Tom Sizemore acts in 2014. That’s about it though!

I hope both director Daniel Wise and writer Ben Crane go on to bigger things, as this is their first credit. It’s not just a good film, but visually interesting too, which for SyFy is almost never the case; and Evalena Marie is just fantastic (and is making her own films now, so keep an eye out for her). SyFy Channel, if you read this, which is I admit unlikely, “Dark Haul” is the sort of movie you should be making! Give young, fresh talent a try and let them make more interesting films, and you’ll be rewarded with gems like this.

Rating: thumbs up