Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Mimic: Sentinel (2003)

Marvin Monrose (Karl Geary) lives together with his mother (Amanda Plummer) and his teenage sister Rosy (Alexis Dziena) in an apartment in a very run-down part of a larger North American city. Marvin is one of the original Sticklers' disease kids, whose illness was indirectly responsible for the creation of the ill-mannered killer insects known as the Judas Breed from the first two Mimic movies.

Marvin - by now in his twenties - doesn't suffer from the illness anymore, but has acquired a hyper-sensitivity to diverse parts of his environment that mostly seems to be a a symptom of social phobias. He spends most of his time in his room, watching the apartment building across the street from his home through a photo camera (non-digital, man!) and spying on his neighbours in a harmless yet slightly creepy manner.

Strange things are beginning to happen in the neighbourhood: Marvin witnesses the disappearance of a child, but isn't too sure what exactly it is he's seeing, a new arrival in the neighbourhood with special interest in trashcans whom Marvin christens the Garbageman (Lance Henriksen) and who might or might not have anything to do with the kid's disappearance acts suspiciously, and Carmen (Rebecca Mader) a young woman Marvin shows special interest in doesn't act creeped out when Rosy introduces her to her brother and his wall of peeping tom photos.

One night, Marvin and Rosy witness how something or someone kills Rosy's dealer and friend Desmond (Keith Robinson), yet don't manage to make photos of what happened. They call the police, but nobody believes them. It's not that much of a surprise, given that Marvin is a bit obsessed with the Judas Breed and has a history of seeing the nasty bugs everywhere they aren't and calling the cops on them.

The investigating detective (John Kapelos) shows much more interest in getting into Mrs. Monrose's panties than in her children's stories, so Rosy and Carmen decide to take a look at the Garbageman's apartment while Marvin is supposed to watch out for them, not caring that Marvin has actually seen Rear Window and therefore does not have a good feeling about the whole affair.

So, another shot-in-Romania sequel to a horror movie series that never was all that impressive to begin with for the DVD market? Does not sound enticing, right? Fortunately Sentinel wasn't directed by one of the more typical talentless and careless hacks who usually make this sort of film, but by the impressively talented J.T. Petty, whose first non-independent film this is. Petty seems pretty much incapable of making a bad movie, and while this probably isn't the sort of movie that will make any lists of the "best horror movies of the noughties", it's a clever and solid little movie.

One early obvious difference between this and other US movies shot in Romania is that all main characters who are supposed to be Americans are actually played by American actors and not Eastern Europeans stumbling their way through the English dialogue with heavy accents and straining even my ability to keep up my belief in a film taking place in the US. While I'm all for giving us Europeans acting jobs in American films, I'm also all for giving roles to fitting actors and not some guy who was accidentally hit in the head by a film's script when the director was trying to hit the trash can.

Obviously, the presence or lack of a presence of actors with Romanian accents isn't something that makes or breaks a film, I do however think that it hints at a director willing to put a bit more care into aspects of his film many people working in the direct to DVD part of the film business just don't give a shit about - namely, actually making a movie an audience can watch without feeling offended by its lack of entertainment value.

While at least one half of the philosophy of making cheap genre movies has always been to get it done as cheap and fast as possible, and directors had to work correspondingly, some of those directors were also diligent craftsmen trying to make their films as good as possible under the constraints of budget and time given to them.

Petty's film stands very much in the tradition of the work of those directors making an effort to please their audiences.

Petty uses the art of reduction, of showing his audience as little as he can afford budget-wise, but he is also putting a lot of effort into connecting the reduction with the plot and themes of the film. The audience mostly shares the claustrophobic and restricted view of the world Marvin has. There's his room, his mother's apartment, the windows of the neighbouring house and the street, and that's all anyone ever sees of the movie's world. Now, there are a few scenes in which we see more of the outside world than Marvin does, but even these moments keep to the film's feeling of claustrophobia. All attacks of the Judas Breed take place in confined spaces - even the street between the two buildings has the feel of such a space - with characters (in classic horror film tradition) usually trying to escape from their attackers into even more confined spaces. Petty milks this feeling of claustrophobia for all its worth, connecting it to undertones of urban decay and the loneliness of his protagonist, not with large gestures that try to make a high-minded "point about the world we live in" that would easily drag the film in the direction of the ridiculous, but with a genre movie humility that wants to make a tight movie more than it wants to make a point.

It's this unpretentiousness I like most about the film, the knowledge of how, what (and how much) can be done with the "Rear Window meets killer bugs on a budget" set-up and the knowledge what can't be done with it.

As someone with experience with social phobias myself, I also liked that Marvin's character arc doesn't end in the expected way - with him "getting over" his mental problems as if they were a cold and saving the day - but with him surviving by following his instincts of crawling into a dark and tight space. Instead of showing that now everything's "alright" with Marvin, the film leaves the viewer with the hope that the young man will have a somewhat easier time connecting to other people in the future, eschewing the usual movie pretence that problems like his can be solved with finality through fifteen minutes of being a manly man.

This thoughtfulness about the less clear-cut aspects of life can also be found in other parts of the film's character work, be it in the non-judgmental way the film treats Rosy's drug problem or how John Kapelos' cop character - while not exactly a hero -  isn't the sort of stupid bastard one would expect him to be in a movie like this.

Tightness and cleverness in details and giant bugs - what more can one ask of a film?


No comments: