Saturday, March 23, 2013

In short: Night Life (1989)

Teenager Archie Melville (Scott Grimes) does not have the easiest of lives. He's a somewhat sarcastic nerd in a high school full of jocks and jockettes (that's the technical term) with a tendency for violence. Consequently, Archie's very bad at not provoking his enemies, because, unlike the kind of nerd with a survival instinct, he just doesn't know when to shut up. His only friend is female mechanic Charly (Cheryl Pollak in one of those weird "put some baggy clothes and motor oil on the prettiest girl in the movie and pretend she's much less attractive than the boring cheerleaders surrounding her until she dresses more traditionally womanly in a later scene" performances movies love for no discernible reason), but their obvious mutual crush is of course unspoken.

Because Archie's also piss-poor, his only chance at escaping from small town hell lies in working for his uncle (or "uncle"?) Verlin Flanders (John Astin), the owner of the local funeral parlour, in the hope that this particular specimen of cynical bastard will pay his college tuition. Of course, Flanders treats the situation as an opportunity to have his own teenage serf.

After playing a particularly nasty "practical joke" on Archie, his four main jock(ette) nemeses die in an off-screen car crash. Alas, the funeral parlour is hit by lightning during a storm before their bodies are interred, and we all know what the combination of dead people and electricity leads to: the undead! Turns out jocks are even nastier when they are the living dead, and Archie and Charly will have to use all of their brains to escape the night alive.

David Acomba's Night Life is one of those surprisingly decent movies I never expect to stumble upon when watching random horror films I've never heard of before.The film is not, of course, what I'd call a lost classic, but it's an example of more than competent low budget filmmaking of a kind I'd wish more people had the opportunity to see. As it stands, Night Life doesn't seem to have been re-issued during the DVD age at all, not even as a straight transfer from laser disc which really is a bit of a shame.

Anyway, Night Life starts out rather slowly, really taking its time introducing the audience to Archie's unhappy life, only getting to the actual horror content after about an hour. Undead teens and violence are more costly than black teenage comedy, after all. Unlike in many other movies of this kind, the hour before the shit hits the fan isn't - for the most part - a chore to get through. The broad black humour is funny more often than it is not, and the film's characters turn out to be slightly more interesting than absolutely necessary. In a film with this type of set-up, it's actually nice, even somewhat original, to have a nerd who isn't only the battered victim of circumstances and footballers but actually a bit of a smart-ass, as well as the owner of enough confidence to work a difficult job beside his school time.

This kind of thing goes a long way to help a film stand out among its peers, but it would of course not be enough if the final thirty minutes (aka the horror part) weren't any good. Fortunately, they are. Acomba demonstrates the ability to milk a clearly low budget for as much as it is worth, resulting in a handful of (Argento-blue) moody moments, a bit of gore, and some well-staged action. Night Life's climax is a truly satisfying one, capping an entertaining ninety minutes appropriately.

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