Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Straight Into Darkness (2004)

It’s the tail end of World War II. After a a mine accident kills the MPs bringing them in, deserters Losey (Ryan Francis) and Deming (Scott MacDonald) are making their way through wintery Western Europe, ending up somewhere behind the frontlines. The very different, yet both traumatized men – Losey being more the soft and thoughtful type, and Deming abrasive and violent – encounter the detritus of war: corpses, ruins, and people having taken on the appearance of both. Eventually they end up in a half-ruined building that turns out to be the base of a very special guerrilla group – a bunch of mentally ill or developmentally handicapped children that have been taught the ways of war by their former teachers (David Warner and Linda Thorson).

Shortly afterwards, a troop of Nazi soldiers (including a tank) appears, and the two deserters and the child soldiers and their minders have to attempt to fight them off.

Straight Into Darkness’s director Jeff Burr has spent most of his career making second row genre movies like Pumpkinhead III or Puppet Master 3 and 4. I imagine this sort of work doesn’t exactly provide one with the opportunity to bring much of one’s personality into a movie – and it’s probably not something the producers involved would want a director to provide in a post-Corman-when-he-was-good world. On the positive side, if that sort of work doesn’t kill you, it must give you some of the chops needed to get a cheap, more personal project rolling sometime.

The film at hand – as far as I’ve read partially self-financed by Burr -clearly is such a project, and even though the slightly lower than you’d wish it had budget leads to some rough edges, it’s quite a success too. It’s a war film that turns things slightly surreal and gothic, with the outward world having gone so crazy and cruel it’s not clear anymore if it is mirroring the characters or the characters are mirroring it. With simple yet effective measures, and some classic montage techniques that I found a bit heavy-handed in their symbolism from time to time (but then that’s montage for you), Burr brings the irreality of the horrors surrounding his characters to life, portraying a world that has come completely unhinged. Despite there being no supernatural element here, there is an air of the Gothic and of the horror genre about Straight Into Darkness, using war movie tropes to make a horror film where we are the monsters, and we have driven the world and each other insane; or possibly it’s the other way around, genre-wise.

Despite being rather on the dark side (as promised by the title), Straight Into Darkness is philosophically not opposed to small traces of optimism, and the suggestion of a better future, but it is also willing to be honest about the fact that most of its characters won’t make it there, and not all who make it might deserve it if looked at morally, as it is about the fact that people will even find an excuse to make to themselves for slaughtering children (while others lose all faith in themselves for things they just couldn’t have avoided). In fact, the film’s so consequent about these things in its final act it’s not just impossible to imagine this done with even a minor mainstream budget; even I found the final twenty minutes or so pretty hard to take, but then, that’s not the film being needlessly cruel or transgressing to be transgressive but the film achieving what it set out to do. Being easily digestible in this case would mean lying to the audience to make it easier on them, and, as a wise woman once said, art isn’t supposed to look down.

(The film also gets extra credit for having post-dubbed its German soldiers by actual native speakers speaking actual German; they’re not particularly good voice actors, but the mere fact the film is doing what most major studio productions don’t is a swell example of how much the film cares about what it does).

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