Wednesday, August 12, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: AREA 51 (2015) and WYRMWOOD: ROAD OF THE DEAD (2015)

(US - 2015)

Though he's written and produced other films in the years since (like the already-forgotten CHERNOBYL DIARIES), director Oren Peli is best known for 2009's PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, even though he's handed off the sequels to Christopher Landon and the CATFISH guys. When PARANORMAL ACTIVITY was hitting theaters and becoming a phenomenon (because you "demanded" to see it!),  a pleased Paramount was already onboard with Peli's next project, which had just finished shooting. It wasn't supposed to take six years to be released, but that's what happened with AREA 51, which was shot in the fall of 2009 and didn't surface until the summer of 2015. One of the more high-profile shelved projects of the last several years, AREA 51 endured a troubled production that saw Paramount bringing in actor (ARGO, SOUND OF MY VOICE) and writer/director (PRESERVATION) Christopher Denham in 2011 to rewrite the third act at the behest of underwhelmed studio execs and bored test audiences (depending on who's telling the story, Denham may have also directed the 2011 reshoots). Two years went by with no progress when Peli returned in 2013 and did some additional rewrites and reshoots, and spent the next year or so heroically trying to salvage the wreckage. Through their "Insurge" genre label, Paramount very quietly released AREA 51 on VOD and some Alamo Drafthouse locations for a weekend run, grossing $7500 against a $5 million budget. The released version still carries a 2011 copyright, so it's unknown if what's hitting Blu-ray and DVD is an earlier cut or if Paramount simply didn't care enough to update the final credits.

Is AREA 51 that bad?  Yeah, pretty much. Sure, the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies have gotten increasingly abysmal--no matter how great that "fan-cam" bit was in the third entry--but Peli hasn't had anything to do with them aside from a contractual producer and a superfluous "Based on characters created by" credit since his original film. There was little reason to believe that his own PA follow-up would end up being one of the worst examples of the found-footage genre. Back in 2009, before found-footage became the single most regrettable trend in modern horror cinema (along with the seemingly endless string of terrible demonic possession movies), the notion of such a film tackling the Area 51 conspiracies might've been a good idea, but Peli stumbles at every turn. He does get a few genuinely creepy images in the final ten minutes, but it takes 80 minutes to get there. Most of the time, we follow three dudebros--Reid (Reid Warner), Darrin (Darrin Bragg), and Ben (Ben Rovner) on their way to Nevada as Darrin and Ben indulge Reid's obsession with Area 51. They meet up with Jelena (Jelena Nik), an Area 51 conspiracy theorist Reid met online, and whose father worked at the base and committed suicide--of course, she thinks he was killed for asking too many questions. Once they finally and quite improbably get inside the base--this is after a ludicrous breaking-and-entering into a top security officer's home to steal his ID badge and a swipe a fingerprint off a cologne bottle in a long sequence so idiotic that the film never recovers from it--Reid, Jelena, and Darrin (Ben waits in the SUV) do a lot of walking around long corridors using night vision, which is easy since the only employees seen are occasional maintenance guys driving a cart. The climax basically takes the finale of BLAIR WITCH and adds some fleeting glimpses of the standard-issue extraterrestrials while Reid and Jelena run around and keep incessantly and breathlessly repeating "We gotta get outta here!" Had this played in theaters, there's no doubt the audience would've been right there with them in sharing that sentiment. (R, 91 mins)

(Australia - 2015)

The last thing the world needs is another zombie movie, but this Australian import is a cut above the norm for the prefab cult movie scene. It refreshingly accomplishes a little more than just showing up, making the references and waiting for the blank-check accolades to pour in from the scenesters, even though it drops the ball somewhat when it comes to exploring its more original elements to their full potential. Conceived by the Roache-Turner brothers (Kiah directed, Tristan produced and served as production designer, both scripted), WYRMWOOD unabashedly worships at the altar of old-school Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, with some bonus George Miller homages to legitimize the Ozploitation elements. They also play with the timeline to an extent, with the story being set up and then circling back to its beginning about 1/3 of the way through, then taking off in a linear fashion from there--it almost ends up like a 30-minute prologue. After a sudden zombie outbreak overnight, Barry (Jay Gallagher) kills his wife and daughter when they turn, and he takes to the road, desperately trying to get to his younger sister Brooke (Bianca Bradey), who's been abducted by some military goons and is being experimented on by a mad doctor (Berynn Schwerdt). Barry ends up forming an unholy alliance of asskickers with gruff Frank (Keith Agius) and affable doofus Benny (Leon Burchill), and they take to the Outback wasteland in a souped-up, fortified, steel-encased pickup truck. They use the enclosed bed to corral zombies after discovering undead blood is both flammable and a fuel source. Most of the time, the Roache-Turners are content to riff on the EVIL DEAD movies, DEAD ALIVE, George Romero's zombie films, SHAUN OF THE DEAD, and THE ROAD WARRIOR with varying degrees of cleverness, but some unexpected--and underutilized--plot developments show that they're at least interested in trying something different with a woefully played-out genre. There's a little too much quick-cut editing and shaky-cam, but there's a nice mix of digital and practical blood, the splatter is spirited and enthusiastic, Bradey might be the next great horror heroine, and even the most briefly-seen characters are well-established enough that you're bummed when they get killed (poor Chalker!). Mostly crowdfunded with a big post-production gift from Screen Australia to make it polished and cinematic, WYRMWOOD was allegedly shot on weekends over a three-year period by the Roache-Turners. It was successful enough in Australia to warrant the already-announced WYRMWOOD 2. (Unrated, 99 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

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