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September 23, 2006 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | September 23, 2006 |

Ah, the senseless B-grade horror film. Except for straight-up porn, no other type of film is as honest about what it promises the viewer as the horror genre. But that basis of its appeal — let’s watch something scary — has long since become self-aware, meaning that most horror movies don’t just want to scare you, they want to remind you that you’re watching a horror movie, and that the movie knows just what it’s doing as it’s doing it. We’ve come from the straightforward and vaguely politically allegorical turf of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the frenzied, blood-spattered films of today, the latest of which, Feast, takes that ol’ self-reflexive irony ball and runs with it headlong down the field. Of course, it’s impossible to talk about Feast without talking about “Project Greenlight,” the TV program/vanity outlet that allowed Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to sell a reality show about producing low-budget features. The series’ third (and apparently final) season dealt with the making of Feast, including the hiring of the film’s temperamental director, John Gulager. All this adds a weird layer of awareness to the film, making it more of an experience than any legitimate venture in storytelling. It’s a gory, frenetic thrill ride, but it can’t quite overcome the fact that it’s a cheaply made horror flick created by amateurs.

The plot’s about as simple as they come: A group of people are trapped in a bar besieged by big scary monsters and do their best to fight back and survive. Set in a dive juke joint in the nameless Texas desert, we’re introduced quickly to a variety of enjoyable stock characters via freeze-frames on each face, accompanied by music and titles that give each character’s name, background, and, in a cheerily morbid turn, life expectancy. There’s Bozo (Balthazar Getty), his wheelchair-bound brother Hot Wheels (Josh Zuckerman), Beer Guy (Judah Friedlander), Grandma (Eileen Ryan), and a pair of waitresses: Honey Pie (Jenny Wade) and Tuffy (Krista Allen). There are a few others, too, including Jason Mewes playing himself, but that’s about it. I know what you’re thinking: Wow, they cast the film with struggling unknowns, comedians, bad actors, and a woman who got her start in softcore porn. That’s the kind of ride you’re in for, folks. The script, from fellow “PG” contest winners Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton, wastes no time in diving head-first into a tongue-in-cheek tone and plenty of gleeful set-ups, including having Tuffy reluctantly sleep with her Boss Man (Duane Whitaker) for some unknown but probably disheartening reason, like maybe he tips her a few extra bucks so she can raise her single son (Tyler Patrick Jones). And this is all in the first few minutes.

Then the hero, named Hero (Eric Dane), shows up, covered in blood and warning of approaching monsters, and he’s followed closely by his wife, Heroine (Navi Rawat), and you either find that cute or you don’t. So the monsters are coming, and the people have to fight back. It all unfolds with a speed borne of the complete resistance to do anything other than make a stock gorefest, which is clearly Gulager’s goal, because when the monsters finally show up, oh man, does the Karo syrup fly.

That’s Gulager’s biggest problem, though: There’s an abundance of blood, but very little in the way of suspense or scares. He’s skilled at following the action, but not at giving it any energy or clarity. Not long after the heroes arrive, the first monsters show up, too, and it’s a laughable moment for several reasons: first, it’s apparent that most of the film’s shoestring budget went anywhere but the special effects — maybe Getty’s more pricey than you’d imagine, who knows — but the sight of the little monster running around the bar misses camp and lands right in corny. Gulager also shoots the attack scenes slightly slower, so when they’re played back at normal speed, everything feels rushed and slightly choppy; as a result, it’s impossible to see what’s happening onscreen once the fur and flesh start to fly. What should be good scary fun is just incomprehensible brown blurs set to screams and generic chomping sounds.

There is one sequence of genuine suspense, though, complete with a moment that made everyone in the theater jump. Bozo is tasked to go upstairs and find a radio that’s hidden in the back of a closet, and Gulager milks the scene for all it’s worth, cutting between Getty’s cowboy boots scraping across the floor to the darkness outside to the survivors down in the main area of the bar. It’s the only time Gulager stops worrying about the creatures and lets the tension build naturally out of anticipation, and he earns the scare that you see coming a mile off.

Most of the jokes work, but the script mostly has a “Hey, we’re here all week” feel, as if Dunstan and Melton were more concerned about trying to land good lines instead of developing their own voices. Yes, the story isn’t quite as pat as others in the genre, and certain characters who were promised full and wonderful lives are quickly devoured by the creatures, which is an enjoyable way of keeping the audience on its toes. But the pair also crafted such lines as, “The monsters are doing it doggy style,” which I guess doesn’t need any more explaining.

Feast wants to join the brotherhood of films that manage to blend horror with humor, a notable group that includes everything from Army of Darkness to last spring’s overlooked but enjoyable Slither. Unfortunately, Gulager’s too wrapped up in the fun he’s having to give the viewer a reason to care. Dunstan and Melton’s script turns from cute to contrived remarkably fast, as they keep shouting at you that yes, you’re watching a movie, and yes, you’re having a good time. After a while, though, I stopped believing them.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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