More former horror stars than you can shake a newly-whittled sharp stick at…
by Jason Howard
A group of past-their-prime horror icons, largely playing variations of themselves, are having a hard time earning a living with the increasingly apathetic horror convention patrons. On route to the latest gathering, they accept a deal to earn a few extra bucks by doing what they once did best – scaring the residents of a local RV park. As to be expected, however, the tables are turned and the fictional hunters become the real-life hunted as our “heroes” begin dying, one-by-one, in increasingly gruesome fashion.
There have been a lot of throwbacks of late to 80’s schlock, but this horror/comedy hybrid actually goes a step further by giving us a virtual “who-used-to-be-who” of the very films it pays homage to. I’ll leave it to you to research their credits if you’re unfamiliar, but our core group is made up of Kane Hodder, Bill Moseley, R.A. Mihailoff, Dane Rhodes, Malcolm Danare, and Don Shanks. Add to that embarrassment of riches cameos by the likes of John Kassir, Michael Berryman, and the film’s writer/director John Schneider and you’ve got yourself a real Scream King Stew!
Of course, a cast like that would be nothing more than mere gimmickry if it was the film’s only selling point. Fortunately, however, Schneider tosses in a clever script and assured, bold direction to ensure that we’re not just marveling at familiar personalities.
One rather gutsy move that could potentially divide audiences is the non-linear storytelling style that Schneider has employed here. The ever-shifting timeline bounces around between past, present, and future, meaning that story details are dished out gradually, rather than setting everything up at the start. It also means that, just because you may see a particular cast member meet their maker early on, it doesn’t mean that they won’t still be receiving plenty of screen time as the film progresses. This, combined with the rather large number of characters, ensures that you’ll spend a good part of the film’s first act pretty disoriented at what exactly is going on (a feeling that, strangely enough, I quite enjoyed), but it remains entertaining enough to make you want to see where it’s headed. There is never a moment where you’ll doubt that Schneider is in complete control of his film and once you figure out the puzzle, you’ll be hooked.
Perhaps the film’s biggest strength is the sense of humor running throughout. You’ll get great joy out of watching these once scary icons of your past bickering and whining over the most mundane of subjects. It’s also apparent that Schneider did his Slasher Movie research (heck, he had some of the best professors in the biz on set with him each day) as quite a bit of comedy is mined from the tropes of typical cheesy-horror fare. Wisely, that streak avoids the all-too-typical snarky/meta approach (thanks, Scream) of simply pointing out what you should and shouldn’t do and then conveniently ignoring that. Instead, it rewards those of us who grew up on the films and attended horror conventions (and, even met a few of these guys) by turning the norms on their heads and giving us a peek at what it would be like to spend a few “real life” moments with some larger-than-life actors. You’ll certainly be rewarded with a basic knowledge of the horror genre, meaning broad appeal could prove to be elusive, but it’s definitely not completely impenetrable to newbies.
On the acting front, the core cast are all game, giving us (hopefully) fictionalized versions of themselves. Hodder makes a charming, funny lead as a guy who just wants to make it back to the girl he just met. Mihailoff as a Curly Joe-esque version of his persona, Moseley as the guy always in the shadows of other icons, and Shanks as an aging misogynistic beefcake also score plenty of laughs. Outside of our leads, look out for equally strong performances that straddle the line between funny and scary from Amy Brassette (unrecognizable and unforgettable) and Brea Grant (channeling a bit of Sheri Moon-Zombie) as the mother & daughter owners of the trailer RV park.
Because this is a horror film (and, a throwback to the 80’s to boot), you’ll want to know if it delivers what we’ve come to expect. For the blood-and-guts fans – you’ll be plenty pleased. The kills are fun and creative and, because of the ever-changing timeline, sprinkled fairly evenly throughout, so not much time goes by without something happening. Another staple, T & A, is not so generously dished out here – in fact, what little we do get turns out to not be as great as we initially think. But, frankly, there’s not really much of a place for it here anyway, and would have felt shoehorned in for titillation’s sake (yeah, I know that’s how the 80’s did it, too).
On the technical front, the editing is pretty tight and particularly measured, considering the nature of the film’s non-linear approach. It’s aided by a series of on-screen graphics that help us keep track of what’s going on and, more importantly, provide another level of laughs. The cinematography and music also work perfectly to give an added depth of authenticity. Heck, Smothered even has its own theme song in the closing credits!
JASON’S FINAL THOUGHTS:
Quite frankly, Smothered is one of the best horror/comedy hybrids to come along in years, and takes a unique approach that pays off in spades. If I’ve been a bit vague on plot details, it’s because many of the film’s rewards rely upon you discovering the nuances for yourself. You may be a bit out-of-whack at the start or scared off by your own unfamiliarity with the genre, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice by not giving this one your time. Two of the most common (and conflicting) complaints from movie-goers is that films are never original anymore and they don’t give us exactly what we are familiar with. Well, here’s your chance to see something that addresses both of those issues head on, slashes both of their throats, and has a lot of fun while doing so.
Reviewed via streamed-screener 09/06/14