Tuesday, November 8, 2011
EXIT HUMANITY - Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2011: Zombies in the Heartland of Post-Civil-War America Displays Ambition and Scope On No Budget
Exit Humanity (2011) dir. John Geddes
Starring: Mark Gibson, Dee Wallace, Stephen McHattie, Bill Moseley and narrated by Brian Cox
RATING (out of ****) ***
By Greg Klymkiw
Ambition, when it is clear, true and sparked by originality is nothing to be sneezed at - even if the end result falls a bit short of what it needs to succeed. Exit Humanity, a zombie western, is certainly one of the strangest and compelling movies I've seen in sometime. In fact, while it clearly belongs in the horror genre (there are zombies, after all), the picture feels a lot more like it's rooted in a tradition of magic realism and fairy tale. It doesn't quite gel, but in spite of this, it's a solid feature debut for a director whom one hopes will have a long, fruitful career ahead of him.
The film begins with an all-out, no-holds-barred brutal battle sequence twixt the opposing blue and gray forces of the American civil war. As the carnage heats up, a third fighting element creeps into the madness - zombies. Even though the war soon ends, a dark cloud appears over the land and during the reconstruction period, a plague spreads across the once-divided, but now tenuously-melded nation. The living dead rise to eat the living. Following one young soldier, Edward Young (Mark Gibson) we embark upon his odyssey of pain, revenge and redemption that follows the deaths of his beloved wife and son.
Edward keeps a detailed journal with vivid drawings and the most exquisite calligraphy. The reading of voice over journals is hardly original, but when it works, it works and there's certainly no reason for the insistence of those who should know better to NOT use it cinematically.
Within the context of Exit Humanity, the journal proves to be a reasonable way to let us in on Edward's inner life, but to also pepper the picture with a lot of background - both narratively and historically. Edward's words of reflection appear over much of the action and are read by one of the world's great living actors Brian Cox. Even more astoundingly, the drawings often morph into gorgeous animated sequences.
On the plus side, the use of this narrative device helps plunge us into fairy tale territory. (Don't worry, there's plenty of brutal zombie action inflicted by the living dead and, most deliciously, upon them.) It's also, frankly, a brilliant approach to fleshing out the micro-budget of the film and delivering production value that fills out the movie. Amazingly, the picture has excellent production value in the non-animated sequences, so it never appears as if this is a choice tied to basic exigencies of production.
On the down side, there's too much narration and the writing tends to tell us stuff we already know and can see. There's occasionally times when it's totally fine to tell and show at the same time, BUT I do wish this had been more judiciously applied in the final cut.
The movie is quite a revelation in that it signals a new force in Canadian cinema. Foresight Features, the burgeoning Canadian company that produced Exit Humanity and the delightful Monster Brawl is making cool movies with next-to-zero dollars. Foresight is especially unique in that it brilliantly makes use of any number of no-budget techniques.
They do so in a way that's tied directly to the narrative and atmosphere. (Note, for example, the exceptionally canny use of rural locations in both Exit Humanity and Monster Brawl.) Foresight is creating wildly original work that also maintains extremely high production value, private financing, tons of sweat equity and no dining at the Telefilm Canada trough.
Too many low budget Canadian films have big ambitions, but the artistic life is sucked out of them by bureaucrats and worse, those pictures almost always feel impoverished - with artistic cuts made to appease "industry standards". I've seen too many talented young filmmakers in Canada destroyed by the need of financing agencies and training institutions demanding an adherence to supposed standards that are, ultimately, nothing more than uninformed check-listing of buzz-words to ensure the survival of said agencies and institutions rather than the filmmakers.
And while many Canadian films are dotting their landscapes with genuine stars, Foresight Features has the imagination and, if you will, foresight, to populate their casts with quirky genre-specific stars. Exit Humanity - in addition to the aforementioned use of Brian Cox (the original Hannibal Lecter in Michael Mann's brilliant Manhunter) - features welcome supporting turns from a bevy of cool actors like Dee (E.T., The Howling, Cujo, Critters) Wallace, Bill (The Devil's Rejects, House of 1000 Corpses) Moseley and Canada's greatest actor (tied with Louis Negin for this Klymkiw Accolade) Stephen (2010, Pontypool, the great 70s TV movie James Dean and his memorable star turn as Vreenak the Romulan in Star Trek: Deep Space 9) McHattie.
Exit Humanity is flawed, to be sure, but at least it's not stricken with the typical malaise infusing most Canadian features. It has scope, sweep and, although weirdly muted, high stakes. If anything, the movie is infused with a great deal of love and compassion. The strange blend of romantic yearning, fairy tale, horror and western genres is terrific when it clicks like clockwork.
When it is deliberate, it's wonderful, but oft-times it's ponderous. The movie really needs a good 20-or-so minutes shaved from it. This would not, in any way, shape or form take away from the director's clear intention to provide an offbeat journey. It would, in fact, have enhanced it.
Instead of the usual hyped-up urgency that infuses so many contemporary genre films, I applaud the filmmaker's intent to bring us back to a time when scares and creepy-crawly feelings could hold an audience. Director Geddes has crafted a movie in this tradition, but it's mildly frustrating to watch a picture and SEE PRECISELY where the movie could be cut with no detriment to the intent. I psychotically watched the movie three times. Once, just to watch it. Twice, to figure out why it haunted me in spite of its considerable flaws. And finally, a third time to ascertain what could have been done with the footage in its final form. The movie it should be is buried in itself and most notably, in its intent. But as we all know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions - action, finally, speaks louder than words.
"Exit Humanity" was unleashed at the magnificent Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2011 and is being distributed by Anchor Bay Canada. To read my review of the other Foresight Features production Monster Brawl, visit HERE