Tuesday, November 07, 2006

After the Famine... FEAST

New on DVD is a real oddity, possible only in these whacked-out times of ours: FEAST (2006, Dimension/Weinstein Company), a more-or-less direct-to-video gore picture that is nevertheless one of the most hotly-anticipated horror releases and directorial debuts of the year.

Some background: In late 2004, the Miramax/Live Planet-sponsored series PROJECT GREENLIGHT limped back to air after two failed attempts to produce a film more interesting than the preliminary documentation of their hapless, behind-the-scenes frig-ups. Rumors were rife that producers Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Chris Moore had deliberately fudged their choices of material in order to produce more interesting reality television, and the comedy-of-errors results made it hard to refute such word-of-mouth. For people interested in the business, it was fairly addictive viewing because it confirmed all our worst fears about the business, plucking sensitive, creative writers like Erica Beeney and Pete Jones out of midwestern obscurity and placing all their hopes and dreams in the hands of established film people whose arrogance and inattention doomed their contest-winning scripts to become something conspicuously more half-assed than they ever were on the printed page.

In reviewing the first two seasons, I noticed Affleck, Damon and Moore's tendency to look past the most intense, visionary finalists (the ones who might be problems when push inevitably came to shove) and scoped out either the meekest people on the bench (the ones who would make them look good) or the biggest "characters" (the ones who would make the show look good). The first two PG films, STOLEN SUMMER (2002) and THE BATTLE OF SHAKER HEIGHTS (2003), predictably flopped and Showtime dropped their support of the series. The show managed to return the following fall on Bravo, but in emasculated form, subjected to tension-dissolving commercial interruptions and entertainment-dissolving censored language. Once again, predictably, Affleck, Damon and Moore gravitated toward what was -- by common consensus -- the worst of the finalist scripts (a gore fest by Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton that new co-producer Wes Craven himself called a piece of crap) and handed it over to the least assertive of the director finalists -- John Gulager, a timid couch potato in his late forties who could barely speak at his own pitch meeting.

But this time, the producers' selection bit them in the ass.

The son of maverick actor Clu Gulager (the guy who effectively stole most of Lee Marvin's scenes in THE KILLERS), John Gulager turned out to be a "run silent, run deep" type, and something of a West coast Cassavetes, interested only in making films with his own friends and family. Consequently, much of the third season of PROJECT GREENLIGHT turned out to be a protracted stand-off between the producers, a friend-favoring casting director in sore need of firing, and Gulager, who reasonably fought for his right to the prize he had won: the opportunity to direct his film his way. He didn't get it, but he made the most of it. As the film went into production, with everyone still panicking about Gulager's ability and stubbornness, the dailies proved surprisingly encouraging. Suddenly, the movie was turning out much better than expected... and just as things were getting exciting, Bravo pulled the plug. We were left with a greatly compressed account of production that rushed the process toward preview screenings, and then a whole year went by without much news of what had happened to FEAST.

FEAST had the misfortune to be a Miramax release at the time the Weinstein brothers were separating from the company, and they took it with them when they left. This meant that the film bore the misfortune of a protracted stay on the shelf until the Weinsteins formed a new distribution set-up with Dimension Films, but it also benefitted from Harvey Weinstein's liking of what he saw, which resulted in reshoots, a more leisurely and perfectionistic editing schedule, and additional budget allocations above and beyond the bare-bones $1,000,000 budget that came with winning the contest. (The IMDb lists its final budget at $3,200,000. Even so, as the end credits roll and roll and roll and roll on, you've got to figure that most of these people were working either for credit or for peanuts.) And now -- a full year after its initial screenings at the Chicago International Film Festival and International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival -- FEAST has been rewarded for its extraordinary patience by being sent straight to DVD, in the wake of a few Midnight Movie playdates that kept the contractual promise of some kind of theatrical release.

So how is FEAST? I was pleasantly surprised. The movie is an unashamedly reductive, two-dimensional affair, more video game than narrative, stocked with caricatures rather than characters -- everybody is introduced with the equivalent of a score card that estimates their chances of survival. We get no explanations, no warnings, no quarter, and very little down time as everyone gets spritzed or sprayed or splashed with monster blood, drool, bile, slime, or semen. The monsters eat people, get their genitals stuck in slammed doors, hump hunting trophies and each other. What makes this 87-minute onslaught endurable is its humor (thanks to Dustan and Melton and a game cast) and wildly propulsive energy (thanks to Gulager, editor Kirk Morri, and cameraman Tom Callaway -- check out his filmography -- whose unrelenting use of shutter effects is like watching a whole feature with a finger stuck in an electrical outlet). Though everyone is playing a stereotype of some sort (Jason Mewes plays himself, and still suffers a messy fate), the performances are fairly vivid.

Watching FEAST, I was reminded of a few other feature debuts: Michael Reeves' THE SHE BEAST (1965, which in its day had a similarly raw, savage quality and outré sense of humor), Sam Raimi's THE EVIL DEAD (1981, which -- along with NEAR DARK -- is the film's most overt visual influence), and Peter Jackson's BAD TASTE (1987, for the way it also used extreme gore to hilarious ends). The later careers enjoyed by these three men should give us some indication of what we could be missing if John Gulager isn't given more opportunities to direct. So far, since completing FEAST, he has edited Sage Stallone's highly lauded film short VIC and he's acted in Frank A. Cappello's forthcoming HE WAS A QUIET MAN. He should be turned loose as a director on a project that he really cares about.

Dimension's anamorphic 2.40 DVD offers a handsome calling card for Gulager's talents. There's a highly directional, extremely busy 5.1 Dolby track and an audio commentary by the filmmakers, along with production featurettes, deleted scenes and outtakes. Unfortunately, Season 3 of PROJECT GREENLIGHT (which I'd love to see in uncensored form someday) remains a no-show on DVD.

PS: I watched FEAST last night because today, November 7th, is Donna's birthday and our post-midnight movie viewing was her choice. She doesn't really care for horror movies, and for gore movies even less, but she was caught up with me in Season 3 of PROJECT GREENLIGHT and has been asking me what's going on with FEAST for the past year or so. She was eager to see it, and I'm pleased to say that she enjoyed it as much as I did; we both laughed a lot. I can't impress upon the people responsible for FEAST how rare Donna's praise is, especially in this category, and I congratulate them.

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