Flick finds the world of reclusive former prison guard Hank (Dylan McDermott) turned a bit askew with the arrival of sexy tattooed teen Josie (Sophie Turner) at the school where he is a security guard. Josie uses her charms to get Hank’s attention, as well as, the attention of local teen delinquent, Marcus (Jack Kilmer). The two men already don’t like each other and sexy Josie may have more than just flirtation in mind.
OK thriller is directed by Eric England (Madison County, Contracted) from a fairly predictable script by Anthony Ragnone II. The cast all perform well, especially Game of Thrones’ Turner, who is quite effective as a femme fatale. It’s just that we can see where this is headed almost from the start. When Hank, early on, confides in Josie about his past, we know it’s got to be connected to her appearance and we’re not wrong. It comes to the violent…though still unsettling…conclusion that we also know is coming and the big reveal looses all it’s impact because we have already figured it out long before Hank. Watchable to see Turner strut her stuff as a bad girl, but if you think you’ve figured it out early on…you have.
Madison County was a horror that had it’s flaws but, showed some potential for writer/director Eric England and his latest flick Contracted shows some growth in that potential, but is sadly dragged down by an increasingly absurd last act and a predictable and silly conclusion.
The film opens with what looks to be someone having sex with a corpse in a morgue and then switches focus to Samantha (Najarra Townsend) a bi-sexual young woman who is going through a break-up with her girlfriend Nikki (Katie Stegeman). Sam gets drunk at a friend’s (Alice Macdonald) party, gets drugged and has sex with a strange man named BJ (Simon Barrett). Almost immediately the next day, Sam starts to feel ill and begins to hemorrhage from between her legs. As the hours pass Sam becomes increasingly sickly forming a rash and starts to experience loss of hair, nails and teeth. Her doctor thinks it may be a sexually contracted decease, but Sam feels it’s impossible having just slept with that one man 24 hours earlier, though she’s not sure if he used protection. Making matters worse, her mysterious lover “BJ” is being sought by police for unknown reasons. As Sam continues to degenerate, with bloodshot eyes and increasing sores, and without any clue as to what’s happening to her, her life spirals out of control. As she starts to become more and more unstable, she becomes more and more violent. What did BJ pass on to her and what is happening to her?
Writer/director Eric England had me hook line and sinker with the first two acts of this flick. The concept of this young woman contracting some plague-like sexually transmitted decease from not-entirely consensual sex on a one night stand, was effectively portrayed by both director and actress. The scenes of her initial hemorrhaging are very chilling and Najarra conveys Sam’s confusion, fear and denial very well as she degenerates. We also have the added tension of knowing her one night stand is now sought by authorities for an unknown reason. The fact that her mother (Caroline Williams) wants to pass it off as Sam’s return to drug use and her doctor (Ruben Pia) believes it’s something sexually transmitted only adds to her frustration and terror. That fear translates to the audience, but the film starts to degenerate, much like Sam, in the last act by just taking the concept to absurd levels. With Sam becoming violent to the point of homicidal, anyone who has seen a horror movie can figure out what is happening here. I won’t spoil it, but it becomes obvious as her violent behavior telegraphs the silly and thus predictable ending. Another thing that becomes completely ludicrous is that her doctor is sitting there looking at this woman literally falling apart in front of him and never once suggests she get to a hospital or needs immediate help, much less be quarantined. She degenerates over a mere three days and the doctor never once suggests or feels this is something possibly far worse than an STD. Even her friends seem to pass it off as she ‘looks bad’ but none seem overly concerned that her nails have fallen off, her eyes are blood red and there are sores and veins popping out on her face. One character (Matt Mercer) even has sex with her despite all this and blackened teeth to boot. It’s a female version of The Fly happening right before their eyes and not one of them seems overly alarmed…. Really? It just gets ridiculous and ruins the nerve-wracking set-up of the first hour. By then we’ve figured out where it is going and our suspicions are verified by the silly climax. It’s just very disappointing that such a well executed and written story, collapses into such a routine conclusion. It feels like a cop-out that England couldn’t end this on something far more clever then a horror movie cliché…and one currently overused at that.
As for the cast, at least England gets good work out of all of them. Najarra Townsend is really good as Sam and conveys her fear, frustration and confusion very well and her performance and England’s direction really help make the first hour of this flick very strong, before it collapses towards it’s silly conclusion. It’s her show and she shows some real chops here. The rest of the cast are fine with William’s being good, as always, as Sam’s religious mother and Macdonald being appropriately ditzy and self-absorbed as ‘friend’ Alice. The rest are all quite adequate and it’s a shame the story didn’t keep up with the cast.
Overall, I still feel this film is worth a look. It has a very strong and disturbing first two acts and some nice work by the actors. The first hour is very effectively directed by England and it’s disappointing he let’s the story go from a frightening commentary on STDs to a violent and bloody…and all too familiar…horror movie cliché. It’s also just plain absurd that a doctor could look at this young woman degenerate so quickly and not even suggest she go to a hospital. Still, there is growth here in England’s work and he may really surprise us yet.
Madison County’s biggest flaw as a horror film is not what it does, but what it doesn’t do. And that is deviate at all from the backwoods horror sub-genre formula in any way. The movie closely follows the cliché blueprint of getting five attractive twenty-somethings to a secluded rural area where they can be placed in proximity with the traditional deranged locals. In this case they are going to research a book about a serial killer who may, or may not, exist in secluded, rustic Madison County…and it’s no secret that they don’t like what their research turns up.
Director/writer Eric England seems to have seen enough of these films to put one together very competently on a technical level. There is some nice production value for a flick reportedly made for around $70,000. The visuals are fine and creepy and he does create some nice atmosphere and some tension. His cast of young attractive characters… Joanna Sotomura as Brooke, Colley Bailey as James, Matt Mercer as Will, Ace Marrero as Kyle and Natalie Scheetz as Jenna…are likable enough and there is some blood splattered on them once things get going. But England follows the formula so closely that there aren’t many surprises. You know the locals are suspicious and strange for a reason and that there really is no question as to whether the killer really exists. His leads, while likable, are not overly interesting or especially endearing and we should care about them a bit more. The locals are generic creepy hillbillies and the villains are never given enough screen time to build their characters and thus aren’t that frightening. They never rise above the cliché evil redneck stereotype and we just can’t generate enough interest in them to make them stand out as memorable villains. Even the pig-masked killer, Damien Ewell (Nick Principe), that is the main nut job, is very ho-hum, even when on the attack. It’s as if England thought a pig mask was enough to create character and menace. It’s creepy, but not character building. And, as far as these films go, Madison County is bit too tame. In this case a little over the top would have been welcome as nothing grabs us, shocks us or horrifies us. There is blood, but it is basically some routine stabbings and ax wounds. And since we’ve waited till the last act to get to the good stuff, we feel a bit cheated by what little we get and how soon it’s over. (With credits, Madison County is barely over 80 minutes.) If you are going to present a classic scenario like this, shake things up a bit (ex. Cabin In The Woods). Or at the very least, throw all the classic elements at us with a bit of good old fashioned ferocity and some over the top blood spurting. Just look at the generic but really fun Wrong Turn, nothing new, but it had some real intensity and a bit of a sick sense of humor to boot. This film could have used a bit more gusto like that one. The potential was there.
While for a horror flick, Madison County may be a bit too laid back, I did still enjoy it to a decent degree. I don’t think Eric England is a bad filmmaker at all. He can create tension and atmosphere and I’ve certainly seen far, far worse then Madison County, but he needs to learn that innovation is far more effective then imitation when it comes to the horror movies he obviously enjoys. And if you can’t innovate, throw some blood and carnage in our faces to keep us awake, present the traditional elements with some real enthusiasm and let us have a good time with it. Madison County is still a mildly enjoyable horror, but I think England has the potential to deliver much more. He has a few more films now under his belt, including the flick Contracted, which I heard good things about, and hope to catch up to shortly. We’ll see.
UPDATE: I caught up with Contractedand you can click on the title to see what I thought!
3 chainsaws… I have a soft spot for these kind of flicks and England does make a good effort.