Tuesday, July 02, 2024

One Damned Thing After Another

You don't have to squint very hard to see the provenance of Cold Blows the Wind (2023, directed by Eric Williford). It's part Shock Suspense Stories from the old E. C. Comics, part Pet Sematary, part H. P. Lovecraft, and part Creepshow II (thanks for the ride, lady!). Mix well. Pour. I don't mean any of this as criticism. Genres tend to remix a common pool of elements and horror movies are particularly prone to this. That's how genres form in the first place. Some filmmakers do it better. Some do it worse. Sometimes, the swipes show. Sometimes they don't. In the case of Cold Blows the Wind, whenever this film borrows something, the filmmakers leave the knife.

The story here follows Dean and Tasha, a couple who at the start of the film have hit a pedestrian while driving drunk. Rather than call an ambulance, they take the man to the house belonging to Dean's parents. They think he's dead, but when he turns out to be very much alive, they have a dilemma: call the authorities and maybe go to prison? Call the authorities on the assurance of the man that he won't tell what happened? Leave the man to die? Kill him themselves? Tasha hopes for a less morally fraught solution. Dean takes matters to an extreme and kills the man. They bury him in the woods, where unbeknownst to them, they are seen. The watcher in the woods is Briar, who eventually shows up on their doorstep purporting to need help in escaping an abusive situation. She picks at their anxiety, before revealing what she knows. Beyond having witnessed their burial, Briar tells them that things buried in the woods don't always stay buried. Dean goes to investigate, discovering that Briar is not making things up. Their victim is indeed out of his grave and wandering around. Briar, meanwhile, goes to work on Tasha. She seduces. She cajoles. She blackmails. She sows distrust. Tasha sees no other option but to kill Briar. Unfortunately, this is the last thing she should have done...

One of the life lessons you get from playing Tetris is that mistakes will multiply and accelerate once you make them. You might be able to fix them in the early going, but once things start to really snowball, you're dead meat, frantically trying to keep things alive as the end barrels toward you. I thought of that while watching this film. Mystery writers call this kind of plot "one damned thing after another" because that's what it is. Mistakes accumulate. You can't put off the consequences forever. Every mistake makes those consequences that much worse when they arrive. You almost don't need the supernatural element of this film, because you can get plenty of horrific consequences out of human nature. This film certainly has those. Alas, it commits to the supernatural in the end, and veers out of the realm of noir thriller into a small corner of cosmic horror. It's on shakier footing here. There are two supernatural archetypes at work here. First is the unquiet grave where the dead won't stay dead. The other is a body-hopping monster. The unquiet grave seems like an add-on, perhaps to sell the film as a zombie film or to pad the film to feature length. The filmmakers don't do much with this thread. It does so little for so small a payoff that one wonders if it should have been left out of a further re-write. The second thread, "The Thing on the Doorstep" thread, works a bit better because it carries through to a logical ending and its big idea is more frightening these days than yet another zombie movie.

The craft of the film is fine for its budget. It knows where to put the camera and it doesn't make any egregious false steps in the editing room in spite of some tricky flash cuts to other parts of the narrative. It doesn't overuse these. It suffers a bit from its performances--acting being the bane of most microbudget films--but there's a method to how these performances are used in the endgame. The best performance in the film comes from Jamie Bernadette as Briar, who is the most experienced actor in the cast. She's alternately creepy, queer, and menacing, and has the unenviable task of playing a monster while nude. The film's overall visual style screams direct to VOD with its shot on DV grading and limited sets. Cinematographer Marc Martinez has lit the film like an early-90s Full Moon production or like either of the Creepshow films, and finds excuses to tilt the camera. Sometimes he does this mid-shot. The filmmakers generally know what they're doing within the limits of their scarce resources.

Screenwriter/director Eric Williford takes a big risk by giving the audience characters who are all thoroughly awful. The film's protagonists start out as moral cowards and progress to murder. Briar is a monster. The only innocent is the man Dean and Tasha hit with their car before the start of the film and he's basically a plot point more than a character. The man who is chasing Briar seems awful, too, having kept her tied up in a barn for three days. The film goes out of its way to make this character seem like a villain before pulling the rug from under that idea. Dean and Tasha are the kind of bickering married couple that horror movies tear apart into bloody recriminations, a fate obvious from the first scene in the film. More E.C. Comics than Scenes from a Marriage, though. The relationship dynamics in this film would probably grind on an audience's nerves if the film were longer. Its trim 80ish minute run time doesn't overstay its welcome.

This is available on VOD on July 5 from Oscilloscope Laboratories

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