Joe Chappelle (1998)

Saw this last night on the television, and was very pleasantly surprised. I was flicking through the channels and I saw Rose McGowan get out of a car and figured I could watch for a few minutes.

The film was just starting, and I noticed Dean Koontz wrote it, so I decided to stay with it to see what kind of a screenplay he would put together, if nothing else. Turns out this was really a rather good film, certainly for one I don’t recall being released.

The film itself was nothing we haven’t seen before for a ‘scary film’; lone party of young, attractive people against some unnameable, unseen, malevolent force. Members of the party get picked off, and eventually there’s a point when they figure out their would-be nemesis and vanquish it. Along the way, we have deserted places, hallucinations and quiet to LOUD surprises, which are signposted by carefully-moving characters and swells in the soundtrack.

However, this was carried out with aplomb for the most part. The characters were, by and large, sympathetic (even that played by Ben Affleck, which caught me by surprise), and the one who really wasn’t sympathetic was both not long for this world, and became an avatar of the malevolence.

This latter character, Deputy Stuart Wargle, was slightly odd in his seeming sexual preference for… everything. The women he was supposed to be protecting, corpses – this and his odd way of talking were never really explained. Then he got eaten by a giant moth.

Besides that, the basic premise was that this malevolent entity, or ‘Ancient Evil’ (which for the purposes of conciseness I shall call ‘Nigel’) killed off a town-full of people. It turns out that Nigel was responsible for wiping out the dinosaurs, as well as ancient Mayans, and it was about to kill the human race.

Nigel does this by absorbing and assimilating living things. So when it has absorbed a person, Nigel takes on all their knowledge and memory – even dreams. The more Nigel absorbs, the more it learns, and gets more powerful. Like a really big tapeworm, according to Dr. Timothy Flyte, played by Peter O’Toole.

There seem to be one or two issues arising from this. Early on, for example, Affleck’s character sees the phantom of a boy in a wardrobe, holding a gun. It transpires that his big secret is that he killed a young boy who he thought was holding a gun, but it turned out to be a toy.

This is all well and good as a reason for being demoted from the FBI to a small town called Snowfield. However, Nigel never absorbed our man Affleck, so how would it know this? It doesn’t seem to make sense in the internal logic of the film.

Another issue is the special effects of the film. When Nigel finally made himself visible for the final showdown, it is very obviously computer-generated, which hurts my suspension of disbelief. The ending is also rather the anti-climax.

It’s very nice that Affleck can confront his demons and move on, but the fact that it seemingly took so little to kill Nigel after all their earlier attempts is questionable. Koontz takes the easy way out by reintroducing Wargle (now an avatar for Nigel) in a new town, suggesting that Nigel never dies. This is a bit of a cop-out if you ask me.

Still, what is there works. The suspense is built well, with some delayed pay-off forcing the viewer out of complacency. The cheap shocks are as well-worked as one would expect from someone as experienced in the arts as Koontz.

Apart from the above issues, the film works, in terms of the setting and the sense that our protagonists are, for the most part, powerless against Nigel. Until they start making plans for him, at any rate…

This is recommended to fans of the horror genre, as it plays well on a lot of fears, such as the unknown, abandonment and, err, decapitation. The scares are varied from slow-build to noisy, frenzied attacks and at no point does it drag. Probably not one to watch more than once though.

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