Below Zero (2012)
Beside her, Hollywood screenwriter Jack “The Hack”, played by Edward Furlong, gives her a look that would make Julie Andrews slit her wrists. Because writing, of course, is far more than just sitting down and sticking words together at random. Unless you’re James Joyce. Or Stephanie Meyers, in which you use the word ‘perfect’ in place of any particular adjective.
And Hollywood loves writers – or rather that one particular image of the writer when he’s got…. WRITER’S BLOCK. The writer character will inevitably be eccentric, will have a favourite pen or will only write on a manual typewriter (yeah, right), will often be able to live off his writings (YEAH, RIGHT). But now he’ll be stuck, stuck on his latest work. BARTON FINK, ADAPTATION, THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN, MISERY, THE SHINING, NAKED LUNCH, FINDING NIM, all try to visualise the writing process, and the problems the writer might face trying to break Writer’s Block. It seems strange that movies, typically a medium of expressing physical or emotional issues, would continue to try and explore what is essentially an intellectual issue. There may be a deadline, but beyond that, hardly any risk factor.
And the truth is, the typical solution to Writer’s Block is almost deceptively simple: write something else until you can go back to the original work. Or go do the laundry, or wash the dishes. It’s not very glamorous or dramatic, but it tends to work.
But I suppose it makes for a crap ending to watch Nicholas Cage or James Caan go off to do the dishes.
I had the opportunity to catch BELOW ZERO, the latest movie to try and tap into this particular little psychological problem. We open with screenwriter Jack (the haggard-looking Edward Furlong, TERMINATOR 2), being picked up on a lonely winter road in the middle of nowhere by Penny (Kristin Booth, FOOLPROOF), a chirpy woman who appears to be an imperfect clone of Frances McDormand’s pregnant “Yah, Yah” character off of FARGO, but with a constant snort in place of periods at the ends of her sentences. She seems so positive and chirpy I suspect she pisses sucrose. She and her mute son drive Jack to an isolated slaughterhouse, giving him the ten-cent tour, complete with instruments that make me wonder if they were real or not (do they really kill chickens in an electrified bathtub?). Penny also hints that she’s a writer too, and has a screenplay, and could he have a look at it sometime?
But Jack has other things in his mind, and it’s not that. His agent has arranged for him to be holed up in a meat locker there for a week, with no telephone or Internet (and he even has to shit in a bucket. Nice.), and ordered to complete a horror movie screenplay. And he begins one, about a man named Frank who gets into an accident, and eventually finds himself at an isolated slaughterhouse, trapped in a meat locker, but not by a chirpy woman, but rather by Gunnar, a bald, freaky-looking man. And as he crafts the story, we see it play out, with Furlong playing Frank, and the bald, freaky-looking man by genre favourite Michael Berryman (and shame on you if you need a film reference for him!). The butcher Gunnar is not alone; he has a mute son, played by the same boy as the one who played Penny’s son. And Frank discovers that he’s not the only prisoner either, as he discovers Paige, also played by Kristin Booth.
As he proceeds with the story, Jack finds himself deteriorating. He hears typing outside the locked door, a constant typing that becomes torturous. He finds his vegetarian meals replaced by meat, sees someone has written FAKE on his mirror, and he finds his laptop replaced by that very same manual typewriter. And then things turn seriously weird and weirdly serious when he wakes up again to find Penny tied up in there with him: it seems his agent was there, has taken her son captive and has locked her in there to encourage Jack to finish the script, which he has titled BELOW ZERO, or the boy will be killed. Or is she faking it? Or is it all his head? Or is he even there, or is he just a figment of Penny’s imagination?
While writing the script, the actual screenwriter and producer of BELOW ZERO, Signe Olynyk, arranged to have herself physically locked in the meat freezer of an abandoned, remote slaughterhouse, the same slaughterhouse where BELOW ZERO was filmed. As you can see, the meta-fictional aspects are as layered as a cake.
I wish it had been a bit more digestible. I hate to sound negative about it, but keeping it Meta is a tricky business, and can easily collapse on itself like a soufflé rather than a cake. Which is a shame because the other aspects of BELOW ZERO are quite well done. The location is not only authentic, it looks it, all cold grime and dried blood on the floor. Furlong is an unkempt, wound-up mess, looking like the lovechild of Michael J Fox and John Cusack, and he looks like he’s letting out his frustrations at his lack of post-TERMINATOR 2 success with every pounding on the meat freezer door, and his other character Frank is little different. Booth gets a better deal in her dual role, making her character Paige a more intense, screechy contrast to Penny. And then there’s Berryman, visually striking and creepy as ever despite being 64, mumbling to himself, brutal but still protective of his young son. It’s good to see that he can still deliver the goods, and it’s a shame that BELOW ZERO decided to make him a fictional villain within the context of the meta story. The body count is very low, and you don’t get to see much gore when you do, though the commercials and trailers make you think you’re in for a splatterfest. You’re not.
There’s also the ending, which I won’t spoil, but you’d probably guess it already if you had any cinematic history under your belt, but you could either consider it appropriate to the whole Meta aspect of the film, or you’ll think it’s shit. I want to give this movie kudos for trying something original.
The trailer is here. It’s worth a watch, but I’m not sure about a re-watch.
Director: Justin Thomas OStensen
Plot: 3 out of 5 stars
Gore: 1 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien