THE REVENANT (2009)
There’s a certain poignancy when a good (or at least a beloved) actor or actress dies, and the last movie they made is a stinking dog; it’s like learning that Shakespeare’s final words weren’t something poetic or profound, but a request for a Twinkie. There are a few actors out there who have sadly fallen into this trap: Basil Rathbone was left with HILLBILLIES IN A HAUNTED HOUSE (1967), Veronica Lake in FLESH FEAST (1969), Peter Sellers in THE FIENDISH PLOT OF DR FU MANCHU (1980), Raul Julia in STREET FIGHTER (1991), and Bela Lugosi in some Ed Wood movie you won’t have heard about.
Vincent Price was lucky; had he not made a small appearance in Tim Burton’s EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990), his swan song might have been DEAD HEAT (1988), a dire horror comedy about reanimated cops and crooks running around Los Angeles. It starred Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo, two men who scream Comedy the same way you’ll scream for God when the greasy stranger puts the plastic bag over your head to suffocate you while he’s sodomising you in his van.
I was reminded of DEAD HEAT while watching Kerry Prior’s THE REVENANT (no connection with Derek Cole’s more recent movie of the same name – See Scott’s review here), but only because of the basic subject matter; in terms of quality, comparing THE REVENANT to DEAD HEAT is like comparing a week at Disneyworld with a week at Dachau. And THE REVENANT, while not perfect, is definitely worth a watch for horror fans.
The movie opens at night in Iraq, where a military convoy led by soldier Barthenoy (Bart) Gregory (David Anders, whom you may remember on ALIAS and as the immortal Adam Monroe in the second season of HEROES) stops when Bart believes he’s struck a child in the road. Against the sound military advice of his buddies, he gets out of his vehicle to investigate… cue dramatic shots. We think cut to Los Angeles, and Bart’s funeral, attended by his best friend, stoner Joey Leubner (Chris Wylde, EVOLUTION, JOE DIRT), Bart’s British girlfriend Janet (Louise Griffiths, THE DEVIL’S CHAIR) and Janet’s Wiccan friend Matty (Jacy King, DROP DEAD GORGEOUS). After the funeral, Joey and Janet hook up, seeking comfort in each other’s arms for their mutual loss.
A loss about to become a gain, as Bart breaks out of his coffin and staggers off, feeling like seven shades of shit, and when he sees himself in a mirror, his mouth sewn shut and his eyes yellow, he knows he looks like how he feels. He returns to Joey’s apartment, and after some persuading convinces Joey that he’s not hallucinating, and that Bart is in fact back from the dead. He’s not alive; he has no heartbeat, he collapses when the sun comes up, and attempts to hold down food result in copious amounts of black bile. Blood, on the other hand, seems to be more agreeable.
Joey keeps the news of Bart’s return from Janet (and keeps the news that he did the naughty with Janet from Bart), but consults Matty for some helpful exposition. Matty can only suggest that Joey cut off Bart’s head and drive a stake into his chest to send his soul on its way, but Joey does some Googling and decides that Bart is neither a vampire nor a zombie, but has elements of both: he is… a Revenant!
And Joey is not prepared to lose his friend a second time. After an incident with a mugger in Mexico, the duo decide to get Bart’s blood fix not from the homeless as initially considered, but from robbers and rapists and gang bangers (Bart takes bullets like Adam Sandler makes shit movies: in his stride). They end up as trenchcoat- and sunglasses-wearing local heroes, killing the bad guys and stealing whatever cash, guns and drugs they might have on their persons (the best segment of the movie, in fact, with some killer songs on the soundtrack). The innocents that they save are too grateful to them to give the police any meaningful descriptions, though they are understandably perturbed when Bart drinks the bad guys’ blood. But hey, the crooks get what they deserve, right? Don’t do the crime if you can’t, uh, get killed and drained of your blood…
The interesting aspect of the relationship between the two leads is how little Bart is actually motivated to do anything at this point – he would probably be satisfied to follow Mattie’s suggestion and die a final time – but Joey, desperate to keep his friend around and live vicariously through his friend’s unique abilities, motivates him on this course, at one point even wishing that he could die and Bart could pass on his ‘dark gift’, a wish that the decaying Bart responds to with derision.
Mattie, however, watching the news and putting two and two together, brings in Janet… who still loves Bart and is probably willing to indulge in necrophilia to be with him again.
But it’s all going to go horribly wrong, especially after Joey gets fatally shot, and Bart grants his wish and sucks just enough blood to bring him back from the dead too… and they learn that some of their previous victims have come back as well…
There is A LOT to like about THE REVENANT. While billed as a ‘zom com’, ala SHAUN OF THE DEAD (and Joey evens looks a little like Simon Pegg’s eponymous character), this is not a joke-filled movie, though there are moments of absurd visual humour in it (when the bromance between our undead anti-heroes sours, it’s met not with fists but bullets, and there is a scene involving a sex toy that had me nearly pissing myself laughing) and surrealism (a standoff in a convenience store ends up a discussion on reverse racism and political activism, and an attempt to rob a blood bank leaves Bart facing up against a Scientologist nurse trying to recruit him). It has elements of drama, horror, social commentary and doomed romance (as much between the two guys as between the guy and the girl).
In fact, it is this mixture that makes it one of the movie’s only faults, when the tone of the movies changes. Prior could make a movie focusing on the horrific state of Bart’s undead existence, or on the action-packed vigilantism, or on the tragic relationship between Bart and his girlfriend, or on the buddy comedy aspects of Bart and Joey’s antics, or even on the military side of the revenant problem, and he would be skilled enough to make something very watchable with any of them. Putting them all together is a less successful venture.
The movie’s plot (and tone) goes in directions it doesn’t need to go, and at nearly two hours long, it bypasses some natural end points and continues onward, like the many endings of THE LORD OF THE RIGNS: THE RETURN OF THE KING. Not that Prior doesn’t have something important to say, because he certainly does – the satire here reminds me of the bite of “The Homecoming”, the Joe Dante-directed episode of MASTERS OF HORROR about the dead soldiers returning to life to vote against the President who sent them to war – but I’m not certain how well it fits in with the bulk of the movie.
But I definitely do NOT want to put anyone off seeing this, because it could easily fit into a Top Ten Horror Film of the Year list. There is some very decent makeup and gore, practical as well as some CGI (Prior has an extensive special effects history, working on movies like THE BLOB, PHANTASM II & III, THE ABYSS, THE LOST BOYS, and his pedigree shows). And I enjoyed the acting from the male leads (who, like in SHAUN OF THE DEAD comprise the true emotional core of the film, rather than the traditional male-female dynamic). And there’s an eclectic mix of music, to match the changes in tone.
THE REVENANT has rightly won a string of awards at film festivals throughout the world, is now out on DVD in the US and the UK, and you can watch the trailer below:
Director: Kerry Prior
Plot: 4 out of 5 stars
Gore: 6 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 4 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien