Thursday, December 18, 2008

Horror From the Land Down Under #4: Rogue

For my next entry on the horror cinema of Australia, I’m briefly leaving the 70’s to talk about a release from last year that really knocked my socks off. The film is called Rogue, and it’s a new contender for king of the hill in the killer alligator/crocodile genre (in this case it’s a crocodile). Now I should state up front that I have a real fondness for killer alligator/crocodile movies. These animals have always fascinated me, and they exude such menace that they are tailor-made to be the subject of horror films. For my money, the grand champion of the genre sweepstakes in this category is Lewis Teague’s 1981 film Alligator. It managed to be both a thrilling monster movie, and wry satire at the same time (thanks in large part to Piranha scribe John Sayles). Not to mention the fact that it had cult movie icons like Robert Forster and the incomparable Henry Silva on hand. Others have tried to match the brilliance of Alligator, but none have come close . . . until now.

One thing I want to mention before we get started is that Rogue is part of the Dimension “Extreme” horror series. This is indicated at the top of the DVD cover, which hovers above unfortunate cover art depicting a giant crocodile mouth. First off, I have to say I’m not a fan of the “Extreme” moniker. Usually I see that kind of branding as a ploy to lure horror fans into almost certain disappointment. It’s saying in essence that these films can’t compete on their own merits, so we have to market them as over-the-top effects festivals. Don’t get me wrong, over-the-top effects can be a lot of fun, but a film can’t live on these alone (at least not well). Furthermore, I wouldn’t necessarily call these movies particularly extreme. Yeah there are some wild titles in the series, but generally they are just silly horror films with no more fake blood on display than your average teen multiplex crowd pleaser. I consider extreme stuff to be movies like Hostel or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, not a remake of Wizard of Gore starring Crispin Glover (which is sort of inspired casting I must admit).

The other thing that irks me is that there are some really great gems in this series that are likely to be overlooked because they’re getting this lowbrow marketing push. Inside for example, is a very well made (albeit highly disturbing) French film, that is done no justice by the “Extreme” campaign. I suppose it is “extreme,” but it’s also a cerebral film that has a lot more going for it than just gory effects. While I wouldn’t go as far to say Rogue is particularly cerebral, it also is not the cheesy croc film the unimaginative cover would lead one to believe. Unlike Z-grade schlock like Tobe Hooper’s Crocodile (oh how the mighty have fallen), Rogue is a beautifully photographed, suspenseful thriller with an unexpectedly clever sense of humor. I mean it, the cinematography in what should be a throwaway film is pretty breathtaking. The man at the helm is Greg McLean, who was also responsible for the recent horror film Wolf Creek (which is a pretty harrowing viewing experience). That film was also visually interesting, so I wasn’t too surprised that this one was of equal caliber when noticing his involvement. I can’t say I’m really a fan of Wolf Creek, as it’s a little too grim for my tastes (makes Se7en look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm). However, I can still admire its artistry and execution (no pun intended), and was eager to see what McLean could do with subject matter a little more up my alley.

The setup of Rogue finds an American travel author (Alias’s Michael Vartan) checking out a rural boat tour, designed to give tourists a peek at the local wildlife (in particular the crocs). We get a broad sketch of the group who are your standard collection of stock characters that show up in these type of films. The squabbling married couple, the widower who is spreading his wife’s ashes, the attractive female tour guide (Radha Mitchell) who of course will become a love interest of sorts, etc. The good news is that despite the fact we’ve seen these characters before, the actors are all top notch and make us care about them. Once we get past the broad sketch introductions, the film awes the viewer with the imagery of Australia’s scenic wilderness. The tour chugs along spotting a croc or two, and all is going well . . . until the tour runs into a couple of backwoods acquaintances of the tour guide. There’s some back and forth and tom foolery, before Vartan steps in and the two menacing thugs speed away in their boat. Eventually things settle down and the tour proceeds . . . until they spot a flare in the distance! Apparently there is some unwritten rule that any sign of trouble must be investigated on the rivers of Australia, regardless of whether it jeopardizes the safety of innocent women and children. With this in mind, Mitchell takes a fork of the river seldom traveled only to discover a wrecked boat. Unfortunately in addition to the wrecked boat, they also discover the cause in the form of a giant (and apparently unhappy) crocodile that proceeds to shipwreck their boat on a tiny island in the middle of the river.

And here is where the genius of Rogue comes into play. The group is stranded on a tiny island (really it’s more of a clump of sand with a tree), that is slowly disappearing as the tide rolls in. By the time night falls there will be no island at all, and the tourists will become croc food. What is so great about this setup is that it turns Rogue into more of a suspense film that focuses on the characters, rather than a 90-minute excuse to show an endless stream of CGI croc attacks. In so doing, it mirrors the best films of this type (e.g. Jaws, Alien), where the creature is always hovering at the periphery seldom seen. Not only does it build audience expectation, but it minimizes the need to overwhelm the viewer with effects that are not likely to be all that convincing. The creatures in Jaws and Alien would have suffered greatly from overexposure. If seen head on for long periods Bruce the shark would have been shown for the malfunctioning junk heap he was, and the Alien would have clearly been a tall guy in a creepy suit. By masking the creatures Spielberg and Scott made the action seem real, and kept viewers on the edge of their seats. McLean is “almost” successful at accomplishing a similar feat with his Rogue . . . almost.

Around ¾ of the way through the film, McLean finally unleashes the big guns and stages a long sequence that culminates in a final battle. Unfortunately, there’s just no way around it and there’s a good bit of unconvincing CGI. I’m not at all sure what he could have done with practical effect to make the sequence work. Certainly my favorite Alligator had a similar problem in its finale which featured an unconvincing rubber alligator chasing Robert Forster. McLean somewhat makes up for the CGI by keeping the tension up, not letting the audience get a chance to catch their breath. And characters take a beating, and some much worse (no one is safe in this film), lending the proceedings an uncompromising tone. In another film I probably wouldn’t give the blatant CGI croc a pass, but the first ¾ of the film are so excellent that they more than compensate for a finale that would otherwise be pretty satisfying.

If you have any sort of interest in killer alligator/croc films you owe it to yourself to check out Rogue. The cover art will make you think you’re about to venture into Shark Attack 3 type waters, but this is a truly masterful effort. There may be some necessary, if regrettable CGI, but the balance of the movie more than makes up for this transgression. With this and the equally captivating Wolf Creek under his belt, McLean is a horror maestro to keep an eye on. He’s more visceral than a Peter Weir, but he has a visual sense that is certainly on par with the great one. I can’t wait to see what subject he tackles next!


george booker said...

you mentioned "alligator", which got me thinking. before he was an acclaimed director in his own right, sayles was the king of clever, better than they have any right to be, b-movie horror scripts. i think writer sayles is just as responsible as director joe dante, a treasure himself, for the awesomeness of "pirhana" and "the howling".

i have massive respect for the filmography sayles has built up for himself as a writer/director. few can fuse altmanesque ensemble storylines, well-observed and unique characters, and pointed social relevance as well as he can, particularly in classics such as "the brother from another planet", "lone star", and "men with guns".

still, i would love to see sayles dive back into the fray and helm a straight-up horror/monster movie that delivers the carnage goods while featuring compelling characters and a witty script. given american horror's current cannibalization of itself through endless bland remakes, we could use some more humorous terrors to our credit, and sayles could certainly deliver if he wanted to.

come to think of it, sayles has stayed steadfastly independent, and joe dante seems to have rediscovered some of his low-budget high-imagination mojo with the "masters of horror" episodes. i think they should re-team on a cheap horror movie.

george booker said...

also, jim, your puns should always be intended. you're a librarian, you should know that. isn't that in "elements of style"? yeah, i'm pretty sure it is. chapter 42: fill your writing with puns and always intend them.

Jim Blanton said...

Hey George,
Yes, I think it is chapter 42 (and life would be a lot less interesting withouth puns : )

I couldn't agree more on wanting to see Sayles do a horror cheapie - the present landscape is so bland! You bring up an interesting subject regarding the Masters of Horror series. It's taken a little bit of a beating critically, which I think is unfair. Given its budget and time frame, I think several of these have been prettty interesting. Dante's Homecoming and Hooper's Dance of the Dead in particular. They are a bit experimental. Even if they aren't masterpieces, it's a treat to see those guys doing projects worthy of their talent!

hanum said...

a little bit scary movie ;)