Monday, August 8, 2011

Review: The Orphan Killer

If you have the twin addictions of horror and facebook, of which I am guilty on both charges, then you’ve most likely seen an indie flick called The Orphan Killer making its presence known. Filmmaker Matt Farnsworth and crew have set up a public figure profile for Marcus Miller, his slasher character, and boy is he active. With so much social networking going on, it’s a wonder that he has time to kill anybody. They’ve been making some pretty audacious statements about the movie, hailing it as a “tour de force,” touting tweets calling it the best slasher picture of all time, and dubbing Marcus the “newest horror icon.” Does the flick live up to that kind of hype? I wouldn’t say that, but it is quite the enjoyable ride and one of the best slasher flicks I’ve seen in a while.
Marcus and his sister Audrey witness their parents’ murder during a robbery when they are very young. Marcus vows revenge, dons a mask, and becomes Batma... wait... nevermind. That was someone else. Marcus does indeed don a mask, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The two are sent to an orphanage. His parents’ murder obviously affected Marcus in ways it didn’t affect Audrey, as is obvious when he snaps one night and beats a boy to death with a baseball bat. After this the Nuns who run the orphanage beat and abuse the boy, keeping him in isolation and forcing him to wear a mask to signify that he is a “monster.” Audrey ends up getting adopted, leaving Marcus behind. Now Audrey, all grown up, is a teacher at the church/school/orphanage, and Marcus decides that it’s time to make her suffer for abandoning him all those years ago.
The film is really two types of horror in one. The first half is an old school “stalk and slash” flick. After Marcus peruses Audrey and kills anyone who stands in his way for the first half, the film makes an abrupt tonal shift. Once Audrey is captured and drug off to Marcus’ lair, it becomes a torture/survival flick. Those who still insist on throwing around the trite, meaningless throwaway phrase “torture porn” will probably decry it as such. I thought both halves were well done and well paced. There is a significant shift in Marcus’ character also, which is a little less seamless than the shift in story style. After spending the first half of the film grunting, growling, knocking over furniture, and generally being maniacal, all of a sudden with Audrey in his clutches he becomes eloquent, measured, and calculating. The change is out of nowhere, but it isn’t so jarring that it negatively affects the movie.
This flick has a lot of things going for it. It’s obviously low budget, but manages not to look low budget. The production values are very high, and the film looks very good. It has a great, unique, gritty look to it, but it definitely does not look cheap. I asked Matt Farnsworth what the actual budget was on facebook, but he hasn’t responded as of the time of this review. I really dig the mask itself. It’s blank but not featureless. It gives the killer a little personality. I personally love the use of religious motifs and iconography throughout the proceedings. One of the main things that sets this movie ahead of the pack is that the acting is head and shoulders above the usual indie horror fare. In fact, aside from a couple of performances that aren’t really bad, just kind of wooden (you’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em) the acting is really quite good. The standout is definitely Diane Foster as Audrey. She makes a great victim and an even better “final girl.” There are many scenes in which she really shows her chops, but one in particular stood out to me. When Marcus has her tied up, he disappears out of the frame for about a minute. The shot is a close up on Foster’s face. We don’t see, nor do we even know, what Marcus is doing to her, but the agony in her expression and her performance in that one scene tells us everything we need to know. It is a moment of brilliance, and big kudos go out to her. Plus, this chick has one hell of a scream. David Backus is good as Marcus. Playing a masked killer is hard, because the physicality of the character has to be expressive enough to make up for the lack of facial expressions. It’s easy to buy Backus as not a typical stoic undead killing machine style slasher (Myers, Voorhees), but a relentless psychotic human slasher. The supporting cast, as I said, does a good job as well.
This is first and foremost a slasher flick though, and I am well aware that these movies aren’t generally judged on the quality of their acting. Horror fans come into movies like this looking for one thing in particular, the red stuff. Let me assure you folks, the violence in this movie is meaty indeed. We have a machete through the face, various stabbings, limbs hacked off, and all kinds of other gory goodness. One thing I particularly liked was the fact that Marcus uses barbed wire as one of his weapons of choice. Barbed wire has a huge variety of creative potential deadly uses, and I’ve always felt that it was grossly underutilized as a slaughter tool in horror cinema. In fact, in a few months you’ll be hearing me talk a lot about barbed wire weapons. That’s all I’ll say about that for now. Anyway, gore hounds will find a lot to love about The Orphan Killer. Unfortunately, talking about the gore also brings me to one major issue I had with the flick.
Whenever the time comes for some on screen bloodletting, the shooting style changes abruptly. During the kill sequences, we get my pet peeve modern horror cliché, a bouncy camera and frenetic editing. I know, I know, I sound like a broken record, but I will continue to scream it from the hilltops until directors and cinematographers realize that shaking cameras and frantic split second editing do not add drama. Atmosphere, acting, plot, score, and interesting shots can. Relying on those overused, cheap techniques is just lazy filmmaking. It’s a damn shame that the makers of this film did that for two reasons. First, in the scenes where this abhorrent shooting method isn’t used, they show a great knack for the kind of fluid, dynamic, visually interesting camera movement that I think is quickly becoming a lost art. These scenes show a lot of style in the camera work, and I really wish the whole film had been done that way. There are a lot of really great shots on display here, and while they are refreshing, they make the “28 Days Later” style crap stand out that much more. I won’t even get into the “strobe light “fight scene, but it’s the epitome of what I’m talking about. The other reason people sometimes use that style is to hide weaknesses in the special effects department. That was absolutely not necessary in this flick. The gore is very well done, and could have definitely stood up to more prolonged views of the carnage. The film would have benefited from it. There were quite a few instances where I was annoyed that a really well executed gory set-piece was onscreen, but the ultra short, shaky shots wouldn’t let me get a good look at it. The fact that the film obviously didn’t have to resort to cheap tricks makes it similar to getting in a fight with someone who you know is about to beat the hell out of you, and they kick you in the nuts. Why? They’re strong enough to get the job done the right way, so why would they resort to taking shortcuts? I feel much the same way about this flick in regards to the shaky cam and hyper-kinetic cutting of the violent scenes.
My only other issues come from the story itself. First, I wanted more backstory. There is a huge gap there. The last time we see Marcus in flashback, he is (I would guess) a teenager, mask on, being sedated after killing an orderly. Then, all of a sudden, some girls are oh-so-conveniently finding his mask laying around in “the old part of the building” and he’s a full grown adult running free. What happened in the ensuing time? Was he moved when he grew up? What happened in the “killing spree” that’s alluded to? How did he lose his mask? How did he escape? Where the hell did he escape from? He tells Audrey that “Jesus showed me a way out of my room last night.” Talk about your vague explanations! It would have been nice, especially considering how well his early backstory was handled, to fill in these gaps and make the character make a little more sense. Either leave him mysterious with no back story, or tell us everything. The gap there is a little much to ask the audience to jump. Maybe they were thinking that they’d save the rest of his history for the sequel, which they left the ending wide open for.
My other two story issues stem from the final scene. Up to this point Marcus has been very meticulous and competent, but in this scene he does something that is mind-blowingly stupid with his weapon that almost leads to his demise. His slashing resume looks great, but if I were hiring psycho killers, this one bonehead move might have cost him the job. Also, the thing that finally does take him down is telegraphed badly. You can see it coming a mile away and almost pinpoint the second that it’s going to happen.
Random Thought #1: Does anyone in a horror movie ever take any reading material to the bathroom with them besides a porn mag? Is that a horror movie thing, or am I the only one that doesn’t look at porn while taking a dump?
Random Thought #2: Smacking someone in the face repeatedly with a monkey wrench just might be my favorite way of waking up an unconscious person that I’ve ever seen.
Random Thought #3: Any movie that includes a Nun giving head is cool in my book.
Overall, The Orphan Killer is a truly enjoyable indie slasher flick and there is enough awesome offered up to more than counteract the flaws. In this day of either mindless underground gorefests or sanitized teenybopper horror, too often you have to decide if you want to watch a movie with quality filmmaking or one with balls. With this flick, you don’t have to choose. As writer and director,  Farnsworth shows some flashes of real talent here, and since this is his first horror flick, I’ll be watching his evolution as a filmmaker with great interest. The only thing that really mars this film I hope will come in time, when Farnsworth realizes that his film is good enough that he doesn’t have to resort to the cheap, unimaginative bobble head shooting and rapid fire editing that The Orphan Killer unfortunately does. It may not be the landmark film it purports to be, but it is a fun flick and well worth watching. One and a half severed thumbs up. Nathan says check it out.


Anonymous said...

TOK sounds pretty good. Think I'll have to check it out :)

Ellen Sanderson said...

Beautifully written. Thank you!

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