I love Nazis. There, I said it. I love Nazis. Now before you either go all torch wielding mob on my ass or start Seig Heil-ing me and invite me to your next skinhead party, let me explain. I love Nazis in movies. Has there ever been a better villain? The connotations they carry, the pure evil they represent, the legends you can play on, and the potential for sheer weirdness make them almost can’t fail exploitation and horror fodder. Nazi zombies? I’m in. Nazi-sploitation sleaze? Sign me up. Nazis keeping Hitler’s brain alive in a jar? I’m there. Nazi human experiments? Lets do it.. Nazis running afoul of ghosts? Oh hell yeah. People hunting down Nazis? Count me in. Hell, you can have Nazi teddy bears sniffing flowers for an hour, and I’ll watch it. You start mixing in the whole Nazi Occult thing and you’ve got me hook, line, and sinker. In other words, there’s no way I couldn’t watch Wicked Pixel’s Ratline, and I’m glad that I did.
Synopsis: In a flash of blood-drenched violence, Crystal Brewer’s life has taken an unexpected turn. On the run from the law for her part in a gruesome drug-money heist gone wrong, she has become seduced into a seedy underworld of death and betrayal. Escaping into the night with her half-sister Kim, Crystal seeks refuge in a small Midwestern town to make sense of her life-threatening ordeal. However, any plans for solace are soon derailed when she crosses paths with Frank Logan, a mysterious stranger with a bloody history of his own. Crystal’s initial intrigue with Logan’s sinister allure soon gives way to sheer terror as his vile intentions for her are revealed. As a new wave of violence threatens to destroy those close to her, Crystal is forced to make a terrifying decision. Will she stop Logan before more innocent blood is spilled? Or will she join him in resurrecting an evil that could consume the world?
Before Ratline I had only seen two flicks directed by Eric Stanze; Scrapbook, which I was very impressed with, and I Spit On Your Corpse, I Piss On Your Grave, which I was, um, less impressed with. Both of these were quite extreme in both the sex and violence departments, so I was expecting more of the same. Ratline actually ended up being more restrained. There is some pretty hardcore violence mind you, including a lot of beheadings and copious amounts of the red stuff, but the violence wasn’t of as much of a depraved nature as in the other flicks I’d seen. Perhaps this is due to the fact that it was missing a lot of the sexual aspects of the violence. Dammit, now I have that old Bush song stuck in my head.
The movie was actually extremely restrained in the sexual department compared to the two afore mentioned flicks. Yes, there’s both female and male full frontal nudity, which seems to be a prerequisite in a Stanze film, but there isn’t much sexual content. In fact, there was one moment where I was sure we were going to go full on lezbo-palooza, but instead we pulled back and had an awkward, yet tender, almost cute moment. As disappointed as I was at the lack of girl on girl lovin’, I think it’s a good direction for Stanze. I’ve seen him decried by some critics as just a “shock value” director. With Ratline, he proves that he’s much more than that. From his work that I’ve seen, and what I understand of his work that I haven’t, this is his most …I hesitate to use this term because of its negative connotations…mainstream work to date. It’s dark, gritty, violent, and intense enough for extreme horror fans, but it’s also accessible and engaging enough to draw in some of the more casual fans. That’s a very difficult line to walk, and Ratline does it quite deftly.
This flick crams a lot of stuff into the story. That’s one of the things I love about independent horror, these kind of convoluted stories make for some truly unique plots. We’ve got two women on the lam from criminals they screwed over and the conflict between them, we’ve got a quasi-immortal Nazi hunting for a mystical artifact, we’ve got a satanic cult, and we’ve even got a love story. I know, I know. When a horror flick has a subplot involving a love story, 137 times out of 138 it’s some clichéd, shoehorned in crap that ends up being the weak link of the movie. This time, it actually worked for me. One of the main reasons it works is because the two ladies involved are both studies in how to successfully pull off their character archetypes. I warn you guys, I’m about to go off on one of those “over-analytical tangents” I’m prone to. It can be really tricky to use vulnerability and sensitivity to elicit sympathy for a character and get the audience behind them and not overdo it to the point that the audience turns on them. The characters of Crystal and Penny, however, are perfect examples of how to do it right with two often poorly used character archetypes.
On one end you have Crystal. Crystal is a bad ass, but has the air of someone whose toughness is born out of being broken. How many times have we seen that done badly? How many “I’m tough because I’m too tortured to let people in” ridiculous characters have you seen? Right, millions. Well, Crystal here is the perfect mixture. She seems like the kind of gal who will absolutely f**k you up if she has to. We have some quiet moments with her, however, where her more sensitive side comes out. We don’t need one of those overwrought moments where the tortured tough gal breaks down, it’s all done more subtly. Part of that is due to Crystal being a well written character, but a lot of it has to do with the great performance of Stanze’s frequent collaborator, the immensely talented Emily Haack. I was absolutely blown away by her starring turn in Scrapbook, and here she is no less effective. One thing that has always impressed me is her fearlessness as an actress and her willingness to seemingly do ANYTHING for the good of a film. That’s the mark of a true artist right there folks. While she apparently wasn’t asked to go to the extremes she did in Scrapbook or Corpse, she maintains an impressive amount of intensity and nuance. Her face (her eyes in particular) has an amazing haunted look, and she can portray multiple conflicting emotions simultaneously without saying a word. Why major studios aren’t fighting over her is a mystery to me.
The other half of our romance is Penny, played by Sarah Swofford. Penny is one of those naïve, doe-eyed, babe in the woods type of characters. We’ve all known that person who has never experienced the darker side of humanity, so when they finally encounter it, they’re not prepared to deal with it. That’s Penny. The problem that often arises with this kind of character is that when they’re handled incorrectly, they either come across as wimps or idiots, and I have trouble mustering up much sympathy for either. Penny is neither. She shows that she’s willing to fight; she just doesn’t know what to do. When she makes some dumb choices, it doesn’t feel like she’s stupid; it feels like she’s a sheltered girl who doesn’t know any better. The role is also perfectly played by Swofford. She is the perfect counterpart to Crystal, and Swofford and Haack have great onscreen chemistry. This was the first time I’ve seen Sarah, and I hope to see much more of her. Hey now, I didn’t mean it that way pervert. Actually, maybe I did, she is pretty damn hot. Multiple meanings? Anyway, moving on…
Jason Christ co wrote the screenplay with Stanze as well as portraying our villain Frank. While I think the screenplay is great and I don’t have a single bad thing to say in that department, unfortunately I think he missed the mark with his performance, but only by this much. I know you can’t see me, but I’m doing that “fingers about an inch apart to indicate a very narrow margin” thing. Don’t get me wrong; he’s not bad by any means. I can see what he was going for. He wanted Frank to have that low-key, quiet, cold evil. I’m cool with that. In some parts it’s spot on. At times though, I think he under-acted the part a little, making it occasionally seem kinda flat and wooden. I’m not saying that he should have gone all out crazy Nazi like most people do when portraying them. That’s exactly what he seemed to be trying to avoid, and I like that approach. I just think tweaking the character a bit to make him a little more animated and show hints of that underlying psycho would have made it a little more compelling.
I thought it was an interesting choice to give the Nazi backstory via an “old” educational film instead of expositional dialog or a flashback. I can see where some people would argue that it stops the momentum of the movie, but I don’t think so. It’s cool to almost leave the main plot for a second and have a cool little vignette play out. It’s both outside of the narrative but still in the story. Really innovative idea. I like that we didn’t keep cutting back and forth to reaction shots from the characters throughout this sequence either; we just watched the old footage straight through. That footage looked very convincing. A whole movie in that mockumentary style might be too much, but here it added a lot to the flick. Bravo.
For the most part, the camera work in Ratline is excellent. There is a lot of really cool, unique cinematography going on here. There is one thing I do have to call the Wicked Pixel guys out on however. It’s one of my two major pet peeves in modern horror filmmaking. I’ll give you a hint; it’s not CGI. Actually, there really isn’t much of that as far as I can tell. The gore is done with practical effects and it looks fantastic. That means my issue with the flick is…lets all say it together…shaky cam! It doesn’t rear its ugly head until the action sequences, and then all of a sudden the camera has a seizure for no good reason. In the rest of the flick, Stanze proves to be a skilled cinematographer, that he has the ability to set up some gorgeous shots, and that he understands the concept of interesting, motivated camera movement. Why adopt a technique normally used to hide the fact that the filmmakers don’t know what the hell they’re doing when filming action sequences? Come on man, you’re better than that.
Random Thought: Hey Wicked Pixel, you really should sell those little wind up Grim Reapers from your logo. I want one dammit!Probably the number one thing I can say in favor of this flick is that it’s truly original, and that’s not something I can say about most horror flicks I see. Yeah, certain plot elements are real head scratchers, but it’s a flick about occult Nazis man, just go with it. Trust me, you’ll enjoy the ride. The story draws you in, the effects look fantastic, and the acting is well above the usual low budget horror level. After watching this, I now definitely need to go back and fill in the gaps I haven’t seen in Stanze’s filmography like Savage Harvest, Ice From the Sun, and Deadwood Park. I dug Ratline a lot. This is indie horror done Reich…I mean right. One and a half severed thumbs up. Nathan says check it out.