What’s better than a self-proclaimed action-horror B-movie? One that’s got William Shatner in a starring role and as a producer? And what’s even better than that? One where he seems to have got the producer credit by pulling in his Star Trek TNG contacts to be in front and behind the cameras. Yes, it’s a modestly budgeted three-act fun-timer set to “traditional tropes”, but it’s also playing with some expectations. The story focuses on John – also known as Sergio (Jason Brooks), an archaeologist who spends his time pot-holing in Kansas to try and find the relic that has cursed his family for generations. Great for trying to keep his heartless and unloving father (William Shatner) happy, not so great for his long-suffering wife Susan (Jeri Ryan) or his red-shirted caving assistants. What’s the curse and where does it come from? Well, that’s not quite clear. But you don’t need to know that, only that it’s enough of a McGuffin to get everyone worried enough to put themselves in danger for our amusement.
After a tip into a rather efficient and unpretentious portion of hell, he then heads home to come to terms with all the shock, horror, and people being turned into furniture. This is also when the story takes a bold decision to become a family drama, which actually works because you get to see a husband and wife having realistic struggles about an obviously bat-shit crazy situation. You also get to meet the kids, who are impressively indifferent and unphased by anything. You could blame this on them having their face in Insta-Tik-Chat, but my money is on them coming within 100 miles of their granddad.
In possibly one of his most engrossing Shatnerian performances ever, William Shatner manages to steal the whole show with a degree of intensity and insanity that is just breath-taking. It’s like he remembered his role as General Mortars from Loaded Weapon 1 and went “yes, but what if done stone-dead seriously?”. His appearance at the start of act two is perfection; in that he walks on, demolishes everything around him, lays out all the exposition you need, and leaves you understanding why everyone in the family is so psychologically damaged. He is the fiery patriarch of vengeance, never satisfied and always wanting to have done it better himself. That in the final act he turns up on a golf cart, wielding a M203 grenade launcher isn’t comical; it’s a raw inevitability.
Whilst Bill owns the stage for the scenes he is in, the bulk of the acting is down to Jeri Ryan in a subtle and thoughtful role. Whilst Brooks gets to look haunted and run around with a thousand-yard stare, and pretty much accepting that whilst he’s the central character, he’s not the star; she handles the heavy lifting of making the family situation make sense. This is essential for the final stages of the movie when the whole family get in a caravan and head back to Hellsville. Admittedly, not very responsible parenting, but a family that goes death-caving together stays together and then gets to shoot the shit out of the undead together. And, as per above, if it wasn’t for that, we wouldn’t have the glory of St Shatner going crazy with high powered explosives.
That’s the adventure part of the equation covered, now for the horror. This mostly takes the form of The Devils, a bunch of bone-faced monsters with a passion for teleportation and cutting people apart with very large swords. The costumes are wonderful, and the people playing them know how to move in very menacing manners. And, for whatever reason, the director opted to present them without the obligatory mood lighting and oblique camera angles. They look like how they look, and are light like the rest of the cast, so they don’t immediately look that menacing. They then start hacking people up with apparently unrelenting joy, so any demands for fancy aesthetics can jog on or get stabbed. This is naturally-shot horror, and it works on its own terms.
As for the gore itself, it’s steady but not overdone; as per its rating. Blood flies freely at many points, but not at the fire-hose level, and a lot of the heavy lifting is done by the soundtrack. It would be hard to describe it as “mild”, it’s just that the film is less focused on the detail and more willing to let the audience understand the unpleasantness. It is also, again, done in a very natural manner, and this helps the more surrealist moments as the horror ramps up.
By having no delineation between the real and the uncanny, the strange elements get plain weird and leave the audience without a safety net of visual makers to know what’s going on. Sergio doesn’t know what’s true and what’s not, and neither do we, so come the ending, you are left to make up your own mind as much as he has to. It’s playing with reality through underplaying the dream sequences, and leaves you with plenty to unpick at your pleasure after the credits roll. Whilst I don’t know if it worked fully as wanted, it’s consistent and well-executed enough to be fully intended so that, combined with the monster choices, punch it up a tier on effort alone.
Obviously, this is not going to be a film with universal appeal; wearing it’s B-Movie credentials on its sleeve makes that impossible. It’s honest about its production capacity, about what sort of film it is, and it knows people’s decisions will be heavily decided one way or the other by putting William Shatner front and centre on the cover. And even if those get you to give this a whirl, the performances beyond the core trio and the monsters are of varying capability. But all told, it’s an interesting watch and they do try to shake things up from the obvious formula. It’s not a bold leap, but it is a noble step, and if you are in the mood for it then it’s worth your time. It also, and I cannot overstate this enough, has a wild-eyed William Shatner letting loose with an automatic grenade launcher and that moment is pure psychotronic cinema gold.