Reel Advice from the Video Store Guy

Straight Into Darkness | Snakes on a Train

By Steve Anderson
October 1st, 2006

 

straight into darknessStraight Into Darkness
****
DVD
Directed by Jeff Burr
Written by Jeff Burr
Starring Ryan Francis, Scott MacDonald, James Legros, Linda Thorson Produced by Mark Hannah, Chuck Williams, Will Huston, Chris Gore 2006 R 95 mins

Quite possibly the best World War II film ever released is now sitting on your video store shelves. And Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Though, if they're seeing this, they likely wish they did.

So what we have here is another in a long string of WWII films, some fantastic, and some pretty lousy. In this case, two soldiers, Losey and Deming, desert their platoon during the last days of the war and as they're being escorted by derisive military police back to the front lines (or possibly a firing squad), they find themselves struggling across Germany in a bid for survival. Along their way, they run into a band of orphans who have, apparently, been trained as surprisingly vicious killing machines.

Now, already, I can't help but give "Straight Into Darkness" a whole lot of credit for introducing a new and impressive new dimension into World War II filmmaking-cowardice. No one ever shows cowardice in World War II films. Nearly all of them feature some kind of superhuman heroism in the face of overwhelming odds. Any time someone gets scared in a WWII film, it's either so temporary that you barely remember it, or some father-figure sergeant or lieutenant or what have you talks the character with the fear right out of it.

I frankly can't recall the last time I saw a WWII movie about actual deserters, and this makes it a proverbial one in a million shot.

The fact that this movie has such an incredibly unique plot line-deserter heroes aren't the only thing here that's original; killer orphans are just as equally rare-alone qualifies it as a rare treat. But what's even better is the execution.

I believe firmly that somewhere, right now, Steven Spielberg is watching this and gnashing his teeth in a mixture of awe and horror. He is screaming at the walls, asking how on earth he didn't think of this first.

Because folks."Band of Brothers" was good stuff, but "Straight Into Darkness" makes the brothers look like redheaded stepchildren.

The performances turned in are excellent. The constant cutaway film style-where there are constantly little flashes of events seemingly unrelated to the plot-gives the movie this marvelous disjointed feeling. And in this case, it works well; because while the film is disjointed, it's still perfectly coherent. What this does is give you the feeling of war in all its chaotic fury, and yet still allows the narrative to be straightforward and perfectly understandable.

What's even better is that we get to see our deserter heroes' lives from before the war. Friends, family, horrors and triumphs alike, all are shown and add up to a perfect slice-of-life glimpse at our two characters.

You can throw all the film school jargon you like at it, but when you come right down to it, it all means one thing. "Straight Into Darkness" is damn good movie.

And by the time they start introducing the militant chapter of war orphans, well, you can tell that this sucker's going to take some fantastically surreal twists and turns before it's all said and done. For instance, get a real good look at the leatherfaced girl at forty nine minutes nine seconds. She shows up earlier, but you get a good look at her here. Anyway, she's an excellent example of the surrealism we've got going on here. Deformed orphans, jump cuts, creepy plot-everything you could need is right here.

That's possibly the best part about "Straight Into Darkness"-not only is it a truly unique WWII film, but it's also a first of its kind horror movie as well. There have been WWII horror movies before, but never on this scale and this kind of quality. It's actually almost a weird blend of "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Freakmaker". Watching legless children bounce around on their hands and blast Nazis is truly a singular surprise.

The ending is a little bit implausible, but only a little bit. Watching ten kids, an old man, a woman and two American army regulars decimate a sixty-man detachment of Wehrmacht (as evidenced by the tank with them) is just a little farfetched, but still incredibly exciting. Poland has got to be feeling pretty bad right now (We lost to this?). Not to mention France (We surrendered to this?).

The special features include a photo gallery, a music video, audio options, a flashback sequence from Losey's pre-war life, a short film called "Child's Play", a documentary called "Path Into Darkness", director commentary, and trailers for "Stoned" and "Day of Wrath".

All in all, "Straight Into Darkness" is a definite front-runner for the title of best World War II Movie. High quality acting, a storyline nothing short of singular, fantastic effects work, and everything else that makes a movie choice is included right here. "Straight Into Darkness" is absolutely worth your time to rent.

Snakes on a TrainSnakes on a Train
**
DVD Directed by the Mallachi Brothers
Written by Eric Forsberg Starring Alby Castro, Julia Ruiz, Amelia Jackson-Gray, Shannon Gale
Produced by David Michael Latt, Sherri Strain 98 mins
NR
2006

The Asylum comes back this month to take advantage of yet another pre-built hype train with its release of "Snakes on a Train"!

So what we have here plotwise is some mother...well, let's just call it snakes on a train. You knew that was inevitable, folks, so suck it up. For reasons that can only be described as baffling, a woman under a Mayan curse is currently the hatching ground for a whole bunch of snakes. About a thousand if the DVD menu can be trusted.

Not that we really have any idea why this woman is cursed to be a rattler condo--all the dialogue we get for the first five and a half minutes is in Spanish. And there are no subtitles. Or closed captioning. So unless you speak Spanish, forget about having any kind of clue what's going on until about the six minute mark, and even then, you're still not going to have much of a clue.

Once you get past the psuedo-Telemundo, the rest of the movie shapes up simply enough. Basically, the snake condo woman gets on the train, starts coughing up serpents like no tomorrow, all of which start roaming the train and chomping hell out of any warm body they can get their fangs on.

Oooooookay.

How exactly is this different from "Snakes on a Plane"? Oh, yeah...Sam Jackson isn't here to spit out profanities every thirty seconds as though Tourette's Syndrome were transmittable via snake venom. And a few other differences, too, but let's face it--"Snakes on a Train" is the budget travelers' version of "Snakes on a Plane".

Not that it's necessarily bad; there's a lot of nifty fight sequences and action scenes--dig the intertrain battle just ahead of the twenty five minute mark and you'll see what I mean. And even better, the clever exchange at the fifty five minute thirty second mark where the con artist with the miserable cover manages to bilk the young drug smuggler out of a goodish load of loot and a little bit more.

And then, there's also plenty of problem--for instance, it takes us a full half-hour to find out just how our lady on the train became a snake condo in the first place. And that clever exchange? It does manage to stretch the bounds of credibility after the "cop" insists that the smuggler take off her shirt. She probably should have guessed that, at this point, he was no more a cop than the snake condo leaking vipers in the luggage compartment.

Plus, what was with that whole exchange at the forty seven minute forty six second mark? "Yes sir I'll keep my eyes open until the police come"? Where exactly will they be coming to on a speeding train? Okay, so there's some chance they're talking about the next station, but hey.

But it really doesn't matter how well "Snakes on a Train" was executed--it's still, when you come right down to it, a blatant and obvious knockoff, timed to coincide with the release of its imitator, and extremely similar in plot.

This whole thing is a really unnerving trend on The Asylum's part--I don't know what happened over there, but man, something went just really bad wrong. They've made it a mission to knock off every horror movie that comes out of a major studio. They're not there yet--titles like "Pulse" and "The Descent" have slipped past The Asylum's radar--but they're well on their way.

I predict that, by 2009, they will be a facility so dedicated to knockoffs that they will rival Hong Kong in terms of production. Not one movie will escape Asylumization. And I'm taking credit for the invention of the term "Asylumization".

The ending is packed to the gills with snakes, but by this point, it's really just a thoroughly mundane cap to a thoroughly mundane movie. Well, at least until the hundred-foot snake monster starts stalking the train and gets swallowed up by an enormous mystical typhoon. Then it turns into an absolute hoot. If by "an absolute hoot", of course, you mean "a series of hallucinations possibly inspired by the great spirit Tequila", then it most definitely is an absolute hoot.

The special features include audio options, a behind the scenes featurette, a blooper reel, deleted scenes, cast and crew commentary, and trailers for "The 9/11 Commission Report", "666 The Child", "Pirates of Treasure Island", and of course, "Snakes on a Train".

All in all, I will give The Asylum some credit. This is quite possibly the best knockoff they've generated to date. But still, there's a massive problem with that sentence I just wrote--the word "knockoff". It doesn't--it can't--matter how good "Snakes on a Train" is...it's still just an imitation, lacking in even a basic sense of originality.

It's still just a knockoff.

Want to receive an expanded version of Reel Advice as an E-Newsletter?? Email to thevideostoreguy@columnist.com with "The Advisor" in the subject line.  Steve Andersen, much to his own chagrin, is a five-plus year veteran of the direct to video market. He has spent an alarming amount of time in video stores and seeks to provide the public with advance information on all the video releases that they may never have heard of...whether they want to hear of them or not. Steve appears in one way or another weekly, biweekly, or monthly on such fine entertainment-related ezines as Film Threat, Dream Forge, Reel Horror, Acid Logic, Chaotic Culture Magazine, Malicious Bitch webzine, and many others. Readers, agents, or editors can email Steve at thevideostoreguy@columnist.com




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