Written by: Richard Christian Matheson (screenplay), Ambrose Bierce (short story)
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Starring: Sean Patrick Flanery, Marisa Coughlan and Brendan Fletcher
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Tobe Hooper directed the worst episode of the first season of Masters of Horror in Dance of the Dead, but that didnít stop the producers from asking him back for season two. Mercifully, they tapped him to kick off the season so as to get him out of the way early, and they even attached him to a project whose title lends itself to so many barbs. Indeed, The Damned Thing might as well refer to Hooperís post-80s career, and his second pass at this series doesnít do much to fend off such assailments.
In the story, ďThe Damned ThingĒ refers to some unseen force that randomly terrorizes a small Texas town from time to time by driving its inhabitants nuts and inciting an apocalyptic fervor. As a boy, Kevin Reddle (Sean Patrick Flannery) watched as this force compelled his father into shooting his mother, a horrific act that didnít deter him from sticking around Cloverdale, eventually becoming its sheriff, and even shacking up in the childhood abode. He lives there alone though, as his wife (Marisa Coughlin) and son have ditched him because heís grown increasingly paranoid.
Seeing your mom get butchered right in front of you will do that, I guess, but, in all honesty, Kevin is one of the few people in The Damned Thing who seems relatively normal, as heís surrounded by a bunch of Texas twang cartoon characters (one of them is actually obsessed with cartoons and is convinced heís going to create the next Mickey Mouse--I donít know, itís rather unimportant). Like Dance of the Dead before it, The Damned Thing damned tone deaf in the character department, as few are believable and even fewer likable. Flannery is okay as the filmís lead, as he sufficiently juggles his crumbling sanity with a faint empathy that keeps the film grounded just enough to be remotely compelling as he trudges through the mythology that Richard Christian Matheson has concocted here.
Matheson (who also adapted Dance of the Dead) is working from the Ambrose Bierceís original short story, though itís the loosest of adaptations since heís essentially taken the kernel ("mystical force drives people batshit insaneĒ) and turned it into a gory splatter show thatís rendered loud and dumb by Hooperís direction. Subtlety and restraint arenít exactly things that heís interested in, so weíre left with another haphazardly frenetic movie that barely takes advantages of its best aspect (the gore effects) because Hooper is content with apparently shooting films through a blender at this point. Like his amped up and obnoxious characters, Hooperís direction is unpleasant and often intolerable, marked by a jittery camera that canít even sit still long enough to capture the dinner table conversation at the beginning of the film. Instead, it circles around as if it were handled with someone high on uppers, and itís an unnecessarily dizzying precursor for things to come.
Itís too bad that Hooper is so content with wasting all the good stuff afforded him; if nothing else the producers for Masters of Horror provide each director with a winning crew of production and effects designers, and this is no different. Nicotero and Berger once again provide a wealth of impressive splatter effects that youíll struggle to see with any sustained coherence; there are some absolutely visceral gags here, too--one guy even pummels himself to death with a hammer, and itís especially gruesome. Likewise, the cast is pretty good on paper, and even includes Ted Raimi in a fun turn as the townís oddball preacher who agonizes over Kevinís immortal soul. Hell, even Mathesonís script here isnít all that bad and certainly isnít as poorly plotted as the overly dumb and mystifying Dance of the Dead, as he tells a neat, spooky little story about a generational curse that likes to manifest itself into a giant, CGI blob creature thatís composed of oil (this is one area where the effects shakily outstretch the budget).
The Damned Thing is still damned better than Dance of the Dead, but itís difficult to argue that Hooper doesnít take all this and turn it into a dumb, forgettable splatter exercise. Itís almost alarming how far removed Hooper is from the genuinely deranged and wince inducing horrors that landed him on the map in the first place, as The Damned Thing couldnít be more obvious and gratuitous. Well, I guess it could be if his first Masters of Horror turn is any indication. Not unlike the first season of the series, Anchor Bay delivers a more than adequate DVD treatment here; the presentation is again top notch, and thereís a host of extras, including some behind-the-scenes production features, promo material, and a commentary with Matheson. Unlike Dance of the Dead, this one's at least worth a look, but save it for a streaming platform. Rent it!
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