Written by: Vincent Julť
Directed by: David Cholewa
Starring: Fabian Wolfrom, Blandine MarmigŤre, and Johanna Seror
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďI hope you aren't afraid of the dark."
When I first read the synopsis for Dead Shadows (killer comet serves as the harbinger for a mutant apocalypse), I readied my snark bullets: I couldnít believe someone had done a grim and gritty retread of Night of the Comet. Having seen it, however, Iím going to holster that ammunition because Iím damn impressed by what David Cholewa crafted out that premise for his directorial debut. Hailing from France, Dead Shadows is a genre-mashing tribute to the likes of John Carpenter and H.P. Lovecraft that recalls the days of scrappy, low-budget gross-out movies and updates them with a 21st century gloss.
Its ambition is clear from the start, as a deliberate, spooky title sequence basks in the glow of the cosmos, which takes on a haunting, threatening quality. Once Cholewa comes to Earth, he focuses on Chris (Fabian Wolfrom), a lowly, lonesome French twentysomething who suffers from a severe phobia of the dark. When a comet is due to pass over the Earth, he really couldnít give less of shit considering his familyís history with rare comets, so he spends most of the day moping about while everyone else comes down with apocalypse fever. Little does everyone know, their playful prophecy holds a hint of truth when the cometís path coincides with a sudden outbreak of undead monsters.
Dead Shadows especially wears its affection for Carpenter on its sleeve: Alan Howarth serves as sound designer (and I wouldnít be surprised if he influenced the synth-laden score), some of the creatures look mighty reminiscent of The Thing, and Chrisís room is prominently adorned by an Escape from New York poster. Showing such affection is pretty damn easy, but backing it up with a film thatís worthy of the name-dropping is another thing altogether, especially since entire generations have grown up with Carpenterís work and can sniff out posers. Iíd like to think Iím qualified to make such a judgment, and it looks like Cholewa is the real deal: Dead Shadows isnít without its rough patches (it sometimes stretches its budget too far, and its themes are a bit muddled), but it captures the general spirit of the work it admires.
Cholewa has particularly replicated Carpenterís ability to build a film on sheer atmosphere. From the opening frame, Dead Shadows is a brooding, moody little picture that thrives on an overbearing sense of doom, almost as if the apocalypse is actually a foregone conclusion. Attempting to carve a slice of life out of this is similarly commendable but a bit more problematic in execution: Chris is okay as a sort of sadsack protagonist, but his journey here is a bit listless and scattered: essentially unfolding over the course of one fateful day, the film tracks his microcosmic interactions with random strangers, including no less than three women. One is his neighbor, Claire (Blandine MarmigŤre), an artist who invites him to an ďapocalypse party,Ē where he first witnesses signs that stuff is rather amiss (read: he peeps in on a bizarre sexual encounter that leaves a girl impaled in unconventional fashion).
If thereís a primary knock against Dead Shadows, itís that it really careens right into the monster stuff and loses the more personable character threads. While Chrisís arc is faintly discernable throughout, as Cholewa and screenwriter Vincent Jule especially underline his sexual anxieties and his insecurities (a notion thatís reinforced by the filmís bizarre ending), itís buried under a thicket of gore during the filmís unrelenting climax that comprises about half of the run-time. Cholewa keeps the action moving well here once Chris is forced to essentially backpedal through his day and re-encounter characters from earlier in the film. One especially bizarre aside involves a woman in a cemetery who morphs from semi-spectral weirdo to a full-on, Thing-like creature throughout the course of the film, a strange little psychological interlude that breaks up the gore-soaked carnage.
Brief moments like that hint at a more fascinating, fully fleshed-out film. Apparently, Cholewa's small budget necessitated cuts and compromises, which perhaps explains the frenzied, disorienting race to the filmís finish line. To its credit, the dash is sufficiently littered with viscera, realized with practical effects of the highest order. A few digital blemishes appear here and there (most notably in the filmís final shot, which was certainly more than the budget could bear), but Dead Shadows is otherwise an effects guruís delight, featuring an array of creatures (most of which are tentacled, Lovecraftian things) and bodily mutilations and mutations befitting a Cronenberg or Yunza film.
Muddled plot considerations aside, the climax is feverish descent into an undead hell. Much of it is practically dialogue free, as Chris dashes from one gory set-piece to the next. Itís exhausting, which I suppose apocalyptic hellscapes are wont to be. Cholewa helms this frenzy with a steady hand, just as he does the rest of the film, which is sturdily produced and slickly shot, especially given its low-budget roots. Iím especially impressed by how well Cholewa and company integrate the surreal elements in such a seamless fashion and refuse to allow Dead Shadows to become an overwrought, cartoonish eyesore thatís only concerned about piling up blood and guts. Thereís a delightfulness to be found in its Grand Guignol displays to be sure, but Dead Shadows aspires to be a bit more of a character study. Even though Iím not convinced that it actually sticks the landing in regard (Chrisís fear of the dark eventually feels like an afterthought), the effort is sincere, and the film works otherwise as an exercise in style.
After touring the festival circuit for the past couple of years, Dead Shadows arrives on Blu-ray from Shout Factory. The discís presentation is sleek and crisp, with Shoutís transfer preserving the filmís unconventional aspect ratio, while viewers are offered multiple DTS-MA tracks in the original French language. A 30-minute interview with Cholewa headlines the extras, which are supplemented with some deleted scenes, a peek behind the scenes, and a couple of trailers. Hats off to Shout for uncovering this effortónot only does it echo Carpenter and Night of the Comet, but its soundtrack also features Sponge (apparently, French youth are stuck in the 90s just like me), so it canít be all that bad. Did I also mention it has the most devious use of a mutated penis this side of Soul Vengeance? Buy it!
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