Written and Directed by: Steve Wolsh
Starring: Jaclyn Swedberg, Kane Hodder, and Lauren Francesca
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
The lucky ones are already dead.
Can a movie try too hard while not trying hard enough all at once? That’s the quandary of Muck, a film that really wants you to know that its creators have seen a horror film or a hundred, yet barely attempts to prove it by flubbing the important stuff, like characters, plot, and tone. It so desperately wants to recapture the vintage, rose-and-blood-colored tinted feel of a bygone era, but it often leaves you wondering just how familiar the filmmakers are with those days. I don’t think anyone’s thrown shade using the word “poser” without irony since about 1997. I’m bringing it back for Muck because it’s so desperate to impress that you can’t help but notice how phony it is.
Opening in medias res, Muck introduces a group of hysterical friends emerging from a cornfield, terrified of some unseen presence that drove them away. All of the girls have lost most of their clothes, and, despite their mortal fear, most of the guys can’t stop talking about their dicks. Conveniently, they stumble upon a fully functional (read: fully stocked with booze) farmhouse, where most of the group waits while one of the guys heads into town to seek help from his cousin, an obnoxious dude-bro trolling bars during St. Patrick’s Day. Meanwhile, a pack of albino creatures appear from the nearby bog and begin to maim and mutilate those who were left behind.
There’s a brief moment when Muck looks promising, and it comes during the credits. At this point, we’ve only seen the group stagger out of a field, so they’ve had little time to grate. The eerie, bewildering mood generates a fair amount of intrigue, and the film just looks cool and sleek, a far cry from other poorly lit, obviously low budget productions from the indie horror scene. When the credits crank up, they’re flashy and even a little mesmerizing, complete with a cool strobe effect and inventive lettering. But then you soon notice they also feature a topless girl flailing about, apropos of nothing, a nonsensical decision that serves as a harbinger of things to come. While you shouldn’t judge a movie by its credits, this sequence is a perfect reflection of Muck as a whole: it’s all empty panache in the service of an unsettling misogynistic streak. No matter how cool it often looks, it’s just gross.
And not gross in the desirable splatter movie sort of way. Obviously, Muck is hardly the first horror film with an uncomfortable depiction of women—it’s something fans have wrestled with for decades, particularly when venturing into the more exploitative corners of the genre. That Muck is promoted on the backs (or, let’s be honest, other body parts) of several women (including Playboy Playmate Jaclyn Swanberg) feels like a throwback to the grindhouse age, and it even has the potential to be bold and empowering: talk all the shit you want about the famous poster image of I Spit on Your Grave, but that movie at least put Camille Keaton in a position to kick ass.
On the other hand, Muck shamelessly and callously tosses its perpetually naked (or semi-naked) female cast around to no purposeful or redeeming end. Even though it spares neither gender from violence, there’s something especially hateful about the way it treats women. When they aren’t being physically assaulted, they’re being berated or harassed by their male counterparts, and this is to say nothing of how the camera constantly leers at their bodies (there are two substantial montages dedicated to watching two of them disrobe). The one lady who isn’t in a substantial state of undress is labelled a “terrorist” due to the color of her skin. At no point do they seem to exist as actual characters—they’re only scantily-clad avatars dreamed up by the 12-year-old imagination guiding Muck.
You’re tempted to almost see where the filmmakers are coming from here. Clearly, they’re aware of the role sex appeal has often played in this genre—hell, I’m writing this at a site that keeps a skin scale to gauge just how wild a film can be. However, Muck just isn’t at all playful about this, and it’s indicative of how it knows the song but never bothered to learn the beat. Every bare breast and subsequent act of violence feels like the work of juvenile man-children begging you to look at how cool and edgy they are as they peddle this stuff.
They’re reflected in the awful male characters, with Bryce Draper’s Noah emerging as the worst offender. An ass-slapping, insulting dope, he berates every woman around him. His misogyny is drawn so broadly (for example, he cares more about his car being totaled than any of the savaged female bodies around him) that you’re sure director Steve Wolsh is in on the joke and has reserved the worst, goriest punishment for him. When one of the creatures wraps a noose around him, you’re inclined to cheer. Instead, this guy improbably becomes the goddamned hero, like a frat boy take on Ash. But where Bruce Campbell’s famous lunkhead is a gregarious, loud-mouthed goof, this guy is an insufferable shithead.
He’s the perfect embodiment of Muck, a blustering, loud movie with an unearned swagger. So much of it seems dedicated to proving its street cred with obvious references to other movies when its director should be worrying about his own effort. You'll spot Kane Hodder (as one of the creatures, naitch), a town called (get this) Wes Craven, and a clumsy, on-the-nose spiel where one of the male characters lays out everyone’s fate according to horror movies. The eventual attempt to subvert these expectations is as laughable as it is predictable. We get it: you’ve seen some horror movies—but are you really sure you got them?
One thing I can get behind (besides his resolve to completely waste dummies who use St. Patrick's Day as an excuse to get trashed) is Wolsh’s insistence on practical effects. He promises a return to old-school effects without the aid of CGI, and he delivers both gore and impressive stunts. When you see a guy engulfed in flames, it’s the real deal, as is the copious amount of splatter. Working in concert with Wolsh’s polished camerawork, it creates a film that could perhaps function in a vacuum where none of its characters talked, or where plot and motivation were irrelevant. It rarely works out that way, though, especially in the case of Muck, which quickly grows listless and tiresome with every passing moment. If it’s a love letter, then it’s one that’s been written by a psychotic stalker who viewed the object of its affection from afar without never really getting to know it.
Those eager to take the plunge will at least meet with a fine Blu-ray presentation from Anchor Bay. The disc arrives without supplements, but it does boast a strong, sleek transfer that accurately reflects Wolsh’s slick, almost deceptive façade. Muck is an ugly film that looks spectacular. Likewise, its sound design is lively and engaging thanks to a 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track that will fill your room with unpleasant sounds, from the disagreeable dialogue to all the skull-crushing and whatnot.
Muck is apparently the first in a trilogy, as it’s constantly looking over its shoulder towards the events leading up to this film (which will be expounded upon in a prequel) while also obviously setting up a sequel with one of the most awkward cliffhangers in recent memory (and I saw fucking Desolation of Smaug, you guys). This is another attempt at overreaching in an effort to prove Wolsh’s ambition: maybe instead of thinking about three films, it’s a better idea to figure out how to pull off one first. Trash it!
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