The last few years have been really good to fans of classic 80’s horror. Last year Netflix Studios’ Stranger Things turned E.T. on its’ head, delivering 8 solid hours of nerdy terror and now we have The Void, an unabashed homage to John Carpenter and the Hellraiser movies which features copious amounts of honest-to-satan practical monster and gore effects.
I’ve been hearing a lot of hype about The Void, most of it centered on the aforementioned effects work and thus my expectations for the film have been quite high. Luckily the film has been granted a limited release here in Seattle so I was able to catch a screening last evening.
Is it good? Yeah, it is. But before I delve into the movie itself I feel compelled to gush a little bit about the venue in which I saw The Void.
The Grand Illusion is a tiny little hole-in-the-wall theater located in the middle of Seattle’s U-District. When I say tiny, I mean it – the capacity can’t be more than 50 and the screen is probably no larger than your living room wall. That said, this really is a theater run by film lovers for film lovers. The Grand Illusion is entirely run by a staff of volunteers and operates as a non-profit – the upside being relatively cheap ticket prices (even cheaper if you spring for a membership) and a great selection of interesting films. I’ve scanned the showtimes in the past and seen lots and lots of terrific stuff – everything from trashy Japanese pinku eiga to highbrow documentaries. Honestly, if someone asked me to design a theater to my specifications it’d probably look and feel a lot like the Grand Illusion. The projection quality is decent – bright, hi definition digital image accompanied by better-than-expected sound. It’s not a ginormous IMAX experience but honestly the place feels like a labor of love and that’s something no widescreen spectacle will ever surpass in my opinion. If you love movies the way I do you really owe it to yourself to give the Grand Illusion a visit.
Anyway, about the movie.
The Void is everything I wanted it to be. It’s got gore, monsters, and surreal weirdness oozing out of its’ pores. It doesn’t waste any time, either – quickly escalating from a gruesome murder in the film’s opening minutes to an all-out siege scenario as a small-town hospital is surrounded by a flock of mysterious, hooded cultists.
What the cultists are up to is kind of a drawn-out affair – the filmmakers (Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie, two Canadian chaps whose previous work apparently includes stuff like Manborg) play their cards close to their chest and when you do finally get an explanation it’s a tad underwhelming. That said the fun here is not in the brilliant plot but in the execution. Much has been made of the film’s reliance on old-school effects and I have to say they’re really effective. Peeled faces, tentacles, animated corpses, gore splattered mutant hellbeasts…it’s all here and it all looks terrific. A great deal of it is shrouded in gloom, preventing the audience from getting a clear look at anything – the cynic in me says this is possibly to hide some of the effects’ shortcomings but honestly it works. Nothing on display here looks cheap or half-assed.
I also loved some of The Void‘s more surreal moments, which echo the crazy reality-warping sequences in some of the Hellraiser and Phantasm movies. There’s an obvious Lovecraftian influence here, with references to ‘ancient things’ that pre-date mankind, etc. – and while paying lip-service to HPL is by no means groundbreaking (and hasn’t been for decades) it’s always fun to see someone wallowing in their influences to good effect.
The cast is uniformly good – genre fans will recognize Twin Peaks‘ Kenneth Welsh (who portrayed Windom Earle) and Ellen Wong (Knives Chau in Scott Pilgrim vs The World), but really there’s not a bad apple in the bunch. I found the lead a little annoying, but that’s no fault of actor Aaron Poole. He does a fine job as Officer Daniel ‘Worst Police Officer in the Known Universe’ Carter but honestly the character’s ineptitude and constant lack of initiative kept me on the verge of lunging at the screen and throttling him. I think that’s part of the character’s arc, though – numerous times it’s mentioned that he’s not half the cop his dad was and from moment one you realize that everyone who says it isn’t wrong.
Bad stuff? The plot, as I said, is complete nonsense. I won’t give anything away but suffice to say it’s pretty bog standard stuff…albeit goofy, batshit WTF bog standard stuff. But as the late, great Roger Ebert once said: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” And that’s definitely true where The Void is concerned. The pacing is also a bit off. Really good horror films know how to build and release tension. There’s definitely an art to this sort of thing and Kostanski and Gillespie, as good as they are at crafting some terrifying visuals are not particularly adept at keeping you on the edge of your seat. They seem content to let the visuals do all the heavy lifting. I mean, look – remember Carpenter’s The Thing? (I guarantee you that Kostanski and Gillespie do.) That blood test scene is a fucking master class in how to do a good horror scene. Carpenter knows exactly how to prime an audience, make them shit their pants, and then laugh about it afterwards.
I don’t think there was a single scene in The Void that came close to this for me. It was cool to look at but I don’t think I was ever legitimately scared.
There’s also zero levity in The Void. None. I think there was a single amusing exchange at the beginning of the movie but after that it’s all hategoredeath from start to finish. That’s not always a bad thing. The Green Room was similarly unrelenting in its’ grimness but The Green Room gets a pass because it’s so much better at doing the tempo thing than The Void.
Okay – so, I’m kvetching a bit now. And I really shouldn’t. The Void is a solid piece of work. It’s not perfect – but if you go in with your expectations set accordingly it’ll deliver.
And by god, if you live near Seattle or plan to visit…go see something at The Grand Illusion. It’ll do your soul some good.