Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Video Treasures - The Supernaturals (1985)

Back in the days of Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, choosing a movie was a bit like Russian roulette: you based your judgments and expectations on how awesome the cover art was, then you watch it, only to be pleased or disappointed. More often than not, you were let down. The box usually depicted a phenomenal work of art that tantalizes the unsuspecting customer; it either exaggerates the film’s premise, portrays a specific scene from the film, or sometimes it flat out lies to you. In the case of The Supernaturals, it vaguely lays out the film’s general premise. However, it does so with what could only be described as one of the best pieces of VHS artwork I’ve ever come across but we will get to that soon. In fact, the only reason why I bought this is because of the artwork.

So what’s The Supernaturals all about? Sometime during the Civil War, a unit of Union soldiers known as the 44th Division captures a small Confederate division. Within this division we are introduced to Jeremy, a young boy who we are told possess a special gift. When the 44th Division orders their Confederate POW’s to march across the minefield they setup, only Jeremy makes it across in one piece. When he is ordered to walk across it again, we see a blue light emit from his fist; smash cut to the present day (in this case 1985). The modern 44th Division is a small group of novice soldiers who are on a training exercise, overseen by Sergeant Hawkins (Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols). Their camp is coincidently situated on the same site of the former Confederate minefield. Strange things begin to happen: our hero, Private Ellis (Maxwell Caufield, who looks like a young Brad Pitt), hears voices calling his name; the wind blows away from the field, and a woman named Melanie mysteriously appears. Eventually, one of the group members, Private Cort, tries to drunkenly rape Private Lejune, the only other female in the unit. After getting a knife pulled on his balls, Cort angrily stumbles and falls into an underground bunker that he previously fell into the day before. Bad luck, I suppose. Inside, he is attacked and killed by a Confederate zombie. When his body is found the next day, Hawkins launches an investigation to find who’s responsible. They find a small cabin where Melanie, and a mute old man, presumably lives. Hawkins suspects Melanie of the murder, and detains her at the camp. From this point on, the entire Division falls under attack by the newly risen Confederate zombie horde.

The film is… okay. It’s slow but it has its moments. The biggest problem I have is the explanation for the zombies, and the ending. I suppose I should warn of SPOILERS. We find out that the old man in the cabin is actually Jeremy, and Melanie is his mother. In a flashback, we are told that just before Jeremy walks across the minefield for the second time, his mother runs out into the field to save him, only to be blow up. In turn, and stricken with horror, Jeremy uses his gift to resurrect her from the dead. We are never told why Jeremy is old but his mother remains as young as she was when she died. Maybe Jeremy’s gift retains youth, but if that’s the case, what about all the zombie soldiers? Did Jeremy bring them back from the dead to seek revenge on the 44th Division? Did his mother resurrect them? How did she resurrect them? How did she know that the modern day 44th Division would use the site as a training field? Is this movie even about revenge? We are never told how or why the dead are suddenly brought back to life, and whether this was the work of Jeremy or Melanie. We assume it’s Jeremy but the zombies, in a later scene, seem to be working for his mother. In fact, we are never given any explanation for why Jeremy has this gift to begin with.

But here’s the kicker: Private Ellis, our lovesick hero (yeah, he has a crush on Private Lejune and Melanie), is actually Jeremy’s father and consequently Melanie’s husband! What?! Apparently, in the scene prior to the old man’s introduction, Ellis reads a journal (purportedly Melanie’s) that explains that her husband was shipped off to war and never returned. She assumes he’s dead. Now I have even more questions: When was Ellis resurrected? How was he resurrected? He was alive before he even arrived to the campsite. Did old man Jeremy resurrect him? How? When? Did Melanie mistake Ellis for her husband because of his uncanny resemblance? What is happening in this film? There is no explanation for any of this, unfortunately. The twist, if you can call it a twist, is dropped on us like a bombshell, then immediately dismissed and never clarified. For this review, I watched this film a second time, and I still don’t understand it. I think these are the biggest problems the film suffers from, and they’re big. In spite of this, there are some wonderful moments.

I really like the characters, except for Private Cort, but he gets his comeuppance. Ellis, for the most part, is dry but it’s fun to watch him figure out what a latrine is, and how to build it. He seems to be the one everyone jokes around with. At the beginning, his friends dare him to jump off a moving truck and try to get back on it by running. He’s not terribly interesting, but his banter between Lejune isn’t schmaltzy or the least bit cheesy; it comes off as real, candid small talk with subtle suggestions of affection. The unit, as a whole, feels like a group of real young men who just want to have fun, and joke around. They aren’t written as blatant stereotypes, and they aren’t dull-minded jocks. During the dry spells, and there are a lot of them, it’s the characters that keep the interest moving.  
I enjoyed the zombie makeup. You barely get to see it because it’s concealed by shadows, but that may be because it wasn’t that good to begin with. I think it’s a clever method of accomplishing two things: 1) you maintain suspense and 2) you don’t show the limitations in your makeup budget. There are some beautifully lit nighttime scenes, specifically during the zombie battle that reminds me of Bazelli’s work on Pumpkinhead. One of the best action sequences is when Private Mendez (Scott Jacoby) accidentally kills Private Osgood (soon-to-be Stark Trek star LeVar Burton) thinking he was a zombie. He storms off into the woods where, as we were made privy to at the beginning of the film, there are large wooden spikes sticking out from the ground. The whole sequence is so tense because we know what will happen, but we’re waiting for it. He just barely misses them, he falls over some, and we are treated to a reverse P.O.V. making the sequence all the more engaging.
 However, the real star of the film is the score. The main theme is high energy, fun, exhilarating, and sort of comes off as the title anthem to an old TV show. I would even argue that it could be compared to any Mike Post or John Williams composition, while the rest of the score could be compared to Michael Hoenig’s best work (composer for films such as The Blob ’88, The Gate, and Class of 1999). It is for this reason that I wish we would get a soundtrack release to accompany the film’s inevitable DVD release.
VHS scan courtesy of Basement of Ghoulish Decadence
Now, lets talk about the box art. It goes without saying that I am infatuated with it, but I also consider it to be one of the best and most detailed pieces of artwork I’ve seen on a VHS box. Aside from the Confederate cap and eye, the scene depicted is lifted directly from a moment in the movie where Private Cort puts sunglasses on a recently exhumed skull, and shoots at a beer can hidden within it. I think I have a fascination with skulls; I love the detail in the teeth, the shading along the jaw, and the murky, almost sepia tone palette in which the entire piece is drawn in. The cover doesn’t lie; it tells us exactly what the movie is about: Confederate zombies. Perhaps the most baffling aspect of the cover is the sunglasses, which is a modern accessory. It attempts to bridge the modern with the old, and it comes off as intriguing if not strange, however, somewhat awkward in the actual film itself.
I am not praising The Supernaturals nor am I disregarding it. The general consensus seems to be middle-of-the-road territory, and that’s fortunately true. The film had the opportunity to be very forgettable or poorly made, and thankfully it never amounts to either of those. As the blogger who provided me with the high-definition scan said, “This one is actually suitable for young horror fans first getting into the obsession with no nudity and very little blood as the slow raising Confederates dispatch the soldiers mostly off-screen.” The biggest element that works against the film is the lack of any clear explanation for the supernatural occurrences. I understand that less explanation can add a sense of unease and creepiness, but in this case, something for us to grasp onto would have been appreciated.
Available from Embassy Home Entertainment.
Video Treasures is a continuing series of horror films only available on home video, and is in no way affiliated with the distribution label of the same name or VHS Visions. ;) 


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