Written by: Edward E. Romero & Elias Matar
Directed by: Elias Matar
Official Site: http://ashesthemovie.com/
Most outbreak films focus the aftereffects and never the cause. The onscreen last vestiges of humanity have too much on their plate in trying to stay upright and alive to worry about the humble beginnings of a crisis. Ashes, a new film from Elias Matar puts a very human face on the rage zombie subgenre. Inspired by the adage “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”, Ashes examines the beginnings of our downfall and ruin wrought by one single sick child.
Dr. Andrew Stanton (Charmed’s Brian Krause) sits on the verge of a medical breakthrough. He has developed a medication that may signal a cure for AIDS. The work takes an obvious toll on him as the struggles to balance work and home life and fight off the prying advances of government interference and politicking hospital administrators on the prowl for the next large grant with his work.
Trouble begins in the form of Jesus, a comatose young boy suffering from an undiagnosed who is left in front of the hospital. The consensus is death will come in a matter of days. Unable to come to grips with failure, Stanton injects the boy with his serum, hoping to buy the child time. His good intentions end with him getting a bite hard enough to break skin from the momentarily awakened boy. Unfortunately for the doctor, he brings his work home with him. As Stanton suffers from the bite’s infection, he learns startling news that it transmits easily through bodily fluids and takes hold of the host quicker with more dramatic effects each time it claims a new victim. By the closing moments not only has everything Stanton worked for been flushed away, but the city has erupted in chaos.
In a lesser film, Stanton would be the caricature of a mad doctor, imbued with a God complex and paranoia that bring about his eventual downfall. In the case of Ashes, Matar’s script and Krause’s dynamite performance imbue the doctor with decency. This is the case of a man wanting to do the right thing that allows his self confidence to bring about his downfall. The film takes great pains to show the doctor working himself to exhaustion at the expense of his own health and personal life. Even when he’s with his wife (the knockout Sierra Fisk) and daughter his attention keeps wandering back to the breakthrough he’s on the threshold of.
Matar uses a lot of handheld camera work to follow the doctor’s movements. This lends the film a documentary feel as it provides “a day in the life” look into the work at the hospital. Pre-bite the camerawork is steady and assured, paralleling the state of mind of the self confident Stanton. As Stanton breaks down the hand held camera grows more frantic, zooming in and out, losing focus and getting a case of the jitters. It’s a nice added touch in demonstrating the character’s deteriorating state.
Of course, all the camera tricks in the world wouldn’t matter if the characters on screen were stiff and uninteresting. Luckily, Krause is dynamite as both the calm and collected doctor and the swiftly unraveling diseased shell of a man. As the film hurtles towards inevitable doom, Krause’s performance intensifies. It’s a performance reminiscent of Ray Liotta in Goodfellas’ third act. Not only is the man physically falling apart (one could get mighty blasted if you had to take a drink every time a character tells Krause he looks like warmed over shit) but his intellect betrays him as well. The performances across the board are solid. Longtime character actor S.A. Griffin has small but critical role as a mentor that spouts philosophical nonsense rather than get his hands dirty in the field. Kadeen Hardison delivers some comic relief and exposition as a put upon lab tech and Kym Jackson is good as an RN that tries to keep the doctor from exhausting himself.
As stated in the opening paragraph, ASHES deals with the events leading up to the viral outbreak. Horror fans used to ninety minutes of bloodshed need to exert patience. Matar wants to explore the desperate and futile attempt to stem disaster. By investing the time in characters, the emotional catastrophic events of the third act hold more weight. A scene where Stanton’s daughter barricades herself in the bathroom and makes an emergency call in mortal terror is soon followed by the glassy eyed mother stumbling into the kitchen covered in gore.
Though not at the forefront of the film, Matar provides understated commentary on the commercial aspects of the heath care system. Richard Grant (the Don King stand in of Rocky V) is a hospital director far more concerned with pulling in grant money than curing patients. There are questions as to whether the government agency looking to purchase Stanton’s work even wants to pursue it further, or whether it is using disease as a weapon to weed out undesirables.
Currently Ashes is playing the festival circuit as well as special screenings. I’d be stunned if it isn’t picked up for commercial release, even if it’s video on demand followed by DVD. Every now and again a smart, engaging film comes our way that washes the foul taste of unoriginal, poorly crafted screeners, and Ashes is that film. The film won best picture honors at the 2010 Shriekfest and is up for the same at this year's Chicago Film Fest. Keep this one on your radar.
Ashes plays at the Somerville Theater Saturday October 15th as part of our two day indie horror extravaganza. Stay tuned for time and ticket details.