Tuesday, October 9, 2012
James Felix McKenney's HYPOTHERMIA: Blood on the Ice
Director: James Felix McKenney
Writer: James Felix McKenney
Cast: Michael Rooker, Blanche Baker, Don Wood, Benjamin Hugh Abel Forster
Website: Dark Sky Films, Monsterpants Movies Official Site
Fish-men have held a small yet precious place in horror. Influential horror writer H.P. Lovecraft - his fear of the ocean's unknown apparent - populated his twisted tales like The Shadow Over Innsmouth and Dagon with bulging eyed, slope-skulled monstrosities that resembled fish, but walked on two legs. The misunderstood Gil-Man, attracted to a human woman named Kay, suffered from unrequited love in Creature from the Black Lagoon. Genetically-enhanced salmon brutally took human mates in Barbara Peeter’s Humanoids from the Deep. Each of these works were different in tone and atmosphere, but the terror of mutant, evolved, or even god-like fish leaving their watery homes, taking foot to wreak havoc on the shore, remains the core.
Knowing that Monsterpants Movies head honcho James Felix McKenney is a huge fan of fish-men, my excitement level for his latest film, Hypothermia, went through the roof when the production was announced two years ago. This is the same artist who designed and handmade Sea-Borgs, resin-cast humanoid fish, as part of his toy line.
With the iconic Michael Rooker (Slither, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) cast as one of the leads in a story about a monster encounter during an ice fishing trip, I figured these were fool proof ingredients for a monster masterpiece. I was totally on board for this excursion into the icy depths of frigid temperatures and sharp teeth. Suddenly, Hypothermia disappeared for a while and I got a little worried.
It pains me to say that Hypothermia is not a great film. It’s not even a very good one if I’m being honest; however, it’s one with much merit to balance its deficiencies. It’s certainly worth a watch, particularly if you’re a fish-man completist. What likely started as a love letter to the great fish-men of yore sadly became a lesser addition to the canon. The story is uncharacteristically uneven when compared to Mr. McKenney's recent output Automatons and Satan Hates You. The obvious culprit appears to be tampering by outside interests, and the final cut seems off given McKenney’s track record. The whole thing reeks of too many cooks in the kitchen, and might explain the relative shelving of the film until this month. Still, it’s a fun film full of delightful gore, an inspired setting, and a fine performance by Mr. Rooker in a role that requires more subtlety than he’s usually permitted.
Hypothermia is the story of Ray Pelletier (Rooker), an easygoing family man out on an ice fishing trip with his wife Helen (Blanche Baker), son David (Benjamin Hugh Abel Forster), and David’s girlfriend Gina (Amy Chang). Ray and his family appreciate the simple pleasures of life on the ice: the quiet calm of nature, and the fulfillment of the fishing experience bringing them closer to one another as a family unit. Their peaceful trip is jeopardized when loudmouth Steve Cote (Monsterpants regular Don Wood) and his son Stevie, Jr. (Greg Finley) settle in on the other side of the lake bringing along too much beer, guns, and loud snowmobiles.
Ray and his clan begrudgingly befriend the obnoxiously arrogant Cote and debate over fishing tactics and life philosophies. Neither group is getting any bites from the local fish population, and the ice is surprisingly weak, both raising ecological red flags. Beneath their temporary shelters something big and hungry stirs under the ice, a fearsome creature with lots of teeth. Stranded overnight, they hash out their difference while fending off the monster’s attacks. Cote and his son want to bag a possible missing link in the evolutionary chain they believe responsible for thinning the fish numbers. Ray, the timid peacemaker, would rather get his family out intact.
One of the biggest problems with Hypothermia is the monster. In my opinion, I think it’s a cool creature. Others may not be so impressed. Due to photographic conditions - the monster shot in the full light of day reflecting off of snow and ice - it doesn’t work at all. It’s a shame, because the potential is evident, particularly in the details of its teeth and mouth. Had McKenney utilized a more lighthearted approach to the story, he may have pulled of the admittedly silly looking monster. Unfortunately, Hypothermia is a tight family drama with a focus on serious character dynamics and an undercurrent of environmental subtext. When the monster finally appears, it comes across as a bit of a joke that belies the seriousness of the rest of the film. In a campy film, it would have worked perfectly. Here’s it’s a disappointing payoff for those immersed in the slow burning introduction of our players. The result is a hyper-real looking bug-eyed thing that is much more effective in the murky water or in nighttime scenes. Again, I think the creature is a cool design by Chris Bridges collaborating with McKenney and falls victim to some bad choices in the photography department.
I may be in the minority because I did enjoy the film. Perhaps the best compliment I can give it is that it is memorable. You may remember it for the wrong things (bad lighting of a monster, an ending that doesn’t work very well), or you may remember it for the positive things (great atmosphere, cool Brian Spears gore, Rooker’s depth). The important thing is that you will remember it and may even enjoy yourself despite the shortcomings. The film is barely over an hour in length, and certainly not a waste of time. Would I recommend it over Stuart Gordon’s Dagon? No way! Yet, it's leaps and bounds over something like Island of the Fishmen (aka Screamers). There are tense moments, and it's a great juxtaposition of the calm Rooker keeping his cool with the increasingly obnoxious character portrayed by Wood. Put this one on your list for the next Saturday afternoon you find yourself stranded at home, and you may just crack a smile.