Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 11/27/08 07:33:31

"A horror-comedy that's not scary or funny."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

SCREENED AT THE 2008 FANTASTIC FEST: “Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer” tries so hard to be an instant cult classic, but it doesn’t quite make the cut. It has some charm, especially for fans of old school splatter, but it’s also deadly dull in all the wrong spots and not clever enough in the right ones.

Proudly displaying its “Evil Dead”/”Dead-Alive” inspirations, “Jack Brooks” acts as an origin adventure for the titular hero (played by Trevor Matthews), a twentysomething small town plumber whose severe anger management issues are put to good use when he discovers the theraputic nature of beating the crap out of demons from hell. There’s an obvious Bruce Campbell vibe attempted here, although Matthews dials down the swagger - maybe a bit too much, in fact, since his Jack is fairly unmemorable, not wacky enough in his rage, and a little too everyman-ish in his down time.

And oh, there’s plenty of down time to go around. The ninety-minute movie spends its first hour sloooooowly setting up the plot, in which a science professor (Robert Englund, whose hammy, slapstick-packed appearance will appeal to horror buffs) at Jack’s night school discovers a buried - and still-beating - heart in his backyard. The heart possesses the poor prof’s body, forcing him to be a gross-out slob who can’t stop eating and belching, resulting in “Men in Black”-esque shenanigans. (Englund’s essentially repeating Vincent D’Onofrio’s shtick, and the film’s effects crew seems eager to match “MIB” ooze-for-ooze.) Meanwhile, Jack goes to therapy, or deals with a bratty girlfriend, or hears spooky monster stories from the old guy down at the hardware store, or anything else that’ll keep the film moving along at a snail’s pace.

There’s also something about Jack’s past - he's ashamed that he let his kid sister get eaten by a forest troll (don’t ask) - and the screenplay attempts to spoof its own sincere metaphor for battling your inner demons. It doesn’t add up to enough, though, especially since the tone never works (can you be serious and sarcastic at the same time?), and the whole idea drags everything down.

It’s all slow, slow, slow buildup leading us to the final half hour, in which Jack and his friends become trapped inside the night school while the professor grows into a giant ball of slime, teeth, and tentacles; other random demon-people-thingies are also let loose to give our hero a good fight.

Director/co-writer Jon Knautz (making his feature debut here) has opted to avoid any use of computer effects, relying instead on old fashioned on-set visual trickery, the kind that will make fans of Tom Savini proud. The creatures here look cheap, but that’s sort of the point; “Jack Brooks” is built as a self-aware throwback, complete with stuntmen in rubber suits. Several effects even manage to be legitimately impressive.

But many more are built for the same old splatter, and there’s little energy that springs from seeing these monsters get squished and sliced. It’s not over-the-top enough to earn laughs just from its audacity, that sense of “just how far is this going to go?!” that made early Raimi and Jackson films such a blast. Nor is there a sense of cinematic inventiveness; there’s nothing in Knautz’ style that’s notably original enough to excite. Instead, we get repeated shots of Matthews bashing in a Halloween mask filled with goo, so it looks like a demon head caving in, lather, rinse, repeat.

“Jack Brooks” probably would’ve worked well as a short film, where we could get to the goopy creature effects right away. At feature length, the whole thing’s a dud, packed with lame jokes, forgettable characters, and a heap of fake gore that’s not enough of a reward. There’s talk that the film was designed from the start to be the beginning of a new indie-horror-comedy franchise, but really, there’s barely enough here for one movie.

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