Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Review: Before I Die

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet

Before I Die (aka Wake Before I Die)           
Directed by the Jason Freeman and Todd Freeman (aka the Brothers Freeman)
Parade Deck Films / Wooden Frame Productions / Highland International / MVD Visual
112 minutes, 2011 / 2016

I’m a trying to figure something out watching this, through my squinting, concentrating eyes as I focus on what is unfolding before me. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Pastor Dan (Robert McKeehan) and his cheery wife Cindy (Audrey Walker), their sullen young teenage daughter and pre-teen son move to a small town in the Pacific Northwest in Oregon to take over a church (they never say which denomination, and I don’t know why I want to know that, but I do). Soon after they get there they are put in charge of troublesome teenage Sally (Nouel Riel) to keep her away from her stereotypically cinematic JD, (literally) greasy headed and leather jacketed boyfriend, Mark (Joshua St. James). He sneeringly warns Dan that he’s going see Sally no matter what the Pastor says or does. This does not bode well. From the way he looks, I was expecting him to break into the song, ”Greased Lightning.”

A pattern starts to emerge here, and from just watching the trailer or reading the text on the back of the box, the trope becomes clear, and it is a common one: Family – especially when it’s a religious person of some sort – moves to a remote part of the US (or the world for that matter), and sure enough there is some kind of killing cult, be it for Kali, Christ (or an abominated version), or dedicated to some creature / demon / devil-spawn / Satan. What comes just off the top of my head is The Wicker Man (1973) and Black Noon (1971), though the number of these films is legion.

This starts as a very slow story, seeming to have some issue with getting its feet on the ground to get some momentum. The acting is mostly fine, and cinemagraphically it certainly looks good, but the writing is plodding and could use some serious editing and honing down, a complaint I have with many releases that are directed by the same person or people who write it. A critical, third-party eye is really what is needed. For example, one character warns Dan, “Strange people dream strange dreams, Pastor. Even about others…Some people are prone to believe such things here because this is a place where such things can be true. Don’t dig down too deep, Pastor, you might not like what lives down there.” It could have been written by the Department of Redundancy Department; at the very least the script needs a good Thesaurus.

Nearly half way through the film (about 50 minutes in), other than the ominous overtones of Mark’s character, it’s hard to tell there’s anything really wrong, except for the sountrack music’s ominous overtones (see: redundant).

The Pastor, Robert McKeehan
Which leads me to my previous squinting and pondering: I’m trying to figure out who is the good/bad guys, whether the goody-goody Pastor may really be a cultist, if the bad boy may turn out to be a hero (again, this is written just before the half-way point of the film), or perhaps the cult itself is leaning towards the light or dark; this is all information the viewer still has not been given any serious hints at yet. What I’m trying to say is that I’m trying to scope the tone of the film, whether it’s a pro-Jeebus screed or just a good guys-vs-bad guys one. All we know is the Pastor has some serious weird vibes coming from the janitor for some reason we’re not really given privy to yet, other than said janitor giving some seemingly stinkeye in his direction. Now, I also admit, that all this red herring-ness can be a good thing, setting up for a swticheroo of cognitive dissonance in a Robert Ludlum kind of intrigue, which is what I am hoping for in the long run.

In another example of WTF writing, however, Il Pastoro finds a storeroom full of canned food and supplies stockpiled, while on a wall there is the now classic newspaper-clippings-with-strings-connecting-them, a trope that’s been used to show conspiracy theories since at least A Beautiful Mind (2001). The Pastor orders someone, “Don’t tell anyone about this until we know what’s going on…” and the other person says, “…I’ll change this lock.” Err… wouldn’t that let the person who put it up know someone saw it, ruining the secret that they’re on to him/her? Jeebus!

Now there is a murder scene that happens (don’t worry, I’m not going to give anything away) with some beautiful editing overlapping the murder and the events after, which in itself would make a great short, but honestly it drags down the film as a whole, as it takes nearly 10 minutes when it could have been shown in just a few. This is an example of what I mean by the excess that could be edited. Yes, it looks great, and I’m sure it would have been a heartbreak for the directors to snip it down, but really, it’s out of place and takes too much time, no matter how beautiful it looks.

The third acts picks up the pace quite a bit, with few surprises, but still satisfying in the who-is-the-good/bad guys and what is going on. The ending is a bit of an anticlimax, but the film still has a decent 20 minutes in it towards the end. The story is based on the book My Soul to Take, which is written by Dale Freeman, the father of the directors/writers of this film. That does explain the lack of desire to excise. Transferring from book to film is hard enough, but when you’re doing your own dad’s work into another medium? I don’t envy that.

Still, despite the beauty of the look of some of the film in editing and lighting, it still goes on too long. Much of the acting is also a bit dicey and wooden here and there, especially the unengaging lead who seems to mostly sleepwalk through his role relying more on a wholesome look, with an occasional brow roll or eye squint to show emotion. Walker is warmer, and seems to embody the role of her character of the Pastor’s wife much better.

Without giving away too much, part of the problem is that the cult doesn’t really have a focus, other than being a group of non-Believers (and they – shock! – dress in black, wear frilly party masks, and drink alcohol), bringing us to the realization that this picture is a Christian-pointed release with a literal Amen at the end. That alone might drive off some off (and bring others into the film’s…err…flock), but that is not what got under my skin, even though I am not a Believer (thank God); rather it was the poor writing and monotonic acting from an unexcited/unexciting lead.

To top it off, the only extra other than the chapters is a full-length commentary by the Brothers Freeman that is, at best, mostly as undefined as the story, meandering and not giving much to enlighten the tone or help with the conclusion. All in all, the film is a solid meh.

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