Tuesday, August 12, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Hatchet (2007)

Hatchet's amusing tag line is: "It's not a remake, it's not a sequel, and it's not based on a Japanese one." The movie promises -- succinctly -- just one thing: "Old school American horror."

After watching the dreadful remake The Eye, I figured that some Old School American Horror might be the very medicine the doctor ordered.

Boy was I wrong!

This is a movie so mind-numbingly awful it makes The Eye look like the greatest horror film ever made. The tag line quoted above is approximately a million-and-one times more inventive than any dialogue, situation or visual featured during this low budget effort's scant running time (84 minutes).

I know the idea here was to create a movie that evokes the slasher films and cliches of the 1980s -- believe me I get it, having written Horror Films of the 1980s recently -- but if Hatchet is a paean to eighties horror, then the filmmakers must have been thinking entirely of Troma's output during the Reagan Era.

Yes, it's that bad.

story involves a group of college kids at Mardi Gras in New Orleans (this is pre-Katrina..). Ben is depressed over a break-up with his girlfriend of eight years, and his friend, Marcus, indulges Ben when he says he wants to go on a night-time tour of a local swamp. Also taking part on the bayou tour are two slutty girls (one is Mercedes McNab!) making a "girls gone wild"-style video with a sleazy producer named David Shapiro, an older "tourist" couple, and the beautiful but mysterious MaryBeth. The tour guide is a charlatan named Shawn, and early into the swamp odyssey, he runs the tour boat aground on a rock.

This is bad, because the tourists have come ashore near the secluded home of a local legend named Victor Crowley, a monstrously deformed man who kills people with a hatchet, but who might also be a malevolent ghost. MaryBeth is aware of the entire Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder) "tall tale" because she believes he is responsible for the disappearance of her father (Robert Englund) and brother (Joshua Leonard) the night before the tour.

For the last thirty-five minutes or so of Hatchet, Victor Crowley murders the interlopers one at a time in extremely gory fashion, proving himself (like Freddy, Jason or Michael) utterly indestructible in the process.

All the cliches of eighties films are present and accounted for in Hatchet. There's the "breast part of the movie" cliche, wherein beautiful young woman disrobe for the camera. There's the Crazy Old Local - the Cassandra Figure - who warns that "You're all going to die" (but whose warning is ignored). There's the flashback "crime in the past" that describes the transgression against Victor Crowley that turned him into a murderer. There's even the gory coup de grace: here, a decapitation. And of course, there's the sting-in-the-tail/tale wherein the killer returns from the dead for one last strike.

I enjoyed seeing all these genre conventions put back into play for 2007, but Hatchet is such an entirely art less, clueless, merit-less effort that you don't get the laughs out of them you would hope to. For all their various and sundry deficits, the Scream films at least turned these familiar slasher conventions on their head, surprising you with when/how/why they were deployed. Hatchet is merely content to stage these chestnuts as you've seen them before, as if their inclusion is a priori humorous. Nudge nudge, breast breast. Get it?

As far as being a "comedy" horror film, this is a far cry from such classic eighties efforts as Evil Dead 2 (1987), Fright Night (1985) or Return of the Living Dead (1985). It's much more in the league of the aforementioned Troma fare, or Return of the Living Dead Part II (1987). The scenes that are supposed to be funny are actually just shrill. The humor here is about on par with Not Another Teen Movie (2001), except it's more aptly Not Another Dead Teen Movie.

I mentioned the humor first, because I would have happily forgiven the film many of its genre trespasses if it garnered a lot of laughs. But the horror aspect of the film is as absolutely terrible as the comedy: there's not a single successful scare in the whole film, and even the make-up (on Crowley) is bad. He's not a menacing villain in the slightest, and the attack scenes are staged clumsily: he just runs into frame, hacks away, and keeps hacking. The blocking, scene compositions, even the choice of shots (almost always medium shots) reveal what a sub-par effort this is. The director, Adam Green, has absolutely no flare for staging scenes of either the comedy or horror genre.

Here's an example. In John Carpenter's original Halloween (1978), Haddonfield itself became a kind of character in the play. The early parts of the film showcased the terrain where Michael would strike, and viewers were treated to long, evocative shots of the tree-lined suburban streets. There was a sense of place. Of geography. Of location.

By contrast, In Hatchet, all the horror action takes place in a bayou - an absolutely great location for a horror movie (see: Southern Comfort [1981]), yet Green utilizes eye-level medium shots so often -- with the actors filling the frame in packs -- that the audience gets no sense of the terrain or location. There's not a single long shot of the group making their way through the bayou, and so Hatchet not only lacks a sense of place, but a sense of scope. There's nothing cinematic in the visuals. Again, the material he's mocking, say a Halloween II or a Friday the 13th Part II -- for all the cliches in evidence -- made exquisite use of the frame, of wide-screen. These films looked good...Hatchet doesn't.

The film is sloppy in so many ways. In one early scene, we see the tour boat moving across the swamp. We cut back to Ben and Marcus sharing a private discussion on the rear of the craft, and it's clear as they talk that the boat is not moving. When we go back to the wider shot, the boat is still moving. Again, all this stuff is quite forgivable in a low-budget production if the acting is good; if the script is smart; or if it's funny or scary.

But here the script is dreadful, and the performances are generally amateurish. Adam Green apparently encouraged his actors to go way over the top, and Tony Todd and Robert Englund fare especially poorly under his misdirection, hamming up their cameos to a cringe-worthy degree. Of all the performers, only Mercedes McNab (playing a boob named Misty) emerges unscathed. The things that work in the film do so because of her good performance.

I was really looking forward to what Hatchet promised: a scary, funny, unpretentious good time at the movies; one that didn't take itself, its premise, or the horror genre too seriously. What I got was a poorly-written, poorly-shot, tour of genre cliches we've seen a million times. If you appreciate horror (even silly horror, like Snakes on a Plane), this movie will insult your intelligence.

Unfortunately, Hatchet is a hack job.


  1. My opinion on this one is 180 degrees from yours -- I absolutely loved it. I think it's one of the more gushing reviews for a modern horror film I've ever written. I saw it in the theater during its extremely limited release with a very small audience and I was thoroughly entertained throughout. I hadn't had that much fun at the movies in a long time. It was funny and scary and I thought its construction was more than a little clever.

    I did have an issue with the gas-powered belt sander -- it seemed waaaaay over the top -- but otherwise this one hit all the marks for me.

    I should say, however, that my familiarity with the slasher genre is really only in passing. I've seen most of the major examples, but never really delved into the meat. It's entirely possible that were I more familiar with the stalk-n-slash film, I might've found Hatchet much less exciting.

  2. Hey Nate!

    You aren't alone in your praise for "Hatchet." It has earned a number of really great reviews...among critics like yourself whom I respect greatly.

    Which makes me wonder why I disliked it so vehemently.

    I got the humor (gore and all...) but it just seemed pitched so low to me. It felt very "direct-to-video." I don't know. Maybe I ought to give it a second chance...

    Thanks for writing!


  3. ...among critics like yourself whom I respect greatly.

    Well, hell, that made my day right there. Thank you! The respect is very mutual.

    As for Hatchet, I don't know if a second chance will help. It seems like one of those movies you either get into or you don't. I can't stand The Exorcist and every time I give it another shot, I walk away disliking it more.

  4. hmmm...i thought the exorcist was pretty good.

    anyway, thanks for reminding me that i also need to see southern comfort.

  5. George -- most people do. I think it's probably actually a very good film, but it pushes some buttons for me. I find it overly self-important and unintentionally funny. The majority of people (critics and audiences) find it terrifying.

    I'm the same way about The Shining -- can't stand it, but most people love it. Ah well.

    I also need to see Southern Comfort, though. *ponders*