Emily Haack, Jason Christ, Sarah Swofford, Alex Del Monacco, Ryan Bax
(Wicked Pixel; Video On Demand: 4 Jul 2011; 2011)
In wartime parlance, a ratline was an escape route. Most notoriously employed by the Nazis and other fascists after their loss to the Allies in 1945, it was a means of achieving safe haven in places like South America, Canada…even the US of A. But in his brilliant new film, independent horror master Eric Stanze (he of the wonderful Wicked Pixel label), offers a delineation that has less to do with getting away and more about gathering together. For the formidable writer/director, who definitely needs a shot at a mainstream gig, a ratline is the convergence of all potential evils. It’s the place where criminals come to meet the Satanic, where horrific Third Reich experiments collide with drug deals gone bad and serial slaughter meets the cold hard steel of a gun. At first, it doesn’t look like Stanze will be able to pull this off. It’s too busy, too bizarre. Instead, he manages to make this complicated conceit work magnificently, creating one of the most original horror experiences of the decade.
Half-sisters Crystal Brewer (Emily Haack) and Kim Galloway (Alex Del Monacco) end up on the wrong end of some illegal activity, and end up escaping with a bag full of money and a couple of dead bodies on a floor. They immediately flee to a small town in Missouri where they have agreed to share a house with local career gal Penny Webb (Sarah Swofford). Keeping their crime a secret, they hope to lie low and settle in. In the meantime, a sinister drifter named Frank Logan (Jason Christ) also arrives in town. He confronts Penny’s grandfather about an old Nazi flag the man might own. He claims to be a friend of the aging bureaucrat’s long dead relative, though he can’t be any older than his early ‘30s. Eventually, we learn that Logan is a former SS officer who worked on a Top Secret Nazi experiment, the result being a kind of unsure immortality. He needs the flag to complete his work, and will stop at nothing to get it.
How these two main narrative threads come together and spark off each other is the real magic of a movie like Ratline. In Stanze’s hands, the illogical and the impossible come magically to life, his ability to instill reality and authenticity into even the most absurd idea radiating off the screen in waves of sheer talent. As he has throughout his entire career - a catalog that contains ‘classics’ like Ice from the Sun and Deadwood Park - this viable visionary uses his gifts behind the lens to take on challenging ideas and approaches with ease. He has the chops to walk right into Hollywood today and command any level of production, from a large scale work of epic scope to a small, two person character study. He inherently understands the nature of the cinematic artform and accents it with amazing accomplishment.
Similarly, he is surrounded by creative co-conspirators that really understand and sync up with his muse. Co-writer Christ is excellent as a former favorite of Hitler hoping to keep his diabolical living dance card punched. His confrontation with a bunch of Devil-worshipping poseurs is one of the best fright film beat downs ever put on film. He handles the already Hellbound buffoons with calculated cruelty. Elsewhere, co-stars Del Monacco and Swofford do a great job of balancing the needs of the narrative. While they sometimes feel superfluous, Stanze makes their appearance importance. But it is the stunning Emily Haack that walks away with all of Ratline‘s emotional power. She is perfect in the role of confused and yet quite capable criminal, a woman on the verge who never lets herself wander over completely into the realm of the reprehensible.
Indeed, it is Crystal - and by association, Haack’s performance - that keeps Ratline centered. We have to find an easy way through all the masterfully recreated news reel footage and Nazi flashbacks. We have to feel the sleepy small town beauty that languishes just below the blood and guts surface. We have to see some salvation. We have to have hope. Haack offers all that…and much, much more. With her natural beauty and bevy of body art, she is both rebel and retreat, a way of getting the audience’s attention while playing on its compassion as well. As one of Stanze’s most trustworthy and consistent collaborators, she is Ratline‘s heart and chutzpah. The movie would probably work without her, just not as well.
What the film could not survive is a change behind the scenes. Stanze shows a real depth here, capable of recreating old stock material with a practiced polish. When we see the old Nazi debriefing film, we never once question its legitimacy. Because he understands the medium so well, Stanze mixes in the right amount of archetypes and truths to support his sleight of hand. Similarly, he ties it all together exceptionally well, keeping the story moving even when it looks like it has nowhere else to go. As a result, Ratline is thrilling and chilling, disturbing and slightly demented. It’s an ambitious and grand leap, an attempt to make macabre out of history and the human condition, like a b-movie bathed in the sour sweat of the world circa 2010…and 1945.
As the master of found locations (Ratline could actually function as a guide to amazingly evocative rural ruins and cemeteries) and solid amateur acting, Stanze secures his continuing aesthetic mythos with this movie. It may not be the most unusual thing he’s ever done, but it’s definitely one of the most challenging…and successful. Indeed, when one really looks at what Ratline is saying, the message make perfect sense. In a world which seems completely isolated and divergent, where one element often stands insular against others, wickedness finds a way of coming together. When it does, it destroys everything good in its path while luring in those who may not particularly care for its craven designs. Like an addiction, evil crosses all borders and boundaries to consume and possess you. Call it a crossroads or a ratline, but never forget its power - or the masterful moviemaker who brought it all to life.