[20 June 2014]
The Monkey’s Paw is the kind of frustrating horror movie that manages a few moments of genuine unease and atmosphere, mixed in with copious amounts of predictability and by-the-numbers shocks. It’s not a bad little film, but it’s not outstanding either, and it will be of interest to hardcore thrill-seekers only.
CJ Thomason stars as Jake Tilton, a blue-collar New Orleans warehouse worker who comes into possession of the titular monkey’s paw when a co-worker is unjustly fired. This particular totem, so the legend goes, will grant its owner three wishes. Needless to say, Jake makes the first couple of those wishes in short order, with unintentionally dire results. Much of the rest of the movie involves trying—and failing—to set those wrongs right again.
Along the way, the movie slips into some overly familiar tropes, with Jake’s co-worker Cobb taking on the role of murderous psychopath, à la Jason from the Friday the 13th movies (or any number of soulless, murderous ghouls). Cobb has an estranged lover and a son that he is court ordered to avoid, and his single-minded determination to reconnect with his offspring is what motors much of the film’s narrative. If that doesn’t sound like the most compelling bit of drama in the world… well, it’s not.
Fortunately, Stephen Lang turns in a solid performance as Cobb, who swings from populist wiseass to half-drunk lout to steely-eyed stalker in equal measure, all with a fairly creepy degree of conviction. He tends to steal any scene he’s in, partly because his co-stars are largely a drab and colorless bunch, including ostensible leading man Thomason, who plays Jake as a sort of second-rate Nathan Fillion. Thomason’s performance isn’t awful—very little about this movie is awful, just as very little is outstanding—but his is such a vanilla performance that it fails to make much of an impression.
Apart from the three-wishes element, there’s little here to set this movie apart from any generic loony-with-a-knife slashfest. That’s too bad, because there’s the potential here to ramp up the supernatural in an attempt to make the plot beats less predictable. As it is, there are numerous murders, which grow increasingly savage as the movie progresses, but these do little in actually racking up suspense. Even the cops following the trail of dead bodies figure things out pretty fast.
One mildly unusual component in the story is the degree to which the writers and director set up the characters before the paw hits the fan. It’s not War and Peace, but there is some effort to sketch out the warehouse workers as a bit more than simply slasher-film fodder.
Soon enough the mayhem kicks in, and, unsurprisingly, the bulk of this mayhem takes place at night, in scenes that are dimly lit by streetlights and moonlight, because—well, hell, because that’s the way everybody else shoots their horror movies, isn’t it? (Plus, the less one can see, the less likely it is that something will look fake.) The cinematography is competent and the action is clear and easy to follow, with a few moments of over-the-top violence that will likely be the only bits that linger on in the viewer’s memory.
Author W.W. Jacobs wrote the short story “The Monkey’s Paw” in 1902, which ostensibly gave the movie its source material. All literary origins aside, it’s safe to say, however, that there are few similarities between story and film, other than the basic premise of a wish-fulfilling totem that doesn’t work as expected.
Bonus features include a trailer and the requisite making-of featurette, with plenty of earnest interviews from director Brett Simmons and various cast members trying to make it seem as if a movie about a monkey paw that turns somebody into a crazed soulless killer is actually about something deeper. They come up with reasons including the dangers of intervening with fate or the need to seek contentment with one’s lot in life, amongst others. There’s plenty of filler, too, with the actors summarizing the characters they play in the movie that the viewer has, presumably, just watched.
So, then: not a great film by any stretch, but not a complete disaster, either. Genre fans might get a kick out of it, and there are one or two above-average performances. It’s tough to get too excited about this, though. It’s competent, and hits the expected beats, and little more.