Abominable (2006)

[1 November 2006]

By Brian Holcomb

Imagine James Stewart from Rear Window looking through his binoculars and seeing not Raymond Burr, but a Raymond Burr-sized hairy beast clawing some nude co-ed to death. Imagine that and you are well on your way to understanding the mischievous fun that is at the heart of writer-director Ryan Schifrin’s ode to the drive-in monster movie, Abominable. There are no excuses here, no Scary Movie-type parody, this is a classic “Man-in-Suit” monster flick done straight up with the zipper down. While this kind of movie is usually made to turn a buck and nothing more, here we are presented with real sincerity: Shifrin loves these movies and is not at all guilty about their pleasures.

Taking two parts Rear Window to one part Nightmare at 20,000 Feet and mixing with Twilight Zone, the Abominable screenplay effectively blends it’s influences into a cohesive whole. The cryptozoologic nomenclature aside, the species on display here is not actually the notorious snowman, but rather the genus most commonly sighted in the Pacific Northwest better known as “Bigfoot”.

Here’s the set-up: Matt McCoy (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle) plays a wheelchair-bound widower who chooses to revisit the site of his wife’s death and his own paralyzation as part of his psychological therapy. He is accompanied by a home care professional, Otis (Christien Tinsley), who seems to openly despise and mock him. Almost immediately after they arrive at their isolated cabin, McCoy discovers that he is the only one who notices that a hairy Bigfoot-like monster is roaming nearby. And to complicate the matters, five attractive young ladies move into the cabin across the way to celebrate a bachelorettes’ weekend in the woods and ring the dinner bell for the monster.

Mccoy watches it all through his binoculars and tries to get the local yokel police to believe his stories of a wild beast on the rampage. Since the late Paul Gleason from The Breakfast Club is the Sheriff in these parts, Mccoy doesn’t get very far. Gleason’s coffee cup even reads: “Don’t Mess With The Bull” as those who remember Breakfast Club know, because if you do, “You"ll get the horns.”

That’s about it, story-wise, and it’s really more than enough. The movie is filled with what an audience really wants from a Bigfoot picture: Bigfoot killing, growling, mutilating, body slamming, eating, running and smashing. You get Bigfoot stalking hot young women who take showers in front of open windows to either turn him on or whet his appetite. I’m not sure what happens if Bigfoot gets aroused.

In many ways, Shifrin can be seen as the contemporary version of Don Glut, that monster movie obsessed kid from the ‘60s who hung around with Forrest Ackerman and made Super-8mm epics in his backyard featuring all of his Favorite Monsters of Filmland. After years of making the kind of movies he loved, Glut found himself lost at sea at USC film school, a contemporary of future notables like Lucas and John Milius. Professors could not understand his interest in making grade Z monster movies instead of the more culturally acceptable art films then in vogue. He was an archetype several decades ahead of his time when fan boy filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez would receive critical acclaim and box office success with their own twists on grade Z inspired movies.

Today, Ryan Shifrin can step proudly out of the genre closet and tell the whole world of his filmmaking orientation. He arrives amid a current romanticism regarding the splatter films of the ‘70s and ‘80s that allows Abominable to be a very bloody coming out party.
As often seen in the work of movie-obsessed directors, every detail has been lovingly placed. From the cult casting of genre favorites like Lance Henriksen, Dee Wallace-Stone, and Jeffrey Combs to the wonderful Drew Struzan poster art which immediately brings to mind his iconic work for Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the entire movie is like a museum of classic fantasy cinema.

What separates Shifrin from the rest of the pack is his trust in and grasp of the craft of filmmaking. Particularly for a first time director. The Rear Window element is not just tossed away. Shifrin embraces the influence of Hitchcock on his movie and enjoys the interesting bounces he gets from throwing Alfred’s cinematic techniques against the wall of monster movie cinema. He gets some very effective bounces as the technique forces the monster to be vaguely seen for most of the film, our point of view trapped with the protagonist who can only watch helplessly. The technique plays right into the basic problem with all monster movies: How to tell the story without showing too much of the monster until the final reel. Shifrin gets a lot of tension and scares out of this central cinematic concept.
The cast is simply perfect for this movie, with McCoy in particular seeming to be exactly on the director’s wavelength. Since we see everything through his eyes, this is crucial.

Special mention must be made of the wonderful cinematography provided by the late Neil Fredericks who was best known for his much different work on The Blair Witch Project. He passed away not long after completing Abominable. Fredericks’ work on this film brings to mind the classic look of Dean Cundey’s late ‘70s collaborations with John Carpenter, particularly the very atmospheric night photography. Shifrin credits Fredericks with much more than just his work as cinematographer. It seems he was a real mentor to Shifrin and helped him with the logistics and realities of low budget filmmaking.

Anchor Bay has provided a very nice set of extras on the disc. A very informative featurette on the making of the movie, a witty commentary with Matt Mccoy, Jeffery Combs, and Ryan Shifrin that discusses the complexities of pulling off any film on a low budget.  Extras also include deleted scenes as well as poster, still, and storyboard galleries.

Also included is a short film from the director’s own days at USC. A Twilight Zone-styled short called Shadows, the film has a nice sinister tone and makes expressive use of black and white within the content of it’s brief narrative. The final shot, in particular, is quite impressive.

If, like me, you are a big movie soundtrack fan, you may have guessed that Ryan Shifrin is the son, daughter, nephew, cousin or uncle of legendary composer Lalo Shifrin, well known for his unforgettable Mission: Impossible theme as well the incredible scores of movies like Dirty Harry, Enter the Dragon, and The Amityville Horror. You would be right. Ryan is his son. The young Shifrin was thus able to employ the services of the elder Shifrin in composing the score for his maiden effort. It’s a fantastic low budget score, with a very full orchestrated sound that takes the movie completely seriously and lifts it up several notches in style, scope, budget, and suspense. In this case, nepotism is well deserved since the young Mr. Shifrin appears quite capable in his own right.

I’m generally not in favor of sequels, but I doubt the unpretentious Ryan Shifrin would mind shooting Abominable 2. And if he doesn’t mind making it, I won’t mind watching it.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/abominable-2006/