Grisly and giddy, Feast is the best of the Project Greenlight projects. Okay, so maybe that’s not saying so much. But John Gulager’s movie knows just what it is, embracing its limits of time, money, and — pointedly — release. Even as it comes to theaters for a couple of nights this weekend, its Halloween-timed DVD drop date (17 October) looms.
On some cagey commercial-minded level, this makes Feast an emblem of the future that is now. Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble-and-beyond worked to mix up DVD/theatrical releases and draw media attention to the cause. But the fact is that such so-called experiments are only keeping up with what’s already in place: an increasing number of consumers get access to product on DVD and online first rather. And so the title and concept of Feast make double sense, catering to such young, newly-conditioned online and DVD consumers even as it nods to more traditional thinking about release and valuation.
Feast‘s set-up is happily cheesy: a scrappy band of humans is trapped in a bar in the desert, each introduced in freeze-frame with snarky estimations of skills and life expectancy. Everyone’s tough and wears a war face, from world-weary, cowboy-hatted Bartender (Clu Gulager, played by the director’s most excellent dad) to leather-jacketed Harley Mama (Diane Goldner) to hard-drinking Grandma (Eileen Ryan). In the back, Hot Wheels (Josh Zuckerman) and his brother Bozo (Balthazar Getty) compete and also conspire in a pool game with Jason Mewes (played by himself), an actor in search of… something, be it redemption or work. On the introduction of Beer Guy (Judah Friedlander), you’re reminded that “losers and dorks go first.” And you don’t even need a reminder when you see the Vet (Treach): he’s the black guy, and you know what that means.
They’re all gnarly and miserable and, though they don’t know it, ready to die. By the time Hero (Eric Dane) shows up, sputtering about the need for everyone to do “what I say” or else, you get the sense that the horror movie conventions here will be simultaneously (and energetically) revered and tossed. He urges everyone to “lock this bar down, doors, window, drains and zippers!” because monsters are coming. Predictably, the folks inside don’t quite get the danger outside, so they think Hero is overreacting when he says they’ll need the cops and the National Guard, “anybody that kicks ass.” Who is this square-jawed jarhead, they wonder. As soon as he asserts, “I’m the guy that’s gonna save your ass,” well, the monsters arrive.
All this takes but a few minutes, as the monsters — large, voracious, mutantish, and apparently a family (a brief, violent baby-making and birth scene is only one of the mockeries the film makes of social/cinematic institutions) — launch the gore. It’s cleverly edited and makes efficient use of close-ups to get around lack of sets, elaborate scripting, convincing monster-effects. Such lack is made for in gore. That’s the fount of action, humor, and characterization. As the creatures pound at the doors and crash through walls, yanking and ripping victims to produce all manner of red karo oil excess, Feast has its love of Tom Savini written all over it.
This is what Tom Savini and his fellows have long understood: characters can be constructed in makeup. While he has repeatedly discussed his own inspiration during the 1970s as rooted in the Vietnam war — on tv and as personal experience — today the conventions he nurtured have lives of their own. The gory bodies can be mobile and verbal, they can wisecrack, they can slip and slide all over the blood slicked on the floor, and they can be hauled through broken windows so their skin is ripped off and their screams are curdling. But the primary means of educing viewer dread and desire is a mix of flayed flesh, maggots, and insides turned out.
Bodies in visible pain tell particular stories, drawing you into their spheres of agony and fear by daunting-and-rousing visceral appeals. These are characters in the basest form, reduced to types — Heroine (Navi Rawat), Boss Man (Duane Whitaker) — then to faked flesh and blood. Whether this fakery is convincing or not isn’t so important as the fact that you’re looking to check exactly that. It’s CSI without the fancy soundtrack and lighting, without authorities to figure it all out.
As the diminishing number of survivors in Feast lapse into the usual disagreements, petty and costly, a few come to the forefront as objects of viewer identification. A single mom named Tuffy (Krista Allen), a busty waitress called Honey Pie (Jenny Wade), and a wholly annoyingly optimistic Coach (Henry Rollins) join up with the brothers Hot Wheels and Bozo to connive against the monster, to try to destroy or at least distract them. It’s a long night (and typically short running time) of scheming and dying, during which some characters do precisely what you think they’ll do and others spin off in almost-surprising directions.
If Feast lacks actual surprise, it makes up for it in enthusiasm and affection. This is a movie that appreciates its generic roots and the perpetual relevance of those roots. Whether you understand that relevance as escape or expression and reflection, it endures.