Horror films like Population 436 are rarely seen these days. This flick is scary, suspenseful, and engaging. But perhaps most notably, it has neither gore nor overwhelming digital effects. As it is, this movie succeeds solely by virtue of its unique and engaging storyline, which recalls the creepy and nightmarish style of The Twilight Zone TV series.
As Population 436 begins, Steve Kady (Jeremy Sisto) is a Census Bureau investigator struggling to find his way to the small town of Rockwell Falls. City slicker Steve is driving across the picturesque American countryside, far away from civilization. From such an early stage, Population 436 exposes a profound geopolitical subtext that deeply resonates with current anxieties. Indeed, Steve embodies the federal government, and he is venturing into a remote world completely different from his.
When Steve stops at a gas station, he asks for directions but strangely, everybody completely ignores his pleas for help. Steve is completely lost and totally on his own. At this point, the film presents country people as utterly alien and even questions their moral values. Certainly, as the film has already built sympathy for Steve, such an act not only feels rude, but also appears to be an act of aggression towards the easygoing investigator. However, truth be told, large urban centers often are not that much friendlier than this.
Still, such an uncomfortable encounter does not discourage Steve, who keeps driving along the unpaved road until his car hits a pothole and blows two tires. He tries to use his cell phone, but to no avail: there is no service. Obviously, Steve has ventured into primitive territory, and his formidable and fancy technological gadgets suddenly become worthless. Thus, as a cell phone is usually consider as a reliable lifeline to connect us back home, he becomes completely severed from his world.
In this regard, Population 436 has the same narrative structure as horror classics such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, 1977). Indeed, these films have the commonality of confronting the civilized with the primitive, and exposing the brutal confrontation that ensues. However, the horrors in Population 436 are much more subtle than in the other two slasher flicks.
Shortly after his car incident, a Sheriff’s deputy (Fred Durst) from Rockwell Falls stops by and offers to drive him to town. As it is, Rockwell Falls happens to be an idyllic town — no crime has been committed in years, there is plenty of good food, and everybody is friendly and church going. The town Mayor himself welcomes Steve and offers the support of the community so he can complete his census investigation.
But still, something about Rockwell Falls feels awkward: some families have disappeared without a trace, others are afflicted with a mysterious disease, and a young girl appears to be captive at the physician’s home. Things become even weirder when Steve discovers that the town population of 436 has remained exactly the same since the 1800s. It looks as if each and every single death in town is simultaneously accompanied by a birth, keeping the total population constant.
But in Rockwell Falls there are no mutant cannibals, alien pods, or masked murderers keeping the population on check. That is, rather than to resort to extraterrestrial beings or other supernatural entities as most recent horror films do, Population 436 merely portrays a group of people with slightly different customs than the rest of us. As a matter of fact, the highlight of Population 436 is that in a very restrained manner, it makes the sociable and God loving folks of Rockwell Falls appear secretive, creepy, and perhaps even lethal. In a subtle way, their overt friendliness feels more threatening than comforting.
As the film progresses, Steve discovers that the people of Rockwell Falls believe that if their numbers do not match 436, God will violently punish them. Also, they are convinced that God will kill anybody who intends to leave. Thus, for every child born in town, someone has to die. However, because of their deep religious convictions, almost everybody happily accepts their time to die. In a sense, this film reminds us of the cheesy Sci-Fi classic Logan’s Run (Michael Anderson, 1976), but without the gerontophobic angle.
For most of the film, we are left to wonder if the town’s bizarre beliefs are based on some otherworldly phenomena, or if it is only a self-fulfilling prophecy brutally enforced by the town authorities. As it happens, it appears that not even the filmmakers were unsure as to how they wanted the story to end. Fortunately, the finale feels very satisfying, while on the DVD’s only extra feature we can appreciate a weaker alternate ending.
Clearly, Population 436 succeeds because it exploits the anxieties and fears that characterize our post 9/11 world. At its core, this film presents a metaphor for the American military campaigns in Asia, and the xenophobia for anything that does not accommodate our Western values. As Population 436 illustrates, there is no longer a need for supernatural or alien monsters: human beings with somewhat different beliefs and upbringings are enough to frighten us to death.