NOVEMBER 10, 2012
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (FESTIVAL SCREENING)
One of my all time favorite books is Stephen King's "The Long Walk", which was originally released under his Richard Bachman pseudonym. In it, 100 men and teenaged boys volunteer to be part of "The Walk", in which they merely walk from Maine to Massachusetts, with the catch being if they slow under 4mph or leave the road, they will be shot to death (after two warnings). And since a movie version is seemingly cursed (several have attempted and gotten nowhere; the last was Frank Darabont, who hasn't mentioned it much in at least four years), I was excited about The Human Race, as it sounded somewhat similar but with a touch of Saw for good measure.
See, here, the racers aren't volunteers - they're seemingly teleported to the track, with the rules explained to them moments before they are to begin racing. Also, instead of just a point A to point ? (the Walk ends when the 2nd last walker dies; it could end before they even get to New Hampshire; it might stretch to Connecticut or beyond - we're told it never has), the runners are on a circuit, and rather than the "no stopping/slowing down" rule, if a runner is lapped a third time, they are killed. Of course, this puts writer/director Paul Hough into more of a corner than King - there doesn't seem to be anything to prevent the whole lot of them from merely walking slowly as a group, so everyone has to panic and eventually turn on each other. There's a morbidly hilarious scene where one of the runners - a marathon winner! - laps a bunch of scattered runners for their 3rd time, leaving a trail of exploded heads and corpses in his wake.
Hough also has a great fakeout (spoiler for first 5 minutes ahead!), as we first meet a girl who has the makings of a typical heroine - her sister has just died of the same cancer that claimed her mother, and now she has it too. However, her latest tests show that it has gone into remission, and just as she goes out to presumably celebrate, she is taken to the track... where she becomes the first to die. A bit later we get a similar flashback to tell us about our real heroes, best friends/war veterans Justin and Eddie, the latter of which lost his leg in the war and is thus an unlikely candidate to win what's essentially a running race. However, Eddie (and the actor who plays him, Eddie McGee) is quite capable, and handles running AND fight scenes just as well as anyone else. Any notion that it would seem far-fetched that a guy with only one leg could serve as the favorite to win is quickly vanquished.
There are also a pair of hearing impaired characters, who speak with (subtitled) sign language and are sort of the backup protagonists. Their flashback shows us that the guy of the pair is cynical, and the girl (neither of them are named, if I recall) wants to convince him that there is good in the world if you look for it, which of course will have an ironic payoff later. Without getting into specifics, it's obvious that there can be only one winner, and that not everyone will play fair. And kudos to Hough for having disabled characters presented less than saintly; personally, I think there's no better way to show us that they're just like everyone else than by having them as heroes and villains.
It's also well paced; I was a bit worried that the circuit would mean a lot of repetition and us getting sick of seeing the same areas over and over, but they found a way around it thanks to extended scenes inside the three structures along the path (a house, a prison, and a church), a few more flashbacks, and careful use of a few distinctive spots along the way. There's a long, creepy tunnel that Hough puts to good use a couple of times (under different contexts), and enough general paths in between to keep the scenery from getting too stale. Plus, with each new circuit, there's another batch of littered corpses to mix it up a bit. In short, it's a vast improvement on the terrible Death Race remake, where I was sick of seeing that track by the halfway point.
One blight, apart from a few clunky scene transitions and edits, is the frequency that they use digital replacement and blood for the head 'splosions. Since that's pretty much how everyone dies (with one gruesome, mean-spirited and thus hilarious exception), I DID grow tired of one sight - the detached pixelation on yet another noggin being blown apart. Maybe someday the techno-wizards will perfect digital blood, and a way to CGI what Dick Smith seemed to do a pretty good job with over 30 years ago in Scanners, but even then that technology will most likely not be afforded to low budget productions such as this. Normally I just grin and bear it, because I know that these indie productions don't have the money for the best FX, nor the luxury of a lot of time at a given location which means no time for futzing around with prosthetics and air tubes, but perhaps think of a DIFFERENT way to kill all 80 of your characters (at least half are off-screen entirely, for the record) when your budget/time isn't ideal for the scripted method? That said, the other FX, the nature of which I can't spoil, are quite good, and they DO use real blood frequently; we see it splatter on walls and such often enough to almost forgive the CGI version.
But still, I walked away entertained and impressed. A post-screening Q&A told us that the film cost a bit more than a car, and they hinted about hurrying through shooting locations due to a lack of a permit, so this was obviously not the most luxurious production. It WAS a lengthy one, however, which not only explains some of those clunky edits, but also reinforced my impressed feelings on the rest of it - it didn't SEEM like a movie that took three years to complete. And they are still seeking distribution, which means that it's possible a company can put in a little more dough to fix a few of the FX (the one on that girl at the beginning in particular looks like a PS1 cut scene) and make it even better. Also, even if it's not perfect, I applaud them for taking a high concept idea and mostly pulling it off with limited means, instead of just throwing together yet another zombie or "tie a girl to a chair and torture her" movie. Good on you, gents.
What say you?