I miss the video store experience. Back in the day, my weekend wasn’t complete without hoofing it over to Video Time and spending at least half an hour prowling the aisles, picking up video boxes, examining the covers and reading the blurbs on the back. Picking my movies was serious business… I didn’t have unlimited means and if I rented a stack of shitty tapes, I was stuck with them for the weekend. Back then, long before the dawn of the interwebs, the boxes were pretty much all we had to go on when it came to judging how good or bad some obscure horror flick was going to be.
So, when I read the following from the press kit for my latest movie review, I was pretty excited:
“Want a film that can actually take you back to that mom and pop video store, calling out to you from that dusty shelf with its promise of hotties in the woods, cheesy lines, and a freaking monster ready to rip their guts out?…This is not a horror film for today’s casual film fan. GNAWBONE is for the fan that is looking for that old school, low budget indie fix from the days of old.”
Sounds right up my alley (though I have to say, it stings a bit to hear your childhood referred to as “the days of old”). So, before I saw a second of GNAWBONE, I had some high expectations. Even the poster art would have looked right at home on the front of a VHS cassette box propped up on the shelf next to all the other low-budget slasher/creature features from the 80s.
GNAWBONE is the story of Tommy (Tony Bartele), a college kid who struggles with the memory of his grandfather’s murder by a grotesque monster years ago on a camping trip. So, of course, under the advice of what must be the world’s crummiest shrink ever (Ransom Pugh), Tommy tries to confront his past by taking his friends along for a camp-out on the exact site where his grandfather was killed. Oh, and this all takes place in the 80’s.
The first thing I have to comment on is the camerawork and overall style of the film. It actually looks like you’re watching an old VHS tape, complete with tracking lines, moments of distortion and static. Ah, you poor kids reading this that have never known the joys of videotape, you’re probably wondering why anyone would intentionally low-res their movie and why the guy reviewing it would think that was a plus, but it’s a nostalgic touch that adds to the charm of the whole thing. GNAWBONE very well could have been made in the 80’s, which I think was the intent of director Darrin Means. For a low-budget production, they also did an awesome job with lighting and coloration in post: the night scenes in the woods came out looking great with plenty of blue ambient light, shadows, and just the right amount of mist/fog.
Another high point for me was the music. There’s plenty of ominous synthesizer, a trademark of any horror flick made in the golden era of electronica, and it’s done very well; there’s also plenty of metal. Heavy metal and low-budget horror fit together so well for some reason. All of the music is credited to James Thompson, although in the movie the heavy metal is attributed to a fictional band with just the best name ever… Milky Slits.
This is first and foremost a horror movie, not a spoof, but there is plenty of humor throughout. It’s mainly served up by Scott (Charlie Bruce), the film’s resident frat-bro stereotype and comic relief. The jokes are mostly cheesy, mostly about masturbation, but that’s okay, those are the sort of jokes one expects in this kind of movie. These movies are meant to be fun, not to take themselves too seriously. I think that’s part of the reason these throwback flicks continue to resonate with people today, aside from nostalgic appeal: modern mainstream horror has gotten too heavy, too gloomy. Most of us like a few laughs served up with our shudders (or at least a bit of levity).
I thought the actors all did a good job. I know in these movies there is a tendency to push the acting over-the-top, which can come off as silly, but that didn’t happen here. Aside from Tommy and Scott and Dr. Davis, who I mentioned earlier, the cast is rounded out by Tommy’s best friend Matt (Derek Kunzman), Matt’s girlfriend Lisa (Katy O’Brian), and Scott’s girlfriend Julie (Katie Harbridge). I know the presence of girls in a “party in the woods” movie will leave some of you guys hoping for gratuitous T & A, but I’m sorry to disappoint you: the girls stay clothed. This is the only trope from the old VHS slasher days that the filmmakers didn’t decide to employ.
The special effects are all practical and, according to the press kit, the entire film was put together by a crew of four with a budget of $6,000. I like the gore, it’s fairly realistic, there’s plenty of it and the camera doesn’t shy away from it, but I want to talk about Gnawbone itself. It’s ambitious to create your own monster on such a shoestring budget. That’s probably why so many of these movies resort to a killer in a mask; it’s cheaper and easier. The camera never lingers on Gnawbone very long, but we do get plenty of good looks at the monster and it reminds me of a hybrid between Predator and Pumpkinhead. In the nighttime sequences, in the dark with proper lighting, Gnawbone looks pretty damn good. There is one scene, though, where the monster is visible in the daytime and it doesn’t look very realistic at all.
I have very little to critique about this movie. Like the director said himself, it was meant for a target audience, of which I’m a part, so I enjoyed it a great deal. If I could have the filmmakers do anything differently, it would be to build up more of a legend around Gnawbone. There’s a scene where Scott is confronted by a crazy old man who tells him about the creature in the woods and goes full-on Crazy Ralph from Friday the 13th, yelling after him: “You’re all gonna die!” (The actor is Scott Blake who practically steals the show). They could have built more on the mythos of the creature.
This is a fun movie. I had a really good time with this one. It’s a romp. It’s camp, it’s acid-wash jeans, it’s big hair, it’s heavy metal, it’s disemboweled teenagers, it’s pure 80’s cheese. It doesn’t try to be other than what it is, an homage to hey-day of straight-to-video slasher flicks. I give it a score of 8.5/10. If you’re around my age and are a fan of independent horror , you’ll probably like this movie. Even if you’re not the intended audience, I recommend giving it a watch.