Monday, September 15, 2014

Blu-Ray Review: 'The Battery'

Zombie movies are ridiculously overdone. The marketplace is so saturated with mediocre-to-terrible films that it’s barely worth trying to wade through the nonsense to get to the gems. That said, every once in a while you come across one that reminds you of just how good the genre can be, and Jeremy Gardner’s The Battery is, thankfully, one of those that breathes a bit of much needed life into what is largely an undead genre. And lucky you, it’s now available on Blu-ray thanks to Scream! Factory.

This is the simplest story you can think of. Two friends, Ben (Gardner) and Mickey (Adam Cronheim), former teammates on a minor league baseball team—Ben a catcher, Adam a pitcher, hence the title—wander across the wilderness of New England in the wake of a zombie apocalypse that wipes out most of the human population. That’s it. Aside from the two main characters, there are three other non-zombie people in the movie, in one scene, and one of those has no lines.

The Battery makes the best use of the walking dead that you can. They’re around, and they’re a definite threat, but they’re not the focal point. That’s the biggest mistake that so many zombie movies make, putting them at the center. In reality, they’re not that interesting. They have no brains, no conscious thoughts, and only one thing on their rotting mind: to feed. After a few minutes of that, you lose interest. It’s how people react to the threat, to an instantly shifting way of life, to the loss of loved ones, and the fall of the civilized world, that presents the interesting elements of this subset of films.

The best zombie movies plumb these depths, and so does The Battery. After easing you in with the cool, twangy groove of the soundtrack, an ominous tonal score, and a measured, deliberate pace, the conflict between these two characters gradually ramps up, propelling the story forward. Since there are only two people, the performances are what carry this movie, and fortunately both actors are up to the task.

Mickey clings to his former life, to old comforts. He always has a pair of headphones on, pines over his ex-girlfriend, and wants to find a house to settle and a bed to sleep in. In one scene he even pockets a winning scratch ticket, as if someone is going to magically flip the switch and everything will be like it was. Old habits. But in this world, your CD player running out of batteries is not the simple problem it once was.

Ben, on the other hand, flourishes in this new setting, cutting a frontier woodsman kind of figure with his caveman beard, clubbing zombies with his trusty baseball bat like a half feral madman. Thinking of himself as a realist, a pragmatist, he embraces the harsh realities of this new way of life, even enjoying himself, adopting a nomadic approach, scavenging, hunting, always on the move. As he says, they’re not going anywhere, but like sharks, they’re always in motion and have to keep moving.

It’s easy to see that these two are going clash, pick at any crack or seam, and push each other’s buttons every chance they get. This is a tendency that only amplifies when they encounter a stray radio broadcast from what appears to be a safe, secure community, insulated from the undead. Mickey becomes obsessed with finding what he thinks is a sanctuary, these other survivors, though it is made obvious from word one that they are in no way welcome, and it doesn’t sound like it is what he expects it to be.

There’s a serious down and dirty, gritty 1970s vibe to The Battery, though with an indie flair. The film is full of long takes lasting multiple minutes, intricate framing and composition, and Garner juxtaposes peaceful, idyllic scenes of nature with the base brutality of a lawless world infested with the walking dead.

This is a prime example of making a lot out of a little. Nice production design touches, like Ben’s duct tape holster, also have practical applications, as this is clearly a low-to-no-budget affair. It’s all filmed either outdoors or at what could easily be one of the producer’s own homes, and bulk of the final act, which unfolds over the course of days, takes place entirely in the back of a damn Volvo station wagon. If you’ve seen Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek, you’ll notice a distinct similarity between that film’s climactic scene and this one.

As good as The Battery is overall, there is, admittedly, a period in the middle where things do start to feel a little long and the tempo sags. When everything is a calculated and deliberate as it is here, that’s a risk you’re going to run. It’s high risk but high reward, and when it works, as it does the majority of the time, it hits hard. Though Gardner pulls it off for the most part, he doesn’t bat 1.000.

The Battery isn’t going to be a film for everyone, but the slow burn narrative and mounting tension between Ben and Mickey pumps some welcome, much needed electricity into a perhaps the most stale, stagnant, desiccated subgenre of horror. This has been a long time coming—the film was completed in 2012—but it was totally worth the wait, and Scream! Factory has put together a Blu-ray package that stands with the movie in terms of quality.

To be honest, all of the bonus features on this Blu-ray are similar to the movie, in that there’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but it’s all done really well and with it’s own unique flair. There’s a commentary with Gardner and Cronheim, and given that they’re the only two real characters in The Battery, and the low-budget way they made the film (Cronheim also produced), they definitely have a wealth of interesting things to say and insight into the film and the process. Cinematographer Christian Stella (who also worked some sound and shot behind the scenes footage) also joins them on the track, and his contribution to the final film can’t be undersold; the look is a vital component.

There’s a making-of featurette called Tools of Ignorance that, at 90 minutes long, is almost the same length as the feature itself. You also get an outtake reel, and probably the most unusual extra is a music feature. Given the at the soundtrack plays such a huge role in the film, this is an area of great import, and they give you something that you don’t necessarily expect (it involves breakfast).

As good as all the bonus material is, however, the real reason you should buy this disc, or at least rent it or Netflix it or stream it (or however you consume your media these days) is for the movie. If you have any interest in horror, especially as it relates to zombies and the undead, you owe it to yourself to watch The Battery. It’s the best zombie movie you’ve seen in years.

No comments: