October 2, 2011 by Zack
The horror genre has always been kind of a side joke it seems in the grand scheme of things as far as Hollywood is concerned. It is always interesting to me, though, that many actors get their start in horror films (Johnny Depp, Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Bacon to name a few). But probably 80% of them aren’t critically praised, and even blockbuster hits are seen as just “fun bad entertainment”.
These days, the horror genre is completely dominated by remakes to the point that it’s almost become its own sub-genre. With big franchises like “Friday the 13th”, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” already having been re-booted, Hollywood is even taking aim at the more independent films like “Fright Night” and “I Spit On Your Grave” lately. It’s completely gutted the genre, and turned it into just a mindless cash cow, with no creativity or imagination put into it. It’s almost as if the genre has given up on itself. As schlocky as the 80’s were, we at least had gems like “Creepshow”, “Return of the Living Dead”, and “The Thing”.
But here comes along a small budget film that doesn’t look low budget, has the atmosphere and tension of something along the lines of “Halloween”, and it’s so fresh and invigorating to see life put back in the genre that this review may actually come off as a promo for it rather than a review. I will try to be fair, though. But “Munger Road” is the most effective horror thriller I’ve seen in years, and it actually gave me hope that if it finds major distribution, it could give the horror genre some leverage to be relevant again.
I thought “The Blair Witch Project” would have done the same 11 years ago; all it did, though, was spawn a lot of headaches like “Quarantine” and other wanna-be’s. “Munger Road” takes the more traditional approach.
It’s a ghost story. Actually, it’s a ghost legend story. It takes place in the western suburbs of Chicago, in St. Charles (a town I know quite well since I used to live around there). The legend is simple: there’s a road in Bartlett, Illinois called Munger Road that runs along train tracks. According to legend, a school bus stopped on the tracks and was hit by a train, killing the children. To this day, they “haunt” the area. So if you drive up to that road, and park your car, the children will push your car over the tracks so you’re safe. There are stories of a ghost train as well. There’s also a story of an old farmhouse where someone was murdered. But that one’s disputed. The popular theory is the latter, with the ghost children.
Of course, one of the best things about history is folklore. We can’t help but be drawn to stories like this. We want to believe them. For four kids, it’s their goal to get “evidence” of the ghost children pushing their car along the tracks. So they get a handcam, and baby powder, and their girlfriends, to go along and see if the Munger Road legend is real.
The kids are Corey (Trevor Morgan), his girlfriend Joe (Brooke Peoples), his buddy Scott (Hallock Beals), and Scott’s girlfriend Rachel (Lauren Storm). The girlfriends are obviously not into it, thinking this is just some dumb boy thing. But the boys are convinced this will be a good time. There’s a bit of a complication in Corey and Joe’s relationship that is never truly paid off between them, but it serves as an interesting underlying subplot that does actually have a good pay off in the end.
Meanwhile, the town of St. Charles is preparing for Scarecrow Fest, a fall carnival that is celebrated every October–and there’s a problem (isn’t that always the way?). An escaped lunatic has come back home, according to reports. The Chief of St. Charles Police, Kirkhoven (Bruce Davison) has to track the killer, or else the festivities could be upset. He takes his partner along with him, Deputy Hendricks (Randall Batinkoff), and the two discover a few clues that actually bring them close to where these kids are headed.
The film cuts back and forth between the cops and the kids, and first time writer/director Nick Smith does a good job of pacing the two stories, after a slow and somewhat clunky start, where eventually we’re just as invested in these officers getting their man as we are seeing these kids get out of their situation.
Oh, the situation is this: when they get to Munger Road, the two guys set up to make it look like kids handprints are on the car after it is mysteriously pushed forward over the tracks. The girls are upset when they figure it out, and just want to go home. But there’s a problem. The car won’t start. Didn’t see that one coming! But instead of this being an eye rolling cliche, we are invested enough in these kids thanks to good writing, that we really want them to get out of the situation. Munger Road is in the middle of nowhere, and their cell phones won’t work (of course!) so one of them has the idea that heading down the tracks back to town is a good one. Problems arise when he isn’t heard from after he leaves the car, and his girlfriend, Joe, tries to track him down.
One revelation that has one of the kids legitimately scared–they did capture something on the video recorder they didn’t expect. When they were trying to start their car, there’s the presence of someone behind them. Could it be the killer? That’s the obvious conclusion. But Smith does something interest with a bit of a twist at the end that we’re not really expecting. Let’s put it this way: it just isn’t as simple as the escaped killer; but it also may not be as simple that the legend is true.
The climactic scenes are very effective, even if there is a bit of a lull where there may be an expectation of a big reveal or “final fight” or something. It is a bit of a weakness, but I really did like the last scene. And although our expectations may be a little high by the time the film ends, I think Smith has enough command of the narrative that he did this on purpose.
There were a few “quiet” scenes between the kids that I would have liked to see a little more opening up about who they are; but there is so much tension in the air during their little adventure that I can forgive that Smith decided to forego a deeper look into the characters. We know enough to care.
I mentioned “Halloween” as a comparison. I do not mean to say that this film is in the same league, because that film is a classic and this film is just a bit too “familiar” to be considered on that level. That isn’t a slight to the movie, though. “Halloween” is one of the best horror films ever made. But Nick Smith has made a real contribution to the genre with “Munger Road”. And Smith uses atmosphere and tension instead of blood and gore, the way Carpenter did. And like Carpenter, Smith is always in control of this story. It may be something we’ve seen before, but it’s well executed, well written, and extremely well acted. The actors are very natural, and it reminded me of the performances in “The Blair Witch Project” (and the good news for them is that they don’t have to worry about their careers since this film isn’t built on the “found footage” gimmick). The character of Joe is the glue for the kids as much as the chief is the glue for the cop story, and both actors are very capable and so it’s all held together very well.
If you’re looking for a good “scare” movie, see this one–and take a date. It’s definitely better than what Hollywood’s been shelling out lately.
And if you’re going to go to Munger Road, just keep in mind–we all know about it. Including the cops. So be careful. And if someone starts pushing your car, just turn your car on and drive on. Do not stop. And definitely don’t check out the farmhouse, if you happen to find it.