November 16, 2007

Movie Review: Mulberry Street

After Dark Films, founded by Courtney Solomon (Dungeons & Dragons and An American Haunting), is making a splash in the low-budget horror scene. In 2006 the After Dark Horror Fest arrived, spotlighting 8 films that would have otherwise been relegated to the straight to video market where they would most likely be ignored. This festival of sorts offered an opportunity for horror fans to get a look at these films on the big screen, as well as give the filmmakers some more exposure. This year, the second for the festival, I was able to take in five of the features. Are all of them great? No, but they all have something to offer, something outside of the mainstream glut of remakes and imports. One of these films is Mulberry Street.

This is how you make a movie with a miniscule budget. I have read that the budget was in the vicinity of $60,000. That's right, the budget was that small. There are a couple of reasons why this movie works as well as it does. It was shot on mini-DV, pretty much a commercially available camera, and when you take something of that quality and blow it up for the big screen you are going to expose all of the grain and the flaws. You have to make that work for you. Director Jim Mickle does a great job of using the grain to create a gritty authenticity, documentary-esque in look, it is as if you are there. Mulberry Street gives a viewer the feeling of being a fly on the wall, placing you right in the middle of the scene.

The next element to success at this level will be quality performances. It is a given that at this level you are not going to have any "name" stars, but that does not mean that you won't get good performances. In the case of Mulberry Street, all of the performances are pitch perfect. At the top would have to be Nick Damici (who also co-wrote the script with Director Jim Mickle) as Clutch, former boxer and father to an Iraq war veteran named Casey (Kim Blair). Each character that enters the frame, from Clutch to the old guys, Frank and Charlie, who live upstairs, to Coco the gay man next door, all feel real. It is like they truly belong where they are, more the actual tenants of the building than actors brought in to play roles.

That brings me to the biggest selling point and the root of why this movie works, when on all accounts being equal, it probably shouldn't. The screenplay is the key to Mulberry Street's success. If you are looking for natural character growth built on believable dialogue. As written by Mickle and Damici, the characters are a product of their environment, rather than story contrivances built to get the characters into the positions required by the story. In a way the performances are an extension of the script. The strong performances give credence to the words being spoken, while the strength of the screenplay give the actors the right words to make everything believable. It is a symbiotic relationship that hits just the right balance here.

By now you probably want to get an idea of what the movie's about, right?

Mulberry Street is a story of survival horror, not unlike films like 28 Days Later or any number of zombie or assorted creature movies. That gives the proceedings a sense of familiarity, the difference being that familiarity does not always breed contempt. What this movie boils down to is a group of survivors willing to do all that is necessary to protect themselves and their loved ones.

The day begins as any other; everyone is going about their daily routines. Go to work, stop off at the store, go for a run, whatever. It is just like any other day. There is a report of people being attacked by rats in the subway. Then another report, and another, attacks all over the city. Then things get even weirder, those bitten begin turning into rat-people. Yes, rat-people. It spreads faster than anyone can react. Soon enough, Manhattan is quarantined to prevent the spread of whatever is going on off the island. This essentially isolates whatever survivors there are scattered around the island.

What happens next is watching the tenants of this apartment building look out for each other, under the careful, fatherly watch of Clutch. This includes risking life and limb to get everyone back to the building. Apart from that story there is also the thread of Casey returning home and fighting her way through the city to reunite with her father. Will she make it?

The scares are not the of the jump variety. It is more built from edge of your seat tension. Not to mention that you never get a really good look at the rat-people. This is an extension of the low budget, but a good one. As we all know, sometimes things are scarier when they cannot be seen than when they can. Believe me, while this is not a jump out of your seat scary, it is very effective horror film with a bleak outlook on the world. If you think that it is over when the credits roll, I think we all need to think again.

Bottomline. Proof that low-budget does not equate with low-quality. Mulberry Street may not be for everyone, but for those willing to give it a shot, you will be rewarded by a gem of a movie with interesting characters with plenty of flavor and story and reason to care about them. Much of it is not explicit, but if you pay attention you will find a rich tapestry develop. That's when the rats kick in and you have a reason to care, a reason to be invested in their survival. Impressive debut feature from Jim Mickle.

Highly Recommended.


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