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Low-budget zombies or high-concept horror?

It’s not quite Halloween, but it is never too early to kick off the season with some new horror films. Your choices this weekend are the zombie comedy “Final Cut” in person at Digital Gym Cinema or the more serious horror of “Perpetrator” streaming on Shudder.

‘Final Cut’

Michel Hazanavicius won an Oscar for directing the French art house favorite “The Artist.” So I’m not sure what possessed him to take on the dual challenge of doing a remake AND a zombie film, neither of which gets much respect. But the result is a blood splattered valentine to the passion and teamwork it takes to make a movie.

“Final Cut” is a nesting doll of reanimated corpses. It’s a French remake of the Japanese zombie film “One Cut of the Dead,” which was about a movie crew whose horror shoot disrupted by real zombies. The gimmick (I don’t think it’s a spoiler at this point) in both is that the opening sequence is a 30-minute single take of gory mayhem followed by a replay of the sequence from a hilarious behind the scenes perspective. So the end product is a film, within a film … within a film.


And now it ups the meta ante by acknowledging that it is a film, within a film, within a film being remade as a film, within a film, within a film. It’s a meta hall of mirrors.

In “Final Cut,” Rémi (Romain Duris) is the director being hired to do a remake of the Japanese film-within-a-film by the same producer (played again by Yoshiko Takehara) who has ordered the first one-shot zombie film. And to blur the reality-fiction line, the real director of “Final Cut,” Hazanavicius, has cast his real-life wife, Bérénice Bejo, and daughter, Simone Hazanavicius, as Rémi’s onscreen wife and daughter.

I loved Shin'ichirô Ueda’s "One Cut of the Dead” and put it on my top 10 list for 2018. And while I enjoyed the remake, it will not be making this year's 10 best.

One Cut of the Dead - Official Trailer [HD] | A Shudder Exclusive

One Cut of the Dead” (now on Shudder) was shot in eight days and made for $25,000 as a final project of an acting and directing workshop. If Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland had made a horror movie this would be it. It’s filled with endearing, "c’mon kids let’s put on a show," do-it-yourself inventiveness. The end result was pure cinematic bliss. It displayed an infectious love for the passion needed to make a movie no matter what. It was about loving the process as much as the product, and to care deeply about it even if the end result is far from perfect.

How do you define bad?


In both films, the put-upon director is wary of the one-shot demand of the producer and takes on the task reluctantly. The motto for both directors is “fast, cheap, and decent.” But both directors put so much heart into their films that we love them for it. And the bigger films that encase these smaller films give us an appreciation for how much work can go into even a bad movie.

But the type of “bad” displayed in the films is very different and that’s where the remake fails.

There’s irony in the fact that the original no-budget, essentially student project is in many ways superior to the $5 million remake shot over six weeks and with an Oscar-winner at the helm. The original film pulled off its 37-minute single shot (reportedly requiring six takes to get right) but the remake with its team of professionals had to cheat its single take (according to IMDb) by stitching two shots together to feign the one-shot open. Seems like the kids making the first film were more dedicated to getting it right then the veterans behind the remake.

"Final Cut" serves up a zombie horror comedy that takes you behind the scenes of making a horror film.
"Final Cut" serves up a zombie horror comedy that takes you behind the scenes of making a horror film.

And the other irony is that “Final Cut” requires a lot more patience and forgiveness from the audience during its opening schlocky movie, because Hazanavicius makes the common mistake of trying to intentionally make a bad movie rather than genuinely trying to make a good movie but with limited resources. The notion of trying to make a bad movie feels smug, like Hazanavicius has to condescend to do things “wrong” because he knows better. It reflects his idea of what makes a bad movie.

In contrast, “One Cut of the Dead” opened with some odd pacing and unconvincing acting, but it was fueled by energy and inventiveness that was absolutely engaging. You might have been perplexed by something that seemed off, but you never had to cut it any slack and you never felt like turning it off out of impatience. I must confess I wanted to turn “Final Cut” off more than once during its first half hour.

But “Final Cut” is ultimately a delight. It just requires that people to be exceedingly patient with the bad zombie make up, stupid script, and dubious acting of the one-shot opening. But trust me, it does all pay off deliciously in the end, and you’ll leave the cinema inspired to get your friends together to make a blood-soaked zombie film of your own.

Hazanavicius has proven with “The Artist” (about a silent film star) and “O.S.S. 117” (a spoof on James Bond spy films) that he adores cinema. Personally, I think “O.S.S. 117” was his most successful attempt to make a film about his love of film that cinephiles can enjoy. “Final Cut” comes in second. The last hour of the film finds its heart and reveals the sense of community making a film can foster.

Kiah McKirnan stars as Jonny in "Perpetrator."
Kiah McKirnan stars as Jonny in "Perpetrator."

‘Perpetrator’ on Shudder

Jennifer Reeder’s “Perpetrator” pulls something of a bait and switch — but in a good way. It opens with a sequence that sets you up for a torture porn horror tale about someone kidnapping and killing young women. But just as you are about to settle into formulaic expectations it changes course. Or rather takes a more interesting and circuitous route to the "final girl" resolution.

So, forget about that perpetrator kidnapping and torturing that girl from the opening scene. We’ll get back to her eventually. And instead, turn your attention to Jonny (Kiah McKirnan), a wild teen not happy about anything in her life. She does some minor breaking and entering to get rent money for her dad, or find some new shoes, but she seems directionless. Her father (who seems to have some issues of his own) has reached a breaking point and decides to send his daughter off to estranged Aunt Hildie (Alicia Silverstone) on the eve of Jonny’s 18th birthday. And this is where things deviate wildly from any audience expectations as Jonny undergoes a kind of metamorphosis and discovers a family curse that afflicts some of the female members in varying ways. Then when several teen girls go missing at Jonny’s new school, she feels empowered to investigate and discover who the perpetrator is. 

On one level, “Perpetrator” takes some surprising turns in terms of the details of its story, but from a more big-picture perspective, it feels entirely predictable in its "final girl" resolution and revelation of who the perpetrator is.

The film also feels familiar in all the influences it tries to stitch together into one film. It’s a bit of a “Heathers”/ “Mean Girls” mixed with a splash of giallo and a twist of gothic atmosphere. Silverstone’s Aunt Hilde seems to be auditioning for one of those Bette Davis/Joan Crawford Grande Dame Guignol roles but never gets extreme enough. The film tries to establish its social relevance (which now seems to always be placed in the foreground rather than being something we get to discover) with its references to school shootings, patriarchy, girl power, and quest for identity.

Alicia Silverstone plays Aunt Hildie
Alicia Silverstone plays Aunt Hildie in "Perpetrator."

Although McKirnan, as with all the other actresses, seems too old to be a teenager, she invests Jonny with a rage that feels real and keeps us focused on her. Silverstone has lots of fun with her perfectly coiffed and controlled Aunt Hilde. But the film can’t seem to decide which of its multiple story ideas it really wants to pursue. Is it about Jonny coming to terms with who she is? Is it about dispensing justice for a series of crimes? Is it about a weird family curse? Is it about dysfunctional families? Does it want to be a garishly stylish Italian giallo murder mystery, or a grungy “Blue Velvet” look at the underbelly of respectable society? It has elements from all these things but never quite pulls them together in a fully successful manner.

Reeder seems to have high ambitions and that makes “Perpetrator” intriguing. But what it lacks is an assurance and mastery of craft that’s needed to bring all these elements together in a seamless and effective manner. But there’s enough that’s of interest here to make it worth checking out if you have Shudder. And while you are on Shudder, make sure to watch "One Cut of the Dead," which is also streaming.

I cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.
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