PLOT: A lonely emo-teen named Jared Leary (Jeremy Sumpter) moves to a new town and gets constantly tormented by the "cool kids" at school. Looking for an after-school job to help support his mother, Jared stumbles into a crematorium run by Stanley (Brad Dourif), a boiled and lesion faced misanthrope who performs makeshift cremations out of his basement.
REVIEW: I hadn't much knowledge, nor tall expectations when I walked into Justin Steele's DEATH AND CREMATION, save for the fact it starred the always great Brad Dourif as a man who takes a kid under his wing in sinister ways. And while I was correct in presuming the flick would be a small, modestly budgeted horror flick...what I couldn't predict was just how affective the horrific aspects of the film would be. This is not a campy, cheap thrills or tacky jump scare kind of picture, far from it. It's more of a deliberately paced dramatic thriller that happens to have grisly spurts of conventional horror peppered throughout. Is there blood and carnage? Yes, but not comported in senseless, over-the-top frivolity...it's rather handled with precision and care. The bouts of violence in the film are not only as austere as the film's tone (at least in the first half), they're mostly born from plot necessity. Always a good sign.
As the flick opens, we meet our young lead Jared Leary - a smart, misunderstood kid in leather and black nail polish, who lives in a trailer park with his widowed mother (Debbon Ayre). He hates his new environs, catches shit from everyone in school, he's basically a well of bubbling violence ready to burst. At his mother's behest, Jared searches for a job, eventually approaching Stanley (Dourif) for a work-spot in his crematorium. Stanley, reluctant at first, as his dastardly deeds don't exactly welcome outsiders, finally gives in. When Jared finally convinces Stanley to let him see what's in the basement - where the cremations take place - an eerie bond is soon formed between the two...and a sick spiral of dark-humored mayhem ensues.
What I really dug about DEATH AND CREMATION was the starring turns from our two leads, as well as the story-building tempo the flick unfolded with. It felt to me like an Atom Egoyan film, where we get long takes and lingering sequences met with quick shots and scenes...the result has a measured quality about it that never panders to quick payoffs and instant gratification. This is not a flashy, MTV style flick with quick editing rhythms. Not at all. This is a story told with touch and care, and even if there are a few hit or miss aspects to the overall product, that I appreciated more than anything. And something really needs to be said about Brad Dourif, who, since landing an Oscar nod in 1975 for his role in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, has amassed more than 135 screen credits. Dude's a true pro, and here he's rewarded with a lead performance so damn convincing, I couldn't even hear the ubiquitous voice of Chucky when he was spouting stern line readings. Dourif, with his brusque delivery and understated external acting, almost plays the role in the first half as a silent performance, muttering a line here, maundering a sentence there. Dude's all eyes and expression here, which speaks in far greater volumes than the histrionics of today's younger actors.
But speaking of younger actors, kudos to Jeremy Sumpter as well, who you may recall played Young Adam in Bill Paxton's bone-chilling 2001 film FRAILTY. Here, just like Dourif, Sumpter is totally believable in his role as the angst-ridden loner with a penchant for cruel justice. The scenes between he and Dourif are the undoubted strength of the film, Dourif having the gravitas to employ subtle humor like no other...a raised brow here, a bugged-out eyeball there. Sumpter is capable of throwing it back at him, which, if he couldn't, would be a real problem with the movie. As it stands, it's their performances that I found most memorable about DEATH AND CREMATION.
But what of the cons on this sucker? Well, with any flick of measured pace, there are some slow parts...and here they happen to be in the middle of the film. And since the first half is so clinical and serious, it's not really the kind of horror flick you crack a 40 with your homeys while watching, you know what I'm saying. But just because it hasn't the zany spirit of something like DRAG ME TO HELL, or any kind of tongue in cheek horror flick, doesn't mean it's bad...it's just takes a little time to warm to the flow and tenor of the flick. And that's the thing...just when you get a feel for how sincere the pitch of the movie is, some odd shift occurs in the back-half which drew (perhaps unsolicited) laughs from the crowd. As the plot reached its denouement, the flick was met with more fun than tension, which seemed completely antithetical to everything that came before it. And while I didn't physically laugh, I too could see the gauche humor people were responding to with howls of laughter. If director Justin Steele and writer Alecc Bracero intended it this way, than good for them for drawing the response they did...but I'm not sure I'm down with such an abrupt tone shift...not at this point in the film anyway. If they didn't intend to elicit laughter here, well, that may be a real issue.
In sum, I did enjoy DEATH AND CREMATION quite a bit. I dug it for the strong lead performances by Dourif and Sumpter, and I really enjoyed the sincere nature by which Steele and Bracero approached their subject matter. The violence in the picture is, while not graphically overbearing, definitely more realistic than your typical horror fare - which in turn makes the entire story more believable. My problems with the flick come by way of a slow second reel and the strange tone shift made in the last reel. To me the movie started off real strong, and stayed there for a good hour or so until finally falling off a bit near the end.