Slamdance Film Festival ’08 review
Trevor Matthews as Jack Brooks
Robert Englund as Professor Crowley
Rachel Skarsten as Eve
James A. Woods as John
Daniel Kash as Dr. Silverstein
Ashley Bryant as Kristy
Stefanie Drummond as Janice
Directed by Jon Knautz
Growing up in Connecticut, the elements that molded my tastes were manifold: Comic books, horror flicks on laser discs and VHS (archaic, I know) and USA’s Up All Night. Regardless of whether this television late-night block was hosted by Gilbert Gottfried or Rhonda Shear (the latter was preferable, if you catch my drift), Up All Night offered only the finest in ’80s cult and comedy fare and got me through many babysitting nights. (Now you know I used to baby-sit, but hey, it paid for the latest issues of Fangoria.) “Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer” would have felt right at home splashing USA’s airwaves with its goopy madness.
At the time of this writing, “Brooks” – a Canadian import by Brookstreet Pictures and director Jon Knautz – still doesn’t have distribution. To me, that’s one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the universe considering “Brooks’ generous offerings: It not only delivers on the ripe potential for a franchise (one draw for possible buyers), it’s an intelligent, loving throwback to ’80s creature features that breaks conventional “origin tale” trappings. Jon Knautz’s film is an accomplished effort for a director cutting his teeth in feature storytelling. With writer John Ainslie and co-producer/actor Trevor Matthews, he has created an effective genre anti-hero where others have tried and failed.
And what a temperamental hero he is. At a young age, Jack watched his family become mince meat in the hands of a dark, hairy beast. His memory of the tragedy suppressed, he grows up coping with serious anger management problems. Through an amusing introduction, we find a teenage Jack taking out his frustrations on a simple folding chair – just because it was in his way and tripped him up. Flash forward many years later and Jack’s violent outbursts persist through his maladroit juggling of a plumbing job, night science courses and an ill-fitted relationship. As he tells his shrink, he recently decked a Chinese food restaurant owner over a clogged toilet – despite loving the egg rolls there. Jack Brooks is the Every Man. A blue collar, amiable, directionless dude played with physical dedication by Matthews, bearing a slight resemblance to Ryan Reynolds here and channeling an equal amount of spot-on comedic delivery. “Brooks” allows Matthews to play it broad, sometimes going from 0 to 200m.p.h. of pure animated fury within a scene. But not once do you ever dislike him, you almost kinda feel bad for the guy.
Jack’s destiny slowly materializes one evening when his teacher, Mr. Crowley (the scenery-chewing Robert Englund), unearths a blackened heart which forces its way down the old man’s throat. This instigates a disgusting metamorphosis in Crowley – executed with good ol’ fashioned practical effects, no less. Englund clearly relishes some of the vile antics he performs as Crowley becomes a disheveled, puking, chicken-wing ‘n dog devouring thing that feels partially inspired by the turd monster from “Weird Science.” Inevitably, Jack must learn to follow his calling and funnel his aggression towards an ancient evil threatening his life and friends.
Channeling “Big Trouble in Little China” and the go-for-the-throat manic vigor of “Evil Dead II,” director Knautz reaches big and scores big. A prologue and epilogue set in South America not only sets the tonal equation of action/comedy/horror but it defines the scope Knautz is going for. And the entire package is complimented by a cogent full orchestral score by Ryan Shore (nephew of composer Howard Shore). Ainslie’s script veers away with certain rules that encapsulate films of this ilk. There is no sage to watch over Brooks, and his actual “monster slaying” skills are not put to the test until he’s thrown to the fire…or, in this case, a classroom of writhing tentacles. If anything, upsetting the norm of the “hero structure” leads to slight pacing issues in the set-up, nevertheless, when the finale comes, Knautz and company pull out all of the stops and no monster lover worth his or her salt will be disappointed. Kudos to David Scott and company for their gallery of sick and slimy adversaries that recall the days of “Deadly Spawn,” or if you want to trip into the ’90s, “The Guyver” flicks. They’re tangible beasties with a lot of attitude, appetite and they’re designed with a dash of lovable camp quality.
“Jack Brooks” is definitely something special – a nostalgic creation with a twisted imagination, gobs of enthusiasm and filleted tentacles to spare. Both Knautz and Brooks have promising futures ahead; hopefully these two will get along long enough to bring about a sequel.