Written and directed by: Nicholas Smith
Featuring: Bruce Davison, Randall Batinkoff, Trevor Morgan, Brooke Peoples, Hallock Beals, Lauren Storm, Art Fox
My buddy Phil Nugent, who writes for the Onion's A.V. Club (among other places), often complains about genre movies and TV shows, saying that it's become harder and harder to avoid the question of "Why don't the protagonists just call the cops on their cell phones?" Munger Road tries to head this off at the pass early on: The four teenagers at its center spend the majority of the film in a remote location where no one can get any bars (in fact, at one point a character leaves said location "because I remember getting bars a few miles back"). It's a pretty nice nod to the modern realities of horror writing/filmmaking, and writer/director Nicholas Smith's debut feature isn't quite as adept at all aspects of its storytelling, but Munger Road is an interesting debut nonetheless.
The film, "inspired by true events" is set up like a slasher flick with a dash of the found footage genre. At the film's outset, we meet four kids: the awesomely named Joe Risk (Brooke Peoples), Corey (Trevor Morgan, The Patriot), Scott (Hallock Beals, Worst Prom Ever) and Rachael (Lauren Storm, The Roommate). Residents of the sleepy town of St. Charles, IL, the kids plan to test a local urban legend and get it on tape. It's said that those who get stuck on the deserted Munger Road's train tracks are "pushed" off them by a mysterious presence. Some say that it's the ghosts of children who died when their school bus was hit by a train, and some say the ghosts are the victims of a notorious serial killer who operated in St. Charles over a decade ago.
Speaking of which, as the kids are going off on their adventure, the St. Charles police chief, Kirkhoven (Bruce Davison, X-Men, Breach), and Sheriff's Deputy Hendricks (Randall Batinkoff, For Keeps?, Hefner Unauthorized) have learned that said notorious serial killer, the classically named Guenther, has just escaped from prison and may be making his way back to St. Charles. The town is set to have its annual October 8th Scarecrow Festival the next day, so the race is on to locate the murderer before the night is over. Plus, they're getting calls from panicked parents about four kids who haven't come home.
The rest of Munger Road cuts between these two storylines. As Joe and friends succeed, seemingly, in recording proof of the legend of Munger Road, their car breaks down and they grow increasingly scared and uneasy as they wait for help. Meanwhile, Kirkhoven and Hendricks canvass St. Charles looking for Guenther, and Kirkhoven explains the horrible history of the man and what he did to his town decades ago.
Munger Road clearly owes a debt to John Carpenter's Halloween, and not just because of its autumnal setting. Like Haddonfield in the first half of Halloween, St. Charles is almost itself a character in the film. One of the things that made Carpenter's film work so well, at least for me, is how long it took for Michael Meyers to make his move, even if it dragged a bit, because the eventual payoff was so terrifying. Smith is interested in building tension by allowing things to not happen. And while St. Charles is located about 30 miles north of Chicago, I couldn't help but be reminded of the sleepy havens of Stephen King's New England as Kirkhoven and Hendricks drive around town.
Unlike many modern horror films, the violence is kept virtually off screen, and in a rather amusing twist, the film's most extended "found footage" scene is intentionally garbled and hard to see (i.e., what you'd really expect a bunch of goofball teens to shoot). It couldn't have been easy to get funding for a horror film where no one dies onscreen (though the participation of Davison probably helped quite a bit). For a film that reportedly had a budget in the low hundred thousands, it looks fantastic — director of photography Wesley Gathright shoots the film through browns and orange, and it's quite effective. For his debut as a director, Smith has a very good hand at pacing and building the threat of Guenther or possibly something more supernatural as it closes in on the kids. If only his script was as assured.
There's nothing really unbelievable or bad about the plot of Munger Road, except for the end — which I'll get to in a moment — but where Smith falls down is in creating really compelling kids to care about. In a sense, that's understandable; the dead teenager genre has always struggled with this, in my opinion. But since half the film is spent with these four kids sitting in a car arguing with each other, it would be nice if they were a bit deeper than Lead Brunette, Well-meaning but Basically Dim Boyfriend, Kinda Douchey Guy, and Blonde Girl. All the actors are decent, but only Peoples is given much characterization outside of looking scared (Joe is pregnant and is unable to tell Corey).
Much more effective is the rapport between Kirkhoven and Hendricks. These two roles are just as familiar — Wizened, Haunted Veteran and Cocksure but Basically Decent Younger Man Who's Not Seen the Horrors the Veteran Has Seen — but Smith has more to say with these characters. Davison brings gravitas to a role that's essentially this film's Dr. Loomis. Kirkhoven had just moved to St. Charles when Guenether began his rampage, and the more he shares the details of what happened with Hendricks, the more detached and closed off he becomes. He doesn't become unhinged, but clearly remembering the tragedy has effects on his emotional well-being, and Davison does a subtle job of illustrating the way memory can hold us in its grip. Batinkoff, whom I haven't seen in a while, is good at showing Hendricks manning up and realizing life as a small town cop hasn't prepared him for something like this.
Munger Road is a slow thriller that in its last act ramps up the suspense, and Smith employs several techniques, including a smart use of sound, to keep everything off screen and the horror in the viewer's imagination. It builds and builds and builds and then, well, here's the thing: I can't really give away the ending. It's not a twist, but more of an…idea that Smith introduces at the very last second which, quite frankly, I suspect will leave the majority of viewers enraged rather than excited. I, personally, was impressed enough by Smith's skills as a director to give his skills as a writer the benefit of the doubt. The film resolves itself enough that you can read a lot of ambiguity into the events — a lot of ambiguity — but I can't really call it a successful ending. Still, Smith shows enough promise here that I wouldn't mind seeing him revisit Munger Road. I give it a cautious recommendation, there's a lot to enjoy here, despite some weak characters and an ending that may piss you off.