If I were a fly on the wall in a film executives’ office with an excitable young director pitching a film idea conjoining elements from Predator (1987,) Unfaithful (2002,) and Stephen King’s Misery (1990,) I would be one, very excitable insect. Each of those films are, in some capacity, considered horror and they all play on very different fears. They invade our insecurities in very separate, sectioned off areas of our brains...
...Writer Jonathan Murphy and director John Woodruff, sets up a situation that does, in fact, contain all the ingredients that make those movies great and plays on a multitude of fears of each. His new film, Animal Among Us is another horror offering from Uncork'd Entertainment. Woodruff attempts to balance each ingredient evenly, to create an assault of fears that will, in theory, scare viewers more than a traditional singular force of terror. There can, and in most cases, should, be more than one type of fright in a film. Proper execution of that idea is ultimately what matters when creating a captivating film.
The story follows Roland, a college writing professor and author of a one-hit wonder bestselling horror novel, played by Christian Oliver. His book chronicles the events of a myth involving a wolf-like creature and the actual documented death of two young girls near a camping resort. The deaths are documented simply as, “animal attack.” It’s pretty insensitive stuff but it’s allowed Roland, his wife and newborn child the ability to live in a quiet, comfortable suburb. It’s all presented as monotonous and uneventful, but it’s a content and safe life. We’re soon introduced to Roland’s academic activities at the university and witness his borderline inappropriate behavior with one of his students. One particular student, Penelope, played by the beautiful Christine Donion, hints to the viewer a sexual history with Roland. Our flawed leading man receives a fan mail at home, inviting him to the actual location of his book, where the deaths took place. Ecstatic at the opportunity, as he didn’t have it while writing the book, Roland agrees. Leaving only a note for his wife he makes his way to the camping grounds. The camp’s director and forest ranger, Anita, played by Larisa Oleynik, greets Roland and awkwardly admits that she is the fan girl. Roland soon learns that his visit was not as innocent as the letter led him to believe and ends up trapped in circumstances eerily close to the events of his novel.
If you were like me, anticipating a blood-soaked creature feature, rich with B movie charm, you will be sorely disappointed. It’s not that at all and quite frankly, I’m not sure this would satisfy fans of any particular genre. Some of the film’s problems could have been overlooked, had our protagonist, (if you can call him that,) been redeemable, or at the very least, relatable. He’s selfish, arrogant without charm and besides that, Roland just isn’t a very bright guy. From the onset, I was willing to give him a few free passes, considering he’s human after all and it certainly wouldn’t be interesting watching a buttoned-up choir boy. As the narrative goes on though, the film seems to go out of its way to make him unlikable. It’s puzzling, because for the majority of the film, we’re seeing events unfold through his eyes. It makes you wonder if writer, Jonathan Murphy, knew what he was doing with his characters and ultimately the films’ tangibility.
The brightest spot of the film is Larisa Oleynik, mostly recognized as the overly sweet and wholesome sister from 10 Things I hate About You, (1999.) Going even farther back in time, she was the super power-wielding star of the Nickelodeon show, The Secret World of Alex Mack, (1994-1998.) Aside from my childhood crush on her, I’ve always found her to be a fine actress. She inhabits her uptight, authoritative character well and livens up the film with her energetic presence. There’s always been a “brightness” to her performances that lights up the screen and not always in a cheery way. She has quite a bit of range and elevates this otherwise dull film. Christian Oliver gives a passable performance at best and his unlikeable character doesn’t help matters. The rest of the small cast are serviceable in their roles, but nothing memorable. Christine, played by Erin Daniels does manage to convincingly play a suspecting wife. While Roland is trapped in Anita’s web, deep in the forests of the camp, Christine is uncovering her husband’s sexual secrets. Her reaction is a balanced blending of numbness and anger. Regrettably, it’s the only moment in the film that feels genuinely human.
From a technical and production standpoint, Animal Among Us, is mostly fine. The camerawork and composition functioned like it should and nothing of its doing took me out of the film. I was impressed by the number of credible locations they were able to snag for this film. Well-earned points to the location scouters. The university and area where Roland teaches harken back to one of my film lecture auditoriums and the campsite looks and feels appropriately isolating. It’s all pretty genuine and believable looking and it helps the film from being unwatchable. The sound mixing is pretty bad, mostly due to poor balancing between competing sounds. Background noises, music and Foley sound effects often drown out important exposition dialogue. I’ve certainly heard worse, but it’s most certainly not a strong suit in this film.
Structurally, Animal Among Us is fairly solid, but it fails on so many other levels that the narrative’s skeleton doesn’t amount to anything. You can have a great outline for an essay, but until its actually written and fleshed out with good content, it’s nothing. Very little works as a whole, and the things that are actually decent aren’t good enough to support any one aspect of the film. I do believe that Woodruff and Murphy had some good ideas to play with, given the many different types of horror they try to realize. The problem with Animal Among Us isn’t that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. It does strive to have an identity. The problem is that it doesn’t do any of the things it sets out to do well. It doesn’t work as a creature feature, as there is an insulting scarcity of scenes featuring the creature. It doesn’t work as psychological thriller either, as we’re stuck with weak, sometimes completely unlikable characters with senseless motives. While there are a few good performances and legitimate locations, Animal Among Us not only fails as a horror film, it fails as a film of any kind.
Animal Among Us is now roaring on VOD from Uncork'D Entertainment.
By Jeffrey Hollingsworth