Native American tales are ripe with horror but, aside from the Wendigo, Native horror creatures do not make many appearances in film...
...As a small child, my grandpa would scare the crap out of me with the Iroquois tales of Dry Fingers the mummified hands, giant disembodied heads, and the most terrifying of all, Onyare, the horrid lake monster. With such a rich collection of horror characters, films really should look into incorporating monsters and spirits from cultures outside of the overused Catholic myths. Using the famous La Brea Tar Pits, Tar writer/director Aaron Wolf (The Walk) steps away from his normal sentimental films about acceptance and self-discovery to focus on the Evil Spirit from Algonquin myths.
Like other creature-features, Tar starts with man exploring where he should not and the immediate consequences of his actions. We get a close-up on a man’s face as he gazes into a cavernous hole he discovered when doing some late-night road construction. A splash of tar and an off-screen scream lets the audience know something has been released. Immediately following the first death, a homeless man narrates the history of the La Brea Tar Pits from its early appearance in Native American myths all the way to present day. In the earliest recorded history of the pit, the tar existed as a necessary resource for daily life and now the pit provides insight into the past. However, hidden within the black substance lives a creature known as Matchi Manitou.
The story then transitions to the setting of a father and son computer business in the process of closing down (and located across the street from the tar pits). Barry Greenwood (Timothy Bottoms) tries to stay positive, while the younger Greenwood, Zach (Wolf) feels frustrated over the loss of his livelihood. If the intergenerational tension was not enough, the greedy property manager (Stuart Stone) keeps kicking the Greenwood’s while they are down with constant reminders of their move-out date and how rich their eviction will make him.
As the story plays out, the director interjects flashbacks to Barry’s childhood, newspaper clippings focusing on the tar pits and construction notices, and witness statement type footage of a very dirty and disheveled looking Zach (which we can only assume takes place in the future). The glimpses of headlines offer further evidence of the mystery surrounding the tar pits, but the father’s memories seem more like filler without providing much substance for the overall storyline. The first part of the movie focuses a lot on the loss of the business and the differences between the father and son as well as some strange side conversations between the odd-ball cast of employees. Zach’s best friend, Ben (Sandy Danto), quirky tarot-reading Marigold (Tiffany Shepis) and the office hottie, Diana (Nicole Alexandra Shipley) provide comedic relief as well as a break from the overbearing father/son narrative. The first half of the movie focuses pretty heavily on the relationships within the office building, but then around the 40 minute mark, the director treats us to a classical music montage which shows how the various employees say good-bye to the business and the rising climax of the song ends with a blackout. And since the manager enforced a strict move-out date, the staff must continue working even in the dark. Now the scary stuff can start.
Howling Wolf Productions stresses a desire to tell a story in their films, however in Tar, Wolf seems more focused on telling the story of a father/son relationship than about the actual monster. In fact, it takes about half the film for the story to get past all the family moments and let the tar be the star. When Matchi Manitou and all his tar-abilities finally make an appearance, we are treated to some sticky and oozy sound effects as the sentient goo acts with Blob-like characteristics as it leaks and drips its way to its victims. On the fright factor, the tar strikes hot and quick, offering a couple jump scares, but also some impressive gore. Apparently, tar can do some interesting things to a human face. Matchi Manitou also uses a mammoth tusk to skewer his victims for his finishing move.
Unfortunately, most horror falls into the terrible habit of casting Natives as Shaman type characters who can magic up a talisman of protection or perform some ritual to counteract the evil. Tar thankfully strays from this tiresome stereotype. Graham Greene (Dancing with Wolves, Green Mile) does provide the insight needed to understand the Man of the Tar, but the knowledge comes from his degree in archeology and not his race. The actor also does well portraying a man who may hold a secret or who may just be crazy, which leaves both the characters and the audience guessing.
The dark setting and the gooey-gore will delight drive-in audiences, but the plodding first act will frustrate the viewers who expect a traditional creature feature. The film demonstrates some talent in the horror department, but the sentimentality of Wolf’s previous films definitely had an impact on Tar’s ability to stay focused on the scares. The horror world welcomes a new type of monster to the screen, but the effectiveness of the creature gets sucked in and consumed by the plot. Fortunately, the movie ends in a way that would allow for the continuation of the story, so stay tuned for Tar 2: The Secret of the Ooze.
Tar comes to Drive-Ins October 2nd and VOD October 20th from 1091 Pictures.
By Amylou Ahava
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