“We need each other now more than ever…”
…That’s something that we and the characters in writer/director D.M. Cunningham’s The Spore have in common. For us, we face a plague driven by science-denying dingbats (the nicest word I can think of), hell-bent on screwing us all over some make-believe idea that we don’t have certain rules to participate in society. For those in The Spore, they face an infectious fungus turning people into blood-thirsty monsters.
I’m honestly not sure which is worse.
The Spore is a collection of short vignettes following various characters in a small town as they attempt to survive a nasty virus that turns them into mulchy mutants.
I’d like to tell you that there’s more to the film than that, but The Spore is as bare bones as they come. A short runtime and a format done in the style of something akin to the World War Z novel means The Spore is attempting to pack a lot in, yet there’s more substance to the goo bubbling out of the film’s creatures than anything in the script.
The Spore sets the mood with an opening which follows a scientist in bio-hazard equipment exploring a forest filled with fog-machine atmospherics. Dreaming in Neon’s eerily infectious score consumes the viewer and draws them into what immediately feels like something straight out of a George A. Romero movie. The constant chatter of a radio describes the horror overtaking the town—a running theme which invades every segment—while Cunningham builds tension through a slow and steady pace that lets the atmosphere simmer, just before ratcheting up the horror with a spine-tingling discovery.
At first, The Spore is doing everything right. It’s grim. It’s gooey. And it features body horror guaranteed to make your skin crawl right off your bones. Cunningham loads up on squirmy imagery that is sometimes nauseating if not gag-inducing. He understands that the most important piece of The Spore is its monster(s), and the effects team delivers on what fans are coming for and then some. In some ways, The Spore reminded me of early 80s sci-fi horror flick The Deadly Spawn, in that it’s ripe with gross out practical effects and ooey gooey creature work that is plainly on another level from the rest of the film. The whole effects team deserves a round of applause, because their work is easily the highlight of the movie.
If only The Spore wasn’t spreading a different kind of contagion to its viewers: Boredom.
I don’t usually like to be so harsh as to say something is boring, but The Spore is less interesting than watching mushrooms grow. It’s a solid approach from Cunningham to explore the effects of the disease in a small town over a period of a couple of months, but the mistake made is that we don’t get to know anything about these people. They might as well already be stumbling fungal zombies, they’re that husk-like. Each vignette generally plays out the same: We follow one to two people max. They discover a monster. You can guess the rest. Rinse and repeat. Just people running around and encountering monsters, often with little to no dialogue and the bones of a plot at best. I’m fine with The Spore refusing to let too much plot get in the way of a simple monster movie, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want a little something to engage with the characters.
It doesn’t help that it seems like the actors are having a harder time chewing the dialogue than munching on an aluminum pipe. What little is said tends to feel forced, with performances that struggle to come off naturally. I’m not sure that these characters weren’t already zombies and just don’t know it. You might think I’m exaggerating, but when characters hear something clearly monstrous in the woods or are grieving over the death of a loved one and come off as unbothered, it’s a lot harder to buy into whatever the film is selling.
In this case, it’s all about the goopier moments, because the other cylinders are firing blanks.
Aside from the effects, what keeps The Spore from being a total pandemic disaster is the vibe of the movie, which certainly feels Romero inspired. You can’t tell me one character’s segment opening with a visit to the graveyard isn’t a reference to Night of the Living Dead. The Spore is a bit Night of the Living Dead meets The Crazies in terms of tone and imagery. There’s a disturbing dread that spreads through all three like a nerve-tingling virus. Typical to most pandemic driven horror, it’s not exactly a light-hearted adventure.
What’s most disappointing about The Spore though is that it’s surprising how little it succeeds in saying anything during a time where we ourselves are living through a pandemic. In so many ways, the film is lifeless, moving along at a lethargic pace and ultimately resulting in a gross mess. This is a story that hardly ever feels like it has anywhere to go but right back into the dirt.
Viewers seeking a creature feature with an injection of fun gross out effects will find something to enjoy with The Spore, because on that end, it’s the sort of wet, putrid, gross body-horror flick we all crave. Otherwise, I’d suggest avoiding the viral disease that is The Spore by giving yourself the vaccine of skipping it altogether.
Maybe get yourself that Covid booster shot—or the first dose of vaccine if you haven’t—while you’re at it. Just because things are already bad doesn’t mean we need the monsters of the world turning into actual black-goo vomiting creatures, too.
The Spore comes to VOD/DVD on November 2nd from Lionsgate.
By Matt Konopka