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Creature Unknown

As legend and a DVD extra featurette has it, Eric Mittleman accidentally got ahold of some strange brownies in Jamaica and began seeing Lizard Men running around. Here at Fanboy Planet, we suspect brownies had nothing to do with it, but that's just our personal belief in actual Lizard Men. Anyway, the event inspired Mittleman to write a script about a Lizard Man, which when merged with some ideas from Scott Zakarin became the basis for this week's monster in the woods entry, Creature Unknown.

Lest you think that a dismissive description, think again. There's a certain art to making an effective creature movie, and first-time director Michael Burnett has it down. Of course, his years working on special make-up effects himself helped him get that rhythm.

Start off with a tastefully done slaughter that establishes brief glimpses of your monster. Have a fun title sequence that gets the monster's origin largely out of the way (done here by Evan Unruh and Mark Teague, the credits sequence has a sense of fun, and in conjunction with Burnett's direction does a concise job). Bring your cast of pretty young things to a remote cabin, and don't wait too long before picking them off one by one. Make sure to include a couple of gory money shots that make your reviewer regret he was eating lunch while watching this.

Most importantly, even though your creature may be a man in a foam rubber suit, do your best to make it a good one. And Burnett did indeed make it a good one, a monster reminiscent of the Creature From The Black Lagoon, but with much more expressiveness. When the full reveal comes, it is not disappointing in the least.

For the most part, neither is the plot. Mittleman and Zakarin tried for something a little deeper than the usual monster movie trope, mixing in what would have been an intriguing psychological drama on its own.

A group of post-graduates gather to commemorate their high school prom night, when Steve (Chris Hoffman) lost his identical twin Wes (Matt Hoffman). Lost is the operative word, because even though we see a scene upfront of Wes bleeding and in pain, his body was never found. In a horror movie, that never bodes well.

The prom night tragedy created a schism among the otherwise tightly-knit group of friends, and their reunion four years later plays out with a lot of understandable awkwardness. It seems that mostly they swallowed their pain and tacitly agreed to ignore each other. Unfortunately, that seems a little hard to swallow as an audience, especially as some deep-seated emotional arcs bubble to the surface.

Why would Steve cut all ties to girlfriend Amanda (the beautiful Maggie Grace), except to serve the plot and yes, deepen the mystery? As a slasher version of The Big Chill, this group doesn't quite have the distance from their youth to really give their regrets much resonance.

What does hit the mark, though, is in the newcomer to their group, Ally (Kristin Herold). She dates Sean (John Keyser), the obligatory obnoxious jock of the peers whom she met on a reality dating show. (Ironically, Keyser himself is currently on a reality show, competing to be the "Next Action Star.") The two claim to be "engaged," but not the kind of engaged that involves a ring. Or really much that involves commitment. Ally comes across as the most real precisely because her character is the most naked about her shallowness. Also, her character is the most naked.

As a couple, Sean and Ally provide the most entertainment, again because their motivations are right out there to see. Herold and Keyser also seem to be having the most fun in their roles, which makes it a shame that as the sex mad twosome, you know they're marked for death. Hey, there are rules to these things.

Coming a close second to Herold and Keyser, Chase Masterson deservedly gets top billing as the wild card in the whole thing, the not-quite-mad scientist Katt. We meet her first, actually, dressed in leathers, in an unsuccessful bid to hunt the creature that we all know she had a hand in creating. Masterson plays tough arrogance well, with perhaps a touch too much seriousness about the whole thing. Then again, she's the one with the gun. Who's going to argue?

The DVD includes a blooper reel, an extra that has become pretty standard, but always seems weird with a horror movie. However, the cast and crew behind the scenes documentary is pretty good, especially with Mittleman's candor about his inspiration and his excitement about the project. Burnett also offers a look at the process of building a creature, so you monster fans may want to check it out. I don't know if you can try it at home, but maybe you'll pick up a tip or two.

Buy Creature Unknown at The Pulp Shop.

Derek McCaw


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