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The Undertow   C-

Sub Rosa Studios

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Jeremy Wallace
Writer: Jeremy Wallace
Cast: Jason Christ, Julie Farrar, Joseph Palermo, Trudy Bequette, Chris Grega, Emily Haack, Robin Garrels, Todd Tevlin, Jeff Atwater, Doc Brown.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

As a micro-budget slice of hillbilly horror, The Undertow fails to deliver the sunbaked rural dread of '70s classics like The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But while like-minded 2003 releases House of 1000 Corpses, Wrong Turn, and the Chainsaw remake had a comforting Hollywood polish that ensured their roller-coaster thrills were easily dismissed and forgotten, The Undertow has a cheap digital-video look that turns out to be its biggest virtue: it has an immediacy its big-budget siblings lacked. Unfortunately, that's not enough to save it from the direct-to-video junk bin. For half of its 79-minute running time, The Undertow meanders without tension, and then it nosedives into ineffectual, over-the-top savagery. The kill scenes are so ridiculously gory, fake, and protracted that they might've been directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis.

But no: The Undertow was helmed by Jeremy Wallace, director of The Christmas Season Massacre and producer of Eric Stanze's superior shockers Ice from the Sun and Scrapbook. Wallace sets things up OK. When a group of young city folk arrive in the backwoods town of Old Mines for a weekend "float trip" down the Missouri River, the town deputy (Joseph Palermo) pulls them over, dumps out all their beer, and tells them to get the hell out. Of course, they don't. Not even after the only polite, civilized local (Trudy Bequette) warns them that her freakishly strong, retarded brother has been trained by her father, the mayor, to hunt down and kill outsiders. They laugh her off and the next morning they find one of their friends sprawled out in the woods -- his head crushed to a red, lumpy mess.

Like pre-hockey mask Jason Voorhees, The Undertow's brutal, hulking killing machine -- known to the townsfolk as "The Boy" -- wears a dirty one-eyed sack over his head. Unlike Jason, though, The Boy always uses his bare hands for the dirty work. Once his rampage starts, the movie descends into grade-D splatter territory, with plenty of lingering close-ups of face-crushings, eye-gougings, and intestine-spillings. If only Wallace and crew had the sense to leave some of the carnage to our imaginations, maybe we wouldn't have the time to notice that most of the violence is being inflicted upon unconvincing, lifeless dummies.

Of course, the characters are dummies, so it fits. While being hunted, the city kids run into The Boy's sister on the riverbank only to scream at and threaten her -- as if she hadn't kindly advised them to leave town the night before. The cast does well with the material and their poorly sketched characters, but they can't salvage this lame gorefest. Near the end, when the violence finally started to get to me -- with The Boy beating our Final Girl (Julie Farrar) to a bloody pulp and dragging around her barely living body like a rag doll -- I was almost offended that the violence suddenly took a disturbing turn toward the realistic after all the phony brutality that had preceded it. With the digital-video immediacy, the violence and suffering is almost unbearable. So it ends with a vicious punch, but by then it's too late.

Review published 05.17.2005.

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