British screenwriter Christopher Jolley has been toiling away in the lower depths of the British grindhouse mines – writing things like I Am Hooligan, Doll Cemetery and Once Upon a Time at Christmas (the sequel to that played FrightFest). This is his first above-ground credit – directed by Ryuhei Kitamura in his No One Lives crime-verging-on-horror mode, starring a couple of names (Stephen Dorff and Emile Hirsch) who’ve been working hard on showing versatility since aging out of boyish roles, with the presence of a couple of horror icons (Vernon Wells, still best known as Wez from Mad Max 2, and Erika Gavin, who used to go by Amazon Eve and has been a presence in American Horror Story and Hemlock Grove). As an exploitation package, it’s fine – though it’s not quite as unpredictable as it thinks it is, especially if you remember From Dusk Till Dawn … indeed, the half-hour-of-gritty-crime followed by crooks-break-into-the-wrong-house-and-find-themselves-in-a-horror-movie format has become so commonplace in the last few years that it’s about time for a movie which starts with a scary monster family leaving their spooky old house to terrorise a town and find themselves held hostage in a Heat-type bank heist-gone-wrong shootout.
After a prologue in which a hooker (Sabina Mach) – another of this year’s imperilled sex workers – is abandoned and then stalked and netted at an out-of-the-way gas station, we follow hardluck story Grace (Gigi Zumbado) as she goes to reason with a creepy lech loan shark who holds paper on her … and is caught up when a crew of violent but inept robbers invade the loan shark’s HQ, scaring off their own getaway driver when the shooting starts. Grace is press-ganged as new getaway driver by professional thief Cody (Stephen Dorff), though murderous loose cannon Alex (Emile Hirsch) makes it clear he wants to off her as soon as possible – and Alex’s wounded brother Shane (Taner Zagarino) just whines about the hole in his leg. Then, Grace’s car breaks down in the middle of nowhere and there’s only a creepy, abandoned-seeming farm complex manned by a weird kid (Tyler Sanders) nearby. The gang seek shelter … then grandpa (Wells) and Jodi (Ervin) come home with their catch of the night, and the robbers find out what kind of gruesome racket (familiar from several of those post-Hostel torture porn movies made c 2005) the weird family are in. Under their barn is a maze of cells, torture/operating rooms, tunnels and the like. Kitamura always likes to let off blood-bombs and this has a lot of gore – including some major eyeball abuse and a couple of homages to Street Trash (not just the famous melting person bit).
Objectively, it’s not very good – there’s an imbalance in the genre mix whereby Hirsch establishes himself so strongly as the most dangerous character that the shift to making him less of a threat in the second half doesn’t quite take. A gabble of backstory from Wells falls into the who-cares? category, though there’s a handy ambiguity about who exactly his chin-masked, unstoppable female sidekick actually is. But it keeps on swinging, offering non-stop eyekicks, excitement and gross-out. No One Lives had a stronger premise and a standout lead performance, which elevated it a lot but this is doggie-bag horror – reheated, it’s satisfying enough if you haven’t got the appetite for more substantial fare. The title suggests something deeper than it delivers.