A neuroscientist's obsession with a drug that expands the human mind inadvertently unleashes a deadly supernatural force on his team.
“Not having a physical body”…
The meaning behind the term (and the title of the film being discussed), Discarnate – conjures any number of disturbing images – ghosts, spirits, demons – or in the case of this particular film – something wholly unknown/mysterious and some horror which is almost indescribable.
Borrowing a set-up out of John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness and an effects-extravaganza “transformation” scene inspired by An American Werewolf in London, the new horror of Discarnate – is a beast all its own.
The film held its World Premiere at this year’s Screamfest (the 18th Annual) in Los Angeles.
Here’s the skinny:
A group of scientists, headed by Dr. Andre Mason (Thomas Kretschmann of Blade II and Resident Evil: Apocalypse) are looking to perfect a drug which will allow its users to make contact with the other side, thus hopefully confirming life after death. The researchers set up shop in a rundown home in the Los Angeles outskirts and prepare to experiment on themselves. Using the recipe of a sort of peyote-style holistic mix – provided by Maya Sanchez (Nadine Velazquez), the group quickly settles in and begins to experience possible hallucinations, bumps in the night and seemingly every possible inexplicable oddity in this decrepit and very creepy house. Dr. Mason is intent on dealing with the overwhelming grief surrounding his son’s disappearance (which we’ll learn about in the film’s prologue) and to find out exactly what happened to his missing child.
Ensemble films are always a little tough to pull off. Despite the fact that there are several points-of-view and many character histories to contend with, the story-tellers still need to help the audience find their sympathetic focus. Whose emotional journey is the audience to follow?
In Discarnate, there are two competing central characters, and I think this could have/should have been remedied. We get histories (complete with each character’s debilitating grief) for both Maya and Andre. And it feels like a bit of a tennis match, trying to figure out where we as the audience need to place our love and our concern.
With such “un-focus” in clear focus (get it?) it becomes a major distraction.
For my money, I think that the sibling relationship between brothers Travis and Shane Sherman (Chris Coy and Matt Munroe; respectively) was the most interesting, character-wise. Perhaps it was the performances and chemistry between the two actors (I believed their bond), but it also has to do with characters and their shared history. I loved when they reminisced about family memories – and frankly wanted more of that. I think that had the film embraced this relationship – and because there’s a built-in character history – it would have been a real win, sympathy-wise.
But that preferable choice aside – the film needed to center on either Maya or Andre, not both. This wishy-washiness as far a “main” character, does the film no favors.
All of the performances are good. I’m like a damned broken record lately – I’ve said it so many times in reviews, when discussing large ensemble films – but there’s always a weak link.
With the many examples I’ve seen recently – including Discarnate – I may have to retire my constant use of the term, “always” – for every one of the actors here, truly delivered. Whether they’re running for their lives about the vast estate, or spouting off so much techno-babble, or dealing with the aftermath of their most recent drug injections (part of the ongoing experiment), I bought every moment.
That being said, ensemble cast stand-outs are (no surprise here, based on what I said above) Coy and Munroe as the brother contingent of the scientific team – helped along by the aforementioned, built-in character connections. Strangely (and in line with my earlier complaint about “main character focus”), these are the two characters I was most concerned about all the way through – certainly when the going gets tough. Again – I craved more screen-time with these guys.
Some harrowing sequences of action and suspense are a welcome switch from some of the more quiet scientific mumbo-jumbo and light tip-toeing through the massive building. Of note is a terrifying sequence of Travis investigating some camera problems in the property’s greenhouse. Amazing effects, fantastic editing and solid camerawork (and some nifty and appropriate slow motion) make for one of my favorite moments in the entire film. Co-producer John Elfers (whom I know from my many years covering Screamfest) explained that some of that sequence required a few reshoots/pick-ups. Whatever choices were made (or remade) – it all worked out in the end. A brilliant sequence on all counts.
The make-up effects throughout the film, including some Rick Baker-inspired transformations (as mentioned above), are an easy highlight. The creatures look like some sort of clay monstrosity – faceless and malleable and terrifying. There are a lot of them throughout the film – for the first two acts mostly out of focus in the background. But when they’re brought into the forefront for the climax (required by the story’s direction) – and in plain, grotesque sight – you won’t be disappointed.
And a special call-out to the effects-team for the gag-worthy visions of some ill-fated and mauled rodents. Super detailed and disgustingly realistic. Yecchh! (in a good way, of course).
It may be a bit of a prudish call-out, but I was rather distracted by the wardrobe (or lack thereof) for Nadine Velazquez as Maya. I only bring it up because this psuedo-exhibitionism and “scantily-clad-ness” seemed to serve no purpose for either the character or the film’s overall plot. Not that I didn’t appreciate her figure, but it seemed an odd choice.
While not a perfect film, Discarnate is an engaging and rather unique supernatural monster movie. However, originality and strong performances from a good ensemble, can’t overcome a lack of focus as far as a sympathetic central character.
But the film’s chalk full of dread, spooky atmosphere and a creepy aesthetic – complete with some very well-done “boo” moments and fantastic special effects. It’s a fun ride for an audience – physical body or not (see how I did that?)
So, it’s a strong 4-star recommendation for Discarnate. In fact, my wrap-up article for this year’s Screamfest (check it out here), found the film listed as an “Honorable Mention” in my “Best of Fest”.
The film is scheduled for VOD (from The Orchard) and DVD (from Un’Corkd) release somewhere in the first quarter of 2019. So stay tuned!