Jennifer Conrad is a small-town girl starting over in the big city. Fleeing an abusive relationship, all she wants is a chance to begin again. But it is hard to start over when something is eating you while you sleep . . . on painful bite at a time.
Gnaw is as new horror film from co-writer/director Haylar Garcia and enjoyed its World Premiere at the 4th Annual Filmquest in Provo, Utah.
Jennifer Conrad (The Vampire Diaries’ Penelope Mitchell) is a white-trash former waitress – trying to get her life in order after she leaves her abusive husband Boyd (Chris Johnson). She takes up residence in an apartment complex in a nearby big city. She befriends maintenance man Terry (Tenacious D’s Kyle Gass) and lands an interview with a former high school friend – for a promising gig at an office downtown. But with Boyd still bothering her, weird things happening in the apartment just below her and the strange sort-of rash she wakes up with one morning – starting over is much harder than she thought. Add into the mix the intricately-sculpted wooden box (with a strange carved creature adorning its top), and Jennifer really has her hands full.
Director Garcia mentioned to me that the film was inspired by the old made-for-television horror flick from the ‘70s – the Karen Black vehicle Trilogy of Terror – and this connection is not hard to see as the film moves into its exciting climax.
I found Penelope Mitchell (whom I reviewed in a previous Filmquest selection – The Fear of the Darkness) to be really fantastic. She captures the completely uneducated and frankly, sad life of Jennifer so well. She’s frightened, lonely and without an ounce of confidence. You’ll feel bad for her pretty early on, but when things continue to decline in her life (this girl can’t catch a break) you’ll start to feel deep pangs of sympathy. Jennifer’s trashy and kind of dumb, but you’ll certainly like her and want her to get past all of these life hurdles. And in the end, if an actor is able to bring an audience along with their character’s ride – they can call that a success.
As good as Mitchell is, Kyle Gass steals the show as friendly neighbor Terry. Terry’s forever helpful and always offering a smile to anyone in the complex. Gass is simply lovely as Terry – so honest and kind and with his own baggage (of course, his issues are not even close to matching Jennifer’s), but it’s enough to connect them.
Not surprisingly, the best moment for both actors can be found in a scene they have together. There’s a believable and endearing chemistry between the two characters (and thus the actors). Terry gives Jennifer a housewarming gift, which will warm audience’s hearts. And the subsequent conversation between the two in Terry’s apartment, is also heart-warming. The scene is also a perfect example of the script’s greatest asset – its dialogue.
The dialogue is frequently funny, many times inspired and always genuine in the world the filmmakers have created.
Oscar nominee Sally Kirkland has a cameo (so much fun!) as the apartment complex’s building manager. Despite the fact that she gets the best lines, her best moment is basically dialogue-less. It’s directly following the inspection of Jennifer’s apartment for insect pests. Wait for it…
There are other endearing qualities throughout the film (even in some small details) – namely the fact that Jennifer is unable to unhook the moving trailer from her beat-up car – and therefore – she pulls it everywhere she goes. I found this detail charming. And it keeps in line with the overall tragic quality of Jennifer’s life. And dammit if this tiny detail is not my favorite bit in the entire film!
The visual effects are mighty impressive. The creature (you know it’s coming) truly comes to life, and becomes terrifying. The “breaking of the lock” moment with the creature is mind-blowing as far as effects and also totally inspired in concept.
As much as I like Gnaw, I have a few issues. The first half of the film is basically infested (appropriate term for what may or may not be feasting on Jennifer) with an overabundance of dissolves. These techniques are fine here and there, but I found the frequency of this tool throughout Gnaw, awfully distracting. It’s bothersome, since during the second half of the film – I found the editing spot-on, fast-paced and exciting.
And speaking of splitting the film in half – my other complaint has to do with the film’s overall tone. While I appreciate all of the character work and lovely building of relationships in the first half – when things really start to cook in the second half – the massive shift isn’t organic. It’s not that such changes are unheard of in other films, but I don’t feel as though Gnaw quite mastered it. It’s all connected of course, but not perfectly.
I also felt as though there could have been a bit more build-up for the box. Again, so much wonderful work was done to make us love and care for the characters, it seemed as though the box was almost forgotten – until it’s not… if that makes sense. And you’ll see the ultimate destination of the box coming from a mile away, but it’s still wonderfully satisfying!
Also, a particular sequence really stood out to me as a technical highlight. It’s captured in the film’s poster above, as Jennifer takes a much-needed relaxing bath. I loved the editing, the camerawork and lighting in this scene. Great build-up of tension and really beautiful to behold. Nice work!
There is some kick-ass foreshadowing in the film. It’s always a pleasure to see it done right – some of those seemingly throwaway moments which will come into play later. Gnaw is a prime example of how to achieve this difficult task. Two people sitting with me during the screening, saw the culmination of this particular foreshadowing – at the same time as I did. And it was a beautiful thing – so say we all.
Gnaw was nominated for several awards at this year’s Filmquest, including Best Feature Film, Best Director of a Feature for Haylar Garcia, Best Lead Actress in a Feature for Penelope Mitchell, Best Supporting Actor in a Feature for Kyle Gass (WINNER), Best Cinematography for a Feature, Best Sound in a Feature, Best Visual Effects in a Feature (WINNER) and Best Make-up in a Feature.
I think a nomination for Best Feature Screenplay could have been squeezed in there as well (again, the dialogue!)
Brilliant visual effects and strong performances throughout easily overcome some of the film’s shortcomings. Gnaw is a great deal of fun, and totally worth seeing!
Gnaw continues to feed off of the festival circuit – including an official selection for the 17th Annual Shriekfest Film Festival in Los Angeles.