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'Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer'

Beware the horrific rage of this Canadian working man.

By Dorothy Woodend 25 Jul 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend writes about film for The Tyee every other week.

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See what Jack has to put up with?

There are a lot of big summer movies opening this weekend, so why should you go see a relatively low-budget Canadian horror movie with the unlikely title of Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer? I can think of almost as many reasons to go, as not to go. Jack Brooks isn't a great film, but horror fans are loyal creatures, and they'll truck out to almost anything that looks horror-related. I include myself among their number.

You could call Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer (JBMS) a cross between FUBAR and Freddie Krueger. The film is made with obvious love of 80s horror hits like Nightmare on Elm Street, etc. Which is all fine and good. There are some interesting things in this film, but there are equally as many problems.

The title character, one Jack Brooks, is old-fashioned Canadian country boy, a dude who drives a van, wears a raggedy baseball cap, and has fits of rage so powerful that they cause him to lose complete control of himself. The poor guy has good reason for popping a blood vessel every so often. Seems when Jack was a tyke, his entire family was devoured by a monster. On the fateful night that his mother, father and little sister were turned into kibble, little Jack fled the scene. Not much information is given about the hungry mungry creature that ate Jack's kin, except that it looked a little like an escapee from Lord of the Ring’s Fighting Uruk-hai. The existence of monsters is a simply a given; they live in the woods and they eat people. You either accept this premise without question or you find yourself another movie. If you choose to stay, prepare to be alternately amused and irritated.

Cut to a quick flashback through the life of Jack Brooks. Except for the fits of towering rage that punctuate his daily life, it's an unexciting existence. His job as a plumber pretty much stinks, and occasional visits to a shrink aren't helping him deal with his issues very well. Instead of coping constructively with his anger management problem, he's still punching out Chinese Restaurateurs and anyone else who rubs him the wrong way. Despite troubles that include an obnoxious girlfriend, a crappy van, and a psychiatrist who has just about given up the ghost, Jack tries hard. He's quick to offer a hand or an egg roll, and he doesn't suffer fools gladly.

Road to self-improvement

Taking night classes with his girlfriend has done little to improve Jack’s lot. He's failing biology, even with the help from his friendly/creepy science teacher Professor Crowley (played by Robert Englund of Freddie Krueger fame). When a plumbing accident raises the undead heart of a demon, buried conveniently in his teacher's backyard, things get nasty. Unfortunately before the action really gets going, there is a long, and I mean very long, setup. To cut to the chase, the good Professor swallows this black heart, develops a ravenous appetite and loses all interest in hygienic concerns. His students titter and stare when their teacher shows up for work, strung out and encrusted, but something evil is brewing inside the man. It emerges one night, in an explosion of slime and tentacles that come snaking out and turn Jack's fellow students into fang-toothed abominations. Jack's rage finally finds an outlet and you can well imagine the rest. It's a simple story really, but like any good horror film, the trick lies not in reinventing the wheel, but in the attendant details that add interest, novelty and colour.

Been there, filmed that

To make a very crude analogy, horror films are a bit like porn; there are only so many ways to film people getting offed. The beauty lies in the buildup, the anticipation of the event, and the eventual payoff -- too long an exposition, too little a bloody mayhem, and an audience feels cheated. It's a delicate balancing act, and one that has been so well done in the past, current films often seem little more than a tired rehash of the same old ideas.

Every boy (and occasionally girl) who grew up longing to make the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine has probably dreamt of making a monster movie. Directors who cut their teeth with monsters have gone on to craft some crackling great films. Director Joe Dante comes easily to mind here. He may be a schlock-meister, but he's got wit and style, and a deep abiding love of the genre. Genuine love and sincerity is something you just can't fake when it comes to horror films.

In this aspect, Jack Brooks is a frustrating experience. The love is simply not there. You want to support it -- it's Canadian, low budget, has a few good ideas -- but you wish it was better than it is. Co-written and co-produced by Trevor Matthews, who also plays the title character, the film has some obvious problems. The most grievous of these is pacing. The film front loads a heaping pile of exposition into the beginning of the film and ends abruptly, just as things are beginning to ramp up. There are a few stand out bits including a wry bit of back-story recounted by an ancient hardware store clerk. Matthews has a nice screen presence, and even in the grip of eye-popping fury he seems a like an okay guy. But moments of genuine fright are thin to nonexistent. In lieu of pure fear, nastiness and dark humour are supposed to suffice, but modern irony, mixed with blood and slime, has also been done to death. Robert Englund’s thespian-run-amok routine is painful and the monster he turns into is about as terrifying as Sesame Street's Snuffalufagus.

Sorry for not being polite

Still, the notion of a man out of place in polite society is an interesting one. Jack's killing rage is useful in a world full of monsters, but in the ordinary world of dead-end jobs and nagging women, it has no place. The ending of the film leaves room for sequels to follow, but whether there will be sufficient demand for another Jack Brooks outing remains to be seen. Although in this current moment of 'no-new-ideas-under-the-sun,' it probably has a fair chance.

There's a reason that studios keep remaking classic horror films. Aside from the fact that they always make money, the rules are well established and it's an easy investment for both audiences and filmmakers. Thus you will soon see big screen remakes of Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, even The Rocky Horror Picture Show (I know it’s not a really a horror movie. I’m just so shocked that anyone would think this was a good idea). Smaller independent films, such as Jack Brooks, can ride the coattails of these behemoths.

But what of films that truly test the boundaries, and break scary new ground? A friend asked me the other day if there was any such thing as a good alternative horror film. They do exist. The Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal just wrapped up more than three weeks of screenings, and the Toronto Film Festival recently announced its Midnight Madness lineup for the year. Most major festivals have a midnight contingent, which is where you will find gems like Let the Right One In, a Swedish vampire film that mixes coming-of-age drama with blood and snow. You can't be afraid to take fear seriously, and the common tendency to make death into a bloody joke, gets downright tiresome very quickly. Horror is no laughing matter, people.

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