Studio: Chiller Films
Director: Gregg Bishop
Writer: Ben Collins, Luke Piotrowski
Producer: Gary Binkow, Jude S. Walko, Brad Miska
Stars: Chase Williamson, Hannah Fierman, Justin Welborn, Hayes Mercure, Michael Aaron Milligan, Randy McDowell, Brittany Hall, Lindsey Garrett, William Mark McCullough
A bachelor accidentally unleashes a seductive creature confined inside a mysterious underground occult club.
A case can be made that of the centerpiece segments in “found footage” anthology “V/H/S” (review here), “Amateur Night” seems least ripe for a full-length expansion. David Bruckner and Nicholas Tecosky’s “Tales from the Crypt”-style short of three douchey dudes and their ill-fated stab at sleazy sex maybe has wiggle room to fluff its key character’s mythology. But already overlong at 20 minutes, its stretched exposition of repugnant barfly behavior and belabored beast reveal don’t scream that significant story depth was left on the table. Someone thought we needed a 90-minute rip of obnoxious raunchiness leading to a one-time payoff of “she’s actually a creature!” carnage?
Not exactly. Much like writer Eric Heisserer did by turning the two-minute short “Lights Out” into an unexpectedly robust feature screenplay (review here), scripters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski take “Amateur Night’s” wafer-thin premise and inventively inject character, complexity, and creativity for surprisingly full-bodied fiction with follow-up film “SiREN” (the title is intentionally styled with capital letters save a lowercase ‘i’).
Director Gregg Bishop’s calculating cinematic eye then sprightly moves momentum from beat to beat through smart staging and snappy spacing. Puff in personality from Chase Williamson as the kind-hearted hero and Justin Welborn as his cold-blooded foil, and “SiREN” comes out ahead with meatier material than one might think possible given the shallow source short.
You don’t need to see or to revisit “V/H/S,” which is for the best, to get the gist of “SiREN.” The film is neither prequel, sequel, nor remake of “Amateur Night,” though parent and child share a setup and effectively take place in the same space.
Gone is the “found footage” format. Also gone is “Amateur Night’s” trio of misogynist miscreants, whom “SiREN” thankfully exchanges for the infinitely more tolerable quartet of Jonah, his brother, and two bachelor partying pals. This foursome is harmlessly goofy about sending Jonah’s singlehood out in style, making their quips, comments, and jabs at each other legitimately laugh-out-loud funny instead of boorishly bothersome.
The boys end up at 50 North/40 West, a mysterious club seemingly designed by Clive Barker in collaboration with Saturday Night Live’s Stefon. Hallways built on supernatural substance of sin, sorrow, and sex find themselves filled with seductive strippers, snake-haired bartenders, and burly bouncers wearing “Eyes Wide Shut” masks. Jonah and company aren’t quite sure if they’re still tripping on shrooms swallowed earlier or if they’ve somehow stepped into an occult underworld located somewhere between “Hostel” and “Hellraiser.”
Proprietor Mr. Nyx presents an unusual proposition. For the price of a few fond memories from his friends’ minds, Jonah can have a unique encounter with Lily, a strange beauty as eerily awkward as she is enchantingly exotic. Jonah’s bewildered buddies get branded with unusual marks and Jonah gets seduced by a song Lily sings from the other side of a door.
Jonah comes out of his trance and spots the lock on Lily’s room. Convinced Mr. Nyx is keeping her captive, Jonah gets his best friend Rand to help mount a rescue while Mac and Elliott gas the getaway car outside. Only after breaking her out do Jonah and Rand discover Lily is no mere mortal woman. She is a confused creature determined to make Jonah her mate. And she will mutate into a monster to scorch any earth standing in her way. As if Lily isn’t trouble enough, there’s also the alarming matter of Mr. Nyx, who has his own sinister ways of retrieving what he wants from Jonah.
“SiREN” gets a great deal of gas from its engaging first act. Situational silliness is organically amusing without forcing anything to be funny. The feeling is far from a strict horror/comedy classification, instead functioning as a natural way to disarm the viewer while giving characters a humorous halo establishing them as endearing. Or endearing enough that an hour in their company isn’t terribly torturous.
Once the men make it inside the underground club, the mood ramps quickly from charmingly offbeat to disturbingly weird. The shift is so slick that a veil of dread settles in slowly. Like Jonah’s group, you want to see all the strange secrets this place hides, yet are afraid a suddenly pulled rug could reveal your eyes are in over their heads. Of all the oddities introduced in this exposition, Lily actually takes a backseat to the more absorbing presence of Mr. Nyx and his crazy cavalcade of freaky creeps.
“SiREN” buckles a bit on the backside when the script starts trading in quick wit dialogue and characterization for a frantic string of herky-jerky action. The front end is heavy on elements adding intrigue to the film’s lore and environment. The latter half then loses a lot of that identity by repeating scene after scene of chase, capture, kill, and chase again.
Nevertheless, Bishop and his cast manage to tighten such strings before they get too loose by keeping energy high, and the film feeds from that enthusiasm. “SiREN” may mire itself in repetitive sequences when it doesn’t know how else to advance the plot, though once full speed peaks, the pace at least never slows down to idle.
“SiREN” also feels the bite of its budget with some CGI effects stepping a toe outside their scope. (The bartender’s memory leech should be one worm instead of a full head of wonkily wiggling Medusa hair.) Yet the overall crispness of the film eclipses even a few spots of too-dark cinematography. “SiREN” is probably the best looking production from Chiller Films to date, and their most consistently entertaining movie too. “SiREN” might skip on a few ice patches here and there. But it lands in a sweet spot of mildly wild monster movie with a dash of otherworldly appeal tailored terrifically for a fright night tinged with fun.
Review Score: 75