A nearly two-year film festival favorite that has finally received a nationwide theatrical release in select markets, "Hatchet" is a zinger of a throwback to the days of barebones but purely fun 1980s slasher flicks. All of the hallmarks of such are on display: a group of diverse and frequently nubile characters, an isolated and threatening setting, ample nudity, socko death scenes, gore galore, a legend that the story is based upon, and a villain who, for the very first time this decade, has what it takes to stand head and shoulders next to the likes of Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Leatherface. While many of the lesser and more derivative pictures of its ilk ultimately wallowed in poor production values, worse acting, and a so-bad-it's-good appeal, "Hatchet" has a leg up by being professionally made (on a shoestring $1-million budget) and knowledgeable about how to actually scare an audience. It's also not without some very funny moments that thankfully do not intrude on the seriousness of its thrills.
The film has a classic setup. Would-be Mardi Gras reveler Ben (Joel David Moore) is bummed out by being recently dumped by his girlfriend. Desiring to get away from it all, Ben, along with resentful but faithful best friend Marcus (Deon Richmond), pass up the New Orleans festivities in lieu of buying tickets to a haunted nighttime boat tour of the Louisiana bayou. Also onboard is inept tour guide Shawn (Parry Shen), touristy husband and wife Mr. Permatteo (Richard Riehle) and Mrs. Permatteo (Patrika Darbo), sleazy director Shapiro (Joel Murray), aspiring actresses Misty (Mercedes McNab) and Jenna (Joleigh Fioreavanti), and all-business loner Marybeth (Tamara Feldman). When the boat carrying them hits a rock and subsequently sinks, stranding them in the middle of the swamps, they come face to face with the murderous local legend that is Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder). Long thought to be dead, this half-deformed/half-disfigured psycho roams the bayous, murdering anyone who trespasses on his land.
"Hatchet" is the impressive directorial debut of Adam Green, a filmmaker with the talent to go far. His first film is a loving, rough-and-wild tribute to the kind of genre pics that saturated the marketplace as a result of the success of 1978's "Halloween
." Instead of spoofing the older movies, as in 2007's "Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
," "Hatchet" mostly plays things straight even as Green delights in tweaking conventions and writing characters who are naturally humorous and all the more likable because of it. Unlike in Rob Zombie's recent "Halloween
," where the viewer was at a loss when it came to caring about any of the obnoxious twits in front of the camera, the mincemeat fodder here are infinitely more appealing. When any of them meet a horrible end, you are sorry to see them go because of the valuable and easy dynamic they have created within the fast-dwindling ensemble.
Praise Adam Green's screenplay, too, for finally seeing fit to write a black character in a horror film who isn't a blatant racial stereotype, an excuse for cheesy one-liners, or the first person to die. As played by Deon Richmond (2000's "Scream 3
"), Marcus' sense of humor is amusing, but in a way that blends in with the other characters rather than calls attention to itself. Some of the other actors are also better than the '80s decade normally allowed. Of them, Joel David Moore (2006's "Grandma's Boy
") is a curious choice for the lead role of Ben because he doesn't fit the typical moldin short, he's long, lanky and a little nebbishbut that is part of why he's easy to relate to. Tamara Feldman (2007's "Perfect Stranger
"), as Marybeth, is more along the line of what to expect from the female lead, but she shows fright and strength equally well and sells the role. Mercedes McNab (TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") is a hoot as the airheaded Misty, who earnestly believes cops and police are two separate things when she tries to dial 9-1-1 on her cell phone. Parry Shen (2004's "First Daughter
") is an entertaining standout as the novice tour guide in way over his head. And Tony Todd (2003's "Final Destination 2
"), in a memorable cameo, has a grand time hamming it up as Rev. Zombie, the runner of a voodoo shop who recommends the boat tour to Ben and Marcus.
As for Kane Hodder (2003's "Freddy vs. Jason
"), he creates a new and genuinely unsettling slasher in the form of the monstrous Victor Crowley, as well as essays the melancholy part of Victor's father in a choice flashback sequence that depicts the Halloween holiday with more flair and atmosphere than the "Halloween
" remake does. Huge in stature, vastly imposing, appropriately ghoulish and apt to spring up on his victims when they (and the viewer) least expects him to, Victor Crowley is a no-holds-barred psycho of the highest order. He's everything a villain in this breed of film should be, and used just sporadically enough that he retains his threat every time he shows up.
Moodily photographed by Will Barratt and with a music score by Andy Garfield that alternates between tense, creepy cues and a few upbeat, whimsical ones that are at wonderfully perverse odds with the mayhem about to occurkeep your ears open during the scene when the scare bus takes off for the tour"Hatchet" is for this reviewer's money the best horror film so far this year. Writer-director Adam Green makes no pretenses for what he has set out to make and, save for a few scenes where the on-and-off bickering between characters goes on too long, the pacing never flags. Certain moments toy with the audience in very effective ways, such as one lingering shot involving sounds coming from a bush, and there are at least four or five genuine jolts scattered throughout to keep the viewer on edge. Meanwhile, an easy setup for a sequel is, for once, welcome; Victor Crowley is too good not to get his own franchise. Whether seen as a stand-alone film or the beginning of a series, it makes no difference. For any self-respecting horror fan, "Hatchet" is an amusing, spooky, visceral, smartly crafted breath of fresh air.