Image Entertainment // 2008 // 78 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // January 23rd, 2009
At the edge of sanity lies the beginning of fear.
It takes a lot of guts to make a low-budget "twist" movie: if the twist doesn't work, the picture is sunk. With a film like The Sixth Sense, the "twist" ending has the support of millions of dollars worth of Hollywood set dressing, famous actors, and extensive locations, so even if it stinks (or you see it coming after the first 5 minutes) the trip to the multiplex isn't wasted. Indie pics have no such safety net: if the "twist" doesn't work, the viewer is much more likely to feel cheated because the rest of the probably didn't provide much in the way of acting, scenery, or set dressing. Despite a couple of positive points in its favor, Dark Reprieve is a "twist" film likely to leave its audience feeling cheated.
For a plot, we get the tried-and-true two strangers wake up in an abandoned building story. These two struggle with their memories of their arrival while pontificating on what horrific event (apocalypse, serial killer, insanity) has left them stuck in an abandon prison/asylum building. Weird things begin to happen, including the appearance of a wolf and some crazy doctors, and the film mixes flashbacks and flash-forwards to convey the disorientation of our heroes. Intercut with this footage is an interview between a cop and a suspect in a murder investigation. Only at the end do these two stories merge in a grim finale.
I wasn't kidding when I said that if a low-budget film's "twist" failed the audience would be left feeling cheated. I was actually pretty pissed by the end of Dark Reprieve. Seventy minutes of questionable acting and low-budget effects are fine, but not when they lead up to one of the worst "shocking" endings I've ever seen. Parts of the ending are easy to guess (you mean the woman in the prison and the woman being questioned by the cop might somehow be related? I'm shocked. Oh wait, no I'm not.), but the film's conceit is impossible to predict except by random guessing. There are no clues in the rest of the narrative that I saw (and I'm not keen to watch it again to see if I missed anything). Instead, a whopping deus ex machina pointlessly ties everything together, showing the audience what a "Dark Reprieve" might look like. It was asinine, and the worst kind of thriller filmmaking: it's no fun when the audience has no chance of guessing the ending, even if the ending makes sense.
Despite the lame script (and my general antipathy towards the film because of its ending), it's not a total waste. I was actually quite impressed by the caliber of the effects on this production. There's some CG work, as well as an old fashioned man-in-a-rubber-suit style effects, and they all work well above average for this kind of feature. The CG work was an integral part of the ending, and although I didn't like the ending one bit, the effects were well done. I also have to give credit to the director for remembering the cardinal rule of rubber-suit effects: less is more. By only giving us quick glimpses of the monster, it's a lot scarier than if it was rubbed in our faces. Kudos. The prison set/location is also well done, offering decent atmosphere, even if the choice of a limited location seems to be mandated by budget as much as by the story.
As for the DVD itself, that's pretty hard to judge. Image has sent a pre-release screener to our offices, so final specs are subject to change. The video transfer is fairly impressive, with pretty strong blacks and little compression difficulty. The 5.1 audio is a bit of overkill, as the film is very dialogue-heavy. Aside from two trailers (one of them for Dark Reprieve), there are no extras on this disc, although the box promises a gag reel. I'm hoping that more makes it onto the disc before production, as I would have really enjoyed hearing about how the effects were achieved on what was obviously a low budget.
I know it takes a lot to make a film like Dark Reprieve; however it's much easier to admire the creators of this film than it is to admire the product. Because the horrible twist of an ending isn't supported by an otherwise great film, Dark Reprieve is hard to recommend, especially considering the lack of supplements on the DVD.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 78 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Gag Reel
* Theatrical Trailer