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August 2010

The Blackout

cast: Barbara Streifel Sanders, Joseph Dunne, Ian Malcolm, and Abigail Droeger

director: Robert David Sanders

76 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Kaleidoscope DVD Region 2 retail
[released 30 August]

RATING: 3/10
review by Mark West

The Blackout
Opening with an incredible helicopter tracking shot into L.A., this takes place on Christmas eve and, as the opening credits roll, we see several (very nicely framed) street scenes, most of them looking into the Sun as a news reporter informs us that earth tremors have been felt in the area all day and power outages are increasing. Sounds ominous...

We then meet the cast - the Pierce family are settling down for dinner: Mum, Elizabeth (played by Barbara Streifel Sanders, who also produced), Dad, Daniel (Joseph Dunne), ne'er do well brother-in-law Dylan (Ian Malcolm), and the kids Ashley (Abigail Droeger), and Kyle (Tyler Armstrong). We also meet Claire Devane (Caroline Rich), who we assume is an actress and the wife of Ethan (Michael Caruso); Freddy Appleton (Anthony Tedesco), a radio ham who also happens to own the building; Brett (John Gorman), and his soon-to-be fianc�e Kerri (Alexis Zibolis), who makes several mentions of her 'great rack', which the audience never gets to see; the building superintendent Nigel (Horace Martin) and, unbelievably for a film this length, another half dozen who are immediately forgettable.

The earth tremors get worse, the power goes out more frequently, and then Kyle (remember, he's the kid from the Pierce family), goes down to the basement to retrieve a Christmas present... Down there, he spots a hole in the ground, and several (dreadfully executed) creatures, that looked to me like oversized wood lice. Then the power goes out completely.

As per my usual method of reviewing, I didn't look up any information on the film - and the screeners don't come with cover art - so I had no idea what this was going to be about. From the steady start, with some very nice shots and the introduction of the huge cast (and the naturalistic way they dealt with one another), I assumed that this would be a drama about a group of disparate folk who are united as they struggle with a massive power outage in Los Angeles. If only. You, dear reader, have the advantage over me because you've seen the DVD cover and so you know that there are some nasty alien/ monsters in this film and that its tagline is "when the lights go out, the feeding begins."

There is a lot wrong with this film. In fact, apart from a very nice build-up (for a different film altogether), this doesn't have a lot of good points at all... So where to begin? There are too many characters for a 76-minute film and, even though most of them are there purely as fodder for the beasties, we know as much about the person who lasts five minutes as we do about those who make it to the end. None of the characters act as most normal people would and often change their characteristics as time goes by. The production design has a good feel to it until you realise that it was probably filmed in the Ravenwood apartment block as shown, since when sets are used (especially the mineshaft), the difference in quality is startling.

The leaps in logic this takes are quite astonishing. The scientists can figure out all that seismic activity, but none of them can see the huge 'termite hill' things that shoot up out of the ground? The little girl can be trapped in the basement with at least one creature, regularly scream and knock things over, but still manage to get into a lift (through heavy doors that it takes two male characters to open) and, without the aid of electricity, get the lift up to the top of the building.

Then, finally, we come to the last two negative points I'll make - both of which are key to the film's success and, with both of them failing so badly, completely destroy said film. The film is titled The Blackout and takes place over Christmas Eve night. Freddy, somehow, establishes that the creatures emit an electro-magnetic pulse (no, me either) that stops lights (and torches) from working and means you're always in the dark around them. It's supposed to be dark, okay? Well, apart from one poor matte shot that tries to explain the illumination away because the moon is full and bright, the director of photography obviously hadn't read the script.

Every scene is lit so that you can see the back of the set - from apartments (with outside windows, of course), to interior stairwells, lift shafts, lifts, store cupboards, the basement, everything. Characters grope along, pretending they can't see and we, the viewer, can see everything. Now I don't want to spend 70 minutes looking at a black screen and listening to a radio play, but it's not even as if the lighting scheme is dulled. Why call the blackout if you're not going to use the dark for even a modicum of suspense? You know, all you can see are the characters' eyes but the sound design lets you know that something is coming, edging ever closer, you can hear its rasping breath and wish it was lighter until...

And that point leads me nicely to the last big problem with this film - the monsters. Now I'm not a fan of CGI and prefer practical effects every day of the week but come on. If you're going to put a man in a suit, try to be original with your design not to rip off Alien. And if you're going to have close-ups of his monster's head, put enough mechanics and electrics into the mask to make it seem like something other than a papier m�ch� Halloween treat knocked up at an infant school.

A little bit of logic would be nice too - they have weird scorpion like tails (CGI effect) and nobody told the cast about these, since they wave around in long shots and nobody bothers - but get close-up and there's a practical tail and people start screaming for their mothers. The monsters look silly, at the end of the day and it wouldn't surprise me if I found out the film had rented the costumes from a joke shop.

Whilst it's admittedly very nice to see men in suits, these are too bland to work and often end up as homage to other monsters - the way they race up the lift shaft at the end is so reminiscent of Aliens, I imagine that if James Cameron was ever stupid enough to watch this, he'd be straight on the phone to his lawyer. Whilst we're speaking of poor CGI, if you're going to use digital blood, could you remember to colour in a patch on the floor and leave it there?

With a terrible ending - setting up for a sequel without explaining who or what the monsters were, where they came from, what the termite hills were for and how they remained undetected - this wasn't Uwe Boll territory, but it was certainly a painful way to spend 76 minutes.

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