Review Date: October 29, 2009
Released by: Anchor Bay
Release date: 9/29/2009
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes
There was once a time when success in your chosen field was good enough. Those days have passed, however, and anybody who sees a significant level of success now needs to branch out. Actors need to direct, 50 Cent needs to make video games. Sometimes these ventures make sense. Rob Zombieís directorial career makes senseÖ well, on paper, at least. A strange pairing, however, is Adam Sandler and horror movies. However, the venture Scary Madison is just such a pairing. Okay, I have to admit that the idea of arguably the most successful comic actor in the world making horror films is an intriguing one. Itís hard not to be skeptical considering that Sandlerís bread and butter has traditionally been lowbrow high concept comedies while his attempts at more serious fare tend to fall flat. Based on a script by his brother Scott and directed by Grandmaís Boy
auteur Nicholaus Goossen, The Shortcut
is the first film from this venture. Is The Shortcut
a trip worth taking, or does it stray too far from the path?
Near the end of his senior year, and still dealing with the loss of his father, Derek (Drew Seeley
), his mother (Wendy Anderson
) and his younger brother Tobey (Nicholas Elia
) move in with Derekís grandmother (Maxine Miller
). Derek is having trouble adjusting to his new school. He quit rowing crew and, despite having a couple of friends, really hasnít found a social niche to fit in. His coach, his mother and his guidance counselor are all concerned with how his aloofness in his senior year will affect his college going career. His is also pining for the affections of the school hottie Christy (Katrina Bowden
), oblivious to the affection his friend Lisa (Shannon Woodward
) has for him.
One day on the way home from school, a couple of classmates dare Tobey to take ďthe shortcutĒ, a woodsy path behind the elementary school that is the source of local legend. On the path he finds a gutted dog. As he investigates, he is startled and then threatened by the creepy ďOld ManĒ (Raymond J. Barry
). When Tobey returns home, frightened and caked in dried blood, Derek asks around about the old man and slowly the details of the story surrounding the shortcut begin to emerge. In the 1940ís some people went missing while taking the shortcut. The disappearances were connected to the affluent Hartley family, after which the elementary school is named, but no bodies were ever found and nothing was ever proved. The old man is apparently the last surviving member of the Hartley clan and may or may not have had something to do with the disappearances.
When Taylor (Josh Emerson
), the captain of the football, team hears about Tobeyís encounter he asks Derek about the dog that had been killed worried that Tobey found his dog, which had been missing for a few days. The two decide to investigate the old farmhouse where the man lives. Their investigation is a failure; the old man discovers them and chases them off his land. When he shows up the next day at Derekís work in full on intimidation mode, Derek and Taylor, along with best friend Mark (Dave Franco
), smart girl Lisa and school hottie Christy begins a campaign of spying that they hope will uncover the truth behind the legend. Unfortunately for them, the secret of the shortcut is far more bizarre than any of them could have imagined.
The title The Shortcut
is actually pretty great. Itís simple, yet is still able to evoke a sense of an EC-style morality play or classic campfire tale. Unfortunately, the film itself takes neither approach. Instead, The Shortcut
tries to be a psychodrama. The problem is that the characters arenít particularly well drawn, the plot is muddled and the pacing id leaden. Thereís never any suspense, scares or interesting characters to hold our attention to the screen.
A lot of time is time spent setting up the simplistic yet overly complicated plot where the emphasis is on delivering exposition. When some characters are so underdeveloped that they arenít even given names and are billed simply as ďDerekís momĒ or ďGrandmaĒ itís pretty clear that the filmmakers didnít care about these characters as anything but exposition dispensers. There is attempt to make the focal teen characters a bit more three-dimensional than your average horror film fodder; the main character isnít a brain or a jock, just a normal kid, the smart girl is also pretty and socially active, the hot girl isnít a bitch and the jock isnít a meat head with an inferiority complex. I will give credit where due. Itís obvious that the filmmakers set out to create a film that was more character driven. They failed, but itís an admirable aim nonetheless.
Shannon Woodward creates, by far, the most likeable character. She an appealing presence and Iíd like to see her in more genre films. Iíd like to see what she could do with a meatier role.
There are a lot of references to the characters and their involvement in extracurricular sports. One or two references help establish the characters, but itís brought up so often that it seems like its being set up as important to the story. Itís really just a blind alley. One of many blind alleys the film leads us down before reversing course. Why is it important that Lisaís dadís a bookie? Again itís set up as if itís going to be important to the plot only to be completely dropped mid way through.
The teen drama scenes are intercut with the mystery scenes so the film never finds a consistent tone or rhythm. Thereís no sense of menace carried over from the darker scenes and thereís no sense of danger or that there are real stakes on the line. It really feels like a television pilot where the concern is not telling a self-contained story but with introducing enough characters and plots to carry an entire season.
The idea of having a horror film that intercuts between two time periods and then links the two story threads at the conclusion is an ambitious one. The problem is that the scenes set in the past have no sense of time and place; they feel more like a high school drama club production and the scenes in the present have nothing to draw our interest. The flashback scenes are also intentionally obtuse so the big reveal winds up being a ďhuh?Ē rather than a gasp.
Twist endings are a tricky thing. If well conceived and if the rest of the film earns it, then they can leave you stunned. However, when theyíre poorly thought out or arbitrarily thrown in for shock value, they are infuriating and cheap. The Shortcut
doesnít earn its twist (actually itís kind of a mild double twist) in two ways: firstly it doesnít give us enough information that we couldíve figured it out on our own and secondly it doesnít engage us enough throughout to care.
Sometimes a single outstanding element can elevate the rest of the film: strong direction can overcome poor acting, or exceptional acting can over come a lack of technical polish. The Shortcut
is an entirely by the numbers effort that doesnít excel in any way that could elevate the rest of the film enough to save it. Beyond some of the themes, itís not really even a horror film. Itís not structured or paced as one and thereís precious little in the way of attempted scares, much less actual ones.
Like most films in this postmodern age, there are pop culture references shoehorned into the film. The intent, beyond product placement revenues, is usually to place the film in a time and give it texture. Everything else about the movie is so bland and vanilla that the references to Michael Vick or Xbox just pop out and are distracting, the complete opposite of what they should be.
Nicholaus Goossen isnít an untalented director. Grandmaís Boy
was a great, lowbrow comedy. A gripping psychological thriller, however, just seems a little beyond his ability at this point in time. The few potentially scary scenes are botched. For example, in the opening murder thereís an insert shot that telegraphs what could have been a great out-of-nowhere shock. The Shortcut
was shot in just 18 days and was originally conceived as an R-rated film before the rating was downgraded and an entire week of principal photography slashed from the schedule before shooting and it shows.
Itís not outside of the realm of possibility to make a great, truly frightening film with a PG-13 rating. The problem is that horror is usually entails taking risks and pushing the envelope and thatís pretty hard to do with the constraint of a family friendly rating. That said there is certainly a spectrum within the PG-13 category. If last yearís The Dark Knight
proved anything, it demonstrated that itís possible to have maximum visceral impact with minimal onscreen bloodshed. The makers of The Shortcut
, however, play it way too safe. Aside from a single F-bomb, thereís not even anything here thatís much above PG territory. The whole film is clean and safe and utterly bland.
Is there any way that The Shortcut
could have worked? Not really. Even if they sprayed the grue on with a fire hose it couldnít distract from the shopworn plot, the thinly drawn characters or the poor writing. The PG-13 rating just ensured that it would just suck that much harder.
As an aside: am I totally crazy or does Drew Seeley look like a young Paul Walker?
If I wasnít impressed with the film itself, its presentation here is actually pretty solid. The transfer is quite good. Flesh tones are spot on; the day scenes are nice and bright, with green grass and blue skies really popping off the screen. Reds are stable without bleeding. Fine detail is well represented. The director uses the antiquated technique of shooting some of the close ups of the ladies in soft focus, which gives certain scenes a blurry, soap opera look to them. Itís a stark contrast to the, well, starkly contrasty night shots. Thatís a stylistic choice, however, and shouldnít be considered a flaw of the transfer.
Really, my only criticisms are the blacks, which are usually very good but occasionally veer towards gray and some occasional artifacting around sharp edges. Nothing too distracting.
Like the video, the English Dolby digital 5.1 mix is surprisingly solid. While definitely centered around the front, the surrounds are nicely filled with ambient sound effects when appropriate and there are some nice panning effects. There is a decent amount of bass. Itís nothing thatís going to blow the roof off your place even if cranked it to max volume but more effort went into this mix than youíd expect from your average direct-to-video release.
The main extra included is a commentary track by director Nicholaus Goossen. He seems almost breathless at first, trying to impart a vast amount of technical knowledge in a short amount of time. Itís pretty dry and tough to get into but once he catches his breath and slows down heís actually pretty engaging. He never really delves too deep into the story but it is nevertheless fun to hear anecdotes about Adam Sandler seeing the rough cut and offering advice where scares need to be added.
A promotional trailer (1:37) is also included. Surprisingly, it manages to generate a few cheap scares with some effective jump cut editing and stinger sound effects. Now if only the person who cut the trailer cut the movieÖ
There are a lot of reasons why The Shortcut
doesnít work, but most unforgivable of all is that itís boring. The filmmakers go about establishing their plot and taking what feels like eternity to introduce their characters. I canít remember seeing a movie that was so leisurely paced, yet had such sketchily drawn characters. Thereís so little of interest that I canít really recommend it. However, if youíre still bound and determined to watch it, this DVD gives the film a surprisingly strong presentation, although the lack of extras and the high SRP make this a rental at best.
Movie - D+
Image Quality - B-
Sound - B
Supplements - C-
- Running time - 1 hour 25 minutes
- Rated PG-13
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital 5.1
- English subtitles
- Commentary with director Nicholaus Goossen