Desolate (2013)

Disaster strikes the downtown of a major city.  There is an explosion, a fireball, and a sudden stream of panicked news reports.  Was it an act of terrorism? Was it a meteor crashing to Earth?  Or was it something else, something far more frightening?.

Chad (Jez Bonham) is very drunk — and very angry.  He just broke up with his girlfriend, Annie (Teagan Vincze), and thinks his best friend, Devon (Justin Sproule)  is responsible.  But when the two see the explosion in the distance, he immediately wants to find out if she is safe.

But he can’t get into the inner city, and he can’t reach her on her phone.  So Chad holes up in his apartment, ignores all the warnings to evacuate, and keeps calling her.

Unfortunately, he does not seem to be alone in the deserted city:  something else is out there, and it is deadly…

Desolate made a huge splash in the independent circuit when it first came out, and played at major festivals like Sci Fi London.  It was one of the most minimal films ever made:  Rob Grant and three of his actor friends made it over a series of weekends during a three year period, while he was working on his second feature, Mon Ami, with a single camera with three borrowed lenses, a few bits of rented equipment, no crew, a cast of three, and with most of the film set in his own apartment.  They had no formal script, his cast improvised most of their actions and dialogue (and helped fill in their characters’ backstories) and they took advantage of the Vancouver Winter Olympics to create their scenes of roadblocks and emergency vehicles around the city.

However, despite its bargain-basement origins, the film is beautifully made and looks better than many professional films do.  What is more, it remains suspenseful and compelling throughout, thanks to a sterling editing job.

Perhaps the film starts to lag just a little towards the middle, but then something happens that changes the situation, leading to a sudden and violent finale that isn’t at all what we’ve been expecting.

I’ll confess that I’m not entirely happy with the ending:  I’m pretty sure I know what happens, but it really could have used a lot more clarity.  I went back through the film, but despite the fact that it seems significant later on, I can’t tell what color eyes one of the main characters has!

And, yes, Chad is a jerk.  He’s improved a bit by the end, but perhaps he is too unsympathetic as he is the center of the film.

Rob Grant has since gone on to make several other films, but I suspect that this is the one they’ll remember him for:  while it is solid and well-crafted film, with a professional polish, it is boldly minimal and a solid entry into genres we normally think have to be backed up with lots of expensive effects and digital wizardry.  Yes, he did add a few digital tweaks here and there (particularly the mushroom cloud in the opening sequence).

But that doesn’t change the fact that he made this film for next to nothing:  no more than a few thousand dollars — and most of that spent on “catering” (i.e., feeding his friends the odd lunch or dinner) and insurance.

So by all means watch it if you are looking for something that doesn’t fit neatly into the standard Hollywood pattern,  which offers not merely suspense, thrills and even a few chills, but which does so with the sort of lo-fi purity the Dogme movement aspired to.

This is a very modest film.  And it isn’t afraid to say so.

But it is still effective and entertaining.

Now if only Hollywood would learn how to make films like this.

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