No One Lives
Directed by Ryûhei Kitamura.
Written by David Cohen.
Starring Luke Evans, Adelade Clemens, Lee Tergesen, Laura Ramsey, Derek Magyar, Beau Knapp, America Olivo, Brodus Clay, Lindsey Shaw.
US, 86 mins, cert 18.
In a couple of years of film writing/blogging you see a lot of crap, and if you watch a lot of horror movies you may as well multiply the amount of crap by the power of ten (unless you are one of those horror guys with incredibly low standards).
Of course it’s easier to write snappy sarcastic reviews than praise. There are too many specialist horror outlets who seem to exist only to provide five stars and a pull quote about how, say, the remake of I Spit On Your Grave is one of the BEST REMAKES EVAH!!! Conversely the genuine pleasures of a finely crafted genre B picture often seem lost on critics writing for mainstream outlets (with some notable exceptions – Kermode, Floyd, Newman).
And so I want to present a movie you may have missed, Ryûhei Kitamura’s No One Lives, a great example of the kind of glossy hi-octane genre thrillers that studios don’t seem to produce anymore. No One Lives is an incredibly tight 86 minutes of amoral violence, gore and nihilism that hits the exploitation sweet spot so many aim for and miss.
A well heeled couple (Luke Evans and Laura Ramsey) are ‘just passing through’ the back of beyond with a trailer hooked to the back of a shiny BMW. They stop for the night in a motel and after heading out to the only dive-bar-slash-diner in town attract the attention of the Hoag family, a degenerate clan of redneck scumbags who live a life of bottom feeding violent crime. Assuming the ‘tourists’ are travelling with valuable belongings and will have access to fat bank accounts the most hot-headed of the oxycontin mafia takes it upon himself to waylay them on their return to the motel.
The film looks like it is heading for overdone torture porn territory as Flynn ties the couple to chairs in a dingy garage and prepares to extract the PIN numbers out of them with the aid of a big knife. However the film takes a sudden left turn, when a secret compartment is discovered in the back of the BMW containing Emma (Clemens) a terrified girl who shrieks ‘please tell me you killed him’ to the redneck’s general bewilderment.
You see, they haven’t got a yuppie tied up in the garage; they have a mass-murderer who combines the skill sets of Jason Bourne and Hannibal Lector. Yep, it’s immovable rednecks vs. unstoppable serial killer, and whoever wins Emma loses (especially when the rednecks discover that she is an heiress with a $2 million reward for her return).
That’s the setup, it takes about 20 minutes of the running time and from this point on it’s full on carnage.
Screenwriter David Cohen’s deceptively straightforward plot and often hilariously perfunctory dialogue (‘don’t shit where I eat’) hides a rather clever piece of grungy pulp fiction which disguises an action movie within the carcass of a slasher film. From early on the rules of the game are established. It’s very bad guys (and gals) vs. very bad man. This means the gloves are off. Anyone can die, and die horribly and therein lies much of the fun. Even Emma, set up as the apparent ‘final girl,’ is a rather dark character. Emma is involved in a relationship with Evans’ killer that is more complex and twisted than it first appears. The rednecks are pretty much all repellent assholes, while the unnamed psycho has some of the cool of Clint Eastwood at his most ambivalent (think High Plains Drifter) and clearly regards them as subhuman trash that he is going to enjoy taking out with prejudice that goes some way beyond extreme.
Luke Evans is Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers with charm and an education, and most of the best lines involve his complete comfort in his skin (and delight at parting others from theirs). He’s as lethal as The Terminator but capable of wit. By making the Hoag family so unsympathetic he becomes the film’s de facto hero. This is a level of amorality and nihilism that will upset moral guardians (I can’t wait to see some of the reviews) but taken on its own terms is deliciously dark and wrong.
Japanese director Kitamura has tried to bring his delirious brand of kinetic filmmaking to English language audiences before with the ill-fated Clive Barker adaptation The Midnight Meat Train. Here he actually tones down some of his more florid excesses and ramps up the brutality which is to the benefit of the film. At the same time he’s found a script and story with far less flab than Meat Train which suits his style. Kitamura fans shouldn’t worry though, he hasn’t gone dogma95 all of a sudden. The action scenes still flow beautifully, have real crunch and this is a very gory movie.
The grindhouse feel is perfectly captured by ace cinematographer Daniel Pearl shooting on 16mm film. Pearl shot the original Tobe Hopper directed Texas Chain Saw Massacre (and the Marcus Nispel remake) and no-one knows how to make grunge look strikingly artistic any better.
No One Lives is a nearly perfect B-movie; it is completely successful at what it sets out to do. The fact that some people will find what it does completely morally reprehensible is irrelevant. I can pay it no higher praise than to say that it feels like the sort of film Eric Red (Near Dark, Blue Steel, Cohen and Tate) might have written in the eighties. Luke Evans’ anti-hero does share some qualities with Rutger Hauer’s equally lethal and also strangely attractive mass killer in The Hitcher (one of Red’s other screenplays). Evans and Clemens develop a relationship not unlike that of Hauer and C. Thomas Howell in that film. There is a sense that the killer is genuinely in love with his victim and may even be grooming her to carry on his work. Clemens is extremely good in the role, managing to appear both vulnerable and kick ass, and disturbingly lacking in empathy when the rednecks are being sliced and diced.
There are a few minor missteps, in particular there is very gratuitous pair of naked breasts at one point that feel like a salacious studio execs idea of what a horror audience wants to see. However this is balanced by an equally gratuitous appearance by Luke Evans backside.
It’s rather nice to see the figure of the seductive and nearly supernatural serial killer (a horror trope going back to Dracula and beyond) being snatched back from more reputable mainstream works and placed squarely back into the exploitation context from which he was snatched.
A version of this review was previously published on Screenjabber.com