Movie Review ~ Unhuman

The Facts:

Synopsis: Seven misfit students must unite against a growing gang of unhuman savages.
Stars: Brianne Tju, Benjamin Wadsworth, Uriah Shelton, Ali Gallo, Drew Scheid, Lo Graham, Peter Giles
Director: Marcus Dunstan
Rated: NR
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review: Two short weeks ago, we talked about Torn Hearts, a Blumhouse Television and EPIX production that hit a dandy of a sweet spot melding horror and the country music scene.  A low-budget effort that still had the flair and, most importantly, the ambition of a project with double its budget, that movie was an easy to recommend a bit of entertainment from the streaming service as well as the television branch of Jason Blum’s film production company.  Never short on product, EPIX and Blumhouse Television are back with Unhuman, another offering drawing blood from the same ghoulish vein as Torn Hearts, albeit in an entirely different realm of the horror genre.

Cheekily positing itself as a twisted After-School Special, writers Patrick Melton (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) and Marcus Dunstan (Piranha 3DD, who also directs) get the film off to a rollicking start via an introduction of the stock characters.  Nice girl Ever (Brianne Tju, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged) and not quite as nice best friend Tamra (Ali Gallo) join their classmates for a 4H field trip into the backwoods.  You’ve got your jock (Uriah Shelton, Freaky) and his trophy girlfriend (Lo Graham, This Is the End) as well as the token minority friend (C.J. LeBlanc, Just Mercy), not to mention two teens ripe for bullying (Drew Scheid, Halloween and Lucy Burvant) and the brooding object of multiple affections (Benjamin Wadsworth).  Chaperoning them is a wise-cracking teacher (Owen Wilson impersonator Peter Giles) and a grumpy bus driver.

We’ve barely met this troupe before an accident sends their bus careening off the road and puts them face to face with an outside danger no amount of extracurricular credit could have prepared them.  Radio broadcasts drop few clues, but it’s clear they’re on their own for the immediate future, so staying on the bus to be picked off one by one isn’t an option.  Not that the vicious creature circling the bus is giving them much of choice in that matter, either.  As the class separates and begins to learn more about themselves and the events leading up to the day, they’ll see that while they have been fending off a multiplying horde of ghouls, the cause of it all might be one of their own.

For a good chunk of Unhuman, Dunstan has a good thing going, and it’s primarily attributed to a game cast who takes the material only as seriously as it will allow.  Possessing several nicely placed twists along the way, I found it easy to stay engaged with the group. While all are playing specific archetypes of the teen genre, none entirely settle into comfortable ways of approaching these familiar characters.  I especially liked Tju (so good in the upcoming Winona Ryder movie The Cow), who leads Unhuman with grit that carries it through the back half when its low-budget skeleton starts to show. 

It’s disappointing that the filmmakers couldn’t land the ending, and if I’m being honest, it gets messy as it moves toward the finale.  Almost feeling like there was a rush to complete the movie, there’s a mish-mash quality to those last moments, which are incongruent with the pleasant surprises presented up until that point.  Unhuman is strong enough for me to offer it as a worthy suggestion as a 90-minute diversion, but you’ll need to level-set your expectations near the finish line.

Movie Review ~ Torn Hearts

The Facts:

Synopsis: A country music duo seeks out their idol and ends up in a twisted series of horrors that force them to confront the limits they’d go for their dreams.
Stars: Katey Sagal, Abby Quinn, Alexxis Lemire, Joshua Leonard, Shiloh Fernandez
Director: Brea Grant
Rated: NR
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Horror is a genre that can be mighty deceiving to unsuspecting audiences, creating many unhappy campers that have selected their watch based on shaky marketing. Sure, the poster looks spooky and slick, but the film is a bottom-of-the-barrel cheap-o endeavor that barely rises above home movie footage. So, you must be smart and look at the studio releasing it. You can tell a lot from the production company that either puts their money into the movie as a financer or picks up the film after completion for distribution. Either way, they’re putting a stamp of approval on it that speaks to their brand.

Admittedly, Blumhouse Productions have a line of stinkers in their roster, and this is going to be a positive review of Torn Hearts, so I’m going to leave them out. Instead, let’s focus on the good ones that far outweigh the bad apples. Titles like Paranormal Activity, Get Out, Happy Death Day, The Purge, and the 2018 Halloween are their bread and butter, not to mention all their numerous sequels. While the pandemic slowed the pace of their production slightly, they had no trouble ramping back up quickly once cameras were rolling again. However, not all are meant for big-screen releases, and that’s where an intriguing effort like director Brea Grant’s Torn Hearts comes in. Debuting through Blumhouse Television and EPIX (as well as other pay-to-play sites like Amazon Prime), it mixes a dangerous cocktail of bold ambition, country music, and bloody brutality.

Nashville country duo Torn Hearts checks most of the boxes that signal they are ready to begin a long career in the business. Jordan (Abby Quinn, Little Women) is the songwriter and guitarist singing harmony along with Leigh (Alexxis Lemire, The Half of It), who tackles the melody while playing tambourine. Leigh is the more marketable of the two, and both know it, though they also recognize they are stronger working as a team than as solo artists. While Leigh is dating their manager (Joshua Leonard, Four Good Days), Jordan can’t stand to see her friend fall into that cliché trap. 

A chance introduction to country superstar Caleb (Shiloh Fernandez, The Evil Dead) hints at the possibility of opening for him on tour, but the women wind up with what they imagine to be a real jackpot. Caleb came close to recording a comeback single with the antisocial Harper Dutch (Katey Sagal, Pitch Perfect 2), half of a sister act that retreated from the public eye after Harper’s sister killed herself while she watched. Caleb gives Jordan Harper’s address, and before you know it, the women have skipped their early morning recording session for a quick jaunt to meet their idol. 

They find a nervy, finger-tapping recluse who resists meeting them at first but, after sizing them up, decides to hear them play. Seeing something in both women reminding her of what she once had with her sister, Harper invites the duo to stay and collaborate on a song…or so they think. Preying on both of their insecurities in increasingly manipulative and violently bizarre methods, Harper tests their strength as individuals to see if they have what it takes to remain unified or if their idea of fame is more focused on a solo spotlight.   

I feel that Torn Hearts might have still worked if it hadn’t had celebrated television star and former Bette Midler backup singer Sagal in a central role, but it absolutely would have lacked the bite Sagal brings. There’s a certain authenticity, especially in the limited singing Sagal is allowed to do, that makes you believe her unhinged character has the potential for enacting any mayhem she chooses. Sagal is working in The Zone, and it elevates the film from a random horror/thriller to a level of more sophistication. She’s supported nicely by Quinn’s acerbic Sara Gilbert in Roseanne-esque take on an alternative modern woman in country music. If Lemire winds up feeling a bit soft, it’s only due to writer Rachel Koller Croft designing her to be a bit of a limp noodle throughout. Besides, once Sagal enters the film around twenty minutes in, all you’ll be wanting is more more more of her.

Director Grant balances time between acting (so great in The Stylist and Lucky) and directing (12 Hour Shift) and clearly has a talent for this genre, especially for creating strong female protagonists (even if they are off their rockers) with a clear point of view. I appreciate that Blumhouse Television and EPIX is making room for filmmakers like Grant and Croft and giving roles to actresses like Sagal while expanding the careers of Quinn and Lemire. All have experience in the industry, but the extra exposure of a well-made release like Torn Hearts increases their value.