it used to be common knowledge that a first time filmmaker required a foolproof genre in order to make his first film, insuring investors on some kind of return on their gamble. The model used to be people like George Romero with “Night of the Living Dead”, Tobe Hooper with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, John Carpenter with “Halloween” and Sam Raimi with “The Evil Dead”. This model held up due to the need for product, any product to fill the weather-beaten screens of the old drive-ins. Quality was far from the point here, these films were only required to fill 2 dimensions: screen space and screen time, acting as dividers for ads featuring dancing hot dogs.
The drive-in has been dead a long time now, and home video did not really replace it, since that market always placed hopeful horror Indies like “Bad Taste” on the rack next to something starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. As a result, the drive-in films, both drecks and cult classics, had to duke it out in the mainstream markets, not merely with their own kind. Besides, as Roger Corman has stated on many an occasion, the big studios simply swallowed up his niche. Blockbusters such as “Jaws”, “Star Wars” and the Indiana Jones series were big scale exploitation films, and this was now where the mainstream was flowing, and continues to flow.
Today, the first time filmmaker doesn’t want anything to do with foolproof genres, the result of the shift in Hollywood and the rise of the Sundance Film Festival. To separate from a Hollywood driven by exploitable genre product, the first time filmmaker must make a more personal statement, must produce the kind of character driven, dialogue conscious, structurally adventurous cinema that Hollywood has left in its past.
But don’t tell any of that to writer/director Ryan Shifrin. Please, let him keep believing that the drive-ins are still open til dawn and are still serving dancing hot dogs and flat soda by the gallon. Because he’s made a really great drive-in horror pic called “Abominable” and he must have no idea that there are no channels of distribution truly available for this kind of openly trashy and silly movie. Except perhaps the Sci Fi Channel, which is where Shifrin’s movie premiered in May.
To say that “Abominable” is the best movie ever to premiere on the basic cable channel is degrading both to the movie and to Bigfoot. That’s right. This is a Bigfoot movie, and although the title thinks it’s an “abominable” snowman movie, there is little confusion onscreen as the script seems quite aware of the differences in legends, and even invokes such trivial references as “the flatwoods monster” to show that it’s hip to the whole Bigfoot subculture. There is zero pretension in “Abominable” — it’s a Bigfoot picture so you get lots of Bigfoot killing, growling, mutilating, body slamming, eating, running and smashing. You get Bigfoot stalking hot young women who take showers in open windows for him to get turned on or hungry, whichever works for Bigfoot.
Lest you think there is no plot or characters to be found, Mr. Shifrin has provided just what you need in that department as well. Here it is: Matt McCoy (“The Hand that Rocks the Cradle”) plays a wheelchair-bound widower who chooses the completely wrong weekend to revisit the site of his wife’s death. (He’s wheelchair bound because he survived the rock climbing fall that took the life of his wife). Almost immediately after arriving at the appropriately isolated cabin, McCoy soon realizes that a hairy Bigfootian monster is roaming nearby. And to complicate the second act, five fit young ladies rent the cabin across the way to celebrate a bachelorette’s weekend in the woods.
Like James Stewart in “Rear Window”, McCoy watches it all via binoculars and armed with only a computer, telephone and some extreme sports gear. When you add in Lance Henriksen (“Aliens”) and Jeffrey Combs (“Re-Animator”) as dim witted hunters, the late Paul Gleason (“The Breakfast Club”) as a local Sheriff, and Dee Wallace-Stone (“The Howling”), you’ve got a perfectly spiced and mixed dish of monster movie mash. And this is exactly where I find the most enjoyment from “Abominable”. Ryan Shifrin is a first time filmmaker out to prove nothing; he only wants to make a competent and exciting monster flick. This is not to slight Shifrin’s craft at all; in fact, he has more craft then 10,000 Paul Thomas Andersons. The “Rear Window” aspect is used not just as a plot hook, but as a well crafted device to create as much tension as possible.
The main problem for the director of any monster movie (just ask Steven Spielberg about “Jaws”) is how to hide the monster from full view until the last reel. If you see the monster too early or too much, it will be nothing more than a man in a suit, or a puppet. The fact that McCoy can only catch glimpses of Bigfoot here and there between the trees is a great idea for a monster movie, and Shifrin gets a lot of his tension and scares out of this central cinematic concept.
Not that this is a movie about cinematic concepts. It’s about Bigfoot, and screaming and some great gore effects in a cyclical pattern. There is only one scene where you think that Shifrin has lost his tone and begun to question himself as to why he has made a Bigfoot movie instead of a more meaningful Sundancey indie. You are two thirds into the movie when the tension stops to include a long “meaningful” monologue by McCoy regarding the death of his wife. But then you realize that Shifrin and McCoy also think that this is crap and are playing it for our Mystery Science Theater benefit. The monologue is one of the funniest things in the movie and is absolutely perfect tonally.
If, like me, you are a big movie soundtrack fan, you may have guessed that Ryan Shifrin is the son, daughter, nephew, cousin or uncle of famed composer Lalo Shifrin, well known for his unforgettable “Mission: Impossible” theme as well the incredible scores of movies like “Dirty Harry”, “Enter the Dragon” and “The Amityville Horror”. You would be right. Ryan is his son. The young Shifrin was thus able to employ the services of the elder Shifrin in composing the score for his maiden effort. It’s a fantastic low budget score, with a very full orchestrated sound that takes the movie completely seriously and lifts it up several notches in style, scope, budget, and suspense. It would’ve been great to have seen this movie in the theater and get the full effect of the score and sound effects; I imagine it would be lots of fun. In this case, nepotism is well deserved since the young Mr. Shifrin appears quite capable in his own right.
I’m generally not in favor of sequels, but I doubt the unpretentious Ryan Shifrin would mind shooting “Abominable 2”. And if he doesn’t mind, neither will I.
Ryan Schifrin (director) / Ryan Schifrin (screenplay)
CAST: Matt McCoy …. Preston Rogers
Haley Joel …. Amanda
Christien Tinsley …. Otis Wilhelm
Lance Henriksen …. Ziegler Dane
Jeffrey Combs …. Buddy
Dee Wallace-Stone …. Ethel Hoss
Natalie Compagno …. Michelle
Karin Anna Cheung …. CJ