The presence of a familiar story, a familiar setting, and a familiar hero should not make for a particularly enthralling film, especially one hoping to earn a living in the horror genre. Despite all that, “Population 436” manages to be pretty good anyway, and although it is no masterpiece by any stretch, it is shockingly decent. “Population” benefits from expert, unhurried direction from former TV director Michelle Maxwell MacLaren and actor Jeremy Sisto (“May”) in the leading role never hurts. But while Sisto does his usual good work, it’s Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, sans soul patch, who makes quite the statement as a young and impressionable deputy who befriends Sisto’s character despite warnings to the contrary.
“Population 436” finds U.S. census taker Steve Kady (Sisto) making his way to the hidden town of Rockwell Falls, a mysterious place that has maintained a population of exactly 436 for the last 100 years and change. No surprise, then, that the more Steve pokes around town, the more questions he begins to uncover, and the less he (and we) like his chances of getting out alive. It appears that a strange “fever” is to blame for many of the deaths in town, including the state of an imprisoned young girl named Amanda (Reva Timbers) and the displacement of whole families.
To say more would be delving into spoilers, as it takes “Population 436” more than an hour into its 90-minute running time to reveal its central plot. Suffice to say, Steve’s suspicions are very much correct, but what he can do about it, now that’s another matter entirely. Genre fans will no doubt be able to figure out a large part of the film’s mystery from all the hints, since, as mentioned, there’s nothing overly new here. This same “small perfect town with supernatural secrets” premise has been hatched many times before, and each time the revelations are never as surprising as the filmmakers seem to think they are.
In any case, the film does manage to strike some very good balances, making for what is a generally entertaining viewing. Steve’s growing suspicions are gradual and not sudden, and his investigation doesn’t bear fruit for a long while. Steve is aided by pretty local girl Courtney (Charlotte Sullivan), who wishes to leave town herself, but has been deterred many times at the risk of developing the omnipresent “fever”. Unfortunately for Steve, his growing attraction to Courtney and vice versa can’t help but come between his friendship with deputy bumpkin Deputy Caine (Durst), who has his own marriage plans for the lovely Courtney. By which I mean he wants to marry her. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t turn Caine into a stereotypical Eeeeeeeevil country redneck cop, and that’s something we can all appreciate.
The first hour of “Population 436” moves at a leisurely pace, and many viewers will no doubt be bothered by the film’s PG approach to its horror elements. In fact, there’s very little horrific stuff happening, as there is no gore to speak off, and the killings do not, in fact, stack up in any shape or form. In this way, “Population 436” is actually quite comparable to an overlong episode of “The X-Files”, but instead of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, you have Jeremy Sisto and Charlotte Sullivan. The film straddles the fence between providing either definite proof or definite debunking of the townspeople’s belief that mysterious Godly forces are in play with an ambiguous ending that actually works.
“Population 436’s” main obstacle is that it will be sold as a genre horror movie (just look at the movie’s cover), and the fact that the film feels and looks more like a long TV episode may be off-putting to a lot of the people who will be watching the film for promises of gore, sex, and violence. You know, your usual helpings from films with similar looking boxcover art. There is some sex (Sisto and Sullivan has a mostly dark, mostly PG tryst in a barn), a little bit of violence (someone is shot in the head, a woman is hanged), but again, no gore to speak off. “2001 Maniacs” this ain’t.
“Population 436” is a good effort, but won’t (and probably shouldn’t) stand out as a horror entry. If anything, the film might be most remembered for starring Fred Durst who, again, gives an outstanding performance. Every now and then I had to remind myself that the actor playing Deputy Caine is actually a rather annoying musician with a propensity for overblown showmanship. To see Durst deliver such a controlled, low-key performance, I must admit to being quite impressed. Maybe this guy really is as talented as he keeps telling us he is. Go figure.
Michelle Maxwell MacLaren (director) / Michael Kingston (screenplay)
CAST: Jeremy Sisto …. Steve Kady
Charlotte Sullivan …. Courtney
Fred Durst …. Bobby Caine
Reva Timbers …. Amanda
David Ames …. Ronald Greaver
James Blicq …. Obie Spark
Rick Skene …. Ray Jacobs