To fairly review a micro-budget horror film, one must approach it with a different set of standards than those reserved for the typical studio production. Nit picking over production values and special effects quality would be a waste of print, since budgetary constraints preclude such luxuries. Rather, we need to see if the film brings anything to the table in terms of off-beat energy, clever ideas and earnest performances from the cast. Within that scope, indie director Dave Wascavage’s “Tartarus” is a mixed bag.
The film opens with wild-eyed John (Juan Fernandez) running through the woods trying to escape from some unseen force. After reaching the road, John accosts a lady in an SUV and hitches a ride, imploring her to take him to a hospital. He explains that he had been kidnapped and tortured by forces he cannot identify. Just then, in hilarious looking CGI, these ‘forces’ appear in their spaceship and retake John into their custody. John awakens strapped to a table, presumably inside the spaceship, where a green-headed being spends the remainder of the film subjecting him to all manner of physical and psychological torture.
However, what begins ostensibly as a standard alien abduction and anal probing film ends up taking on some headier material. As John is subjected to the aforementioned tortures, we are taken, via flashbacks, to various episodes in John’s life. Turns out that John isn’t the hapless abductee we were led to believe. What he is is a wheeling-dealing, hit-and-run driving, hard drinking, prostitute abusing drug addict who cheats on his wife, and this seemingly never ending cycle of pain he’s in is some form of penance for those deeds.
By this point it’s pretty obvious where Wascavage is going with “Tartarus.” The film is an examination of the Christian cycle of sin, repentance and salvation with the realm of Tartarus being an allegory for Purgatory. All of this is handled quite deftly without any preaching, which is refreshing as this subject is usually presented with a heavy hand. The problem is that Wascavage spends an hour and change going through John’s transgressions and some expository narration about the nature of Tartarus, only to jolt us with an abrupt ending similar to that of “Jacob’s Ladder”, and with much of the same ramifications. A questionable choice, in my opinion, since it calls into question Wascavage’s commitment to the subject.
“Tartarus” is pretty much a one-man show for Juan Fernandez and he does a very good job. Fernandez occupies about 75% of the film’s running time, so it helps that he possesses a very expressive face and can use it effectively. The actor also runs through the gamut of emotions and conveys them believably without resorting to exaggerated contortions. Wascavage is fine in a supporting role, but seems to be a bit camera shy as his voice lacks presence and tends to disappear during extended segments of dialogue.
“Tartarus” has an interesting structure, but ultimately lacks follow-through on its initial premise. Given the film’s obviously small budget, the sets and SFX were not without some creativity and the overall ambiance reminded me of some Tom Baker-era “Dr. Who” episode. There was obviously a fair amount of care put into the creation of this film, which makes it an interesting piece of micro-budget cinema. What it lacks in on-screen razzle dazzle it makes up for with heart and a strong lead performance by Juan Fernandez.
Dave Wascavage (director)
CAST: Juan Fernandez, Dave Wascavage