Monday, October 3, 2016

31 Days, 31 Horror Moves: Outpost 11

"You know I don't like spiders!"

Actually, to follow up that quote - there are a number of spiders appearing in this film, both large and small. Arachnophobes be warned. (My own arachnophobia has subsided somewhat after several years of working on it, but I was still badly startled by the first overlarge one on screen.)

I've been looking forward to watching Outpost 11 since Tom B recommended it last year. Something about the general concept - a group of soldiers in a remote, arctic outpost who find themselves in trouble - tickled my interest. (I've had a soft spot for arctic/antarctic based horror films since John Carpenter's The Thing.) There's also the alternate history angle, which doesn't get used often in horror movies. Whatever the initial pull was, it's been something I've been keeping my out for, and was pleased to see it available on Amazon Prime earlier in September.

Even if I wasn't pleased to see these guys.

The Medium
I watched this on Amazon streaming, which must have heard me badmouthing it in the previous review, because the quality was exceptional. It's not really that cinematic a film, but the occasional outdoor scenes are nicely shot and the interiors are cramped and contain enough detail that I was happy to have a clear picture. Even with the spiders.

The Movie
Outpost 11 takes place in a pseudo-steampunk alternate reality where 'we have always been at war with Prussia.' We're given the (scant) basic details by a British General broadcasting over an old TV set to begin with. To be honest, this was not an auspicious beginning. The production values made me think I was watching the opening cinematic to a lost Red Alert game and the details are incredibly vague. It's... I think 1955, and 'we' have been at war with Prussia for decades. (He calls it the "Second Hundred Years War"). I'm not sure how long it's supposed have been going on, but I'm guessing that in this reality the so-called Great War never ended.

After that, we're off to Outpost 11 - a remote listening post deep in the arctic circle manned by three soldiers. There's the young conscript, Albert (Joshua Mayes-Cooper) , the older vet, Graham (Billy Clarke) , and the commander, Mason (Luke Healy). A King & Country soldier of the old school, Graham has little tolerance for Albert and his lackluster soldiering. Mason tries to keep the peace and spends a good chunk of time hunting for small game. (Some of which the enemy seems to have rigged to explode.) Albert just tries to get through the near constant bullying from Graham and the endless, mindless tedium of listening to static all day, monitoring for enemy communications.

I love what they've done with the place. Very 'arctic chic.'

And then one day a red warning light begins to blink.

There's a certain utilitarian roughness to the rooms that I associate with pictures of British Antarctic expeditions and that I like a lot. The steampunk touches are minimal and confined, mostly, to a byzantine boiler room containing a bulbous, squatting hulk of equipment called "the Omega Machine" - capital letters readily detectable whenever anyone utters the name. It's some combination of boiler furnace and nuclear power plant and Albert, at least, is terrified of it. Occasionally spiders come out of it. Sometimes small. Sometimes less so.

Also, occasionally large fishing lures.

The red light is supposed to signal an enemy attack, but in the absence of the accompanying warning siren none of the men is exactly sure what to do. This is particularly hard on Graham, who is a spit-and-polish, by the book military man around both Albert and Mason - although he is a chronic masturbator, secret snuff user and occasional closet weeper when he's by himself. As Mason tells Albert, Graham has been in the military his whole life and neither knows nor cares for anything else. The routine of war is all he has, really. The uncertainty of the red light, the isolation, and, most gratingly, the perceived weakness and un-soldierly conduct of Albert puts Graham on edge.

So when a coded message arrives, suggesting, in cryptic fashion, that the war is lost, things begin to fall apart. Strange events begin to occur - the spiders grow larger, a weird growth on Graham's hand produces a stone that somehow turns into yet another spider, and there are things moving around outside the building. When Mason heads to another outpost, looking for answers, Graham's tenuous grip on reality finally begins to slip. And his is not the only one.

"Permission to leave this chicken-shit outfit, sir!"

There's a lot to like, really. The soundtrack mixes with the banging and hissing noises of the Omega Machine, creating an oppressive, ominous atmosphere. Billy Clarke really carries the film with his performance as the alternating pathetic and overbearing Graham. The film plays with reality as it goes and you start to question what you're seeing, what elements are real, if any, eventually becoming just as unrooted and unsure as the characters themselves.

However it's all a little thin, a little slipshod. The production sometimes feels more like a TV show than a film. The performances vary from excellent to merely adequate - Luke Healy's Mason, in particular, is not as strong a performance as Clarke's, which lets down the scenes they share. The special effects are the same - with some stop motion bits being realistic enough to make me nervous and others almost laughably bad. I found myself annoyed by plot elements that seemed to be left undeveloped and distanced from the people by characterizations that were either too unlikeable or too cardboard.

And what the HELL was this all about, anyway?

I find myself having an opposite reaction to this film than I did to Housebound. I'm liking it more AFTER I watched it than I did during the viewing. It's got some cool things going on and I feel like it's an experiment, a story that could be done better with some more time, money and a different setting. The alternate timeline aspect feels wasted, really, and I find myself wondering if it wouldn't have worked better in a straight-up sci-fi setting instead - because it's familiar enough that the alternate universe bits that are used, serve only to throw me out of the story.

Which is RIGHT WERE THE OMEGA MACHINE wants me to be!
I may have made that up.

The Bottom Line
Outpost 11 is a bundle of good ideas and mood let down by some sub-par effects, production and performances. It reminds me of other interesting films that have similar issues, like Yellowbrickroad and Corridor. It's worth a watch, but it's not quite up to its own ambitions.

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