How to Make a Monster

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Horror, being a genre steeped in tradition and mythos, has always been suspect of scientific advancements. Not surprisingly, they haven't turned a blind eye as computers play a larger and larger role in our daily lives. With these advancements, we're always one inch from overstepping our bounds and almost anything made for convenience's sake carries a heavy price.

However, when it comes to capitalizing on our computer-related phobias, horror doesn't have a great track record. Let's face it, for every LAWNMOWER MAN, there are a dozen LAWNMOWER MAN 2's. HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER does not do anything to improve horror's shoddy relationship with our desktop buddies.

The original HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER was a 1958 AIP effort that blended teenage films with the basic premise of MYSTERY IN THE WAX MUSEUM. It was cheap. It was shameless. It was fun. For the remake, two out of three really is bad.

The new film involves a software company trying to make a video game scary enough to compete with RESIDENT EVIL, SILENT HILL and other titles of its ilk. One problem: the monster they have in the game just isn't scary enough. So, with a month until the game hits the stands, the software development team is fired. A new group of people is hired and competes with each other for a $1 million prize if they are able to add something to really sell the game.

The group is made up of the following so-called characters: Sol (Karim Prince - FREAKYLINKS, MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE), a paranoid genius, Bug (Jason Marsden - who coincidentally does a lot of voice work for video games and animated films) the geeky music man and Hardcore (Tyler Mane - X-MEN, BLACK MASK 2) the muscle-bound weapons freak. Overseeing this motley crew is Peter Drummond (Steven Culp - THIRTEEN DAYS, JASON GOES TO HELL).

Caught in the middle we have Lauren the intern, played by Clea DuVall. Lauren sees that the world is becoming more cruel and self-centered every day but she remains an optimist. Once she advances beyond her internship, she hopes to utilize commercial software to make the world a better place. She's about to be taught a harsh lesson.

The group has an exo-suit that maps actors movements, so the game has more realistic movements. This is a bit of a cheat as any DVD owner can attest to. Many behind-the-scenes featurettes and documentaries show a much more streamlined costume. Skin-tight bodysuits, done up in florescent colors with bright sensors all around it. Here, it's a clunky beast that is made to look like a suit of armor.

Unfortunately, the whole film revolves around this suit. A malfunction during an electrical storm (natch) causes the suit to come to life. The group is trapped in the building as the suit begins killing off its creators for no apparent reason.

Yes, folks, the film is about a killer suit. The suit walks around a barren office building for the entire remainder of the film and it looks ridiculous. Virtually nothing is done to make the appearance any less comical. Didn't anyone at Stan Winston's studios realize that a walking suit, even a computer-controlled walking suit, is inherently not scary? It wants to be threatening like the Terminator. Instead, our big bad monster looks like a Viking in a TRON outfit.

The one thing to watch in this film is Clea DuVall, a performer who deserves her share of applause. From her appearance during the first season of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER to supporting roles in THE FACULTY, GHOSTS OF MARS and the upcoming IDENTITY. DuVall has been a friend to the genre. She has also turned in standout performances in films like THE LARAMIE PROJECT and BUT I'M A CHEERLEADER. For some reason, she hasn't got much recognition for anything but her performance in GIRL, INTERRUPTED.

I like her and the main thing that attracted me to this film was a rare starring role for Ms. DuVall. She does what she can with the part, certainly expanding more than the script asks her to. But I'm afraid DuVall won't get many plum roles on the basis of this. Yes, she can carry a movie. But she's the only thing carrying this one, and its just too much weight for one performer to handle.

The rest of the performers are a major drawback to the film as well. I realize that the video game industry must be rather unconventional. But I did not believe for one second that these people had any knowledge about what they were doing, much less being the top in their field. Sol and Bug seem barely competent, despite their self-professed intelligence.

As for Hardcore, he's absolutely ridiculous. He shows off his muscles and brings an arsenal of medieval weapons to his desk every day. Virtually every line of dialogue is spoken just to remind us how "hardcore" he really is. What a pussy! Seriously, isn't it about time to tell Tyler Mane his fifteen minutes are up? His one good performance was as Sabertooth in X-MEN. And remember, that was a role done under heavy makeup with minimal dialogue.

Oh, and while we're on the subject of "acting", I should mention Julie Strain shows up for an extended cameo. She plays herself and her main duties seem to be stripping naked and running in place. Trust me, it's not as entertaining as it sounds.

Personally, I've never understood the fascination with Julie Strain. Horror has their share of starlets (sometimes called "scream queens," but not by me) and some of them are truly grand. Some of the recent winners in the genre include Debbie Rochon, Brinke Stevens, Emily Haack and Miste Mundae among others. I also love some of our earlier heroines, from Fay Wray all the way to Linnea Quigley. So, it's not like I can't figure out what her purpose is.

What I can't figure out is how she has excelled when she brings very little to the table. Her acting even makes some shot-on-video productions look like Shakespeare and her personality always seems so distant when the cameras are on. If it's all about her body, then there are more able and more talented actresses out there in that department as well. Harsh? Hey, it's a harsh world.

HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER was broken almost before it started. The cast is kept running around the building simply because the filmmakers realized too late that ninety minutes of people sitting behind computers just isn't interesting. Thank God they realized that much, because they seem out of touch with everything else.

Films based around computers always seem to exploit technology with graphics that are too advanced and programs that aren't. Here, the graphics don't even match up. No one is going to play this game. I don't even play video games and I can tell you it's behind the times. The company's brain child will be given a one way ticket to the bargain bin at Electronics Boutique. Writer-director George Huang seems blissfully unaware just how slim his grasp on the present is. How can we expect much from a screenplay with such cutting-edge witticisms as, "Houston, we have a problem?"

Huang had an incredible debut with the Hollywood satire SWIMMING WITH SHARKS. What happened? Was SHARKS' success simply due to his stellar cast? Personally, I hope it's just an inability to work within the genre. I would like to see Huang turn in another great film in any field.

But the worst, most unforgivable conceit is the ending. I won't give it away, except to say that they try to throw in an unexpected twist to accentuate a skewed message. It is certainly a haunting ending, but one that doesn't work. It comes out of left field, and feels like it. An ending like this would have to mesh with the rest of the film. It has to feel genuine. It doesn't.

Like I said earlier, Clea DuVall is the only genuine thing in a film unaware of how phony, primitive and hypocritical it is. But even she can't save this monster from chewing up anything resembling an entertaining film.

Reviewed by Scott W. Davis