When Liam Neeson made “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” his comments against the Green Screen process became notorious. Because the film’s sets were almost entirely CGI rendered, it made acting unusually difficult and gave him little to play off from. At one point, he told CNN, “It was extraordinary to make a film of this scale.”
The thing about Philip J. Cook’s “Despiser” is that it wants to be a George Lucas film – but on a “Blair Witch” budget. A quote from Joe Bob Briggs on the cover (“I love this film!”) and artwork of a semi-nifty looking CGI creature gave me hope, so I brought it home. I hadn’t seen a good creature flick in a while, so I looked forward to it. The problem: the creature on the box, although it shows up close to the beginning of the film, only appears for about 10 seconds, and has nothing to do with the plot. Not only that, it is entirely unconvincing. Fortunately for me, I resisted the urge to shut it off, for I’m convinced that if “Despiser” had had a Hollywood budget, it would have been a hit.
“Remember: We’re fighting for peace.”
“Yeah, but fighting for peace is like screwing for virginity, Carl.”
“Despiser,” while it does feature a different creature toward the end, is much more ambitious and epic than the simplistic art work would have you believe. The plot centers mostly around down-on-his-luck Gordon Hauge (Mark Redfield) as he fights his way through Purgatory in his quest to destroy Aliens who have crash-landed there and are trying to blow a dementional hole into our world. Cool, huh? Think of “Mad Max” as interpreted by Stephen King. Not the scary SK, but the quirky dialogue-driven one. Along the way, Gordon meets up with a few other people who are also trying to achieve the same goal:
“Are you saying that we are dead?”
“We ain’t dead, just trapped. Only temporary…’till we’re done.”
“Done? Done what?”
“The Despiser. You, Gordon, have just been recruited.”
“Recruited? For who?”
“(Pointing up) The Dude.”
Most of the “sets” and supporting actors scream “student film.” The mother is quite possibly the worst actor I have ever seen, and I’m counting my son’s fourth grade play. The Asian who speaks like an Indian is a close second. However, the two lead actors are quite good, especially Doug Brown (doing a good Samuel L. Jackson impression) as Carl, the man in charge of the purgatory posse. In a just world, this man would be huge. If you watch this for no other reason, watch it for him, particularly in the second half. As mentioned before, the dialogue is decent and is reminiscent of Stephen King’s gift for words. At times, it’s crisp and often funny; I particularly enjoyed the scene where the Shadowman (Despiser’s right-hand ‘man’) bemoans the uselessness of the human form and decides to do something about it (I’m trying to avoid spoliers). I also died when I saw the Troll (you’ll know it when you see it).
The main downfall of the film is its special effects, which are about on par with the PlayStation One. Think Final Fantasy cut scenes or Gran Turismo and you’ve got the right idea. Some effects are good: There’s a scene 35 minutes in with Gordon looking at a sketchbook that’s just phenomenal and unexpected, and the ending sequence is well done, but most of it is just plain bad. One standout moment occurs when a character crosses a metal “bridge,” a piece of which breaks off and falls away from the same intact piece, as if the rendering software wasn’t programmed to remove it as it fell. Mostly however, it’s just the lack of quality. Considering the minimal budget and the fact that this was made (for the most part) at Cook’s home with friends though, it’s actually pretty amazing.
One thing I have to respond to. A number of people on other sites have complained about the use of CGI effects to create things that could have been filmed easily: Gordon sitting by a CGI river with a CGI campfire, or CGI blood spatter, for example. It should be noted that these effects are done when Gordon is in Purgatory which, as is explained in the film, is supposed to look different and dream-like. Does it work? Not really, but I can respect the director’s decision to shoot it this way for the sake of consistency.
Aside from some burn makeup and a so-so impalement, there’s little gore, and no nudity. In fact, this would probably be closer to a PG13 rating than to the R it actually possesses. I would have no problem letting my 12 year-old watch it.
“Despiser” is one of those films you’ll either love or hate. As far as I’m concerned? The effects are pretty bad but this film has so much heart and imagination and is so damn much fun that, if you’re able to see through the poor visuals, I enthusiastically recommend it. I rented it, but this will be an easy purchase for me.
Pros: Strong, original plot that plays like a Hollywood summer popcorn flick; Doug Brown’s excellent performance.
Cons: Horrible acting by nearly everyone else; extremely rudimentary effects.
Review Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
105 Minutes; USA
Rated R for violence.
Mark Redfield (Gordon Hauge)
Doug Brown (Carl Nimbus)
Gage Sheridan (Maggie Hauge)
Directed by: Philip J. Cook
Viewing Format: DVD
(Originally published on HorrorWatch)