Near the beginning of THE RETALIATORS (after a suitably grizzly prologue where two young women on a road trip make the classic mistake of turning down an isolated back road) , our hero - mild mannered, charming, devilishly handsome Pastor Bishop (a clear case of nominative determinism if ever there was one) relates to his congregation a parable about a woman seeking revenge against a man ‘who victimised her and escaped unpunished’. Bishop (Michael Lombardi) goes on to sermonise on how a sinner may escape man’s law but rest assured, they cannot escape God’s law. And don’t we just know that he’s going to have to eat those words by the end of the film.
Co-Directed by Samuel Gonzalez Jnr (Battle Scars, 2020) and Bridget Smith (Sno Babies, 2020) from a screenplay by first-time feature writers Darren Geare and brother Jeff Allen, The Retaliators is something a bit different from the run-of-the-mill revenge thriller, and not just because of the horror elements it contains. It’s not just cardboard cutouts of characters and tired old tropes strung together to enable a raft of gory killings. Granted, there’s a bit of that in some parts, but mostly the Geare brothers have found some depth and dilemma in the circumstances they’ve handed their main character.
When we meet him buying a Christmas tree with his daughters Sarah (Katie Kelly) and Rebecca (Abbey Hafer) he confronts a man who appropriates the tree they’ve chosen and makes off with it as his own. When challenged, the man threatens violence and, true to his calling, Bishop practices forgiveness and demonstrates the kind of meekness that should inherit the Earth. But we soon learn that there’s more to this character than just the ‘cloth’. He’s a fan of violent, vengeful eighties action movies (the Bruce, Sly and Arnie kind) and dreams of owning a motorcycle, but never acts on his desire. His eldest daughter, Sarah rouses on him for these supposed inconsistencies, but Bishop just turns the other cheek.
All that changes, though, when Sarah finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time and falls victim to the cold, sociopathic killer Ram Kady (Joseph Gatt). Now, the dilemma for Bishop is whether to practice what he literally preaches or invoke the code of his eighties action heroes and take matters into his own hands. Enter the inevitable cop, Detective Jed Sawyer (Marc Menchaca) who sees something of Bishop’s darker side and warns him off. Jed has his own backstory with serial killer Quinn Brady (Jacoby Shaddix) who he put away years ago, but whose sentence was cut unreasonably short. From here on, the film becomes difficult to talk about without giving away some pretty interesting twists, suffice to say there’s a well-worn path this story could follow but instead, like the young women at the start of the film, it takes a disturbing detour.
THE RETALIATORS is a movie of two quite distinctly different parts. For the first half or more, it’s very much a slow-burn character piece with malevolent undertones. But like any slow-burn fuse, it inevitably leads to an explosion and, in this case, it’s a stylistic shift to an extended, graphically violent and, at times, tongue-in-cheek finale. I suspect that some audiences will find this gear shift too much and wish for the more thoughtful aspects of the film to be played out to the end. Others may well have been impatient with the first half and very satisfied by that gear change. But this is a film that deserves an audience who can go on the whole journey. There’s a heightened edge throughout the first half that doesn’t quite make sense until the hyper-violence begins and then, if you’re willing to go with it, there’s much in the way of a payoff.
But a good screenplay and strong direction is only part of what makes this movie work. The casting is terrific. Lombardi has the hardest task, shifting from mild-mannered pastor to vengeful father in denial of all he believes in and he navigates the character's journey and the film’s stylistic shift with ease. He’s also backed up by some great performances from actors who’ve previously excelled on the small screen – Menchaca in Ozark and The Outsider and Gatt in Z-Nation and Lucky Man. There’s also a much-too-short cameo from Robert Knepper (the very memorable T-Bag in Prison Break) as Otto Kady, the head of a drug dealing biker gang family. But the special appearances don’t end there. If you’re a heavy metal fan, then the cameos just keep on rolling. In addition to Shaddix (Papa Roach) as Brady, watch out for Tommy Lee (Motley Crue) as a strip club DJ, Eva Marie (Eva Under Fire) as one of the two women in the prologue and Ivan Moody, Zoltan Bathory and Chris Kael (Five Finger Death Punch) as members of the biker gang (plus they perform in one scene) and listen out for more Motely Crue with the theme song 21 Bullets at the end of the film.
Whilst there are many good things to say about this film, it’s not without its weaknesses. There’s a bit of plot confusion around the biker gang story, a couple of convenient coincidences and one or two inconsequential B stories that clutter up the narrative. It also fails to capitalise on the great idea of Pastor Bishop’s love of eighties action movies. The touchstones are there in a limited way, but it feels like it could have gone all out with references to that era of action movies in its finale sequence. But on balance, THE RETALIATORS rises above these shortcomings to deliver a unique take on a tired old genre that is there to be enjoyed for its killer soundtrack and its ‘Easter eggs’ as much as for its well-crafted and well-performed storytelling. In a voice-over at the top of the film, Pastor Bishop asks us to consider how many sins committed by a good man will make him a bad man. In the end, we’re left wondering just how many bad men there are in the world that might be in need of a bit of revenge.
Laura (Christina Ricci) is a woman on the edge. As the story begins, she and her seven-year-old son Cody (Santino Barnard) arrive at a remote house in her immaculate teal station wagon. Her new landlords, Mr and Mrs Langtree (Don Baldaramos and Colleen Camp) are there to greet her. He takes a bit of a shine to Laura, but the missus has a bad feeling about her. Perhaps, we do too; if not exactly for her per se, but rather for her situation.
As we piece together her backstory, we get the sense that she’s fleeing an abusive relationship. She’s fearful each time the phone rings and when she does give in and answer it’s either her demanding mother (Nancy O’Fallon) or her remorseful and apologetic husband, begging her to tell him where she and the boy are and to give him another chance. What makes her situation even more precarious is that it’s the 1950s, and the incidence of women taking the kid and leaving their abusive husbands is not too common and not yet socially acceptable. Oh, and one more thing: their new house is right by a spooky looking pond that holds a dangerous fascination for Cody - along with a monster (Amy Beer in a sodden monster suit) that keeps turning up in the kid’s bedroom at night with the intention of luring him down the path and into the water. Or so it seems.
So far, so run-of-the-mill; except that it’s hard to shake the feeling that this very familiar, tropey set up is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s not just Laura’s level of anxiety that’s heightened; the whole tone and atmosphere of this movie is a bit off kilter and way exaggerated, thanks to the real creative heroes of Monstrous, the design team including Production Designer Mars Feehery with Art Direction from Deprez and Ryan Martin, sets by Taylor Jean and Laura’s fabulous costumes by Morgan DeGroff. The iridescent colour palette and period objects, furniture and technology are perfect. But are they too perfect?
These things, together with a pretty good soundtrack of fifties songs and some good cinematography by Senda Bonnet create a nicely weird tone that underscores this movie. Add to that, some disturbing and difficult to decipher flashbacks and a vision or two of this perfect home in disarray along with the pond’s increasingly powerful pull on Cody and we’re pretty sure there’s something bad going on – but are these things premonitions or memories or something else entirely?
But don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a case of style over substance. There’s plenty to chew on in this film and I don’t mean the scenery. At its centre is a knockout performance by Ricci. She’s really the engine of the film navigating a fine line between parody and melodrama (the good kind!). Her anxiety is palpable and the smiling mask she creates to hide it is terrific. If, at times (like us), she seems as confused by some of what’s happening here, that only goes to increase the tension between what we see on the screen and what we don’t quite see on the screen. Her performance is well supported by Barnard as her son and well antagonised by Camp as the distrusting landlady. It’s a well-balanced dynamic that helps us trust that the cracks in the reality of the story will open up to us more fully by the time the credits roll.
Director, Chris Sivertson and screenwriter Carol Chrest seem to know what they’re doing with this film, and they build towards a twist that might not be shocking but, for me at least, was pretty satisfying. Looking at the tepid response by some other reviewers, I might be out here on my own, but I really went with this movie and was unperturbed by the way it tends to ignore the temptation to go full monster-horror in favour of something that is more intriguing and unsettling.
Sivertson is supposedly a fan of directors David Lynch, Brian de Palma and Alfred Hitchcock. You can see that in small measure in the film’s touches of Lynchian design and surrealism and attempts at de Palmesque suspense (that almost gets there but not quite) - but where he really shows his Hitchcockian colours is in the psychology of Laura, her mix of paranoia and panic and, of course, in the way he creates a highly effective McGuffin – the creature that emerges from the pond in pursuit of Cody fulfills the requirements of that device admirably. For those wanting the monster to be more monstrous, this film may be a disappointment. But for those open to a film that deals with how monstrous our emotions and anxieties can be, then this movie may be just the ticket.
Monstrous is available on DVD thanks to Eagle Entertainment on Oct 12, 2022.