I have to admit when Overlord was first mentioned to me, I assumed it was a video game that Steve was talking about. Especially when there was mention of a WW2 setting and monsters created by Nazi scientists. Even the title “Overlord” sounds like a video game – right?
When I caught on that this was actually a film that had been produced, completed and released theatrically without my ever being aware, I was just a tad embarrassed. But, in a way my total obliviousness to the movie’s existence and the fact that I went into a screening “cold” with no real idea what to expect made my experience of watching for the film even better because I had absolutely no expectations, outside the usual wish that I see a good horror film.
As many of you know, I’m prone to often moaning and complaining that there’s nothing new or exciting in horror. We’ve kind of softened it into improbable hauntings and possessions “based on actual events” with no tangible means of seeing what’s true and what’s made up, with the resulting horror element coming not from a mounting feeling of dread or fear that there’s an escalating menace that threatens characters we’re growing to care about, but from loud blasts of music to (I guess) wake the audience up. There’s no skill in that. Any jerk can yell “boo” in a darkened room. It’s not horror that’s blatant shock – completely different. One is like a great meal, done to perfection. The other’s a limp Chicken McNugget. The other softening, of course is the romanticising of horror staples as tragic figures. We like our vampires ravenous thank you.
Overlord is set during World War 2, on the eve of D-Day. That alone makes the film immediately interesting because I can’t think of too many horror movies set during the war. There was Deathwatch, set in WW1, but other than The Keep (1983) and Return of the Vampire (1943), I can’t immediately think of any. Hellboy (2004) began in WW2, but wasn’t actually set in that period and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) isn’t really a horror movie.
I have fond (but fading) memories of The Keep as I’d read the book before the film was made. Vampires and Nazis made for an interesting movie. Sadly, I’m still waiting for a DVD release, I haven’t seen that movie in about 30 years. Return of the Vampire had Bela Lugosi’s vampire freed by an errant Nazi bomb during the blitz and a well-meaning graveyard attendant who thought the stake in his heart was a piece of shrapnel and so removed it out of respect leaving the vampire to roam again.
Overlord is a completely different matter. This is the old-school type of gore-splattered horror that has long been missing from our screens. In fact, the story is both original and stunningly obvious that I’m truly surprised we’ve seen nothing like it before. As it plays out, I kept thinking that it had the feel of one of Mike Mignolia’s Hellboy comic books, which I’ve been reading lately. The atmosphere, the location, the backstory – it all screamed Hellboy.
This is a J.J.Abrams production, based on concept by Abrams himself, so there’s your stamp of quality right there. And it seeps through the entire production from the first frame to the last. The director is Julius Avery, and this is only his third feature – but judging from his work here, hopefully we’ll be seeing a lot more. I understand he’s already attached to the recently announced reboot of Flash Gordon. As a fan of the strips, old movie serials and the 1980 movie, I’m happy that Flash will be in good hands.
As I said, it’s the eve of the D-Day landings and a group of American soldiers are on a mission to parachute behind enemy lines, proceed to a small French village and take out a radio tower vital to the Nazis built in an old church. But their plane is shot down just short of their target, leaving only five survivors who have to make their way on foot through an area heavy with enemy soldiers and a mine field. Okay – so standard old-fashioned war movie with clearly delineated good guys and bad guys so far. Other than the horrors of war, we’re still waiting. But rest assured, we’re not left waiting long.
Obviously, there’s a heavy Nazi presence in the village, but there’s more going on than our heroic squad have prepared for. They see the Nazis burning some horrifically disfigured villagers and have to take cover before they’re caught and become aware of a plan more horrifying than anything the Allies can possibly imagine.
They’ve stumbled on the Nazis’ most diabolically evil plan when they discover a secret laboratory, where some hideous experimentations are taking place in the bid to create an army of German super soldiers. Soldiers that will be impervious to bullets, soldiers who can fight on, despite losing limbs. At the centre of this experimentation is a mysterious red liquid the Germans have discovered under the church, and they’re injecting it into their human guinea pigs who then mutate hideously.
To my (obviously sick) delight, the make up effects are all physical prosthetics, not digitally plastered on CGI effects, which gives the film a real old-school horror vibe which hopefully makes a solid case for doing things the old-fashioned way. Another real highlight of the film was the portrayal of S.S. Captain Wafner by Pilou Asbaek. A real villain you love to hate.
Honestly, it’s films like that that reassure me that the horror genre is alive and well, it’s just been resting for a while.
I’m not going to give away any more plot details, other than one heartfelt comment about a cast member in The Spoiler Zone. So, keep away, unless you want the fate of one character spoiled.
You have been warned.
YOU ARE IN THE SPOILER ZONE.
The only cast member I recognised was Iain De Caestecker, who previously played Leo Fitz, possibly the most annoyingly insipid character to be featured in Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. When he gets shot in this film, I actually felt like cheering simply because he was so frustratingly useless on SHIELD. When he popped back to life, I just groaned because I spent three seasons of SHIELD wishing his character would die. When he’s finally dispatched by having his head clubbed to a blood splattered mash with the stock of a rifle, I actually felt relief. I’m sorry – I know that’s childish, but damn – I needed to see that and savour it because of the three wasted years of SHIELD.
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