(2010, Written by Christine Coyle Johnson, Julie Prendiville Roux and David Higgins, Directed by Carlos Brooks)
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire in thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, and what art?
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand, and what dread feet?
What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb, make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
- William Blake
If there is one film on this year's list that absolutely should collapse under the weight of it's own seemingly ridiculous plot, one film that just should not work whatsoever, it is this film, Burning Bright (or as I like to call it, "Tiger Nom"). I remember sometime ago when news of it going into pre-production caught my attention and the simultaneous groan and eye rolling that spontaneously erupted from my person followed by an annoyed fit of giggles when I thought back over the production's contrived, sentence-long plot synopsis I had just read. It read as follows: Burning Bright is a thriller centered on a young woman and her autistic little brother who are trapped in a house with a ravenous tiger during a hurricane. Preposterous huh? Also at the time, I wasn't aware of who was doing it so I didn't know whether I should be expecting some SyFy, "when animals attack" type travesty, or some bigger profile, high concept studio garbage foisted upon an innocent, unsuspecting world. I was expecting trash, infinitely forgettable trash, at either rate. Oh, what an nescient, thickheaded time those days were. Years later, now that the film has gotten a small release (by the ever neglectful Lionsgate. Seriously guys, why do you keep dumping your gems into the void of DVD obscurity?), let history show that I couldn't have been more terribly, utterly wrong in my assumptions. Miraculously, it's plot (still contrived as it is), works. It works quite well, in fact. Lets expand upon it shall we?
The small Taylor clan, Kelly, her younger brother Tom and their step-father Johnny are about to come apart at the seams. Money is tight after the suicide of the family's matriarch, Catherine (Mary Rachel Dudley). Of her surviving children, Kelly (Briana Evigan) is losing her mind from the pressing day-to-day responsibilities of looking after her young austitc brother (Charlie Tahan). She has postponed leaving for college several times now out of the misguided notion that Tom needs her at home to look after him. Her college tuition she has been letting sit is about to be reassigned to someone else if she doesn't pack her bags and leave for school soon. Matters are not helped any by their step-father Johnny (Garret Dillahunt), who is squandering what little money they have on a get rich quick scheme he's cooked up of transforming their family's property into a "safari zoo" for wild and exotic animals (the film's first scene, with a cameo by Meat Loaf which perfectly sets the movie's tone). Desperate, Kelly finally makes a bid for her freedom by planning to enroll Tom in a school for children with special needs, but upon meeting with an adviser from the school, she discovers that the money she has set aside for the enrollment has mysteriously been withdrawn from her bank account. Returning home to confront the culprit, her step-father (stemming from echoes of dark fairytale myth in the film, Dillahunt plays Johnny somewhere between wicked, plotting step-father and conniving backwoods hick, bravo) , Kelly is speechless to find that Johnny has robbed both her brother and her of a future by spending the money on a Bengal tiger named Lucifer (that has been banished from the circus due to it's ferocious disposition). Johnny claims it's going to be the safari zoo's star attraction. Amidst this, there are men outside setting up Lucifer's temporary living quarters and workers boarding up the Taylor's home. Every window, every door is being securely sealed. A hurricane is fast approaching you see, one that should be upon them by nightfall. However, it's nothing that they haven't ridden out before. So, the Taylors opt to bunker down and stay put in their newly fortified home until the storm passes while Johnny chooses to sit it out down at the local pub with the small town's remaining residents. Later that night, as the furious winds batter the house and the storm rages overhead, Kelly awakens (from a particularly nasty nightmare wherein she fatally rid herself of her guardianship of her brother) and descends down stairs. Besides the obvious maelstrom of the hurricane, there is a new, curious creaking that can be heard inside the home. seconds later, Kelly discovers the source of this pitter patter. Luicfer is loose from his cage and inside the house. The very house that Kelly soon discovers that her and her brother have been sealed inside. There is no way in and no way out and Lucifer is very, very hungry.
Phwew. That was a remarkable amount of exposition for a film whose plot is (honestly) so threadbare. Then, you folks aren't reading a review for a movie about a psychotic tiger because you are in the mood for a Merchant Ivory production. Amirite? Anyway, what follows is an insanely intense, neverending series of cat and mouse set pieces between the siblings and the sneaking, stalking beast. Strangely, the film I felt Burning Bright owed it's biggest debt to was John Carpenter's original Halloween. Or rather, the final 15 minutes of Halloween wherein Laurie Strode is mercilessly pursued by Michael Myers. Like Laurie, Kelly is a very smart, very capable (and thanks to Evigan's performance, very memorable) heroine left with a defenseless charge that she must protect and like Mike Myers, Lucifer is a very cunning, very unstoppable adversary (and yes, there is even a closet attack).Perhaps it is a stretch, but that is what came to mind when I was watching Burning Bright with my blanket pulled nearly up past my eyes. It's also every bit the compliment (and then some) that I feel that the film deserves to be lauded with. This would have made a killer drive-in feature back in the day and that too, is a compliment.
The film though, isn't all that interested in plot and frankly, that's fine in this instance. Once the opening act is out of the way, the script moves into pure (nearly dialogue free, considering that Tom is mute and the crux of their survival depends on the two sibling being very, very sneaky) action territory. It's a gambit that could have spelled it's ruin considering that it is a PG-13 rated feature with such a small cast. You would think that you would be yawning. You would think that there would be nary an ounce of suspense. You would think that with only two people (and children at that) acting as the potential meals for Lucifer, that Burning Bright would go through the expected motions, safely moving Kelly and Tom from point A to point B without harm until the credits roll. You would be wrong, as I was. It's really remarkable how effectively, relentlessly scary Burning Bright is for nearly an hour straight. That's a lot of momentum to maintain, and for the most part, it keeps the fright level at near hysterical levels. Kelly and Tom never really have a moment to catch their breath (and neither do we) escaping from one room only to be cornered in the next. Finding themselves in increasingly dire situations as door after door is destroyed and even the walls are torn asunder in Lucifer's starved effort to devour them whole. With each second, there are fewer places to hide. This crumbling house from which there is no escape becomes a metaphor of course, for the situation Kelly constantly keeps finding herself in. That she cannot, no matter how hard she tries, leave her defenseless brother behind. For college, her future or for her own survival. It's a nifty little bòn mót that's handled deftly by director Carlos Brooks. Much like the entirety of Burning Bright's stylish, skillfully done whole.
I also cannot commend the production any more highly for choosing to use real tigers throughout the shooting of the film and forgoing the easier, lazier route of CGI. We've all been saying it for years, there is just no comparison when you are dealing with the likes of wolves, werewolves, hyenas, dogs (certainly you know of which films I refer to by the animals alone, or perhaps you've tried to forget as much as I have) and tigers when you present your audience with the real deal, or at the very least, on-camera practical effects. There are brief moments where the tiger looks surreally shoehorned into the scene of course, but its a minor grievance and one that's much easier to look past then badly rendered CGI. Yes it adds a level of realism to your movie and yes your viewers are thankful for it. This one was anyway and I imagine if you have suffered through some of the special effects that I have, you will be too.
In the end, Burning Bright is more than worth your time and deserving of a much wider audience than it is currently receiving. The entire cast is strong, Evigan emerging as this years most memorable, capable final girl by miles. As far as Scream Queens go, she was certainly my favorite of 2010. The scares (and there are many) are handled with the seasoned skill of a master (here's hoping that Brooks visits our little genre again), the film being filled to the brim with setpieces you won't soon forget (see Evigan's laundry shoot climb as example, pure horror awesomenes). It won't be for everyone certainly, but those seeking a balls to the wall night of stylishly crafted, relentless suspense could do no better right now. Good job guys, you deserve all the accolades that hopefully will find you for this one.
Burning Bright stars Briana Evigan (Sorority Row, Fear Itself, Mother's Day, S. Darko), Garret Dillahunt (The Road, No Country For Old Men, Winter's Bone), Charlie Tahan (I Am Legend, Fringe) and Meat Loaf (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Pelts, Fight Club) and is currently available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
5 Skulls - The Best
4 Skulls - Very Good
3 Skulls - Good / Average
2 Skulls - Poor
1 Skull - The Worst