For reasons I'm not sure I could pinpoint, I came to Trespassers, the 2006 low-budget fright flick by dirctor Ian McCrudden, with a desire to find things I liked about it. I can't explain it. There was little about the flick that seemed promising. The premise sounded tired: a gaggle of fairly unlikable American tourists meets a grim end in some under-traveled backwater of the developing world. The film's cover – two blood-covered surfboards crossed under a skull, a pipe-shooting surf action shot, and the pulchritudinous backside of an unidentified bikini-clad bit of tastefulness – didn't promise much. Still, I was determined to enjoy myself. Maybe it was simply that I hadn't seen a surfing/horror flick in years (the last being 2000's giant saltie croc flick Krocodylus, a.k.a. Blood Surf). Zombies do Endless Summer, sure. Right on. Ain't nothing wrong with that.
My heart sank as I watched the opening scene. The film opens on a beach in Baja, Mexico, with a scene dominated by a long close-up of a Marlboro smoking, Oakleys-wearing, bandana-sporting, wetsuit clad super-jackass. He's on his cell, convincing his brother to come down to this really boss surf spot he's found. This guy epitomizes what is so repugnant about the typical protagonist in these Americans die abroad film. In the short opening scene, he manages to come off as crass, racist ("It's like Mexico without the Mexicans!" he shouts), stupid, materialistic, and self-absorbed. His not just a douchebag, he's like some ultra-duchebag going for the Duchebags' Choice Award for Duchebag of the Year, recognizing him for his outstanding achievement in duchebaggery. We meet him for seconds and, already, we want him dead.
Horror bloggers need to coin a new term for this seemingly genre-specific style of characterization: "anti-characterization," "endurance-test characterization," or maybe "Rothism." Instead of creating believable, interesting, multifaceted protagonists, many horror directors have perfected the art of inventing characters that are basically migraines walking on two legs. We suffer them and just want them to go away. Bonus points if they're violently punished for inflicting themselves on us in the first place. It's a whole school of characterization based on the shtick of carnival dunk-tank clowns.
Happily, shortly after super-duchebag tells his brother that he's found the perfect surf spot, he and the rest of his surfing clan are promptly disposed of by unseen force. The film then shifts focus to Little Duchie, his good-girl lady, her trampy friend, the comic relief goofball, and their sensitive gay friend. Excited by his brother's description of surf paradise, and unaware that his brother is dead, Little Duchie and Co. make a roadtrip over the boarder. You can guess what happens next: "Here we are! Where's my bro? Everybody, surf montage! A little T & A anybody? Holy crap, are those human bones! Argh, zombie attack! No! They've eaten Friend A and Friend B! How will we survive?" It's that sort of thing.
I said I went into the movie looking for things to like, so here are three things I liked about Trespassers.
1. Clever flip of the characters' racism.
For maybe the first quarter of the film, there are groan-inducing representations of Mexico and Mexicans as undeveloped primitives. All the men we meet are leering. violent types. The first Mexican woman we meet is, of course, a prostitute. However, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that the filmmaker's feelings about the situation and the characters are, in fact, divergent. You get the sense that we've been piggy-backing on the racist limitations of the characters and, in fact, that filmmaker is very aware of the cultural and racial divisions at play. This is most clear in the backstory of the zombies. After several red herrings that suggest our protagonists are under siege by angry locals, we find out that the beach is cursed and home to anchorite zombies, themselves the unfortunate result of gringo stupidity. They're the leftovers of an imploded Jim Jones cult that fled the US and hoped to start up a new civilization in Mexico. Though the manner in which we get this backstory strains credulity – a character basically says, "I don't speak much Spanish, by I think he said that the beach is cursed because of this really elaborate story involving American cults, child murder, cannibalism, and satanic retribution. I will go into the details at great length; but, like I said, my Spanish is pretty elementary" – the backstory is a nice way to twist the characters' assumptions back upon themselves.
2. Occasionally great location filming.
Trespassers is filmed in digital and includes a character within the film who wields a digital camera. The effect is, for the most part, unintentionally comedic as the shaky, low-res, amateur film-within-a-film too often resembles the actual film. When we witness the incomprehensible first-person attack on the abandoned hand cam, it's hard to say what truly distinguishes it from some of the other incomprehensible action scenes we'll see later. This is the curse of modern digital tech. It has created a cult of intentionally clumsy amateur aesthetics that, ironically, look worse and worse as the digital tech itself continues to improve and approach film quality. Visually, Trespassers is marred by under lit scenes, occasionally confusing editing, and a forced casualness that becomes intrusive. However, there's an upside to the digital revolution as well. The portability of the tech has liberated low-budget filmmakers to explore locations that would have previously been cost prohibitive. The filmmakers behind Trespassers have a lot to learn, but they have several genuinely beautiful shots of the wild coast and roadside Mexico. They manage to capture the sun-bleached sensuality of their location, only occasionally lapsing in the sort of immature pseudo-lyricism – "look, moonlight on the water, so artsy" - that great locations can inspire in even the most talented filmmakers. For all the rough patches, I think these guys show real promise.
3. The talents of Joleigh Fioreavanti.
Ms. Fioreavanti plays the slutty girl – Rose – of this picture. I must admit that admire Ms. Fioreavanti diligent work ethic. Trespassers was one of five films Ms. Fioreavanti made in 2006 alone. In three of those films, including the retro-slasher pic Hatchet, she showed off her, um, talents to great effect. That's a hard working pair of talent and a hard working actress. I salute you, Ms. Fioreavanti. Keep the aspidistra flying!
Trespassers is, I suspect, nobody's idea of a truly great horror flick. It's the early product of a bunch of folks still finding their way around the film biz. Still, among all the clumsy bits, I think there was a real effort at producing something solidly entertaining and inventive enough to keep from lapsing into completely tired territory. On those terms, Trespassers was a modest, but not unworthy success