There are many aspects of the latest independent film by director, Peter Engert and screenwriter, Christian McDonald, made me recall some of the most effectively scary movies of my youth. There’s a bit of information that must be stated to clarify that statement important in its proper place in time. Like millions of others baby boomers, we who are in the aftermath of World War II; the Cold War. No sooner than the threat of the Nazi regime brutally taking over the world was ended that our nation was held in the grips of the ‘Red Menace’, communism. With the arms race escalating on a daily basis the possibility for complete thermonuclear annihilation was all too real. The movie studios, always at the ready to incorporate public fear into their films, many of the movies we watched back then dealt with either the insidious infiltration of a Communist fifth column or the dire fate of those who somehow managed to survive a nuclear war. Mr. Engert’s latest opus, ‘Aftermath’ returned me back to the mindset about child watching similar movies after being taught at school to hide under an eighth of an inch plywood desk in case the bomb falls. On the onset, I feel it is important to note that this film could only be made as an independent movie. No Hollywood studio would be prone to touch it; devoid of a happy ending in the overall mood of the film is one of hopelessness and despair. This should not turn you away from the film, but rather draw you to it, especially if you are part of the generation that remembers. One thing that independent films excel at is exploration of all facets of the broad-spectrum of human emotional states. While the mainstream studios tend to focus on the positive end of the gamut the independent filmmaker has the freedom to deeply explore the psychological darkness and negative emotional states that have to be considers a proper part of the human psyche.
The story begins peacefully enough with the young man, perhaps in his late 20s, Hunter (C.J. Thomason), is walking through what was once a rural area in Northeast Texas. Like many such regions in the country. This one has seen much better days. Equipment lies rusting at the side of the road dilapidated equipment scattered around the scenery with a freight train rolling along in the distance. The first sign that something is amiss is commonplace and usually an innocuous annoyance, but Hunter seems to send something bigger is occurring. He fumbles with his MP3 player unable to get it to work. Just then off towards the horizon he sees the flash of light ominously growing gloom of a mushroom cloud. Hunter goes over to a store car were a woman and her young son a standing outside the vehicle. The electromagnetic pulse that emanates from such a detonation has fried electronics within range. Hunter, who turns out to be a physician, reps a bandanna around the boy’s eyes, they were injured by the blast. They soon meet up with a few of the survivors who together will form the principal cast of the psychological thriller.
After several of the requisite, getting to know you scenes, the group of survivors discovers a basement that can serve as a makeshift refuge. Each member of this ragtag group brings their own unique yet suitably identifiable to the audience issues to the table. Wendell (Toby Bernard) is an elderly man with diabetes, Blue-collar worker, Brad (Edward Furlong), and his pregnant wife, Angie (Christine Kelly), who was understandable exceptionally on edge and the religiously inclined Rob (Andre Royo). The cellar where they are forced to hold up was not built to serve such a purpose. With inadequate ventilation, no shielding from ambient radiation and rapidly dwindling supplies of fresh water and food; this room is at best a stopgap measure that will quickly cease to avoid any hope for survival. What meager understanding they have as of the events that brought them to the situation comes from a small radio with intermittent reception. The managed to catch a phrase or two from which they have to ascertain what might’ve happened, but from their position. Such knowledge is moot. In a situation like this, why, is virtually worthless. Social political conflict between nations is meaningless when you’re trapped in a cellar with a group of strangers and no hope for long-term survival.
There is a touch of an excess central motif infused within the story. Like Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘No Exit’ strangers are trapped in a room together with the worst of the situation on the mutually exclusive personalities. In this case, they all have a common goal, survival, but every morsel of food another person takes shortens your own chances of living just a little bit longer. They barely audible radio provides some official announcements and instructions on how to proceed. Not only all those instructions absolutely worthless. The practice the realization that some automatic radio message survived is little more than a cruel of a technology that is worthless to them now. There is a major plot contrivance that just came across as pandering to the expectations of the modern horror fan; zombies. Apparently, those who managed to survive this thermonuclear attack become mindless bloodthirsty killers intent on ripping apart any living person they happen upon. In keeping with limiting the information provided to the audience to only what the survivors can deduce, there is no real explanation for this phenomenon. While I suppose this is a somewhat unique plot twist it only serves to distract from the pervading emotional intensity of the situation at hand. Poisoned water, no food, and radioactive fallout offer sufficient tribulations for the survivors the face. Dumping them into the road company of ‘The Walking Dead’ is a serious misstep and ultimately the rails story.
The one saving grace of this film is that it gathered together and exemplary cast. Edward Furlong, began his career in 1991 as a young John Connor in the first ‘Terminator’, sequel. From there he went on to an eclectic mix of film and television. Monica Keener has been a regular in the number of television series, including ‘Grey’s Anatomy’, ‘Private Practice’, ‘Entourage’ and the cult classic ‘Undeclared’. This young woman possesses the inherent talent for infusing realistic nuances into her characters. William Baldwin is arguably best known as one of the group of brothers all involved in acting. More perhaps best known for playing low-end criminals, his performance here goes demonstrate he has a handle on situational driven drama. Fans of the HBO groundbreaking crime series, ‘The Wire’, will immediately Andre Royo played the sympathetic junkies/the former ‘Bubbles’. In his role here as Rob, he provides one of the three necessary points of view required to propel the story. Rob possesses the religious inclination, Brad, is the pragmatist and scientifically trained Hunter tries to offer the voice of reason. The result is one of my favorite central themes for such a story, placing reasonable people in an entirely unreasonable set of circumstances. In the movies that we watched in our younger days, there is usually some form of a happy ending. The stamina and determination that is the epitome of the American manages to see the survivors through the ordeal, or at the last minute the American military will swoop in to save the day. Even when I was very young, I always felt that such a dénouement was entirely contrived. There is no such optimism or glimmer of hope present in this realistically bleak movie. Understandably, those of us that can remember teachers herding their students down to the school’s basement will react differently than the current generation.