For every high-budget “A-movie” (say, Damien Chazelle’s ‘First Man’) that commands significant promotion and funding from its studio, there are piles of “B-movies” that scramble and slither their way into existence without the benefit of things like “a budget” or “a script” or “Ryan Gosling”, in some cases. To compare them with A-movies in terms of resources and immersiveness isn’t a fair proposition, yet some B-movies are just as “good” as the more polished products.
But what does “good” mean when we’re talking about films often famous for their silly premises, bad acting and shoddy construction? It certainly doesn’t mean “best-made.” It also doesn’t mean “worst-made.” Essentially, it boils down to whether the film is entertaining or not. Discerning film fans are able to simply appreciate them for what they are.
2018 has already seen the release of several high-profile B-movies, like ‘Rampage’, ‘Skyscraper’, ‘The Predator’, ‘The Nun’ and ‘The Meg’. These films promised a lot of schlocky fun but were all dull, uninventive slogs.
Produced by J.J. Abrams, how does Julius Avery’s World War II horror film ‘Overlord’ stack-up?
On the eve of D-Day, a paratrooper squad is sent to destroy a German radio tower in an old church outside of Normandy. The tower is housing a radio transmitter that is preventing the Allied forces from communicating with each other before the attack. However, their plane is bombarded by bullets and explosions before they can reach their target, leaving only five apparent survivors: heroic leader Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell, ‘Ingrid Goes West’), untested Boyce (Jovan Adepo, ‘Mother!’), wise-cracking Tibbet (John Magaro, ‘My Soul to Take’), camera-man Chase (Iain De Caestecker, ABC’s ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’) and human landmine detector Dawson (Jacob Anderson).
While approaching the village, the surviving soldiers are discovered by Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), a French woman scavenging for resources, who agrees to take them into the village where the radio tower is located. The soldiers learn that Chloe lives with her younger brother Paul and her aunt, who has been disfigured by mysterious Nazi experiments taking place in the church. They soon come into conflict with Wafner (Pilou Asbæk, HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’) and the hideously mutated creatures in his underground laboratory. Then the blood and gooey stuff begins to fly...
‘Overlord’ opens with an expertly filmed night-time airdrop sequence that introduces the soldiers, and then hurls them from a burning plane into a lake below. As the soldiers emerge from the water and gather their bearings, they look up and see bodies silhouetted in the trees, hanging from high branches by their parachute cords. It’s a beautiful, suspenseful sequence and the strongest in the film.
The mutant/mad scientist experiment aspect of the film (which is reminiscent of Richard Raaphorst's inventive found footage shocker 'Frankenstein's Army') takes a backseat to a stock standard retro war flick, with the Nazi zombie monster action not ramping up until well into the second half of the film. Luckily, there is plenty of killing to be done. From the opening moments, the blood never stops spraying as bodies are stabbed, crushed, exploded, shot to bits and mutated into some body-horrific, ‘The Thing’-style shapes.
The script, from the overqualified team of Billy Ray (‘Shattered Glass’, ‘The Hunger Games’) and Mark L. Smith (‘The Revenant’, ‘Vacancy’), never delves too deeply into the characters or their motivations – most of them can be grouped under “wisecracking Americans”, "serious Americans", “evil Nazis” and so on. The soldiers also find themselves hiding out in Chloe’s house for far too long (reminding me of Neil Marshall’s ‘Dog Soldiers’) before they decide on a course of action. The storyline is highly predictable, with the same premise as dozens of other stories on film and TV, as well as countless video games, like 'Resident Evil' and 'Wolfenstein'.
As the soldiers emerge from a lake and gather their bearings, they look up to see bodies silhouetted in the trees, hanging from high branches by their parachute cords. It’s a beautiful sequence and the strongest in the film.
However, Ray and Smith’s script does have some interesting wrinkles. Boyce is an African American paratrooper, something which is simply accepted by the other men (in reality, the American military was still segregated in World War II). Chloe isn’t a stereotypical screaming damsel in distress, and when she gets her hands on a machine gun, she goes toe-to-claw with some monstrous freaks. The square-jawed, all-American Corporal Ford tortures a captured German soldier without hesitation, noting that the Allies have to be as nasty as the Nazis in order to win the war – later his resolve is shaken when he sees how far his enemies have gone to assure their own victory.
Working in director Julius Avery’s favour is the fact that, shockingly, there has never been a good horror film set in the Second World War before. The cinematic battlefield is littered with the likes of ‘The Bunker’, ‘Below’, ‘Outpost’, and ‘The Devil’s Rock’. Even legendary director Michael Mann had a red hot go with ‘The Keep’, a film about an alien or a vampire or something - he has all but disowned it in recent years. Compared to these wartime atrocities, ‘Overlord’ shines brightly. Avery only has one previous directorial credit (the Australian crime caper ‘Son of a Gun’), but here he demonstrates his ability to put together an efficient, well-oiled entertainment machine.
The two words that most effectively describe ‘Overlord’ are “solid” and, more importantly, “entertaining”. While the film could have taken a few more risks with its storytelling, it is to Julius Avery’s credit that not only has he managed to carve out an entertaining B-movie in a year littered with bigger-budgeted disappointments, but he’s also made the best Second World War action/horror film to date. If you’re looking for a gory Nazi-mutant kill-fest, then look no further.