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He Never Died
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by Jay Seaver

"Never falters as noir, horror, or dark comedy."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Somehow, when I was looking at this movie's description, the idea that it was a deadpan comedy (although the blackest you can imagine) never came through, which made it an extremely pleasant surprise. Or perhaps it's not "a deadpan comedy", but a supernatural noir that happens to be full of the stuff. It's the rare movie that is both what you would and would not expect.

The big draw is Henry Rollins playing Jack, a blood-drinking immortal who doesn't quite fit in with traditional v-word lore, but who has been trying to keep it on the straight and narrow, although that is accomplished in large part by doing nothing. He has one vegetarian meal at the local diner a day, kind of oblivious to how waitress Cara (Kate Greenhouse) looks at him, and gets his blood from a hospital intern (Booboo Stewart). Today, though, a former lover that he vaguely remembers hating has called to say that he has a daughter, Andrea (Jordan Todosey), and she's gone looking for him. He's not sure why this is his problem, but pulling her out of whatever trouble she's in seems like the shortest path back to being left alone.

Though there are a great many other things about this film that are nicely done, Rollins's performance as Jack is easily the best, and writer/director Jason Krawczyk seems to have caught him at just the right time: Muscular but middle-aged, Rollins gives off the impression of being world-weary despite it being impossible for him to actually be worn down, with a voice that is kind of rough but also clear and authoritative. Rollins has a great handle on how Jack has made himself passive in order to keep people safe but has lost any connection with those people in doing so. This could play as somber, but when Jack is forced to deal with the world around him because his relatively recent past catches up with him, his social atrophy and utter lack of reaction to what would be threatening situations for normal humans is terrifically funny, apparently even more so for those used to Rollins as a loud, forceful heavy metal musician. Rollins gets big laughs for not flinching, using the bare minimum number of words, or just ending a conversation when it no longer interests Jack, and when he does get stirred to action, there's danger to it both from how casual he is and how there is rage to him, both at his long life and how this violence is a natural instinct.

It's a fun contrast to everyone around him - the rest of the ensemble isn't that big, but anybody who has a significant amount of screen time with Rollins tends to deserve it. Kate Greenhouse is the greatest constant as a sweet diner waitress, creating a character that the audience can identify with but also recognize as almost too nice for Jack. She sticks around as things get chaotic later on, and Greenhouse does much better than most at presenting Cara as legitimately terrified by what Jack brings to this peaceful town even if she is capable of being an active part of the action. Jordan Todosey makes an appealing screw-up of a daughter - Andrea has a more actively sarcastic streak than her father but it tends to come out as bemused rather than malicious, and Todosey does unusually well to make her tendencies toward self-destruction feel inevitable rather than frustrating, while also showing a teenager who would be mortified to show how excited she is to meet her dad. And then there's the low-level criminal who catches on that messing with this Jack fellow is a bad idea way before everyone else.

The really clever bit, though, is that as funny as those scenes are, they also feed directly into into the bits that make He Never Died both a nifty crime flick and a horror story. There's a street-level, dark alley feel to those elements that works very nicely indeed, and lends itself to some great action that may frequently be one-sided, but is a gas to watch anyway, because Krawczyk has a solid picture of how this would go down, and gets Rollins to nail it every time. It makes calling the movie a comedy a bit inaccurate, even if this is one of most honestly funny movies of its type in recent memory, earning both its laughs, thrills, and darker moments.

It's a bare-bones production in many ways - Krawczyk and the producers never indulge in flashy special effects, intend tending to have Jack simply shrug off what leaves other characters a bloody mess, and there are no contrasting-but-expensive flashbacks to other periods in Jack's long life. The relative simplicity of how scenes are set up and executed feels like classic film noir, though Jack lives in a gray, subdued world rather than one of sharp shadows, and the little ways in which the filmmakers hint at something larger are effective: There's a sense that every item in Jack's trunk has a story, and the sound design that makes a din out of overlapping old radio broadcasts when Jack isn't fully engaged with something in the present does a fantastic job of symbolizing the weight of his long life.

In a lot of hands, "He Never Died" would miss the bullseye that this one pulls off in a number of ways - it would be too self-serious, or too jokey, or the crime would seem like small potatoes next to the fantasy, or the fantasy would seem like a distraction from watching the characters interact. None of that happens here, though, and that's remarkable - it's difficult to be this fascinating, suspenseful, and funny all at once, while also letting it be a distinct pleasure to watch someone act. It's a neat trick to pull off, and hopefully it gets noticed outside the fans of horror (and Rollins) who are its obvious audience.

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originally posted: 08/28/15 09:09:29
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Bruce Campbellā€™s Horror Film Festival For more in the 2015 Bruce Campbellā€™s Horror Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

6/10/16 brian A real shame not more folks have seen this. It's on Netflix. 4 stars
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Directed by
  Jason Krawczyk

Written by
  Jason Krawczyk

  Henry Rollins
  Steven Ogg
  Kate Greenhouse
  BooBoo Stewart
  Jordan Todosey

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