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Dead Shack
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by Jay Seaver

"A bit better than expected for this sort of horror movie."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: This movie should have been a complete disaster; it's got the stink of 1980s horror nostalgia executed without many thoughts beyond liking gory old movies but maybe liking them more if they were quippier and less likely to take themselves seriously That's generally a recipe for only making the shell of a good horror movie, but "Dead Shack" instead turns out, if not great, then not bad. It's good enough that if the filmmakers are able to cash in on a demand for early-teen-centered horror after "It", I won't begrudge them their good timing.

After a brief glimpse at what looks like the end of a party that was kind of weird before it went horribly wrong, we see Colin (Gabriel LaBelle) get picked up for a weekend in a secluded cabin with his friend Jason (Matthew Nelson-Mahood) and his family: Jason's sister Summer (Lizzie Boys), upon whom Colin understandably harbors a bit of a crush; father Roger (Donavon Stinson), the perhaps too-laid-back father; and Lisa (Valerie Tian), the hot but kind of snotty potential stepmother. It's not a group that meshes perfectly, so the kids wind up taking a walk in the woods, and when they stumble upon that house from before the credits, there's no way they just say "something smells funny, let's get back home."

To a certain extent, how much someone enjoys this movie is a matter of how well he or she responds to swear-y, sarcastic teens. I'm not a particular fan, and while this one gets a boost from a dumb but likable dad who joins in - Donavon Stinson hits the nail on the head in making Roger enjoyably laid-back, able to improve the kids' banter as he dives in but also making it no surprise that he'll be kind of useless when it counts. The interplay between Colin, Jason, and Summer is kind of boilerplate stuff - Colin's shy, Summer's 75/25 in terms of being annoyed and flattered by his interest, and Jason's the kind of twerp whose constant abrasiveness is not clever but loud enough to make up for it. If it comes off as genuine and frequently funny, it's because the authentically young cast sells it very well; Gabriel LaBelle, Matthew Nelson-Mahood, and Lizzie Boys may not be given the freshest of material, but they bring the right sorts of teen self-doubt and assurance to it.

A little mortal danger helps things when it shows up; it lets the kids' bluster play more as nervous reactions than just being a jerk, and it certainly gives the characters an alternate note to play against. It's a reasonably tricky line to walk when using mostly young characters, because what's funny sarcasm in the average zombie movie would undercut the basic innocence of the kids. And, eventually, it gets into the gore, and it's entertainingly gooey stuff, played in large part for gross slapstick, but able to work for pathos when necessary. There's a lot of fake blood on offer and just enough undead to feel like one could be lurking behind the next door without having to navigate a whole apocalyptic outbreak.

It's a bit noteworthy that director Peter Ricq and his co-writers walk the characters right up to saying the word "zombie" a couple of times but backing off, landing right on the line where teenagers can be expected to know the rules without saying "those things from movies are real". It's a deft avoidance of a potentially tricky story issue in order to keep the focus on the fun stuff, something that maybe doesn't work quite so well for other parts of the movie: Ricq et al stumble a bit when describing why Colin is hanging around Jason's family to the point of tagging along on their vacation, and it seems like they're grasping at a theme of how different families look out for each other or don't. It's made explicit by Lauren Holly's character - eventually revealed as an unconventional but ferocious mother figure, with Holly doing better work than she's done in bigger productions - but the filmmakers seem to decide it's not worth letting that interrupt the splatter.

That's a fair choice. It may keep "Dead Shack" from striking a nerve with viewers who want more from their zombie movie than gore and quips, but if that's all you need out of an hour and a half of Canadian grindhouse fare, it's not bad, and maybe a little better than expected.

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originally posted: 09/16/17 00:08:23
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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