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Film Reviews: Dismal (2008) - By Duane L. Martin
Posted on Monday, February 02, 2009 @ 18:07:24 Mountain Standard Time by Duane

Well, I didn't expect to be reviewing another film by director Gary King so soon, but he was pretty busy in 2008, and not only did I recently get to revview his new film New York Lately, but now I get to review this film as well, and I don't think it would be possible for the two films to be more different.

Dismal is Gary King's first foray into the horror genre.  There is something I should note about this film before I go any farther into the review however.  While Gary King directed this film, this was not his film.  He directed it for someone else, which means he only had limited creative control.  Now, that said, how did it turn out?  Well, considering the fact that Gary knows how to bring the best out of the people he works with, this film ended up being pretty damn awesome.  Still, there were a couple of problems with the film that weren't his fault, which I'll get to in a minute.

Dismal is about a group of five college students who go on an outing to the Great Dismal Swamp with their teaching assistant in an effort to gain some extra credit in their biology class.  Teaching assistant Curt (Tim Morris) organizes the trip, and includes squeamish student Dana (Lydia Chandler) in his plans.  Dana is extremely disgusted by the act of dissecting various creepy crawlies in her class, and as such isn't doing very well.  This trip is a chance for her to get some extra credit that she desperately needs.

Once out in the swamps, the group finds a gator that's been shot by poachers.  They call out a park service guy to report it, and soon Dale (Bill Oberst Jr.) shows up.  He's in uniform and shows up on an air boat, and for the moment at least, he seems like a normal, competent official.  It's only later that we find out that he and his huge, disfigured son have been killing and eating people out at their cabin in the swamp.  Needless to say our little science group is next on the menu.  Well, four of them anyway.  Dana eventually manages to escape and has to use all her wits and a healthy dose of violence to stay alive.  Needless to say, by the end of the film, she isn't all that squeamish about dissecting stuff anymore.

While this is a great film, I do have exactly two problems with it, which I'll get out of the way now.  The first one is story related, and has to do with Curt.  I didn't want to give away any spoilers here, but to explain the problem I had with his character, I don't really have a choice.  Basically, he starts out as a science geek with a crush on Dana, and about half way through the film, when it all starts hitting the fan, it turns out that he's actually Dale's son, brother to the disfigured "Idiot", and he's taken this group out into the swamp with the goal of putting them on the family's dinner menu.  The way it plays out however makes no sense.  The guy is normal in the first part of the movie, and then basically insane for the last part.  Also, how was he planning on going back to his job as a teaching assistant and explaining away the disappearance of five people?  This whole aspect of the story was just awkward.  It all played out pretty cool, but once it turned out that he was one of them, I spent the rest of the movie bothered by that aspect of the story.

The other problem I have with this film is that there are some really, really cheap looking CGI effects used here and there.  Gunshot smoke, flames, an explosion, and even a girl who gets sliced in half, all done with CGI and all less than stellar in their appearance and all very out of place in an otherwise excellent film.  It was really disappointing because everything else in the film from the locations to the set design to the make-up and you name it all looked just awesome.  However, these CGI bits were generally small and didn't last too long, so they didn't detract from the film too awful much.

Now, with those two things out of the way, I can tell you why this film was so great...

Gary King is an absolutely phenomenal director.  Of his many talents, his greatest one seems to be bringing out the best in his cast.  The cast of this film all did a great job with their roles, adding depth to what in any other film, would have been little more than a collection of two-dimensional cardboard cutouts getting killed off one by one by a one dimensional psycho killer.  This was especially true with Bill Oberst's portrayal of Dale.  I don't even know how to describe how great he was at bringing just the right personality and intensity to the role.  He was the quintessential swamp rat, but at the same time, he was much more than that.  The mannerisms and personality he brought to the role made the character memorable.  So many times in films like this, these types of characters are just generic and forgettable, but when I look back on this film now, his character is the one that stands out to me the most.  Have I ever heard of Bill Oberst before?  No.  Would it be a crime if I never see him in anything else?  Absolutely.  He has done other films but I haven't seen anything else he's been in.  Hopefully that'll change in the near future.

The locations in this film, true to Gary King's past films, were well scouted and flawlessly chosen.  The set design was flawless as well, not that there was a whole lot of interior work done in this film, but the cabin in the swamp was extremely well decorated.  This place looked like it had been there since time began, and the inside was like something out of a nightmare.  Actually, the room where they chained up Dana and the others...I almost expected to see Pinhead come walking in with some of his cenobites.  Set design and costuming are things we don't often really consider while we're watching a film, but they're an integral part of the story and how it comes across.  Most of the time it's just a background thing, but in a film like this, the set design in the cabin is front and center and really adds to the creepiness of the whole situation.

So, at the end of the day, I would have to say that Gary King's first attempt at horror was a rousing success.  I think the only thing that would have made this film better is if he could have had more creative control over it.  Still, maybe now that he's cut his teeth on this one, he'll work up a horror film of his own at some point in the future.  Whatever he does, it's pretty much a given that it's going to be great.  I'm definitely going to see about checking out some of Bill Oberst's other work as well, and you should too.  The guy is a great actor and though his film work is relatively limited, I'm hoping he'll get the recognition he deserves and start showing up in more and more films.  For now though, you can just bask in the cannibalistic swamp rat glory that is Dismal.

If you'd like to find out more about this film, you can check out the film's official site at

Monday, February 02, 2009 @ 18:07:24 Mountain Standard Time Film Reviews |
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