Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, December 1, 2017

Director Report Card: Stephen Sommers (2013)

9. Odd Thomas

Stephen Sommers' last few movies all made a lot of money. Either the weak reviews caught up with him or he wanted to try something smaller. His ninth feature was made for much less money and fell outside the blockbuster genre. Still, “Odd Thomas” had a decent pedigree. It was based off a novel by Dean Koontz, the first in a successful series. The cast lacked big stars but was still full of recognizable names. “Odd Thomas” probably could've been a decent hit. Instead, the film was plagued by financial woes, production shutting down several times. The release was repeatedly delayed. The film ended up only getting a wide theatrical release abroad. Naturally, it made very little money. So what went wrong?

As his name implies, Odd Thomas does not live a normal life. The young man has various psychic abilities. Primarily, he can see ghosts and evil spirits. He uses this power to solve the murders of the recently dead. This has made him friends with the local police detective. Recently, he has been seeing Bodachs – malevolent specters that feed on death and destruction – all around his home town. He quickly deduces an act of mass violence is about to happen. If Odd hopes to save the lives of innocent people, and his beloved girlfriend Stormy especially, he's going to have stop this before it happens.

Koontz' novel belonged solidly to a literary genre that has grown in popularity over the last decade. I'm talking about the occult detective story. Though the genre's roots go all the way back to ancient Rome, it's become especially prevalent more recently. I guess the combination of the detective story – always popular among airport readers – with fantastical or supernatural gimmicks are irresistible to a lot of people. “Odd Thomas” hits the occult detective hallmarks, following a detecting crime stopper who freely interacts with the supernatural.

“Odd Thomas” is not content to simply follow in the footsteps of Thomas Carnaki, Harry D'Amour, and John Constantine. The film mashes the concept up with a nearly as overexposed genre: The indie quirk-fest. Odd lives in an eccentric small town. He has a job at the local dinner, where he serves meals in response to goofy code phrases. His girlfriend has an equally twee job, at a trendy ice cream shop. The town of Pico Mundo is rift with colorful history. Such as an abandoned prison which would become a church and a family restaurant. Seemingly every character has a cutesy nickname or some sort of eccentric habit. Eventually, “Odd Thomas” lurches towards some truly dire comedy. Like a farting corpse. Combining a too-cute-for-words setting with a story full of death seems like an awful choice. But I guess it really isn't, considering the hugely popular cozy mystery genre is built on just that. It sits pretty poorly with me though.

“Odd Thomas” also sees Sommers returning to the horror genre. He focuses on chills-and-thrills more than usual, the most since “Deep Rising.” Wikipedia calls the movie a “supernatural mystery thriller” but its place in the horror genre seems obvious to me. There's ghosts, though they're mostly friendly. More pressing are the evil spirits, who often slither around the film in various creepy ways. The movie throws in more than its fair share of jump scares, often involving a monstrous face leaping into frame suddenly. One scene, maybe the most effective in the movie, has Odd barely escaping detection by the Bodachs while hiding in a slimy shack. While crossing off a lot of boxes, “Odd Thomas” is at least attempting to scare its audience occasionally.

The film ultimately lurches towards real life horror in a way it's simply unprepared to handle. The cutesy comedy and light-weight story builds to a convoluted climax. The identity of the killers shift several times, the movie piling on more twists. The exact details of the villainous scheme end up being unintentionally disturbing. The movie concludes with a mass shooting at a mall. Considering how many fucking acts of domestic terrorism we've endured recently, this can't help but come off as extremely tacky. It's also a level of drama a movie like this is hopelessly unable to handle. If that wasn't bad enough, the story ends on a downbeat note, with an unnecessary and borderline asinine twist.

During his tragically cut short career, Anton Yelchin appeared in quite a few low budget genre films. Some of these, like “Only Lovers Left Alive” or “Green Room,” were quite good. Others, like “Burying the Ex” or the “Fright Night” remake, were quite bad. “Odd Thomas” falls closer in quality to the latter category. This is no fault of Yelchin. He's a likable lead, with a charming aura and decent leading man abilities. Odd simply pushes too many budgets as a protagonists. He has magical powers, more of which emerge as the plot goes on. He has a tragic back story, thanks to an insane mother. He's highly skilled at melee combat. He's even an expert chef. It's all too much, any real personality or heart disappearing behind a pile of quirks.

All of the above apparently still wasn't enough to emphasize how special Odd is. He's also granted a perfect love story. He's known his girlfriend, Stormy, since they were kids. As adolescents, a fortune telling machine informed them that they were destined to be together. And so they are. Their love is uncomplicated and pure. It's... Not very compelling. Addison Timlin is funny and pretty, though saddled with some of the film's worst dialogue. I can't help but think that “Odd Thomas” would've worked better had Odd and Stormy come together throughout the story. Starting the film with their relationship already being settled drains drama. Making their love so completely, amazingly without flaws also makes it boring.

It still seems like Sommers is able to pull together a decent cast. “Odd Thomas” has some likable performers in its supporting roles. Willem Dafoe plays the police chief who works with Odd. Dafoe's role is more light-hearted than you're used to seeing from him. He likes to grill and his attempts to get intimate with his wife are repeatedly interrupted. I like how the character accepts Odd's abilities without question. Shuler Hensley, reappearing from “Van Helsing,” has a similarly physical part as a shambling weirdo nicknamed “Fungus Bob.” Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who has gone on to a promising character, plays probably one of the more relatable characters in the movie. There's also two decent cameos. Patton Oswalt appears in a one scene as a metal-worker, making the most of the bit part. Arnold Vosloo also has a really funny cameo, maybe the funniest moment in the film, as a one-armed ghost.

“Odd Thomas” is less action-packed than Sommers' usual films. Seemingly to compensate, he ramped his visual style way the fuck up. The film begins with a foot chase, Odd confronting the murderer of a young girl. Digital warping effects are applied, as the man runs away. Slow motion is utilized when the guy bursts through a fence. As the fist fight continues into a house, Sommers continues to uses slow-mo, smash cuts, and stylized editing. The habit continues to crop up throughout the film. Flashy editing effects show up time and again, attempting to spruce up simple flashbacks or new camera angle. In practice, this is just distracting.

One of Sommers' worst habits makes a comeback here and in a big way. In “Adventures of Huck Finn,” the director utilized voice-over narration far too much, often explaining stuff that was happening on-screen. “Odd Thomas” doubles down on this. There are several scenes, that otherwise would've been quiet, that are instead packed wall-to-wall with narration. Odd goes over every plot reveal and point, making sure the audience doesn't miss anything. (Weirdly, the plot still comes off as somewhat convoluted.) Eventually, it reaches the point where Anton Yelchin is photographed just standing around, waiting for his own narration to finish up. It starts out as extraneous and, by the end, becomes excruciating.

I'll give “Odd Thomas” this much. The special effects are pretty good. Considering he was working with far less money than usual, the CGI in this is actually pretty good. The Bodochs have a decent creature design. They are partially transparent, creature seemingly composed of dissolving fibers, flung together into a vaguely animal-like shape. They play a large part in the movie and generally look decent doing it. There's still some choppy CGI effects – this is a Stephen Sommers movie, after all – like when Odd is attempting to escape a swirling room. An explosion at the end looks pretty silly too. However, at least the film's budget is clearly right on the screen.

As I said, Dean Koontz' “Odd Thomas” was the first part in a series. The book series totals seven entries while a comic book spin-off would spawn three paperback volumes. The cinematic “Odd Thomas” ends by setting up a sequel, assuring us that Odd's adventures will continue. This was a bit hasty. Since the film was barely released, it barely made any money, only grossing a little over a million dollars. (The producers actually sued the distributors, saying they failed to properly promote the movie.) Even if “Odd Thomas” had made money, I wouldn't be eager to see a sequel. It's a tonally confused film, with tacky direction and construction. Ultimately, the story's hollow heart, based in a protagonist that is simply too special, is its undoing. [Grade: C-]

I don't know if it was the disastrous box office or the troubled production. Whatever the reason, Stephen Sommers hasn't made a movie since "Odd Thomas." His IMDb page still lists a remake of "When Worlds Collide" as an upcoming project. But that was announced years ago and little movement has been made on it since then. Considering he's still had more box office hits than failures, I imagine Sommers will find his way out of director jail eventually. While he's made some duds, when Sommers is on point, I really enjoy his movies. His brand of campy blockbuster entertainment can be joyous, when done right.

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