Monday, April 13, 2009

Can You Tell Me How to Get, How to Get to Mulberry Street?

Mulberry Street is a refreshingly low budget, highly disciplined film that knows its limits and plays its strengths. This isn’t a great movie, but it’s a solid, often scary 100 minutes that should serve as a shining example of what indie horror could be.

Quick Plot: On a typical late spring day in Manhattan’s Little Italy, the long-term and low income residents of a formerly rent-controlled apartment face eviction as their newly high-priced neighborhood embraces gentrification. That turns out to be the least of their problems. Before the sun sets, rats are getting frisky, homeless people are getting hungry, tweens are getting dead, and New Yorkers of every sort are getting turned into man-eating, 30 Days of Nightesque running zombies hellbent on destroying the city, one nibble at a time.

Mulberry Street’s story is nothing revolutionary, but there are several factors at work that make this 2007 After Dark Festival entry a memorable piece of modern horror. The rat angle is different, (and since I nearly tripped on a kitten-sized rodent leaving work last week, all too real). Casting is also key. So many indie films get stuck with filmmaker’s friends in key roles, a problem because generally, someone's peers end up being around the same age. Mulberry Street wisely avoids this pitfall with an assortment of racially and age-ily(?) diverse characters that could be occupying any Big Apple building. A sympathetic and understated Nick Damici (also the film’s co-writer) plays a retired boxer about two decades past what most films would consider his prime. Even the female leads--Bo Corre as an immigrant bartender and Kim Blair as a young Iraq War veteran--are refreshingly unlike what you normally get in the majority of cheap thrillers.

And perhaps the most important thing I failed to mention: Mulberry Street is scary. Not quite as successful as, say, 28 Days/Weeks Later, but similarly filled with both shocking jump scares and the atmospheric uneasiness of watching everything about your everyday life destroyed. Director Jim Mickle is clearly going for some 9/11 parallels and he succeeds at capturing what it felt like to wander a city as its sense of normalcy slowly, then suddenly spun into fear unlike anything the majority of Americans had ever known. That’s horror.

High Points
A few surprising character deaths violate many of the tired rules of survival

The visual effects aren’t especially exciting, but the rodent-like squeaking sprinkled through the background is highly unsettling

You have to give respect to a film that seamlessly weaves in athletic, survival-minded characters (a burly bouncer, a tough soldier, heroic boxer) for fights that are realistically possible to win

Low Points
While I hate to criticize a low budget film’s effects, a few shots of the infected reveal what appears to be plastic vampire teeth I used to win for good behavior in kindergarten

I don’t have a problem with downbeat endings, but this one felt like it took one step too far by killing the final character we’d come to like. Am I missing a deeper significance, or was Casey’s death a simple nod to Romero's debut?

Lessons Learned
Always be nice to club bouncers

Gun control is working pretty well in lower Manhattan if by working well, you mean that the majority of downtowners are not armed with illegal weaponry. If, however, you value the protection of city residents against the plague of highly contagious man-eating rats, then perhaps gun control legistlation should be re-evaluated

Car alarms really do suck

This is definitely worth a watch, particularly for fans of New York, fast zombies, or those interested in quality horror made on a shoestring budget. My enjoyment was slightly marred by the fact that Netflix sent me not one but two scratched-beyond-salvageable DVDs, but I’m thankful I stuck it out for round 3. There are a few behind-the-scenes shorts, but the absence of a commentary track makes me hesitate to recommend a buy. This is a good piece of horror that’s best watched in one sitting with the lights off. There are several points that might become deeper or more impressive upon repeat viewings--look closer at the New York 2 background news, pay more attention to the ambiguous relationship between Clutch and his roommate, observe some of the nightmarish imagery Casey spots on her homeward trek--so a low-priced copy should certainly get you your money’s worth. If nothing else, take one night to support a low budget filmmaker that clearly loves horror, loves New York, and knows a thing or two about the evils of urban sprawl.


  1. I will have to check this one out before the next time I trek over to Little Italy for some pasta. And hopefully Netflix won't send me the same copies they sent you.

  2. If they do, call and complain in a polite voice. I did it, and the nice man on the phone promised to ship the next copy along with my two other movies so now I'm accidentally on the 3-at-a-time plan and not being charged that extra dollar. I like to think I've beaten the system.

    If there's a sequel, it damn well better be set during San Gennaro.