Sunday, February 21, 2010

Knock Knock, Cough Cough

Few shows have held up quite as well as Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. It never ceases to amaze me how a TV program--perhaps one of the most time sensitive formats out there in the modern world of art--filmed when I was not even a glimmer in my elementary school aged parents’ eyes can still terrify, fascinate, and teach me so much about humanity, America, philosophy, morality, and the sheer awesomeness of Burgess Meredith.

But why bring up that black and white social landmark when today’s topic is 2006’s Right At Your Door? Mostly because this indie thriller is one of the closest examples I’ve seen of a modern tale with the Serling spirit. Tight as Shatner’s Kingdom of the Spider’s jeans at 96 minutes and suspenseful as watching a gremlin toy with a plane’s engine at 20,000 feet, this is an extremely well-made and truly tense film that combines modern fears with timeless human dilemmas.
That was awfully pretentious sounding, wasn’t it? Let me clear my throat of the toxins inside and continue.
Quick Plot: It’s a sunny day in LA when Brad (Rory Cochrane), an unemployed musician, kisses his career woman wife Lexie (Mary McCormack) goodbye as she heads down the freeway. Newly moved into their modest home, Brad plans on spending the day calling the cable company and unpacking. 
Remember the last movie you watched about cable installation? Didn’t think so (unless you’re a fan of those underrated gems, Stay Tuned and Cable Guy and if so, good for you)--which is probably why Right At Your Door has another storyline in mind. With nothing but a radio for audio entertainment, Brad soon learns that a bomb of mysterious nature has been dropped downtown. Because Lexie forgot to charge her phone (obligatory d’oh), Brad has no way of reaching her and can do nothing but frantically drive to roadblocks, grind his teeth, and return home to pace.

This is one of  the early decisions that instantly told me Right At Your Door was going to work. Brad is a regular guy, caring and concerned, but well-aware that he’s a human civilian. We’ve seen enough fantasy disaster films where mere mortals travel through apocalyptic landscapes on foot to ‘save’ their loved ones. In reality, if your wife is stuck at ground zero in one of the country’s largest cities, what can you possibly do? Yes, most of our instincts would be to get as close as we could to at least be near them, but deep down, even the most passionate lovers would probably realize the best solution is to sit home and hope.
Back at the house, the power flickers on and off but with no TV, Brad is stuck with radio news (interesting enough in itself at establishing true chaos without spending another dollar on the budget). The neighbor’s handyman breaks in and gives a little more info: a dirty bomb was dropped, releasing highly radioactive toxins now floating in the air. Homes must be sealed before the breeze turns and anybody who was near the blast is likely carrying a contagious, probably deadly viral strain in their bodies.
About 30 minutes into Right At Your Door, a character makes a shocking decision that I, like the Netflix sleeve, am about to spoil. This isn’t “the big twist” of say, Martyrs proportions, but if you really want to watch this film fresh--and I REALLY want you to--then leave me now and queue up your Instant Watch. I won’t give away the second major revelation, so those who don’t mind knowing a little more can stay, but the first is a key action that both surprises the viewer and determines the rest of the story. I simply can’t talk about the film without giving away this detail and you know what? I want to talk about this film.

Okay brave souls or those with poor reading skills, read on:
Windows coated in bubble wrap and duct tape, Brad chokes back tears as he seals the last entrance. Then Lexie, the love of his life and bank account of his existence, comes knocking.

He doesn’t open the door.
That’s right, the man who nearly crashed his van to find his wife has now had a little more time to fully digest the situation. And he knows. There’s his wife, coughing in pain and covered in gray dust, and Brad simply refuses to let her contaminate him or the stranger in the next room.
I loved this choice for its bravery (in, of course, its very cowardice). How often do we see a character act on his head instead of heart? My jaw dropped hard when I realized Brad wasn’t going to cave in, even for the women he’d just spent an hour pre-mourning.
Back to the story, Brad and Lexie, now separated by a few layers of plastic, can’t quite look at each other the same way. As Lexie slowly accepts this, the poor hacking beauty is now also faced with what seems like imminent, phlegm-filled death. Writer/director Chris Gorak handles this in a truly human manner, allowing McCormack plenty of room to show a normal woman coming to realize her fate. What would you do if you could feel the clock ticking in each breath? Call your family to hear their voices, knowing they’re hearing the pain in your own? How do you deal with the man you love choosing his own life over comforting you when you need him the most? There’s no time to argue, but also not quite the spirit to put it behind you and savor the final joy left.

There are no major effects or battles in Right At Your Door, but Gorak is masterful at creating an atmosphere of impending doom and state-wise chaos. On a shoestring budget, he manages to make you believe this normal couple is experiencing 9/11 in their backyard. Hearing the radio reporter with a muffled voice is all you need to visualize a frantic Diane Sawyer shouting to her microphone with her face covered in a cardigan. Anyone who’s a sucker for gas masks gets all they need when Darth Vader voiced soldiers stop by. And while I wouldn’t dream of spoiling anything further, I’ll end by saying that the final turn is a twist worthy of that cigarette smoking upstate NYer himself.
High Points
From the music to the camerawork, an extended scene where Brad drives through the almost-chaotic suburban streets is extremely effective, letting you feel every pump of his racing heart as the disaster around LA fully sets in

Like many a Twilight Zone episode, Right At Your Door relies heavily on its everyday core characters in an extraordinary situation, and both McCormack and Cochrane deliver sympathetic and natural performances the whole way through
No spoilers here, but leapin’ lizards did i love that ending!
Low Points
The introduction of a mysterious mutual friend named Rick feels like both a distraction from our core characters and an awkward plot convenience to get from point A to B
Lessons Learned
Meet your newest best friends: duct tape, plastic wrap, Ziploc bags, and a truly handy handyman swiped from your new neighbor
Avoid dealing with your mother-in-law in the event of a national disaster
If zombie survival has taught you nothing, let this be the film that convinces architects that ground floor windows are death sentences to homeowners

It’s been a few days since I watched Right At Your Door, and writing about the film has made me like it even more. As a 96 minute Instant Watch, there’s really no reason to not watch it when you feel like you need a solid fix of human drama with paranoid leanings. It may not fit into the typical definition of a ‘horror’ movie, but Right At Your Door is both thoughtful and scary in its own right. Twilight Zone fans may be especially impressed by how it ultimately succeeds. Chris Gorak shows a whole lot of skill all around, from the powerful instrumental score to the strong performances and tight script. It’s a simple story told well, and for a low budget thriller set in modern times, it’s definitely worth a buy if found at the right price, particularly since my extensive research (i.e., points to the DVD being refreshingly full o’ special features. 

Telly Savalas & Talking Tina, just 'cause


  1. I love any and all (well, almost) Apocalyptic movies and Right at Your Door is a solid example of what can be achieved with very little. This is something that was more recently achieved with Pontypool, solo location, cheap, but effective use of radio for paranoia, and the use of ones imagination. Good stuff, though it did drag a little in the second act for me, but not too much. And the ending is great and quite the "way to go moment!" Great review, check ya later!

  2. Wow. I read negative reviews about this film and have stayed away. You've convinced me otherwise. Checking it out ASAP.

    Excellent review Emily.

  3. Matt: I've still yet to see Pontypool, although it's sure to shoot up to my number 1 spot once it's released on DVD. I suppose RayD could have been a tad shorter towards the end, but I was invested enough that I didn't mind.

    PoT: I can see people being underwhelmed if they were expecting an all-out disaster movie or nuclear holocaust, but if you watch it as more of a character study or Twilight Zone story, I think it works incredibly well. I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

  4. Saw this flick when it first came out--enjoyed it. Pontypool was decent but I thought the end was pretty crappy. But the lead guy whose name escapes me(and I'm too lazy to hit imdb) is really good.

  5. I read your comment really quickly and saw it as "the lead guy who escapes" and while I know next to nothing about Pontypool (mostly because I've avoided reading anything for fear of spoilers), I briefly cursed out loud thinking you'd just given away the ending.

  6. I have passed this one up on the used DVD shelves at least 4 times because I hadnt read or heard anything about it, but I am totally all in now, thanks for the review Em!!

  7. Always a pleasure Carl! I look forward to reading your review.

  8. I have also had many of opportunities to watch this film and passed it up. I love Rory, and it definitely looked like an interesting role for him to play. Thanks to your review I'll bump it up into my top ten to watch.

  9. Cochrane has a tough job here as he's not the most likable character you've ever seen, but he pulls off the job incredibly well. If you have Netflix, it's on Instant Watch so it should be easy enough to view. And of course, review it! I'm really curious to hear what others have to say about Right At Your Door, as it seems to be rather divisive.