Starring Bill Sage, Rory Culkin, Sabina Gadeki, Dolph Lundgren and Shad Gaspard
Directed by Trevor Ryan
Of horror’s myriad sub-genres the oldest and most enduring is probably the horror-comedy. From Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to Tucker and Dale vs. Evil we’ve been taking our fear with a healthy dose of funny pretty much on the regular for decades. There’s just something cathartic about finding humor in the darkest of subjects. To face the inevitable end we all must meet and be able to laugh in its face. Author Robert Bloch once opined that horror and comedy were “two sides of the same coin”, each with similar tensions and exultations.
While it’s true that most horror-comedies tend to lean further into comedy than horror, sometimes they strike a more even balance between the two. Too much of one can undermine the effectiveness of the other after all. Welcome to Willits manages to find this balance. While much of the movie is absurd in the most delightful of ways there are moments of true terror that will sober you up quickly no matter how hard you might find yourself chuckling at the plethora of zany proceedings.
Welcome to Willits is, at its core, a slasher film. A sub-genre within a sub-genre, if you will. It involves a group of teenagers who go camping in the woods of the Emerald Triangle in California and get picked off one by one. The brilliance and hilarity of it comes from the nature of their stalker and the reason for which they are being stalked. If you think you’ve seen it all then the delightfully stupid motivation of the film’s antagonist should come as a refreshing surprise. You may just find yourself, more than once, with a big, dumb grin on your face from the sheer insanity.
The film is the brainchild of the Ryan Brothers, Trevor and Tim, with Trevor in the director’s chair and Tim with the writing credit. Being their debut makes what they managed to achieve with this one all the more impressive. The film is directed with a deft and steady hand with pacing that never feels uneven. The writing is clever and subversive and blends brutal reality with the extremely surreal masterfully. The incidental way they handle some of the more gruesome moments goes a long way towards their goal of completely removing the viewer from their comfort zone by the climax. This is the kind of work that should get the Ryan Brothers noticed.
The cast, for their part, does a respectable job bringing their broad characters to life. Bill Sage, however, stands head and shoulders above the rest. His turn as the villain of the piece is exceptional. He is tasked with not only making you fear him, which you most certainly will, but with also making you like and even pity him. Choppy waters to be sure but Sage navigates them with seeming ease. There are moments in the film that he will make you squirm with merely a look only to make you laugh seconds later. Without his outstanding performance the character could have easily been too silly to take seriously and the film wouldn’t work. Thankfully the Ryan Brothers knew what they were doing when they cast Sage. Certainly one of the better horror performances of the year.
You may have seen the film being marketed using the image of Dolph Lundgren. While Mr. Lundgren is indeed in the movie his role isn’t that of a main cast member but rather as part of the film’s most subversive plot device. No spoilers here but, suffice to say, his presence as a no-nonsense T.V. detective is both surprising and hilarious.
Welcome to Willits is one of the best independent offerings of the year. While the budget might have held it back a few times the care that was put into crafting it is clear from the beginning. Everyone involved is trying their best to bring something different and memorable to the screen. For the most part they succeed. The Ryan Brothers look to have a bright future if this is the quality of work we can expect from them moving forward. As it stands this a most encouraging start.