Despiser (2004)

Reviewed by The Foywonder

Starring Mark Redfield, Doug Brown, Gage Sheridan, Frank Smith, and Tara Bilkins

Directed By Philip J. Cook

What Despiser lacks in budget it makes up for with imagination and what it sometimes lacks in quality it makes up for with ambition. I can honestly say I have never seen anything quite like this movie and while it isn’t a complete success, I still have to admire the amount of inventiveness that went into creating a film of such an epic scope on what was obviously a very low budget.

The thing that sets Despiser apart from other films of its genre is its use of virtual sets and CGI. Granted the virtual sets are less than realistic and the CGI is often of the Playstation 2 variety but since they are used in such abundance and always of a consistent quality it ends up becoming a distinctive atmosphere. The film has a visual style all its own that I can only best describe as looking like a cross between a video game and a BBC soap opera. Granted many people aren’t going to be as open-minded as I am and will roll their eyes the moment they see the visual effects work but considering how bland or music video-like the visual look of most direct-to-video genre movies these days Despiser is practically state of the art.

I didn’t realize it when I originally reviewed the movie for Creature Corner but it came to find out that writer/director Philip J. Cook was also the man responsible for one of my favorite direct-to-video B-movies of the 1990’s, a tongue-in-cheek sci-fi flick called Invader. Much like Despiser, it was probably far too ambitious for little budget it had but still tried harder than and entertained more than many other movies of its type with far bigger budgets to work with.

Gordon is having a very bad day. He gets fired from his job, evicted from his house, and his wife leaves him. If that wasn’t bad enough he gets killed in a car accident and suddenly wakes up in a hellish netherworld. Pursued by the evil Shadowman and his army of Ragmen – enslaved souls turned into nameless minions – Gordon is rescued by a ragtag group of freedom fighters and unwillingly recruited into their struggle. The netherworld they are all trapped in is purgatory for the souls of those that had much despair in their life.

As if just being in purgatory wasn’t bad enough, a horrible creature known as The Despiser has conquered this netherworld and commands Shadowman and his army of Ragmen. The Despiser isn’t a demon but an alien soul trapped in human purgatory. Ever hear of the Tunguska explosion that occurred in Siberia in 1908? Turns out it was a UFO and this alien being was killed in the crash. Since its own race didn’t believe in concepts like Heaven and Hell and it died on our world it ended up being trapped in our afterlife. I’ll give the filmmaker credit. That is definitely inventive.

This band of freedom fighters, all of whom died in various times and places throughout the last century, have been recruited by God to destroy the Despiser in order to escape this netherworld before the Despiser succeeds in his master plan to escape into our living world. Oh, and if you die in this place then you’re really dead, as in no afterlife at all. You just cease to exist.

One of the little touches I found interesting about this netherworld is that if you died in a vehicle then the vehicle ends up there with you in the afterlife, and if that vehicle was loaded with guns then those guns come with you too. This explains why the landscape is riddled with everything from cars to battleships to missile launchers. It’s also how the Despiser has managed to transform his spaceship into a castle fortress and how everyone is able to repair their vehicles even to the point of turning them into heavily armed cars of the Mad Max variety.

Also, for no particular reason, there are a couple of bizarre monsters that pop up. The best explanation is that they were some sort of pet or pest that died on-board Despiser’s ship and having been running loose in the afterworld ever since. I couldn’t help but to wonder if that’s the case then why aren’t any animals in the afterlife too? Probably for the same reason that there don’t seem to be too many people in this afterlife, that being a lack of budget.

It also appeared that the same set was recycled for every interior shot in the netherworld except for the Despiser’s lair and Gordon figures into some prophecy that is brought up more than once yet I don’t think it was every really explained. Nor was it ever explained how his wife was able to send him those psychic messages across planes of existence.

As I said, it isn’t perfect. Shadowman is sort of a Wile E. Coyote that would have been more amusing if the three different actors playing him – he jumps bodies whenever his current body takes too much damage – didn’t overact to a Matthew Lillard degree. There’s over-the-top and then there’s just plain annoying. Come to think of it, I don’t even recall them explaining Shadowman’s origins. It likes he’s just Beast-Man to the Despiser’s Skeletor.

The Despiser himself is also a hit and miss character. Until the movie’s last 10 minutes he’s shown only in silhouette and is obviously this gigantic serpent-like creature with lots of tentacles. The use of shadow and the ominous voice successfully convey a sense of menace but then when you finally see his face, well, his head looks a little like a cross between the Tic Tac Doe dragon and Daffy Duck. From the neck down he’s a great-looking monster of the Harryhausen variety but from the neck up it often looks a little too cartoonish to be taken as seriously as it should be. Nonetheless, the Despiser is still a pretty original movie monster.

Another problem is the characters themselves. Gordon comes across like he should have been played by somebody with a bit more of a sardonic wit and overly dramatic like a daytime soap opera actor. I felt he needed more Bruce Campbell-style flippancy and less “One Life To Live”-style dramatics. The freedom fighters are lead by a guy who looks like Charles S. Dutton doing an impression of Samuel L. Jackson’s Pulp Fiction character. Unfortunately, he’s the only one in the group with any real personality. Everyone else is bland and seemingly defined only by his or her accents.

The movie also could have used some serious editing. It clocks in at 105 minutes when it really should have been only about 85 or so. You got some scenes that go on too long, especially in the first quarter of the film, and there’s a brief detour back into the living world that I really don’t think should have been. Surely director Cook could have found a way around that whole sequence.

Still, Despiser is decent flick with an original plot that actually employs some imagination without constantly relying on clichés and that’s something sorely lacking in most low budget direct-to-video movies these days. It even has a couple of decent action scenes, including a nifty car chase on a bridge over a sea of lava. I honestly believe if a major Hollywood studio made this as a big budget movie it would have been a huge hit at the box office because it really does have a lot going for it.

The visual look Despiser is something that you are either going to be completely turned off by or won over by. It won me over. It’s almost like a video game only with actual human characters. Whether you end up liking or hating Despiser after watching it you’ll definitely agree that it’s something very different. I think every low-budget filmmaker should have a look at this movie regardless of what they may think of the movie itself.

Still need some convincing? Check out the trailer here.

2 ½ out of 5

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