While some may quibble that Lightning Bug isn’t *really* a horror movie, it’s absolutely the type of film that horror fans should embrace and help spread the word about. Its writer/director is renowned special effects make-up artist Robert Hall (he worked on Dead Birds, the Buffy and Angel series, as well as numerous other TV shows and feature films); one of its stars is genre favorite Ashley (Hellraiser) Laurence; and its main character is a young man who is counting on his love of horror and talent for special effects make-up to be his ticket out of the backwater Alabama town where he lives with his mother and younger brother. Not to mention that it’s one helluva good movie.
Coming of age films have been around forever, but Lightning Bug is truly something special. This semi-autobiographical story of how 18-year-old Green Graves rises above the confines of his dysfunctional and repressive surroundings is much better than it should be given its obviously small budget, tight shooting schedule, and Hall’s inexperience in the director’s chair. But the love everyone had for the material is evident from the get-go. The acting is superb all across the board, and special mention must be made of Bret Harrison as Green; Bob Penny as Tightwiler, Green’s mentor and sole adult supporter in town; Kevin Gage as Earl; and especially Ashley Laurence as Jenny. We’re all certainly familiar with Ashley from her ongoing battles with Pinhead, but her portrayal of Jenny, Green’s alcoholic, trailer trash mama, is quite extraordinary and demonstrates a real honing of her craft over the last several years. The score by Kevn Kinney is, as Hall states in the extras, “another character in the film” that adds a nice rich tone and depth to the proceedings.
The film opens with a body being thrown from a moving car – standard horror movie fare indeed. But then it veers into the domestic situation of Jenny, Green, and his little brother Jay as they adjust to life in rural Alabama after relocating to the area from Detroit; and the identity of the body is forgotten about for a while. It isn’t long before Jenny hooks up with real-life monster Earl, a hard-drinking, mean-tempered man who belittles Green’s aspirations and abuses everyone around him. Things quickly go from bad to worse, but Green convinces Mr. Tightwiler to let him put together this year’s Spook House Halloween attraction, giving him a project to keep him occupied and hopefully enough money to afford a plane ticket to Los Angeles. He also finds some much needed distraction with the town’s Goth girl, Angevin, who works at a video store, shares Green’s affinity for horror films, and has some dark secrets in her past that she tries in vain to keep from her new boy friend. Meanwhile Jay is becoming more and more involved in the local church, where Angevin’s religious fanatic mother is gathering forces to ensure that Green’s “satanic” Spook House is a total failure. Evil Earl further complicates matters for Green by refusing delivery of some of his make-up supplies. Things come to a head on the opening night of Spook House, and Green’s life will be forever altered by the turn of events.
There are plenty of other characters and subplots that keep the story moving along nicely for its full 97-minute run time. And again, every single actor is perfectly cast; there’s not a false note to be found anywhere in the film. I found myself growing particularly fond of George Faughnan (reminiscent of a young Bill Moseley) and Jonathan Spencer, who portray Green’s two best friends. As someone who grew up in the South, I’m pretty good at detecting fake accents. It’s definitely to the filmmakers’ credit that they used so many regional actors, giving Lightning Bug a resonance and credibility not often found in films these days.
The DVD extras include a “making of” featurette that further demonstrates how deeply involved the entire cast and crew were in ensuring that Lightning Bug received all the TLC it needed to become a success. Shannon Eubanks (Angevin’s uptight mother) especially provides a great deal of insight into her character and the lightning bugs themselves, which take on a persona that mirrors what our protagonist is going through during the course of the film. There are also two different commentaries, about 20 minutes worth of deleted scenes, some very funny outtakes, and more.
It isn’t often that an independent film of this quality comes along – horror or not. Do yourself a favor and seek out Lightning Bug for your collection. As the press package says, “The make-believe monsters of cinematic horror are often born out of the grisly and painful experiences of real life.” Take a journey with Robert Hall and his family and friends and learn how the demons he faced in his youth helped make him the gifted artist and insightful man he is today.
Lightning Bug (2004)
(Anchor Bay Entertainment)
Written and directed by Robert Hall
Starring Bret Harrison, Laura Prepon, Ashley Laurence, Kevin Gage, Shannon Eubanks, Hal Sparks, Josh Todd
Luciferin: The Making of Lightning Bug featurette
Commentary by writer/director Robert Hall
Commentary by Robert Hall, producer Lisa Waugh, Ashley Laurence, and Laura Prepon
Deleted scenes with commentary
Kevn Kinney music video
4 1/2 out of 5