Haw Ridge Devil (2004)

The Haw Ridge DevilStarring Scott Arnwine, Breezy Best, Becky Bright, Christen Compton

Written & directed by Mike Hutchens

Several weeks ago I stumbled upon info about a no-budget monster movie called The Haw Ridge Devil (actually, the needlessly long title is Local Legend: The Haw Ridge Devil but a short version is perfectly fine) and managed to get in contact with the film’s writer/director/producer/etc Mike Hutchens about getting a screener. Now going in I knew that this was essentially an amateur backyard production made by a guy who could possibly be certifiably insane – he told me he got the idea to take a shot at filmmaking after watching the Polonia Brothers’ Feeders about a hundred times, something no sane person could ever do as it’s agonizing enough just getting through a single sitting of a Polonia Brothers’ film (see my Peter Rottentail and Razorteeth reviews for further agony) let alone a hundred.

Unlike the Polonia Brothers, Mr. Hutchens freely admits that he had little clue what he was doing in attempting to make his own monster movie in a dozen days on a budget of around $6,000 (almost half of which was for post-production alone), and described the experience to me as “a total nightmare.” That might also explain why the effects company listed in the end credits (also Hutchens along with his wife) as “What was I thinking?” Productions.

Suffice it to say, I didn’t have high expectations going in but was curious none the less. You can imagine my amazement as I started watching the film and was dumbstruck as to how he had managed to make a film in the 21st century that for all its many flaws – and believe me there are MANY – managed to capture the visceral feel of many of the drive-in monster movies of the Fifties and Sixties, due in tremendous part by shooting the movie in glorious black & white Super 8mm. Seriously, I was floored. Even many of the mistakes Hutchens made on a technical level only added to the effect. The irony, as I would come to learn from communicating with him, is that the film was originally shot on Super 8mm in color but a screw-up by the video company transferring the negative from film to video resulted in a black & white movie. I dare say that seemingly unfortunate mistake may actually be the saving grace of the movie.

Unfortunately, Hutchens ran out of money and 8mm film by the end of the short production, forcing him to shoot the remainder on digital. It’s really quite jarring to see a gloriously grainy black & white scene lead into a glossy black & white digital scene and back again. It’s annoying and disappointing, but, fortunately not a deathblow since I’d reckon about 80% of the film is Super 8mm. Still, it’s a shame that Hutchens wasn’t able to film the entire movie in 8mm because otherwise Haw Ridge Devil would be an almost note-perfect homage to those classic and not-so-classic creature features. And to be perfectly honest, had the film been in color and entirely on digital it probably would have felt more like every other bad, no budget, backyard monster movie. Chalk this one up to a happy accident.

As far as plot’s go, Haw Ridge Devil is almost completely devoid of any narrative; anything resembling a cohesive narrative doesn’t begin to take shape until at least a half hour in, and keep in mind the film is only 70-minutes in length. The first half hour is primarily a collection of random scenes composed of nameless people entering the woods for whatever reason only to get pounced on by the Haw Ridge Devil or chased by a point-of-view shot and then pounced on by the Haw Ridge Devil. After that, the narrative (there really isn’t enough story to justify use of the word “plot”) actually begins to focus on a quartet of teens that plan to go camping in the area near a chemical plant where local urban legend says a hairy werewolf-like creature dubbed the “Haw Ridge Devil” lurks. In addition, a trio of highway workers happens upon the corpse of a baby Haw Ridge Devil, unaware of just what it is they’ve discovered. And then the Devil shows up for some more chasing and pouncing.

The monster’s main mode of attack is to quite literally pounce on a potential victim like a Pee-Wee football linebacker, after which it proceeds to do a fair amount of unconvincing clawing and gnawing, often accompanied by some minor blood effects that, while unconvincing, still aren’t completely embarrassing thanks to the film’s black & white nature masking the reality of the f/x.

At no point does the film give us any clue as to why this mysterious monster that has supposedly lived fairly peacefully in these woods for some time suddenly decided to go on a killing spree. I kept expecting the dead baby Haw Ridge Devil to have something to do with its motives but what a Haw Ridge Devil is, where it came from, or why it’s suddenly killing everyone that enters the woods is never really dealt with.

As for character development… well, what character development? The characters are total non-entities that exist solely because the monster has to have someone to stalk, attack, and chase or else there wouldn’t be much of a movie. Normally I’d complain about this sort of thing but since the narrative is equally as flimsy this negative isn’t nearly as big a negative as it could have been.

Hutchens does deserve credit for not making the mistake so many other backyard productions do by trying to overcompensate for its miniscule budget by making a movie that is constantly winking at its audience and needlessly going for a laugh by reminding viewers how cheap and shoddy the production is. By not being intentionally self-referential it helps bolster that feeling that you’re watching an old fashioned drive-in monster movie and not just some modern homage to such films.

Of course, that feeling could also be because some of the dialogue occasionally sounds overly tinny, as if it’s being filtered through a drive-in movie speaker.

I’d be lying if I didn’t point out that even at a scant 70 minutes in length, Haw Ridge Devil still has a few too many moments of people driving around, wandering the woods, and stalking monster point-of-view shots accompanied by the sound of the monster panting like a very thirsty dog. The closing credits actually go on needlessly longer than the end credits, and the cinematography used in the opening credits are a bit hard on the eyes.

The heart and soul of a film like this is the monster itself, and the Haw Ridge Devil doesn’t disappoint as long as you have a fondness for hokey looking man-in-suit movie monsters. The Haw Ridge Devil looks like a werebear with chupacabra spines running down the back. I couldn’t help but smile every time it appeared on-screen because as cheap and unrealistic as the costume might be – it would be perfect for a school production of Where The Wild Things Are – it’s not without a considerable amount of charm. It may be silly and it may not be scary, but the costume design has personality and works the kind of film this is, something I can’t say for many other more expensive monster movies I’ve seen and reviewed.

In addition to monster suit, the climax also features the welcome if all too brief appearance of a large stop-motion Haw Ridge Devil. Again, it looks like something you’d see in a monster movie from at least 40 years ago.

Is Haw Ridge Devil a good movie? I’m afraid not. However, whether intentionally or unintentionally, Mike Hutchens has created a film that captures the very aesthetics of the sort of cheaply made creature features of nearly half a century ago, many of which would go on to get lampooned on “Mystery Science Theater 3000”. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that if Haw Ridge Devil had been made 40 years ago it probably would have been featured on MST3K as the film is cut from the same cloth as The Creeping Terror, Beast of Yucca Flats, and Monster A-Go-Go. And I mean that as a compliment. I can’t whole heartedly recommend the movie to the average movie-watcher but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel quite a bit of affection for it and believe fans of this sort of monster movie will too. It’s very much a niche film; I just happen to fall into its particular niche.

Bijou Flix will be distributing a DVD of the Haw Ridge Devil sometime in the next few months as part of a new slate of amateur monster movies called the “Local Legends” series. Look for it on their website in the near future.

2 out of 5

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