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Surviving Evil (2009)
Director: Terence Daw

review by Paul Higson

Fleetingly glimpsed monsters rip through a village on one of the 7,000 islands in the Filipino peninsula. It is a routine opening for a horror film, and the cut to the beach where seven people have already landed in a boat is no more auspicious. There is no attempt to film the boat in the lapping waters, straight into the arrival, but is the pretence a lazy shortcut, or was it the logistical answer to a time schedule being met? One of them is the boatman who will be leaving again to return to collect the others four days later. We can surmise that we are on form for the horror movie template.

Keep the cast small, spend some time with them and then go in for the kill. It's the expectation, we might yawn, and so be it. But to do so is to underestimate Surviving Evil, Terence Daw's debut movie as a director, for though it was never going to rock the world of the horror film, it is an earnest and diligent effort, efficiently made, with a leaning towards character development and an attempt to give us an original movie monster.

A British and South African co-production, it is not the first film to present a variation on the Aswang - a shape-shifting, blood-wallowing, often winged, certainly flying or floating, vampire-like creature that continues to strike fear into real Filipinos even to this day. The six stranded battlers are the star and film crew of a survivalist documentary programme called 'Surviving The Wilderness'. In the behind-the-scenes extras, interviews with the actors will repeatedly tell us that it is in its third season but in the story we are informed that this adventure is the 183rd episode.

The star of the show is Seb Beazley (Billy Zane), the cool, rough-hewn Bear Grylls figure, who doesn't flinch before a rolling camera as he tucks in to protein-abundant insects, nor when the camera stops, he's no faker, he's the real deal. Another filmmaker or scriptwriter might have been tempted to overdo the irony here, and play the celebrity for a charlatan and an oaf, or dangerously arrogant, but as the film unfolds it becomes evident that Daws wants us to respect the six people he has set down on this island.

This is not immediately apparent as we take stock of the group which is comprised of three beautiful women, the star, his handsome cameraman and a middle-aged Filipino guide who it is presumed will be the first to go. It turns out that I was right about the male Filipino guide and his movie life expectancy. In introduction, this one could be an asshole, she appears to be dippy, he could be untrustworthy, she pushy, he unreliable if not a sleaze. But these early judgement calls are deliberately put forward only so that the director can toy with us and make each in turn of a more appealing nature to us. Nathalie Mendoza as Cecilia, or Chill as she prefers to be called, seems to be the likeliest heroine and as one of the members of that other six-pack cast of The Descent (2006) she has the past star chops for it.

Our first doubt to the contrary comes in with an admittance that she is a twin, giving the suspicious viewer that idea that not only may she become the last girl, but die in the process with an out for the actress to return for a sequel as her twin, if Surviving Evil proves huge box-office. Neither is Chill given any immediate or apparent terrible trait. But as the film continues, biding its time with threats rather than gory terrors, Daw injects them with more faults and more favours. Daw takes time to give us that seesaw of the good and the bad in each, remind us, as if we need telling, that nobody is perfect.

Seb is the real McCoy and they will be dependent to a certain extent on his skills and wisdom as the nightmare rises. Rachel (Louise Barnes), the producer and director, has an alcohol problem ("Here's my rosary," she says at one point, taking a swig) and is smarting over the collapse of her relationship with cameraman Dex (Colin Moss), but she is also at the same time vulnerable and feisty in good measure. Dex will be the last to believe that a supernatural threat exists, and he will naturally gravitate to Chill. Chill, meanwhile, is a primatologist and enthusiast who is along for her education and to help Joey (Joel Torre) in communicating with a lost tribe. Joey is the potential fly in the ointment with a secret mission.

The production team hope to film the Isarog tribe but Joey pretends not to have found them, when he has done and discovered them slaughtered. Joey's secret makes us distrustful of him, and worse still, he inculpates Chill who is with him when he falls upon the terrible scene. He admits to a greater purpose for being there and asks her to trust him, that he will tell her what he knows when the time is right. Joey is making calls to the mainland and we are drip-fed information and come around to the realisation that Joey is a victim of circumstances and, at home, there is a seriously ill child with medical bills to pay. Joey's secret lies in a second local legend that had long fascinated Daw, that of the stories of Japanese soldiers hiding gold in the islands on their retreat at the end of World War II.

Telltale little actions endanger them, endear us to them and confirm their general decency even as they might accuse and challenge one another of the worst. Before that great wealth, once the island's treasure is found, Joey could let greed overcome him, but he only has interest in a few bars, enough to preserve his daughter's life. Rachel too, in a crucial moment, seeing a gold bar in front of her, rejects it in favour of her own life and has already exhibited her inner warrior in the moments before taking on the monsters. Sixth member of the team is Pheobe (Christina Gale), boom mike operator and production dogsbody who, having partied with Seb, now finds herself in the early stages of pregnancy while on location.

It's a secret that Pheobe and Rachel keep for the time being as the producer does not want her star distracted. Unfortunately, the Aswang are attracted to the blood of pregnant women and she suspects that she is the draw for the monsters. Nothing surprises Seb, and just as he does not flinch biting into those insects neither does he betray his thoughts on the pregnancy once it is out in the open. By this time he has other distractions more pending having been bitten by a vampire while up in a tree and readying for the imminent campfire siege by the monsters. Each character in turn will display respective wisdom and courage and a willingness to sacrifice themselves for the others and so win us over.

Daw paces the film well and gives credit where it is due, reliant as he and any other director is on the skills and input of others (here, cinematographer Mike Downie, and editor Adam Recht, deserve particular merit), and he's not precious about his script. The survivalist facts and naturalist chatter range from the expectantly familiar to the obscure and informative although the one niggle is the fact that it took until episode 183 for Seb to make a bow and arrow for the camera.

The music by Tom Kane and Colin Baldry is a bit overwrought, if not completely Dimitri Tiomkin, and is misapplied at times, and though there is doubtless the landscape to warrant it, the film is shot without those epic vistas. Shot in a South African national park in Durban, the director concentrates on the story and characters, and keeping the foliage more claustrophobic than grandstanding. The monsters have touches of other movie beasts, which is to be expected, as there can be no outright new monsters under the sun.

But after two years in development these blood-caked demons with poached-eyes, high foreheads, piranha teeth, and long straggling hair, are creatures that acrobatically leap and fall upon victims and are fearsome. One might question how it is an entire village living in the shadow of these legends cannot defend itself better than the half a dozen visitors. It is a film that can make no special claims on its position in the history of cinematic horror but it is another of those erstwhile efforts with enough cache to encourage repeat viewings as the reliable creature feature that it is and should appeal to the old guard monster movie fans.

Surviving Evil

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