Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Gruesome seems doomed to live (and die) trapped in the guise of another movie.

Through its production poster image, in which a figure can be seen holding a curved skinning knife over the highly distressed face of a young woman, it screams out for membership of the 'torture porn' sub-genre, as dominated by the Saw and Hostel franchises. Its opening sequence, in which a grainy POV shot sneaks up behind a young man rummaging for car parts in a scrapyard, establishes a scenario that seems pure slasher. Even the film's original, frankly much better title, Salvage, has been changed to the more generic Gruesome for viewers outside of the US, apparently also in a bid to tap into the current market for grotesquely punishing horror.

Copy picture

To an extent, Gruesome delivers on all of these fronts, but never quite in the manner expected. For if you take a closer look under the film's hood, it quickly becomes clear that the motor driving its narrative is more akin to the Twilight Zone than any conventional slice-and-dice – and the film is far the better for it.

Protagonist Claire Parker (Lauren Currie Lewis) has just finished the midnight shift at an isolated gas station, and is waiting to be picked up by her boyfriend Jimmy (Cody Darbe) – but when Jimmy's truck pulls up, toothpick-chewing stranger Duke Desmond (Chris Ferry) is in the driving seat instead, claiming to be an old friend of Jimmy's who has come to give Claire a ride while Jimmy is busy at the salvage yard. Creeped out by Duke's increasingly menacing behaviour, Claire races into her home, only to be viciously attacked by him and dragged into the basement... and then she wakes up, back at the end of her midnight shift, forced to relive the nightmare of her torture and murder again and again and again, even as she gradually uncovers irrational secrets about her tormentor.

An infernal variant on Groundhog Day, Gruesome leaves most of its more unpleasantly visceral material to the imagination (although there is one bloody, if thematically apt, evocation of William Lustig's 1980 shocker Maniac), focusing instead on developing a mood of doom-laden entrapment, and dramatising (with good reason, as it turns out) the harrowing psychology of victimhood. For while it is clear from early on that nothing here is or, indeed, can be what it seems and that, as one character memorably puts it, "the only thing that's real in this whole world is what you feel", the 'explanatory' twist that eventually comes still manages equally to surprise and to satisfy in a manner that will haunt you for days.

Fraternal writing-directing team Jeff and Josh Crook pull off the miracle of playing out variations on a primal scene without ever seeming unnecessarily to repeat themselves – and they know exactly how (and, just as importantly, when) to finish a film. Made for a mere US$25,000, inevitably Gruesome has a low-grade look to it, but this never distracts from the intriguing story, and in a certain sense even serves it (in a film where questions of perspective are crucial). Meanwhile the cast, especially the lead Lewis and the quietly cocky Ferris, acquit themselves much better than their unknown status would have you suspect.

With a bigger budget, who knows what horrific gem the Crook brothers could unearth, but in the meantime with Gruesome they have taken all manner of second-hand parts and salvaged from them a modest yet impressively assured psycho-mystery - with a hell of a final twist.

Reviewed on: 11 Jul 2008
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An infernal Groundhog Day as a student seems destined to relive the day of her murder.
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Director: Jeff Crook, Josh Crook

Writer: Jeff Crook, Josh Crook

Starring: Lauren Currie Lewis, Cody Darbe, Chris Ferry, Maureen Olander, John P Miller, Jessica DeLong, Sam Dahler, John Briley, Joseph M. Colombo, Adam Morris, Maureen Wagner

Year: 2006

Runtime: 80 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


Sundance 2006

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