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Tooth & Nail

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Mark Strong
Nicole Dupont
Rachel Miner
Rider Strong
Robert Carradine
Michael Madson
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 In the short featurette, "Do or Die", which is included as an extra with Showboxe’s UK DVD release of “Tooth & Nail”, one of the film’s producers and its director both attempt to make a virtue out of the astonishing claim that, from the moment writer-director Mark Strong first started working on the script, right up until the day the cast and crew finally wrapped on the shoot, amounted in total to only six weeks! The entire shoot took up only twenty days of that total. This seems a ridiculously short amount of time in which to make a movie, and, I should imagine, most of you — now that you actually know this fact — will not be thinking, “how incredible; everyone involved with the making of this flick must be a consummate craftsperson, super-efficient and unbelievably creative”, but more likely something along the lines of, “I bet that film is a pile of shite!”
But actually, that would be grossly unfair (and now I’ve highlighted the fact, I guess it’s all my fault!). Viewing the film without any knowledge of these production facts, as I initially did — although it’s always clear that this is a very low budget effort, it is still a great deal more professional-looking than the majority of straight-to-DVD, shot on DV efforts that cross my path. Despite the film’s obvious TV video sheen, the photography actually looks rather nice, and the camera shots have clearly all been composed and directed with great care and attention by cinematographer Gregg Easterbrook and director Mark Young respectively. A little-known cast always give the impression of being “on the case“, although the script they have to work with more than once shows signs of its thrown-together origins. Most of the actors seem to have last appeared on screen or American TV about ten years ago, and although their careers may not exactly be in blooming health these days, they obviously know all about working against impossible deadlines, and manage to make some standard film-plotting work well enough. The cover of the DVD makes much of Michael Madison’s involvement, although he only appears in about two scenes — just enough to justify using his name to draw an audience for a film that probably wouldn't get a look-in otherwise. Although he’s probably wondering what the Hell happened to his career that led to Vinnie Jones getting first billing!
The fact that this quickie has literally been spat out of the can, shows itself not so much in the craftsmanship of the work — for it acquits itself more than adequately in the oversubscribed arena of cut-price, straight-to-DVD Horror - but in the rather tired genre format it inhabits, namely post-apocalyptic dystopian action/horror. Here, instead of the collapse of human civilisation being brought about by an outbreak of a virulent strain of the influenza virus, or a nuclear war, or yet more variations on the flesh-eating zombie scenario, this version of doomsday is all due to the world’s natural reserves of fuel having been exhausted. We aren't given any scenes of actual social breakdown in progress (that would have been a bit expensive), but the aftermath looks much the same as it does in any zombie film, or any number of these post-apocalyptic societal breakdown flicks: empty litter-strewn streets furnished with the occasional rotting corpse; derelict buildings, and abandoned cars cluttering up otherwise empty roads and freeways, etc.
All things considered, everything looks relatively clean and tidy — despite the rotting corpses! There aren’t many people about, though, considering the absence of viruses or lumbering zombies; instead, the threat seems to come from humans themselves going feral. The struggle for survival once the electricity stops flowing and the cars stop running, has apparently resulted in a sharp division arising between  nice, good-looking, civilised men and women — who look and dress like they’re catalogue models parading a cozy selection of chunky knitwear for the coming autumn range; and big, beefy, brutish sorts who sharpen their own teeth into knife points with a file, dress in bear skins (where do they get them from in Philadelphia?) and kill and then cannibalise "nice" people! This bunch call themselves “Rovers”, and once they catch a whiff of you, you are literally dead meat! When some of the good-looking people rescue a pretty young woman called Neon (Rachel Miner) from a bunch of these killers, and take her back to the abandoned hospital complex that they have made into a home, it’s merely the prelude to even greater danger.
Behind the good looks and coordinated autumnal knitted jumpers, though, this small community of middle-class survivors is actually riven by division. The group’s leader is a bookish, professorial type called Darwin (Robert Carradine). There is an obvious “survival of the fittest” motif being employed in the use of that particular name in a character where the protective modes of society have completely broken down, but most of the people living under the “Professor’s” aegis (that’s how they all refer to him) seem to be named after  their now defunct and useless cars, still parked outside the building; names such as Dakota, Ford and Nova, proliferate. The harmony of the group is also threatened by a younger, handsomer and much more aggressive survivor called Viper (Michael Kelly). The sexy name and a penchant for parading around in an ankle-length trench coat with a crossbow, gives him a bit of status with the rest of the group, but a violent disagreement with Darwin leads to him thumping the more passive elder leader in the guts and stomping off on his own — an obvious ploy device that will enable him to turn up again in the final act to play a crucial role when events have really deteriorated.
While the rescued Neon recuperates, bodies begin piling up within the hospital complex, starting with the hapless leader himself, who gets his throat sliced-open with a cleaver! Eventually, Neon comes clean and admits that the bloodthirsty Rovers had been tracking her for some time, having gradually disposed of the rest of her former group — killing each of them one-by-one. For it turns out that these cannibal fellas are possessed of a rather discriminating palate and they’re not terribly keen on human meat that isn’t absolutely fresh. Thus, they pick off their prey one at a time, using finely honed tracking skills to catch up with the rest of the group later on, or keeping them pinned down in a particular location to which they can return again and again for second and third helpings. When one have them has caught and killed that night’s meal (this involves slamming a pick axe into their back over and over again), they sound a horn to call off the hunt for that evening, leaving the remaining survivors to await the lottery fate holds for them the next night.
This, it becomes apparent, is exactly what’s happening to the remaining hospital dwellers now that the Rovers have tracked Neon to their home. Before they know it several of their number have already disappeared over successive nights. One man who goes to search for the missing Darwin is set upon by the fur-clad gang and carted off to meet his fate, while the others can only watch in horror from an upper storey window. With the battle for survival now on, and their nominal leaders dead and gone, the resulting siege mentality produces unexpected leaders within the group and a cat-and-mouse game ensues in forbidding antiseptic corridors of the hospital interiors, where undreamed-of reserves of resourcefulness need to be called upon if the remaining survivors are to pull through.
Writer/director Mark Strong calls upon some familiar ideas and images to make this quickie attractive for its projected audience. We’re definitely in the world created by early John Carpenter, here: the dystopian future cityscape of “Escape from New York” comes to mind, with its violent gangs and lawlessness, while the tense siege scenario at the heart of the film recalls “Assault on Precinct 13”. There are also echoes of Kubrick in the sprawling white hospital interiors which bring to mind the lonely isolation of the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining”. In the last half hour of the film, Strong thinks up a nifty little twist that manages to stop the whole movie drifting into inconsequential stalk-and-slash tedium. When the character Dakota emerges as the heroine of the piece, after being pretty much dormant and passive for the majority of the movie, its all down to some skilful acting by Nicole Dupont, who even gets to play one of those stock scenes (last seen in "The Decent") which are meant to signify a fundamental change in a character’s psyche, where she daubs herself in “war paint” before going out to sock it to the remaining villains. It’s a laughable cliché, but executed with plenty of panache and  commitment, making for a finale which is a pleasing if predictable end to a watchable slice of genre hokum.

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