A wilderness camping trip in the rural terrain of an Alaskan landscape becomes the serene backdrop for a pair of couples on a romantic getaway. With their backpacks in tow and a sense of adventure in hand, one of aspirations amongst the peaceful setting would be to create an ideal engagement spot for a happily affectionate couple while the other couple taps the trip as a therapeutic escape to rekindle or salvage a flailing relationship. Deeper and deeper they trek into the woods that begins to feel engulfing with a sense of lurking, ominous eyes voyeuristically peering at them from afar and as gunfire rings out in the distance and camping gear winds up missing, spine-tingling fear starts to set in for the couples eager to leave quickly as they came, but those in the woods, those menacing figures that have been keeping distance, are now toying with the campers’ very lives.
Impelled into a throng of horror films set with backpackers becoming lost on a camping trip with a mysterious figure in the midst, “No Way Out” struggles to find a distinct voice from writer and star Chris Levine and introducing Joe Hamilton in his very first feature length directorial. Following his 2017 “Anabolic Life,” a crime-injected thriller circled around bodybuilding, co-written alongside Cameron Barsanti and Landon Williams, Levine steps solo into the horror ring, penning a camping-gone-wrong 2020 released thriller that displays themes of secrecy, family, and the mentally unstable futile pursuit of happiness compounded by half-frozen isolation off of sideroad Alaska and a tactical gas mask wearing loom creeping through the thicket. “No Way Out” is an independent funded production by the Alaskan based companies, Baird Media (Charles A. Baird) and RocketJoe Films, which I believe “No Way Out” used the latter company’s monolithic humanoid props from a defunct film entitled “Seven Bones,” and in association with services provided by Levine’s own co-founded London Levine Pictures company.
The small cast is centrically focus around the four campers for approx. 98% of the film, only briefly swerving away from the core characters to interject some meaningless exchanges between backpackers and to also setup a lying-in-wait antagonist to build up prelude suspense. Leading the foursome is Chris Levine as a multi-hat contributor along with his written and co-produced thriller by playing Blake, a hands off, anti-woods boyfriend being dragged against his will to go camping in order to recoup his girlfriend’s goodwill in their sinking relationship. “Apocalypse Rising” and “President Evil’s” Johanna Rae is Blake’s contentious other half as girlfriend Jessica. The dynamics between Levine and Rae couldn’t push the turbulent couple’s interpersonal problematic parameters beyond the scope of vomiting their frustrations to the same sex individual of their camping buddies on the trip with only one minor other instance of a short-lived spat in an attempt pull in some kind of concerning emotion for either Blake or Jessica, but the scene falls flat and so does that thick air tension that repels any kind of bridging of the gap forcing Blake and Jessica to seem not like a couple with progressing relationship issues, but rather argumentative friends with benefits. On the other side of spectrum, Norah (Jennifer Karraz) and Kyle (Christopher McGahan of “Virus of the Dead”), portray parallel mirror opposites of a happy-go-lucky couple on the brink of engagement and parenthood and while the couple should be gleaming with affection, Norah and Kyle barely speak a couple of sentences to each other, marking their character profoundly shapeless and plain among the limited roles to root for survival.
Aside from not being able to relate to the characters, who more or less meander about asking each other what they should do or not do next, “No Way Out” can’t find a way out of the nonsensical design to shepherd audiences into the throes of character plight and make the hairpin turn toward revealing the abhorrent culprit of their situational terror. The story seems stuck in a rut in garnering not enough background or tidbits of intricacies to formulate a clear answer to the subtle hints being conveyed along the way about what’s unfolding before our eyes. Luckily, our brains start to take over, filling the gaps where needed, and coming to a haphazard conclusion that through the characters wavering suspense of the unknown encased around them, not everything is what it seems and that aspect really comes early on in the film, whittling down the complexity of the story to a low-effort thriller that can be solved by the time the four campers reach their terminus by car and have to hoof it aimlessly rest of the way. Unfocused editing of a fragmented story and misused ambience, such as the prolonged whooshing of highway cars when characters are supposed to be deep in the woods, added to the viewing friction. I liked the headspace of the story concept for “No Way Out,” where a shadowy, uncouth stalker sets a target on unsuspecting camping folk accessorized with a shrouded plot twist, but, ultimately, the execution flopped as a pitched tent overwrought thriller set in the icy, backwoods topography of Alaska.
From filmmakers Chris Levine and Joe Hamilton comes a brand a new backpacker thriller, “No Way Out,” premiering the last weekend of August in Alaska and then hitting VOD platforms in the next couple weeks, including Prime Video, Google Play, Pluto, Tubi, and more. Since “No Way Out” is a new, completed feature film and a digital screener was provided for review coverage, the typical A/V evaluation will not be done, but the debut of cinematographer De Gosh Reed’s hybrid found footage and observational shot style captures a pair of perspectives of not only an outsider, but also as the characters to join in as a terrified participant. Aforesaid, the English language audio mix is a bit wonky with some ambient missteps. The dialogue also comes and goes in an undiscernible pinpoint of depth that, at times, is trounced by the steadily vivacious soundtrack. The film felt very technically raw and unfinished, but, again, this is a digital screener of an unreleased film on the brink of debuting and maybe altered or adjusted for the premier/VOD. There were no special features included with the screener nor were there any bonus scenes during or after the credits. Though not my cup of flavored untamed tension tea, “No Way Out” has the bones to be a straight forward VOD thriller outlier despite being misshaped and disjointed around the particular edges.
Todd’s birthday starts out fun with a birthday cookout that includes family, friends, and his girlfriend Valerie. Afterwards, his easy going uncle Carl drives Todd, his friends, and cases of beer to an abandoned factory in the woods where Todd has planned a one-night, underaged boozing, camping trip. The infamous factory has a manifold of ghost stories that circle around a single common piece – a cannibalistic maniac. When night falls, Todd suddenly disappears and his friends, including Valerie, believe Todd and his uncle Carl are revving up a good scare after Carl’s creepy campfire story earlier in the day, but when a dead, mutilated body is discovered, something sinister is hunting them and those stories about a cannibal killer no longer seem farfetched in an all-nighter fight for survival.
“What’s Eating Todd?” is a Here and Now production from a duo of women filmmakers with director Renata Green-Gabor making her directorial feature film debut from a story penned by first time screenwriter Brandi Centeno. The 2016 horror-thriller is a spun take on the weary zombie genre without necessarily going the full-fledged slow shuffle and moan zombie route from a story involving an antagonistic infected metamorphosing from an infestation strain of flies. The parasitoid concept is a closely related to a sensationalized man versus nature horror tale seen with a fair amount of anonymity attached and, the film, perhaps, could be an indie homage version of the George Langelaan’s short story, “The Fly.” Almost for certain that Green-Gabor received some sort of influence for “What’s Eating Todd?,” which she shot through the summer of 2013, from her thespian mentor Jeff Goldblum, the face of David Cronenberg’s remake of “The Fly” released 1986, and thus answered the call to chance her first steps into feature films that had this connect to her mentor while providing and retaining her own originality into incubational horror or even a small minute into body horror, releasing the film three years later.
The marketing and selling points for “What’s Eating Todd?” is not the humble acting talent. It’s not a criticism. It’s the truth, as the cast is constructed of unknown names and unrecognizable faces. However, what is also true for a film written by female writer and quarterbacked by a female director is a leading role arising for an aspiring or established female actress. In this case, the role of Valerie goes to a modestly versed Madison Lawlor (“The Axe Murders of Villisca”) who not only becomes the strong and adaptive survivalist protagonist painted against a backdrop of coarse and flawed men who are either exposed of their short comings, involved in illegalities, or anguished to reveal their true nature. Lawlor maintains Valerie’s unwavering love and faithfulness to Todd, being the voice of reason amongst a naïve and obnoxious crowd that are mostly consisted of her cousin Alex (“Mega Shark vs. Mecha Shark’s Phil Biedron) and his friend Duane (“The Zombinator’s” Scott Alin). Alex and Duane are a couple of super frivolous “bros” primarily integrated into the story to raise the body count. Cousins Valerie and Alex do attempt some kind of meaningful connection regarding identity and status in the hierarchy of high school, but was meagerly written and comes to be more a bickering battle of perspectives. Biedron and Alin sufficiently exact the right amount of goofball, oversexed, and dumb-wit to pull off a surface level duo. Todd (“The Z’s” Adam Michael Gold) is certainly the biggest failure out of the group of friends. The birthday boy’s upheaval from being the luckiest guy in the world to the world’s biggest problem goes into squandered territory that floods more questions than answers into Todd’s from baseline growth relationship with Valerie to his revamped mentality and accomplishments from ambiguous, circumstantial backstory of flesh eating and conspiracies. The weight of Todd and Valerie’s connection is only expositional rather than shown and the groundless Todd absorbs the downfall during an anti-climactic finale of internal struggle with Valerie as the source material. The film rounds out with Danny Rio and Carlos Antonio.
Though the cast won’t draw in an audience, the snappy “What’s Eating Todd?” title might turn some heads in it’s direction. However, “What’s Eating Todd?” inherently sounds like a farce and if you’re expecting humor, disappointment will rear its ugly, funny-less head as Green-Gabor had no intentions for a comedy element. Another misleading of marketing is the Indican Pictures’ DVD cover, which I’m assuming is also the film’s actual poster, of a woman in a cutoff sleeve jersey t-shirt with “Zombie Killer” in the name field and holding a sword (katana, maybe?) while blurry silhouettes of lumbering undead move at an unknown pace toward her in the background. Let’s analyze the comparison between cover art and actuality. As mentioned, the story’s female heroine is appropriate to the cover, but isn’t contextually accurate to the film. Valerie, the supposed character on the cover, isn’t holding a sword nor is she dressed in a “Zombie Killer” jersey t-shirt. As for the zombies, the term zombie is only made in jest by one of the bros and there is some undead moments of gore including gnawing and ripping out the jugular, but no tearing out of intestines, no munching on fingers, nor are there any instances where eating people like finger-licking fried chicken is happening here. Plus, there is only one adversarial fiend and not more as the cover suggests.
Indican Pictures distributes a Here and Now Production of “What’s Eating Todd?” onto a not rated DVD home video. The region 1 release has a runtime of 89 minutes and is presented in an anamorphic widescreen, 1.85:1 flat aspect ratio, on a 35mm, hand held camera. The digitally shot image renders brightly and clean with hardly any flaws worth disclosing. The night scenes are slightly tinted blue with a higher contrast to lighten up the image without being overly dark in the middle of the woods without much natural lighting and the digital noise has little intrusiveness despite the budget constraints of an indie production. The English language Dolby Digital surround sound has adequate range and depth and, for the most part, a dominating dialogue presence. Brief moments of Revenge of the Bimbot Zombie Killers’ Andy George’s original score would drown out dialogue during imperative, but happened too far and few in between. Other than a typical static menu and preview trailers from Indican Pictures, no other bonus materials reside on the release. “What’s Eating Todd?” is not a zombie movie despite the hoodwinking cover. What Renata Green-Gabor did direct can be categorized as a branch of the undead, an infestation altering DNA that mounts to destruction on and around of the affected that, technically, no longer makes them a part of the living human race. In short, expect a sheep in wolf’s clothing in this roughly run-of-the-mill horror that aims high, but misses low by offering too little to sanction a good story.