I haven’t been reading a lot of comics lately. Well, ‘cept for the SHOWCASE: JONAH HEX volume that James from the Isotope pressed into my hands upon my last visit there. That’s got some right fine artwork, it does. Writing is…well, kinda 70s DC house style, but it’s easy enough on the eyes. Though I’m a little surprised that they were drawing Hex’s face like Clint Eastwood’s even back then. I was thinking that said likeness was a more modern development.
What I have been doing is watching a lot of horror movies. Having skipped out on nearly everything that wasn’t an out and out zombie movie, as they played in the theatres, I missed out on a few things. And there’s some that woulda gone under the radar anyways. Take ISOLATION, for example.
Spoilers follow. Avert your eyes. No, really.
ISOLATION is well within the straight-up survival horror mold. And it’s a mold that’s worked well over the years forming the core of the modern classics (at least as I reckon them). It clearly owes a lot to ALIEN, but I get a very strong sort of Cronenberg vibe from it. This is far from a bad thing. Set in remote, rural Ireland (at least I’m assuming it’s Ireland—could very well be anywhere in the northern UK, and I’m not good at placing regional accents). ISOLATION tells the story of a struggling farmer (Dan), two young lovers on the run (Mary and Jamie), A veterinarian (Orla), and a geneticist (John).
And oh yes, the cows that John’s been working on. I know. You’re laughing already. Cows. Bovines. Walking hamburgers. Filet on the hoof as it were. The cows aren’t the monsters. The cows just make the monsters.
Having been modified to be more fertile and grow up more quickly, the cows give birth to calves, which appear normal on the surface. But inside each of these calves (who are aggressive and have a nasty tendency to bite) are six…things. These things are all wrong. They’re more insect than mammal, skeletons on the outside, fast and armed with razor claws. Five of them are killed when the first calf is born. This first calf is at the center of two really good scares. The first of them takes place during a routine examination of the calf’s mother. See, it bites the vet during the exam. The exam involves having the vet go shoulder deep in the cow’s womb, effectively blind and helpless. It’s utterly surprising, and turns out only to be a minor wound. Nothing to worry about. No, really.
The second of these scenes is when the calf is actually born. We know something terrible is going to come out of it, but nothing actually does. At least not until we’ve thought the danger has passed. That’s always the best.
Orla the vet comes to the farm, long after the birth (as these things go). Both baby and mother are put down, after it’s made explicit that the baby is not what it seems. Dan the farmer is bitten, losing most of a finger. And suddenly, there’s a worry of…infection. Infection from what? How the hell should we know? But the vet knows something. And she gets in touch with the geneticist. Of course there’s nothing to worry about.
Until he sees that the calf was born pregnant. Pregnant with those things. And that only five of them are accounted for. And the things have a horrifically fast rate of growth. And they infect with a bite, making the host a carrier of these organisms. Males don’t have the ability to give birth to them, but females do.
Once things get rolling, they spiral out of control dramatically. But before that moment, there’s plenty of atmosphere and creep factor set amidst a beautifully desolate and run-down farmstead. Not only is the farm itself at the end of its rope, but all the people are. Dan is about to lose the farm that he’s lived on his whole life. Orla has lost her soul in a Faustian bargain with the geneticist (as has Dan for that matter). The lovers have no family to return to. And the geneticist himself has gone and Messed With Things That Man Ought Not to Mess With.
Interestingly, the geneticist realizes this and he’s the only one who has the strength to do what has to be done to keep the organism from spreading. He attempts to kill Dan (who he knows is infected – Dan is saved only by playing possom), he kills Jamie (who he knows is infected). Orla, as it turns out, has been killed by one of the creatures that gestated inside her. And finally, the geneticist is killed by the very thing he unleashed, after coming to grips with what he’s done and his own responsibility for it. He’s both an antihero and a villain, which can make for interesting viewing, so far as I’m concerned.
Finally the last of the creatures is cornered and destroyed, by Mary. I don’t want to say that the suddenly strong female is a cliché in horror/action movies in my experience, but somehow it’s beginning to seem that way. There’s not much to lead her to that path, other than perhaps being cornered and given no other option, which rings true. Of course, there’s the concern that she’s been impregnated by her (then-infected) boyfriend and that she’s now carrying one of those things inside her.
ISOLATION is beautifully shot, drawing in textures from the decaying farmstead, bogs and pine forests that aren’t a protective fortress, but more of a green prison. The actors are all pleasantly average in looks, but each of them has their own presence on the screen, but nothing like “star power.” Yeah, that’s pejorative. It isn’t a hugely gory film, nor does it revel in showing the monsters to the viewers (you never see the full-grown beast in the light). Instead it relies on atmosphere and the viewer’s imagination. This is a good trend to stick with. And really, those classic sensibilities serve the genre well, even in the age of CGI and prosthetic makeup mastery.