The Film: 3/5
After honing his skills behind the camera on his USA Network series Psych, actor James Roday makes his feature directorial debut with Gravy, an indie horror-comedy he co-wrote with Todd Harthan (a writer and producer on Psych) which is now available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory’s sci-fi/horror shingle Scream Factory.
It’s Halloween night, and the staff of the Mexican restaurant Raoul’s is ready to pack it in and close up shop while they still have the energy to enjoy the rest of the evening. While the owner Chuy (Paul Rodriguez) is holding an impromptu celebration for his bartender Kerry (Sutton Foster) who recently completed EMT training, a trio of costumed intruders – Anson (Michael Weston), his younger brother Stef (Jimmi Simpson), and Stef’s British girlfriend Mimi (Lily Cole) – seal the exit doors shut and take the entire staff, which also includes French chef Yannick (Lothaire Bluteau) and security guard Winketta (Gabourey Sidibe), hostage. The unwanted visitors aren’t here to rob the joint, but to put Chuy and his employees through a series of twisted games that will ultimately result in their untimely demises. Anson, Stef, and Mimi are cannibals, and every Halloween they head out into the night to satisfy their desires for human flesh, but they have particular culinary desires that only Yannick can successfully accomplish. As the group starts to perish one by one and their corpses end up on their tormentors’ menu, Kerry and her co-workers Hector (Gabriel Luna) and Cricket (Molly Ephraim), along with lovelorn sad sack customer Bert (Ethan Sandler) must come up with a way to fight back and escape before their lives are reduced to a source of indigestion in one of the cannibals’ stomachs.
Making a genre feature hybrid of comedy and horror is harder than one might think. Many filmmakers have attempted it and most of them failed miserably. The best examples of the experiment (such as Bride of Frankenstein, An American Werewolf in London, Shaun of the Dead, and most recently, The Final Girls) effectively achieved a perfect balance between laughs and frights by never prioritizing one at the expense of the other. The jokes have to be funny and the scares have to scare, not to mention the characters must be three-dimensional and sympathetic in order for the film to work at all. Gravy doesn’t work as a horror-comedy because it seems more interested in being a droll, stagy talk-fest with infrequent stabs at hilarity than focusing on the frightening elements of its story. In fact, with the presence of Jimmi Simpson, a performance by Michael Weston that resembles Charlie Day in appearance and vocal stylings, and a dingy central location that resembles Paddy’s Pub after a Dia de Muertos celebration), Gravy came across to me as an extended episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia drenched in arterial spray and spilled intestines. Except even the lesser episodes of It’s Always Sunny, and there were only a few in this fan’s opinion, usually made me laugh out loud a few times. Some of the humor in Gravy works, but at best they merely elicit muted chuckles. The only moment in the entire film that got an audible laugh out of me was during a flashback to when Anson and Stef met Mimi, done in the style of a silent film…complete with dialogue cards!
Roday and Harthan had the crucial ingredients in their script to make Gravy a winner, but the director consistently undermines whatever suspense and tension the story barely manages to scrape together with a series of puzzling editorial decisions and soundtrack choices. First of all, there’s the 98-minute running time, which would typically be a decent length for a film of this sort, but it’s far too long for Gravy. The opening sequence, featuring a cameo from the always welcome Sarah Silverman that sort of pays off at the end, serves only to eat up a few minutes of screen time and allow for a bit of misdirection on the part of the filmmakers by having Silverman’s character flirt warmly with Weston’s and establish the possibility of romance in their future. This scene only really works because we are led to believe that Anson is going to be our hero, because heroes always find love in the end, right? Except Silverman doesn’t appear again in the film until shortly before the credits roll, and by then we’ve stopped caring about her character and what might happen to her once the story comes to its conclusion. The pacing of Gravy congeals towards the midsection like a bowl of the titular substance left in the refrigerator overnight, and several scenes are allowed to run on far longer than they should. Momentum is slowly reduced to a pipe dream.
The great Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger are credited with the special effects of Gravy, and to their credit it looks like they stuck primarily to practical methods that could be created in-camera and benefit the story as a whole. Unfortunately, the effects in this film hardly represent their finest work. We get a torn open throat, some blood flow, an arrow in one victim’s mouth that comes out the back of their head, and a few other gross gags that do their job but can’t help but disappoint given what Roday had spent the proceeding minutes of his film priming us to expect. Nicotero and Berger must have worked on the film as a favor to the director, and not for very long it seems. Though Gravy couldn’t have cost a lot to make, the director gets the most of his limited locations and scaled-back cast thanks to some atmospheric cinematography by Amanda Treyz (Chromeskull: Laid to Rest 2) that gives the restaurant and its various rooms a foul, David Fincher-esque grunginess infinitely more effective in working over the gag reflex than the prosthetic gore.
At least Roday cast his film very well. Weston, Simpson, and Cole definitely take top honors in the acting category by displaying an unforced, very natural camaraderie as our charming, verbose trio of cannibal psychopaths who take perverse glee in toying with their victims before ending their lives (playing with their food, so to speak). I loved Bluteau’s sadness and bitter resignation at his character having to use his gift for preparing exquisite meals in a manner he never imagined possible in his lifetime. Best known as a stand-up comic and comedic actor, Paul Rodriguez had some good moments early in Gravy as the restaurant’s owner who cares so much for his employees that he’s willing to put his life on the life in exchange for theirs and figures out the real reason for the cannibals’ intrusion before anyone else. Oscar-nominee Sidibe (Precious) has been better in films far worthier of her talent, but she’s good enough of an actress to make her stereotypical character into one we can sympathize with. Foster, Luna, and Ephraim do the best they can with roles that were never fully there from the start. Ethan Sandler mugs and sweats his way through a part that leans more heavily on broad comedy than any other in Gravy. Roday and his Psych co-star Dule Hill put in last reel cameos that will only be amusing if you happen to be a fan of Psych.
Gravy is presented on Blu-ray from Scream Factory in a pretty good 1080 high-definition transfer in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio. For a relatively recent film, albeit one that was shot on a low budget, it naturally looks crisp and vibrant, with a richly saturated color palette and sharp details that can be glimpsed both close-up and from a distance. Grain is balanced and consistent and there appears to be little noise reduction employed. Scream has included two English language soundtracks in DTS-HD Master Audio: the 5.1 surround option is spacious and spreads most of the audible activity to all channels without suffering from distortion or overlapping, but if you don’t have a home theater set-up, the 2.0 stereo option will satisfy your viewing requirements with a slightly increased volume. Even the whispered dialogue comes through clear as a bell, and the combination of an original score composed by Tears for Fears’ Charlton Pettus and Curt Smith and a soundtrack that uses recent tunes and 80’s pop hits from Pettus and Smith’s band as well as Cutting Crew sounds excellent and meshes perfectly with the remainder of the audio mix. English subtitles have also been included.
Bonus features kick off with a commentary with Roday and actors Foster and Simpson that gives us a decent overview of the production but is mostly consumed by cracking jokes and commenting on what’s happening in the movie. No more substantial is the featurette “What is Gravy?” (6 minutes), which functions more as a promotional tool than an in-depth look behind the scenes. Same goes for the other featurette simply labeled “EPK” (6 minutes) on the menu. Both contain some interviews with cast and crew and brief snippets of B-roll footage, but it is all surface and that’s actually appropriate for Gravy. The trailer (2 minutes) and an easy-to-find Easter Egg music video close out the extras. Scream Factory has also supplied the Blu-ray with reversible cover art.
A horror-comedy with zero scares and few actual laughs, Gravy manages to remain a halfway-decent entertainment due to its talented cast, goofy atmosphere, and the occasional Nicotero/Berger gore effect. It’s a better-than-average feature directorial debut from actor James Roday, but only moderately better. Scream Factory’s Blu-ray only offers solid picture and sound and some superfluous supplements, so if you’re planning on a blind buy I would recommend waiting until the price drops or picking it up used.