Route 666

Director: William Wesley             
Lou Diamond Phillips, Lori Petty, Steven Williams

In 1988, first time director William Wesley made the independent horror movie Scarecrows. Despite it being released straight to video on a minor video label (now defunct) with absolutely no fanfare, over the next decade it has apparently managed to build somewhat of a rabid cult, in part judging from the user comments for it at the IMDb. I did see Scarecrows many years ago, though I confess that I really don't remember too much of it, except for the fact that I was kind of let down seeing it after hearing all of that positive buzz. In fairness, I should reveal that I saw the R-rated version, since all the video stores in my area were too dumb to get the unrated version (which is supposed to have some truly bloody nastiness that the censored version is missing.)

Despite all that, when recently I saw another Wesley movie - Route 666 - had recently arrived at my neighbourhood video store, I was willing to give him another chance. For one thing, from examining the video box it seemed that this production of his had a lot more money at its disposal, considering that this movie was able to afford minor stars like Lou Diamond Phillips and Lori Petty. As well, considering the fact that a whopping thirteen years had past between Scarecrows and this new movie of his, maybe he learned some new tricks during this time. Though it could be argued that in such a long period of inactivity, he could have easily forgotten a lot as well. As it turns out, all of these possibilities actually do occur in the finished product.

Like Scarecrows, this movie also concerns the living dead wrecking havoc in the middle of nowhere, the nowhere this time around being the Does this *really* make him look like an ass-kicker?desert around the Arizona/California border. This is where mob accountant Frederick "Rabbit" Smith (21 Jump Street's Steven Williams) has been hiding out after fleeing both from the mafia honchos as well as the Federal Witness Protection program, afraid for his life even after they promised him protection when he agreed to testify. Despite having relocated to such a desolate place, in the beginning of the movie the mob has finally tracked him down to Dick Miller's desert bar. He manages to get away from the hired gunmen, but it's only due to the timely intervention of several armed Federal Witness Protection agents, lead by Jack (Lou Diamond Phillips) and Steph (Lori Petty, Tank Girl)... and being now in their clutches isn't much of a better fate than the one planned by the mob. Somewhat disoriented from escaping from the remaining mob hitman, and in a rush to return their witness to the L.A. criminal court the next day, the agents decide to take a blocked-off shortcut - a jinxed stretch of abandoned highway nicknamed "Route 666", closed off decades earlier after convicts on a chain gang were killed in a tragic roadwork accident and buried nearby. Of course, there was a lot more to that accident story than reported... and Frederick and the agents soon discover some secrets literally won't stay buried...

At the very least, one will have to admit that Wesley has managed to give his second effort a much superior look to it than generated by the production values found in Scarecrows. He obviously did have a higher budget this time around, and while it's probably not more than the maximum amount given to a B movie these days, the end results look so good that the movie could have played at any multiplex without any accusations that it looked cheap. Unlike his murky and taking place in the dark previous effort, this time around every scene takes place during the daytime, under the blazing sun in a cloudless sky. And virtually every scene takes place in the middle of this stretch of abandoned highway, with very few sets and props brought into this desert - the script was cleverly written to so there wouldn't be any elaborate sequence that would put excessive demands on the budget, yet the story itself does not seem forced in any way from this cost-cutting. While there may not be many man-made things visible on the screen for the most part, every shot brings a crispness and polish to the movie that gives it a professional look. The specific desert locations chosen do suggest a bleak and isolated area where something unnatural could happen, and the cinematography manages to beat even that found in the best PM Entertainment movies.

There are also a few good actors here as well. Besides the brief but fun appearance Phillips practices for his inevitable future non-acting jobby Roger Corman legend Miller, there is also an appearance by
Sam Peckinpah veteran L.Q. Jones, playing a shifty sheriff who knows a lot more about the mysterious highway than he initially lets on. Though his appearance isn't more than an extended cameo, he still manages to add his
trademark charm into the proceedings, and it's nice to see him still going on strong in his 70s. As for the main performers, the standout among them is Williams. Given a lot to say at once at several points, he's also given quite a considerable task in making his character hard enough so that he's believable as someone who worked with the mob, yet at the same time sympathetic in our eyes. He's up to the task, delivering a gruffness in whatever he says, but careful not to take this feeling too far so he becomes annoying or grating to the nerves and/or making what he says feel unnatural. His sense of humor gets to shine as well with his many sarcastic asides, delivered in a hilariously dead-pan manner.

While Williams gets a lot to say, it is actually Phillips and Petty who get most of the focus... and unfortunately they are both completely out their league in their roles. Though Petty's post-modern valley girl style of acting might make her a good choice for movies like Tank Girl, it doesn't make her appropriate to play a character that's a seasoned professional that follows things strictly by the book - like this character, which Petty doesn't even try to alter her acting style to accommodate. Phillips (who has visibly aged considerably in just a few years) apparently didn't learn from movies like The First Power, Extreme Justice, and Bats that he's simply not convincing as a law enforcement officer. Whenever he says tough-cop lines like, "So why'd ya run, punk?" you don't sense any toughness coming out of him - all you can do is laugh at his pathetic attempts to act like Harry Callahan. And in this particular movie, we are not only supposed to believe that Phillips' character is a U.S. Marshal helping out the Witness Protection Program, but according to Petty's character that he's "...just a highly decorated, ex-navy SEAL, [and] a former CIA op"(!) Uh, yeah.

That description of Jack's past is just one of several instances where the script crams in obvious exposition about the characters - possibly due to the fact that for a long time after the movie begins, we not only know so little A sneak peek at Coppertone's new UV warning ad campaignabout what's going on, but even the names of these characters. Not long afterwards Steph announces to Frederick what he read about him, so that we finally learn who he is and why the government was after him. Later, when the group comes across a graveyard (containing a marker for Jack's father), it is the cue for Jack to recite a monologue about his past and his convict father - it is so obvious that speech is not only a contrived way to provide some background for Jack, but that's it's also an unsubtle hint of what's to come. All this exposition slows down the movie considerably, but what also expands the time between the attacks by the zombie convicts (as well as a long time passing before even the first attack commences) are a number of completely unnecessary sequences, including an endless fist-fight between Jack and another agent at the graveyard, and when Jack later meets a mysterious Native American that gives him peyote tea and tells him the area is cursed. (Well, duh.)

Wesley's direction is at least somewhat better than his padded script. Though there are scenes that are unnecessary or prolonged for a greater extent than they should run, they are competently staged for the most part, occasionally using widescreen to very good effect. Unfortunately, the scenes where Wesley blows it are the key action/attack sequences. There he seems to go nuts, wildly jiggling the camera in almost every shot and choppily playing out the footage like it's a Real Video clip being downloaded at 56k. Sometimes all of this makes it impossible to figure out exactly what's going on with the people being attacked, or where the zombie convicts are coming from or what they are exactly doing. It was nice to see in an age when most horror movies come across as ironic or comic, Wesley's attempt to portray the zombies in a deadly serious way, with serious makeup effects and having the silent creatures come across as a relentless evil that can't be bargained with. It's a good try, though not completely successful. With the shaky camera and choppy feel, we can't really get a good look at them, or a good grasps of their malevolent nature. Plus one of the zombies carries around a pneumatic drill, and his use of it unfortunately comes across as comic, which doesn't seem to have been intentional. At least the drill helps in giving the movie an acceptable splatter level, though some of the editing suggests that a lot more gruesome stuff was cut out in order to give it an R rating.

Route 666 does have a number of problems with it. Still, I have to admit that I overall Some things are worse than a blowtorch and a pair of pliersfound the whole thing pretty watchable. Even though there were certainly a lot of unnecessary moments, I wasn't bored for the most part. It passes the time, yes, but there's the problem for Wesley and company - that's all it does. There's nothing in it that compels a viewer to see it again, to recommend it to a friend, to do anything that would increase the number of times it gets viewed. In a competitive business like movie making, it's not just enough to be competent, but you have to be good enough to compel the audience so that there'll be enough of a demand to justify you continuing in the business. This movie is the cinematic equivalent of a disposable lighter - you'll chuck it away without a second thought after you're through with it.

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See also: Curse Of The Cannibal Confederates, Mutant, Rituals