At the 2010 Dallas Film Festival, I was asked to join fellow FEARnet contributor Jen Yamato and two other colleagues on a panel in which we discussed the merits of covering film festivals. Among the observations I made during my defense of that coverage was the suggestion that even if their films receive negative reviews, first-time and aspiring filmmakers look at them as constructive feedback to help improve their future efforts. While I meant this largely as a suggestion for filmmakers to start growing a thick skin early and try to take criticism with an open mind, what I didn’t expect to happen was to find myself tasked with the responsibility of, well, being constructive, rather than simply rejoicing in the opportunity to take apart some movie I disliked.
But at almost 120 minutes, the biggest problem with Walking Distance is an enviable one – namely, it’s got too many ideas. Written and directed by Mel House, the film is at once a zombie movie, a portrait of troubled childhood played out in an adult world, a latticework of conspiracy theories, a speculative piece of psychokinesis, the kind of body horror that Cronenberg built his early career upon, and, certainly not least of all, a buffet of bloodletting and gore. That House also wants to inject each and every character with substance and depth only further dismantles the film’s narrative clarity, not to mention dramatic momentum, but it’s this surplus of ideas which lends Walking Distance a certain noble ambition even though it fails to explore them with great effectiveness.
Truth be told, I find it extraordinarily difficult to provide any kind of plot synopsis without describing literally all of the plot. Essentially, the film follows Cole Gray (Denton Blane Everett), a gifted scientist who leaves his girlfriend Elspeth (Katie Featherston) to return to the idyllic community where he grew up after a local research facility recruits him to work on one of their projects. Subsequently, Cole discovers that project manager Louise Strack (Adrienne King) has ulterior motives for hiring him, but as he begins to uncover the secrets of his former hometown, unexplained, violent occurrences begin to occur at an almost exponential rate.
This soon leads to a shocking revelation that connects his troubled past with the history of a rehabilitated child molester (Reggie Bannister), whose bizarre visions seem to be manifesting themselves physically. As the town descends further into chaos, Cole must come to terms with the realization that he is nothing less than the final and most important part of a plan to transform the very nature of humankind forever – that is, if he doesn’t inadvertently destroy it in the process.
As indicated above, all of the characters (including at least ten not mentioned) have an issue or idea that drives them, but it would have benefited the impact of these individual stories if the film communicated a clearer idea what it was about as a whole. Because of that jumble of elements listed above, each of which could easily fill out the running time of a single film, Walking Distance never finds a consistent momentum because the audience never develops a comfortable sense of what it’s supposed to be paying attention to – tossed-off comments about conspiracy theories? Casual moments between reunited friends? Expository discussions of past events? Elliptical flashbacks featuring oddball imagery? Or harrowing descriptions of depressing personal histories? All of these could have been part of a whole piece, but with so many different moving parts just on screen via the characters, much less functioning underneath at a story level, it’s impossible to locate a cohesive throughline as each new development spirals the film’s web of ideas further and further outward.
Meanwhile, the wealth of characters with one-dimensional problems is so great that not only are they never explored, the characters themselves never get enough screen time to become sympathetic, so when the body count starts accumulating neither the audience nor the film itself pauses to provide any of these fallen heroes with a sense of substance or importance. For example, in the opening scene, a young mother is killed and seemingly consumed by a charred, zombielike monster that emerges from her kitchen faucet; who is she and what does she have to do with anyone else? Or later, when a character is abducted or killed by a wall of yellow arms that comes alive, why does the victim’s boyfriend seem neither surprised nor upset?
Cole clearly has the most complicated personal history, thanks to a shockingly awful mother whose hurtful malevolence (she tells him at least two variations of “I wish I never had you”) apparently led him to attempt suicide as a child. But there’s so much plot and so many other characters with equally elaborate problems – including, say, a dark-skinned police officer who is forced to deal with the racist father of his missing girlfriend while blackmailing his partner in order to get a desperately-needed promotion – it’s impossible to invest solidly in the emotional stakes of an eventual resolution, especially since in all likelihood that resolution will come in the form of a flaming zombie that magically comes out of a wall or appliance.
All that said, however, the film isn’t without intrigue, capable actors, or noteworthy technical merits. As indicated above, the ideas – inconsistently executed though they may be – are compelling, whether you choose to focus on the Stepford Wives-insularity of Cole’s hometown, the psychic and physical connections between certain citizens and the outbursts of bizarre, unexplained violence, or the larger implications of government testing and the cover-ups employed to deceive the public. Bannister and King, two genre luminaries thanks to their work in (respectively) Phantasm and the original Friday the 13th, turn in compelling performances while juggling the demands of a complex screenplay, while Everett mostly succeeds in communicating Cole’s internal struggle as events unfold around him. And the prosthetic work that went into reducing bodies to smoldering rubble or otherwise dismembering most of the cast members is top-notch work that looks and feels truly creepy.
But most of all, even if it would be prohibitive to fully remove characters at this stage in the process, Walking Distance could benefit from another pass in the editing room, tightening the flow of several scenes and generally getting the action moving more efficiently. (It would also make Featherston, whose previous success with Paranormal Activity supposedly helped land the film international distribution, seem like she was in the film for a little longer.) Because truthfully, horror needs more creative voices like House’s, where conceptualizing a world and bringing it to life is more important than simply shocking people or grossing them out; too many of his contemporaries, even those who have enjoyed repeat success with studio vehicles, show too much fealty to thrilling pulses and not enough to making people think, and in that sense his work is genuinely a welcome change of pace.
In which case, this film holds the promise of greater things to come, even if what it accomplishes isn’t that great itself. Ultimately, the newcomer’s latest may or may not be the breakthrough that he hopes it will be, but while plenty of other hopefuls make it virtually impossible to be constructive when considering the qualities of their bids for big time success, Mel House has created a vehicle that, even if it doesn’t quite get him to his destination, at least puts him within walking distance.