3/21/11

Lightning Bug (2004): Robert Hall's First Film Turns Out Not To Be a Bio-Pic About Me

I while back I gave director Robert Hall and his film Laid to Rest a thorough poking with my list Top 10 Common Complaints of Laid to Rest’s Chromeskull. Honestly, while Hall’s movie has its ludicrous moments, the kills are quite good and the suspense does seem to build effectively. So I was interested to see what other credits Mr. Hall might have to his name. Needless to say, I was a bit surprised to find out he was the director of 2004’s Lightning Bug, a film I’ve heard about many times due to our similarly eponymous monikers. (I want to dispel right now anyone’s thoughts that The Lair might be named after Hall’s film and point you to the real secret origin story HERE.) I never could quite bring myself to actually watch Lightning Bug until I found out he was to be a guest at Horrorhound Weekend. I figured this could go two ways. It could make-up a bit for cutting Chromeskull to ribbons or it could signal that I should make sure to give Mr. Hall a wide berth around his table.

Unlike Laid to Rest, Lightning Bug is not a horror film. If anything it is a Southern fried drama with thriller elements thrown in for good measure. Green Graves (Bret Harrison) is a self taught horror movie make-up prodigy, but he, his mother Jenny (Ashley Laurence), and brother live in a small Alabama town. Green has plans to make it to Hollywood someday, but first he has to make a bit of cash. Landing a job with Mr. Tightweiler (Bob Penny), the kindly old coot who runs the rather tame “spook house” for Halloween, Green finally finds an outlet for his artistic endeavors. He also finds someone to relate to when he meets Angevin Duvet (Laura Prepon), a gothic girl who works in the Video Store, but has dreams of being an actress. The two support each other, but with an abusive stepfather who beats his mom, a church out to shut down his “Satanic” haunted house, and Angevin’s mother trying desperately to keep them apart, Green worries he will never escape the town and get to really pursue his dreams.

With the tagline, “There are Monsters in His Way”, cover and poster art that emphasizes the spookier, moodier moments in the film, and with Ashley Laurence (Hellraiser) and Kevin Gage (May) listed so high up in the credits, I truly expected some kind of supernatural horror flick. Lightning Bug is actually much more of a “coming-of-age” story with a horror backdrop. For any of us who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s as horror fans, metal heads, or Goths, Green Graves is an instantly relatable character. I recall plenty of times people would ask me if I worshiped Satan because I liked Guns N’ Roses or watched C.H.U.D. What can I say? It was the Nineties and the last vestiges of Metal and Horror equal the stuff of the Devil was just beginning to finally wear out of the mainstream. I should say that, like Robert Hall’s protagonist, I also grew up in the South so our shared experience could be geographical, but I really think that Hall was looking at something much bigger here. He was looking at how life and the hand we are dealt, no matter where or how bad it is, sometime must be overcome to achieve our dreams. For my money, it’s a pretty good message. While Hall flirts dangerously with After School Special themes, he reigns in his film and delivers something really heartfelt.

There should be really good reason for it being so lifelike. Just like Green Graves, Robert Hall also moved from up North to a small Alabama town in his youth. I’m sure he had a couple of dumbass friends like Tony Bennett and Billy Martin. I would venture to guess that he had a stepfather he didn’t think too much of as well. However, I do hope, at least, the story takes a turn from the autobiographical in the last segment of the film. I won’t say how Green Graves' story turns out, but as for Robert Hall, he got his first break driving 300 miles to Selma, Alabama, impressing special effects artist Thomas Burman, and was hired as an assistant makeup effects artist on Abel Ferrera’s Body Snatchers. At the time, he was de-boning chicken in a Tyson plant for a job. So here’s a guy who took the risk, and it paid off. Say what you want about Chromeskull, but Robert Hall has created quite a career for himself as a makeup artist for everything from Buffy and Angel (ironically also for Whedon’s synonymous sounding Firefly) to Wristcutters and The Burrowers.

That being said, Lightning Bug, for all its good intentions, is something of a mess. There are an incredible number of continuity errors. I won’t even try and list them as it doesn’t take a keen eye to spot them. There seems to also be a massive number of plot holes where things are just not explained or don’t have solid logic behind them. As a concept, the movie is great. The execution left a little something to be desired, but this is a first film. With that being said, it should be noted that Laid to Rest shares many of the same problems. There is also a terribly uneven scale of acting on display in Lightning Bug. Ashley Laurence completely disappears into the role of Green’s alcoholic mother to the point where she is unrecognizable as the actress who survived Pinhead’s wrath in four Hellraiser films, but Bret Harrison missed the mark as the emotional center the story. He would prove himself more talented in comedic roles as the lead in Reaper a few years later. George Faughnan steals every scene he appears in as Green’s friend Billy Martin, and with his loose tank top and mulleted hair, he reminded so much of a childhood friend of mine. Then on the other hand, Jonathan Spenser completely annoyed me as Green’s other friend Tony.

Lightning Bug also gets quite a boost from the films two heavies. Kevin Gage (May, Strangeland, Laid to Rest) gets across the alcoholic, rage filled menace of his step dad character in a way I only thought Michael Rooker could.  Every scene he appeared in felt like there was a coiled snake making an appearance and readying itself to strike. The other villainous character in Lightning Bug is Mrs. Duvet, the mother of Green’s main squeeze and the driving force behind the church’s protests of the haunted house. Shannon Eubanks, a character actress with only a handful of roles to her credit, is the embodiment of the shrill W.A.S.P, and in addition, the added character quirk of a pillow she constantly carries around in memory of her deceased husband, gave the conservative activist a softer side. So even though I disagreed with her, her methods, and what she was after, I felt compassion for her. I suppose I should also take a moment for Laura Prepon who produced Lightning Bug as well as co-starred. The That 70’s Show star looks gorgeous as the goth styles totally suit the redhead, but her character never really gets off the ground.

Robert Hall, who wrote the script for Lightning Bug some four years before it was made, obviously felt this was a passion project. It was his story, though fictionalized, and he found a way to tell it that both rings of truth and stays entertaining. His next films, Laid to Rest and its sequel, take a different tact. Lightning Bug is about a boy trying to make his dreams come true. Laid to Rest is the product of Robert Hall following his dreams to their ultimate conclusion. After all, who among us wouldn’t want to create a slasher and have it grace the cover of Fangoria, the same magazine that inspired your dreams. Now don’t get me wrong, I still think Chromeskull is one of the more ludicrous slashers to ever grace the screen, but I do admire both of Mr. Hall’s films now for very different reasons. Lightning Bug is a great “coming of age” movie for horror fans that reminded this viewer to never give up on dreams. Laid to Rest on the other hand is what happens when those horror nerd dreams come true.

Bugg Rating

Here's the trailer, and then below you can find the whole movie via Youtube. (or on Netflix Instant)


1 comment:

  1. It's funny, I saw this like 7 years ago at a film festival that was also playing my 2nd flick(FOC)--thought it was okay. Funny, didn't realize that was Bret Harrison(from Reaper, an under-rated show)...

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