Not zombies. I know, you’ll be shocked to hear this. And while Overlord teases the idea of being as cliche as one can get with that particular genre, what you might be surprised to know is that it’s a film that offers both gore and emotion of it’s own design (Sometimes of a literal design).
Directed by Julius Avery, Overlord‘s biggest surprise is that it knows when to effectively use gore in a genre that has gotten more than comfortable with the amount of red corn syrup they are willing to purchase and splatter. In fact, the amount of blood in Overlord is pretty minimal, replaced with traditional tension-building that takes hold of the film from the first minute. As WWII soldiers drop into a forest-ridden section of France to try and blow up a radio-jamming tower (Courtesy of your friendly neighborhood Nazis!), their trek through the country into the small town of destination is suspenseful without much blood.
Avery knows when to drop a body or a hint of what’s to come, but he knows never to show the “guts” of the story, just tease a gashing wound here or there that slowly opens up to reveal the horrors these characters will face. And despite the fact it is not afraid to lean on conventional cliches at times, Avery is smart to keep the focus on the likable batch of soldier characters leading the film, each somewhat an archetype of the classic WWII genre. And the actors are not afraid to let their characters personalities shine with humor and drama, again courtesy of a thoughtful director who takes time to actually develop each of their stories. Are some of their characters right out of WWII films? Yeah…but for the sake of a film that seems to pay homage to many genres while creating it’s own story, it’s not unacceptable.
There is some genuine gravitas present here at times, but for a film that fuses a lot of classic stories together (A friend I saw this with easily took note of how many times he’d seen this premise before), the film still has shortcomings rooted in the sheer lack of pressure the film gives to audiences. You’re not going to find the meaning of life watching Overlord, but you will walk away feeling you didn’t jump into a schlock of B-movie garbage. Namely because Avery made sure to root the story in some very real elements of that time period. Of Nazi human experimentation, Hitler’s “Thousand Year Reign”, racial prejudice, and the need for countries to have the biggest gun over their enemies. The more outlandish elements of the film are rooted in the horrors of real history. At the same time, while producer J.J. Abrams is noted for his connection to franchises, Overlord is, I’m happy to report, NOT an installment of the Cloverfield franchise. No reshoots were done to connect it somehow to the series of science fiction horrors, but instead it’s a film that stands on it’s own narrative strength.
But really, if we had to ignore the cliche conventions of the film, the real star of the film is it’s technical achievements of the film. This is a polished cliche if anything else. The score by composer Jed Kurzel balances well between emotional, suspenseful, and action-charged. The editing of Matt Evans and the cinematography of Laurie Rose and Fabian Wagner helps lend to the film’s impressive pacing that organically carries the film. But of course, no horror film is complete without good production design and Overlord has some of the best I’ve seen of the genre in awhile.
Nowadays, we rarely get a horror genre film that tries to go beyond ghosts or possession and when we do it’s usually a film that has to rely on simple jump scares to get any reaction out of audiences. So it’s pleasant to see a film that will know when to freak you out and know when to have your mind ticking with expectation. Overlord may be cliche at times…but if one can take that cliche and make something genuinely well-crafted, I’m game. Abrams may not be my favorite director, but as a producer he has an eye for good material that gives unknown directors a chance to impress. Matt Reeves got his big break with 2008’s Cloverfield and Julius Avery may have just done the same here. If this film is him at the beginning, I’ll be looking out to see him develop his craft and I think you should too.
- Well-acted horror film with good pacing of thrills, humor, and action.
- Strong direction by Avery.
- Impressive production design.
- Good score and technical elements like editing and cinematography.
- Cliche narrative at times.
- While well-acted, some of the characters are not afraid to be something you’d seen before.