Sep 13, 2010

Film Review: Pathogen

DIR: Emily M. Hagins
CAST: Rose Kent-McGlew, Tiger Darrow, Alec Herskowitz,
Tony Vespe, Alex Schroeder, Rebecca Elliott

The summer I was 12 I messed around with my friends, went on a short holiday with my parents and saw a lot of movies (THE FUGITIVE and JURASSIC PARK stand out in the memory). Emily Hagins made a zombie movie. Okay, so a lot of 12 year olds borrow mum and dad's video camera and make little home movies, but Hagins' film is a great deal more than that. Based on a screenplay she wrote the first draft of aged just ten, PATHOGEN sees Austin, Texas in the grip of a zombie virus caused by the leaking of experimental nanotechnology into the water supply, and the only apparent resistance is provided by a small group of middle schoolers.

If Hagins' achievement doesn't always match her ambition, that's excusable. Indeed PATHOGEN is something you don't often get to see; the very first baby steps of a nascent filmmaker, and there is a real sense that as the process went on Hagins really found her feet. Certain scenes are plagued with technical problems, from the apparent initial allergy to tripods, to boom shadows, to camera reflections, to terrible continuity issues. What's interesting is that these seem to afflict some parts of the film far worse than others, which suggests that Hagins may have made a lot of mistakes, but she clearly learnt from them even as the production went along.

I'm not going to tell you that this is some sort of undiscovered classic, it's clearly not, indeed it is shot through with problems. Most of the real problems with the film stem from the script. You have to give Emily Hagins credit here, her central idea of the parasite that causes the zomibe virus being water borne is a really strong and scary one. Unfortunately, being ten, she lacked the knowledge to make it scientifically credible, which renders much of the expository dialogue of the first half pretty laughable (a particular low point comes in an expository monologue delivered by Harry Knowles). However, the writing does pick up when the words are coming from kids Hagins' own age, she gives the middle schoolers an amusing nonchalance, even in the face of many zombie attacks, and there are a handful of very funny lines (when one of them accidentally kills a human one kid observes "He's not infected, the face has emotion, he's surprised").

As you might expect given that the cast are largely friends and neighbours of the director, the performances are a mixed bag, many of the kids (unfortunately including lead Rose Kent-McGlew) are pretty wooden, but a few, notably Tiger Darrow and the extremely laid back Tony Vespe, turn in decent performances.

All this said, let's remember that PATHOGEN is a zombie movie, and it's here that Hagins really delivers the goods, and marks herself out as a talent to watch. For all the technical issues, for all the ropey dialogue, for all the wooden readings, Hagins clearly has an interesting and individual eye. Over and over again she conjures clever and well composed images. She can do understated and creepy (as in the scenes of near deserted classrooms that subtly imply the spread of the virus), she can do shock moments (a lovely jump when a closing locker door reveals a freshly zombified student) and she can do the gore. PATHOGEN is light on gore until its last twenty minutes, but when the blood flows it works well. Congratulations are especially due to whoever mixed up the fake blood, which looks better than it has in movies with several times this one's budget. The violence of the final set piece is brief, but it's also very well realised, one particular stabbing is both shocking and funny, and the film's big decapitation effect is intelligently shot, meaning that it looks surprisingly convincing.

At times PATHOGEN is exactly what you'd expect a film by a 12 year old to be, but at others it is clear that this particular 12 year old has something pretty different to say, and a good eye with which to communicate it. Hagins is now 17, and making her third feature. I'm looking forward to seeing THE RETELLING, MY SUCKY TEEN ROMANCE and whatever she does beyond that.

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