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Entries in Lightning Bug [2004] (1)

Friday
Jan272012

Lightning Bug (2004)

Horror Movie

You'd never know it from watching his splatterific Laid to Rest movies, but Robert Hall can be a filmmaker of great restraint. In the semi-autobiographical Lightning Bug, he tells the story of Green Graves (Bret Harrison), a teenager growing up in the backwoods of Alabama circa 1988. The only severed limbs here are those sculpted by the aspiring makeup-effects artist, who must survive not only small-town religious intolerance, but also an abusive stepfather named Earl (Kevin Gage).

When he's not holed up in his room creating latex monsters, he trolls the local video store for new horror releases. There, he meets Angevin (Laura Prepon), a rebellious girl who's just moved back to town after a failed L.A. acting career. In her, Green finds a wild, kindred spirit who helps take his mind off the cramped trailer he shares with Earl, his mom, and younger brother (Ashley Laurence and Lucas Till).

Green convinces the proprietor of the town's Halloween spook house, Mr. Tightwiler (Bob Penny), to let him take over the money-losing operation. Inspired by Fangoria Magazine and a host of mail-order special-effects books, he spends months putting together horrors that the locals have never dreamt of. This draws the ire of local church head (and Angevin's mother) Ms. Duvet (Shannon Eubanks), as well as Earl, who thinks Green should stop messing around with "pottery monsters" and get a "real job" at the chicken plant.

Lightning Bug has problems. The true events from Hall's life have been filtered through the Based on a True Story sieve, meaning we get a healthy dose of lost innocence; drunken, violent outbursts; and a hick deputy (Hal Sparks) who doesn't cotton to Green's high-falutin' ideals. Hall also indulges in a tad too much hero-worship of Green, who's constantly told by his friends and family that he's going to be a big success one day; not that he doesn't deserve support, but the meta "I Showed Everyone" narrative is a bit much. Lastly, some of the accents are a bit dodgy, which makes getting into the movie a chore (Angevin sounds less like she was raised in the deep South and more like she hails from Prepon's neck of New Jersey).

Still, there are enough surprises and a handful of genuinely touching moments here for me to highly recommend this film. Despite Hall overplaying his hand in some areas (the climax involves several major events coming to a head in a significantly condensed timeline), he shows great subtlety in others. He never specifies the year in which his movie takes place, dropping instead a few visual clues for the horror buffs in the audience. I also love the way he ends the movie, which takes a slight but significant detour from convention that adds an unexpected layer of difficulty to Green's journey.

Lightning Bug has a tremendous amount of heart, infusing well-worn story points with solid acting that makes everything seem fresh. My issue with accents aside, Harrison and Prepon make a hell of a leading couple, and Gage's alcoholic, wounded-tiger character is a constant, terrifying surprise. Even when Earl isn't around, his mindset and the threat of his return hang in the air--only part of which, I'm sure, has to do with the script. Laurence, too, deserves kudos for elevating the beaten-mom archetype. Jenny Graves comes across as unbearably weak, an innocent with awful taste in men. In the end, Laurence makes it clear that Jenny's made some terrible choices regarding her family, but her belief in her sons' goodness imbues them with a strength she doesn't have. 

Watching Hall's Laid to Rest movies gave me great respect for him as a makeup-effects artist, but little as a storyteller. These over-the-top slashers play more like gory calling cards than actual films. But there's tremendous promise in his first feature that I hope he revisits someday; If there is ever to be such a thing as a heartfelt gore-fest, Robert Hall will likely be the guy to give it to us.