With the release of Dwayne Johnson’s Rampage later this year, it would appear the rise of the creature feature is officially upon us, despite existing since the dawn of the talkie. Sure, every decade has seen its fair share of creatures, from RKO’s King Kong to Roger Corman’s The Beast with a Million Eyes, all the way to Ray Harryhausen’s wondrous marvels in Clash of the Titan’s, but rarely has the typically low-budget genre re-invented itself. The likes of Cloverfield, Troll Hunter, and the more recent Digging up the Marrow come to mind as melting pot films, or rather, films that blend together elements of other genres, such as found footage and monsters. Monkey Farm, the latest release from CatchMeKillMe productions, stirs the pot further, melding a multitude of elements into one creature feature, effectively reinvigorating the genre while letting you know that independently shoe-string features don’t always follow the same path.
Opening as a documentary, Monkey Farm finds amateur filmmakers Ryan (Zach Etter) and Gunner (Justin Celani), along with Sienna and Scarlett (Acacia Makarewicz and Christina Pflueger), developing interviews on the moral and ethical dilemmas of animal testing. Once they sit down with local doctors and scientists however, their film becomes a much different beast, as light is shed on an abandoned testing facility that may hold clues to uncovering the cruelty that hides behind animal experimentation. Shortly after, stories begin surfacing around town that this facility, known only as Monkey Farm, once housed a mutated primate known as Samson, who has never been caught, and may still stalk the grounds at night. Can the truth be uncovered on the happenings at Monkey Farm, or will our filmmakers turned monster hunters succumb to the ferocity of a mutated primate turned prim-evil?
Shot entirely as found footage, director Ian Messenger (who plays Samson underneath a silicone primate mask) manages to set a consistently affable tone throughout the film, even when it shifts gears into one of its multitude of genres. Like its medically altered beast, there’s always more than meets the eye with Monkey Farm, taking a little from the documentary, the exhausting found footage and the always persistent monster sub-genre, which is where the heart and soul of the film is. By the time we eventually get to lurking in the shadows and skulking around poorly lit derelicts, a certain amount of tension has been employed between our filmmakers and their subject, reminding us that it isn’t what you see; it’s what you *think* you see.
Now, calling it poorly lit is as much of a jab at the production level as it is calling its estimated budget of $10,000 low. After all, this is a film made by fans, for fans, and it’s done so on an impressively low-budget. The elements (i.e. lighting) that are the result of its production value only aid in shaping its tone, crafting an at once unsettling journey into darkness – both literal and metaphorical – working with both shadows and our naked eye at building tension and dread.
While it isn’t always the prettiest looking film in the room, it does carry with it an endearing sense of humor, giving it the charm and personality it needs to rise above its missteps. Etter and Celani, who both co-star in Fireside Tales, Messenger’s sophomore effort, exude a level of comradery that would make Jay and Silent Bob do the Snoochie Boochies. They’re both crass, and at times abrasive, but with an engaging level of charm that just happens to keep our attention! Now it’s unclear, and inconsequential, whether there’s a personal connection with co-stars Makarewicz and Pflueger, but if there isn’t, then maybe they should look into it, because the chemistry with Etter and Celani almost carries some scenes. They lovingly nudge each other along their hunt, never feeling like accessories, though the film doesn’t quite allow us the opportunity to get to know each character, often introducing a new face in order to keep the momentum going.
By the time Samson’s finally revealed, there’s a certain level of attachment that has clung to us for our wannabe monster hunters, and as they’re being chased through the darkened dessert, we can’t help but root for their escape, even though we already know the inevitable outcome. In the end, Monkey Farm is a little film that wears its big heart on its big sleeve while not shying away at bringing genres together, in spite of its attempt at being a little bit of everything, while never fully succeeding at any of it. Because this creature feature is most importantly, well, fun, and it shows that Ian Messenger and his crew understand damn well that B-horror doesn’t have to stand for boring or bland; this is one monkey that doesn’t follow the same path.