Monday, February 18, 2008

"Right at Your Door"

2006; written and directed by Chris Gorak

I don't know what happened to Right at Your Door. I don't know why it wasn't given a larger theatrical release and why the DVD has hit video stores without any support. Could be that it hit too close to too many people's post-9/11 terrors and, as a result, was just too damned scary.

This incredibly tense apocalyptic thriller follows what happens to a happy, middle-class couple when a series of dirty bombs explode in Los Angeles. Rory Cochrane plays Brad, a musician/slacker who's recently moved into a new home with his wife, Lexi (Mary McCormack). When the film opens he's staying home to finish unpacking boxes and she's driving downtown to go to work.

Then all hell breaks loose.

Working within an indie budget, first-time writer/director Gorak -- whose previously worked as an art director on films such as Fight Club and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas -- keeps the focus of his story tight and uses creativity to suggest the large-scale disaster he can't show. As someone once said, it's the horror you can't see that's most frightening because your imagination is always worse than the real thing, and the film takes advantage of this at every turn.

Gorak creates an in-the-news tension and terrific mood by describing the bombs' destruction and chaos in a series of radio broadcasts that continue almost uninterrupted through the entire film. Brad first notices something is wrong when his morning news is interrupted by the urgent tone of the Emergency Broadcast System.

The phones are jammed and Brad can't contact Lexi, so he jumps into his car intending to drive downtown and get Lexi at work. He tears through the streets of his neighborhood as the radio announces additional explosions and greater destruction. When his rescue mission ends in police blockades just a few blocks away and the shooting of a man from downtown who's probably "infected," Brad returns home.

Turns out the bombs are dirty, packed with radiation, chemicals and/or biologic agents. (The film never makes the exact mix clear -- another smart choice, because it mirrors the confusion that would actually follow such an event and makes the terror that much more effective. It also helps set up the film's dark ending.)

The radio warns listeners to seal up their homes and avoid contact with anyone who may come to them for aid. Brad and a handyman from next door wait for Lexi and watch as the fallout heads their way. When they can't wait any longer, they reluctantly seal up the house with duct tape and plastic tarps, but not before Brad puts a few supplies outside in case Lexi does make it home.

Which, of course, she does, frantic and covered in ash, grateful to finally be home, terrified and enraged when she realizes that Brad has shut her out and can't open the door. Even though the story lags a bit at this point -- the first 30 minutes' screaming panic just can't be sustained indefinitely -- it soon builds up steam and interest as Brad and Lexi struggle with the reality of their situation, negotiating their stand-off and figuring out a way to survive until help arrives.

Not everything disaster-related happens off-screen. Gorak gives us some eerie shots of the Los Angeles skyline shrouded in gray clouds and a lovely but upsetting scene when toxic ash falls onto Brad and Lexi's backyard like snow.

Like Cloverfield, Right at Your Door makes a virtue of its limited perspective. But unlike this winter's big horror hit, there's not a lot of metaphor at work here. Gorak admits in the DVD's bonus materials he was inspired by 9/11. Maybe it's because his monster is all-too plausible that executives got cold feet when it came time to market and release Right at Your Door, even though it had been nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and won for its cinematography. (This last one I don't get -- if I have one criticism it's with the film's sometimes muddy look.) For whatever reason, Right at Your Door came and went with a limited U.S. theatrical release and nary a word in August of 2007, virtually guaranteeing viewers would miss it. But don't be one of them. Right at Your Door is one of the scariest films I've seen in a long time.

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