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SUSPENDED ANIMATION (director/producer: John Hancock; screenwriter: Dorothy Tristan; cinematographer: Misha Suslov; editor: Dennis O’Connor; music: Angelo Badalamenti; cast: Alex McArthur (Tom Kempton), Laura Esterman (Vanessa Boulette), Sage Allen (Ann Boulette), Rebecca Harrell (Hilary Kempton), Maria Cina (Clara Hansen), Fred Myers (Sandor Hansen), Daniel Riordan (Jack Starr), Jeff Puckett (Cliff Modjeska), J. E. Freeman (Philip Boulette), Sean Patrick Murphy (Fred Phelps); Runtime: 117; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Robert J. Hiler; First Run Features; 2001)
“A fun scare film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Veteran indie director John D. Hancock (“Weeds“/”California Dreaming“/“Prancer”) returns to his horror film roots with this low-budget, two million dollar indie, psychological thriller “Suspended Animation.” My personal Hancock favorite is Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) with a young Robert De Niro starring in this baseball tearjerker about the star player dying of leukemia. But Hancock’ best known for his first full-length feature, the cheesy 1971 cult classic thriller Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. After doing work in television for a number of years, in 1998, he opened his own production company FILMACRES in LaPorte, Indiana–which is about as far away from lala land as a filmmaker can get nowadays. Since there he has produced and directed “A Piece of Eden” in 1999 and “Suspended Animation” in 2001. The story is adapted from his wife Dorothy Tristan’s unpublished novel. It is shot on Sony’s 24P HD. The DVD version I saw had a satisfactory video quality and this cheaper way of filming did not seem to sacrifice the quality of the film. The result is a fun scare film, one that will be enhanced by the right audience screaming out their oohs and ahs at the screen. It’s the perfect flick for a midnight showing in those big cities that attract a younger and more enthusiastic crowd, or for its upcoming Halloween theater showing. “Suspended Animation” conforms to the rules of the suspense/horror genre by offering all of the following usuals: scary background music via David Lynch’s stalwart Angelo Badalamenti’s pulsating score, a vulnerable vic who is a snotty Hollywood big shot getting his comeuppance, a twisty plot, plenty of cliffhangers, demented villains camping it up, and a frightening Grand Guignol setup that keeps one on their toes throughout.

The overworked big-time Hollywood animation director Tom Kempton (Alex McArthur) is urged by his wife Hilary to relax and go on a sporting vacation to the frozen tundra of Northern Michigan with his two yuppie pals. While out on his snowmobile Tom separates from his pals and crashes into a tree. Stranded in the wintry wilderness, he seeks help from two middle-aged sisters living in an isolated cabin, Vanessa and Ann Boulette (Laura Esterman and Sage Allen). They turn out to be psychotic serial-killers who hold Tom captive by keeping him tied to a wheelchair and display a cannibal’s taste for human flesh as evidenced by showing off their jars of pickled human remains, as the frightened Tom is being prepped to be their next meal. The portly Ann and the aging wannabe dancer Vanessa are a comic treat as they go into over-the-edge Misery hostage-torture territory with their snappy quips and bizarre actions. Sage Allen looks so much like Kathy Bates that she could be her clone.

The devastated and bruised Tom is rescued in the nick of time by his snowmobile pals and the film leaves the backwoods and returns to follow Tom in his opulent Hollywood life of fame. Tom is obsessed with making a film about his near brush with cannibalism, as his hatred of Vanessa fuels an unhealthy interest in her. He pays her sleazy jailbird brother $5,000 to provide info about his sick sis. This leads Tom to meet Vanessa’s unsuspecting wannabe actress daughter Clara Hansen (Cina), who was put up for adoption as a child and never knew her real-mom, and her psychologically disturbed serial-killer teenager son Sandor (Myers). There’s a classic close-up shot of Sandor sitting on the couch talking with Tom and popping his pimple, which tells you all you want to know about this young dude.

Tom pays the price for revisiting this oddball nuclear family when on his home turf and drawing them into his next film, and the outlandish fright scenes from the classic beginning fill the screen again. But this time without the comedy the horror tale suffers, as a returning Vanessa from the dead is not as funny the second-time around. Hancock should have quit while ahead, as the third act had the bloody chills but the action seemed so wooden and unimportant and unfunny. At least 20 minutes should have been left on the chopping block, and perhaps the film would have been better paced and able to sustain an interest throughout.

The unknown ensemble cast did an admirable job, with stage actress Laura Esterman as a standout. Her psycho ballet dance routine with Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ playing in the background was insanely amusing, and gave the film the delicious kind of touches (no pun intended) that make it memorable in parts.

REVIEWED ON 10/9/2003 GRADE: B –

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”