CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT.NEW FILMMAKERS EDITION
CELL COUNT (2012) Directed by TODD E. FREEMAN
Review by Michael Arruda & L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: A lab, almost prison-like, with plain gray walls, and security doors and cameras all around. Several “patients” sit around a table. The security door buzzes open and MICHAEL ARRUDA & L.L. SOARES enter wearing lab coats.)
L.L. SOARES: Welcome everyone to a special edition of CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT. Today we bring you the latest installment in our “Up-and-Coming Filmmaker” series, where we review movies by new directors who are trying to make a name for themselves.
MICHAEL ARRUDA: So today we are reviewing CELL COUNT (2012) by writer/director Todd E. Freeman.
But let me say first, that our good friend, best-selling author Rick Hautala passed away unexpectedly on Thursday, and both out of respect for Rick and his family, and out of genuine grief, I’m not much in the mood for joking today. I almost prefer a straight review.
LS: I agree that it was sad news, but knowing Rick, I don’t think he’d want us to tone down the column on his account.
MA: True. For me, it’s more that I’m not in a joking mood this weekend, but I don’t see why we couldn’t throw in a few jokes here and there, I guess.
Anyway, let’s get things started. CELL COUNT is—.
PATIENT #1: Excuse me? What are we doing here exactly?
LS: You’re our audience.
PATIENT #1: We didn’t sign up for this. We’re supposed to be—.
(LS suddenly Tasers the guy, who falls to the floor, writhing in pain.)
LS: You’re also the comic relief. Anyone else have any questions?
(Other patients shake their heads.)
LS: Good. Let’s continue.
MA: So much for toning things down.
As I was saying, CELL COUNT is a science fiction horror movie about a group of people subjected to one very weird and unsettling medical experiment.
The film opens with Russell Carpenter (Robert McKeehen) comforting his dying wife Sadie (Haley Talbot) in a hospital. It’s clear that these two are very much in love. Russell is informed by Dr. Victor Brandt (Christopher Toyne) that his wife is going to die in no uncertain terms, unless…and then he makes Russell an offer. He tells Russell that he’s involved with a special study that is seeking test subjects like his wife in order to treat this deadly disease. He tells Russell that he can guarantee his wife will be cured. But Russell will have to be part of the experiment as well if he wants to come with her.
I guess Russell never heard “if it sounds too good to be true, it really isn’t” because he agrees…
LS: Of course he agrees! He doesn’t want to lose his wife.
MA: … and he and Sadie find themselves inside a weird prison-like facility with other “patients.” All of them have small incisions in their chests, where Dr. Brandt supposedly implanted the powerful viral cure into their bodies. In addition to these patients, there are also two “special” patients housed in a secure part of the building—two convicted criminals who are highly dangerous.
When the group begins to suffer from weird side effects, they begin to suspect that something is wrong, and they discover that Dr. Brandt’s vision of a cure isn’t quite what they expected. They’ve been implanted with a strange worm-like creature that burrows out of their mouths at will, and does some other things as well, like one wrapping itself around its victim’s face, forming a mask that resembles an alien in a bad science fiction movie.
LS: I actually thought the “mask face” thing looked pretty cool.
MA: I liked the idea of the “mask face” but I didn’t think it looked good. It looked like Dumb Donald from FAT ALBERT.
So, it’s up to Russell and Sadie to lead their fellow patients out of Dr. Brandt’s high security lab, while trying to defeat the monstrous “cure” that they now have inside their bodies, a cure put there so it can literally eat the disease. The trouble is it devours other things as well.
(Patient #1 keels over onto the floor, and a large worm-like creature oozes out of his mouth. LS Tasers the worm creature and then stabs it with a giant fork. He carries it across the lab and deposits it into a huge pot.)
LS: Gotta let this simmer.
PATIENT: I’m cured! I’m cured! Thank you for curing me!
LS: Keep your shirt on. You’re not cured yet.
PATIENT: I’m not?
LS: Not until after you’ve had my soup.
MA: If you survive his soup, (Points to large pot on stove.) you’re cured.
PATIENT: Couldn’t I just take a pill instead?
LS: And skip my all-natural worm soup du jour? No way, buddy. Soup for everyone!
(There is a collective groan.)
MA: I hear it tastes like chicken.
Anyway, CELL COUNT succeeded in drawing me in initially. I liked the opening scene where Russell comforts his wife, and then listens as Dr. Brandt entices him with his offer to cure her. Anyone who’s had to deal with very sick loved ones can attest to the temptation of doing whatever it takes to cure that person, no matter how unconventional the method may seem. So I bought this set-up.
LS: Yeah, I got hooked early on, too. While I don’t think they ever actually say it’s cancer during the course of the movie (they just say “the disease”), it seems pretty obvious that’s what is going on here. And it would make sense that people would do just about anything to avoid the inevitable.
MA: I liked the acting performances, even if they weren’t as polished as you might find in a mainstream movie. I enjoyed Robert McKeehen in the lead role as Russell Carpenter. He made for a believable hero, and I bought that he’d go the extreme route to save his wife. Admittedly, there were a few scenes where his performance was uneven—the scene where he first sees the worm thingie climb out of someone’s throat, for instance, his over the top reaction made me laugh out loud. I don’t think that was the reaction he was looking for.
LS: Yeah, I agree there are a few missteps, but overall, McKeehan is really good here. He looked like an elongated, big-eyed Christoph Waltz to me at times.
MA: I also enjoyed Haley Talbot as his wife Sadie.
LS: Sadie was my favorite character. Once she gets “better” and has a major role in what’s going on, I found her strong and very likable. Despite “the disease,” I think she’s the strongest one in the movie. Kudos to Haley Talbot.
MA: I agree. Christopher Toyne made for an effectively mysterious Dr. Victor Brandt, although at times, especially towards the end of the movie, he tends to overact.
LS: I actually thought was a little over-the-top from the first time we meet him. He’s effective here, but he does tend to ham it up. Which isn’t completely bad. He’s entertaining at least. He’s just not as believable as some of the other characters, and you distrust his motives right away.
MA: The supporting cast is actually very good. Adrienne Vogel and John Breen stand out as fellow patients Mary Porter and Billy Mayor, and Ted Rooney’s performance as Abraham Walker, one of the “violent inmates,” who it turns out isn’t such a bad guy after all, is especially memorable.
LS: I liked Rooney a lot. Don’t forget Judd Eustice as Timothy“Tiny Tim” Jacobs, He’s the other dangerous criminal who “agreed” to be part of the experiment, and he’s pretty creepy. He’s the closest thing the movie has to a human villain, except for maybe Dr. Brandt.
MA: Even one of the Baldwin brothers shows up, Daniel Baldwin, in what amounts to nothing more than a cameo, so I guess someone needed a paycheck!
LS: Yeah, what was up with that? I know he was hired to give the movie a little bit of star power, but his role actually made me laugh. He comes onscreen like he’s some heroic figure, but he’s actually kind of a dud.
MA: Again, the set-up to the story works. I believed that these people would subject themselves to this kind of test treatment if they believed they would be cured. The middle part of the movie, where you really weren’t certain as to what was going on, and who to trust or who to believe, reminded me a little bit of some those early episodes from the TV show LOST, where you weren’t sure what Benjamin Linus and his family of “Others” were up to.
LS: This movie looks great. But I had trouble understanding some of the motivations here. And the way the “facility” was set up—I know this abandoned prison must have seemed like an amazing location to set a film, and it is—but there were more than a few things that didn’t make sense to me.
For example, in one part, Billy takes Russell through the facility. You have to press your hand against a pad so that it can identify you and give you access to certain areas. They go to this locker room where Billy’s dog, The Kid, is. We hear Dr. Brandt tell them that they shouldn’t really be interacting with the animals that are part of the experiment, but then he pretty much says it doesn’t matter. Later, in another scene, Mary Porter brings the dog back to where the people are, and Dr. Brandt comes to visit. He doesn’t have any problem with them having the dog there. Then why make an issue of it initially?
MA: Yeah, that didn’t make any sense to me either.
LS: Also, characters are able to get into the section of the facility where the dangerous criminals are located. When they get to that area, a recorded voice tells them that this is a dangerous area, and they should turn back. Why not just have the door there coded so that it denies access? That didn’t make any sense to me.
MA: Right. I kept thinking there was a reason Dr. Brandt wanted his test subjects to interact with the dangerous criminals, but we’re never given that reason. And then later the recorded voice does announce that it’s time to intermingle, and the dangerous prisoners are released, but for what reason is never explained.
LS: There’s another scene where they “coax” one of the worm monsters out of someone, and instead of trying to pull it out when it makes an appearance, they simply take this as a sign that the person in question is beyond help. Why not just try to get it to come out again and grab it?
MA: And, when it gets to pay-off time, the film falters. First off, visually, the special effects weren’t all that special. I’ve seen worse, but the effects here weren’t good enough for me to buy into them. And several key moments, which could have made for some very dark grisly scenes, were glossed over, as the camera would cut away at the last minute. I expected that this was going to turn into a gruesome—or at the very least, intense—horror movie, but it never reaches that level.
LS: Well, this is a low-budget movie (although, once again, it looks great). So it makes sense that in certain scenes, the camera cuts away. They probably couldn’t afford to show everything they wanted to.
I didn’t think the effects were bad. For the most part, they worked for me. I really liked how Tiny Tim’s insides come out of his mouth and then cover his head for that “bag head” effect. That was pretty cool. The worm thingies weren’t perfect, but they looked good, too.
MA: At times, it seems to be striving for that WALKING DEAD feel—a story about a group of survivors against a deadly threat—and while the characters in this movie are somewhat interesting—enough so that in a better movie I’d follow their plight—the situations they find themselves in here never become so riveting that I was really into it.
For the most part, I liked the story, as written by writer/director Todd E. Freeman, but I certainly could have used more information. I never really had a firm grasp on what the cure was or even what the disease was. I understood the reactions of the victims, but I didn’t understand the motives of the guy causing all the trouble, Dr. Brandt, other than a generalized notion that he was seeking a “cure.” While the patients seemed real, Dr. Brandt played like a mad scientist in a bad science fiction movie.
LS: I wasn’t always clear why people did the things they did. Motivations seemed cloudy to me. It was almost like they did things to further the story, but they weren’t necessarily things that made sense.
I just thought that the script, also by director Todd Freeman, was the weakest aspect of the movie.
And yeah, Dr. Brandt does seem like your typical mad doctor. It would have been nice if he had more depth to him. Early on, he says that he was the first patient to be experimented on, when they first created the cure. That was a step into humanizing him more, but the script really doesn’t flesh him out much more than that.
MA: Behind the camera, director Freeman does an adequate job, but his effort needed to be stronger. There are some cool scenes here, but at the end of the day, it’s simply not enough. The film needed more of an edge. Perhaps it was budget restrictions that caused those unfortunate cutaways and mediocre special effects. If this was the case, then more creative direction should have been in order. I just wasn’t feeling it at the end.
LS: I wasn’t completely sold on the ending, either. I wasn’t clear on why some of the characters did what they did.
MA: But I’ve seen much worse, and for the 90 minutes I spent watching CELL COUNT, I was entertained.
I give it two knives.
LS: I thought there were a lot of strong aspects about this movie. I liked Freeeman’s direction for the most part, the actors were mostly good, the effects decent (considering the budget constraints), and I just thought the movie looked slick and professional (the cinematography is by “The Brothers Freeman,” i.e., Todd and Jason Freeman). But the script was uneven. I give it two knives as well.
But I do see a lot of potential here, and I’d be interested in seeing what Freeman does next.
MA: Well, we’re done here. I guess it’s time we headed out.
(DR. BRANDT suddenly bursts into the room)
DR. BRANDT: No, you cannot leave. It is too dangerous. The “cure” has infected you.
LS: What are you talking about? We didn’t have any surgery to have the cure implanted in us.
DR. BRANDT: But you did eat the meatloaf in the cafeteria!
MA: Oh no. I thought that tasted funny.
DR. BRANDT: Yes, you must stay here in Quarantine now, until I am ready to extract the cure.
LS: Screw that (Tasers Dr. Brandt, who writhes on the floor)
MA: Nice job.
LS (to other patients): Let’s blow this joint. I hear Daniel Baldwin has a bus ready for our escape. If he can start it up!
© Copyright 2013 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives CELL COUNT ~ two knives!
LL Soares gives CELL COUNT ~two knives.