Yes Blanche, there are rats in the cellar, but that's not the only place they're congregating in tyro helmer Jim Mickle's zombie-rat low budgeter "Mulberry Street." Presented as an eco-horror thriller, with the nasty rodents symbolizing creeping gentrification, pic puts aside any grand aspirational social overtones but does stay true to a post-9/11 paranoia that feels surprisingly genuine. What really sets it apart from the usual rat scarefest is the gritty feel for the kind of close-knit Manhattan tenement living that's been all but gnawed away. Cult status should accrue in Gotham proper, though most biz will come from ancillary.

Yes Blanche, there are rats in the cellar, but that’s not the only place they’re congregating in tyro helmer Jim Mickle’s zombie-rat low budgeter “Mulberry Street.” Presented as an eco-horror thriller, with the nasty rodents symbolizing creeping gentrification, pic puts aside any grand aspirational social overtones but does stay true to a post-9/11 paranoia that feels surprisingly genuine. What really sets it apart from the usual rat scarefest is the gritty feel for the kind of close-knit Manhattan tenement living that’s been all but gnawed away. Cult status should accrue in Gotham proper, though most biz will come from ancillary.

At first not an obvious choice for rising shingle Belladonna — which couldn’t have put much into the very limited kitty — the pic’s interest in character and tone, though often little more than shorthand notations, makes it a cut above most zero-budget horrors. Co-scripter Nick Damici plays ex-boxer Clutch, a no-nonsense guy whose unassuming air masks a paternalistic concern for his neighbors on the Lower East Side.

On a hot summer’s day Clutch’s soldier daughter Casey (Kim Blair) is heading home after a stint in Iraq. But there’s a rat problem afoot: throughout the city, mutant rodents are attacking humans, who are transformed into rat-like zombies. When public transportation comes to a halt, Casey still has most of Manhattan to cross. As the streets increasingly fill with suppurating monsters, a simple trek becomes no ordinary walk in the park.

Mickle, a storyboard artist and lighting technician, has a mature understanding of construction, nicely shifting back and forth between Casey’s journey and the residents on Mulberry Street. It’s not all serious, of course, and the script allows for plenty of gross-out humor plus the usual head-butting heroics, but there’s something more ambitious going on.

First are the none-too-subtle swipes aimed at conglomerate landlords buying up apartment buildings and pricing the lower-middle-class out of the city. Then there’s the unexpectedly downbeat ending, a real sign of these post-9/11 times. Mickle and Damici aren’t entirely sure how much they want to stick to a good old-fashioned zombie flick (in some ways reminiscent of the recent “Black Sheep”) and how much they want to devote to paranoid commentary, though as genre fans, they’ve generally favored the former.

Characterization suffers from the imbalance: Tenement residents such as drag queen Coco (Ron Brice) and single mom Kay (the excellent Bo Corre) are initially presented as real people we’ll care about, but there’s no time to develop them when mutant rats are attacking.

Location work throughout the Big Apple is well handled, while the art department shows impressive ingenuity utilizing Damici’s own apartment for all the residential interiors. Camera movements can be excessive, possibly to prevent auds from scrutinizing the results of the super-low budget.

Mulberry Street

Production

A Belladonna Prods. production, in association with Bulldog Films. Produced by Linda Moran, Adam Folk. Executive producers, Tim House, Victor Assante. Directed, edited, by Jim Mickle. Screenplay by Nick Damici, Mickle.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Ryan Samul; music, Andreas Kapsalis; production designer, Beth Mickle; art director, Danny Perez; costume designer, Vonia Arslanian; sound, Louis Bertini, Mickle; assistant director, Aaron Dunsay. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (Midnight), May 1, 2007 (Also in SXSW Film Festival). Running time: 84 MIN.

With

Nick Damici, Antone Pagan, Sarah Dickinson, Heidi Peterson, Jim Heater, Lou Torres, Tim House, Larry Fleischman, Bo Corre, Ron Brice, Kim Blair, Rodney Gray, Javier Picayo, Larry Medich.

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