Writer-directors Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski started out in Winnipeg film collective Astron-6, whose first features “Manborg” and “Father’s Day” were subversively funny low-budget genre send-ups of dystopian-future action cheese and bad-taste gore horror, respectively. There’s nothing spoofy about their latest, however. “The Void” plays its tale of one hectic night’s bloody peril at a rural hospital relatively straight, which is not to say there’s anything straightforward about the story these Canadians have cooked up. Indeed, after a promising start, this enterprising but overstuffed endeavor drifts increasingly into a muddled sci-fi mystical horror hybrid that only gets more confusing as it grows more thematically ambitious.
At least its failings aren’t formulaic ones — or perhaps they’re the fault of jamming in more fantastic-cinema formula than one modestly scaled film can support. “The Void,” which Screen Media opens on thirty-odd U.S. screens April 7 after a successful festival-circuit run, is a bit of a mess. But in an era when stab-by-numbers remakes and sequels dominate big-screen horror, this resourceful, polished indie merits some admiration simply for trying to do more than it can pull off — not to mention more than most undiscriminating horror fans ask for these days.
The opening finds a couple terrified youths fleeing an isolated house, pursued by two men. The girl never makes it past the lawn, as the latter duo dole her out a nasty, fiery death. The wounded boy manages to escape into the surrounding forest. He’s soon found by the side of the road by local cop Dan Carter (Aaron Poole), who at first assumes James (Evan Stern) is just some drunk kid, then realizes he requires serious medical attention.
Unfortunately, nearest facility March County Hospital is barely open, with just a skeleton crew packing things up for a move to a new building in the wake of a damaging fire. In addition to senior staffer Dr. Powell (Kenneth Walsh), there’s a couple nurses (including Kathleen Munroe as the wife Dan has been separated from since their child died), a hapless intern (Ellen Wong’s Kim), and very few patients, including a nearly-due pregnant woman (Grace Munro).
It doesn’t take long after Dan and James’ arrival for all hell to break loose. Initial stages include violent psychotic episodes and creature mutations, as well as the re-surfacing of the initial homicidal duo (Daniel Fathers, Mik Byskov), who it turns out are actually trying to stop further outbreaks of psychosis, mutation, and who knows what else. With so many terrors within, the logical recourse would be to get as far as way as possible. Alas, the hospital is now surrounded by silent figures clad in what looks like a compromise between KKK robes and hazmat suits. They’re a presence quite ominous enough to dissuade the protagonists’ thoughts of escape, even before they all pull out giant kitchen knives.
Things escalate so quickly and effectively in this early progress that, for at least its first half hour, “The Void” is not only exciting, but has the excitement of a movie whose next moves are anyone’s guess. Too bad that the direction it eventually heads is farther and farther into the imaginative ozone, even as characters wade deeper into the hospital’s bowels. There they discover Dr. Powell has been “defying God,” as well as death and nature, via nightmarish “experiments” that have opened a portal into another dimension.
These sequences retain some atmospheric expertise, as well as providing a few nice climactic cosmic-psychedelic effects. But as it lurches into more Lovecraftian territory, the screenplay becomes an increasingly muddled mix of sci-fi mystical horror whose too many underdeveloped ideas reduce one another’s potency. Perhaps Kostanski and Gillespie got carried away piling on ways to showcase their separate additional skill sets — which include prosthetic makeup and digital FX design, art direction, even music composing. Whatever the reason, somewhere they lost track of the basic cogency required to keep suspense taut and the audience reasonably oriented.
While conceptual clutter has a diminishing effect on the whole, “The Void” is still comprised of a lot of good parts — including a handsome overall look (the nocturnal palate of Samy Inayeh’s widescreen framing vaguely recalls classic John Carpenter), committed performances, sharp editing by Cam McLachlin, and an original soundtrack that’s consistent in its eeriness despite being credited to five separate composing individuals and groups.