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Cult Cinema: Graveyard Shift (1990) - Reviewed

Posted By themoviesleuth 442 days ago on Entertainment -  Hidden among the soulless tombs of Stephen King adaptations are a handful of memorable gems.  While the overwhelming bulk of these films are forgetful cash grabs, a few manage moments of greatness.  One such example is Ralph Singleton's Graveyard Shift.  Featuring astounding set design, a pair of bravura performances, and several creepy kill sequences, this is a remarkable example of how atmosphere can redeem an otherwise mediocre film.  Singleton's compelling approach breathes life into the sweaty, grimy world of a dilapidated, economically forsaken New England town, filled with desperate souls and unthinkable horrors and the result is a nasty piece of genre gold. A defunct textile mill is the only thing keeping a sleepy Maine town alive, despite an unusually large rodent infestation.  After a string of disappearances and mysterious accidents, the unscrupulous manager of the factory hires a ragtag team of employees to clean out the basement in an effort to exterminate the rats.  What they find waiting below is another world of madness and bloodshed, ruled by an inhuman queen.   John Esposito's script is subpar, yet the ensemble at the heart sells it with their outlandish interpretations.  David Andrews stars as a Clint Eastwood archetype, a drifter who is conscripted into the cleanup mission.  He is dwarfed by the sensational Brad Dourif who steals the limelight as an enthusiastic rat exterminator whose vermin hatred was born in the hell of the Vietnam War.  This is the first glimmer of exceptionalism.  Discarded veterans, drifters without attachments and a town that is literally dying in the wake of Reaganomics are the cornerstones of a post 80's American nightmare, put on full, sleazy display by horror icon Peter Stein's bruised cinematography. Equaling Dourif is Stephen Macht (The Monster Squad) in the performance of his career as Warwick, the corrupt warden of the mill. As the team descends into the world beneath, so does Warwick's sanity, with possible PTSD infused memories taking control.  It is the transition to this alien world, an almost Looking Glass nightmare that evolves the forgettable slasher antics of the first act into something truly terrifying: how similar men and monsters truly are.  It is in the second act that Gary Wissner's esoteric production design begins to reveal itself.  While the mill acts as a rusty veneer, concealing the bowels of something ancient and foul, the basement is a melding of these two places.  Glimpses of the mutant queen are reminiscent of Alien, with only a tail or wing being shown for maximum effect.  Sharp objects and haunted machines form a playground for the rats, a kingdom of malignance that represents the dangers of ignoring those beneath you while also reflecting a nation whose policies bankrupted it in plain sight.  The creature itself, made possibly by Winston-esque practical effects combine with over-the-top gore to create unforgettable deaths.  Aside from the violence, one of the most striking aspects is in how helpless the humans are.  There is almost no fighting back, no hope, and almost every death involves pleading; better yet screaming for help, an unusual addition in a post macho-80's action world.  These are normal people in an abnormal situation and as in reality, things do not end well.  It is this narrative choice that makes Graveyard Shift so memorable. The final ingredient is the heat.  This is a lived in, used up world where thermostats no longer work, simulating the rising tension among the humans and a point of no return with respect to the financial divisions of the principals.  The essential need for money is the driving force that both dooms the cleanup crew and allows others to escape, a conceit that is the final, soiled ribbon on Singleton's venomous gift. Now available for digital rental, Graveyard Shift is a flawed, but absolutely enthralling piece of horror noir.  Down on their luck characters confronting unforeseen terrors in the shadows is a staple of the genre, however, Singleton's portrayal of real personalities combines with a seedy, almost risqué aesthetic to eschew cliche and create a memorable shocker in which the flesh being torn apart matters more than usual.  The result is an artful, stylish entry into the B-movie pantheon that merits a revisit.  --Kyle Jonathan 

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