Starring Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier, John Magaro, Gianny Taufer. Directed by Julius Avery.
If there’s one guy who knows how to market a movie, it’s Christopher Nolan. But if there’s another guy who knows how to market a movie, it’s J.J. Abrams. This is a man who used marketing for his benefit on previous features Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Cloverfield Paradox and Spielberg tribute Super 8. Overlord is a film that could potentially be a Cloverfield film, or maybe not, but that’s the fun of the marketing.
Overlord is a fun concept; a horror-war movie set on the cusp of D-Day, where a group of American soldiers are sent to an occupied French village above which looms a large radio tower and a sinister church, in which unspeakable horrors unfold.
There’s no denying the love of science fiction and horror that Abrams has, even though he’s never put his directorial or production hand to an honest to god horror movie.
But here we have a go-for-broke horror film, melding John Carpenter style body horror with old-fashioned Grindhouse nastiness. Director Julius Avery, director of the surprisingly brutal Son of a Gun, comes at this film like a child playing in his back garden. From the retro title card, to the over-the-top gruff commanding officer who barks orders and calls his subordinates “ladies”, this is a film made by an unashamed fan of action, horror and war movies.
The opening forty five minutes do not allude to the Carpenter style horror to come, in fact, it plays out like a slightly retro war film. We meet our main heroes, kind hearted pacifist Jovan Adepo (we learn he’s so kind he quite literally wouldn’t hurt a mouse), explosive expert and commander Wyatt Russell, gum chewing smart-ass John Margaro, shutterbug introvert Iain De Caestecker and wide eyed jewish soldier Dominic Applewhite.
The opening on the plane that leads to a single shot fall from plane to parachute, to water, to dry land gunfire is a dizzying sequence that puts you in mind of that old adage that war is hell. This isn’t Saving Private Ryan, this is WWII horror style.
There’s a nice underpinning of the tropes of war films, perhaps helped by the writing of Billy Ray the man behind the likes of State of Play, Flightplan, The Hunger Games, Captain Phillips and Volcano along with his co-writer Mark L. Smith who wrote DiCaprio torture fest The Revenant. Both men nicely play with the cliche characters, and there are a few good gags in there. In fact, their strongest writing is for Adepo who’s noble African American soldier holds the film together even when logic falls away as well as French villager and subtle revolutionary Mathilde Ollivier who brings strength to her role while finding the era-appropriate downtrodden nature.
Perhaps unsurprisingly once our soldiers reach the village and take refuge in the house of Ollivier that’s when the more cliche elements come to the fore. A younger brother character comes in to provide some more laughs which both undercuts and intensifies the horror that is going on while the big bad of the movie Pilou Asbæk as uber nazi Wafner begins the film as a nicely scary portrayal of evil that becomes a monster by the end.
The actors are all having a good time in their roles, and when things take a turn for The Thing it’s when things kick in to overdrive. Avery knows how to build tension, every long corridor is filled with menace, every shock is played for maximum impact.
Perhaps because of his love of the genres, there’s a lot of fun to be had in both war movie mode and horror movie mode. War movie mode makes use of its tight interiors with hard to stomach interrogation scenes, while horror movie mode nicely plays up the body horror in a way that makes you look away.
It helps, also that Jed Kurzel’s score gets the measure of tension and out and out old-school horror movie silliness, happy to bang the loudest it can when a scary mutated nazi pops up for fisticuffs with our heroes.
At the same time there are flaws. The film relies a little too much on the hero-turns-his-back-to-do-something-then-a-bad-guy-appears trick as well as the reverse the-villain-has-the-upper-hand-until-another-good-guy-gets-them. It also doesn’t help that the film’s final scene doesn’t sit easy with the admittedly silly premise but the true horror the main heroes go through.
Even so, it’s not a fault of the film that it’s having fun playing John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Private Ryan, and there’s nothing wrong with using horror to talk about true life issues – even though this film doesn’t really have anything deep to say except – nazis are awful and should be dispatched by any means possible.
It’s not like exploitation films have shied away from this, either: Tarantino re-wrote history to Oscar-winning effect in Inglourious Basterds, while there is a long history of nazi-horror films. Dead Snow, Iron Sky, SS Experiment Camp, Ilsa; She-Wolf of the SS and so on. In fact, for the Tarantino-Rodriguez Grindhouse project Rob Zombie created the fake trailer for a Nicolas Cage starring Werewolf Women of the SS.
In the end, the film is just a movie, concerned with being the best nasty horror thriller it can be, and while its approach to the second world war is not new or novel and may repulse some, it’s enjoyable and at times genuinely nail-biting. Just don’t expect Tom Hardy in a spitfire to come in and save the day.