By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Laila Robins, Adam Wade McLaughlin and Teri Reeves
Directed by Josh Gerritsen
Written by Tess Gerritsen
Freestyle Digital Media
ISLAND ZERO is a traditionally told sci-fi/horror film (early on, a scientist looks out across the ocean and intones, “Something’s happening out there”) with a certain down-home charm to it. It’s the first movie I can recall in which a doctor autopsies the guts of a victim and discovers his last meal was pork and beans.
The setting is Tucker Island, 40 miles off the coast of Maine, and the story takes place over the week leading up to Christmas, with chapter-style title cards for each day—no surprise, given the scriptwriter is best-selling mystery novelist Tess Gerritsen. Weird stuff is starting to happen that puts a crimp in the Yuletide spirit: the fish and lobster population in the surrounding waters has been decimated, phone and Internet service goes out and the ferry that brings crucial food and fuel has stopped showing up. That’s also an issue for a few visiting characters hoping to get off the island for the holidays, like the aforementioned doctor Maggie (Laila Robins) and novelist Titus (Matthew Wilkas).
Debuting director Josh Gerritsen (Tess’ son) adopts a simple, naturalistic style that establishes a pleasing sense of community, shooting in what are clearly actual, unadorned locations. He also demonstrates a knack for eliciting a sense of isolation, particularly in one key shot emphasizing how cut off these people are without the ferry. For a while, the movie is more about the impact of that lack of supplies and contact than it is about the threat preying on the local sea life and then taking to the land to attack humans, and that allows us to get to know our protagonists, also including biologist Sam (Adam Wade McLaughlin), who’s got a backstory tying in with his and his neighbors’ current situation.
ISLAND ZERO has an old-fashioned feel calling up the memory of ’50s creature features, particularly FIEND WITHOUT A FACE, since those hungry beings are invisible to the naked eye. Good thing Sam’s teenage daughter Ellie (Elaine Landry) opens one of her Christmas presents early, and it turns out to be a thermographic camera allowing the characters to see when the critters are coming. It takes a while for them to really get moving, though, and one thing ISLAND ZERO doesn’t have in common with those old movies is a tight running time. At 99 minutes, it could use some trimming, and the wait proves to be a little too long given the payoff, where we’re not given nearly as good a look at the monsters as we previously have been at their leftovers.
The effects coordinator and creature designer was Eric Anderson of an outfit called Shoggoth Assembly, and there is indeed a touch of Lovecraft to what we do see of them. Director Gerritsen attempts a corresponding dark-apocalypse mood to the latter portions of ISLAND ZERO that doesn’t quite come off, particularly since the tentacled predators do not remain mysterious and unknowable. Instead, they’re given a history and an association with one of the characters that’s thoroughly conventional B-movie stuff—a story turn that isn’t necessary and dispels the sense of relatable realism the Gerritsens have been maintaining up to that point. After not showing us too much in the preceding 75 minutes—and generating some suggestively creepy chills along the way—it’s a shame the Gerritsens felt compelled to tell us too much when their movie reaches its peak.