Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer – Creature Feature Almost Achieves Cult Movie Status

Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer (filmed in Ottawa in 2007) is a slickly packaged low-budgeter that almost makes it as a cult classic, but falls short due to its languid pace. No wonder Brookstreet Pictures has yet to produce a sequel, even though director Jon Knautz told Icons of Fright webzine in 2008 that “Yes, we’re definitely doing a sequel for sure”.

Horror film buffs tend to like Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer more for its intent than its execution, criticizing its slow build-up, which is mainly concerned with character development and romantic rivalries. Not enough monster action occurs until the final bloody, slippery and tentacular half-hour of this 85-minute popcorn flick. Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer’s budget – estimated at $2.5 million – simply wasn’t big enough to populate the film with a gallery of grotesques from beginning to end.

To give Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer some box office mojo, Robert Englund (the American actor who has enjoyed a prolific career in horror films since the 1970s) was brought in, and once again, a Hollywood pro adds luster to a made-in-Ottawa movie, but not enough to completely salvage this “action-horror-comedy”.

Producer Trevor Matthews (son of high-tech magnate Sir Terence Matthews) gave himself the role of flawed hero Jack Brooks because of his athletic prowess and to keep production costs down – and he delivers one of those odd performances where it’s difficult to tell if he is a good or a bad actor. The question I seem to ask myself throughout the film is: ‘Is Trevor Matthews being deliberately deadpan or is he just not up to the job?’ Despite the fact that screenwriter John Ainslie feeds him some great lines that are laugh-out-loud funny.

The special effects are old school on-set mechanical and in-camera optical effects. Almost no computer-generated imagery (CGI) is evident. And yet the creature effects are very impressive, considering the film’s budgetary constraints. One monster is a giant puppet that looks obviously fake and slightly ridiculous… but is still somehow frightening.

The story follows Jack Brooks, a second-rate plumber and chronic underachiever with a nagging girlfriend (Rachel Skarsten) who badgers him into taking night chemistry classes to better himself. Jack is prone to sudden temper tantrums stemming from his inability as a child to save his family from a ferocious monster attack. Jack blames himself for running away when his parents and sister were butchered by a Forest Troll during a camping expedition in the deep woods.

Decades of self-recrimination and cursing his cowardice have turned Jack Brooks into a self-loathing rageaholic. Professor Gordon Crowley (Robert Englund), who teaches the night class, asks Jack over to his renovated farmhouse to see if he can fix a problem with the pipes. Jack agrees to help Crowley but unwittingly releases an evil force that slowly mutates the professor into an increasingly disheveled, vomit-spewing and disgusting monster. In the ensuing mayhem, Jack overcomes his fear of horrible creatures and is finally able to express his anger constructively by dedicating his life to slaying monsters. (A more appropriate title for the film would have been The Making of Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer, but that sounds too much like the title of a DVD extra feature.)

What I most enjoyed about the film was Englund’s transformation from a kindly, befuddled, dog-loving chemistry professor to a demon-possessed monstrosity with a voracious appetite and sickening table manners. Eventually, he expands in a horrendous fashion; tentacles shoot out of his back and coil themselves around his student victims, pulling them into his terrible maw, where they are devoured and turned into zombie-like entities out to do the Prof. Monster’s bidding.

Englund has an untapped gift for comedy and carries the film, although Montreal character actor Daniel Kash deserves plaudits as Jack’s bemused school counsellor. Road to Avonlea series regular David Fox is also amusing as a sleepy, creaky old hardware store employee, privy to the macabre secrets of the town’s distant past.

Composer Ryan Shore deserves special mention for his magnificent score – a “large-scale orchestral homage to Universal monster music”, according to Ain’t It Cool News (which named it one of the Top 10 Scores of the Year).

Most of Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer was filmed at the abandoned Algonquin College campus on Lees Avenue, now part of the University of Ottawa.

Endnote: It wasn’t easy tracking down this tribute to mid-eighties horror filmmaking. I eventually located a copy of Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer at Invisible Cinema, 319 Lisgar Street (at Bank); tel. 613.237.0769; www.invisiblecinema.ca. Invisible Cinema specializes in rarities… international, cult, classics and more. I could spend an entire afternoon at Invisible Cinema choosing from among a vast assortment of rare DVDs.