Writer/Director/Producer Luis Carvalho’s Jonah Lives, which originally came to life in 2012, is kind of like the horror B-movie equivalent of working in A & E and having an apparently lifeless body dropped in front of you. At first everything seems to be as it appears; dead. After 14 minutes pass however, you start to see little flickers, embers of life still dimly lit, trying to kickstart the rest of the inert mass that surrounds it.
Except obviously in this metaphor you can’t do anything with the patient, you just have to see what happens.
You sit there, mentally holding onto these little embers of life more than is reasonable, willing, hoping against hope that the rest of the body will fire up. Somehow it will reanimate and despite all the odds make a full recovery and drag itself back from the brink of death.
But unfortunately you come to realise and accept that these little lifesigns is all the life you’re going to see. You resign yourself to the knowledge that you will just have to be there, keeping this body you don’t even know company, so at least someone will be there with it for the moment it finally passes and all the possibilities it could’ve been will never happen.
And then finally.
Or a pulmonary embolism.
It’s just a metaphor.
Jonah Lives has a strong premise (and good title) for a very low budget indie horror. That premise is that a group of kids, neglected by their hard-partying parents, are left alone to play with a ouija board in the basement of their house. Summoning the spirit of murderee Jonah, the dearly departed takes this summoning as a good reason to dig himself out from six feet under and take revenge on the person who put him there.
The group of kids themselves are far from the worst you’ll see in a low budget indie horror. Ryan Boudreau as the the group’s chief instigator is the standout of the group as Francis. There is a caveat however. He’s very good at what he’s doing, and in isolation he’s portrays a believable, rounded, 3 dimensional character.
The problem is though, he’s not in isolation, he’s supposed to be engaging with other characters. Which he isn’t. It’s like Boudreau has got how he’s going to do the character and say the lines down pat, and that’s the way he’s going to do it. He’s even worked out how long other actors should say their lines for and left an appropriate gap in between his lines. So when it comes to watching the film, he’s just this humanoid machine, delivering a good performance in all respects apart from the one very vital area of doing it in conjunction with other actors. He’s like a robot who is visually a brilliant facsimile of a human being, but just has this one recording of speech, and who has somehow managed to find a social group that, against astronomical odds, happens to be saying the correct things at the correct times (with the correct equally astronomically improbable events occurring) that make his 1 track recording appear to be natural speech that responds to the speech of others.
“Oh Francis?” his school friends will say to others, “yeah he does speak like a robot now you mention it.” “Yeah he does sometimes answer questions with absolute gibberish, apparently not at all related to the question you’ve asked. Anywhere between 45 seconds and 3 hours after you’ve asked it. Yes he is very cold to the touch actually. But that’s just Francis.”
It’s odd, but he knows what he’s doing in regard of his own role at least. It’s certainly a lot more competent than Jocelyn Padilla, who delivers a particularly, almost laughably dire performance as Barbara, the scaredy cat of the group. It’s all over the top squawking of her lines in a bizarre, stilted delivery and strange exaggerated facial expressions that makes one think there must be something….wrong…with the character.
Tony as played by James Barrett is also memorable. Not sure if that’s a good thing. His performance is mostly dead central of the aforementioned, occasionally learning one way or the other. His dialogue is humorously cheesey and portentous, but he gets away with it because his character is fully committed to the school of enthusiastic bad acting. He’s not inhabiting the role at all: every time you see Tony, you’re not actually seeing the character Tony, you’re seeing James Barrett doing some acting. It’s very strange but that’s the best way to describe it. All the other players in the group of teens are characters within the world of the film, even that android, Francis, who’s doing a remarkably good job of infiltrating human society despite the fact he has only has one set of pre-programmed speech that’s broadcast at timed intervals. From the point of one of the other eminently forgettable teenagers, there’s all your friends, Weird Francis, and then, almost from another dimension, this guy called James Barrett doing some acting. He’s come from a place where he’s actually part of a group of beings constructing reality itself, this reality anyway. And his role in constructing reality is to come and appear before us, sit on the sofa, and do some acting. He’s not even good at it. Isn’t that the most horrifying thing, above any reanimated, murderous corpses? That a key component of constructing an entire dimensional plane of existence is to do some acting, the quality of which clearly doesn’t matter? Are we that meaningless that the quality of the acting doesn’t even need to be good?
This film is now a lot better in my head than it actually is.
The parents that neglect their teens so, are genuinely part of the film’s reality. God knows what film the actors thought they were in, but the characters they play do appear to be part of this film’s reality. I think, somehow they got the impression they were in a 1970s British sex comedy. That or the characters are supposed to have done tonnes of drugs, all the time. They’re all wildly gesticulating, shouting their dialogue, really. forcing. emphasis. onto. every. single. word. Lots of alcohol is seen, but judging by their behaviour, the fact they’re way into swinging, and the fact they don’t give a single toss about their children, they’re clearly a very liberal bunch who love shoving things up their nose and into their veins and other places obviously, they are swingers after all.
The parents and the kids stories seem oddly separate. Apart from the beginning and the end there’s no real crossover between the two groups. Probably good for the kids, but the film feels very disjointed, alternating between what seems like a particularly offbeat and increasingly grim CBBC science fiction show and Confessions of a Middle Aged Drug Addict Swinger.
You might be wondering why this review hasn’t spent much time on Jonah the zombie himself. That’s because that part of the film isn’t interesting. He gets resurrected by the ouija board gang, comes to the house looking for revenge, motivation of which is revealed later, and kills a few kids along the way. I’d say spoilers, but you’re reading Haddonfield Horror. You of all people know exactly how this is going to play out.
Jonah is your absolute carbon copy zombie. Yes, it’s nice to get a film with just one zombie, but something more interesting had to be done with him or the mythos if it’s just going to be him alone. He shambles about, he moans, he looks like he’s made out of cheap chocolate, nothing to see here.
The deaths are particularly inane and toothless. How inane and toothless? – SPOILERS here by the way – This is a film in which a zombie is on the loose, capable serving up all different kinds of death, and someone dies of an asthma attack. Someone else gets bumped on the head. It’s not interesting, it’s not scary, it’s not tense, it’s practically not even there. You never even see any real infliction of or resulting injuries, they’re always kept away just off camera, taking any thrill out of the kill.
When there’s a zombie on the loose and someone dies from their inhaler running out, that’s when you know the coked up swinger parent/teen sci-fi in the basement scenario is the best card you’ve got to play. To be fair to Jonah Lives, the neglected teenagers/swinger parents dynamic is very interesting and very unusual, so it’s a real shame that those two strands aren’t ever really crossed over or explored, and in practise are carried off badly. Just like everything else in the film.