Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Residents Of Rockwell Falls Are Dying For You To Visit

POPULATION 436 is a perfect example of a film that I think many audiences would enjoy, if only they were aware of its existence. Sony released it directly to DVD in 2006, and since DTV movies are rarely marketed properly or reviewed by the mainstream media, most of them tend to sit unrented on the New Release shelf at Blockbuster, at least until all 74 copies of I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK AND LARRY are gone on a Friday evening.

It won't take you long to recognize this intriguing thriller as a riff on Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." It also isn't surprising that it feels like an episode of THE X-FILES, considering it was directed in Canada by Michelle MacLaren, a former executive producer of that spooky series (POPULATION 436 is her only film to date). There isn't really enough story here to carry the entire running time (it would have been a terrific TWILIGHT ZONE), and even though the plot unfolds more slowly than I would prefer, MacLaren and writer Michael Kingston present a curious mystery with a spine-shivering underpinning of dread.

U.S. census taker Steve Cady (Jeremy Sisto, now a regular on LAW & ORDER as Jesse L. Martin's detective partner) enters the small town of Rockwell Falls to investigate why its population has remained at exactly 436 for more than 100 years. Everyone there is extremely nice and welcoming, and society doesn't seem to have progressed much further than the early 20th century. As I mentioned above, it won't take long to recognize the seeds of "The Lottery" here, but the town's mysterious secret runs deeper than that, and the appealing Sisto is very fine as the Everyman forced to discover it if he wants his life back.

The movie doesn't identify Rockwell Falls' precise location, and we don't get to see as much of the town as we would like (probably due to budgetary considerations, which must also be responsible for the shoddy and quite unnecessary visual effects). We learn enough to fear for Sisto when the time comes, however, as MacLaren delivers an appropriately (and surprisingly) bleak shocker. Apparently, two endings were filmed. The one used in the version I saw (on the Region 1 DVD) is a bummer, but the best choice, as the tag that follows makes no sense otherwise. You may get a kick out of seeing rocker Fred Durst in this, pretty good as a love-stricken deputy.

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