The Reeler
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Rats! Midnight Strikes on Mulberry Street

In the kitchen: Actor/co-writer Nick Damici in Mulberry Street (Photo: Belladonna Productions)

By S.T. VanAirsdale

One of the most authentically New York films of this year's festival, the Midnight number Mulberry Street features humanoid-rat zombies, crowd chaos and media panic around the snug locus of a Lower East Side tenement marked for an upgrade. It's a good news/bad news proposition in several ways. For starters, director Jim Mickle and actor/co-writer Nick Damici clumsily mine the tradition of horror as social commentary, using the devastated population as a metaphor for the city's gentrification epidemic. Mickle's press notes freely refer to the film as a post-9/11 allegory, and the heavy-handedness turns facile when they add a disfigured Iraq War veteran on her way home to a New York that no longer exists.

On the bright side, Mulberry Street upholds a prouder, rarer legacy of B-horror works with the balls and ingenuity to stage a genre exercise in Manhattan. It's a small club that has pulled it off with any authority (Habit actor/filmmaker Larry Fessenden, perhaps the style's most accomplished practitioner, actually perishes in a cameo here), but shooting in tight close-up on security camera-grade DV, Mickle emphasizes grainy texture, atmosphere and location over frights.

"I met Nick on a short film a few years ago, back in 2001," Mickle told the audience in a Q&A following Saturday's screening at the AMC on 34th Street. "From there we just sort of kept pipe dreaming about making a movie together until (executive producer Tim House) came along and finally said, 'I can help you guys out, maybe get the ball rolling financially -- make something happen.' And at that point, we had a giant, epic, middle of the woods, winter, two-feet-of-snow zombie script. We could afford it, so these guys sat down. The next time I saw him, Nick said, 'You know what? I got it. We take that movie and we put it in my kitchen.' And that's how the story came about."

The results can be mildly annoying -- you never really get a good, full-on look at the creatures; the building superintendent's were-rat transformation is one dissolve shy of being a '60s-era concert backdrop -- and the story and its relationship subplots don't make any real sense. The creatures (first embodied by a pair of oversexed yuppie thrillseekers, natch) wipe out the friendly clientele of Tom and Jerry's bar on Elizabeth Street before predictably invading the building one street down, tearing into tight working-class quarters and threatening the World War II vet, the ex-boxer, the black drag queen, the single mom, etc etc. But Mickle's subversion of his constraints is occasionally great fun to watch, even exhilarating at times, with sequences featuring dead bodies dotting Lafayette Street and how-did-they-do-that cutaways to a shut-down FDR Drive and mass panic in Harlem.

I'm not sure if it's good or bad that Mulberry Street is likely destined for DVD eternity, but its adaptability deserves an audience. And its challenge deserves successors; here's hoping that we have a local horror story -- the good kind -- to look forward to next year at midnight.

Posted at April 29, 2007 11:54 AM

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