Fantastic Fest 2016: Dolph Lundgren Kills it in DON’T KILL IT

by Ed Travis

I’m in the bag for Dolph Lundgren. He’s among the still active action heroes of the 1980s whose current output remains of interest precisely because of his self awareness, interest in expanding himself, and his growth as an actor and entertainer. Whereas it would take a lot to convince me to check out a new Steven Seagal movie, or hell, even a new Bruce Willis movie… all it takes is a hint of something cool or fresh in a new Dolph Lundgren film or Jean-Claude Van Damme project, and it’ll shoot to the top of my must watch list. Such was the case with Don’t Kill It here at Fantastic Fest 2016. The word on the street was that Dolph himself would be at the festival in support of the film. I snagged my ticket as soon as humanly possible.

But in all honesty, my expectations were tempered at best. Director Mike Mendez had done a fun enough job on Big Ass Spider, but the trailer for this film was lacking. There’s a muted grey palette to the film which makes it look overly digital and, frankly, cheap. That kind of thing wouldn’t necessarily bother me as long as the story, the tone, the cast can overcome and entertain. The jury was out based on that lackluster trailer.

But let me tell you, friends… Don’t Kill It is the very definition of the Sam-Raimi-coined “Spook-a-blast”. Genuinely creepy when it wants to be, clever demon design, and laugh out loud hilarious script (from Dan Berk and Robert Olsen) and character work make the film a surprise hit that delivers far beyond its premise.

That premise is crucial. Don’t Kill It revolves around a demon which instantly inhabits the body of the last person who killed it. The demon is also zombie-like in its desire to attack and kill almost insatiably. When it inhabits you, your eyes blacken like a great white and your agency is gone. You become a screaming beast. So you can imagine that others are killing the bodies it inhabits left and right. And in turn themselves becoming the creature immediately. This premise is massively entertaining when matched with the remarkable tone of Don’t Kill It.

The tone is almost as crucial as the premise. Dolph Lundgren turns in one of his most confident and comedic performances ever as backwoods demon hunter Jebediah Woodley. Woodley is introduced in a seedy bar as he beats down a guy harassing a girl and gives him a lesson on sexual consent. It’s frankly hilarious. Woodley is confident, but doesn’t seem to have an ego. He lives in a truck and simply wanders the globe combatting evil. He’ll take any religion he can find, and he’ll never miss a chance to vape. Lundgren absolutely owns this movie in the way Bruce Campbell so often does in his projects. There’s an archetype he’s playing here, but with his own twists that perfectly compliment the frankly tragic and creepy demon movie that is playing out all around him.

Between the writing of Woodley and Lundgren’s portrayal of the character, this could become a late career signature franchise for Lundgren if Mendez and team have any interest in continuing his adventures. The only problem there is that they’d need to find a hook as clever as this particular demon’s is.

Beyond the script and character work of Lundgren, there are a lot of other successful elements, too. The sound design and direction keep the scary parts scary. The female lead, FBI agent Evelyn Pierce (Kristina Klebe) is interesting in that she’s returned to the backwoods town she grew up in in order to investigate this rash of murders. There’s a lot of tension and humor derived from that element of the story.

Most importantly, Don’t Kill It is an absolute blast to watch from beginning to end. We’re introduced to the demon with a rousing and graphically violent opening set piece that pulls zero punches. Then we meet Woodley with the “consent” beatdown, and we’re alternating between laughs and gore without ceasing until the final credits roll. It’s unfortunate that this film likely won’t see much of a theatrical release because it’d play as well with audiences nationwide as it did with the Fantastic Fest audience.

The muted gray look of the digital photography is, unfortunately, carried over from the trailer and is my biggest gripe. There’s just an aesthetic that shows up in lots of low budget films like this which is totally unpleasant. It’s almost certainly a lighting issue, and maybe that combined with cameras that aren’t quite top of the line. But as mentioned before, the muted visual palette, and even frequent cheap looking visual effects, all take a big backseat to the hugely entertaining story being told. Movies like this just aren’t being made in the studio system, and I’ll gladly accept the limitations that come with the budget Mendez and crew had to work with.

Don’t Kill It may not reinvent the wheel, but the monster is clever, the characters are literally and figuratively larger than life, and it entertains with relentless abandon. It surpassed my expectations so completely that I recommend it with no reservations. I’m also ready to say this is Dolph Lundgren’s best performance in years and perhaps his best performance ever.

And I’m Out.