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Movie Review: Gut

Gut movie poster of a woman's bare abdomen

(Gut screened at the 2012 Spooky Movie Film Festival, which ran Oct. 10-18 at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland.)

With its three-letter title and directed by the singularly named Elias, it’s no surprise that Gut is about as minimal a horror movie can be and still be considered a horror movie.

The horror genre is usually typified by extreme visual flourish — moody lighting, framing to conceal/reveal terror lurking in the corners, lingering dolly shots during slow scenes of exposition, whip pans during emotionally intense moments, frighteningly close close-ups, etc.

Elias, though, goes the entirely opposite direction. Cut out the few moments of gore that do appear on-screen and we could be watching just about anything, from a bland suburban drama to a low-energy buddy comedy. Plus, the visual banality services a plot so slow it needs its pulse checked every so often.

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Of course, this all sounds like a disaster in the making, yet on a purely psychological level — at the gut level as it were (pun totally intended) — Gut is a confoundingly intriguing horror flick.

The film begins with a conventional movie trope: Handsome family man Tom (Jason Vail) is pestered by his nerdy best friend Dan (Nicholas Wilder) to hang out more, like the good ol’ days before Tom started a family. Dan is also a horror movie nerd and eventually wears his friend down into coming over to watch an outrageous new DVD he’s received on the Internet bootleg market.

The DVD barely qualifies as a horror “movie” either. Instead, it is a coldly sterile autopsy in which a woman’s guts are removed — presumably while she’s still alive. Dan hopes the DVD will spark a discussion about the veracity of its content, but Tom simply goes home to carry on his life with his wife and daughter.

Well, Tom tries to, anyway. The video sparks subtle changes to the two men’s personalities. Tom becomes emotionally withdrawn from his family, while Dan transforms into an aggressive Lothario, hooking up with a pretty waitress (Angie Bullaro) at a diner that the men frequent daily on their lunch break.

This inner emotional turmoil of the two men is expressed mostly non-verbally, or at least without direct discussion of what they’re feeling exactly. Since we don’t get any clear indication of what Tom and Dan are going through, they’re not quite an overly compelling pair, but Vail and Wilder have a naturalism in their performances that it becomes easy to get pulled into feeling for them.

Lots of horror movies put characters with very different concerns, personalities and social standings together that rarely feel genuine that these people would hang out together, e.g. the jocks and nerds who pal around in slasher movies before they get eviscerated. That’s basically the character dynamic here in Gut, but there’s never a reason, particularly due to Vail and Wilder’s ease with each other, to not fully “get” what one is getting out of being the friend of the other.

Plot complications eventually do arrive as more murder videos appear in Dan’s mailbox, the victims in the videos become not so anonymous and Dan eventually clues Tom into the videos’ mysterious origins. In keeping with the film’s overall tone, the tensions arising from these complications ramp up in slow, incremental fashion so that there’s never quite an overwhelming sense of dread as much as there is a crackling uneasiness happening just below the surface.

Inattentive and impatient viewers may mark what Elias is going for as a lack of style, but Gut is a very stylized little horror movie, except that style is an extreme naturalism that edges just along the border of banality. Even when Tom and Dan experience something that shakes them to their core, they’re so trapped by the mundanity of their dreary suburban existence they can barely muster the energy to lash out in significant ways. But, that doesn’t make Gut any less of a significant exercise in developing and maintaining an unsettling atmosphere.

Watch the Gut horror movie trailer:

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