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There’s nothing that frustrates or irritates me quite as much as a film that completely squanders its potential. Films that are consistently bad can sometimes be entertaining, in their own rights, but a movie that manages to scale the heights before plummeting to the depths all within the same 90 minute time span really gets my goat. Films like this can take many forms: top of the class in one aspect, class dunce on others…great plot, crummy filmmaking…solid film with an excruciating ending/twist that manages to ruin everything that came before…by this point in my film-viewing, I’ve seen just about every permutation of this issue and it never ceases to cut me to the core each time. It’s like a runner who leads the marathon only to blow out his/her knee at the finish line, crumpling into a broken, sobbing heap mere inches from victory.

Case in point: Ryuhei Kitamura’s ridiculously uneven No One Lives (2012). After (almost literally) blowing me away with the jaw-dropping ode to grievous bodily mayhem that was his adaptation of Clive Barker’s The Midnight Meat Train (2008), I found myself eagerly awaiting  the Japanese gorehound’s next descent into horror. Where Meat Train was a consistent, if hammer-headed, effort, No One Lives is more of a rollercoaster of badass/suckitude: for every scene like the completely unforgettable “Trojan horse” bit, there’s a block of dialogue so poorly written that it comes across like lines from a badly translated video game. For every ingenious plot twist and thrilling kill scene, there’s an actor so extravagantly terrible that they rip the viewer kicking and screaming from the film and deposit them back into the cold water of reality. Very rarely have I found myself watching a film that could, literally, have me jumping from my seat, fist triumphantly raised one minute, only to be seconds from turning the damn thing off the next moment. Believe me when I say that getting through No One Lives is an endurance match, a trial which ends up having very little to do with the ocean of extreme gore that runs through the film. Would it surprise you to discover that the film was produced by the WWE? Me neither…me neither…

From the get-go, No One Lives seems to jump us into several simultaneously occurring storylines, all of which will come to make sense in due time. We meet a terrified young woman, Emma Ward (Adelaide Clemens), as she runs frantically through the woods before getting caught in a rope trap. We also meet what appear to be a husband (Luke Evans) and wife (Laura Ramsey) as they take a car trip through the countryside: as they drive, we get some hint of trouble in their relationship, perhaps something to do with infidelity. Finally, we witness a biker gang, led by Hoag (Lee Tergesen), as they rob a wealthy family’s home: when the family returns unexpectedly, psychotic gang member Flynn (Derek Magyar) flies off the handle and executes them all post-haste, including a young child. When the gang heads to a local bar to blow off some steam, they end up running into the husband and wife, whom Flynn seems to take an instant dislike to.

From this point on, one of No One Lives greatest strengths (sometimes its only strength, to be honest), is the consistently surprising ways in which this characters all manage to collide together. No one, as it turns out, are really who they appear to be, least of all the husband and wife, which leads to some genuinely surprising revelations. Once the big reveals are out of the way, the film ramps up into something that approximates Adam Wingard’s You’re Next (2011), as the gang find themselves at the mercy of a foe who’s not only their equal but their better in almost every way. Blood will spill (lots and lots of blood), loyalties will be tested and secrets will be revealed. Who is the mysterious young woman from the beginning? What’s the husband’s connection to everything? Why the hell is Flynn such an obnoxious, insane asshole? The answer to these, and many more, can be found within. But remember: as the title points out, no one lives…at least, not without a good fight.

Here’s the thing about this movie: while No One Lives is technically well-made – Kitamura makes excellent use of legendary cinematographer Daniel Pearl, the cameraman behind a legion of classic films, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – and features ferocious action scenes and some incredibly well-staged gore effects, the film is also nearly brain-dead, at times, relying on contrived plot elements that stink to high heaven and constantly reveal the pitiful wizard behind the curtain. In particular, the psychopathology of the main villain is so loopy, so head-smackingly stupid, that it manages to drag the whole film right into the gutter. Ditto the frequently moronic dialogue: screenwriter David Cohen has but one film to his credit, which might be a blessing in disguise. The awful dialogue is made even more reprehensible when compared to some of the genuinely brilliant plot developments: did Cohen actually write the whole script, just the dialogue or just the story? At times, it feels like there were several cooks in the kitchen, none of whom were going off the same recipe.

Did I mention before how frustrating this is? Let me reiterate: there is nothing quite as frustrating as witnessing something as truly awe-inspiring as the “Trojan horse” setpiece (I would never dream of ruining the surprise but suffice to say that my jaw literally fell open during the sequence like some kind of cartoon character) only to have it followed by some of the worst, most wooden acting in the history of the business. I’ll admit that I got nervous when the WWE was listed as producer on the film (wrestlers and high-minded cinematic fare very rarely mix, after all) but the real puzzler comes from the fact that only one of the actors in the cast, George Murdock (aka Brodus Clay) appears to be a professional wrestler by trade…and he wasn’t even one of the film’s worst offenders! Topping the Hall of Shame here has to be Derek Magyar who manages to make the character of Flynn so completely silly and unbelievable that he loses any impact whatsoever: when you have a character who savagely massacres a family yet fails to possess any actual menace whatsoever, you may have a big problem.

Despite the cavernous depths to which No One Lives sinks, however, I still found myself torn between complete condemnation and grudging respect. When the film is good, it’s great: no two ways about it. The action scenes are genuinely visceral and nasty and some of the twists are incredibly smart. Luke Evans makes a decent enough “hero,” even if he often seems a bit bland, although he manages to carve out a handful of memorable scenes, one of my favorites being the bit where he gets picked up by a car full of frat boys: “This should be fun,” he leers at the camera, and for once, we wholeheartedly believe him. Lee Tergesen is pretty good as the gang leader, although many of his best scenes are effectively cancelled out by the ridiculously over-the-top performance by Magyar. Clemens also acquits herself fairly well, getting one really great scene where she weighs the pros and cons of aligning herself with the bikers (the lesser of two evils, we suppose) before realizing that the odds suck no matter what. I can’t help but feel that more Clemens and less of the others (particularly Magyar) might have helped matters to no end.

For all of its victories, however, No One Lives is nearly suffocated by its missteps. Unlike The Midnight Meat Train, No One Lives is a completely inconsistent mess, full of dreadful dialogue, terrible acting and some truly stupid plot developments. For all of that, however, I would feel remiss if I didn’t recommend this, if only in some tiny way, to hardcore gore fans: folks who’ve become jaded on violence in horror films would do well to give No One Lives a shot, as several of the setpieces are thoroughly unique, hardcore and pretty damn amazing: not to beat a dead horse but that “Trojan horse” scene…yowza! Ultimately, No One Lives is a decent enough film, all things considered, but that ends up being a pretty back-handed compliment when the film had the makings of a modern classic. Here’s to hoping that if Kitamura ever goes back to the horror well, he decides to use Meat Train instead of No One Lives as a template.