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While ambition is a necessary part of success, too much ambition can be a dangerous drug. Take Dario Piana’s The Deaths of Ian Stone (2007), for example: until the film sags under the weight of its own ambitions, it’s a weird, unsettling and fairly unique take on those tired, old “normal person pursued by unknown forces” tropes. Proudly straining against the constraints of its budget, Piana’s film makes expert use of producer Stan Winston’s legendary effects studio, giving the film some extra oomph in the production department. As Brendan Hood’s script keeps springing “surprise” twists and revelations on us, however, the film gradually becomes bloated and unwieldy, taking on the characteristics of the first film in a series, even as the story works towards a self-contained conclusion. It’s quite the pity: until the film stumbles in the second half, it has all the makings of a real sleeper.

Our titular hero, Ian Stone (Under the Dome’s Mike Vogel), appears to have a bit of a problem: every day, he’s pursued by mysterious, monstrous forces and killed, only to be “reborn” into a different life (hockey player, office drone, taxi driver, drug addict, etc). There’s no explanation for anything: he sees many of the same people in each “reality,” including Jenny (Christina Cole), who appears to be his girlfriend; Medea (Jaime Murray), who ALSO appears to be his girlfriend; a sinister hockey referee (George Dillon); and a mysterious man (Michael Feast), who seems to know more about Ian’s situation than our poor protagonist does. Time and time again, we witness Ian attempt to escape from the shadowy monsters that pursue him, only to be brutally killed, time and time again. As he “jumps” from one reality to the next, however, Ian gradually comes to piece together more and more of the mystery. In the process, he’ll learn what the monsters are, who Jenny and Medea really are and, more importantly, who HE really is. Will Ian be able to put a stop to the terrifying events or is he doomed to keep dying, over and over, for all eternity?

Up until the point where Piana and Hood drop the bomb about Ian’s true identity, The Deaths of Ian Stone is a compact, weird and intriguing little film. The various death setpieces are nothing spectacular but all come with an appropriate amount of tension and a handful of genuinely creepy moments. At times, the film recalls Jacob’s Ladder (1990) in the way that it seems to blend the real and the possibly illusory with equal aplomb. Vogel makes a great protagonist and the effects, courtesy of Stan Winston’s team, are nicely realized. For the first 45 minutes or so, the film seems to be setting us up for some kind of alternate reality/parallel timeframe situation and it’s a lot of fun trying to figure out how the various pieces are going to fit.

Once the film springs the “twist” on us, however, it becomes a different kind of film entirely, something closer to Spawn (1997), perhaps, with various elements from Terminator 2 (1991), Highlander (1986) and The Matrix (1999) thrown in, for good measure. It’s not necessarily that the reveal, itself, is bad (it’s not great but it’s not a critical wound, either): it’s the fact that the twist opens the film up and seeks to expand it just as the actual movie is beginning to gear down. It has the effect of making everything past the midpoint seem rushed and truncated, as if Piana was trying to cram two hours of plot development into 40 minutes of film. The twist also turns the film into something of an action movie, which not only deflates the tension to a considerable degree, but also shows off the budgetary shortfalls to a distressing degree: too often, intense action sequences in low-budget genre films come across as clumsy and cheesy, two issues which certainly plague the film’s back-half.

Think of it as the equivalent of trying to hand-write a large sign without properly planning it out: initially, the letters, words and phrases are all spaced beautifully but things get gradually more cramped, crabbed and illegible as the sign-maker runs out of space…words go at odd angles, things end up in margins and odd abbreviations are used to try to conserve space. This, in a way, is exactly what happens to The Deaths of Ian Stone: as the film becomes more complicated and time ticks down, characterization and plot development get more and more truncated to the point where it all begins to take on a kind of shorthand: the bad guys dress just like the leather-clad baddies in The Matrix, ergo, they must be bad. A particular character needs to act heroic, ergo, they act heroic, even if it plays at odds with what we’ve learned. It’s frustrating precisely because it’s so easy to see how this could have worked: an additional 30 minutes here, a few more scenes there, a slower pace over there…while the midpoint twist is the anchor that weighs the film down, it’s death by a thousand cuts that kills it, not drowning.

I’d like to say that director Piana shows a lot of promise here, since he does, but it’s also telling to note that his follow-up, the direct-to-video Lost Boys: The Thirst (2010), is a completely wretched waste of film that seems like a surefire albatross for any burgeoning career. At this point, there doesn’t seem to be anything new on the Italian director’s resume, indicating that my initial impression was on-the-nose. If Piana does decide to tackle genre filmmaking again, here’s to hoping that he builds from his successes on The Deaths of Ian Stone, while avoiding the disaster that was (to this point) his final film. While it’s never boring or terrible, it also doesn’t live up to its full potential: sometimes, simpler really is better.