BREEDER (2014)

Hailed as the first entirely Maltese gore horror movie, Breeder (2014)  takes its main plot line from Patrick Vella’s previous short film, The Breeder (2013), a project which has been internationally recognised in quite a number of horror film festivals, garnering several awards in the process. In the 2013 short, the title character, played by Vella who also wrote and directed the film, makes his living breeding worms inside unwitting human victims.

Patrick Vella returns with his dastardly character, this time in glorious 4K. This being Vella’s first full-feature project, it may very well be his most ambitious. The fact that it wasn’t over-hyped by the producers, and that not much information look-and-plot-wise was divulged prior to its release helped whet our appetites. It can be said that the short film by itself served as an effective pr machine.

Having been lucky enough to be one of the first few to watch the short The Breeder while it was making its’ initial visits around the globe, I can truthfully say it was an uncomfortable ten minutes. Being no stranger to gore movies myself (three that come to mind are Fred Vogel’s August Underground’s Mordum(2003), Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008), all of which are films I managed to watch and have a great night’s sleep straight afterwards), I naively half-thought the short The Breeder, a home-grown, no-budget thing, wouldn’t impress me in the least. Something, I happily admit to have been wrong about.

The Breeder (2013) managed to disturb me enough to put me off the genre for a while, something only one or two films had managed to do before. The reason for this was instantly clear to me – the film’s big twist was so unexpected it instantly heightened the ‘wow’ factor of the whole affair, thus rendering it much harder to stomach.Learning later on that a full-length feature was in the making, I was instantly intrigued. The reason has nothing to do with how much I enjoy the genre. I also never expected to get the same satisfaction from the full length that I got from the short. As far as I was concerned, the best thing about the short was the final revelation, something that, this time around, was going to serve as the basis for the feature length. Now that the story’s big ‘why’ had been long since revealed, what was direly needed was character development, something that the short never touched upon. So me and my good friend and Eyeskreen creator Josef Florian got two middle-of-the-theater tickets, Cola and popcorn, and prepared ourselves to be entertained..Breeder has a number of strengths. In this review, I thought I’d focus on the technical strengths and weaknesses rather than on those related to the validity (or otherwise) of the story. Regarding story, I’ll only say that it’s pretty straightforward (as most story lines within gore films tend to be) and while the film goes into much more depth as far as the breeder’s case is concerned, the protagonist’s back-story remains somewhat lacking. It would have been nice to learn something more about the breeder’s origins. How did he become the way he is? What is the exact nature of his relationship with the young girl? Who was his first victim? These are all questions that could have easily been answered. Perhaps these could be subjects for a prequel/sequel?

Patrick Vella once again plays the breeder, a forty year old man who breeds worms inside his human victims which he goes on to sell to a pet-shop. So it could be said that Breeder is about one man’s (inhumanly perverse) attempt at making a living on his own terms. Something he goes to great lengths to do. To clarify – the breeder has his own dungeon and invests in a multitude of tools that come in handy at one point or another during his operations. In all he is –  the way he carries himself, his soft speaking voice, his obsession with classical music, his leather mask (a very obvious nod to Ed Gein and 70s schlock cinema in itself) and his butcher’s apron-jeans combo, the breeder is fascinating.

Still from Breeder’s official Facebook page. © Patrick Vella, Breeder 2014

While the film suggests that the breeder only does what he does simply for monetary gain, we are definitely not convinced. He is too passionate about his work to be doing it simply for the money and not for the kick. The feeling that comes across is that with this film, Vella isn’t going for another Saw II with its multi-layered complex plots and never fully-comprehensible world. If that was the case, we would have to say that he failed.

Rather, Breeder is much more reminiscent of 1980s splatter films we have all grown to love. These tended to have straightforward plots (many times involving a character driven by the thirst for revenge) and which offer a fairly satisfying twist at the end. Think The Last House on the Left (1972), the Ginī Piggu Japanese series from the 1980s or the original I Spit On Your Grave (1978).

What do these films have that makes them so fascinating to watch, even after all these years?  70s and 80s gore-horror filmmakers’ motives were clear – they created mindless schlock – masterfully presented, sure to entertain. Rather than tackle contemporary world problems or comment on issues requiring intellectual investment, they revelled in broken bodies, severed limbs, despicable villains and heroes (many times in the forms of the attractive damsels in distress). And perhaps that’s why they stood the test of time.

Now We're Getting The Proper Reaction:" The Grand Guignol of ...
still from Bloodsucking Freaks (1976)

While films like Bloodsucking Freaks (The Incredible Torture Show) (1976) – are world-renowned for their pervasive takes on body-hate (they are in fact called torture-porn for this reason), they ultimately manage to leave us entertained more than a post-Reign Over Me(2007) Sandler film does. Because mindless pop-corn movies (call me sick, but I do consider these films pop-corn), are easy to watch, enjoy, and forget once back in the real world.

For most of its’ running time, Breeder entertains in a similar way. It’s pure cinematic entertainment which doesn’t take itself too seriously while mastering many of the basic but required storytelling tools to keep the audience interested. Where does it lack? Screenplay-wise, Breeder could have done with more attention to detail. While we’ve just acknowledged that the film’s goal is to entertain the audience rather than make it think, and that it succeeds in that aspect, ‘mistakes’ or inconsistencies in a gore-horror screenplay are as much a problem as they would be in a Christopher Nolan film. For example – in one scene, Roderick Castillo’s character has been incapacitated by the breeder. For a while he endures excruciating pain and finds movement very difficult. A few seconds later he is seen effortlessly scaling the terrain and managing to run for his life. Wasn’t he on the verge of death just a few moments ago?

Still from Breeder’s official Facebook page. © Patrick Vella, Breeder 2014

While it could be counter-argued that this type of film shouldn’t be nitpicked for consistencies (which I agree with), certain moments like the one mentioned here defied all logic. Then again, the Kill Bill films (2003, 2004) are full of these blatant ‘continuity goofs’, and those were great films. To which my answer would be – Kill Bill was an obvious pastiche / tribute / parody of 1970s kungfu movies. With Breeder, one can only assume that the goal is to create a gore-horror movie in the style of a 1970s B-Movie, just because that’s what the final film feels like.

The editing could have definitely been tighter. It is moody – sometimes inspired, sometimes not. Certain sequences were needlessly prolonged due to the slow pacing of the editing to such an extent that the scene be rendered ineffective. An example of this would be a certain torture scene where we rapidly see the same action happening from different angles. This blatant breaking of the 180 degree rule, in this case, proved that some rules shouldn’t be broken without good reason. One particular scene of which sense could not be made was where the breeder murders a victim slowly and painfully in a dark, indoor location (we’re being very careful not to spoil here so we won’t be describing the action that goes on in this scene – just think Hitchcock). During this sequence, which is shot in-doors, we are treated to a solitary sunlit establishing shot showing the Courts of Justice in Valletta. Then we’re taken back to the previous scene.

 Still from Breeder’s official Facebook page. © Patrick Vella, Breeder 2014

Breeder’s cinematography proves to be quite immersive, having well thought lighting and angles in most parts. In fact as far as looks and visual character go, the film does quite an impressive job. The locations were also very intelligently and effectively scouted. Sporting a balanced variation of indoor and outdoor locations, each location is expertly dressed, and pleasant to watch. Breeder avoids the usual cliché other Maltese films fall victim to where audiences end up recognizing each location used, so in this aspect, Vella once again surpasses expectations.

Still from Breeder’s official Facebook page. © Patrick Vella, Breeder 2014

Along with cinematography and set design, Breeder’s other major strength is the make-up and special effects department. Here it is very clear that Patrick’s team was playing on home ground. Tiziano Martella, Ruth Farrugia, Andrew Vella and Norbert Friggieri did a more than fine job with the visual effects, makeup and prosthetics. The same cannot be said for the very few CGI moments, especially the one in a certain junkyard. A particular shot in the film (pun intended) ended up being comical due to the amateurish CGI effects. Having said this, if we are to look at the film as a B-movie, then it actually works.

Light is also very intelligently and effectively used. A particular scene which stands out as particularly effective was when the breeder visits the pet-shop. He stands in the doorway, looks inside and interacts with the pet-shop owner. While the natural lighting in this scene drastically heightened its’ realism, natural back-light created an imposing silhouette of the breeder’s person, effectively obscuring his identity from the audience.

While the music chosen is interesting and generally helps move the story forward, unfortunately, it occasionally overwhelms the on-screen action. Audio leveling problems and mis-matching of low quality Foley sounds also occur every now and then throughout the film. While it can be assumed that most sounds couldn’t be recorded on location due to the immense sound pollution our island offers us, (thus forcing the sounds to be re-created in a sound-booth or other quiet location), many times sound effects used felt completely alien to the on-screen actions that supposedly created them. If three characters treading on a gravelly road omit a particular sound, once they enter an indoor location, the sound type and even pacing would be expected to change as necessary.

Generally speaking, one could honestly state that Breeder boasts a number of heartfelt performances by most actors involved. However, some characters had more depth to them than others. While all of the actors involved usually give authentic performances, every now and again they were caught struggling with weak lines, thus rendering their final performance lifeless or unintentionally funny.

 Sandra: Still from Breeder’s official Facebook page. © Patrick Vella, Breeder 2014
Jennifer: Still from Breeder’s official trailer © Patrick Vella, Breeder 2014

The relationship between Sandra (Rebecca Paris), a no-nonsense, foul-mouthed private investigator, and her secretary Jennifer (Naomi Said) felt off. It is difficult for the audience to feel any of the intended chemistry between the two of them. Jennifer comes across as quite a bland, one dimensional character. As does Alexandra Andrea’s character who we could never sincerely sympathise with.  From her opening lines, “Għinuni please,” which she speaks with the tiniest hint of emotion, the chemistry between the three characters was nonexistent, ironically (in a gore horror film) rendering this otherwise light scene one of the most difficult to sit through.

The best-written and most fleshed-out character of the three had to be Sandra. It is clear to us as an audience that Rebecca Paris was having a ball with this character and that she could understand where the character was coming from.

Said as Jennifer, on the other hand, kept on appearing embarrassingly lost whenever she had to utter a mandatory Ingliżata in each one of her sentences. This might be attributed to the fact that Jennifer’s character, while being diligent in her work (if not overzealous), is a thoroughly dull character who feels like she’s trying hard to be stereo-typically tal-pepe’ without actually being tal-pepe’. Real tal-pepe’ people are instantly recognisable by their accent, which Jennifer simply doesn’t possess. Thus her character is rendered uneven, silly and somewhat fake. Which is a shame, because after watching Naomi in other (theatrical) projects, one would have expected an actress of her caliber to be given a character with more substance which she could sculpt into the desired heroine the evil breeder would be worthy of.

Jennifer: Still from Breeder’s official facebook page © Patrick Vella, Breeder 2014

Conversely, most performances are adequately intense and heart-felt. It is clear that all the actors involved took their roles seriously and do their best to immerse themselves in their respective characters. We are especially thinking of John Peel, (who today can be considered a television veteran), Joe Pace in his hilarious though subdued take on Freddie, a frustrated pet-shop owner with whom the breeder does his business, and Roderick Castillo, who is very capable of losing himself in his character’s fear.

Yet the most memorable performance comes from Kyle Sammut who embodies the perfect blend of comedy, fool-hardiness and naivety in the testosterone-driven Antonio, another of the Breeder’s unwitting victims. One doesn’t easily get over his proposal to his girlfriend to “Nieħdu waħda? La Baqría!”  in the most inappropriate of circumstances ever.

The final twist is enjoyable, but needlessly over explained in the film’s final minutes. The film’s final part is inundated with unnecessary flashbacks and visual explanations which come over as the creators’ attempt to needlessly complicate the relatively straightforward story. And while the ‘prologue’ section at the end is extremely long and could do with a two-minute trim, the attractive chiaro-scuro lighting and the accompanying soundtrack make it worthwhile, just as the film’s brave character and beautiful look in general are a big part of why I plan to re-visit the Eden Cinemas in the coming weeks.

With all its flaws, for the most part, Breeder (2014) stands out as an effectively simple and entertaining B-gore slasher film. This doesn’t owe itself to any large budget, an A-list star-studded cast list, or any excessive local media fanfare. Instead, it’s the result of the love that was invested in it by an impassioned team who was quite grounded, and Vella being the consummate entertainer he is.

Still from Breeder’s official trailer © Patrick Vella, Breeder 2014

Have you watched Breeder? What did you think of it? Has this review affected your opinion of it in any way? Let me know in the comments below!

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