It's been a while since Hollywood studios have released anything remotely watchable. With the exception of "Shutter Island," early 2010 backwash has included the dreadfully syrupy "Valentine's Day" and Oscar hangovers like "Precious" and "Up in the Air" that you've seen months ago. As we await better releases in the multiplexes, I've decided to take a look back at a small-screen short film released years ago. No doubt you've seen it before, but it's certainly worth another look. "Thriller," a remake of the 1983 Michael Jackson classic video starring over 1,000 inmates of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center, features startling performances, raw drama, and choreography that effortlessly rivals "High School Musical 3" and "Nine." Speaking of the latter, these performers don't need Armani to look good.
In a season filled with computer-generated effect fueled films like "Avatar," "Thriller" shines through with no bells and whistles, and holds up as a true American classic. Staying faithful to the classic video that put MTV on the map and even expanding on its intensity, these inmates put on the performances of their careers. I challenge you not to believe that these inmates aren't dancing zombies. It is impossible. The central characters, in particular, register. While his orange getup makes him get somewhat lost in the crowd (he should've opted at least for the King of Pop's red leather jacket), the prisoner portraying the Michael Jackson role is a dynamo. With the legs of Minnelli, and the acting bravado of Brando, he's a clear cut contender for ShoWest's breakthrough star of the year at some point (next time "David After the Dentist" kid). The other prisoner (the actors names have been withheld sadly) who plays the female lead is captivating. In an homage to Shakespearean times where dudes dressed up as women, he is convincing as a she. Wearing a white shirt, blue jeans, and ponytail (kudos to the hair and make-up department), the actor makes us empathize with his character - a woman who is trying to avoid zombies. No one likes zombies, because they kill people, and this star-in-the-making's performance really makes you cheer the character on. Her climatic scene, which plays out more as a brutal rape scene from a prison B-movie, is even more intense than Puddle of Mudd's "Blurry" video from a few years back, and that, is saying a lot considering that poignant video dealt with custody issues. Altogether the ensemble cast rivals "Glee" and all have a bright future in this business. Let's hope they all make parole and hit the Great White Way soon. Look out, Kristin Chenowirth!
Acting aside, the direction and cinematography are top-notch. It was smart for the filmmakers to take a handheld "Paranormal Activity" camera approach. The effect really puts the viewer inside those prison walls, and makes them long to be incarcerated with such a talented ensemble. But, let's be honest, it's the dancing that places this film over the edge. It's hard to imagine how the choreographer, who shall remain nameless because the film has no credits (it's very refreshing to see some modesty in this camera-craved industry), got the actors to all dance in unison - even the hundreds of extras who face the core group of dancers at the center of the action are instep. Kudos to you, sir, whoever you are. The Jennifer Garner film "13 Going on 30" featured their own interpretation of "Thriller," but never quite nailed it. This film clearly blows that sentimental comedy away hands down. One wonders why Garner didn't sign up to play the female lead in this version instead. Probably because she doesn't like prison or YouTube or both.
While these cons are mostly pros, it's important to mention one slight problem with the film: it ends sort of abruptly. But, that's a minor price to pay for a film that packs an emotional punch like this. If Vincent Price or Jackson were alive today and decided to become movie critics, he'd gladly give this movie a thumbs up. I can't wait to see the 3D/IMAX treatment rumored to be in the works.