Joshua (USA, 2006)
Having spent over forty years watching horror films, I am pretty inured to gore, brutality and general unpleasantness (on the screen, at least). While I still enjoy watching blood and depravity far more than I can justify without sounding cracked, or at least a little creepy, very little of it registers on a more than aesthetic level. Despite this armoured insouciance, some aspects of Joshua managed to shock and even upset me. Joshua depicts the pure essence of human cruelty, and it’s going to stay with me for some time.
A young man named Kelby is called home for his father’s funeral. His father had been serving a life sentence for the suspected murder of Kelby’s infant sister, and the town’s hatred towards him has extended to Kelby’s entire family. Following the funeral, revelations mount about Kelby’s own sadistic past, and what he got up to in a cabin in the woods with two childhood friends. This being a horror film, the past refuses to stay dead, and the secret of Joshua’s identity is finally spilled, along with much blood and guts.
As you may have noticed, I have been a bit more parsimonious than usual with the synopsis. The gut punches Joshua dishes out are best taken without warning, as they will hurt all the more (and isn’t that the point of films like this?) Just be warned that there is plenty of cruelty to children and animals: babies are tortured, kittens eaten and rats smashed with hammers. If this does not put you off (no judgement here!) then I recommend not reading any more about the plot beforehand — even the summary on IMDB will tell you more than you’d want to know.
The sheer darkness of Joshua came as a surprise, largely because I was expecting something more akin to the other two Travis Betz films I’d seen: Lo and The Dead Inside, which was my top pick last October. While each of these films packs a serious emotional punch, especially in their endings, they also mix in good humour, playfulness and a few musical numbers; Joshua just goes for the throat and holds on, gripping with file-sharpened teeth. There is no comic relief here, only layer upon layer of nightmare with no respite.
As the movie poster atop this review announces, this was released under the Fangoria Gorezone banner. Given the genre-bending nature of Betz’s other films, this surprised me, as his later horrors are less than visceral. These misgivings proved unfounded: Joshua is definitely a gory film, with bloody murder, flaying, mutilation and miscellaneous atrocity. These would be far less potent without the emotional horrors of the film, however, all of which deepen as Kelby loses his grip on reality, with nightmares bleeding over into his waking perceptions. Joshua upsets on every level.
Joshua was Betz’s first feature film, and while it displays the visual flair, clever use of limited resources and some of the sharp writing of his later work, there are far more rough edges here. A few of the lines fall flat or sound overly histrionic; this is a mix of uneven writing and some acting little better than that found in school plays (while his screen time is mercifully brief, the actor playing Uncle Tom is by far the worst example of this). The sound mixing is also a bit jarring in places, with sudden level changes or differing background noises between cuts in the same scene. Still, these are minor quibbles, and none comes close to spoiling the overall film.
While Joshua differs sharply in tone and content from Travis Betz’s later films, it has still cemented my opinion that he is one of the most exciting directors working in horror. My only frustration with his work is that there is so little of it. Aside from the three productions mentioned, he has made one other, non-horror, feature film. Once I make my fortune writing roleplaying games, I vow to send him lots of money so that he can finance something new. Shouldn’t be long now…