In the tradition of isolation thrillers focused on beautiful people being sniped out including Phonebooth, Roadside, Carnage Park, ATM (sort of) and one of the first to create this type of horror in Targets, comes the latest from talented genre filmmaker Ryûhei Kitamura (The Midnight Meat Train and Godzilla: Final Wars) with Downrange. Currently playing on the horror streaming platform of Shudder and its World Premiere as part of the 2017 Midnight Madness section of the Toronto International Film Festival, Kitamura returns with a film that does not reinvent the wheel but finds its voice in this very tense sub-genre. Downrange begins with very little exposition. Propped and blended into a tree, a sniper (most likely a military) waits for any vehicle to become deadly target practice on an open stretch of road. Horror happens for a group of twenty somethings traveling along the road when their tire is blown out. The gunman waits for them to settle as they repair the tire. Dealing with the time going by, the group begins to feel that things are not right. Without much warning, the gunman begins to pick off the group one by one. Beginning with the strongest of the group, members start to fall as they are sniped or pinned down in a deadly game of target practice for no reason what so ever. As the group takes cover, they must get past the emotional horror and find it in themselves to survive until help comes.
Known for very tense and bloody storytelling, Kitamura does not disappoint with Downrange. Kitamura is a filmmaker with a distinctive fingerprint on creating compelling cinema. This starts with the characters that occupy this story. Why most of the characters are cookie cutter, Kitamura keeps the key character of the gunman in the shadows and slowly revealing him throughout. Kitamura, DP Matthias Schubert (up and coming Nightmare Cinema) and Editor Shôhei Kitajima make this gunman a monster on different levels that enhances this film. Expanding the framing space around him in the tree perch, the gunman feels like the bogeyman hiding in the shadows with his two large, white eyes standing out besides the gun. Up until the last frames of the film, Kitamura lets the costume, makeup, sound design, framing and anticipation be the embodiment of this evil instead of a physical form. As each character deals with the idea and reality of death which is one of the few things that adds depth, the looming figure of this gunman creates such a presence and sets the mood. Kitamura has a way of connecting you to the characters, finding common fears, understandings and intentions we all have inside.
Unlike The Midnight Meat Train, the first third of the film is nothing more than a set up that pushes the film along into more compelling territory. One of the large issue I have with Downrange, is that I wanted this film to be ten minutes shorter and trim this first act down a bit. In a sub-genre like this with a gunman who isolates and locks down people against their will, you want to find depth with the characters and show the process of survival and coping. You want to identify the conflict and reason why you care. With a running time of 90 minutes exactly, it feels like this film could have been 80 minutes with a tighter edit of the breakdown chatter and the coping behind the car by the trio of survivors for the moment. That would have made me care more since this film’s focal point is the tension and conflict not characters. To be honest, I am happy they cut the numbers down and moved it along so visually. Looking at Kitajima body of editing work, perhaps the lack of experience plays into the longer length.
One of the great aspects of horror storytelling is the idea that you the protagonist has no hope against the greater evil. That from the first moment of the story, you are doomed, and the dread just builds to a horrible ending. Films like Pontypool, The Strangers, Funny Games and Seven play that so well. Kitamura also manipulates that throughout narrative, never letting you feel that these characters have a chance against this nearly unstoppable evil looming in the shadows. Like a shooting gallery.
A huge factor that plays into this is Schubert’s cinematography. The variety of camera tricks, angles and framing adds another level to this film on every level. The framing of the eyes reacting reveals so much emotion. The portions of the car to characters in each shot. The long shots of the road. The camera movement and tracking. The use of space in very intimate areas versus the location of open field and road. How the camera creates a 360-degree spin to build tension and chaos for one of the trapped group members. Finding different ways to look down on characters or landscapes (drones) or create a POV that is building to a climax or something new fear with multiple cameras.
Downrange features the FX makeup of Kazuyuki Okada (Night of the Dead and Monster). Okada creates some truly graphic and bad ass FX that feel all too real. Working with DP Schubert, the range of kills and re-kills are show pieces. Heads being smashed, bullet holes and body wounds are revealed wonderfully and enhances the terror and shock overall. One of Kitamura’s fingerprints is the style, power and vision of what a “horror” kill should look like and the impact it should make. The FX in Downrange are not overused. In a film like this that could be an issue.
Beyond the makeup and the cinematography, the sound design, recording and edit hooks you. From the opening scenes focusing on the tire blow out to the dramatic whiz of the bullets to the explosions that punctuate the film in the third act, the sound process is set up for maximum effect. Experienced sound artists like Joshua Aaron Johnson (Tusk) and Pete Nichols (X-Files) lead this film’s team and have an understanding on how to create a sensory experience that puts you on edge. Even the silence is tense.
For story substance, Downrange pushes some buttons but falls short. The magic of this film is found in the desperation created by the gunman. The sound and visual presentation of the kills keep you focused. The tension holds you. Downrange is a worthwhile watch and a strong entry into in this sub-genre of horror that builds mystery behind the monster instead of giving a reason for the monster to create this evil. Kitamura and crew no doubt had fun on this film and it shows with the FX and action sequences they let explode during the running time. Why it could be a tighter edit and a shorter running time, the exaggerations of the death and the speed of the scenes after the first act gives this film a buzz and fingerprint that is all Kitamura. Find it on Shudder right now if you dare.