The Price We Pay

Ryuhei Kitamura is an interesting director. He started in Japan with the attention-grabbing yakuzas vs. zombies movie VERSUS (2000). That one was kinda cool but I straight up loved his fourth movie, the samurai manga adaptation AZUMI (2003), and by 2004 he was doing that crazy GODZILLA: FINAL WARS. If nothing else, he’s a hero for doing the one thing everyone wanted to do but nobody knew they could do: assassinate Roland Emmerich’s version of Godzilla. I think we all remember where we were when we first heard the news. Ladies and gentlemen, we got ‘im.

That unprecedented act of heroism made Kitamura so huge and important to cinema that in 2008 Hollywood chose him for the crucial job of directing Bradley Cooper’s first serious leading role. He agreed to do it only under the condition that it could take place at midnight on a meat train.

I’m sincerely a fan of THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN, a movie that kinda caught on on video, but got completely fucked over in its theatrical release. Originally planned to come out in May, some wiseguy at Lionsgate got this big idea to instead try a gimmick where they don’t advertise it and release it in August only in 100 second run theaters. Horror fans at the time blamed studio politics, but I can exclusively reveal that the movie was ritualistically sacrificed to the ancient underground beings known as the City Fathers. It’s not a coincidence that five years later Cooper got his first Oscar nomination. That’s all I’ll say.

That didn’t scare Kitamura away. Most of his films since have been American productions with even smaller releases and less attention than THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN (but sometimes with “from the director of THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN” written on the front). In 2012 I wrote that I enjoyed the “audacity and absurdity” of his WWE Films production NO ONE LIVES starring Luke Evans as a guy who gets kidnapped by a LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT style gang of rednecks while driving across the country, then turns out to be a super-killer fleeing from a massacre with a kidnapped heiress in his trunk. I also recommend DOWNRANGE (2017), a confined location thriller where some people are trapped behind a broken down car while an unseen sniper is trying to kill them. (It used to be only on Shudder, but now is on disc too.) In 2020 he did a Ruby Rose action vehicle called THE DOORMAN which I’ve been slacking on, so I will watch that and review it next.

But today I have his latest, which was released on blu-ray and DVD yesterday with the vague title THE PRICE WE PAY. It has Emile Hirsch (SAVAGES) and Stephen Dorff (JUDGMENT NIGHT) on the cover and at a glance you might not even notice the small figure with a scythe signifying that it’s a horror movie. The premise is that some guys rob a pawn shop, it goes bad, and they have to hole up at an old farm, where bad stuff happens – the ol’ criminals-crime-their-way-into-being-horror-victims subgenre. The godfather of those is FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, of course, but others include SCARECROWS, MALEVOLENCE, THE COLLECTOR, LIVID, and DON’T BREATHE.

There’s no fake out in this one – it has a horror cold open. Some fucking asshole john (Jesse Kinser, THE DEAD OF NIGHT) dumps prostitute Carly (Sabina Mach, THE PERFECT WEAPON [2016]) off at a gas station in the middle of nowhere instead of driving her home like he promised. She doesn’t seem as upset once she enters the (unusually large) gas station restroom. She’s happy she lifted the guy’s wallet in the scuffle. But then she hears a car pull up and it seems like he’s come back for her.

Have you noticed that both Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN and David Gordon Green’s HALLOWEEN have gas station restroom scares in them? And HALLOWEEN H20 has a rest stop restroom scare? This is another one for the collection. The characters never seem as bothered as I do by having to put their hands and knees on a nasty restroom floor to, in this case, see if the large person with strange boots and high water pants who was standing silently outside of the stall has left. When she tries to leave she gets hit by a tranquilizer dart. So it’s that kinda situation.

The protagonist is Grace (Gigi Zumbado, RUN SWEETHEART RUN), a person of unspecified troubles, nervously meeting with the chubby, sweaty, hairy owner of the pawn shop, desperately trying to give him a precious necklace as a down payment on five thousand dollars she’s late on. While he tries to coerce sex out of her she looks at his security monitors in disbelief – three guys with masks and guns just walked in.

They are Cody (Dorff), Alex (Hirsch), and Alex’s brother Shane (Tanner Zagarino, POOL BOY NIGHTMARE). Alex immediately reveals himself as the Mr. Blonde who’s gonna fuck it up for everybody, shooting a guy for no reason, getting shot at by the owner. They get the money out of his safe but Shane is shot in the leg and their getaway driver panics and takes off. Cody catches Grace trying to sneak out the back and makes her their hostage/driver.

It’s immediately clear that Cody is supposed to be the tough but honorable criminal. He keeps saying things like “I don’t do civilians!” Like he’s some veteran, elite criminal with a professional code of conduct. Cool your jets, buddy, you’re just some dipshit who robbed a pawn shop, not the fuckin Transporter. (To be fair, there are implications that there’s some kind of bigger thing going on with where the money came from and who their mysterious boss is, but we won’t be able to get into that, on account of the horror movie.)

When the engine dies in the middle of nowhere (you know how it is) they walk to a nearby farm, where a teenage boy named Danny (Tyler Sanders, Just Add Magic: Mystery City) is out doing his chores late at night. Cody and Grace pretend to be husband and wife, say their car broke down and ask if they can stay in one of the old farmhand houses for a couple hours while they wait for someone to pick them up. The kid keeps looking around nervously and says it’s a bad idea, but agrees as long as they leave before Grandpa gets home.

Of course they gotta do the traditional bullet surgery scene. Believe it or not they do not drop the slug into a metal dish or a glass. But being that it’s Kitamura they pull the bullet out with pliers. Nice, painful touch.

Hirsch was once an interesting young character actor in indie movies (I liked PRINCE AVALANCHE) and even was motherfuckin Speed Racer, but it kinda took the shine off him when he attacked some poor woman at a night club during the Sundance Film Festival (not allegedly – he pleaded guilty). Hopefully going to rehab after that has changed him, I have no idea, but playing freaky psychos in obscure DTV movies might be his ultimate fate. His character has some dumb fixation on rolling dice, I think maybe it’s a Two Face thing. But it’s another thread that will have to be abandoned quick, because he gets suspicious that something weird is going on on the farm, and goes and picks on little Danny until he finds the family’s secret dungeon.

Soon Grandpa (motherfuckin Vernon Wells from ROAD WARRIOR!) returns in a big truck with his 6’8” disfigured granddaughter Jodi (Amazon Eve, American Horror Story) and that lady they caught in the gas station restroom zipped up in a bag. It turns into a big skirmish where our guys all get tranquilized and wake up strapped to beds in a mad science lab, but not before Carly tries to escape and gets shot by stupid motherfuckin Alex. Great job, dummy.

Once you got Vernon Wells making a big speech about how bad things happened to his daughter so now he steals organs from people who are “wasting” them, it’s a pretty different type of b-movie. Kitamura does gets some suspense out of Cody moving his bed over to try to yank an IV out of Grace’s arm, and I appreciate that they just sit there awake with their guts hanging out or he removes their heart or they gotta get stapled up or that sort of thing. I’ve seen too many no-name horror movies where they don’t go through the trouble not to respect the effort on some nasty gore.

I was never a fan of the “torture porn” term, and I wouldn’t use it to describe this, but the problem I do have with this and some of the other torturey things is that it’s just not that fun to watch somebody be strapped to a gurney for very long. I don’t mind that it’s upsetting, I just think it tends to get dull quick. So the price THE PRICE WE PAY pays for this organ harvesting premise is that it starts to lose me in the middle.

But I’m happy to say Kitamura recovers like a pro. I don’t remember this, but in my review of NO ONE LIVES I expressed disappointment that the final girl didn’t get to kill the shit out of the villain. Man, Kitamura makes up for it in this one. First of all BIG SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THIS REVIEW Danny sneaks Grace a scalpel so she can cut the straps and escapes the gurney. Doctor Grandpa attacks, but dying Cody viciously bites him, and then Grace does the popular movie technique of breaking an air canister to fire it like a rocket. It makes him fly against the wall and his head go splat. I laughed out loud. That’s the Kitamura I want to see.

And it gets way better. Grace and Danny try to escape, but big ol’ big sister Jodi comes after them like Leatherface, and this leads to an A+, top shelf, above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty kill. If you watch the movie and you decide to give up on it I urge you to at least fast forward to this good shit.

How do they kill her? Let me count the ways. Jodi comes after them with this weird electrified club thing, but Grace shoots her, so Danny gets the club and stabs her in the stomach with it. They flee up a ladder, but she comes after them again, so they dump a bucket of the acid that the family uses to dissolve bodies onto her head.

And still she keeps going! Her face is all melted, one eyeball dangling, like a reboot of the Toxic Avenger. I have always respected Kitamura’s love of eyeballs popping out.

There’s not as much wild camera movement as in some of Kitamura’s work, but I like how Jodi chasing Grace across the farm in the morning light seems to reference THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, but with the added extravagance of an overhead (drone?) shot. (Cinematographer Matthias Schubert is Kitamura’s regular guy now.) Unlike Sally, Grace doesn’t have to run to find help, because Danny appears with the tranquilizer dart, and shoots a whole bunch of them into bullet wounded, electro-shocked, face-burned-off-by-acid Jodi, who seems offended, but remains on her feet.

So Grace sneaks up behind her and wraps barbed wire around her head. Jodi swats at her, trips and rolls around on the ground, getting tangled in the wire. Which, we now see, is attached to a giant motorized spool used to string barbed wire fences. Danny turns the machine on, and it begins to move, pulling Jodi’s limbs in opposite directions like she’s being drawn and quartered, while also squeezing tighter and tighter around her head.

Grace takes the opportunity to run up and slice her belly open with a scythe, showering herself with blood like it’s a samurai movie. That move seems to be unnecessary, since the tightening barbed wire soon pops Jodi’s head like a balloon, but I’m glad she was able to get one last shot in before the buzzer.

Most of this movie is okay at best, and especially after 2022 was so heavy in genuinely great horror movies I can’t in good conscience hype this one up as anything too special. But now that I’ve gone back over that last scene in my head I would like to nominate THE PRICE WE PAY for best picture, Nobel Peace Prize, a Peabody award, or whatever it’s eligible for. Thank you, Kitamura-san, for making it so worthwhile to get to the end.

Weirdly this is the second movie I’ve reviewed this week where I learned that one of the stars died very young before the movie came out. Tyler Sanders, who plays Danny, died of an accidental fentanyl overdose at the age of 18. The movie is dedicated to him. I like the character of Danny because he’s part of this TEXAS CHAIN SAW-ish family but he genuinely does seem like he’s nice and just doesn’t know how to get out of his situation. I’m sure he’s home schooled but he could almost be a kid in your class that you didn’t realize had a fucked up home life. I guess that’s similar to Ruby in THE HILLS HAVE EYES, but this kid looks so young and boyish, he seems so innocent, even while doing the ultrasound on his weirdo grandpa’s kidnap victims.

It’s kinda funny and impressive how mysterious they leave Grace. All the standard character details raise your curiosity and then leave you hanging. She starts to talk about some family tragedies, but I don’t think we find out the specifics. If they explained it I never caught what she owed money for or whose necklace it was that was so meaningful to her, and then Danny reveals to her that she’s pregnant when he’s checking the quality of her organs, which seems to surprise her, but it doesn’t come up again! Kitamura still seems to be more interested in messing with the form than really mastering it, but that gives even his weakest movies personality, so I’ll keep watching ‘em.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 22nd, 2023 at 1:57 pm and is filed under Reviews, Crime, Horror. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

5 Responses to “The Price We Pay”

  1. When the giant faces of two of cinema’s most curiously unlikable B-list leading men* are considered more marketable than a 6’ 8” lady mutant wielding a scythe, I guess I gotta throw my hands up and admit I have no idea what contemporary movie audiences are looking for. Thanks for reviewing this, Vern, because this sound exactly up my alley, but I’d never have gotten past the cover art if left to my own devices.

    *Don’t get me wrong—Dorf is great at being curiously unlikable. I just don’t really think of him (or Chokey McChokerson over here, for that matter) as the kind of dude who’s gonna sell a
    movie on his presence alone. But I guess they know their business.

  2. That really is the cleanest rest-stop bathroom I’ve ever seen.

  3. “Of course they gotta do the traditional bullet surgery scene. Believe it or not they do not drop the slug into a metal dish or a glass.”

    No way!

  4. “It’s immediately clear that Cody is supposed to be the tough but honorable criminal. He keeps saying things like “I don’t do civilians!” Like he’s some veteran, elite criminal with a professional code of conduct. Cool your jets, buddy, you’re just some dipshit who robbed a pawn shop, not the fuckin Transporter.”

    Clearly, he’s the Dalton of pawn shop robbers. When he joined the crew, he kicked out the Neo-Nazi and the methhead, called in Sam Elliot to join up, taught them all the importance of doing shirtless tai chi first thing in the morning…

  5. Every time I see the title of this movie I hear “The price you pay for bringing up my Chinese or American heritage as a negative is, I collect your f***ing head” from KILL BILL. I wonder if anyone else has this problem.

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