Reviewed by Michael Erb
When visual effect artists make the transition to director, their first efforts are generally predictable. The story isn’t thought out, the acting is mediocre, and the creature/killer/nasty antagonist looks impressive. Lightning Bug is visual effects artist Robert Hall’s (Laid to Rest, Chromeskull) first film and it doesn’t fit into that pattern at all. It’s not even a horror movie; it’s a funny and heartbreaking story about a young man trying to find his way in the world. It’s a very personal story with good performances, interesting characters, and an unexpectedly mature level of restraint on the director’s part.
Lightning Bug is the semi-autobiographical story of its writer/director Robert Hall. Young horror movie devote and aspiring special effects artist Green feels out of sorts with his life in rural Alabama. His mother has a tendency to attract the wrong kind of man, with the latest catch being an abusive alcoholic named Earl. As time goes by, Green develops his skills and scares the man running the local Halloween haunted house. The stunt gets Green the chance to make the scares for the upcoming holiday attraction which is already under scrutiny from the town’s religious community. Green also starts a relationship with Angevin; a video store clerk who loves horror movies and harbors a painful secret. Green has to find the strength to pursue his dream while facing opposition from Earl, Angevin’s unexpected revelations, and the very religious townsfolk.
Lightning Bug is a surprisingly touching story about dealing with adversity and finding your place in the world. Green’s talents aren’t welcome in his step father’s home, nor are they embraced by the extremely religious townspeople. His struggle makes for some great drama, as it seems like the world is against Green and his passion in life. The characters are multifaceted people who grow in unexpected ways and make realistically surprising decisions. Their believable lives and personalities give character to the town, making it feel like a real small rural town.
The violence and gore shown in Lighting Bug are handled in a smart way. The makeup and special effects Green develops are shown in a silly, over the top manner. The very real domestic violence and murder is always presented as jarring, harmful events that shake those affected to the core of their being. The monster stuff is clearly fake and safe while the realities of Green’s home life are brutally matter of fact. It’s a very mature and restrained way of handling the material that usually comes from someone with a little more experience. But, Robert Hall pulls it off and brings out the dramatic potential of the material.
The cast is great and balances the sweet coming of age moments with the moments of horrific traumas. Brett Harrison is affable and intelligent as Green, all while giving him a strength of will that makes you cheer for him. Laura Prepon is friendly, charming, and mysterious as Angevin. Her heavier story beats are handled deftly, making Angevin’s secret plight feel real instead of melodramatic. Kevin Gage as Earl alternates between surly and vicious, making Earl’s drunken mood swings all the more jarring. There’s also a fine performances from Hellraiser alum Ashley Laurence as Green’s mother; a loving matriarch that can’t pick a man to save her life. The supporting cast is a capable collection of actors that help flesh out Green’s world.
Lightning Bug is a real gem in Robert Hall’s filmography. It’s a movie with a lot of emotional heft that also enjoys reveling in the little joys and moments of laughter life brings. There’s a good showing of Green’s abilities (and therefore Hall’s abilities), but never to trivialize the instances of true, horrific violence. The movie is a great showcase for what Robert Hall can do as a story teller and a filmmaker.
The Blu-ray transfer was not a success. The video looks stretched and slightly pixelated in HD. The audio also suffers from the transfer; it’s very low and needs to be turned up quite a bit. If you’re thinking about buying this movie, don’t buy it with high hopes for your home setup.
There are a lot of meaty extras on the Blu-ray. The disc has two commentary tracks; one with Robert Hall and the other with Hall, Producer Lisa Waugh, Executive Producer/Actor Laura Prepon, and Ashley Laurence. There are deleted scenes, behind the scenes features, trailers, and a music video. But the really great extra on the disc is the alternative, longer cut of the movie. This extended version adds about 15 minutes in scenes that help fill out Green’s world and motivations a little better than the theatrical cut. There’s also a character completely cut out of the movie; Green’s mentally unbalanced Uncle Marvin. Played with game humor by Revenge of the Nerds actor Donald Gibb, the Uncle Marvin scenes added some much needed levity to Lightning Bug. The longer cut, whether you agree with the edits or not, provides an interesting look into the evolution of Hall’s movie.
Official Score: 4/5