RATLINE – The DVD Review
Drug dealers, serial killers, Satan worshippers and immortal Nazis are some of the ingredients of the bloody stew that is RATLINE, a tough, well-made shocker from St. Louis-based regional filmmaker Eric Stanze. RATLINE is not a “boo!” sort of horror flick. It’s not about stalkers in dark corners or monsters under the bed. It’s about the evil that men often do, if not necessarily in real life, then certainly within really nasty horror flicks like RATLINE. It;s an angry, humorless film filled with sex and gore, but writer/director Stanze is not one of these independent filmmakers who;s simply in love with his own nihilism. He’s working from his own smart script that attempts to say something important about the murderous energies at loose in society. RATLINE is not without flaws, but it’s an aggressively low budget piece of horror weirdness that defies expectations and is remarkably accomplished.
A ratline is a wartime term describing a system of escape routes for Nazis and RATLINE takes a long time getting to that definition. The film opens with the aftermath of a drug deal gone sour with bad blonde sisters Crystal and Kim (Emily Haack and Alex Del Monacco ) on the run from a pile of corpses with a pile of cash. They hide out in in Hermann, Missouri where they are taken in by their innocent, naive friend Penny (Sarah Wofford). A parallel plot briefly seems to follow a Satan-worshipping couple on the prowl for a human sacrifice. The two abduct a mysterious drifter named Frank (Jason Christ) who quickly and bloodily dispatches the pair in a scene featuring the first of the film;s several decapitations. Frank arrives in Hermann where he confronts Penny’s uncle about a Nazi flag in the old man’s possession that has superhuman powers. It turns out Frank is actually a Nazi villain who has stopped aging and is looking to reactivate an evil experiment left over from the waning days of the Third Reich.
RATLINE is a powerful narrative, told so directly and strongly that an audience mostly in the mood for a good old exploitation film may be rocked back on its psychic heels. It begins with a bang then lets the story and the mystery build at a deliberate pace while the direction never lets us out from under real dramatic tension. It takes its time getting to where it needs to go but Stanze has a good ear for dialogue and nuance. And there is evil in this movie. RATLINE makes great location work in the Missouri town of Hermann. It’s a charming and vibrant historic town, where tourists descend on its wineries, especially in the Fall (when it appears that RATLINE was shot there), but Stanze makes it look ruinous and malevolent. Especially effective is his use of an enormous background graveyard. The location doesn’t play into the plot but it shades the tranquil burg as a creepy corner of the earth, a metaphor for the surface and buried lives of the town. Stanze smartly bypasses his low budget by illustrating the Nazi back story in the form of an unearthed 16mm ‘educational’ film and it’s in this extended sequence that RATLINE best transcends its low budget. The scratchy, splicy B&W footage of gruesome experiments, atrocities and magic is as horrifying as the deepest level of hell and is reminiscent of the similarly demented Nazi flashback sequence in Jack Curtis’ 1964 cult item THE FLESH EATERS.
The acting in RATLINE is unmannered and natural, I guess. There’s no posturing but for a film whose success lies in the potency of its characterizations, its most distracting negative aspect is the casting of Jason Christ as Frank. His slow burn works better in the first half before his roots as a Nazi are revealed but Christ resembles a corn-fed beer-drinking Midwest boy and therefore makes an unconvincing Nazi. Gus Stephenson, who shows up in the archival footage as the mastermind behind the Nazi experiment looks the part and might have been a better Frank. Emily Haack portrays Crystal as if she’s the victim of an unnamed tragedy, a severely damaged, foul-mouthed slattern, determined to survive but in over her head. The rest of the cast does solid work in a film that feels oddly underpopulated. The look of RATLINE is ultra low-budget – some of the lighting is flat and the camera work could be cleaner, but Stanze is clever with his editing without getting carried away and the shoestring production values can’t compromise the mature script or the story’s professional structure. RATLINE is demented madness and highly recommended.