The history of cinema is littered with “lost films” and unfinished projects. With all of the obstacles filmmakers face, from funding to rights issues, it is surprising there are not more stillborn projects. As such, filmmakers should be given some credit when they manage to rescue a picture from an early grave. Unfortunately, sometimes the quality of the resuscitated project suffers from its difficult birth, and such is the case with writer/director Dean Jones’ Coffin Baby (Wreak Havoc 2016) which was shown at the second annual Wreak Havoc Horror Film Festival in Greensboro, North Carolina on the weekend of 2016 September 30 – October 1. After a young woman’s sister is brutally murdered, she herself is kidnapped by the killer and force to watch as he tortures and murders multiple new victims. Most of the gore scenes are quite intense and effective, with buckets of blood and stacks of body parts to spare. Unfortunately, the plot is fairly minimal and somewhat illogical, and not in a good way. Inconsistent quality in acting, cinematography, and even the special effects, hamper the film further. In the end, Coffin Baby feels only partially formed. Gorehounds will still enjoy the gruesome murder set pieces, but those looking for a complete film should look elsewhere.
In Hollywood, a young woman, Sabrina Forester (Isabelle Fretheim), is brutally murdered in her bed. While visiting the crime scene, her sister Samantha (Chantal Lewis) notices strange runes written on the bathroom mirror in Sabrina’s blood. She quickly uses her sister’s blood to copy the runes to her own arm before the police escort her from the scene. As she is waiting in a police vehicle to be taken to her home, the car is attacked, the police killed, and Samantha is kidnapped by her sister’s killer, the disfigured and heavily bandaged Coffin Baby (Christopher Doyle). Coffin Baby takes Samantha to his base of operations, a deserted warehouse, and locks her in a cage. Samantha is forced to watch as Coffin Baby brings more and more victims to the warehouse to torture and murder, and this has an adverse effect on her sanity (to say the least). Meanwhile, police detectives Chad Cole (Brian Krause) and L. Wehage (Ron Chaney – grandson of Lon Chaney, Jr./ great-grandson of Lon Chaney, Sr.) interrogate Samantha’s boyfriend Freddy Lowe (Kyle Morris). Can Samantha escape before she loses her mind or becomes more fodder for Coffin Baby’s bloody tools?
In spite of the plot outlined above, the actual film feels as though there is almost not much of a story at all. Large portions of the film solely consist of Samantha sitting in the cage and watching Coffin Baby torture, maim, and kill victims utilizing various tools, such as clamps, hammers, and table saws. The other portions of the film, the ones that constitute the plot, make little sense. There is an attempt to string together a story, but the plot holes and inconsistencies lead to confusion for the audience. This is not the intentional confusion created as part of a mystery or a surreal film; instead, it is confusion from poor plotting. There are even a couple of attempts to introduce “twists”, such as a possibly supernatural element, but they feel somewhat tacked on and out of place.
Writer/director Dean Jones knows his special effects makeup well, being a two-time Emmy award winning makeup artist himself. As such, he gives plenty of screentime to the extensive scenes of violence and gore. These showcase the topnotch work done by his large special effects and makeup teams, headed by effects supervisor William Starr Jones and key effects makeup artist Cary Ayers. The gore and torture scenes are quite well done, with suitably stomach-churning results. Bodies are bisected and limbs mutilated in loving detail, and most of the effects work appears to be practical, as well. There is a particularly nice and gruesome effect where one character endures a nasty bit of mayhem committed against one of their limbs. The extent of the damage done goes beyond a simple prosthetic, and had to either involve puppetry or actually maiming the actor; it is very realistic look and quite effective shot.
Most of the problems with Coffin Baby can probably be traced to its troubled production. The project began life as a sequel to Tobe Hooper‘s remake of Toolbox Murders (2004). In fact, the Internet Movie Database still lists the film under the title Toolbox Murders 2, and Amazon even carries blu-ray DVDs of it under that name. The tale of the film’s production include budgetary, rights, and other issues, necessitating a greatly reduced development schedule. This results in a very inconsistent look and feel for the film. Production values for some scenes, such as the murder/torture set pieces, are quite high, while other scenes, such as the early ones outside of the warehouse, sport minimal production values. Even the special effects are inconsistent, with the major murders being quite gory and realistic, but, on the other end of the scale, shots of a baby being drowned look to be done utilizing a baby doll being squeezed to produce bubbles. The actors’ performances also suffer due to the disparity in time and care spent on different sequences. For example, the early scenes appear to have been shot with only a few takes – as the actors, such a lead Chantal Lewis as Samantha, deliver their lines almost as if they are doing a cold reading. This contrasts with her performance later in the film, as she brings a believability to Samantha’s possible descent into madness.
Writer/director Dean Jones and his team deserve credit for producing a feature length film from what could have been a stillborn project. Unfortunately, Coffin Baby shows the scars of its difficult birth. While plot itself is fairly minimal and sports large holes and logical inconsistencies, the murder set pieces are quite well done and show off the excellent skills of the special effects team. In the end, though, the project feels more like a special makeup effects demo reel with a minimal story tacked on than like a fully formed movie. Gore fans will enjoy the suitably bloody and gruesome murder and torture scenes, but they may have a hard time sitting through the rest of the the film.
Coffin Baby (1.5 / 5)