As the writer of an awesome cheesy monster movie I'm always on the hunt for other awesome cheesy monster movies. I recently found the 1990 film There's Nothing Out There, which came with a great review from Eccentric Cinema and the pre-Scream hook of having a character being self-aware of their horror movie setting. It was cheap enough on Amazon so I took an $8 gamble and bought it blind, hoping for the next Night of the Creeps.
What I got was the next Creep of the Night. Our horror cinephile hero Mike, the obvious character surrogate for writer/director Rolfe Kanefsky, attempts to win the audience's hearts by trying to save his oblivious friends' lives by insisting they follow his real-life horror-movie rules because he, like, totally watches bitchin' horror movies all the time. The thing is, he starts with this monster-movie talk so right off the bat that it makes him come off more as a neurotic geek than wisened savior. Every line of his dialogue is insisting that their vacation weekend house is too isolated, that being alone at any point means vulnerability, and that every rustle in the woods is pants-shittingly ominous. His panic schtick gets annoying real quick, and while it's a key character dynamic to bounce off the rest of the housemates it doesn't make an audience relating to him any easier.
As the film goes on Mike's character does evolve but unfortunately for the worse - after the monster's established and life has turned into a struggle for survival Mike immediately switches from crying about something in the shadows to spouting sarcastic quips at every opportunity (and damn if I had a nickel for every condescending eye-roll). You've gotta earn that privilege, Mike - Ash earned it after he had to dismember his girlfriend and cut off his own hand. Lionel earned it after dealing with his mother's oppressive reign and then her return from the dead. You gotta lose everything to earn the opportunity to laugh at death, Mike, not just put on some hockey gloves.
Mike really made me appreciate characters on the other end of the spectrum, the Everyday Joes who have to discover for themselves just what terror awaits them around every corner. To a film geek, I'm sure that living life insisting on monsters in the woods gives you a sense of security that eases the anxiety of living in an unpredictable, bullying world. There was some influence of this in Love in the Time of Monsters earlier, drunkier drafts, which was fun for a while but got in the way of maintaining any serious sense of danger in the story world. Comedy and Horror are very similar genres but must respect each other if they're to co-exist in one piece of work - nothing to ruin a good tense moment than an unnecessary one-liner.
The movie's marketing and Rolfe's commentary (probably one and the same) insist that this film was the direct inspiration for Kevin Williamson's 1996 Scream screenplay. Or, should I say Screamplay? No, I should not. While the 90s were a great time for self-awareness to become hip I personally don't have a doubt that TNOT influenced Scream in the way that Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark influenced Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull Bullshit : take the nifty core idea and repurpose the supporting elements for a mainstream distribution (in other words, hey that was cool now let's charge every idiot in the world for a mutilated "For Dummies" version).
Whereas most of the films on Troma's distribution label rely on exhaustive gore, sex, violence, insanity, or a combination of all four, TNOT goes for a more classic horror movie approach of slow building tension interspersed with character dynamics. Couple this with the self-aware gags like an oft-bikini'd heroine and the passing-by van of punks on their way to "the cabin by the lake," TNOT has real viability as a horror film that knows what rules to break. The elements that don't work, however, are the main attractions - in addition to Mike's Non-Hero character there's a gag towards the end when a well-placed boom mic helps save the day. I'm sure this killed in the read-throughs but on screen it completely breaks the fourth wall in a way that completely throws off the reality of the story world. This would be fine if it went somewhere afterwards, or came from anywhere beforehand, but the fact that it's a one-off throwaway gag just puzzles audiences more than entertains.
Where TNOT lacks in credibility however, it makes up for in heart. Rolfe got this thing made when he was just 21 or so which is a huge accomplishment in itself, and it has a The Room-like sense of amateur passion. I admire the fact that it exists, and while I could have wished a better career for Writer/Director Rolfe Kanefsky than a half-dozen Emmanuelles it seems appropriate that There's Nothing Out There was his deservedly-obscure opus.