cast: Leah Pipes, Josh Henderson, Sally Kirkland, Geoffrey Lewis, and Lou Diamond Phillips

director: Harry Basil

92 minutes (18) 2006
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Starz DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Paul Higson

I review two horror films this month, the first example, Red Sands, urging me into a mild depression. Harry Basil’s Fingerprints therefore did not arrive on a wave of enthusiasm, but I made it the second part of a double bill, the plan being that I could kill the two films at once and ruin only the one night. Confession time… I jump-flitted through Fingerprints to help me decide whether it was a film that warranted thorough attention and it did not… this and the not overlong running time prompted decision of a quick watch. I returned to quadruple zero (00.00) and began proper.

The first 30 minutes revealed Fingerprints to be the opposite of Red Sands, though that was not to say that it proffered hope. Unabashedly old school in film technique, Fingerprints is a throwback to early 1980s’ horror. Steadfast in its telling, the story is presented in a relaxed filming and editing style that was once common. Today, fractious and tiresome jitter-vision attempts and fails to provide the anxiety that the story is incapable of, commonly hiding the fact that it has no story, but otherwise playing a part in the film’s collapsing opportunities for suspense. Fingerprints returns to sensible ‘old school’ practices which do not guarantee excellence but does at the very least allow the viewer to relax, and if the thrills and wonders come the film will benefit all the more for it.

The opening half hour of Fingerprints does not dazzle, trotting onwards only. There is a nostalgic feel of 1982 and the botched potboilers of Herb Freed, Gus Trikonis, William Girdler and Stephen Obrow; memories of undemanding feature films, but with enough eccentricity in their details to give them some rewarding fizzle. Railway crossing, picket fences, a tinkly soundtrack, school hallways, in-camera effects and simple opticals – the retro boxes are ticked. Remove the mobile phones and the laptops and you are back in the 1980s. But this is not the whole story as, as Ethel Merman once sang, it’s not where you start it’s where you finish… and Fingerprints saves its best moves, most bemusing quirks, entertaining dialogue and surprising twist for the 60 minutes to come.

The film opens with two sisters in a car, one recounting for the other some of the unnatural history of the small town to which they have just moved. She tells of the 1957 tragedy in which a school bus collided with a goods train, killing all onboard. Local lore continues that if anyone parks at the fatal crossing and takes their handbrake off, the dead children will push the vehicle out into the imagined path of a train, leaving their hand prints all over the bodywork. Melanie (Leah Pipes), the older sister, is the reason for the family move, a new life necessary following an experiment with heroin which left her boyfriend dead and her close to it. The girls settle in but an escapade at the crossings soon immerses Melanie into a twister of activity involving not only the unhappy dead but a serial killer to boot. Keeping to the theme, the killer’s guise is that of an old-fashioned rail guard, the face obscured by black cloth. The odd events continue. The ghost of a little girl accepts a lift. It is disclosed that many of the street names carry the forenames of the lost children, seemingly further cursing the small town. When unpleasant rich kid Mitch (Andrew Lawrence) tries to rape Melanie, his card is seemingly marked and later that night he becomes a victim of the killer, whose modus operandi is to drop them with a stun gun before finishing them off with a knife.

Fingerprints picks up a pace and sure skills come into play. The approach is so unassuming that when the major twists come it is in a casual sentence causing one to double-take and rewind. No whistles and bells, this is a modest film, unlike the Red Sands of the film world that scream ‘me, me, me!’ about their every nothing. The dialogue suddenly becomes smarter too. Naturalistic misunderstandings, faux pas and abstract responses that would have been thrown out as unnecessary accidents by other scriptwriters, or more likely never made it in deference to a cliché, here are identified as useful in adding character. When Melanie, investigating the history, visits Mary, the sister of the dead girl, now in her sixties, she asks if she has any pictures of Julie when she was young. “Well, my sister never really got beyond being a little girl,” responds Mary heading for a photo album. When Melanie is in police custody, the police ready to pin the death of Mitch on her, she is led into a corridor where the officer comments, “I need a refill!” Melanie responds, “Get it yourself!” the officer responding that he intended on doing so. The writer is conscious of making the filler dialogue more interesting than it might be and minor gaffes are better than bland linking chatter or painful quips. The most amusing line in the film is “You are going to your room for the rest of your life!” and it matters not that I leak this sentence to you now it will still create a big laugh when it arrives as it is all in the delivery and the context.

The film includes slots for several slipping celebrities with Lou Diamond Phillips as the school counsellor who betrays Melanie’s trust before realising the ghosts are real, Sally Kirkland almost unrecognisable in older age as Mary and the dependable Geoffrey Lewis picking up the Elisha Cook Jr instant-character-award as the down-and-out former Mayor Keeler. Leah Pipes is winning as Melanie and the rest of the cast are inoffensive. The bloodletting comes only when the plot turns in its direction unlike many films today which look at moments of gore as targets and objectives to be reached. Sean Morris’ music is a tribute to the scores of the early 1980s, tinkling, curving and ominous. The cinematographers Michael Goi and Andrea V. Rossotto, and film editor Stephan Adrianni, certify their professionalism by not drawing attention to their craft. Director Harry Basil is aware that the story is the thing and egos are left at the door. Fingerprints is a great example of the lost art of film technique and some of the nu-school of jitter buggers would do well to study this instead of the battle scenes from Band Of Brothers. Fingerprints has been on the shelf since 2006, clearly as the distributors are still shopping for panicky camera and torture porn as that is what the idiot young audience mistakes for what it wants.

Come the end of Fingerprints the viewing experience has progressed. Herb Freed and Jeffrey Obrow are forgotten and the degree of character is now closer if not on a par with entry level Larry Cohen and Jeff Lieberman. Harry Basil is a movie brat, the supplementary behind the scenes documentary reveals this, and yet, he never allows those influences to play directly into the film but does that rare thing and uses his knowledge to, where he can, deny access to that which has blatantly come before and the film, as a result, has a freshness to it, akin to a newborn imagination.

The 18-minute documentary on the production, from the writers’ perspective, gives us a window into this professional and fun production and a lesser extra enquires into the scariest experiences of its cast. The disc opens with trailers for My Name Is Bruce and Driftwood, neither of which looks particularly good; in fact they look a bit 1986 and 1991 respectively.