Review: Overlord

It’s B movie WW2 horror, but Overlord doesn’t pretend to be anything else – it’s a gory thrill ride I quite enjoyed!

On D-Day, a group of paratroopers including Pvt Ed Boyce (Jovan Adepo) and Cpl Ford (Wyatt Russell) enter a French village with the help of young rebel Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier). Stumbling upon a Nazi experimentation lab, some particularly horrifying discoveries cause them to reassess their mission.

When first announced – as a J.J. Abrams production – assumptions were that this would be another film that began as one thing and became a Cloverfield offshoot (much as 10 Cloverfield Lane was). However, this has absolutely nothing to do with Cloverfield. The Abrams connection instead means we get a well shot, well funded B movie horror filled with evil Nazis and meaty body horror.

Director Julius Avery sneaks a horror movie inside a WW2 action film, a From Dusk til Dawn style shift halfway through marking the genre segue. Controlled camerawork means that even when things get weird, you still have a sense of place, while a quick pace helps events fly past.

Avery does a great job with a small cast and a distinct lack of character development, the latter point actually a strength because it’s not trying to be a detailed and forensic look at D-Day. Indeed, the chaotic nature of that operation means this exists in its own bubble amid the bigger picture.

Opening and closing credits lovingly recreate those of the 40s, while the setting in a 1940s French village is excellently done. A sequence of note is the movie’s opening set piece; such a tense, well shot section that it could be edited into a WW2 movie and still work.

Avery knows how to turn the screw and deliver jump scares as well as sudden shocks, while at other points maintains tension and suspense. Obviously however a gonzo conclusion blows this away quite spectacularly, while Jed Kurzel’s soundtrack ably meets the film’s needs whether they be quiet or loud.

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The bananas script from Billy Ray and Mark L Smith takes very real and horrific Nazi obsessions with experimentation and war winning weapons, and melds them into essentially a zombie story. They’re not attempting to win an Oscar – god knows the dialogue bears this out – but it’s just unique enough that it works.

One interesting throughline is that the war clearly continues before and after the story, the soldiers’ mission continuing despite what they discover – the dip into a little supernatural WW2 story effectively continuing the work laid down by Indiana Jones but with gore.

And there’s some great gore and body horror here. With the film’s abrupt switch, fellow cinemagoers were “taken aback” by the grisly second half. Because this builds on a very real, very ghoulish element of Nazi evil, it resounds a little more (with some of what we see – when it goes mental however, you’re soon out of that mindset), with some objectionable imagery once the lab is uncovered.

If anything works against this film, it’s that it’s neither deep nor clever – characterisation is thinly sketched to say the least. But its weaknesses are largely erased if you just accept this is a B movie – it’s not trying to say anything or win awards, it’s a transgressive fun at the expense of cinema’s go-to bastards.

Ironically, in a movie steeped in WW2 cinematic stereotypes – from a creepy, rapey SS bastard to the damaged US corporal who’s a potential problem – its star is something new. Adepo’s African American recruit is unique in his mediocrity, as while he serves solely as a plot moving protagonist, how often have we seen a black lead for a WW2 film? He gives the film some heart and an emotional centre, though eventually – bleakly – Boyce becomes a killer in order to survive.

Wyatt Russell brings his dad’s bravado to proceedings as the driven, damaged corporal, and adds an air of detached danger, Ford focused entirely on mission because he’s become so inured to death. There’s an attempt at a group, Iain De Caestecker’s green and naive photographer and John Magaro’s Italian American sleazeball standing out, but they follow the stereotypes – only becoming more distinctive once shit hits the fan.

And that shit is Pilou Asbaek’s uncomfortably slimy SS captain Wafner, joining a long list of foul cinematic Nazi antagonists. Asbaek, who distinguished himself among a shower of bastards in Game of Thrones as utter scumbag Euron Greyjoy, delights in bringing that same “eugh” to Wafner, who spans the Nazi spectrum from rapist to sadist.

Mathilde Olivier’s combative, impassioned Chloe subverts the traditional European survivor character subject to Nazi rule, as an angry young woman fighting against the Germans anyway she can, offering some steel and rarely needing a rescue.

Overlord absolutely delights in its heritage, from Indiana Jones to 70s grindhouse movies. It’s unashamed of its origins and embraces its B movie status, and if you’re up for that then make sure you see it.

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