J.J. Abrams’ monster-sci-fi Cloverfield projects have always been streaked-through with horror: the 2008 original had its subway tunnel of spider- beasties, 10 Cloverfield Lane had an acid- soaked John Goodman, and this year’s Paradox was a bit of a nightmare full stop. And while the Bad Robot-produced Overlord turns out not to be a Cloverfield movie after all, despite the rumours, it also stands apart from that anthology film series by inverting its formula. There is weird science at play here, in the unholy Nazi experiments lurking in a French church, but for the most part we’re in full-blown, gung-ho gore-horror territory.
At least, that’s where Overlord ends up. It starts as a war movie, hours before D-Day, opening with a retro title card as planes full of American soldiers enter French airspace. In one aircraft is Sgt. Ford (Wyatt Russell) and his troops, young Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo) among them, with a vital mission: infiltrate a Nazi-occupied French village and take out a signal-jamming radio tower. No success, no D-Day.
The gory denouement doesn't conjure quite enough carnage to mask a lack of real scares.
Up-and-coming director Julius Avery delivers a ferocious opening act, smartly framing war as a horror-show all of its own. Boyce’s arrival to the battlefield is a literal baptism of fire, snatched from a vortex of flames as his plane is shot down, and descends to the ground in a barrage of explosions and gunfire. On arrival, the air is thick with fog, and bodies hang from trees illuminated by a hazy orange glow. War is hell. But once surviving foursome of Boyce, Ford, Tibbet (John Magaro) and war photographer Chase (Iain De Caestecker) pitch up at their mission destination, the horrors of war become more literal with the nightmarish creations of Nazi scientist Dr. Wafner (Pilot Asbæk).
After such a gripping opener, it’s here Overlord starts to lose its way. The pacing lulls as the gang join forces with resisting villager Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), and while Avery teases the supernatural elements effectively he plays his full hand too soon. The genre switch-up isn’t as sudden as, say, From Dusk Till Dawn, while Asbæk’s sneering baddie pales in comparison to Inglourious Basterds’ Hans Landa or Pan’s Labyrinth’s Captain Vidal.
Crucially, every time Overlord looks set to tip into a glorious Grindhouse-inspired monster-mash finale, it holds back from hitting the levels of adrenaline-fuelled insanity you hope for. It’s a fun ride, but the script isn’t knowingly silly enough to hit that so-dumb-it’s-brilliant sweet spot, and the gory denouement doesn’t conjure quite enough carnage to mask a lack of real scares.
Still, Adepo puts fine work into his underwritten everyman hero, Russell gives good gruff tough-guy grumbling, and the body horror sequences are impressively gnarly. As producer J.J. Abrams’ first foray into all-out horror, Overlord’s got guts. You’ll just wish it had more.