Proof of what a talented group of people can do with standardized material if they treat it with intelligence, THE RUNESTONE is quite a pleasant surprise, a deft and intriguing low-budget horror item that deserved much better handling than it received.
The title refers to a Norse relic discovered in a Pennsylvania mine that is covered with inscrutable lettering and features a horrific carving of a monster in its center. Brought back to New York City, the runestone begins to have a profound effect on Martin Almquist (Mitchell Laurance), the
archaeologist who is keeping the discovery in his loft. Pretty soon he vanishes, and soon thereafter, a series of mutilation murders befalls the city. Marla Stewart (Joan Severance), Martin's ex-lover who just happens to have married another archaeologist, Sam (Tim Ryan), thinks there's a
connection, but can't convince wise-guy detective Fanducol (the usually taciturn Peter Riegert, in a refreshing change-of-pace performance).
Only an old expert in Norse mythology, Lars Hagstron (William Hickey), thinks the unearthing of the runestone might have led to Martin's transformation into something large, furry and nasty, but he falls prey to the beast shortly after explaining things to Marla, who is then pursued through
Central Park by the beast. Also getting involved in the mayhem is a mysterious clockmaker (Alexander Godunov), who's waiting in the wings with a method of combating the monster; Fanducol's gruff chief Richardson (Lawrence Tierney), who thinks the culprit is "maybe a guy in a bullet-proof vest and
a dog suit"; and a young man named Jacob (Chris Young) who will ultimately deliver the coup de grace to the monster.
Despite strong reviews and exposure at a couple of film festivals, THE RUNESTONE managed to land only one theatrical playdate in LA, where it was foolishly marketed as one of the multitude of "sexy thrillers" currently cluttering up the marketplace. The movie is adult, to be sure, but only in its
gratifyingly mature approach to its characters and their reactions to the situations, even if what we've basically got here is a big hairy monster running amok. THE RUNESTONE piles on almost too many subplots and characters, and plods occasionally trying to keep them all sorted out, but the
characters are developed and, more importantly, acted well enough that the movie never founders for long. It's nice to see a film where the characters appear to have lives beyond the boundaries of the film's story, and react to the terrors that confront them not with cliches but in the way real
That's not to say that the movie is all character development; writer-director Willard Carroll, working from a novella by Mark E. Rogers, keeps things jumping with vicious monster attacks and, as the story goes on, increasingly spectacular sequences in which squads of cops try to no avail to shoot
the monster down. The creature itself, designed by Lance Anderson, doesn't reinvent the man-in-a-suit approach, but it remains convincing because the characters all react to it believably. Carroll's scare sequences sometimes fall prey to convention--when the beast chases Marla through Central
Park, you just know she'll be accosted by some thugs, whose assault of her will soon be rudely interrupted--but his directorial confidence makes the scenes work just the same.
Further benefiting from strong technical contributions, especially Misha Suslov's evocative photography and David Newman's strong score, THE RUNESTONE is an invigorating change from the usual camp approach to low-budget horror. (Violence, profanity, sexual situations.)
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