It’s been three years since the shambling horror-comedy The Revenant was a sensation on the festival circuit, but while the long stay in distribution limbo has had an impact on one of the movie’s biggest cultural references, The Revenant remains more clever than rickety. David Anders stars as a soldier who gets killed in Iraq—there’s that no-longer-of-the-moment cultural reference—and shipped home to California, where he rises from the dead and shows up on the doorstep of his slacker buddy Chris Wylde. With the help of the Internet, Wylde determines that Anders isn’t a zombie or a vampire but rather a revenant, a bloodthirsty corporeal ghost with unfinished business among the living. Then, through a series of coincidences, Anders and Wylde become gun-slinging superheroes of a sort, with Anders feeding off the thieves and drug dealers they kill during their nightly excursions. And all the while, Anders and Wylde try to figure out whether the undead have a purpose in this world.
The Revenant builds too slowly, and the characters can’t seem to utter a sentence without some variant of “fuck” between every word, which gets tiresome. But writer-director-producer-editor D. Kerry Prior has worked in effects departments on big and small movies since the ’80s, so he knows how to make bloody vomit, splattery gunfights, and disembodied heads look both disgusting and funny. He’s pretty good with actors, too: Wylde has a scruffy wit not unlike a young Michael Keaton, and he and Anders make a winning pair as they tool around L.A., killing gangsters and guzzling booze and blood.
What really helps The Revenant overcome its pacing and dialogue weaknesses, though, is that Prior thinks through his premise—which is traditionally the key to good comedy and good genre films. When Anders first awakens, he has Wylde take him to the hospital, where he describes his condition on his admittance form as “General Malaise.” When a severed head tries to pass on important information, Anders holds a vibrator to its throat to generate sound. At every step in the story, Prior thinks about what makes logical sense, what illuminates the characters, and what’ll get a laugh, rather than just pushing ahead to whatever preordained point he wants to reach. The result is a horror film that progresses organically and unpredictably, even willing to take a turn for the tragic, if that’s what’s inevitable.