I’ve actually seen Man-Thing before, back when it aired on Sci-Fi. Lionsgate’s DVD release has it in what appears to be an open matte 16:9, as opposed to 2.35:1 (which is how Sci-Fi aired it). So, I matted the DVD and tried the uncut version. It’s probably no better than the televised, but–and here’s why I’ve always had some affection for the movie–it’s interesting in its derivations. Screenwriter Hans Rodionoff seems, understandably, influenced by a couple major sources–Jaws and The Thing. It’s an odd mix, especially since the unknown factor from The Thing isn’t present at all in Man-Thing, but still Rodionoff–and especially Brett Leonard–manage to get that vibe.
Leonard’s direction is–not even taking his budget or the ludicrous nature of the movie into account–a success. Until the very last sequence, he’s golden. Even his semi-sepia tone for daylight and his green filters for the swamp scenes work. He gives Man-Thing a wonderful mood, making the silliness look good and bringing validity to the working parts. He’s just not a horror director and Rodionoff’s script sets Man-Thing up as a horror movie, a monster movie with a lot of suspects (who can’t possibly be guilty but by investigating and clearing each of them… well, it delays having to show the monster and spend the bucks doing so–kind of like a William Castle). Leonard can’t make anything scary. He also can’t get any chemistry between leads Matthew Le Nevez and Rachael Taylor, but that problem seems to be Taylor’s fault (and whoever cast her).
For budgetary reasons, the whole production is Australian. The locations work and maybe three of the cast members can handle the Southern accents (for a while). Luckily, Le Nevez is playing a “yankee,” something Rodionoff’s script frequently points out (though there are exceptions, Rodionoff’s got a couple rednecks straight from Deliverance) and only has to maintain a straight California TV accent. Le Nevez somehow manages to turn in a good performance, which is impressive, considering his face doesn’t seem to emote. But, when called for, he manages with his eyes. He makes the movie watchable for lots of parts, though he gets some help. Alex O’Loughlin, whose accent is shaky, is appealing as the sidekick and director Leonard’s acting turn as the bewildered coroner is good. Taylor’s awful, as is bad guy Patrick Thompson. The Native Americans who know all the answers, Rawiri Paratene and Steve Bastroni (a New Zealander and an Italian, respectively), have good moments and bad. Jack Thompson’s Mr. Big is a lot of fun, as he lays on his fake accent and turns up the volume. Man-Thing, as a comedy, would have probably worked… Even sinister redneck John Batchelor has his moments. But Taylor’s just awful.
Man-Thing‘s conclusion, which ties up the mystery and brings all the characters together, is a misstep. The Man-Thing special effects, when Leonard’s hiding them, are good and he even earns enough credit to get away with a couple long shots of the creature. But the convenient ending reveals the movie’s biggest problem (well, besides Taylor and the scenes with the real-life father and son Thompson team, which just get too goofy–and it’s clear Leonard isn’t directing for them–bad script, good direction)–Rodionoff doesn’t have a story. There’s no plot. Le Nevez’s new sheriff shows up and sees some stuff. Besides his silly romance and some serious mistakes, he’s inessential to the story unfolding. He’s a witness… and all the time spent with him doesn’t add up to anything in the way of narrative pay-off (evidenced by the movie’s abrupt ending).
A lot of the movie suggested, in the end, it’d get a point. The ending, though, and Taylor’s growing screen presence, knock it around too much. It’s just too bad Leonard, who can direct, and Rodionoff, who can at least plot compelling scenes… but maybe not full narratives, don’t do anything better.