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Overlord Movie Review

Overlord (2018) movie poster Overlord

Theatrical Release: November 9, 2018 / Running Time: 110 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Julius Avery / Writers: Billy Ray (story & screenplay), Mark L. Smith (screenplay)

Cast: Jovan Adepo (Pvt. Ed Boyce), Wyatt Russell (Cpl. Ford), Mathilde Ollivier (Chloe), Pilou Asbæk (Cpt. Wafner), John Magaro (Tibbet), Iain De Caestecker (Chase), Jacob Anderson (Dawson), Dominic Applewhite (Rosenfeld), Gianny Taufer (Paul), Joseph Quinn (Grunauer), Bokeem Woodbine (Rensin), Erich Redman (Dr. Schmidt), Mark McKenna (Murphy), Hayley Carmichael (Mrs. Lesner), Marc Rissmann (Scherzer), Meg Foster (Chloe's Aunt)


A little while ago, I made it my personal goal to see 100 movies in theaters this year. It's not the big achievement it might sound like because film critics see most movies for free and because last year I saw 93 without even trying.
The point of this revelation is that there are certain movies I'm on the fence about reviewing whose screenings I will attend, in part so no one can ever say I didn't "keep it 100."

Overlord is one such movie. It hailed from a director I didn't know with a cast of unknowns (the biggest name being Kurt Russell...'s son Wyatt) and all I really knew was that it was a World War II horror film. It had two screenings scheduled. One was in conflict with the only remaining screening of Widows, which I needed to see, and the other was on a Monday night at 10:00 PM. I was less drawn in by the movie than the prospect of seeing a movie in a theater I hadn't been inside in three years and so with the encouragement of my friend, who agreed to be my +1 not just for this late night screening but the even less appealing one three hours before it, I saw this movie.

I'm glad I did, not merely because the syringe-styled Overlord pen handed out at the screening stands as the most creative piece of swag I've gotten this year, but because Overlord is surprisingly good. Not "good for horror" -- and genre fans may even object to designating it as horror -- just genuinely good, original, and engrossing.

Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo) finds a syringe with the mysterious substance of Nazi experiments.

None too promisingly, the film opens with American soldiers aboard a plane whose constant loud noises require character shouting over. We don't catch everything they say, but get enough to establish the African-American newbie Boyce (Jovan Adepo) as our protagonist, the stoic Ford (Wyatt Russell) as his commanding officer, Tibbet (John Magaro) as a loudmouth, and another as a photographer (Iain De Caestecker). Their mission is to take down a communications tower the Nazis have set up over a church in rural France. The plane winds up in enemy crosshairs and the aforementioned four are among the five survivors we stay with. The group encounters Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), a French girl with nearly as much disdain for the Nazis occupying her country as the Allied forces who are fighting them.

Shrunk to four, the group of soldiers makes its way to Chloe's house, where she lives with her kid brother and their aunt, who remains largely off-camera while grappling with some disturbing mystery illness. When Captain Wafner (Pilou Asbæk), one of the Nazis policing the area, tries to have his way with Chloe, the group intervenes and a stand-off ensues. Meanwhile, Boyce finds himself inside a Nazi laboratory, where captives are being injected with a mystery serum of remarkable power.

Mixing history and horror puts this in tricky terrain, but Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, Captain Phillips) and his co-screenwriter Mark L. Smith (The Revenant) somehow get it right. They don't dumb this down or allow it to devolve into a gory mess. Some credit must go to director Julius Avery, making only his second feature after 2015's gold heist thriller Son of a Gun. Tension builds at a steady, even pace. Horror elements are limited to a relative minimum and it's very easy to be surprised by them if you haven't researched the film coming in. Avery never opts for cheap thrills, keeping the focus tight and the dynamics compelling.

Wyatt Russell follows his father Kurt's footsteps into action hero mode as Corporal Ford.

The cast also goes a long way to ensuring that, even before this inches towards zombie movie designation, it isn't just the umpteenth WWII movie you've seen. Russell is particularly enjoyable for how much resemblance he bears to his father. After pretty unremarkable turns in a variety of genres, here Russell embraces his DNA, recalling his father's work in early '80s John Carpenter movies The Thing and Escape from New York. And with that, we might have just bought ourselves another thirty or so years of a Russell as action leading man, not that 67-year-old Kurt seems done on that front.

In a year that's seen a number of horror movies earn really good reviews, Overlord has earned an approval rating nearly as high as any other in the genre. A closer look reveals critics' enthusiasm for this is not on the order of A Quiet Place and Hereditary, but closer to the new Halloween. That is to say that when asked to choose between "fresh" or "rotten", most critics have opted for the former.
I'm surprised my fellow critics haven't been even more admiring of Overlord because it genuinely is different and that usually attracts praise. For me, A Quite Place ranks first among this year's horror crop, but Overlord is right up there with Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria on the second tier.

Surprisingly, Overlord isn't as low-budget as you assume it would be. Its $38 million price tag is more than twice as much as A Quiet Place and nearly four times as much as Halloween cost. That might explain why, a genre entry without a flashy concept or established names, has been treated to a wide release from Paramount Pictures instead of trying to gradually find an audience on buzz and word of mouth. Besides having one of the major studios as its distributor, Overlord does credit J.J. Abrams as a producer and he's certainly had some commercial success both at Paramount (Cloverfield, the Mission: Impossible franchise, Super 8, Star Trek) and beyond (Star Wars). But it's a stretch to think that people would buy tickets to a movie just because Abrams is producing it. Barely earning $10 million on its opening weekend, Overlord doesn't look like it will earn back its budget anytime soon, particularly in a genre where box office legs are so rare. That's unfortunate, because moviegoers are missing out on of the more surprising and immersive films of the year.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: SuspiriaHalloweenBad Times at the El RoyaleFirst ManHunter Killer
Wyatt Russell: Table 19Everybody Wants Some | John Magaro: The Big ShortNot Fade AwayDown the Shore
Screenplay by Billy Ray: Captain PhillipsThe Hunger Games | Screenplay by Mark L. Smith: The RevenantThe HoleVacancy

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Reviewed November 12, 2018.

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