HELLBOY may be the most well-known 2000s franchise that uses the Third Reich’s preoccupation with the occult as a touchstone, but that footnote in weird history has proven to be a rich mine for genre artists of all sorts. The basic concept of someone stumbling upon supernatural evil in a Nazi bunker is solid enough to serve as the foundation for a wide variety of b-movie/straight-to-video style thrills. 2008’s OUTPOST pitted modern-day mercenaries against dimension-jumping Nazi supersoldiers, and was followed by a handful films that take place during WWII such as A CHANCE IN HELL, THE DEVIL’S ROCK, and FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY. Now it’s Hollywood’s turn at bat with JJ Abrams producing OVERLORD, the latest example of this curious sub-subgenre, and one that delivers the goods and then some.
Boyce (Jovan Adepo) is a rookie paratrooper on a mission to take out a Nazi radio tower to facilitate ground/air communications between Allied forces storming the beach at Normandy and moving into occupied France. After their plane is shot down, the few survivors of Boyce’s troop proceed to the target under the command of troubled transfer Ford (Wyatt Russell). The town where the radio tower is located is totally occupied by Nazi forces who have turned their church into a bunker and command center, and Boyce discovers there is also a lab underground where the Nazis are performing evil experiments. With the clock ticking to Allied forces reaching Normandy, Boyce and Ford have to take out the tower and stop whatever the mad scientists are about to unleash before it’s too late.
If it wasn’t for its big-studio pedigree, it would be easy to mistake OVERLORD on paper for a 90s Full Moon or New Horizons Pictures production. But director Julius Avery takes full advantage of the resources that come along with being a Bad Robot production, opening the film with some quick character sketching before plunging the audience directly into a harrowing real-time descent from a burning plane with Boyce. The cast is great in helping lend some emotional weight to their characters in a short amount of time before everything goes to hell, and the production design is certainly an order of magnitude higher than, say, PUPPET MASTER 3. Importantly, however, Avery keeps the spirit of those video store and cable classics while driving the action forward at a brisk pace.
Anyone worried that OVERLORD might devolve into a fight against an army of CG monsters will breathe a sigh of relief that the film is instead packed with impressively gruesome practical effects. There’s some CG, of course, but most of the film’s nastiest surprises have a convincing physical presence. The film hybridizes boots-on-the-ground WWII action and gory horror deftly, and establishes very early on that nobody is guaranteed to survive to the end credits. Each of the characters are fleshed out enough that it’s genuinely affecting when any of them are inevitably dispatched by either German arms fire or the unholy results of mad science, and Avery and screenwriters Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith use that to their advantage in a number of tense set pieces.
All that said, at its core OVERLORD is an action/horror b-movie, so anyone expecting SAVING PRIVATE RYAN or DUNKIRK is going to be sorely disappointed. Everyone involved clearly knew exactly what kind of movie they were making, and it never takes itself too seriously. It definitely delivers on its promise of genre thrills, though, and sometimes that’s more than enough. Horror fans should be thankful Paramount and Bad Robot was willing to throw so much money at this thing, and hopefully audiences will respond as enthusiastically as the Fantastic Fest crowd did when OVERLORD hits theaters in November.
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