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The horrors of war – ‘Overlord’

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Genre mash-ups are a tricky business. To be truly successful, they must stay true to the genres being addressed while also avoiding getting bogged down in tropes and clichés. Making something that is cohesive and entertaining requires a specific touch.

And when the genres you’re mashing up are horror and war, well … you’re swinging big.

“Overlord” takes just such a big swing. The J.J. Abrams-produced film – directed by Julius Avery from a screenplay by Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith – is a stoned dorm room bull session come to fruition, a preposterous elevator pitch brought to life. It’s a joking dare taken seriously.

And it is a gory, absurd delight.

You’ve probably never said to yourself “I sure do want to see a World War II movie where a group of soldiers on a mission behind enemy lines wind up encountering an experimental Nazi lab that makes zombies.” I know I never have. That doesn’t make it untrue. Because that’s the thing – you ABSOLUTELY want to see that movie. And now you can.

In the hours before the D-Day invasion, a small group of soldiers is tasked with dropping into occupied France to take out a radio tower. Eliminating this tower is one of the keys to the success of the Allied attack; it is a vitally important mission. A plane full of soldiers is dedicated to making its way inland and executing the plan.

The Nazi anti-aircraft guns have other ideas, however. The plane is shot down; only a handful of the men on board make it to the ground and evade capture. Boyce (Jovan Adepo, TV’s “The Leftovers”) is on his first deployment; his showing at Basic left some feeling less than secure in his soldiering acumen. There’s the loudmouthed Tibbet (John Magaro, “Marshall”) and the quiet photographer Chase (Iain De Caestecker, TV’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”) and the mission’s leader Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell, “Shimmer Lake”); the rest of the crew met unfortunate fates, either in the air or on the ground.

The quartet stumble upon a woman sneaking through the woods. They approach her and convince her that they aren’t Nazis, but rather are there to help. The woman – Chloe (Mathilde Olliver, “The Misfortunes of Francois Jane”) – agrees to hide them in her attic while they figure out a plan to take down the radio tower, hidden in the steeple of the town’s church.

While there, the soldiers discover that the local SS bigwig – a slimy sociopath named Wafner (Pilou Asbaek, TV’s “Game of Thrones”) – has been taking advantage of Chloe, who is trying to protect her little brother and her sick aunt. Boyce, unable to sit idly by while Wafner assaults Chloe, confronts the Nazi, much to Ford’s chagrin. They wind up taking Wafner captive in the attic.

But there’s much more to the occupation than meets the eye … and there’s much more going on beneath that church than the simply transmission of radio signals.

There’s a lab – a lab where Dr. Schmidt (Erich Redman, “The 12th Man”) is performing gruesome and terrifying experiments in an effort to create super-soldiers that will prove capable of serving for the duration of the thousand-year Reich. There are untold horrors in the tunnels beneath that church – and just a handful of brave men with any hope of stopping them.

“Overlord” is a fantastic time at the cinema, embracing its B-movie sensibilities while executing them with tremendous skill. It is both familiar and utterly unlike anything you’ve experienced.

Seriously – the first half of this movie plays like a pulpy, but relatively straightforward war movie. There are a few hints of something weird beneath the surface, but for the most part, it feels pretty standard. That’s not to imply that there aren’t outstanding moments; the opening of the film, from plane to parachute to landing, is visceral and pulse-pounding. The paranoid tension and claustrophobia of wartime are front and center.

But then the strangeness bubbles up and you’re confronted with something altogether different, something bloody and bizarre. The weirdness gets cranked up to 11 as you’re thrust into rapidly-spiraling circumstances fraught with a new flavor of fear and unapologetically spattered with gore. There are a handful of moments so beautifully insane that I don’t dare mention them here – they need to be seen without foreknowledge.

This movie shouldn’t fit together as well as it does; it’s a credit to the filmmakers that it’s such an effective experience. The commitment to a serious tone lends it an unexpected gravitas, while the magnificent effects work (almost all practical from the look of it) grounds it in a bizarre realism.

The ensemble acquits itself well. Adepo takes the lead, allowing us to see the horrors of war through Boyce’s inexperienced eyes. His uncertainty is ever-present in the ideal way. Russell taps into the archetype of the cinematic NCO, giving us the gruff and determined leader that we expect from a war movie. Olliver takes what could have been a one-dimensional character and gives her depth. Magaro and De Caestecker find truth in their own tropes and stereotypes. And Asbaek is outstanding as Wafner, giving precisely the sort of quietly over-the-top performance that this story requires.

“Overlord” is perhaps the pleasantest surprise I’ve had at the movies all year. It’s beautifully-crafted trash, a nutso concept treated with intelligence and respect. It’s DEFINITELY not for everyone, but if any of this sounds even the least bit intriguing, you owe it to yourself to see this movie.

[5 out of 5]

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