Something I might have failed to mention when I was reviewing The Man Who Wanted To Fly back in July is that I have struggled to catch Irish cinema this year. That documentary, though (whisper it) technically a 2018 release, was the first new and properly Irish film I was able to see in 2019 (and no guys, The Favourite does not count, come on). It wasn’t through conscious aversion, but there was nothing that has so far emanated from Ireland that really caught my eye this year, not even in the usually reliable ADIFF.
And then I saw the poster for this supernatural horror/comedy, and had to double-take before determining that yes, that is Will Forte front and centre. Though, in classic Hollywood style, Forte is not the lead, it makes sense to put him in that prominent position, because it was on account of him and my appreciation for him that I decided to look a bit closer into Extra Ordinary. I will usually avoid horror films like the plague, but I had to give this a go: a chance to see Forte in unlikely surrounds and take in an honest-to-goodness 2019 Irish film, is something I couldn’t pass up. So, any good, or was I tricked by the appearance of a mildly popular American comedian?
Rose (Maeve Higgins), a driving instructor living in rural Ireland, finds her life constantly upset by locals’ need for her other talents, namely how she can communicate with the dead: an ability she would prefer to forget. But she’s more inclined to help attractive single dad Martin (Barry Ward) when he comes to her for help dealing with his poltergeisting dead wife and suddenly levitating daughter, a consequence of a deal with the devil made by a fading pop star (Forte) hiding out in town.
Co-directed by Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman, film-makers mostly known (or not as the case may be) for short films and ads up to now, Extra Ordinary, in my opinion, has two main influences. First of all, there is Shawn Of The Dead, the masterpiece that opened the door for a veritable new wave of B-Movie horror with comedic elements, with the rattling of Ghostbusters not far off either. And there is The Guard, John Michael McDonough’s own comedic masterpiece, the very best effort at showcasing that very distinctive brand of Irish humour on-screen that I have ever seen. Extra Ordinary uses these two as assists in its effort to scale the same mountain. It doesn’t reach the same heights, but it gives it a damn good go all the same.
Most important of any criticism I could make, Extra Ordinary, is a genuine chuckle fest, and in a very Irish style too. Its script is an ode to Irish nonchalance in the face of extraordinary happenings, in sarcastic retorts and in awkward attempts to be intentionally funny not working out (and becoming, in the process, very funny indeed). It’s funny as Rose and her hairdresser both buy in to her rambling efforts to make a romantic mountain out of her more molehill-like interactions with Martin; it’s funny in how her attempts at basic small-talk with a student get interpreted as a come-on, that she instantly shuts down; it’s funny in the very 70’s style VHS cassettes of Rose’s deceased father (Risteard Cooper), a self-proclaimed paranormal expert who points to moving pen tops and mouldy cheese as evidence of ghosts (and who died in an unlikely incident involving a haunted pothole); it’s funny with the idea of a green-conscious Irish farmer haunting the recycling bin his wife refuses to use; it’s funny in its off-kilter dark Irish wit, like its opening scene, where the flowers Rose leaves at her father’s death site (“Sorry for slaughtering you Daddy” she intones, when “murdering” seems overly-dramatic) are immediately picked up by a trailing rubbish truck.
Extra Ordinary could become a forgettable succession of jokes with little to mortar them all together, but for Maeve Higgins’ Rose. She’s warm, she’s bubbly, she’s endearingly awkward, whether she’s eating yogurt on a bouncy ball or summoning the spirits of the dead to have a chat (all in a bid to steal their ectoplasm, in a recurring gross-out segment). Higgins, someone I’m not all that familiar with if I am being honest, gives such a wonderful honest portrayal of Rose, that’s its simply impossible not to like her. She brings the disparate parts of the production together with her at the centre, this rapidly-moving towards middle-age Irish woman stumbling towards having it all.
Her relationship with Martin Martin, a name utterly appropriate for such a unimpressive hen-pecked (by his deceased wife) man, makes up the most of the film. Barry Ward, playing a slightly unusual comedic role for him, is great as the brow-beaten from beyond the grave Martin, who has so little control over the elements of his life that any idea of change gives him a heart attack. Ward revels in a role where repeated ghostly possessions allow him to play a few different characters, up to and including his own chain-smoking wife, while Rose dances around an all-out flirtation. The pedestrian nature of the inevitable romantic plot obviously is a detriment, but the film is more interested in fun characters and laugh-making then setting out to make something revolutionary. In the end, it succeeds in giving itself an emotional core, in the simple story of a lonely unfulfilled woman who may have found the right man.
With the main players giving it socks, it falls to Will Forte to do the rest. He apparently joined the film only a month before shooting, and partly because he was already planning an extended holiday in Ireland anyway, and we are all the ones to benefit. It’s such a ridiculous character to end up playing: Christian Winter, a one-hit wonder decades before (with the atrocious sounding “Cosmic Woman” that includes the lyric “You look like Anne Boleyn, before her beheadin”), who now spends his days attempting to capture a virgin for a demonic ritual, so he can get fame and fortune back for himself and his psychopathic wife (Claudia O’Doherty- a treat all of her own, whose repeated advice to Christian is to “Just kill the bitch”).
Forte plays Winter perfectly, as a man obsessed with dramatic pronouncements but who is constantly getting interrupted or distracted by the more ordinary people around him. You can genuinely feel his distracted annoyance at such inconveniences as having his initial virgin sacrifice blown up in odd circumstances, with his nonchalance calling back to the way his 30 Rock character, Paul, would all-too-easily talk about his and Jenna Maroney’s bizarre sexual escapades. Forte gets laughs when he’s just letting his “Willy stick” – a demonic artifact used to track down virgins – fall to the ground: Claudia advises that he stop doing so in their castle and start closer to town. He can quip, he can do physical comedy – a sequence where Rose, failingly, tries to teach him to drive “stick” is a true stand-out on that score – and he brings a real verve to everything.
The various elements make Extra Ordinary a little packed for its 92 minute running time, but the way that it is thus able to jump from plot-to-plot actually helps it along, allowing it to maintain a frenetic but never rushed pace. You could see this idea being parsed out into a few episodes of a TV show, where we get to follow Rose and Martin dealing with a wide variety of departed spirits as a supernatural problem-solving duo, though you might have trouble keeping Forte involved. Regardless, for the bones of an hour, Extra Ordinary ticks along nicely.
Things get a little silly by the end, which feels like a strange thing to say for a film this inherently goofy. B-movies, I find, often have issues with the last act, when the promise of the premise section is done with and an actual ending has to be created. Such is the case here, when the world’s slowest car chase unfolds, demonic rituals are enacted, side-characters go into labour (with the assistance of the local county Councillor), the most unlikely sex scene you could have imagined takes place and a mis-ordered Chinese takeaway becomes a plot point. It seems like a case of throwing everything at the wall and hoping something sticks, and it is a tad distracting by the time a literal hell demon shows up.
Ahern and Loughman direct their film with a very clear 70’s aesthetic. While the time and place is never made explicitly clear, it seems to be in the late 90’s going by the Nokia 3210’s and availability of VHS players, and just about any one of hundreds of small Irish towns that consist of a street surrounded by a lot of farmland. And yet, there’s a grainy feel that makes the film seem a good bit older, helped by the eerie electronica score that makes one think instantly of Stranger Things on a leaner budget. The special effects are very limited, as are the lighting choices on occasion, but that simply adds to the mystique that the film is attempting to present. The only really grand spectacle is Christian Winter’s rented castle (it aids in the Satanic mystique, but he really lives there for the tax breaks), an old-school delight, that fares well under the Hammer-style fast forwarded dolly shots through the front door. Aside from that, there are neat bits of visual comedy: Rose waving to the ghosts only she can see as she drives through the town; Winter taking the instruction to “Push down on the clutch” a bit too literally; and Claudia’s rubber-burning solution to a levitating sacrifice that is moving a bit too slowly.
Extra Ordinary is a fine Irish film, one that was worth the wait in my case. The cast is great and clearly having a ball with their characters and the zany premise, introducing that classic Irish wit and deadpan delivery in the face of horror, comedic or otherwise. The film is reverent of its influences enough that its clear where it came from, but enough of its own thing to avoid accusations of lifting and heartfelt enough to avoid accusations of bland sentimentality. It makes the very best of Will Forte’s critical role, and considering how rare a talent like that will appear in a film like this, with this background, that is praiseworthy enough all on its own. It may not be The Guard or Shawn Of The Dead, but it knows what it is – quirky, defiantly so – and is all the more charming for that. It is well, well worth checking out on what I am sure will be a limited enough theatrical release. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Wildcard Distribution).