In the words of writer, director, and lead actor Tom DeNucci, Self Storage could be described as “American Pie meets Silence of the Lambs.” While those classics (Is American Pie a classic?) make for pretty poor points of comparison, his comment is not too far off the mark. Self Storage is a low-budget horror-comedy film that bounces between tasteless teen comedy and tasteless slasher. Done well, this combination could make for a pretty enjoyable affair, but unfortunately, DeNucci misses the mark.
The plot is pretty simple: Unbeknownst to easy-going night watchman Jake (DeNucci), his boss and storage facility owner, Walter, aka “The Major,” (Eric Roberts) uses his property as part of an organ-harvesting ring. When Jake is fired for his irresponsible work demeanor (e.g. passing out drunk on the front counter), he decides to go out with a bang and invites friends over for a party in his storage unit-cum-living space. The Major and his sinister henchman, Trevor (horror veteran Michael Berryman), take this opportunity to acquire more organs and hunt down the intoxicated youths one by one.
The movie, however, is not equal parts bawdy and scary. An undue emphasis is placed on the sexually-charged, beer-guzzling, bong-ripping, and thoroughly annoying 20-somethings that serve as the villains’ harvest. By the time the killing comes around, it seems little more than an afterthought, a series of rushed and uninteresting deaths tacked onto what appears to be the movie DeNucci really wanted to make – another direct-to-video American Pie spinoff.
That kind of unevenness in tone and atmosphere could ruin even a star-studded, studio-backed machine, but unfortunately this film is working with too small a budget and too poor a script to overcome such an obstacle. The humor is flat and unoriginal, the scares all but nonexistent. The acting is, for the most part, about what you would expect from what appear to be mostly friends of the director, but even superior talent would struggle with the bombardment of teen comedy clichés. You’ve got the sex-obsessed losers, the sex-obsessed player, the sex-obsessed girls, and the one wholesome couple who manages to find a real connection amidst the booze and music.
Academy Award-nominated Eric Roberts (brother of mega-star Julia Roberts) dwarfs the rest of the cast as the deranged veteran in charge of the storage facility-turned-organ farm. He hams it up, of course, as is to be expected even in the best of slasher films, but he does so with a certain zaniness that makes his scenes often quite enjoyable. Horror veteran Michael Berryman (whose ectodermal dysplasia leaves him completely without hair, fingernails, or sweat glands) plays the Major’s bloodthirsty sidekick as best he can. The script leaves him, in the end, a bit of a confusing mess, but Berryman’s unsettling physical presence undoubtedly helps to keep the film from sinking even lower.
The film is not all clichés, but when it does stray from the path, it quickly loses its way. Characters’ motivations remain too obscure to explain their actions. Loyalties seem to change on a whim. Everything comes together to reach a conclusion at once mystifying and unsatisfying, a plot twist that could have left the viewer questioning and analyzing, but instead falls flat, as rushed and unconsidered as the rest of the film’s final third. Without revealing too much, what could have been a bold look into the darkness within us all was presented instead as a quick way to wrap up the strands that had unraveled throughout the film’s runtime.
Even the music choices baffle. When things get steamy, the sex-funk swaggers in several minutes too soon. At the height of a violent pursuit, we hear not the screeching drones that have become stock-standard for the horror genre but an upbeat rock tune nowhere close to heightening the tension. These missteps manage simultaneously to skirt the obvious conventional formulas and the ironic humor of the out-of-place. What’s left is confusing and underwhelming.
None of this is to say the movie is a complete failure. Not all the scenes in the movie scrape the bottom of the barrel. There is some humor to be found in some of the chase scenes, particularly when night watchman Jake misses with his flare gun when a pursuing Trevor is at almost point-blank range – a scene where the balance between suspense and humor is balanced quite adeptly.
Perhaps it’s easy to be too hard on DeNucci – it is, after all, his first film. With a smoother script and a budget big enough to afford more actors at the level of Eric Roberts and Michael Berryman, Self Storage may have been a passable if forgettable horror-comedy. And with a little more irony and self-awareness, the film, low budget and all, could have ranked with the likes of Troll 2 and The Room in the pantheon of movies so bad that they’re good. Whichever direction DeNucci heads for his next film – and I think he’s got some potential for the latter – he’s got his work cut out for him.