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Genre movies made for basic cable t.v. play to a formula. This is by necessity: the executives expect these films to deliver a lot of excitement and ratings on a tiny budget and they push the filmmakers to stay in familiar territory that is easily marketed to the target audience. The best case scenario for filmmakers toiling in the basic cable salt mines is to hit all the expected marks while weaving in a few surprises in how it hits those marks.

Animal-posAnimal offers a positive example of how this can be done, adding a few surprise wrinkles to a selection of archetypal horror flick elements. It begins with Jeff (Parker Young) leading a group of people into his childhood forest stomping grounds for a hike. Said group includes girlfriend Mandy (Elizabeth Gillies), his stepsister Alissa (Keke Palmer), Alissa’s boyfriend Matt (Jeremy Sumpter) and old friend/token gay guy Sean (Paul Iacono). He wants to show it off before the wooded area, which is now closed off, is due to be razed for commercial development.

Unfortunately for all involved, said woods have become home to a mysterious, bipedal creature whose prey of choice is human beings. Soon, the gang finds themselves holing up in an abandoned cabin with fellow survivors Vicky (Joey Lauren Adams), Carl (Thorsten Kaye) and Douglas (Amaury Nolasco). As the monster tries to figure a way in, the survivors try to figure a way out – but it’s inevitable that there will be many life-and-death skirmishes and not everyone will make it out of the woods alive.

Animal-02Animal starts off with a series of familiar notes, with a group of twenty-somethings going into forbidden woods and trading bitchy banter to set up familiar character types (the diva-ish gay comic relief character, the jock, the princess, etc.). To their credit, screenwriters Thommy Hutson and Catherine Trillo handle the set-up with a nice sense of economy and director Brett Simmons gives the action a “real movie” look with the help of cinematographer Scott Winig. The vintage monster-in-a-suit approach also adds a bit of retro charm along with an ’80s-style synth score by Tomandandy.

The action perks up once the monster attacks but things really get interesting once the group is trapped in the cabin. This is where Animal starts to show some genuine inspiration: it knows that it can’t rewrite the simple rulebook it’s using so it instead concentrates on figuring out surprising ways of getting to the plot’s expected destinations. Some characters reveal new and unexpected sides to their personas as Animal-01the story progresses and the film is also impressively unsentimental about who lives and who dies (you’ll see a few expected lead heroes fall by the wayside before the credits roll).

It also helps the performances are better than usual for cable t.v. flick. Gillies displays some impressive emotional range in the latter part of the film, erstwhile pop singer Palmer makes a likeably low-key heroine and Iacono gets to defuse the otherwise comic relief nature of his role with an impressively delivered monologue later in the film. Elsewhere, Kaye and Adam make for likeable, grounded married couple trapped in the mayhem and Nolasco has fun acting this film’s version of the Harry character from Night Of The Living Dead.

In short, Animal is a diverting little programmer that manages to get better with each passing reel, throwing in some surprises that give a fresh coat of paint to familiar tropes. If you’re expecting a “SyFy original”-style piece of junk, you’ll be surprised by the confidence of this little quickie.