Every now and then you get surprised at the multiplex by a movie that doesn’t seem to be made for current moviegoing trends, the kind of thing that might get made by a studio as a side-project to keep one of their moneymakers happy.  This is Schlockmania’s best guess with Overlord, a strange but very entertaining hybrid of World War II “guys on a mission” story and body-horror.  It’s not as crazy as that description might lead you to expect but it shows producer J.J. Abrams getting to indulge a bit of quirkiness outside of his franchise obligations.

Overlord starts off in pure “guys on a mission” mode by setting up a paratrooper mission designed to take out a radio installation in a Nazi-controlled French castle to facilitate an Allied Forces invasion.  Air warfare quickly whittles the core force down to a small group: wide-eyed newbie Boyce (Jovan Adepo), war-grizzled leader Ford (Wyatt Russell) and wise-cracking tough guy Tibbet (John Magaro).  They find help from local Chloe (Mathilde Olivier) but also have to contend with intrepid Nazi commandant Wafner (Pilou Asbaek). Even worse, the castle houses some scientific-experiment horrors that bring a dark meaning to the phrase “super soldier.”

Interestingly, Overlord never becomes the pedal-to-the-medal shocker it threatens to be: despite the body horror elements, mad science subplot and an R-rated level of bloodshed, the story never strays too far from its war movie premise.  Instead, the horror elements are treated as another complication to the soldiers’ mission, just an extension of how nasty the Nazi bad guys are.  Some horror fans might take exception to this but they’re missing out on the fun of how it meshes two different but complimentary genres.

And there’s plenty of fun to be had in Overlord.  The script from Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith doesn’t waste time, immediately throwing the viewer into the action and delivering some sort of action or suspense setpiece at least once per reel. Director Julius Avery puts his A-movie resources in the service of keeping those setpieces polished as they roll forwards: highlights include a hellish parachute jump through air combat that puts the viewer in the jumper’s shoes, a tense transformation scene in a cramped attic and a punchup/shootout to the finish that is spiced up with serum-enhanced psycho zombies.

Overlord also has a nicely-chosen cast that focuses on new faces and character actors.  Adepo conveys a suitable innocence as the new soldier while Magaro has fun channeling a familiar ’40s WWII character archetype.  Olivier brings a cool intensity to her work – the women in the audience will appreciate how she frequently takes part in the action – and Asbaek brings a sleazy gravitas to his commandant role. That said, the big news here is Russell, who does an uncanny job channeling his famous father Kurt in the kind of grizzled antihero role that John Carpenter might have come up with.

In short, Overlord might not go wild in how it mixes war and horror elements but that’s actually part of the fun here.  It uses its combination of elements to create a strange sort of programmer, the kind of film that has intense R-rated violence and special effects but weds them to an adventure story with crowd-pleaser characterizations and cliffhangers.  It’s the last thing you’d expect from Abrams at his current peak of success and that’s what gives a quietly subversive edge to its well-financed cheap thrills.