Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs – Review

Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs

Demons walk among us, feeding off our misery. But we cannot see them. To us, they are ordinary human beings. To them, we are their next square meal.

That’s the premise of Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs, the feature directorial debut of Tom Woodruff Jr, an Academy Award-winning creature-maker whose track record includes films like AliensPredator and Tremors. Co-written and produced by Brian Lubocki and Michael Hayes, the project was financed through the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, and is now being lined up for release.

Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs introduces us to Atum Vine, a drug-dealing demon who prowls the shabby corridors of a city apartment block inhabited by down-at-heel humans … and by the demons who prey on them. The status quo of this secret food chain has endured for years, but proves itself fragile when Cornelia, the Interpreter of Signs – the blue-skinned wise woman who oversees demonic life in this closed community – senses change on the way. Strange behaviour among the humans throws the demons for a loop, and Vine finds himself at the centre of a paradigm shift that will challenge his perceptions of who he is … and what it is to be a demon.

Now, this is a difficult film to categorise. It’s part-horror, part-detective thriller, part-urban fantasy. It contains echoes of Clive Barker, and hints at literary influences ranging from Neil Gaiman and China Miéville to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Such genre slipperiness may make it hard to market, but it does mean the film projects a pleasing aura of considered artistic intent. For that alone, it deserves success.

Atum Vine (Tobias Jelinek) investigates disturbances in the demon world in "Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs"
Atum Vine (Tobias Jelinek) investigates disturbances in the demon world in “Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs”

One of the movie’s great strengths is its engaging ensemble cast, many of whom play dual roles both in and out of demon make-up. Tobias Jelinek, as the tortured, gravel-voiced Vine, is compelling; he anchors the whole affair with calm assurance, and communicates a subtext that hints constantly at the wider reality lying beyond the confines of his claustrophobic surroundings. Also strong are Danielle Chuchran as the demon Cornelia, and Keely Aloña as Sara, the young girl about whom the shadowy plot pivots.

The fanbase (and therefore fund-base) of Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs is characterised by folk with a shared enthusiasm for special make-up and practical creature effects. So it’s no surprise this movie is full of performers wearing prosthetics and foam-latex suits, courtesy of Woodruff’s effects company Amalgamated Dynamics, Incorporated (ADI). For the most part, these look great, especially Vine, Cornelia and sad, seductive Amber. The warthog-like Ford fails in the lip-sync department, but when you consider how much screen time and dialogue the demons get – despite the low budget – their execution overall is impressive.

Danielle Chuchran as the demon Cornelia
Danielle Chuchran as the demon Cornelia

Even more important is their presentation not as monsters, but as characters. The demons – particularly Vine – often move through scenes in both their human and demon forms, with artful cuts revealing their opposing aspects with casual ease. Danny Grunes’s cinematography nicely complements these constantly-shifting sands, with chiaroscuro lighting effects that both acknowledge the film’s noir roots, and sculpt the masks and make-up with flattering back-light.

Despite the generally dark and brooding tone of Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs, there’s a refreshing thread of laconic humour running through the script, most notably in the hilariously raunchy scene where the provocative Amber (Kimberly Leemans) gatecrashes the mealtime of young lovers Frank and Lisa (Harry Shum Jr and Jen Oda). These comedic touches are deftly handled by Woodruff and his game-for-anything cast, and deliver an unexpected extra dimension.

Despite the horrors (and there are horrors – this is fundamentally adult material) there’s beauty here too. Through the innocent eyes of Sara, Vine is forced to confront the reality of his own demon existence. Their scenes together are unexpectedly tender and, when their relationship proves to be deeper and more complex than it seemed, the film’s sustained mood of shadows and subtext reaches fruition with a bewitching hint of further wonders to come.

That there are other wonders waiting is a promise the filmmakers have already given. According to the writer/producer team of Lubocki and Hayes, Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs is a mere prologue to a trilogy of films set to explore and expand on a unique mythology only hinted at in this opening salvo. Okay, promises can be cheap, but in this case there’s real sense that, as well as being a gripping drama in its own right, Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs is an intelligently-crafted, solidly-built foundation stone from which a much grander structure might soon rise.

I hope it does rise. I have a feeling the view from the top could be magnificent.

Watch the trailer for Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs:

Fire City and Me

Okay, full disclosure time.

I first encountered Fire City in June 2013, when Brian Lubocki emailed me out of the blue to say he’d read a piece I’d written on this blog about Harbinger Down (the Kickstarter film made by Tom Woodruff Jr’s ADI business partner, Alec Gillis), and wondered if I’d be interested in Fire City. One thing led to another, and I ended up interviewing Brian, Tom Woodruff Jr and Michael Hayes about the project. You can read that interview here.

"Fire CIty: The Interpreter of Signs" posterWhen the Fire City Kickstarter campaign launched, I became a backer, and tracked the project’s journey through production with interest. I did so because I wanted to support a group of people who were clearly passionate about what they were doing, and whose mission I believed in. I was also intrigued by the premise of the film – and by the level of worldbuilding that was being done to support it.

So, when Michael asked me last week if I’d like to watch and review the finished movie, still steaming after its final hours in the editing suite, how could I say no?

Given all this baggage, it’s probably impossible for me to write a truly objective review. Nevertheless, I’ve tried hard to do so – it’s the only meaningful way to tackle these things, right? But if I have allowed a little of the excitement I’ve felt about being a (very small) part of the project creep in, I’m sure you’ll forgive me. We’ve come a long way, Fire City and me.

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