In the Bible Belt, people just don’t understand gore. That’s what budding effects makeup creator Green Graves (Bret Harrison of “Grounded for Life”) has learned from living in the rural South, where his love of B-grade horror flicks and latex monsters is beyond most of the staid, conservative residents. His neighbors think the seventeen-year-old should apply for a job at the local chicken factory, but it’s obvious Green doesn’t belong there, or even anywhere near Alabama. (Harrison, doing an otherwise fine job, plays the role with little-to-no Southern accent.) Green spends his time creating professional-quality makeup effects in his family’s tiny trailer with no more formal training than reading Fangoria religiously and renting blood-soaked videos.
When a new girl in town, Angevin Duvet (played by Laura Prepon of “That ‘70s Show”), begins working at the video store, Green finds a kindred spirit in the heavily-eye shadowed clerk. They discuss how improbably named they both are (at least I would presume they do), their favorite gore-fests, and Green’s plans to leave the sleepy town for Hollywood. It turns out Angevin has spent some time in L.A. acting, though she becomes strangely evasive when Green asks to see her work. Prepon is not a subtle enough actress to leave any mystery surrounding what exactly Angevin’s “acting experience” was, and when it is revealed much later in the script that she was taken advantage of by a sleazy producer, it’s no revelation.
Green and Angevin’s budding relationship is continually interrupted by the presence of Green’s friends Tony (Jonathan Spencer) and Billy (George Faughnan, personifying the film’s obligatory hick jokes). They invite Green to go out to catch lightning bugs, it seems, for no other reason than to provide a tenuous connection between the film’s title and its story. Since when does anyone over the age of eight think it’d be awesome to go out catching lightning bugs?
As a part of his plan to put together a portfolio to wow Hollywood, Green convinces Tightwiler (played by Bob Penny), the kindly old man who organizes the town’s annual spookhouse, that some of Green’s homemade monsters are just what the event needs. Tightwiler agrees, putting Green in charge of running the haunted house. But some in the small town, like Angevin’s intolerant zealot of a mother (played by Shannon Eubanks) and the other members of the Holy Calling of the Southern Saints, are opposed to the “satanic” imagery of Green’s creations. When Ms. Duvet arrives to convince Green of his evil ways, Green tells her, “Get the hell out of here.” “I intend to,” she replies ominously.
Also standing in Green’s way is his new stepfather, Earl (played by Kevin Gage), who spends most of his time ridiculing Green, drinking, and passing out in front of the television. When Green asks to borrow Earl’s car to take Angevin out to the movies, Earl laughs in his face. Green apparently didn’t foresee the potential difficulties in getting his abusive stepfather to lend him his keys, because we see Angevin impatiently waiting outside the video store as Green tries every trick in the book to convince Earl.
Earl refuses, Green doesn’t show, and Angevin sadly shuts off the store’s marquee lights. (Why she had been sitting outside the locked, but still lit, store before doing this is unclear.) Astonishingly, the next time we see her everything’s hunky-dory. No mention is made of Green ditching her. She doesn’t even bother asking, “Why didn’t you just call to tell me you can’t make it?” (Come to think of it, why didn’t he just call to tell her he couldn’t make it?)
Either the editor axed an important scene without considering story continuity, or the screenwriter never included such a scene to begin with. In either case, the omission negates an entire chunk of the plot that builds and builds but never pays off. And this is just one of many plot paths that writer/director Robert Hall (also the film’s special effects designer, who has worked on such projects as “The X-Files” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) opens with no intention of following. Green’s aerosol-huffing Uncle Marvin (Donald Gibb, a recognizable bit actor), who has been placed on medication that keeps him in a constant state of arousal, provides a few guilty laughs but has exactly zero purpose in the story.
Green’s mom (played by Ashley Laurence as if she’s constantly high, even though she’s not supposed to be) shows up at the spookhouse on its opening night just as Green discovers it has been vandalized. At least, we’re told it’s been vandalized. The only evidence on screen is some rubbish on the floor of a single room and the presence of a sledgehammer, though there doesn’t seem to be any indication the sledgehammer has been used. (Obviously, Hall’s creatures were too precious to him to rip one apart, despite the fact that his story demands it.) Green’s mom doesn’t even seem to notice, either; Green has to tell her, “It’s not supposed to look like this.”
Her unmotivated appearance at the spookhouse allows her and Green to share a heart-to-heart at an important moment in the script. Up to this point, the movie has been a more or less lighthearted comedy with a few dramatic touches. But from here on, the story makes an abrupt and seemingly accidental shift in tone. It becomes dark, very dark, very quickly.
True, Green was warned that Earl was dangerous. But the scene in which Tony recounts the story of how Earl served time for stabbing a police officer plays more like a setup for an episode of “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” Sure, it’s enough to let us know Earl’s a bad dude, but scenes like this one aren’t supposed to be taken seriously. They’re ghost stories; they’re not real. And besides, Gage’s performance is far too one-dimensional for Earl to seem like a real threat to Green or his family.
But most of the blame lands on Hall, whose poor storytelling abilities are responsible for not preparing the audience for his script’s turn into darkness, for leaving quite a few plot threads dangling, and for failing to decide what kind of position his film is going to take on the serious issues it raises. Earl’s monstrous actions are condemned, yet Green’s brand of vigilante justice is presented as cathartic, as a necessary end of violence through violence (despite the inherent contradiction of that attitude). When Green and Angevin have sex on a pew in her mother’s church, it’s not just an attack on religious zealotry, but an unprovoked and unsupported assault on religion in general. Hall takes an amoral attitude toward these events. He passes selective judgment on his characters’ indiscretions, shrugging his shoulders, except of course when they’re carried out by obvious villains like Earl.
Hall doesn’t seem to have ever decided what kind of movie he wanted to make. Is it a good-natured coming-of-age story or something much more frightening? The goofy sight gags of Uncle Marvin and over-the-top performances from Gage and Faughnan are too broadly comic to be taken seriously. Yet that is exactly what Hall asks us to do when his story unexpectedly becomes solemn.
Hall’s terrible handling of tone is just the most obvious blunder from the first-time helmer. The only time, in fact, when Hall feels at home as a director is in his lovingly composed shots of his own latex creations. “Lightning Bug” works well as a feature-length commercial for Hall’s makeup work, but as little else.