Review: Route 666 (2001)

By J. Keith Haney

route666Route 666 (2001). Director: William Wesley. Cast: Lou Diamond Phillips, Lori Petty, William Wesley.

I am always suspicious of critics who hold up the independent filmmakers as the true artists in contrast to the majors. My own time of looking through cheap, low-budget filmmaking from the 1930s to the present reveals that cherished myth to be up there with the unicorn. Modern low-budget horror filmmaking in particular tends to have one or more of the following: bad acting, bad writing, or very, very bad production design. By and large, you’re going to be digging through just as much crap (maybe more, considering the sheer volume in contrast to the major studios’ output) as you would with mainstream horror. As such, the throne Val Lewton made for himself in the 1940s remains unfilled.

That out of the way, there is one movie I have run into in this area that managed to get everything right: a decent cast; a witty, economical script; and a more-bang-for-the-buck production design that works effectively within the film’s limited budget. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present a curious, forgotten artifact from 2001: Route 666.

The setup is basic enough: “Rabbit”, a mob accountant-turned-federal witness-on-the-lam, is recaptured by a pair of U.S. Marshals just off the fabled Highway Route 66 in Arizona. They’re not a minute too soon, as mafia hitmen are right on their heels. With the trio of Marshals who managed to lose Rabbit to begin with in tow, they make their way to California for a court appearance the next morning. Using Rabbit’s guidebook of Route 66 as a map, they find a closed stretch of road infamous for accidents. In fact, the rep is so bad that locals started calling it (to quote Rabbit: “Da-da-daaaa!”) ‘Route 666’…and it just happens to be the quickest way to the California border. Needless to say, there is more than just simple bad luck as far as this highway is concerned. The spirits of four dead convicts walk this road…and it’s been a long time since they had their last meal of blood.

Okay, let’s start with the acting. The cast is headlined by Lou Diamond Phillips (probably best known for the Young Guns movies and La Bamba) and Lori Petty (probably best known as the kid sister in A League of Their Own). Phillips’ Jack La Roca is a walking action movie cliché (as Petty recounts his resume as the usual Navy Seal/CIA, her fellow marshal makes a rude gesture that sums up most of the reactions of the thinking members of the audience). But Phillips fills in the limitations of such a character with a deadpan wit and a haunted sense of bewilderment as visions constantly fill him in on what’s REALLY going on. Petty matches Phillips with the skill of Ginger Rogers keeping pace with Fred Astaire. Her wisecracks are both funny and true, but she also conveys grief at the inevitable loss of her colleagues in a way that reflects both strength and genuine pain. However, actor/director William Wesley flat-out steals the film as Rabbit, a non-stop motormouth who turns out to be a lot more cool under fire than his keepers would have ever guessed.

The script (credited to Wesley, Scott Fivelson and William Weber) keeps the audience engaged with lots of sharp dialogue that distracts from the somewhat-predictable plotting. Also, the time-distortion factor on this film is jarring. I’m never quite sure what time of day any given scene is. Still, even though Wesley gets a lot of the best lines (Being the boss of the film has its perks), everybody has a chance to shine throughout the script. It’s hard to argue with lines like “I’m having the worst day of my life and I really need to get back to it.” Or an exchange like “I don’t care if you’re f***ing Santa Claus.”/”Hopefully, only Mrs. Claus is doing that.” Honestly, the last time I heard lines this good from a low-budget film was John Carpenter’s They Live (and this film leaves that cult classic in the dust in the dialogue department). It makes me realize how key good writing is to decent filmmaking, especially at this level of budget.

Production values are obviously limited on a $2.3 million budget, but Wesley puts it to good effect. The undead prisoners (I’m not sure what they could even be classified as: Zombies? Vampires? Wraiths?) are fairly hokey in terms of their grey flesh, looking every bit like the Halloween costumes they are. Wesley’s solution? Use camera distortion effects to get the audience’s mind off the fakeness of the makeup. The slo-mo and shakycams that come into play whenever our spooks show up give a sense of unreality, as though the lines between the world of matter and spirit are causing a temporal distortion. The visions and remembrances are shot in either black-and-white or desaturated colors to emphasize the faded-but-distinct imprint of the past still impacting the present. There’s also an explosion, plenty of gunshots, and plenty of fake blood. These aspects are handled fairly well, better than I’ve ever seen Tarantino handle the same tools.

Is Route 666 the greatest low-budget horror film made in this last decade? Please. That said, this is a film that both understands its limits and works within them just as well as any of the Evil Dead films. It deserves to be better known.

Route 666 can be purchased through Amazon.com.