Shirley Jackson's short story was a shocker for schoolchildren who read it for the first time. It concerned a community of people who were excited over a mysterious lottery that was apparently a tradition in the community. But it's not the kind of lottery you want to win.
"Population 436" offers a Christian spin on Jackson's essentially pagan-ritual story—which is to say that director Michelle MacLaren didn't have anything really new to work with. Still, she manages to film a competent story that, despite its lack of edge-of-your-seat tension for most of the going, is still an entertaining diversion.
The town of Rockwell Falls has a sign swinging on its outskirts that proclaims, "Rockwell Falls, Population 436." There's no hotel in this small hill town, and apparently no more signmakers either, because the town will do anything . . . and I mean anything to keep the population at 436 exactly. And this has been going on for decades and generations, with, of course, all the attendant problems that come with a closed system and no option for marriage other than in-breeding. You'd think this would explain some of the vacant looks you see in town, but there's more, of course.
Screenwriter Michael Kingston puts the premise out there in the pre-title sequence, in which we watch a woman give birth in one scene with cut-aways to a police chase that ends with a fiery crash. One born, one killed. And the population sign sits in the foreground as we watch the vehicle burn. Message received.
I'm thinking, though, that that message was sent way too early. I personally would have preferred a few red herrings before I knew the exact premise, because after that it's just a matter of execution. Pun intended.
Things go out of whack when a census taker from Chicago drives to this village. Okay, I'm thinking. I live in Illinois, and except in the far south near the Kentucky border there's nothing lush and hilly like this little community, which is actually a set build in Winnipeg, Canada. But I'll go along for the ride. Steve Kady (Jeremy Sisto) is the main guy in this one. First put off and then welcomed ad nauseum, he wanders about town trying to count the people. He's watched, and finally befriended by Deputy Bobby Caine (Fred Durst), who takes him shooting target practice with him . . . though what's the point? There's no crime in Rockwell Falls, we're told, because it's essentially such an idyllic place that no one ever wants to leave. But that, of course, isn't entirely true.
Solidarity and steadfastness. We are the union of the Divine, and we shall cherish equilibrium and peace.
That's the official town chant, which Kady overhears a schoolteacher helping her pupils memorize, and which the townspeople kick into as a kind of default prayer anytime something threatening happens. "Learn to love it hear," one creepy guy tells Kady. Because apparently, once you're in Rockwell Falls for longer than a day, you're not allowed to leave. And there are forces beyond these lunatics that make it so—or so we're led to believe.
But the thing is, "Population 436" covers such familiar ground that it feels as familiar as the nightsweat visions that Kady has—ones identical to those that a 12-year-old girl (Rena Timbers) has because she wants to leave this bucolic little place. It's like any number of films, because when it comes right down to it, the demon is without or within, and to respond to it or keep it at bay the town comes up with its own weird set of rules. Like "The Village," this place has a set of rules that the townspeople have had to follow since a fire totaled the town and one of the founders deemed it the result of evil. The color red isn't banished here, but all thoughts of leaving town are, as are any perceived attempts to depart. And you can tell who's wanting to bolt because they come down with "the fever," something that's instantly treated by the only doctor in town. This guy (David Fox) doesn't have a medical degree, but that doesn't matter. We're talking about the supernatural here, or what's perceived as the supernatural. Would, though, that the screenplay made it more ambiguous throughout. For too much of the film we seem to feel as if we know exactly what's going on.
Like the screenplay and direction, the performances are competent but not noteworthy. Charlotte Sullivan is decent as the female lead, who's caught in a bind because she wants to leave, but Deputy Caine wants to marry her. Frank Adamson is appropriate enough as the mayor. James Blicq is decent as the creepy kid named Obie, who's kind of like the Opie in this alternate Mayberry. But when you add it all up, the sum of the parts isn't all the great or memorable.
"Population 436" is rated "R" for brief sexuality/nudity and violence.
Video: "Population 436" is mastered in High Definition and presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. There's great color saturation, and the glorious Winnipeg countryside (if I see just one more film shot in Canada I'm going to be tempted to move there) gives plenty of chances to appreciate the vivid colors. There's good clarity and definition, too, with a nicely balanced black level for a comfortable-looking contrast.
Audio: The soundtrack is also decent, with English and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 and French 2.0 Dolby Surround options to choose from. The English 5.1 is full and rich, with plenty of rear-speaker action on the FX. Subtitles are in English, French, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish.
Extras: The only extra is an alternate ending. The filmmakers played with two options: the happy ending and the tragic one. I won't tell you which one they went with. But I will say that, given the logic that prevailed throughout the film, the alternate ending would have made a heck of a lot more sense.
Bottom Line: There are good horror/thrillers and bad ones. Then there's "Population 436," which is watchable but undistinguished. It'll have you thinking of "The Village," "Children of the Corn," "The Village of the Damned," and damned near every isolated town story you've ever seen.