“Gnaw” at the Denver Film Festival

Denver Film Festival "Gnaw"
Photo taken from Gnaw LLC

Sometimes, the scariest part of a horror movie isn’t the ghosts or goblins but the fears already felt by the main characters.

“Gnaw,” shot in Denver and featuring one half of Tenacious D, makes the most of that scenario. Poor Jennifer (“The Vampire Diaries’” Penelope Mitchell) just wants a fresh start in the Mile High City. What she finds instead is something sinister, but is it any worse than the nightmare she left behind?

The indie shocker has plenty to recommend it, from Mitchell’s plucky performance to a slick if predictable final scene. Getting there takes plenty of patience, and gore hounds will be sad to see just how low the body count proves to be.

Mitchell’s Jennifer left her abusive husband for new opportunities in Colorado. Her résumé is wafer thin, but a chance meeting with a high school chum sets her up for a dream job.

Only, Jennifer can’t get a good night’s sleep. And the strange bruises that started showing up after she arrived in Denver get worse every morning. Is her new apartment infested with bugs? Or is something else at play?

Writer/Director Haylar Garcia, a Denver native, captures his hometown in a few unmistakable shots. He also avoids the usual standard horror tropes. “Gnaw” lacks cheap scares, wooden characters and flat line readings. He gets plenty of support from Kyle Gass as Terry, the super at Jennifer’s apartment complex.

Gass has a natural screen presence, and his scenes with Jennifer show that Garcia isn’t just spinning his wheels before the big reveal. Oscar-nominee Sally Kirkland plays the crusty landlady, giving “Gnaw” even more character.

The dialogue is another plus, full of sharp-eyed details and humor. It’s real and raw, and makes Jennifer’s plight all the more authentic. Yes, she’s a sad sack, but who hasn’t felt that low at one point or another?

Yet when we finally learn what’s really bugging Jennifer, we regret waiting so long to find out. The film’s middle section sags noticeably. It’s also when reality starts to creep unnecessarily into the story. Wouldn’t Jennifer seek medical help earlier? Did she really think she’s in the best shape to appear for that job interview?

When you start asking questions like these, it’s clear the film’s allure is fading.

The film regains our interest by the third act, which does more than satisfy what horror movie junkies crave. “Gnaw” delivers a tense stand-off while burnishing Garcia’s core message.

The best horror movies have something to say about the human condition. George A. Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” mocked our insatiable consumer appetites, for example.

“Gnaw” isn’t in that league. It still wants to do more than scare us silly, and on that front it hits a bullseye.

Showtimes: Monday, November 6, at 9:30 p.m., Wednesday, November 8, at 9:00 p.m. All screenings will be at the Sie FilmCenter. For ticket information, click here.

Denver Film Festival "Gnaw"