New Horror Releases: Tar (2020) - Reviewed

A group of characters are gathered in an enclosed area when the power is cut off. Then they discover there is a vicious monster stalking them. 

That is the basic setup for many horror movies. It gets used often because the outline works. Bring together people with differing personalities, put them in a stressful situation and then compound that with a deadly threat of some kind. Done well, this formula can be fun and scary. Tar, about a creature from the La Brea Tar Pits menacing the inhabitants of an office building, is only occasionally done well. There are ominous shots of tar oozing along the ground and, though most of this takes place indoors, the scenes set outside the building, in the nighttime streets of LA, are effective at suggesting that bad things are coming. There are also a couple of successful jump scares involving the creature. Unfortunately, the good moments end up being few and far between.

Zach and his father, Barry, have until the morning to move everything out of the offices they had been using for their repair shop, thanks to the demands of the obnoxious landlord. They begin to pack up when they start hearing loud noises signaling the coming of the Tar Man. The problem is, we never get a sense of the size of the building, or where things are in relation to anything. So, when people unwisely wander off (which they inevitably do), it is not as suspenseful as it could’ve been because we have no idea how close they are to anybody else. 

The most suspenseful scenes are the ones where people are trapped in a room with sounds coming from right behind the door. In those situations, director Aaron Wolf (who cowrote, executive produced and stars as Zach) maximizes the terror his characters are experiencing. The unknown can be scarier than the known. Wolf takes advantage of that concept by building to the times when his monster appears. However, he also spends a lot of time not dealing with the monster at all. 

There is actually quite a bit of relationship drama, with the screenplay spending plenty of energy establishing how they feel about each other. While that is great in theory, it doesn’t lead anywhere. The big drama is the issues between father and son, who don’t appear to see eye-to-eye on anything. There is also a lot of screen time allotted to Zach’s friend Ben, who lusts after the accountant as he hangs out with horoscope-obsessed Marigold. Ben supplies the comic relief (including a few okay gags), but those scenes are so tonally different, and so far removed from the main story, that they almost seem to exist in another movie when put next to Zach and his Dad, or the monster. Neither of these subplots are used in a way that adds to the horror plot. Nor are they truly resolved. Due to that, all the personal material comes off as Tar spinning its wheels.
That feeling is intensified by the odd use of slow-motion throughout the movie. It does nothing to make things more dramatic. It is mostly used at random moments, like a character standing up or turning around, instead of in moments of terror. It also uses an unnecessary framing device of sorts, flashing-forward to future Zach hinting at what happened. It proves to be even more pointless once we get to the climax. 

Both of these are examples of Tar trying more than it needed to in order to tell a simple monster story. That stuff overwhelms the positives: some amusing interactions featuring the game cast members, a creepy-looking creature and decent gore. They provide sparks of entertainment; just not enough of it.

-Ben Pivoz