The FDA is currently considering approval on labeling genetically modified salmon as suitable for human consumption. Before they make their final decision, we can only hope that they watch the 2005 Irish horror movie “Isolation” and ponder the implications of schools of hideous mutated salmon roaming our streets and terrorizing our bagel shops. I don’t even want to think about the giant Franken-bears they’ll have to engineer to take care of the salmon.
“Isolation” takes place on an isolated (natch) cattle farm on which a down-on-his-luck farmer reluctantly agrees to allow a mad scientist type to inject his cows with a hormone which promises to decrease the time it takes them to grow. It works, but this being a horror movie where messing with Mother Nature is always a bad idea, things don’t quite go according to plan. A veterinarian gets bit while checking on an unborn calf and when the calf is actually born, it turns out to be a fanged mutant. The vet puts down the calf and during the autopsy finds out that the newborn calf was itself pregnant with six nasty spiky beasties. The problem is, one of the creatures is missing.
Going into a movie about mutant cows I was expecting something tongue-in-cheek and borderline ridiculous like “Black Sheep”. I couldn’t have been more wrong. “Isolation” is a somber, humorless film that takes deadly moocows very seriously. It’s much closer in spirit to biological horror movies like “The Thing” or “Splinter” which is fitting because the creature isn’t a cow itself, but rather something that came from a cow. It’s hard to get much of an idea of what the creature is because we only see it in quick glances and shadows. In the age of CG, keeping the creature hidden until the third reel is becoming a lost art so it’s nice to watch a horror movie where you aren’t entirely sure what the thing looks like.
When the excrement hits the oscillation, the mad scientist quarantines the farm out of fears of the creature escaping and infecting the world’s cattle supply. This effectively means that the entire cast of the film consists of the scientist, the farmer, the vet and a couple of runaway kids who are camping on the outskirts of the farm. The isolation is quite literal and the film does a good job of building tension not just between the characters and unseen mutant but also between the humans themselves. Being stuck on a farm with a deadly creature, a handful of people and one of those “No Country for Old Men” bolt guns adds up to threats from all around.
Blood, guts and cow uteruses abound in this movie, but it’s not gory in the traditional sense. The gore here is not so much splattery as it is autopsy. That being said, sometimes watching an organ being dissected can be more disturbing than watching a Tom Savini head geyser and if you miss the sight of Agent Scully methodically slicing up viscera in a lab coat, this movie would only need a minimal rewrite to become a lost episode of the X-Files.
While the second half of the film is a crackerjack sci-fi horror thriller, the first half feels more like a uncharacteristically icky prestige drama about modern farming. It’s too well put together to call boring but the first half felt an awful lot like a dramatic, narration-free episode of a Discovery channel reality show. Unless you’re a big fan of farming or animal husbandry, it might drag a bit at the beginning. Thankfully, once the rampage begins, “Isolation” turns into a taut, suspenseful thriller.
I don’t know what’s more amazing: that a horror film about the potential dangers of genetically modified cows can be so serious and humorless or that it actually works and generates a few good scares and an atmosphere of tension. Admittedly, there’s nothing in this movie that hasn’t been done before, but when it’s done this well it’s hard to complain. Maybe what the film does best is tap into a modern day concern and spin a story that, at least for those of us who dozed through biology class, seems fairly plausible. You might have to swear off the Whoppers for a while afterward but if you like the idea of old school biological horror combined with a ripped-from-the-headlines premise you should give “Isolation” a shot.