I enjoy a good monster movie. I pretty much always have. I’ve been known to enjoy a few “not-so-good” (or, at least, that’s what others have said about them) monster movies as well. So, when I first learned of director Aaron Wolf’s Tar, a 2020 creature feature set in and around Los Angeles’ La Brea Tar Pits, from a friend’s “monster movie”-themed Facebook page back at the time of the film’s initial release, I found myself pretty intrigued by the concept. Sure, I had only been exposed to the film’s poster art and brief plot synopsis (I’m not sure if I saw the film’s trailer), but the idea of a gloopy, drippy “tar monster” lurking about was something that I felt could be pretty neat.
While still reasonably gloopy and drippy, the creature found in this film is not a “tar-man” (kinda like the 90s comic character “Sludge”), but something much closer to a “man who lives in the tar”. While this discovery did trigger some disappointment, it was not enough to distract from or hamper my enjoyment of the film as a whole. No, there are other factors at play in Tar that accomplished that task quite readily.
Wolf also stars in the film, taking on the lead role of “Zach” as the character prepares for his last day working for his father’s small repair business. The building that houses their office has been sold, leaving the staff with 24 final hours to clear out. Questions such as “Why couldn’t the company relocate to another building?” or “Why did these people wait until the last day to start packing?” are dismissed, playing no importance to the overall plot, but lingering in the background just long enough to make them things that I found myself repeatedly thinking about.
While Zach gets along fabulously with co-workers Ben (Sandy Danto), his juvenile slacker best friend, and Marigold (Tiffany Shepis – Bloody Murder 2, Abominable, Victor Crowley, about 150 other things), a spacey, but deeply caring wannabe-astrologist, there’s also the obligatory, cliched “troubled relationship” with his father, Barry (Timothy Bottoms – The Last Picture Show, Uncle Sam). Other than the mention of a dead mother/wife, there’s little-to-no explanation given to what has caused this strain between father and son, but you can be damned sure that it drives the entire film.
Oscar-nominee Graham Greene (Dances with Wolves, Snow Dogs) shows up, first to deliver the narration to the film’s opening animated sequence, the legend of the tar pits and the “evil spirit” said to be living within them. He later appears as a homeless man who tells this legend to passersby willing to spare some change and a few minutes of their time. Max Perlich (Drugstore Cowboy, Can’t Buy Me Love) also pops up in Barry’s flashback sequences as his father, Zach’s grandfather, who also encountered the tar dweller some many years earlier.
Noise from nearby subway construction draws the “tar-man” to the surface, where it starts to cause havoc like throwing man-hole covers at passing cars, seeping tar from sewage grates, and pulling overweight road workers into drains much like Pennywise did with Georgie. It also draws the creature to the office building, which is oddly experiencing a power outage at the same time. From here, our creature begins to pick off the office crew, which has grown to include Zach’s horny girlfriend (she has no other real defining factor) and a “sexy and she knows it” accountant that shares office space in the building, as well her assistant.
The creature, however, seems in no rush to claim its prey, leaving the cast with ample time to introduce and develop their characters, mostly through comedic-minded exchanges of dialog. Regardless of how humorous you may or may not find these segments, Tar keeps this approach until well after most of the cast has been dispatched, which causes the film’s tone to feel somewhat uneven. Yeah, the characters don’t realize the danger they are in until it hits them, which is probably more believable than witty punchlines just before a character’s death, but it often makes the film come across as more of a “comedy film that happens to have a monster in it” than a comedic “monster movie”. Thankfully, there is some, albeit limited, gore on display to reinforce the horror elements, one particular face-ripping standing out.
Occasionally breaking up the flow of what may otherwise be a fairly procedural monster-masher are sequences of interrogation-like monolog from a battered and bloodied Zach, which are set at a later time and provide the character’s hindsight into the events of that evening. Unfortunately, Wolf’s performance in these moments is quite erratic and often unconvincing, failing to add any darker edge or sense of dread to events, as was presumably intended. Tar may have been better served without them, although they lead the film to an interesting and somewhat unique conclusion that provides at least a couple answers to what becomes of folks after they survive a horror film.
Just as distracting as these interrogation sequences were some of the film’s musically set sequences showcasing Los Angeles and its citizens. While the director clearly loves the area and has a desire to praise it to the world, this approach may be just as off-putting for others. This is purely subjective but I do feel that there may have been one too many and that each was a little too long, which probably added to the film’s failure to find one solid overall tone to stick with.
Most unfortunately, Tar features some notably poor CG and green screen effects. While I do understand that budget limitations were clearly at play, I just can’t help but feel that the ambitions of the filmmaker may have been a little too lofty and that maybe some things should have just been cut. Add in a few moments of clunky editing and it’s very hard to overlook an effect when it’s just so poorly achieved.
Despite an interesting creature concept, a few decent gore effects, and some very solid performances, especially from veterans Bottoms, Shepis, and Perlich, Tar just can’t overcome the sum of its setbacks, making it a hard recommendation for anyone other than the most ardent of monster movie fans. It’s far from what I would call unwatchable, and I applaud what it does do well, but it just struck me as a case of something that probably could and should have been better made. Maybe a little more time and money would have made all the difference. Then again, maybe not.