Review: ‘Tar,’ starring Timothy Bottoms, Aaron Wolf, Graham Greene, Tiffany Shepis and Max Perlich

October 2, 2020

by Carla Hay

Tiffany Shepis in “Tar” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

“Tar”

Directed by Aaron Wolf

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the horror flick “Tar” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with one Native American and one Latina) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Some office workers are trapped in a building that’s being terrorized by a tar monster. 

Culture Audience: “Tar” will appeal primarily to people looking for a very lowbrow movie that delivers gory thrills with plenty of laughs because it’s not meant to be taken too seriously.

Aaron Wolf in “Tar” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

When it comes down to it, there are two kinds of horror movies in this world: The ones that take themselves seriously and want to really scare people to the bone. And the ones that don’t take themselves seriously and have plenty of comedic moments so that people can laugh along with the scares. “Tar” definitely falls into the latter category. Just keep your expectations very low, because this movie is not aspiring to be a horror masterpiece.

“Tar” has a “trapped in a building” concept that can only work if the characters have enough appeal for viewers to be willing to tolerate their personalities for as long as the movie’s running time. Fortunately, the performances from the “Tar” cast members are good enough to keep viewers interested in what happens to the characters in the movie. Directed by Aaron Wolf (who co-wrote the “Tar” screenplay with Timothy Nutall), “Tar” features Wolf in the role of the lead character: Zach Greenwood, who’s in his 30s and who’s been working in his family’s Greenwood Repair business in Los Angeles for the past 10 years.

The business is in an office building that’s right next to the La Brea Tar Pits. On a sidewalk near the office building, a homeless man (played by Graham Greene) displays a sign saying that he will tell a story to anyone for spare change. The story he tells has to do with the history of the La Brea Tar Pits and the legend that 40,000 years ago, mysterious and deadly creatures lived underground and in the tar.

According to this folklore, people have been killed or have disappeared in the tar for thousands of years. And it usually happens when there is construction around the tar pits that disrupt the creatures down below. There’s one tar creature that’s been named as the most fearsome of all: Machi Manitu, also known as Man of the Tar. It’s a creature that stands about 8 or 9 feet tall and has lived for an untold number of years, according to the legend. You know where all this is going in the movie, of course.

One of Zach’s co-workers named Ben (played by Sandy Danto) is so fascinated by this story that he never gets tired of hearing it every time he pays the homeless man to retell the story. On one particular day, Ben wants to heard the story twice in a row, but Zach, who happens to be walking down the street, literally has to lead Ben away so Ben can get back to work.

And by the way, there’s been some construction going on in the area. One night, one of the construction workers gets killed early on in the movie. He’s at the construction area alone when a mysterious force attacks him. At the murder scene, some mysterious tar is left oozing around his body.

Zach’s father Barry Greenwood (played by Timothy Bottoms) is Zach’s boss. And the business was started by Barry’s late father Alfred (played by Max Perlich), who is shown in flashback scenes with a teenage Barry (played by Liam Grace). Zach is only in the family business because it was the wish of his late mother. (Her cause of death is not mentioned in the movie.)

Zach has been getting bored and restless in the job, and he’s starting to wonder if he could’ve done something better with his life. When he starts making these kinds of comments to Barry, his father reminds him that this was the best job that college-educated Zach could get, since he wasn’t getting better offers anywhere else.

Barry also likes to remind Zach how hard Barry’s father worked to start the business and how they are enjoying the privileges of all that hard work. Essentially, Zach and Barry have a tension-filled relationship because Zach thinks Barry doesn’t understand him and is too demanding, while Barry thinks Zach can be whiny and ungrateful. Zach has probably been thinking about quitting the job, but Barry likes to point out that Zach doesn’t have very many options.

Amid this family squabbling, Zach and Barry have a more pressing issue: The family business is being evicted from the office building because the building’s greedy and uncaring owner Sebastian Sterling (played by Stewart Stone) has sold the property to a company that wants to tear down the building in about a month. Sebastian gave the building tenants only two weeks’ notice to move out of the building. Greenwood Repair has to temporarily close until the company can find new office space.

Most of “Tar” takes place on the very last day that the tenants have to move out of the building. Sebastian stops by to talk to Barry and Zach and remind them that if their business hasn’t cleared out by 6 a.m. the next day, he has a right to sue them, according to the lease that they signed. The movie pokes fun at Sebastian, because he’s the type of corporate shark that people love to hate.

Zach, Barry and their remaining two employees aren’t even close to finishing, so they expect to keep packing for the rest of the night. In addition to goofball Ben (who brings most of the comic relief in the movie), the Greenwood company’s other remaining employee is Marigold (played by Tiffany Shepis), who’s into tarot card readings and astrology. Marigold tells Ben that now that she’s out of a job, she’s thinking of starting her own tarot business.

Barry and Zach try to remain positive about their eviction from the building, but the stress of moving frays their nerves, and they start bickering again. Zach gets some relief from the stress when his understanding and supportive girlfriend Rose (played by Emily Peachey) surprises him with a visit. She brings him some food and offers to help pack boxes. Rose and Max also have some lovers’ time alone in a locked office, but they’re interrupted by Barry before they can finish what they started.

A company on the same floor is also one of the last to move out of the office building. The other company is a small financial firm called Diana Dunder Accounting, whose namesake does not look or dress like a typical accountant. Diana Dunder (played Nicole Alexandra Shipley) looks like a model, and her tight blouse is cut so low that her ample cleavage is practically bursting out. Her company’s packing boxes are labeled “DD Accounting,” and it’s the movie’s cheeky way of saying that “DD” could describe her bra size. Diana has a loyal assistant named Carmenia (played by Dani Fernandez), whom Diana promises she will reward with a promotion when they move to a new office space.

Ben has a crush on Diana (who is single), but he’s somewhat reluctant to ask her out on a date because he thinks that she’s way out of his league. When Diana comes over to the Greenwood Repair office to borrow some bubble wrap, all Ben can do is awkwardly ogle at Diana. As day turns into night, there seems to be only seven people left in the building: Zach, Barry, Ben, Marigold, Rose, Diana and Carmenia.

Suddenly, all the electricity in the building goes out. It’s happened before on other days, and the electricity eventually returned, so the people who are left packing up boxes in the building don’t really panic. They just use flashlights. But then, Ben, Marigold and Diana see some creepy shadows in their offices. 

Diana is a little freaked out, so Marigold invites her to hang out for a while in the Greenwood Repair reception area. Carmenia is nowhere in sight at that moment. Ben takes the opportunity to flirt with the slightly frightened Diana. Ben tells Diana that if he ends up saving her life, she has to make out with him. Diana laughs and agrees to this deal because she doesn’t think there’s any chance that she’s in danger or any chance that Ben would be capable of saving her anyway.

One of the worst things about low-budget horror flicks is that the acting is often terrible. Fortunately, the cast members of “Tar” get the job done in a way that it looks like they’re having fun and they have genuine chemistry together, even in scenes where some of the characters end up having conflicts. And they handle the comedic scenes well-enough that it isn’t cringeworthy. This movie’s sense of humor makes it enjoyable because a lowbrow movie such as “Tar” should not try to put on fake airs that it’s trying to appeal to film snobs.

As for the Machi Manitu creature, director Wolf made the wise decision not to show the creature in full view until the second half of the movie. It helps build viewer suspense to see what the creature looks like. The monster is grotesque and fairly unique-looking, so the movie gets some points for at least trying to have some originality in how this monster is portrayed. Machi Manitu is played by two people: pro wrestler Othello (whose real name Donald Edwards) and Simon Carmody, who’s also the film editor for “Tar.”

The visual effects are adequate for this low-budget movie, and the scenes where someone gets killed are what viewers might expect. It’s already revealed from the beginning of the film that at least one of the characters has survived, because the movie cuts back and forth to this character (who has a bloody neck injury and whose forehead has tar stains) telling what happened on that deadly night. Fortunately, “Tar” moves along at a good pace, and it’s more entertaining to watch than a pretentious horror movie that tries to be “deep” but is actually very dull.

The biggest flaws in “Tar” are in some of the continuity shots and editing, which could have been smoother. One action scene in particular, when the one of the characters kicks down a door on the monster, looks very unrealistic and could have been filmed a lot better. Machi Manitu can shape shift into tar, which is one of the reasons why it’s hard to kill it.

As for why these trapped people in the building don’t call 911, that’s explained in the movie. Rose tries to call 911,  but her phone suddenly dies. It’s implied that there’s a power outage in the area, so cell phone towers aren’t working. And viewers can assume that the offices’ land line phones might already be disconnected because of the evictions and planned demolition of the building.

If people are willing to overlook a plot hole at the end of the film (when it’s not made clear what happened to the dead bodies), “Tar” delivers exactly what it appears to be: It’s a low-budget horror flick that mostly succeeds in blending deliberately tacky horror with an impish sense of humor. It’s the equivalent of a someone telling a silly “knock knock” joke that you’ve heard many times before, but the way that they tell the joke is so unapologetically cheesy, you can’t help but laugh. 

1091 Pictures released “Tar” in select U.S. cinemas on October 2, 2020. The movie’s release on digital and VOD is on October 20, 2020.