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The Donor

1995, Starring Jeff Wincott, Michelle Johnson, Gordon Thomson, Robert Collins, Douglas O'Keeffe, Richard Zeppieri, Karen Waddell, Gza Kovcs, Falconer Abraham. Directed by Damian Lee.

Along with straight-to-video stalwart Paul Lynch, producer/director Damian Lee has made a pretty decent career for himself cranking out Canadian-shot genre films. Dabbling in everything from thrillers, teen T&A, sci-fi and action. he's one of the country's most prolific dealers of quickly produced schlock, delivering basically competent films to undiscerning viewers for more than 25 years. But while Lynch has done well with that old B-movie standby, the horror film, it's a genre that's notably in short supply in Lee's filmography. Aside from the giant creature feature Food of the Gods II, Lee's only other foray into the dark side of death remains The Donor, a tepid medical thriller that almost plays more like a whodunit once it gets going.

If nothing else, The Donor at least has a pretty decent premise, which is based on the old urban legend about organ theft. Everyone's familiar with it--an unsuspecting victim meets a girl in a bar and is lured to a hotel room, only to wake up the next day (often in an ice-packed bathtub) to discover that one of his kidneys has been surgically removed--presumably transplanted to a needy recipient who has paid big bucks. Of course, this " true story" is simply a fabrication that preys on people's suspicions and fears, but like many urban legends, it does apparently have some basis in fact--a black market for human kidneys does apparently exist in some countries. In January 2008, India's most notorious organ harvester, "Dr. Horror" Amit Kumar was arrested at his home outside of Toronto for allegedly removing the kidneys of up to 500 Indian villagers for needy, well-heeled Westerners, without obtaining proper consent.

Though there's little chance that an average North American shlub could lose an organ by just going to a hotel room with a strange woman, it does make for an admittedly scary and effective film. At least it did for David Marconi's The Harvest, which predates The Donor by two years. The Harvest stars Miguel Ferrer as a vacationing screenwriter who is knocked out and has a kidney removed, and must track down the criminal surgeon, who is intent on returning for the second one. The Donor, obviously an even lower-rent version of The Harvest, stars Jeff Wincott, the brother of Michael Wincott, as Hollywood stuntman Billy Castal. Out at a bar after spending the day bungee jumping with friends, Wincott is slipped some drugged champagne to prepare hom for some unanticipated surgery. Like Ferrer, he then spends the rest of the film trying to figure out just who is to blame, while the mysterious harvester makes designs on his remaining organ. Sound familiar?

While The Harvest delivered a few exploitation thrills, The Donor is content to be a sedate mystery thriller, and tosses an unending parade of possible suspects and motives at Billy to unravel. Was it the suspicious hospital resident Dr. Cross (Gordon Thomson), the corrupt Sheriff Webster (Robert Collins), his suddenly rich friend Tom (Douglas O'Keeffe), or maybe even his MD and love interest, Dr. Lucy Flynn (Michelle Johnson)? Billy's sometimes tedious quest for answers involves everything from a ten speed bike chase to budding romance. There are also more kidney operations performed on an ex-college basketball star and a body builder.

The film's first problem is Wincott, already a notably uncharismatic actor, who makes Billy an unlikable egotistical stuntman who drinks heavily, womanizes and generally acts like a jerk. After Billy loses his kidney, there's an attempt to soften the character, as he gradually abandons his devil-may-care lifestyle and attends a support group for victims of violent crimes, but it also turns him into a borderline paranoid, completely obsessed with his missing kidney to the point that he won't even talk about anything else. At one point, a friend tells him that he's no fun to be around anymore, and that goes double for the audience, who are stuck watching this humbled bad boy suffer through ridiculous, Vaseline-lensed flashbacks.

While Lee's passable direction is up to par to his other middling works, it's the plodding script by Neal and Tippi Dobrofsky, a Hollwood-based husband and wife screenwriting team, which really make a mess out of The Donor. Though the story makes a decent effort at portraying the psychological after-effects of Billy's traumatic experience (obsessive behaviour aside), the mystery itself is quite poorly handled, littered with lazily conceived clues and questionable motivations. Billy's discoveries that he was mended with " prison grade" surgical stitches or that there's only one store that sells the brand of doped champagne, are only slightly less ludicrous than the later revelation that the perpetrator actually lost a contact in Billy's wound, and sewed him up with the lens still inside. The script then has to bend over backwards to make these seemingly conclusive clues apply to several of the characters--for example, Billy notes that almost everybody he knows wears contact lenses. In the end, the true identity of the kidney harvester, who wants to help out those too poor to afford transplant operations, makes possibly the least sense out of any of the potential suspects, given the help and assistance that character provided Billy throughout the course of the film. In the final reel, the script only cares about " shocking" the audience with an unlikely, but also illogical, solution rather than tying the film up neatly.

Shot in Toronto, but obviously set in a non-descript American city, The Donor does manage to tap into a familiar source of anxiety for Canadians--that doctors and other government-sanctioned bodies are carrying out illegal and rights-violating experiments on an unsuspecting populace. This can be traced back to several dark incidents in Canadian history, from the atrocities committed on orphans under Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis to the CIA-initiated LSD/mind control experiments in Montreal during the 1960s. As a result, there's no surprise that this is a theme that pops up in many Canadian horror films, from  the works of David Cronenberg to less celebrated efforts like Mindfield, Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia and even the Quebec comedy In the Belly of the Dragon. Clearly, Lee couldn't have known that a direct connection between Canada and an international organ theft ring would later be found, but in retrospect, it's quite an interesting development that puts the film in something of a new light,

Still, while the subject matter may hit home with Canadian viewers, rarely are B-films so ineffective at playing up their horrific qualities as The Donor, which flatlines early on and never completely recovers. With too much attention focused on the unsatisfying and weakly scripted whodunit aspect of the plot, The Donor definitely would have benefited from a punched-up script and, perhaps, even a transplanted set of exploitation cajones.

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