Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Pontypool: Language Is A Virus From Outer Space

I'm sort of on the fence about zombie movies. On the one hand, some of my favorite horror films are generally considered zombie movies (Night of the Living Dead, [REC], 28 Days Later), but on the other, the genre is responsible for a whole lot of cheap direct-to-DVD gorefests with little value above the gross-out factor. Either way, the general formula is pretty simple: The dead walk (or run), people attempt to flee (or make a final stand), with at least some of their number getting infected along the way and/or having to fight someone close to them after they rise from the dead. Outcomes vary from wearily triumphant to bleak, bleak, bleak. That's okay, though. Both [REC] and The Diary of the Dead are found-footage takes on the zombie movie, but one is really good, tense, sharp, and scary as hell, and the other is The Diary of the Dead. Two musicians can play the same notes, but it's how they play them that matters.

Pontypool opens with the voice of Grant Mazzy, morning drive DJ at CLSY in the small town of Pontypool, Ontario. He's sort of like Don Imus with Ken Nordine's voice, a big city bad boy whose on-air antics have reduced him to reading off school cancellations out in the sticks, broadcasting from a church basement. He's the elderly lion, a once great beast brought low by time and bad decisions. His day begins in the early dark, just him, his producer Sydney, and Laurel-Ann, the intern. You get the sense that Grant's maybe a little hard to work with - his banter with Sydney has some needles in it - but once he starts broadcasting, his voice is the only thing in the room. This voice shouldn't be reading bus route changes, local ads and PSAs. It should be telling stories, spinning yarns, shooting the breeze about history and philosophy. Grant's not happy here. He's here because this is all that's left. Just another morning in a long series of mornings talking to the people out there about the small things that occupy their days.  (It occurs to me just now that it would have been cool if the only zombie in this movie had been Grant, a man dead and not knowing it. But that's not how it plays out.)

Just another morning for the most part, with Grant interspersing his monologue with announcements, ads, and calls from various people, including his traffic helicopter reporter. It's all very small-town and quaint, and the caller who starts stammering and having trouble with words seems a little odd, but nothing to get worked up over. But then the stammering starts to spread from person to person. People are having trouble talking. Words are beginning to lose their meaning, and worse. Eventually, reports of aphasia turn into reports of seizures. People emerge from the seizures violent and insensate. Reports of people hunting in packs for other people. As the spoken word falls away, so does humanity.

Pontypool is collapsing into savagery, and whatever is responsible spreads through language.

Grant, Sydney, and Laurel-Ann are in a difficult position. They appear to be safe in the studio (certainly safer than the people calling in, sometimes meeting horrible ends over the air) , but they're basically trapped there. Worse, if the vector of infection really is language, they have to watch everything they say, and everything they hear. Is it one specific word? Is it a specific combination of words? The enemy is in the room with them even as they're listening to its ravages outside. What are their responsibilities to the outside world? They have all of the resources they need to call for help, but they don't dare broadcast anything that might spread the infection. Language as a threat or weapon shows up in all kinds of places, from Monty Python's Joke That Kills to Dune's Killing Word to the nam-shubs in Snow Crash to the Warren Ellis story "Invasive", words can hurt you far worse than sticks or stones. There's something insidious about it, and because it's such a basic part of storytelling, we almost don't notice until it's too late. Someone starts repeating a word over and over again, it takes us a second. Are they upset? Are they confused? Why are they-oh, shit.

It's a tense, claustrophobic film, and hearing the atrocity at a remove, through the speakers, as eyewitness reporting, somehow makes it worse. We're used to graphic dismemberment and disemboweling in our zombie movies, but this is suffering and agony without spectacle. Usually zombie movies feature a lot of running from zombies. This is horror from the age of the radio play, and our imagination fills in the blanks where practical or digital effects would usually go. There's nowhere to run, and setting it in a radio station, with soundproof booths and speakers just sharpens the precariousness of their situation. Sound and meaning are the enemy here, and they are unavoidable. For the first part of the movie, at least, we are in the same position as they are. We can only sit and listen in horror.

In some ways, though, it hearkens back to the big daddy of zombie movies, Night of the Living Dead. Why are the dead walking? Who the hell knows? Somebody might have said something about a meteor or something, but the point is that the dead are fucking walking. We can figure out the "why" later when we aren't being eaten. What about language is doing this? That doesn't matter as much as not being torn apart by the mob outside. So there are some nice ties to tradition combined with a way to make a very visceral type of movie more cerebral without resorting to irony or "stick zombies into everything lol" pop-culture pastiche. Pontypool neatly sidesteps many zombie movie clichés. It's a small cast, set in one location, the violence is almost entirely inferred, and it's not toxic waste, it's not a bite, it's not the fault of the body that monsters are created, it's the mind. It's the least visceral zombie movie ever made. You barely even see a zombie.

Had the filmmakers trusted the audience to watch carefully and make the connections and discoveries themselves, this would have been a great movie. Unfortunately, we get a new character in the third act who pretty much just serves as a massive infodump, laying out the idea that the infection moves through language in the most gratingly obvious fashion possible at a point in the story when the only logical response is "yeah, no shit."  What was up to now a careful, smart movie descends into histrionics that treat the central conceit like something defeatable. It might mark the first time in horror cinema that the writings of Jacques Derrida and Mikhail Bakhtin are more useful in a zombie apocalypse than the presence of Bruce Campbell. That has a lot of potential, but none of it is realized here. Instead, in the final moments of the film, we get nonsense.

IMDB entry
Purchase on Amazon
Available from Netflix

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Ruins: Between The Earth And Sky

Horror movies thrive on situations in which the protagonists have to run through the dark. Seriously - show me a movie with somebody running through the dark, and it's probably a horror film. The dark is the embodiment of the unknown, which - as I just argued in my last post - is vital to effective horror. I mean, just try to imagine a romantic comedy or period drama in which someone runs through lightless, deserted hallways or across a field in the inky black.

To my mind, this makes what The Ruins accomplishes - horror in the open air and light of day - that much more impressive.

Two couples are having fun on a Mexican beach. Sun, sand, surf, beer, bikinis, the whole bit. Jeff and Amy are the serious, responsible couple. Jeff is going to go off to med school, and Amy's a bit of a wet blanket. She didn't want to come and is being sort of passive-aggressive about it. Stacy and Eric are the wacky, irresponsible couple, here indicated by their willingness to keep their friends waiting while they grab a morning quickie. There's some inter- and intracouple tension along gender lines, and temperament lines. They're trying to enjoy themselves, though. Lots of loaded glances and half-spoken, immediately abandoned arguments. The kind of shittiness that casts a pall over any vacation.

Into this simmering cauldron of pretty much every teens-in-trouble premise ever comes handsome, blonde, German Mathias. He's on vacation with his brother Heinrich and Heinrich's wife. They're busy on an archeological dig at some Mayan ruins. Mathias invites the four to come with him and his friend Dimitri to visit Heinrich the next day, and as usual, Amy is a wet blanket about it, and as usual, gets thoroughly and comprehensively outvoted.  Only the next day, Mathias' ride - some people from the dig - doesn't show up. Mathias can't reach Heinrich. So he decides to hire some transportation to go to the dig site and look for them. He give the two couples an out - this isn't their problem - but they go anyway. Of course they do. It's a long trip, deep into the jungle, and eventually their hired transportation refuses to go any farther. They get a local to take them the rest of the way, and when they reach the dig site, they find a Mayan pyramid, overgrown with a lush, flowering vine, Heinrich's truck sitting abandoned, and no sign of the dig team.

They do, however, find a group of armed Mayans on horseback who won't let them leave the pyramid once they've climbed it. Oddly, they won't approach the group, remaining at a distance, never lowering their guns or bows. The group is forced back to the base of the pyramid, across the fallow ground. The fallow ground, salted so that nothing may grow. A couple of ugly discoveries later, the group gets it. It's not the group that the Mayans are worried about, it's the vine. A vine held at bay by the salted earth.

They're being quarantined on the pyramid.

From here, the movie is an exercise in the crushing inevitable, played out on the small surface of the pyramid. Rations are meager, dehydration and exposure are certain, and the sun and sky press down like a vise. There is no dark, and there is nowhere to run. The open air and light of day feel claustrophobic. The location itself is physically constraining - with a couple of exceptions, you could set this story on the stage and it would lose next to nothing in the translation. And there is the matter of the vine. It grows aggressively, and appears to be carnivorous. There are unfortunate accidents, injuries, and crude attempts at medicine. Grudges and secrets come boiling to the surface - with nowhere to go, the vacationers start to turn on each other. Tempers and resentment flare as their circumstances ratchet tighter and tighter around them. And the vine waits. Waits and grows.  The protagonists do not deserve this. Nobody deserves this. These are people cracking and breaking under merciless strain, and every minute of their time stranded is hard and sharp. My only quibble with the movie is the range of things of which the vine is capable - but to be fair, killer plants are hard to pull off (there's a terrible pun in there somewhere) under the best of circumstances, and nature is full of strangeness in the name of adaptation. To a point, you could almost make the argument that there's nothing special about the vine, that this is all delusion brought on by a terrible situation.

But those are shades of bad, and this is not a movie about shade or nuance. This is bright and brutal, the colors of an ant squirming under the magnifying glass.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix

Sunday, December 19, 2010

On Sequels, and the Narrative Problem of the Franchise: The Saw Series

NOTE: There are going to be some spoilers here and there.

I want to get one thing out the way up front: I have not seen all of the Saw films. I have seen the first three. I started watching the fourth before switching it off from disinterest. I am aware that it is considered (rightly so) bad form to criticize something you haven't seen, but I've tried to follow the ongoing story via Wikipedia summaries. Honestly, I'd argue based on 2 & 3 (and what little I saw of 4), actually watching the films after a certain point might not be necessary.

So yes, I have come to bury the Saw films, not to praise them.

Which is too bad, because I thought the first one was flawed, but generally pretty cool. It was atypical for North American horror films at the time. There was a tension between the simplicity of the situation in which the two main protagonists found themselves and the baroque storyline of betrayal and intertwined relationships surrounding them. The visual aesthetic was equally tense, contrasting grimy, believably decayed locations with the almost operatic quality of the killer's traps and methods. Sort of a locked-room murder mystery by way of Dario Argento, set in an abandoned, rusting warehouse.  It definitely had its flaws - it was shot without rehearsal and showed, and enough scenery got chewed toward the end that I worried about the actors getting tetanus. But as a singular story, it had promise, and it was something a little new and different.

New and different isn't always a guaranteed good thing, but in this instance it paid off. In terms of the business of filmmaking, this was great - a couple of relative unknowns, with not that much of a budget, turned out a successful horror film that wasn't just another smirky, ironic riff on the slasher film. Any time deviation from the tried and true pays off, it makes it a little easier to get some new blood more opportunities, and that's good. In terms of the art of filmmaking, this was also great - it was both grittier and more stylized than most commercial North American horror films to date, and so it added a lot to the potential visual vocabulary of horror film. Even the ad campaign had a little something to it - the posters for Saw looked like something Joel-Peter Witkin might do.

The problem comes in when art and business meet. Saw was commercially successful, and as a commercial product, its underwriters wanted to replicate its success. Fair enough, that's business. They paid for production, they got a return on investment, they'd like to keep going with a successful product. If you want to argue artistic purity, commercial film production is the wrong place to do it. However, films - however much a product they are - are still received, understood, and consumed as art (or entertainment). So in that sense, they can and should be evaluated on those terms, regardless of the place they occupy on a spreadsheet.

I am going to argue that the "franchising" of horror films is a bad thing, using the Saw films as a case study. In specific, the power of a film as a synthesized whole is diluted by increasing emphasis on its parts, and the power of the story, as originally conceived, is muted by and buried under increasingly complicated additions to the original narrative for the sake of maintaining some sort of franchise continuity. In general, this process not only makes individual films less effective as horror films, but shifts emphasis from creating art to laying the foundations for product.

In my opinion, much of the power of horror film lies in mystery. The unknown is a big part of horror film, however it shows up - the protagonists don't know how they got where they are, they don't know where somebody went, they don't know who is stalking them, they don't know why the bad things are happening to them, they don't know what type of creature is attacking them. The audience doesn't know these things either, or they do know when the protagonists don't and they get freaked out because they know the protagonists are in danger when they don't. Or the protagonists know something the audience doesn't and does something the audience doesn't understand and won't until all is revealed. The unknown scares us, and having the unknown become known also scares us (the power of the twist). In Saw, we spend the movie finding out why the two men are where they are and what brought them there and what's going to happen to them, and those are the sort of things that scare us.

In a sequel, then, you're already starting at a disadvantage just by virtue of there being less mystery. We've seen the monster in the first one, whatever the monster is. Now it is a known quantity. Whether it's the monster's identity, its motivation, its methodology, whatever, now we know something about that, so it doesn't scare us as much. By the end of Saw, we know that the Jigsaw Killer is a terminally ill man who resents the way others squander life, so he puts people into situations which force them to reexamine themselves and their fears, leading to a greater appreciation for the life they have. So we're already prepared for that going in. There's no threat left in that information.

So then what of the original film is left? We have a pretty good idea of what happened to the two original protagonists (nothing good), and the supporting cast is either dead or of little consequence. As far as we know, their story is over. What we have left are Jigsaw's traps, or "games", as he calls them.

(In my world, Jigsaw relies more on things like the Prisoner's Dilemma and less on rusty bear traps. But I'm a nerd.)

The traps are pretty much the engine driving the sequels. They're going to evoke a response (shock, revulsion) every time, and knowing they're coming isn't a disadvantage, it's a selling point. It's what separates the Saw films from other slasher films, which themselves rely on increasingly gruesome or baroque "kills" (scenes in which people are murdered) to keep audiences coming in for the sequels. I'd argue that these scenes of violence, largely devoid of context or character development, are the fats and sugars of our horror movie metabolism. A little is great - sudden bursts of violence can be very effective as a dramatic tool - but too much at the expense of story or pace or mood or character just leaves you empty, less scared than jolted and disgusted. (Yes, I just compared some horror movies to fast food. That was weak. But stick with me.)

So the appeal of the Saw sequels - since we now know who is behind these atrocities and why - is the sensations the traps evoke. They're the "kills" to which the audience is going to react. If you're going to make a successful Saw movie, then, you need to pay close attention to how you write the trap scenes. The traps need to be good, because it's the traps that are going to bring people into the theaters once all of the other mysteries are gone. There's also an element of one-upmanship, because each set of trap sequences you design are going to accustom the audience to a particular level or type of gruesomeness. So the next set needs to be "worse", somehow, to get the same feeling from the audience. This is true of pretty much any stimulus - it's a habituation effect. Pain is bad, suffering is worse, suffering of the innocent is even worse. Spikes are bad, blades are worse, needles are even worse, drowning in rotten pig entrails is yet again worse. And so it goes.

The more attention goes into the traps (since that's the feature attraction), the less goes into things like setting, mood, and characterization. These are less important because it doesn't matter who is going up against Jigsaw or where - we already know all about Jigsaw. There's no mystery there. The only mystery left is what the traps are going to be and who will be killed in which order. There may be some pretext to get all of the victims in place (Jigsaw's "game" with the police officer in Saw II involved his son and a number of people who fell afoul of his cavalier police methods), but we aren't going to find out anything about these people outside of their rationale for being there, because their only dramatic purpose is as models for the elaborate traps which are the constant of the series. The characters in any given Saw film after the first are either Jigsaw, an audience for Jigsaw, or cannon fodder.

Which is not to say that every horror film needs to be a character study, but if we're not going to care about the characters as people, then the situation in which they find themselves should be pretty evocative. We should at least sympathize with the characters just enough to not want to see them hurt or dead, just enough for the evocative situation to make us feel something. In the Saw films, it's a pretty one-way street. There are traps, and people are going to die in them, sooner or later. It's the difference between moving chess pieces around a board and feeding meat into a grinder. One engages us as viewers, asks us to anticipate moves, allows us to recognize the implications of events and feel something as a result of our discovery. The other is tedious inevitability. Oh, look, more people are about to die in some lethal contraption. Who could have seen that coming?

As much as the Saw films rely on their central conceit to attract the audience (assuming the whole trap angle was what brought in audiences, and that seems to be the case), then it's going to keep going back to the same well again and again. The more it goes back to that well, the more it has to up the stakes to keep people coming in. The more it ups the stakes, the less important other aspects of the film become. The original movie has been photocopied over and over and over and over and over and over, and all of the weird shades of obsession and duplicity and secret lives from the first movie have been reduced to blobs of traps and bodies to occupy them. There's no actual story any more, just a pretext and series of set pieces.

So that's the first problem with sequels: After the first movie, there's no real mystery. Successive sequels take the parts of the first movie and replicate them at the expense of anything that wasn't one of those parts. Mystery, so important to horror, is replaced with expectation, and narrative is sacrificed for spectacle.

The second problem stems from the first, to some extent: You can't completely abandon narrative for a string of murder scenes. Oh, sure, it'd probably be more efficient, but I suspect that lays the real value of those movies a little too bare for comfort. So what we're left with is the need for a narrative (or plot) that provides a reason to revisit a particular setting. Jigsaw needs more victims for his games. Teenagers need to return to Crystal Lake. Someone else needs to have a near-death experience in order for Death to catch up with them. Someone else needs to pick up the Lament Configuration. The spirit of Michael Myers needs to inhabit another body.  There needs to be a reason, no matter how spurious.

The pretext can be handled with varying amounts of finesse. At one end, you have the Hellraiser movies - since the engine of all of the horrible stuff in those movies is a puzzle box, it gets handled more like an anthology than a continuous narrative, and although there is some throughput and some attempt at a mythology (to the movies' detriment), it doesn't become problematic. At the other end, you've got the Saw movies - from an original movie which itself had a pretty elaborate storyline, attempts to continue with entirely new setpieces and groups of victims have made what was already a complicated narrative downright unwieldy. The Jigsaw killer is already dying in the first movie. He doesn't actually expire until the third movie. There are four movies after that. What follows is a kaleidoscope of secret apprentices, double-secret apprentices, double-crosses, triple-crosses, and somehow, each and every character in every one of the seven movies is somehow connected to all of the others. In the Saw films, there are no strangers or bystanders. Everyone has somehow crossed paths with Jigsaw or someone Jigsaw knew, for good or ill. It is a self-contained universe, with the Jigsaw Killer as the body around which all things orbit. Were the films concluded with the reveal that this was all the narcissistic fever dream of some mid-level bureaucrat who likes to tinker with gadgets in his garage, it'd be good. But not so much.

In an effort to connect all of the movies (some of which take place immediately before or after the preceding or succeeding movie), the web of interrelationships and hidden agendas has become so dense that it practically has an event horizon. Just to take a sample of the summary of Saw VI from the Wikipedia entry

"As William progresses through four tests, he saves as many people as he can and learns the error of his choice to reject so many policies, which inherently "kill" the rejected. His last test is revealed to be a test of forgiveness by the family of Harold Abbott who William rejected a policy to in the past, who ultimately choose to kill William using Hydrofluoric acid. Meanwhile, Agent Erickson and the previously thought to be dead agent Perez search for Agent Strahm with the assistance of Hoffman. Upon finding irregularities in previous murder scenes, Perez and Erickson discover Hoffman's identity, but are killed by him before they have a chance to report him but Perez tells Hoffman that everyone knows about him. Hoffman then plants Strahm's finger prints on evidence in the room where he killed Erickson and Perez. Hoffman travels back to the site of William's tests in which Jill attacks him to obey John's final request. She leaves Hoffman in a new Reverse-Bear Trap left behind by John where he is able to manipulate the trap and escape wounded. Hoffman is left in the area, screaming, with his face mangled by Jill's trap."

It's like a soap opera. With knives.

Ironically enough, even as the individual movies suffer a paucity of story (lots of people in traps, there's a twist somewhere, roll credits), the connections between movies make trying to follow even the meager story there is almost impossible. Not every franchise has this particular problem to the degree that the Saw films do, but to one extent or another, each revisit to a particular well entails stretching the confines of the original story to accommodate more and more iterations. Again, we lose the sense of mystery that makes any horror film powerful, simply because additional movies stretch plausibility further, both in each specific story (yes, lightning did strike Jason Voorhees' grave and that's why he came back. Also, his heart is a demon), and as metacommentary. The more movies there are, the less finality the events of any one movie have. Nobody is actually in mortal danger, because either they are necessary for the inevitable sequel, or because they are just day players in yet another installment of a franchise. Their peril has no meaning, and so no power to move us. Copies of copies of copies.

I'm not saying stories should never be revisited or that sequels are never warranted, but it seems like more and more often horror films are being made with the tacit acknowledgement that there will most likely be a sequel if it's successful, and some are even openly referred to as "the beginning of a franchise." That isn't art. It's product. And I firmly believe that horror films are, at their best, capable of being art. And I want to see horror movies at their best.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Monsters: The Worst "Morning After" Ever

Horror movies are pretty much synonymous with monsters. The definition of "monster" is pretty broad, but there's a Big Bad Something, be it animal, vegetable, or mineral, and it means people ill, and people object to that with varying degrees of success. In pretty much every instance, the monster is at the center of the movie - the movie begins just before we meet the monster, the monster is fought and defeated (or is it?), and it ends with some kind of resolution, either a happy ending or not. There's a plucky band of protagonists, and it's up to them to stop the monster. People are threatened, and then saved. There's a threat, then there isn't, unless it comes back.

At least, that's the convention. As the convention gets reconsidered, we get movies where the monster gets moved to the periphery to different degrees - The Host is nominally about a giant mutant tadpole looking thing, but it's mostly a family drama, in which the defining tragedy is the kidnapping of the youngest daughter by said giant mutant tadpole. Cloverfield is a verité riff on the giant-monster movie in which we don't follow the plucky band of protagonists - instead, we follow one of the groups of people who run screaming from the monster. The Mist is as much about the horrible things people will do out of fear as it is about the gargantuan monstrosities lurking outside. Monsters move from being the driving threat to being the catalyst for other events.

Monsters takes this one step further, by making monsters a preexisting condition, a fact of the world.

We learn from a title card that six years ago, a deep-space probe tasked with searching for extraterrestrial life blew up on reentry, scattering alien life all over a large swath of Mexico, This life has flourished at the expense of the native flora and fauna, and Mexico is cut in two by a heavily-patrolled "Infected Zone." This is just a fact of the world now. Children incorporate the aliens into their murals, immigration is locked down even more tightly than it was before, a mammoth concrete wall (visible from space) runs along the U.S./Mexico border. The events of the monster movie have happened, and the alien invasion was not averted. They are here.

Against this backdrop we have the story of Andrew and Samantha. Andrew is a freelance photographer, trying to get into the Infected Zone to get photographs of the aliens at close range - highly prized, these would be a big payday for him. The closest he's been able to get has been pictures of the monsters' wreckage - destroyed vehicles and buildings, cars and airplanes flung up into trees, the carcasses of dead aliens. His window of opportunity is closing because the U.S. is extending a program of carpet-bombing further out from the Infected Zone proper in an attempt to control the alien population. It's also creating tens of thousands of refugees as Mexicans are driven from their homes. He's going to have to get out of this part of Mexico soon, so he wants to get into the Infected Zone before he has to go back home. His one shot is interrupted by a call for him from the publisher of the magazine for whom he is shooting. The publisher's daughter Samantha is lost somewhere further south - injured and staying in a Mexican hospital. Andrew is tasked with bringing her back to the U.S., his big chance be damned.

Naturally, there's some resentment from both ends. Andrew is mad that he's lost his one shot at the big time to play babysitter, and Samantha has to put up with a bit of a boor in Andrew. She speaks the language, he doesn't. She's concerned about the people in the villages, he's looking for the perfect shot. She wants to help, he wants to party and be done with his errand as soon as possible. This could tip very easily into romantic comedy cliché, but the actors play it just low-key enough to keep it on a human scale.

Getting out of Mexico ends up being more difficult than either of them thought - lines of transportation are limited, and the people controlling them are making a killing off the people who need to get out. It's the last day they can run the ferry before the military moves in, so the tickets going for thousands of dollars. Andrew and Samantha give everything they have to someone who is one step above a smuggler, and there's no guarantee that he isn't just going to leave them for dead, but they have no choice. The Infected Zone is the dangerous unknown lurking miles away, but Mexico itself feels just as predatory. There's a sense that these two people are innocents abroad, and the journey is going to be just as scary (if not scarier) than the monsters.

One thing leads to another - many shots of tequila and regrettable decisions during their last night in Mexico, and they wake up in the morning without their ferry tickets or much of anything else. The ferries are through running, the military is coming in. They have to leave now, and there's only one way left to go: Through the Infected Zone.

The resulting journey is something like a very low-key Cloverfield. It's a giant monster movie from the point of view of people on the periphery of events. With a couple of exceptions, all we see is the aftermath of the monsters' attacks - wreckage, human and otherwise, flung about. More remarkable is how life has gone on in the wake of the monsters' arrival. The presence of massive, dangerous alien life forms changes the way we live, but not as much as you might think. People still want to get away from the danger and are willing to pay, people are still willing to take their money, and others build walls, higher and thicker, in hopes of blotting out the thought of the danger entirely. Like Andrew and Samantha, we're just visitors, coming along after the worst is over, quietly appalled.

Of course, gringos horrified at something in the Third World is not a new thing, and the parallels with issues like immigration, foreign policy, and colonialism drift into the ham-handed on a couple of occasions, but like Andrew & Samantha's changing relationship, generally stay on the right side of believable. They're brought together by ordeal and fear, and the need to cling to something familiar. They meet halfway through difficult circumstances, and this is mostly the focus of the movie, rather than the monsters themselves. This becomes less true toward the last act, where danger is equally intermingled with beauty, relief with despair, closure with uncertainty, and a scene at the film's open is revisited from a different perspective, neatly bringing the whole thing to a close. I'd hesitate to call this a horror movie - more of a "quietly upset" movie - but it's an interesting addition to the increasing vocabulary of the monster movie, all of its typical bombast and shouting brought to the level of a conversation between people.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Mother Nature Does Not Care

Maybe it's because I"m watching snow come down outside right now, but this just occurred to me. As an addendum to my review of Frozen I submit to you this story of the many hazards of climbing Mt. Everest. A better real-world demonstration of nature's monolithic indifference to our concerns I could not find if I made one up...

Abandoned on Everest

Note: Some pretty unpleasant, definitely NSFW imagery accompanies the story, but probably nothing more disgusting than you've seen in any horror movie. It's just, you know, real.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Crazy Eights: Six Characters In Search Of A Story

Writing my last post about 13HRS, in which an honest (though not wholly successful) attempt is made to set up a third-act reveal of some really horrible secrets, I started thinking a lot about the importance of information control in horror movies. You don't want to make it impossible for the viewer to figure out what's going on by  making a reveal entirely contingent on information you don't get until the moment of reveal (slasher movies are especially bad about this, in my opinion), nor do you want to give away the game too early. Make the clues or imagery too obvious and instead of getting that slow dawning of terrible understanding - the "piecing together of dissociated knowledge" that "open up such terrifying vistas of reality" of which H.P. Lovecraft spoke - you get "oh, I know what's going to happen" and then however long you wait around for the unfolding of the inevitable. Play fair, but be careful which cards you put on the table.

Crazy Eights is an excellent example of how not to do this.

We're presented with a title card telling us that between the mid 1950s and mid 1970s, a whole lot of behavioral experiments were conducted on little kids, most of them in secret. Cue a little girl being brought to a hospital in the middle of the night. Fade down. Could this be important later? Hmm.

Six childhood friends gather for the funeral of a seventh, who recently committed suicide. The movie opens with three of these friends experiencing odd phenomena - nightmares, visions, hallucinations, so we know we're in for something not of this earth. These three meet up with another three at the funeral, and afterwards, go to the house of the dead friend to try and figure out what happened to her. Her will requests that these six friends look for a box in her house and open it together. Once the box is found and opened, the friends discover a photograph, a map, and a key. The map is to a time capsule they buried as children, and the photograph is one of all of them as children. There are eight children in the photograph, but nobody comments on the eighth child.

The group drives back to their hometown and locates the time capsule which is, for some reason, in the loft of an old barn.

(It's a small detail, but it contributes to an overall sense of disconnection that pervades the movie. The six friends seem lost, distracted, just slightly off to one degree or another, from Jennifer, who is probably the most grounded of the six, to Beth, who is just one sandwich shy of being completely crazy. These people don't feel grounded in the world - they seem adrift somehow, talking slightly past each other, not really being present or aware of their surroundings. It gives the first part of the movie a slight fever dream feeling, as if this might not actually be happening. A time capsule in a barn loft is no less odd next to these people).

Opening the time capsule reveals the usual mementoes of childhood - a slingshot, some paintbrushes, a journal…

…and the skeleton of a little girl.

Thoroughly creeped out, our sextet grab some things and take off. Except no matter how far they drive, they keep coming back to an old, condemned house. Going into the house (like you do) gets them locked in. The search for the way out drives them to a tunnel leading them from the house to what appears to be an abandoned hospital. An abandoned hospital which feels somehow familiar to the six of them. Except when it…doesn't?

This is the biggest problem with Crazy Eights. All of the parts are there, but they never really cohere into a story because they're constantly undermined. We have a group of friends, one of whom has  just killed themselves, who have known each other since childhood, but whose childhood is filled with gaps - they remember the time capsule, but not the eighth child in the picture. They recognize the hospital, but then are surprised to discover that they've been there before, then shrug off that feeling because oh yeah, they've been there before and it's no big deal. It would be one thing if the gaps in their memory slowly resolved themselves until the truth was made known, but every discovery of what should be some horrible secret is undercut both by the protagonists failure to react appropriately to it and the expectation we've had from the title card that this is somehow related to a series of secret experiments. Of course weird shit is happening and secrets are going to get unearthed. There's little to no surprise to the movie at all because the cards are all on the table from the start.

This is compounded by serious confusion in the story - again, like the piling on of elements for no apparent reason in movies like Mortuary and Frontiere(s), there's a childhood secret, there's amnesia, there's a ghost (no prize for guessing who), there's secret experiments - there's just no reason for all of this stuff to get crammed together. The secret experiment angle seems like a rationale for the abandoned hospital setting (for which I've already called a moratorium) and adds little else - it could, but the ghost angle distracts from it. It's not clear what purpose the old house serves (unless they couldn't get any good exterior shots for the hospital - cynical? Yeah, but it's saying something that it even occurs to me), the only reason the time capsule seems to be in the loft is to allow it to get broken in a fall, revealing the skeleton. The amnesia is only there when it needs to be, and then it disappears when it isn't convenient, making the whole missing-memory angle a moot point. The artifice is apparent throughout, less a horror movie than a bunch of horror movie set pieces thrown together.

It'd be better if it were sort of like Peter Straub's Ghost Story, with amnesia thrown in - old friends brought together by a terrible secret, only the past event is as hidden from the characters as us. Which would be okay, characters and audience could put it together at the same time for a nice slow "oh shit" reveal. Again, this can only happen if we are fairly given the opportunity, but the filmmakers almost set it up in reverse - we start out knowing an important piece of the puzzle, and then watch the characters wander through the movie (enervated, sterile, almost occurring in a vacuum despite the aggressively grimy setting) figuring out what we already know, but still withholding the last bit of vital information - except when they sort of drop it in a couple of times (or, for that matter, as the first fucking frame in the movie) and the characters seem to react not at all. Maybe it's supposed to seem dreamlike, but there's little to no tension. Things happen, but there's no sense of drama - it's just a series of sequences staged in different parts of an abandoned building. People figure something out or find a clue, other people die, and we're supposed to care. It's sort of like The Big Chill, if people died at the hands of a vengeful ghost instead of long-term exposure to boomer self-absorption.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix

Saturday, November 20, 2010

13HRS: What's Unsaid Is As Important As What's Said

I don't like spoilers in movie reviews. First, because I think a review should be more than just a recounting of the plot, and also because the element of surprise can be so important to a good movie. I've had some really good movies ruined for me because some jackass spoiled an important part - I've stayed away from some movies altogether as a result, and others, for as powerful as they were when I saw them, would have packed an atomic wallop had I not known things that were blithely revealed as part of a review. It's simply good practice not to give shit away.

As a corollary to that, I think "It was obvious that X was going to happen" is another hallmark of lazy criticism, along with "why didn't they just" and "that would never happen." Maybe it's subjective, but I've seen this accusation leveled at movies where I didn't see it coming, or at least didn't see it until I when I suspect the filmmakers wanted me to see it. Which is another thing - there are multiple types of twist. There's the sudden, shocking twist, where nobody's supposed to see it coming so when it happens, it's horrible. There's the slow reveal with restatements of the clues we've gotten all along, highlighting the important bits to aid us in our discovery, giving us the slow shudder of mounting realization. And then there's my favorite - the slow reveal relying entirely on the audience to put it together, so that when you've put the last piece into place in your head, the sense of "oh, shit" is as clear as a bell.

This is why I'm skeptical of "it was obvious that X was going to happen." It's hard to tell when it's genuine disappointment at a mishandled reveal, and when it's just hindsight bias serving to protect someone who felt upset or threatened or more frightened than they cared to be by a reveal. Part of a good, solid horror movie is it staying with you. Haunting you. Some people don't dig that. If you're just in it for quick, cheap entertainment, it's the difference between a fast-food hamburger and foie gras. Consume too greedily and your appetites won't know what to do with what you've given them.

This is why I'm sitting here, ultimately ambivalent about 13HRS. I feel like something was revealed a little earlier than maybe it should have been, but I'm having a hard time telling if it was the film or just me. There's a mixture here between the well-done and mishandled that makes me think of a really good film trying to claw its way out of an average one.

The movie opens with a car traveling down a road in the middle of the night. We don't see the driver, and we only see the sections of road illuminated by headlights. Someone is hurtling through the void toward something. Someone turns out to be Sarah, a young woman home to England after moving to the States, and something is the rambling family estate, a big stately home in what appears to be a transitory state of repair. Not the desolation of Longleigh House, but not exactly the cozy manor either. Something is wrong, the family is in disarray. Furniture covered with tarps, scaffolding, exposed wood. In between falling apart and being repaired.

In short order, we're introduced to Sarah's life back in England - she's part of what's called now a blended family (though that always conjured unpleasant kitchen appliance imagery for me), her mother is married to her stepfather Duncan, who has three sons. It's not clear whether or not Sarah's mother is theirs. The three sons - Charlie, Stephen, & Luke - are out in the property's enormous barn, drinking and partying and listening to loud music and carrying on.  We continue to get a crash course in Sarah's life - Stephen's the oldest and a total fuckup, living in the barn and getting high a lot. Charlie is the middle brother and Sarah seems closest to him. Luke is only thirteen and is sleeping off a serious weed high in the loft, courtesy of Stephen.

There are assorted friends - Doug, Gary, and Emily (who apparently is Sarah's best friend, was Doug's girlfriend and is now with Stephen). In one way or another, everyone seems to be mad at Sarah for leaving them to go to Los Angeles a few months ago. There are family troubles. Dad's angry about money - they're trying to sell the house (hence the repairs) but there isn't enough money. There's a lot of fighting about bills. Mom's gone for long stretches of time and doesn't tell anyone where she's going. The boys think she's cheating. Sarah's return seems to have set off a whole lot of soap opera - accusations and tangled relationships and recriminations fly fast and thick. During all of this, the liquor flows and the weed gets passed and the music blares…

…until the power goes out. It's an old house, the wiring is fucked, and one good rainstorm shorts everything out. The six of them (Luke still back in the barn sleeping it off) sneak into the house to grab some candles and lanterns and extra booze…

…only to find Dad dead and thoroughly gutted in his bedroom…

…and some large, bestial thing roaming the halls.

At this point, the film becomes sort of a siege film, with the kids and their friends taking to the eaves of the house to avoid whatever creature has just torn their family patriarch apart and try to figure out what the hell has happened.

(One thing I would have liked to see this movie do more was utilize the house itself - it's huge and rambling and old, with all sorts of great little nooks and crannies. You get the sense that a lot of history could be contained in the house, piled up and crammed into a multitude of attics and connected crawlspaces. Its mazelike sprawl could have made for great tension, but they really just return to the same spaces again and again.)

So really this is less of a monster movie and more of a siege movie - the monster is big, unseen for the vast majority of the film, and even its attacks are over very quickly. For most of the movie, our story is less about the monster itself and more about how the circumstances in which the siblings and their friends find themselves reveal their character. It's a lifeboat movie in a stately home. Some of what gets revealed is important, some of it is a red herring, but some people crack under the strain, some people get stronger, and some people get killed for acting rashly, like you do. There is, as there usually is in a movie like this, much moving carefully from place to place to retrieve things and to make ones way to an escape route. Much is made of family, and secrets, and things left unsaid (or things which should have been left unsaid), and it's the middle of this chain of events that an explanation starts to form, one which takes advantage of specific images and ideas to plant a suggestion. Who is related to whom, where mother is in all of this, what the policeman en route to the scene discovers.

All of this comes together well in execution, but maybe a little too quickly. I think the omission of a single exchange between a police officer and an animal control expert would have kept things on the tracks for me. As it was, that exchange slotted everything into place for me, and the remainder of the movie ended up being, instead of a climax, an unwinding of the watchspring toward an inevitable conclusion, robbed of its power and tension by all-too-complete understanding.

Which is too bad, because there's a solid movie under here, under pacing problems that rob scenes of their tension, under occasionally hammy acting and stagey dialogue that takes your out of your involvement in the story, under tipping the hand too soon. What it does right it does well. But at the end, once the 13 hours are up and the sun has replaced the moon in the sky, the corpses of the evening's events laid bare to the day, it's less tragic than it is formality. The only ones who hadn't known all along were the characters in the movie itself.

IMDB entry

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Frontiere(s): Going One Step Too Far

One of my pet peeves in horror movie criticism is objection to what the characters actually do in the film. I see it on film review sites coming from people who should know better (or maybe I just wish knew better), and in the teeming cesspit that is any discussion thread for any horror movie on IMDB. "The characters are stupid" is, to my mind, rarely if ever a legitimate complaint. "That would never really happen" is also not a legitimate complaint, especially coming from enthusiasts of the slasher genre, for obvious reasons (really? Are we going to quibble plausibility in the fifth fucking film to star an unkillable hulk in a hockey mask? Really?).

I prefer to go into a movie assuming that it's going to have its own internal logic - how else do you suspend disbelief for any movie featuring the supernatural? I have a problem when movies violate their own internal logic - when something happens without any roots in what came before - but as long is the movie is internally consistent, I'm fine. I also go into a horror movie accepting the idea that the characters are going to do stupid things. Sometimes because people are just stupid, and sometimes because being in a terrible situation makes otherwise sane and rational people do insane and irrational things. This particular form of lazy criticism is usually followed by a disquisition on how they, the commenter, would have handled it. It's usually some variably baroque variation on "I'd kick the monster's ass." Detailed badassery is sometimes included. The wish-fulfillment practically oozes from your monitor. "Why didn't they just…" and "that would never happen" are lazy substitutes for serious consideration.

That said, "that would never happen" is one of my key criticisms of Frontiere(s). There's really no better way to put it.

Frontiere(s) opens during the Paris riots of 2005, as four small-time criminals are attempting to flee the city. One of them, Yasmine, is pregnant. The movie opens with her in voiceover, contemplating bringing a child into a world like this. The movie opens cold, fast, and furious. The shit is burning down, and they are the rats trying to escape it. There's a lot of running and yelling. The four of them are going to have to split up, but they agree to meet at an inn in a rural, isolated area and regroup there. How they know about this place isn't really clear, and this won't be the last time we're not really clear on something, but the movie hurries forward.

The first two get there, and they're treated to a nice meal and the promise of some action from a couple of attractive women who work there. As said getting down is being gotten, one of the women pulls off her shirt, and from the the back, the viewer can see something the protagonist can't - the giant National Socialist emblem tattooed on her back. Oh, shit, this inn is run by Nazis! And Yasmine - who's pretty damn Arab - is headed there! What will happen?

Well, the first thing that happens is that the two guys who arrived first get knocked out, strung up and bled like pigs. See, they aren't just Nazis…they're Nazi cannibals.

Because either just plain Nazis or just plain cannibals wouldn't have been horrible enough?

See, here's another thing I don't like - when the threat is more threat than you really need to be threatening. After a certain point, you're just piling on the adjectives. Case in point and brief tangent: The book Gerald's Game by Stephen King. I like King's body of work generally, but they aren't all home runs. In Gerald's Game, a woman and her husband are at a remote cabin in the woods for a married-couple type getaway, and decide to indulge in some kinky (handcuffs and roleplaying) sex. Well, the husband (the titular Gerald) gets a little carried away and starts playing entirely too roughly for his wife's comfort. Though handcuffed to the bed, she manages to get a good kick to the gut in. Ill-considered though this was, what comes next isn't retribution - he has a heart attack and keels over. So now here she is, naked, handcuffed to the bed, and she realizes the front door is unlocked. That's some serious "oh, shit" right there.

Then King introduces the antagonist - a mentally retarded man who lives in the area. This could be really bad - combine the needs and body of an adult with the mind of a child, and bad things can happen. But wait! He's not just mentally retarded, he's a mentally retarded cannibal! Basically Ed Gein with a subnormal IQ. But wait! He's not just a mentally retarded cannibal, he's a mentally retarded cannibal with the bone-deforming disease acromegaly!

Steve-O, you had me at "handcuffed to the bed, naked, and the front door is open." Why pile the rest of this crap on?

I have the same problem with Frontiere(s). You don't need for Nazis to be cannibals, and you don't need cannibals to be Nazis. Either is scary on its  own. It feels like overkill, like the story equivalent of all the running and yelling at the opening of the movie.

So anyway Yasmine and the other guy get to the inn, and they discover in short order ("hey where are our friends?" "oh shit, at least one of them is dead in the basement along with a shitload of other butchered bodies!" Fuck!) that they're in a bad situation. They are captured, chained and caged.

But not slaughtered - not yet. See, the creepy German patriarch of the Nazi cannibal family has decided that he wants to spare Yasmine - black-haired, olive-skinned, Middle Easterny Yasmine - for "breeding stock." He wants her to pump out babies to begin the master race.

Hold right the fuck on a minute. He wants to mate his perfect Aryan boys to this Arab girl? That would never happen.  I don't mean "that's stupid", I mean that pretty much violates the one thing that defines Nazis - an obsession with racial purity. The whole point is to avoid miscegenation. This guy is bad at being a Nazi. There is now absolutely nothing useful about them being anything other than garden-variety cannibals. I didn't actually throw up my hands at this point, but I certainly performed the mental equivalent. They lost me.

The rest of the film is basically more running and screaming, but with buckets of blood being flung around. There's a daughter whose children are all deformed and feral, but after they're introduced early on they never really come up again. Violent standoffs occur, things burn, people are coated in gore, but there's no sense of import to it - there's no dynamic, the movie starts loud and fast and keeps being loud and fast, and maybe the filmmakers expected that running and screaming to compensate for the movie's shortcomings. The result is incoherent and dull - we're never really given an opportunity to see the protagonists as people, but we're supposed to sympathize with them (hence the baby, I guess?) and the rest of the movie isn't developed enough to make their role as pieces to be pushed around a board suitable for the story. There's a difference between crossing a line, crossing a boundary, and just blindly pushing forward. This movie just blindly pushes forward, piling on threat after threat, all of it ending up loud, empty and directionless, lost.

IMDB entry
Purchase on Amazon
Available from Netflix

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Poughkeepsie Tapes: Whoever Fights Monsters

My next Halloween post concerns a popular figure in horror movies - one who can apparently change shape, turn into mist, command hordes of wild animals, kill without mercy or conscience, and elude his pursuers to an almost unnatural degree, all while planning elaborate, ritualized displays of bloodshed.

I am, of course, talking about serial killers.

No, not Dracula. Honestly, he'd be more plausible than some of the portrayals of serial killers in fiction and film. Criminal masterminds, whose genius is matched only by the baroqueness and ferocity of their kills. The myth is practically fable at this point, and serial killers (as we see them in our entertainment) are practically monsters as it is - less people than slavering wolves waiting to devour Red Riding Hood. My favorite was actually from a book, not a movie - a deeply disturbed man obsessed with a dead nun, who murdered women who looked like the nun by tearing their throats out with a custom set of fanged dentures, and who did so while wearing a hazmat suit to keep the blood off of his clothes. He did this in New York City while…get this…being a successful movie actor. This shit is ridiculous.

I have no problem with the ridiculous, necessarily - there's definitely a place for it in horror - but serial killers aren't werewolves or vampires, they're quite real, and what they do is horrible. Treating them like some kind of folk figure, commodifying them the way we have Freddie Krueger or Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers is a little offensive to me. It makes them not an actual threat, the tragedies suffered by their victims and the victims' families less real. I think that if you're going to make a movie centered around a serial killer, it should make people queasy and uncomfortable.

I think this is what The Poughkeepsie Tapes is shooting for - I think it is - but its inability to settle on a tone ends up making the experience more confusing than anything else. Which is too bad, because when it's on, it is dead fucking on.

Loosely, it's a verité movie in the tradition of The Blair Witch Project. Actually, it's sort of a double-verité movie - the framing device is that we're watching a crime-television documentary about the discovery of a cache of videotapes in a rented house in Poughkeepsie, NY. Within that documentary, we see excerpts from the videotapes, which appear to be compulsively filmed documents of a serial killers' evolution. We're there for his first foray into murder, and watch as he becomes increasingly more cruel and his behavior more bizarre.

These excerpts from the collected tapes are arguably the most effective parts of the movie - they're mostly a mix of the killer stalking his victims and torturing them in his basement. There's a lot of watching him play cat-and-mouse with unsuspecting people, either who don't realize his true intentions or who don't even know he's there, and these are the tensest, scariest parts of the movie. It's not an especially gory film, with a few quick exceptions. Its stock in trade is the horror of what we don't see. The videotape is, as often as not, degraded and twitchy, with color and tracking artifacts all over the place. It obscures some of what is happening to good effect and lends these segments a raw, ugly feel that works very well at making the viewer feel really uneasy.

Unfortunately, a couple of things get in the way. The first is that the killer, over time, becomes more and more of a movie serial killer, rather than the actual thing. His plans become more complicated, his behavior theatrical (literally - complete with Venetian mask, cape and frilled collar), and his cruelty, depravity, and ability to avoid capture almost superhuman. He's described as a genius, impossible to catch. He does unspeakable things. His behavior with his victims becomes histrionic. He threatens to become a monster, not real at all. It clashes with what starts as a frighteningly plausible portrayal of a withdrawn nobody, whose kinks and compulsions spiral out of control.

The second problem is the dissonance between the footage from the tapes and the surrounding crime-drama framework. Part of it can be chalked up to amateurish acting, but not all of it. The acting does vary wildly, making some characters convincing and others almost comedic. It's hard to tell if the filmmakers were trying to parody crime documentaries - maybe the borderline-goofiness of some of the characters was supposed to be in contrast to the ugliness of the footage, and although this was the case, I'm really not sure it was deliberate. The overall feel is wildly uneven, especially since a couple of the documentary moments - especially a brief, haunting interview with one of the killers' surviving victims toward the end - are downright chilling, but many aren't. Intrusive special effects also show up in places you wouldn't expect them to, blurring the line between the footage, the documentary, and the film we're actually watching. Again, there's the possibility this was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, but if so, they didn't follow through consistently enough. As it is, there's no clear aesthetic brief, and what could have been (based on it at its most successful) could have been a powerful, terrifying antidote to the surfeit of unrealistic serial killer films ends up mythologizing them the way other films do. There's a really strong film in here somewhere, but it's trapped under a layer of aesthetic missteps. The last thing this film needs is a monster, let alone one where the zipper is visible.

IMDB entry
Available on Netflix

Monday, October 25, 2010

Frozen: I Looked To The Sky And God Was Not There

(This review is hopefully going to be part of Film Club at Final Girl. It feels weird to go back and retrofit this link into my review. It's like time travel somehow, only you just go back in time to walk into someone's bathroom while they're taking a shower so you can take the cap off their toothpaste. But anyway.)

It's actually not all that hard to come up with a good scary story that doesn't require any monster or supernatural element to work. You just need a few things.

One of them is a time-honored literary theme: Man versus Nature. Nature is the monolithic, implacable force against which Man, normally so mighty but here so small, struggles to survive. How we frame that struggle can make the difference between a triumph-of-the-human-spirit movie (Alive), a tragedy (Into The Wild), or a horror movie (Open Water).

The next is the price of bad luck. One misunderstanding or error can set off a whole chain of terrible circumstances. The phrase "I thought he/she was with you" can be absolutely terrifying in the right hands.  You see the mistake happen, and you know that the person making it is utterly oblivious to its implication. This lends verisimilitude - shit like this actually happens in the real world.

Finally, you need a reversal on another established genre. Lots of recent teens-in-trouble movies have appropriated not just the circumstances of teen spring break comedies, but the style and feel of them too - bright colors, crude humor, and forgettable pop-punk soundtracks that only last as long as the fun does. I like this, but wish that at some point somebody would have the balls to not give away the hook in the advertising for the movie. As good as I thought Hostel was, it would have been ever better and more effective if nobody knew about the second half going into it. Sort of a "it's all fun and games until somebody ends up in an Eastern European torture dungeon, and then it's the absolute diametric fucking opposite of fun" thing. A man can dream, I guess.

Until then, my next plausible (mostly) scary movie is Frozen.

It begins as a wacky teen ski comedy - much like Better Off Dead, a classic of the genre. You've got buddies Dan and Joe - Dan is the sensible, levelheaded one, the hardworking student one. Joe is the wacky stoner with the head full of pop culture trivia. They're on their annual ski trip, a chance to bro out and get some quality time on the slopes in, as a bonding thing and escape from the pressures of college (or the pressures of being wacky and stoned all the time, I guess). Joe's mad because Dan brought along Parker, his girlfriend. The ski weekend is about them, it's always been about them, and as far as Joe is concerned, she's an intruder. So there's some tension there. Joe's also mad that Parker's ineptitude at snowboarding is confining the trio to the bunny slopes. So there's a whole friendship and accepting the increasing responsibilities that come with a committed relationship and adulthood thing going on. Plus, Joe tries flirting with a girl at the bunny slope until her meathead jock recently-ex boyfriend gets all alpha male over the whole thing. Joe gets her number anyway.

Were this your average teen comedy, there'd be a lot of tension and arguing and hurt feelings between Dan, Joe, and Parker, Dan would storm off to console Parker, but then when Joe runs into trouble with the meathead ex-boyfriend, both Dan and Parker are there for Joe when he beats the ex-boyfriend in a downhill competition, Joe gets the girl, makes up with Dan and Parker, the ex-boyfriend ends up in a snowdrift, and everyone dances to some song by Sum 41 as the credits roll.

Oh, no, that is not what happens. Not at all.

Instead, Joe and Dan convince Parker to sweet-talk the lift operator into letting them take one more shot down the mountain - some real skiing. The operator's dubious - they're about to close, but Parker promises they'll be quick. They get on the chairlift, go higher and higher up the mountain, and a simple set of misunderstandings - one guy leaves the lift, tells the other guy that three just went up, the three that went up before our protagonists come down, but since the original operator's not there to know it's not the protagonists, replacement guy thinks they're all done and shuts down the lift.

Dan, Joe, and Parker are stuck high in the air on an immobile chairlift. They yell for help, but nobody hears. And then the lights go out at the resort. It's a small resort, they can't afford to run all week. It's Sunday.

The resort opens again on Friday.

It's as simple a setup as you'd want. A few people, some underlying resentments, utter helplessness and nature, red in tooth and claw. Open Water used this same setup to tremendous effect. The real antagonist here is nature - and it isn't even actively hostile. It just is. There are lots of interstitial and establishing shots of the mountains and trees interspersed with shots of the deserted resort. The emptiness is palpable, and its absence of malice is somehow worse - it's just business as usual up here. You can't reason with or outwit nature. It...just..is. The very definition of being at the mercy of the elements. Any screams are going to go unheard. And the elements - whoo boy. It's bad enough being stuck high in the air, but it's also freezing. There's hypothermia to worry about, and frostbite, along with starvation. Needless to say, tempers flare. Things are decided rashly, and action is taken, with disastrous consequences. In addition to the wind and the snow and the cold and the ice and the silence, there are wolves.

It's a really good conceit - we know the characters enough to sympathize with them and whatever their faults, they certainly don't deserve what's happened to them. We want to see them get out alive. There's a lot of attention on the actors, and this sort of movie could turn melodramatic very quickly, but they consistently make good choices, keeping everything on the right side of believability. Dan's not necessarily the hero, Parker isn't necessarily helpless, Joe isn't necessarily incompetent. These feel like people, and their suffering and fear are raw and convincing. It's hard to relax, because this is the sort of situation in which any error, no matter how slight, can be fatal, and any change in circumstance can make things much worse.

Unfortunately, the pacing does drag things somewhat. A movie like this works best when events are a steady drumbeat, approaching inevitability, when problem mounts upon problem mounts upon problem. Frozen is front-loaded with scary moments, but the back half drags and repeats itself somewhat. Things happen and seem to be important but never go anywhere, and the movie relies a little too much on the wolves as a threat, as if it were unwilling to commit to the indifference of the elements as the main antagonist. They provide a couple of really good moments, but a movie like this really works best, I think, when it's about staring into the void and knowing that there is nothing looking back, that there is no Mother Nature. Or worse - there is, and she has the lightless, staring eyes of a wolf.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix

Friday, October 15, 2010

8mm: The Existential Horror Film

I've talked a lot about the line between horror movies and thrillers (and I'm sure I will continue to do so), and how it seems to be arbitrary sometimes depending on the people involved, as if directors, producers, and actors of a certain caliber automatically elevate something from the level of genre film to something else by their mere presence.  I've also talked about how I think Joel Schumacher ruined this specific screenplay with wrongheaded casting and story choices. So I am not necessarily in love with this movie. But I do think there's something redeemable about it, and have since I first saw it in the theaters.

For all of its flaws and thriller/drama trappings, I'd argue that 8mm is actually an existential horror film.

In most horror movies (not all, but most), what's at threat is the loss of life. Whether it's some supernatural agent like a ghost, vampire, or monster, or an earthly agent like a killer, cannibal, cannibal killer, etc., the worst thing that's going to happen is that you're going to die. Horrible things may happen first (or after), but it comes down to dying. In some cases, it comes down to loss of humanity instead, as the protagonists themselves become something monstrous. In 8mm, I'd argue that what's at stake is not whether someone lives or dies (someone is dead as the story gets started), not so much the presence or absence of humanity (it's sort of at stake, but not centrally),  but rather whether or not a person could be said to have existed at all.

The movie opens with private investigator Tom Welles doing what private investigators do: He's tailing somebody who's having an extramarital affair. He gets the evidence his client needs, responding to their reaction with a mixture of sympathy and world-weariness. He knows how the world works, even when his clients don't. It's a tough job - long, boring hours away from home - but it provides a good life for him, his wife, and their daughter in the D.C. suburbs. He mows the lawn, chats with the neighbors. He can keep his family safe from the disappointing facets of human nature which nonetheless pay the bills.

Welles has a reputation for discretion which makes him a go-to P.I. for people in D.C., powerful people who don't want their dirt spread around, and it's this reputation that gets him hired by the recent widow of a steel magnate. In going through her late husband's things after his death, she finds a roll of 8mm film in a hidden safe in his private office (wood paneling, fireplace, big oil painting of him on the wall, old-school rich dude style all the way). She's watched it once, and tells Welles it is footage of what appears to be a young woman being butchered on camera.

Welles tells her that it's faked - special effects and camera trickery. So-called "snuff films" are an urban myth, he reassures her. He knows how the world works, even when his clients don't. She screens the film for him: A scrawny, dull-eyed girl - probably a runaway. A shabby bedroom in an abandoned house. The bed is covered with a plastic tarp. A man in a leather mask enters the frame, handles the girl a little roughly. He walks over to a table with a tray of sharp instruments on it. At this point, our point of view changes to Welles' reactions to what he's seeing on camera. Whatever he's seeing, his disgust and horror tell us it isn't faked. She's really being horrifically murdered on camera.

Maybe he doesn't know how the world works after all.

The widow believes him, for the most part: She wants him to make sure this girl is still alive, that it was just faked. Maybe she's trying to convince herself despite what she surely knows from her own viewing of the film . Welles tells her she's probably right, and he'll find the girl, even though he knows she's dead already. They're lying to themselves and each other, but off he goes.

What Welles discovers in pretty short order through the second act of the film is that first, the world is a much more fucked-up place than he'd ever imagined. His descent into the fringes of the pornography industry, looking under every rock he can, tells him that there are appetites and economies to service those appetites he never imagined. Second, that the young woman slaughtered in this film is barely a cipher - he only discovers her name by wading through an ocean of missing persons reports with a grainy still from the film. Tracing her path is laborious - her ex-boyfriend pimped her out, she was nothing to him. Only her mother remembers her, and has been holding out hope that she was alive. If not for her mother, nobody would know or care about this girl. Welles sets out to make this girl real, somebody acknowledged as having lived.

What, then, is at stake here is whether or not the memory of this girl will vanish from all recollection. Once her mother dies, everything but a grainy 8mm film of this girl's final moments will die with her. And when Welles finally encounters the parties responsible for the film, this is highlighted further. This girl was nothing, nobody, they say. When the film's director crumples up a photograph and eats it, he is just making the subtext into text: We consumed this girl like a commodity. We chewed her up, and once the film is gone she will be swallowed whole, never to be seen or known again.

Of course, this examination of nihilism and what it means to have been remembered and known is buried under almost cartoonishly broad characters, heavy-handed exposition and monologuing, lots of yelling and a fairly pat resolution. It is the least obvious type of horror presented in the most painfully obvious way possible, and for once, I'd love to see a remake.

IMDB entry
Purchase at Amazon.com
Available on Netflix

Aaaaaaaaaannnnnnnnnnd We're Back, and Just in Time for Halloween.

I apologize for the delay between posts - my actual honest-to-goodness job has been occupying a lot of my time recently, and my leisure time has been drained dry by Minecraft. Seriously, don't play it. It is time poison.

(Seriously, play it. It is awesome.)

I view October (rather, Halloween) with some mixed feelings. I love the fall, the crisp, cool weather, the leaves changing, all of that. It's my favorite time of year. My relationship with Halloween is more ambivalent, though. I stopped trick-or-treating at the age of 8, when I realized that I was going from door-to-door in a costume (typically layered over a sweater so I didn't catch cold)  begging for candy mostly from total strangers. The begging for candy made me uncomfortable, and I didn't have that much of a sweet tooth as a kid, so I stopped trick-or-treating early. My most enduring memory of Halloween is, around age 12 or so, a party my parents threw where they decorated the house to look something like the site of the Manson Family murders. I sat upstairs in my bedroom, reading my copy of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide.

Now, I appreciate the abundance of horror movies on TV (especially since I have a long-standing fondness for Saturday afternoon horror matinees on television), but I sort of feel like Halloween is for the amateurs, the way April Fool's Day is for amateur pranksters and St. Patrick's Day is for amateur drunks. The real pros are holding it down the rest of the year. The whole "ooh, monsters and ghosts and spooky and moo hoo hoo ha ha ha" thing gets a little old for me.

So, out of a sense of willful perversity, the majority - if not totality - of my posts for October will be horror films with an absence of the supernatural. Scary stuff which is, for all intents and purposes, plausible. Though, interestingly, as I was reviewing the movies about which I thought it'd be good to write, I found that many of them feature realistic elements exaggerated to monstrous proportions. So, at least at first, I want to deal with what I'm thinking of as ambitious failures - movies that try to get by without a "monster", and don't quite make it.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Triangle: Lost, At Sea

The phrase "at sea" sometimes means that you're actually out on the water, sometimes it means you're unsure or uncertain of what's going on. In Triangle, everyone - protagonists and viewers alike - is at sea. Just when things begin to cohere, we are upended again to fine effect.

The movie wrong-foots us right away: We open on a distraught mother comforting her child, telling him it's all going to be okay and it was just a bad dream. So there isn't even a pretense of everything being okay. Even though it appears to be a jump forward, that strong image lingers through the more mundane proceedings that follow, as we watch a calmer version of the mother go about her day. The sunshine, the green grass, the lawn sprinkler, all of it is suffused with dread, much like the over-bright, over-clean imagery in Blue Velvet. Everything's a little off. We know it won't last.

This skewed feeling isn't helped any by the editing, which is jumpy and fragmentary. Lots of isolated instances of activity but little sense of transition between them. Mother is taking down the laundry, then mother is cleaning a spill off the floor and being upset when it gets on her dress, then mother is packing the car, then mother is gathering up her son. There's no flow to the day's events. We see things happen, but not what happens in between. The doorbell rings, but nobody is there. Mother and son leave.

We cut to a group of people preparing for a sailing trip. Greg owns the boat, Victor's a young man Greg has taken on, Downey is a high school friend of Greg's, Sally is his wife, and Heather is a nice young woman Sally brought along to try and set up with Greg, who she thinks needs a lady friend. Greg is angry that they brought Heather along, but it's not clear why. There's tension in the air, and it only increases when the mother we met in the opening credits comes aboard. Her name is Jess, Sally appears really unhappy to see her, and her son isn't with her. She tells Victor that her son is "in school." It's a Saturday. She looks distracted, haunted almost. The boat gets underway.

It's an otherwise uneventful journey as we learn more about each person on the boat, but as is always the case in boat trips in horror movies, something goes awry.  Jess has a nightmare - she's lying on a beach, watching the sand crabs. She is white as a sheet, no light in her eyes. Foreshadowing? The boat becomes suddenly becalmed. They receive a faint, staticky distress call…a voice says "they're all dead." Jess is worried about getting back to her son in time, but Greg assures her their backup engines can get them back. They can't, however, outrun the whopper of an electrical storm that wipes out the boat.

So we've got a boatful of people with secrets and weird tension stranded in the middle of the ocean on the wreckage of their boat (minus Heather, who was lost at sea during the storm), and this is when the 1930s-era luxury liner comes steaming out of the mist, pulling alongside the wreckage, allowing them to board. The pristine luxury liner with no visible passengers or crew. Pretty much the floating equivalent of the Overlook Hotel. Shots spin around identical, mazelike ships' corridors, we follow the protagonists in one direction, only to cut to an entirely different direction. We are dislocated in space as much now as we were dislocated in time at the beginning of the movie. 

Soon, even causality begins to break down as people attack each other, accuse each other of things they didn't do, and find themselves stalked by shadowy figures. The simmering tension suddenly erupts, and even as the viewer starts to put the pieces together, the truth of the situation reveals its horror in bits, in sudden discoveries. It's a violent movie in places, and it escalates, but it isn't gratuitous. By the time the denouement comes, we know enough to know what to look for, and every odd piece falls into place. Triangle is a smart, restrained horror story, one which rewards careful observation and understanding. Like the best of Brad Anderson's work, the whole story is both more personal and more awful than we might have thought at first, and as a result, the viewer is left feeling more sad at the end of the journey than relieved. At the end of the day, nobody escapes. What washes ashore is carried back to sea.

IMDB entry
Purchase on Amazon.com
Available on Netflix

Monday, September 6, 2010

Some Slight Changes To The Blog

Just a couple of things:

* At the end of each post, I've added links to IMDB for each movie, as well as Amazon.com and Netflix when feasible. Not all of them are equally available, but I'll add caveats and alternate information (e.g., release dates) where I can.

Just a warning: IMDB entries will sometimes spoil things more than I try to. Also, don't read the message board for any film on IMDB unless you want your eyes to boil out of your head Raiders Of The Lost Ark style.

* I'm also going to implement a tag system that is intended to straddle the line between useful for narrowing down posts into sub-categories and attempts at amusing designations that will help what I'm viewing as sometimes overly serious and high-minded writing on my part. Although they don't update as much as they used to, I've always thought Metal Inquisition had the right idea about tags: They should categorize stuff and be funny enough on their own that a list of them is fun to read.

Thanks for reading and for the feedback - it's much appreciated.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Martyrs: The New Passion Play

Perhaps as a reaction to the uproar over movies like Antichrist and Srpski Film, I've been thinking a lot lately about the relationship of morality to horror film. I'm eventually going to spend a whole post rooting around in these ideas, and as I've been shaping it in my head, I've also started thinking about the relationship between horror films and fables and how  in the U.S., our fables and fairytales have been shaped (and changed) by a largely Christian morality that eschews ambiguity for certainty, for the happy (or at least instructive) ending.

Our horror films do much the same thing. This gets me to thinking about the instructiveness of tragedy or a more existential (if less comforting) take on the genre. Maybe it's this Western sensibility that inures us to shitloads of gore but gets us all up in arms if violence or suffering is presented without ironic distance. We need our happy endings, the wicked punished and the good triumphant.

But that's at least another post if not two. I also think about how horror movies spend a lot of time on the figures of the Christian pantheon - Satan, demons, rogue angels, etc. (still waiting for a big-budget adaptation of the Book of Revelation) - but not so much the church itself. Sure, there's the occasional renegade priest or church built atop a site of evil or whatever, but not so much the church as it actually has operated. The Passion of the Christ was way, way gorier than Hostel (and predated it by a year, making it the first torture porn film), and the Bible itself is filled with all kinds of awful stuff, presumably meant to be a cautionary tale. The Passion Play began as a folk reenactment of the trial, suffering, sacrifice, and transcendence of Jesus of Nazareth, and few details were spared, lest we underestimate the magnitude of what he did for others.

This has more to do with Martyrs than you might think.

The movie opens with a young girl running through what appears to be an abandoned warehouse. She is bloody, bruised, running out into the street barefoot and screaming. This cuts to grainy documentary footage of people exploring the abandoned building she escaped, pointing out where she was kept. She wasn't raped, but she was abused, chained to a toilet chair, beaten and starved. Nobody knows why, the girl (Lucie) won't say anything.

Lucie grows up in an orphanage, and through the documentary footage we see her grow. She starts almost feral, but over time the care and attention of another girl named Anna, she starts to come out of her shell. The heads of the orphanage want to find the people who tortured Lucie, but her memory isn't good. Anna may be the only friend she has - Lucie tells her what she can remember (which is very little), but makes Anna promise to keep some things secret.  She tells Anna not to say anything about the deep cuts that keep appearing on her arms…

…or the shadowy, emaciated figure who comes to her in the night and makes them.

We flash forward 15 years later, and a suburban family of four are sitting down to breakfast, squabbling about school and potential boyfriends and the torments siblings afflict on each other. The squealing daughter is being chased by the brother in a domestic parody of the movie's opening. Mother repairs a pipe in the backyard, father answers the door.

Lucie is standing there with a shotgun.

What follows is essentially the story of what we are willing to do for (and to) other people, and what happens when we stop running. Lucie runs from her captors, runs from the withered phantom who haunts and hurts her, runs until she can no longer run. Anna runs from what Lucie is, whether she intends to or not, until Lucie calls her for help and she answers, tending to Lucie's wounds, stitching up repeatedly scarred flesh. She's all Lucie has. Lucie has done something terrible, and terrible things keep happening to Lucie. Something follows her around, and at a certain point we begin to wonder how stable Lucie is and what loyalty is going to cost Anna.

Martyrs has a very specific story to tell, but does an excellent job of keeping us guessing. Who kept Lucie captive? Was it for her own good? By what is Lucie haunted? What connection does it have to her? How far will Anna go to protect her friend? How far will she go to protect everyone else? The answers aren't always obvious, and the less you know about the movie going in, the better.  At the end of the day, all of the blood and scars and wounds and suffering are, surprisingly, with great, ancient purpose. Transcendence through ordeal. It is a painful story told in splashes of red, sharp metal, harsh, unforgiving light, and the fist's hard report against flesh. Like the story of Jesus, it ends in salvation even if we can argue about whose salvation it is.

It is a rare movie that shows us something horrible and asks us to find something noble in it. Martyrs is one of the best attempts in my recent memory. It is a passion play for the modern age.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon.com
Available on Netflix