Friday, May 14, 2010

The Final: Avoiding The Obvious "Failing Grade" Joke

Calling the movies distributed as part of After Dark's Horrorfest "uneven" is probably understatement. Some have been great (The Abandoned), some have been good (The Gravedancers), some overrated (Borderlands, Frontiere(s)), and some just a downright mess (Crazy Eights, Autopsy). The Final doesn't swell the ranks of the great and good, sad to say. It's probably much closer to a downright mess.

It's a good premise: Picked-on teenagers conspire to lure the popular kids to a party out in the woods, where they will be drugged, held captive, and tortured as retribution for all of the horrible shit they've done to the protagonists. The protagonists are fine - they're a ragtag assortment of geeky, left-out kids, and the potential victims are obnoxious and unsympathetic. I don't see a lot of difference between rooting for the death of stupid teenagers and mean teenagers, so it's not a problem to me. It goes back to what the almighty Joe Bob Briggs referred to as "yuppie meat" in his account of a visit to the set of one of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequels. Sort of celebration of natural selection - when someone pokes a tiger, they get mauled, and the only ones who don't see that coming are the ones doing the poking.

I've read others' complaints about the writing - overly dramatic, ham-handed, stilted, pretentious, it gets called. I don't have a problem with that either, because that's how the kind of kids who have these sort of revenge fantasies would talk. The actors playing the protagonists of this revenge flick are playing characters who are themselves the stars of their own internal 24-7 revenge flicks, which they have chosen to make external. A lot of the action takes place in one room, and the protagonists spend most of their time on a elevated section similar to a stage, their victims arranged before them like an audience.  I'd like to think that's a deliberate choice. But of course they're going to be melodramatic and pretentious and histrionic. They're teenagers.  I wanted to strangle the main protagonist for being such a posturing douche, but anything other than a posturing douche would have been wrong for the story.

So there's promise here. The premise is fine, the way the characters are played is generally fine (or at least good enough), but all this promise is let down by a messy narrative. Once they get the popular kids to the party and drugged, we're pretty much set up for a closed-room psychological horror film. There's no mystery as to who the killers are, there's nothing supernatural, so all of the responsibility for a good narrative rests on what happens when you give the powerless all the power and make the powerful powerless. What happens when your fantasy becomes reality? Does it actually feel good to physically abuse that cheerleader who gave you snotty looks in the hall? Does wounding a football player who beat you up on a regular basis make all your own wounds heal? Or is that critical line between what we allow ourselves to imagine and what we are actually capable of doing stronger than we think? And you've already got kidnapping and maybe assault staring you in the face - the stakes are ratcheting higher with every minute, and maybe the really quiet one turns out to be a complete sadist, and maybe the mastermind was all talk, and it's all falling apart and you can't kill them after all, but you can't let them go either. Who's going to end up alive, and given that the victims aren't very nice people but probably don't deserve this, how will we feel about it?

That would have been cool. I would have watched that.

Instead, we get desultory sequences of torture that don't build any tension or anxiety - they start, people are damaged, they end, with very little impact on other events - and even more damaging, a needlessly complicated side plot involving a unlikely supporting character that cuts away from the main story before any sense of fear or uncertainty develops. The proceedings feel sterile and disconnected, and you only get a sense of immediacy once or twice, and just as they develop, well, one of the weird kids starts playing the banjo or we cut to the b-story. Whether you're trying to evoke fear, suspense, fright, dread, horror, revulsion, or whatever, you need to arrange the imagery and narrative of your film in a way that will evoke these things, and there are all kinds of ways to do that. The director dropped the ball here by arranging the elements of the story carelessly. The narrative is as distracted as a teenager and as ungrounded in real human fear as the 85th diary entry about the cosmic injustice of not having a prom date.

So maybe in that sense, the whole proceeding is some big meta-filmic joke - a movie about teenagers with teenage dialogue and teenage concerns, but also a teenage callowness and lack of focus. That might inspire some golf claps and a quiet "well played" murmured from around the stem of my pipe, but that doesn't make it a good movie by any means.

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