Thursday, June 24, 2010

Rovdyr: No School Like The Old School

Horror's past and present have a weird relationship. On the one hand, you've got all of the remakes/reboots/reimaginings of past classics - A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, etc. Maybe there's an argument for it in terms of compensating for technical deficiencies, but more likely it's an attempt to take advantage of something tried and true. Whether or not these movies succeed is a whole other thing.

On the other hand, you have modern horror movies made to look like horror movies of the past. Rob Zombie was probably one of the first people to really take this tack in recent memory - both The Devil's Rejects and his remake of Halloween were steeped in a 70s-era exploitation film aesthetic, and Ti West's The House of the Devil goes so far as to include era-appropriate props along with the cinematic style.  It's an original story, so what advantage is there to making it look like it came right out of the 70s? I think it's because many horror and exploitation films of the late 70s-early 80s had not just a technical rawness to them, but also an intensity or sincerity that got lost in the wake of later slasher movies (around the third Nightmare on Elm Street movie) and especially the self-referential jokiness that Scream ushered in. Bad things happened, happy (or even less-than-bleak) endings weren't guaranteed. There's only so much smirkiness and ironic distancing that can happen before something feels missing. Is it really a horror movie if you don't feel horrified?

So yeah, I like this whole new films-that-look-old thing. And yeah, I like Rovdyr.

Rovdyr (Predator, also titled Manhunt, or Backwoods Massacre, or Naked: Booby Trap - what the hell, Japan?) is a solidly impressive Norwegian entry in the retro-horror sweepstakes.  It's the story of four campers - Roger, his girlfriend Camilla, Mia, and her brother Jørgen - who stop over for food and gas en route to their campsite in the forests of Norway and run afoul of menacing locals. It is not a novel setup, but it is executed with verve and skill. Opening credits are played over silent, freeze-framed footage of the four merrily roadtipping to the sound of what I assume is period-appropriate Norwegian pop. Think the Bellamy Brothers or the Marshall Tucker Band. Just four kids out having fun, oblivious to what awaits them.

This alone would be a fine way to start the movie, but once the credits are over and we can hear what the four are saying, the reality is a little different: Roger is a belligerent, controlling asshole, Camilla's constantly apologizing and trying to maintain his approval. Mia's sick of Roger's shit and tired of Roger verbally abusing her, Camilla, and Jørgen, who is pretty much a shy manchild, absorbed by his comic books. It's not the rosiest picture, and is probably the result of many hours on the road together in a van. It's nicely underplayed - or maybe just benefits from the subtitling - and although we have a very clear picture of who each one of these people is, they aren't two-dimensional.

Ordinarily, this would just make for some weekend drama and everyone would get over it. But during a pit stop, Roger cracks some insults at rural locals, pretty much poking the sleeping bear that sets off the mayhem in these movies. When we see the nervous hitchhiker, the jeep following them, we know what's about to happen. To the film's credit, when it does happen, it's still shocking - short, sharp and brutal. Our surprise mirrors that of the protagonists, and we know it's coming. There's no wink and nod, no goofy one liner. People are dead now, shit just got real.

From there on out, it's a relentless cat-and-mouse game through the forest. The protagonists get split up pretty quickly, which nicely mirrors the conflict brewing just hours before. Nobody's teaming up in this story, and there are no tired speeches about how if they just stick together, they'll get through this. They're too busy running for their lives. The antagonists are, if anything, even more silent. You can count their total lines on one hand. They're just there, doing what they do. There's no need for words.

Which isn't to say that sound isn't important. It's actually one of the best parts of the movie - from the ironic juxtaposition of happy pop music over silent arguments in the opening credits to a quiet forest punctuated by bird calls, and a hunter's horn heralding menace, sound creates space, presence, and absence throughout, keeping the tension just this side of unbearable. This is the first movie I've seen in a long time where I could actually feel my heart racing.

Even better, this film isn't self-consciously retro. It takes place in 1974, but once everyone's into the forest, it almost feels timeless. It's visually gritty and raw, but still benefits from modern effects technology in much the way a movie like The Devil's Rejects does. The retro feel is most noticeable in the wild-eyed, gonzo performances - the terror and anxiety among the protagonists is palpable and delivered without any irony and slickness at all. It makes people uncomfortable to see others in pain and terror, and that might be part of the pearl-clutching over "torture porn" - when bad things happen, people actually suffer. They don't keel over after one shot from Freddy's glove. They bleed, cry, scream, and beg. That's frightening to watch, and it implicates us just a little. We're right there with the people hunting the protagonists. Just watching them struggle. Maybe it hits a little too close to home. We aren't even allowed the comfort of neat and tidy closure in the end, either. Rovdyr ends very much the way it began - in a car, with an unheard conversation overlaid with sunny pop music. And we are not a bit reassured by it.

IMDB entry
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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Maléfique: Four Characters In Search of a Narrative

In any movie or TV show, a well-done narrative hums along like music. Its character may be familiar, eerie, dissonant, triumphant, staccato, or meditative, but regardless, there needs to be a rhythm and a logic to it. It doesn't need to be the rhythm or logic of everyday life, but it needs to be consistent with itself to have the required impact.

failure is that it feels less like a composition than the beginning of a decent tune followed by a lot of noodling.

It's a movie about four prisoners in a pretty medieval-looking French prison. Marcus is big, burly, and mid-transition between male and female. The specifics of his crime aren't known, but he's just sold out a bunch of people to leverage his own safety. Paquerette is a hebephrenic cannibal who will eat anything put in front of him (including, apparently, his little sister), Lassalle is a former man of letters who strangled his wife in a brief fit of insanity, and Carrère is the odd man out, a CEO who was caught embezzling from his own company.  They share meager space - two sets of bunkbeds, a sink, and a table for eating meals. Almost civilized. Days are spent passing the time, nights are spend in sleep and furtive bouts of sodomy. The sense of claustrophobia and stasis is palpable. Walk slow, because you're going nowhere fast.

Marcus wants to escape and take Paquerette (with whom he has a protective relationship) with him. He plans to make a run for it and scale the wall. Carrère is confident that he'll be out soon, once his bail is paid. Lassalle doesn't seem to care much one way or another. You could do a lot just with these four characters in the tiny space of their cell, and that's before introducing the pivotal element - a journal belonging to a former occupant of the cell, found behind a loose stone. The journal is very, very old, and is filled with diagrams, instructions, formulas, bizarre illustrations. It's a book of black magic.

As premises go, there's some promise here - you have four very different people kept essentially trapped together in a closed space with an otherwise innocuous object (a book) capable of very bad, dangerous things that violate the laws of nature. It's bad enough when you find yourself having to run from evil - what happens when there is nowhere to run? When you're locked in the room with the thing you're trying to escape? The book is basically a combined time bomb and chemistry experiment - the prisoners' desire to escape leads them to try and use the book to escape, but they have no idea what they're doing with it. All kinds of horrible shit could happen, and to some extent does.

There's this potential for great tension between the rigid, regimented environment of a prison and the possibility of a book of black magic - something that can break not just the rules of the prison, but the rules of reality itself. We don't really know what happened to the last owner, if he escaped or not, what form that escape took, or what it cost him. And since the prisoners don't know what they're doing (hell, only two of them are really literate), there should be a tremendous sense of fear and tension surrounding the book. The book should be when the song changes key and starts building to a crescendo, in other words.

Once the book comes into play, though, the film's narrative coherence starts to fall apart. Things happen, the book does one thing, then another, characters talk about the importance of choice even when no real choice is possible, the book gets thrown away for no reason (and reappears for even less reason), a character is introduced for one purpose and then disappears again, people who refused to read the book read it and use it, and then decide not to use it until they decide to use it again, and in the end the book leads some of them someplace, but not the place they thought, but not a place we could reasonably expect them go either, given what's happened already. In the end, these four prisoners and this very mysterious, very powerful book add up to a series of small anticlimaxes and a twist conclusion that is only a twist if you don't pay attention to a piece of dialogue that telegraphs it minutes before it actually happens.

Even if you have a device (like a book of black magic) that is meant to disrupt our expectations, that disruption still needs to make sense within the narrative. Reverse an assumption, show us how the character's expectations were wrong, show us how those expectations were right, but at a much larger cost - any of these would have worked. Instead, what we get here is a resolution that essentially communicates that none of what happened in the film up to this point was necessary, because none of it ended up having much relevance to the way things concluded. Our four prisoners end up lost, much as we would expect them to, but we are lost as well because we have no idea how we ended up where we did in the story. What starts off as a spooky little melody ends up in a jumble of disconnected notes.

IMDB entry
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Friday, June 11, 2010

The Human Centipede (First Sequence) : Dude, What Is Wrong With German People?

First, let me just get this out of the way: GLAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHGHHHHHH.


Lots and lots of movies get described as "extreme" or "disturbing" or "so profoundly upsetting you'll wish you could un-see it." Sometimes it's just hype, spurred on by reviewers whose sensibilities are maybe a little more conventional than they might have thought. Sometimes it isn't, and you get a truly unsettling experience. They aren't always where you'd think you'd find them. The worst, I think, is when the filmmaker's intent from go is to create something "extreme" for the sake of creating something "extreme", without anything else behind it. It's easy to know what's going to gross somebody out, and it's easy enough to arrange the mechanics of simulating that. Usually the movies that try hardest to shock and disturb fail the most spectacularly because of a paucity of imagination. Those filmmakers lack vision.

If there's one thing The Human Centipede (First Sequence) has in spades, it's vision.

The title is almost a thesis statement - everything you know is right there. There are humans, and they are going to somehow be formed into a centipede. This is not natural, and no good can come from this. The setup is equally minimalist. There is a doctor, and we are introduced to him as he is about to shoot someone. So we know he is not a good person. There are two young women vacationing in Germany, where the movie takes place, and they are not very bright, so we know they are going to be victims. The dialogue is sparse, and even amateurish at points, but it gets the point across. The girls soon get lost on their way to a party and blow out a tire in the middle of nowhere. There's a funny interlude as they attempt to solicit help from a passerby, but it's the last laugh to be had. Everything from here on out is just going to be neatly layered menace, wound tighter and tighter like a watchspring.

Inexorably, inevitably, the girls wind up at the doctor's sprawling house in the middle of the forest, closing the circuit: We have our evil doctor, we have our ditzy victims, and when he shuts and locks the door to his house behind them, pocketing the key, we know nothing that happens next will be any good. It's not deep characterization, we don't know any of these people as people, but there's something elegant about pieces being moved around a chessboard, too.

Like I said, simple, almost minimalistic. Once the doctor has his two victims restrained (along with the third from the introduction), he explains what he proposes to do. He was once an internationally acclaimed surgeon who specialized in the separation of conjoined twins. Now he wants to try the reverse: Joining three people together into a conjoined triplet, sharing a single gastric system. The logistics of this will cause the final assembly to resemble…a human centipede. Why does he want to do this? He's off his fucking rocker. Nothing more complex than that.

From here on out, it's pretty much a monolithic descent into madness, desperation, despair, and horror. The force of the premise is almost palpable: This is a thing that's going to happen, it's actually happening to you now, and there's nothing you can do about it. We all have fears, we're all afraid of getting lost, of being kidnapped, of being hurt, but what happens when something practically incomprehensible is not only presented as possible, but also as an approaching reality? Everything the three captives know about the world around them is brutally corrected and we feel the weight of that realization as they do.

What makes this movie effective is its palette. The doctor is all sharp lines and angles, laconic calm just holding volcanic rage in check. With sunglasses on, he barely looks human. He oozes insanity so effectively I had to look up the actor on IMDB to make sure he was an actor and not some lunatic the director pulled off the street. His house is a cool, smooth, white maze, decorated with abstractions of conjoined twins. The acting from the captives and other supporting roles is just off enough to lend the whole production a sense of awkwardness that I associate with old exploitation movies. If the colors were more washed out and the film grainier, this could be some gonzo take on David Cronenberg. There's almost no music, just occasional ambient swells, which puts the action front and center. There are no dramatic stings or crescendos to cue Something Bad, so the bad things just…happen, and you have to deal with it. The lack of music is especially effective at the end, drawing it out into something deeply chilling by preventing you from forgetting about what's happening, because even as the credits start to roll, you can still hear it happening. That the sounds coming from inside the house begin to intermingle with birdsong outside somehow makes it even worse.

Director Tom Six knew what he wanted to do: He wanted to make a movie about a crazy doctor attempting to reshape the human body just because he could. And that's exactly what he did. Considering the subject matter, it's actually much less graphic and disgusting than you might expect it to be (though it does get bloody toward the end), but what really makes the movie sink in like a film of oil that I can't wash off, going on eight hours since I watched it, is the singularity of vision. Everything in this movie is shaped and pointed to the central conceit, and there are no outs or easy victories for the protagonists. They are completely victimized by one man's madness, and we are watching it. In that sense, we're just as much Six's captives as the three people are captives of the doctor, and that stays with you for hours after you watch it.

IMDB entry
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Monday, June 7, 2010

Town Creek: Joel Schumacher (Almost) Lets One Get Away Unscathed

Let's be honest: Joel Schumacher has made some real head-clutchers in his career. Not even including his earlier stuff (D.C. Cab, St. Elmo's Fire), we're talking about the guy who took a perfectly good screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker (better known in my head as "that sick bastard who wrote Seven") about a private detective sent to investigate the provenance of an alleged snuff film, sucked all of the subtlety and nuance out of it and slathered it with a thick layer of Nicolas-Cage-in-extra-shouty-mode and called it 8mm. This is the guy who bent Tim Burton's take on Batman backwards until it turned back into the Adam West version. This is the guy who, for fuck's sake, put nipples on the Batsuit. So given that's what he turns out when you give him a bunch of name actors and a decent budget, what do you think is going to happen when you give him fewer resources and a smaller budget?

Surprisingly, you get a tight, economical, suspenseful, effective little horror film called Town Creek.

After a brief prologue set in pre-WW2 West Virginia concerning a German farming family and the boarder they take in from the Fatherland, we jump to the modern day, where Evan, an EMT, is trying to help treat the injured at the site of a nasty domestic violence call. In short order, we learn that Evan has a war hero brother named Victor, who has been missing for some time, and a subsequently tenuous relationship with his father. We get all of this from some brief exchanges between characters, none of which really feel expository. The relationships feel believable, and you get a good sense of how Victor's absence has really strained the family. So when Victor shows up at Evan's trailer in the middle of the night, filthy and vagrant, insisting that Evan come with him, bringing weapons and medical supplies, well, that's where things really start to pick up.

The two brothers steal away in the middle of the night and paddle across Town Creek to the farm on the other side - the same farm from the prologue, which has been home to some very strange doings over the last 70 years. Why does the family look the same now as they did in pictures from the 1940s? What - or who - is being kept in the big cargo container on their property? Why are there runes painted all over the fence, doors, and windows? Who - or what - is in the basement, and why is the door chained and padlocked? Whatever it is, it's bad, because Victor's come back to kill the entire family.

There are answers to all of these questions, and before it's all over, we'll find out everything we need to, pretty much. But before things can go right, they have to go wrong, and the better part of the movie is a well-plotted siege story, with everyone inside the farmhouse attempting to contend with something very old and very evil outside of the farmhouse. Like everything else about this movie, the story moves briskly - not rushed, but confident and unhesitating. It helps that our protagonists are both highly competent (a combat veteran and an EMT), and other players are plausibly drawn as well - nobody's motivations feel unrealistic, there aren't any "don't leave the house/check the basement/investigate the noise alone, you idiot!" moments, and most of the resolution feels well-earned. It's violent, with some of the fight scenes carrying some real visceral weight (along with some well-employed effects), but everything moves along with a real sense of pace - I was not once bored while watching this or waiting for the next thing to happen. Victor asks Evan (and us) to come along with him, and once we do, we barely have time to catch our breath.

It's a shame this didn't get a theatrical release or wider exposure via Horrorfest (instead we get hot messes like Autopsy), because this is a solid scary film - it's tense, it doesn't overplay its hand or overexpose the monster, and resolves itself well (with the exception of a highly cheap ending shot, which felt really out of place with everything that went before).  I read on IMDB that Schumacher made several changes to the script like he did with 8mm. If it weren't for the horrible cliche of the last shot, I'd be hard-pressed to find any of his usual thumbprints all over it, but even though it ends on a bit of an off-note, I'd say Joel Schumacher actually did a good job with this movie. All the more reason to never let him near a blockbuster ever again.

IMDB entry
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