Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Killing Room: The Art of Deception

Science gone awry has a long, proud tradition in horror. Giant insects, monsters, evil scientists who kidnap others to resurrect their long-lost loves, to keep themselves eternally young, etc. This is the campy, operatic end of the spectrum. At the other end, the deadly-serious, really-fucking-disturbing end are more realistic examples of science gone awry - wartime atrocities or isolated experiments gone off the rails. These aren't just more plausible, they're based to one degree or another on real cases. People really did administer what they thought was a fatal dose of electricity to another person when ordered to, arbitrary assignment of people into "guard" and "prisoner" roles did lead to abusive behavior and nervous breakdowns, and scientists really did straitjacket patients, administer massive doses of LSD, and play tapes of themselves confessing their deepest, most shameful secrets on a continuous loop.

As is often the case, the scariest shit is the stuff that actually happened.

So that's part of it - there's pretty much nothing we can dream up that something worse than that hasn't actually happened. The rest of it, I think, is the public's understanding of experimental research. There's a common belief that experimentation equals deception, that there's always an elaborate lie involved. The truth is much more mundane, but that's neither here nor there. The myth is plenty powerful and can make for great horror when done well.

As it is in The Killing Room.

The movie opens with military psychologist Emily Reilly reporting for her first day of work. We see her walking past nondescript structures, it looks like a warehouse district. We hear her job interview in voiceover. Emily has been chosen by project head Dr. Phillips for her ability to analyze facial microexpressions - very subtle changes in facial musculature that can give away otherwise undetectable emotional states. This wasn't invented for the movie. This is a real thing. This is a plum job for Reilly - Dr. Phillips is a pioneer in this field, she'd be learning from the best. It's odd, though - here's one of the best in his discipline, and he's running a study that isn't attached to any of the usual agencies. A faceless facility, in the middle of nowhere, running what seems like a big project completely off the radar.

Reilly is shown into the control room - lots of operators running surveillance equipment, communicating with staff, making sure everything runs on schedule. The control room overlooks the experimental chamber - a stark white room furnished only with a table and six chairs. A cleaning crew is just finishing up, getting the chamber ready for the next group of test subjects. Reilly will observe them in action, read the emotions they're trying to hide. She observes them, Dr. Phillips observes her. The subjects are being tested, as is she. How badly does she want this job?

Four subjects are brought into the room and told that they'll be taking part in a multi-phase experiment. Each subject who makes it through to the end will receive a healthy (in fact, unusually so) cash payment in return for their time. There's no clue in the makeup of the test group - an older, confident man, a younger, nervous man, a quiet woman and a painfully shy, shabbily dressed man who may very well be homeless. Dr. Phillips politely explains the conditions of the test, calm, reassuring smile on his face. He makes promises. Then something horrible happens before we can even breathe.

The test is on.

Everything from this point on (as well as what went before) is up for grabs. We jump back and forth between the chaos in the experiment chamber and the quiet calm in the control room. The subjects search desperately for clues to their predicament, their panic efficiently translated in the control room into catalogued scenarios, their terror used as a marker in the experiment's progress. They are given tasks to perform, and those tasks carry with them their own agendas - or at least the subjects think they do. Games within games.

The situations with which the subjects are faced capitalize on human frailty in ways so subtle as to make the Saw movies look (even more) like shoddy, fumbling stabs at cheap shock cloaked as sermons (than they already do) and is often the case, man turns on man in an effort to prevail, in ways that are, amidst the science and reason and cool modernism, downright atavistic. This is a lesson we have learned time and again from science and from how science is conducted - nobody, subject or researcher alike, is immune to savagery.

The assumption of deception is strong at every level - the subjects have been deceived and are sure that they are currently being deceived. Reilly may or may not be deceived, at the very least the provenance of this research facility is suspect, and what's going on here is clearly some combination of illegal, immoral, and unethical. Psychologists have to abide by a code of ethics, but some of the most informative research throughout history falls outside of that code to one degree or another. Which is more important here? Is she the subject? Is this being put on for her benefit, to see if she can stomach the requirements of the job? It's a cliché to ask what is real and what isn't in a movie like this, but the story does an especially good job here of turning the situation on its head in ways we don't expect.

We, the audience may also be deceived - we are privy to the experience of the subjects and how their expectations diverge from what we see in the control room. We are privy to the experience of the people in the control room, and it might be its own experiment. We think we know what the purpose of the experiment is, but with every new event in the movie comes a new explanation, a new scenario, until we aren't even sure if the ways in which the experiment goes wrong aren't just yet more scenarios implemented as part of a larger study. Games within games within games.

Just when we - and Reilly - think we know what's really going on, what the point really is,  we realize all of the little lies don't add up to the big lie we thought we saw coming.  None of it seems all that implausible - the subjects do what you imagine people would do in this situation, we are lead down the path to what we think the conclusion will be, but it isn't. In fact, the answer was always right there in front of us.  As is often the case in psychological research, the point isn't nearly as elaborate as the subjects think it is . 

The movie ends as it begins, with a cleanup crew getting ready for another group of subjects, radio chatter from the control room, methodical, professional, calm. The calm is the worst part. The banality of evil. I am reminded of the words used as instructions in Stanley Milgram's obedience study…

"The experiment requires that you continue."

IMDB entry
Purchase from
Available on Netflix

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Quick Note - Horror Movies and Thrillers Redux

So the new Darren Aronofsky movie, Black Swan, is apparently the story of a ballerina who, in an effort to get the key part in a production of Swan Lake, engages in a rivalry with another dancer, and ends up spiraling into madness. Psychological horror in the vein of Hitchcock or Polanski? Nope.

A thriller? Yes, according to IMDB, but otherwise, nope.

Apparently, it's drama.


Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Sick House: Nobody's Home

Okay, right here and now, I am calling for a moratorium on abandoned hospitals as settings for horror films. Find somewhere else to shoot.

I have seen this setting used effectively exactly once. At best, it seems like a stand-in for actual mood or atmosphere - Decaying, deserted building? Institutional vibe with rusty medical stuff everywhere? Instant scary, no effort needed. Assemble a cast of archetypes - hero, ruffians of varying degrees of sympathy - set them loose to running around the abandoned hospital, and send something (tall, hulking, and dark) after them. Spread a thick layer of jump cuts, artsy inserts, and vibrating bad guys (thanks, Jacob's Ladder), and you have a movie that has all of the necessary gestures and aesthetics to be scary, but actually fails to be scary.

In other words, The Sick House.

So there's this archeologist who opens the movie with a lecture she's giving on the spread of the bubonic plague in London. She points out a spot where the spread seemed to stop - a mile or so from an orphanage which she's in the process of excavating. One of her students helpfully asks who the weird-looking dude with the mask is in the old engravings, and the professor, equally helpful, explains that it's a priest serving as a plague doctor - a healer who stayed with the victims, vainly trying to treat them. Another helpful student pipes up with the legend of the Black Priest, an evil monk who sacrificed children around this same period in history. No, says the professor, plague doctors were good guys. The "exposition completed" bell rings, and class is over.

I mean, I understand that you have to establish the setting and the premise, but this was unsubtle enough that they might as well have had it as a text crawl on the screen. In fact, that probably would have been better.

As the professor leaves the class, her boss tells her that the dig site is going to have to be shut down because samples of the plague bacterium have been found on artifacts retrieved from the site. The professor isn't happy about this because the hospital which resides on top of the dig is slated for demolition - and in fact, the demolition schedule has been moved up. It's going to be razed tomorrow. Cue the professor's late-night clandestine, security-guard-dodging visit to the site. It's so pro forma it hurts. Of course she's going to visit the site. She goes down to the basement to crack open a sealed chamber before demolition, and finds some cryptic drawings and a box with a crudely made doll in it. Unearthing this box makes special effects happen and a low frequency tone indicates that some old evil has been set loose in the hospital.

Cut to a group of hooligans joyriding in a stolen car. They're monkeying with a video camera they found under the driver's seat and generally being all rowdy, blasting the music and yelling a lot and acting crazy. Plus one of them has a huge-ass wallet chain and another is wearing a pentagram ring, so you know they're bad news in that 1980s teen-comedy way. On the other hand, one of them is deaf and another is pregnant, which is new. In the midst of all of their rowdiness, they end up crashing into what might be a person (or might not), losing control of the car and crashing right in front of the hospital. They take refuge inside.

From here on out, it's a slasher movie that thinks it's a ghost story. The filmmakers have a great iconic visual they can use - the silhouette of a plague doctor is distinct and recognizable. It would make an awesome ghost. Instead, we get a tall figure in black only distinguishable from any other hulking killer by the conical mask he wears. At least, we assume that's it. Most of the time when he appears, his head shakes rapidly back and forth like every ghost since Jacob's Ladder came out. The whole premise of this movie hinges on a single iconic figure, and the filmmakers don't utilize it. Murky lighting and jumpy editing don't help. It's hard to be frightened when you have to actively process what you're looking at.

Among other things, ghost stories are usually built around unfinished business. The ghost is stuck there until they complete or resolve whatever traps them. It isn't made clear what the ghost's unfinished business is until very late in the movie, at which point we get sort of an exposition dump that gives context to things we saw in the first 15 minutes of the movie that have gone unmentioned since, and then the story line rushes forward like it has a train to catch before we can stop to ask what the point of it all actually is. There's a ritual, ghosts of murdered children, the ghost making sacrifices out of the people trapped in the hospital, but all of this is piled on so hastily that it feels like they started shooting the movie before they were done writing the script, hoping the tried-and-true setting and festival of effects and gore would carry the movie. Which is sort of like asking the condiments to carry a hamburger.

Throughout, the theme of disease and contagion goes pretty much completely ignored. Not for a second did this movie need to deal with the plague. The antagonist is barely connected to it, its power as a modern threat is brought up once and ignored, and its effects are used briefly as a sign of possession by the ghost. The plague could have been a malign spirit itself, the doctor imprisoned with the orphans he was trying to treat, but no, he was a medieval serial killer who sacrificed children so that he would…I don't know, be able to keep sacrificing children? What we're left with is probably supposed to keep us talking after we've finished watching, but instead is an impenetrable mess which ends in a manner both hackneyed and confusing.

I don't like panning movies. Movie criticism hinges so much on a sucks/rules dichotomy as it is, and I really hate the "why didn't they just…" school of criticism. I understand stupid and foolish behavior in horror movies (to a point), but this movie didn't give me a lot of room to work. It's a collection of cliched aesthetic cues molded in the shape of a story, but when you look underneath the surface, it is soulless and hollow. The lights are on, but nobody's home.

IMDB entry
Purchase on
Available on Netflix

Monday, August 9, 2010

Cthulhu: Lovecraft, Reconsidered

I didn't plan to do two Lovecraft-related movies so close together, but this provides a nice counterpoint to my last post. Where The Call of Cthulhu was neatly period-appropriate, Cthulhu is boldly and ambitiously modern, to the great benefit of the movie and the source material.

Most attempts to bring the stories of H.P. Lovecraft to film have updated the setting - direct adaptations like Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Dagon preserve the original story to a reasonable degree and just set it in the modern day. These adaptations also tend to bring along the pulp aspects of Lovecraft's writing as well - they are often feverish, intense, and lurid in their imagery. I think this is totally appropriate, but Cthulhu forgoes pulp intensity for slow, mounting dread, like the storm clouds that come rolling in just before the thunder starts. It earns its name not in purple prose, but in a careful, contemporary examination of some of Lovecraft's consistent themes: The secrets that families hold, the inevitability of destiny, undeniable essential nature, and how we first resist then eventually accept these things, no matter how monstrous. All set in a world in which apocalypse approaches as a steady hum in the background.

Cthulhu opens with snatches of news broadcasts interspersed with long shots of the ocean as it swells and crashes. The news is fragmented, cuts in and out of hearing. We get hints of disaster, political strife. The last audible broadcast is the phrase "the oceans are rising." Indeed they are. The water moves like a living thing.

In Seattle, history professor Russell Marsh receives a phone call. His mother has passed away and he is required at home to help with execution of the will. He doesn't seem thrilled with the prospect, and the man in his bed wants to know if he can bum a few bucks. Maybe Russell is estranged from his family. Home is Rivermouth, Oregon. Small town in the Pacific Northwest, Russell wouldn't be the first gay man to leave his family behind for the city. The drive is fragmented like the news, shards of different highways as the radio tells of disaster, refugees, terrorism. 

Russell's approach into town is marred by a sudden car accident. One minute two teenagers are taunting him from their pickup truck, the next they are overturned, dead and dying. As will be the case throughout the film, there's no dramatic camera angle or musical sting. Things happen without drama, in the quiet, waiting for us to notice. Cthulhu's approach to storytelling is anti-pulp - it relies on quiet, on stillness, on small, important details framed by silence. Careful watching isn't just rewarded, it's necessary. People speak haltingly, sometimes in a stilted, awkwardly formal manner. Other times, they seem just a half-beat off from what you'd expect. Life moves at a different pace in Rivermouth, a pace governed by the ebb and flow of the sea. By the movement of stars.

Russell's appearance at the funeral home stirs a lot of old memories - his sister is happy to see him, his father is loving in tone but distant in manner. Things are definitely unsaid, in the way they are when the estranged are forced to reunite for some common purpose. Russell's mother is dead, and the prodigal son has come home. A young gay man fleeing his family and small town for an open life in the big city? Not too different from any of Lovecraft's other errant inheritors, come back to the family mansion to reluctantly accept their birthright. The why is new, but the what is unchanged. Dad's the minister in a local church - more like a cult, actually - and there are some questions about the rituals they hold in an old building by the docks.  Dad wants Russell to rejoin the fold, having spurned him years before, presumably for his homosexuality. Things are tense - Dad really wants some grandchildren, and Russell's sister and her husband keep trying to no avail. Children are an important part of the family legacy.

The first 30 minutes build so slowly it almost seems like an hour - not tedious, just measured. It's a much slower pace than we expect from contemporary horror movies, but it works here because it immerses us in the town, in the feeling of being surrounded by the townspeople and by Russell's childhood history here. Things start off a little strange, but as Russell gets more and more curious about what's been happening in town - especially about a rash of missing children - it becomes clear to both him and us that what is happening in Rivermouth goes beyond strange into the monstrous. The world outside is beginning to crumble - disaster, terrorism, chaos. The oceans are rising. The end times are not just upon us, they're already here and have been the whole time. Russell's homecoming wasn't unexpected at all.

More than anything else, Cthulhu feels like a Roman Polanski film - important revelations are made in small, apparently innocuous details against a backdrop of increasing tension and paranoia. Everything is a trifle odd - stilted, bizarre, quirky - without moving into the grotesque. Horrors are suggested or dimly recalled, rather than displayed. And like two favorites of mine - Rosemary's Baby and The Ninth Gate - the net closes slowly, and by the time we and the protagonist know the truth, it is too late. Not only can you go home again, this movie says, you are damned to.

IMDB entry
Purchase on
Available on Netflix