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. 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
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.