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