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


  1. Traci Lords is in this! Wow! I'm curious how you pick movies to watch/critique. Are you watching everything that's out there and drawing upon your memory bank to make specific points? Or are you writing on a "watch, then comment" basis? Crazy Eights seems to have gotten terrible reviews all around, so I'm wondering how you came to watch it.

  2. In terms of what I watch, I'm guided mostly by my own curiosity. I'll read previews/synopses or watch trailers, and if I think "huh, that looks interesting", I'll give it a shot. There are some types of movies I don't like that much (hence the relative lack of zombie or slasher movies so far), but I try to be guided by premises that interest me, regardless of the genre. There's also a part of me that's a little perverse - if a horror site gives a movie a bad review (especially if it's a poorly written or reasoned review), I'll make a point of watching it to see what I think in relation to them.

    Sometimes I'm drawing on memory (with a little help from IMDB to fill in little things), sometimes I'm going on notes I've jotted down right after watching the movie. I'll sometimes group my posts in relation to each other (like this one relative to the previous one), but not always. This movie did get shitty reviews, but I liked the premise enough to give it a chance. Well, first I saw it on SyFy one afternoon and thought it must have been edited to hell for TV. So I watched the unedited version and nope, it was just that incoherent.

  3. That's interesting. If I listened to metal albums to see where I stand in relation to poorly written or reasoned reviews, I would never sleep. But I understand the motivation.

    Your mentions of "the premise", here and elsewhere, make me wonder how important that is to horror movies. On a commercial level, of course, that draws rentals/ticket sales. But artistically, can a great premise overcome incompetent execution, (i.e., the idea is so great that even the filmmakers can't screw it up, despite their best efforts)? Or can a pedestrian premise still fly with first-class execution? How necessary is the notion of "premise" to horror films?

    Not that these are necessarily the best questions to ask, or that I expect you to answer them! But since so many of these movies are couched in "bad/good idea, bad/good execution" terms, and since (a) I instinctively rebel against the notion of seeing a movie based just on its premise (that seems surface-level and a surrender to marketing) and (b) I am probably in the minority with that thinking, I am curious about the issues contained within.

  4. I don't single out the poorly reviewed ones very often, because even shitty criticism occasionally makes the right call. I think when it comes to horror film, the bigger problem is overly generous criticism, or criticism aimed at an undiscriminating market. But if I read a shitty review of what sounds like a pretty good story, I'm not going to take the reviewers' word for it. I think this is a problem endemic to genres which lend themselves to fandom - loyalty to the fandom starts to become more important than good art.

    I tend to think that there is no premise that can't be fucked up. It's still just a blueprint, after all. Craft and execution count for a lot. I think about a movie like Malefique - the premise was great. Four convicts try to use a book of black magic to escape? That's great. But the lack of internal logic and a drawn-out ending that didn't play fair with the rest of the story killed a lot of the promise. On the other hand, something like Røvdyr - rednecks hunt down a bunch of city kids? Nothing original about that. But it's acted and directed so sharply and so tightly that it packs a wallop. So even the most pedestrian premise can still turn out something good.

    As far as marketing goes, it's so rare that I see horror movies heavily advertised (maybe one out of every three or four I watch) that I have to look for a synopsis just to get an idea of what's going on.