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.
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.
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