Sunday, November 27, 2011

Okay, So This Is Pretty Cool

If you've never seen Manos: The Hands Of Fate, you're missing out on something. Exactly what is hard to say, but it's an experience. It is not a good movie - the writing, acting, effects, camerawork, sound, music, editing, and cinematography are all amateurish at best, and painfully awkward at worst. It has the sluggish, uneven pacing of a drunk, and the story's equally incoherent. It's not an entertainingly bad movie like, say, Plan 9 From Outer Space.

However, the home-made quality of it does give it a certain weirdness - it looks like it could be somebody's home movies from a family vacation in the summer of 1966 - you know, the one that ended with the entire family trapped by the servants of some primordial god and offered up as sacrifice. Yeah, that one. I've heard it described as outsider art, and that's probably not a bad comparison. It was written and directed by its starring actor, who for whatever reason said to himself that this was the story he wanted to tell, and wanted to tell so badly that he got this film made without any real experience in film. Somebody was moved to make this bizarre fever dream of a story, in which caretakers with gigantic knees hobble around with a walking stick, "brides" in diaphanous gowns wrestle in the dirt, and a priest in a gigantic caftan and impressive pornstache invokes the name of "Manos - God of Primal Darkness." And since "manos" means "hands" in Spanish, the movie is basically called Hands: The Hands of Fate. Good or bad, you will never see anything else like it. It will get under your skin and make you wonder what images and ideas are writhing around in the heads of your neighbors, your in-laws, your co-workers. Some otherwise average person really wanted this story told, and that's easily one of the creepiest things about this movie.

So why am I going on about this movie? Because some lucky fellow managed to secure a 16mm workprint of the film in an eBay sale, among boxes of other films. Raw footage, right from the camera. The print quality is miles better than any other extant print - most releases of it on DVD are taken from VHS copies of a 35mm print made from a blown-up negative of the original 16mm print made from Ektachrome reversal stock. So we're talking a copy of a copy of a copy at best. So what's this guy doing with this odd piece of film history?

He's working on an HD restoration from the workprint. 

He's had the print cleaned, and has been updating his website with scans of individual frames, and although Manos is never going to replace Lawrence of Arabia in the cinematography department, the difference between the version most people see and the original is significant. The workprint is miles sharper and clearer and more vibrant than the commercially available version, the original aspect ratio can be restored, and hell, for that matter, he could even re-edit it to maybe make it a little scary after all. It is a labor of love and care for a movie sorely lacking in love and care, and for that alone I am in awe.

If you have seen Manos: The Hands of Fate before, well...somebody is planning an HD restoration of Manos: The Hands of Fate, and your head just exploded. You're welcome.

IMDB entry
Manos In
Available for viewing at

Monday, November 21, 2011

American Horror Story, Episode 3: The Man of the House

In my post about the first episode, I talked about this show as being an honest-to-goodness American horror story - a disintegrating marriage, a traumatic stillbirth, a rebellious daughter, and now a costly, unsellable home. That's the American nightmare right there. The third episode focuses the nightmare a little more, though, on American nightmares specific to men. Apart from everything else we learn, this is Ben's episode, Ben's nightmare.

It opens in 1983, and a vivacious young Moira is being pressured into sex by the man of the house. This is apparently based in precedent, a bad decision Moira chalks up to being lonely. The man's not hearing it, though, and things start turning to rape pretty quick. In comes the wife - oh shit! It's Constance! - and she shoots the fuck out of her husband and Moira. Yeah, they were living in the house at the time. This is a point in the show where one piece of the puzzle starts unwinding over the next few episodes. For as much batshit insane stuff as gets thrown at us in the pilot, much of it seems to be paying off as the tips of many ugly icebergs.

But this episode is, as far as I'm concerned, really about Ben. He's got a new client, who is distraught over her failing marriage (there that is again). Her husband is leaving her because she's, well, boring. The actress really sells it, too - she's pleasant enough, and she doesn't do a droning monotone or anything as obvious as that. She just makes everything she says seem inconsequential and stays just on the right side of not knowing when to stop talking. It's not overstated, but you don't miss the intent. Ben does the worst possible thing you can do in this instance - he drifts off in the middle of the session, and the next thing he knows, he wakes up in the backyard. The client is gone, nowhere to be found. I'm not a therapist, but I can't imagine anything worse than tuning out in the middle of a session, let alone to the point that you lose time.

So Ben can't do his job. He can't handle the role of provider.

On top of that, Hayden - the woman with whom Ben had an affair - has shown up on the Harmon's doorstep. She thinks Ben's wife should know everything. Like what? Like that Hayden didn't get an abortion. She's keeping the baby and insists that Ben help her raise it, starting by getting her an apartment in Los Angeles. Hayden's passed the point of jilted lover and is headed for crazy-eyed obsessive. Ben's mistake is metastasizing.

So Ben can't bring closure to his infidelity. He can't handle the responsibilities of a man atoning for a mistake.

And he wasn't there during the home invasion that threatened his wife and daughter. They took care of it on their own (well, more or less, but more on Tate over the next few episodes). Violet sees him as irretrievably weak, and her mother as strong and better than the man she married.

So Ben can't carry any authority at home. Nobody takes him seriously. He can't handle being a father.

Ben has failed as man of the house.

As the episode goes on, each of these crises winds tighter and tighter around Ben, and his anxiety and suffocation are tangible. He does not have his shit together at all. His shit is completely apart at this point, and it all ends in sudden, shocking violence, followed by a burial of sorts. Ben finally exerts agency, finally does something of his own will. He builds something in the backyard, a lovely brick gazebo, a fine addition to any home. In doing so, he entombs all of his misery and ensures that he will never be free of it.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Role Of Intent Part Two: Any Movie Where…

The notion that there's a single "correct" interpretation of a film, as I talked about in my last post on the topic, is problematic. Sure, the movie has a story (so it's "about" the events), it has a directorial point of view (so it's "about" the director's intent), and both of these things are expressed using visual imagery and thematic language that's going to resonate with the target audience because of whatever makes that imagery and language emotionally effective (so it's "about" what makes the scary parts scary to a given audience). So, for example, The Shining is "about" a man who goes crazy while snowbound in an empty hotel. It's also "about" America's historical legacy of violence. Finally, it's "about" loneliness, isolation, the inability to provide for your family, and watching your marriage and family fall apart. Dissecting each of these is pretty much the basis of film scholarship. 

I think horror movies get into trouble when one of these narratives is used to draw conclusions about another. I also think horror movies are especially vulnerable to this compared to other types of film. Specifically, there's what I think of as the "Any Movie Where…" effect, in which the events of the story and/or how they're portrayed are used to draw conclusions about directorial intent. Right now, I can't think of a better case example than The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence.

Director Tom Six was already skating on thin ice when he premiered The Human Centipede: First Sequence. The premise of the movie is that a crazy doctor attempts to graft three people together, connecting their digestive systems in the process, to create a conjoined triplet in the form of a centipede. No reason is given why he wants to do this, but that's okay, because do you really think you can reason with a dude like that? It's not a movie with character development, it's a movie with an inexorable thesis. Even within those constraints, it wasn't what most people seemed to expect - it was pretty restrained with its blood and gore, and a premium was placed on black humor and a bright, almost-sterile setting. It's a clean, cold movie, and given the basic ickiness of its premise, that works to its advantage.

The sequel is pretty much the aesthetic opposite of the first movie. It's shot in black and white (but still shot beautifully), and the entire movie takes place in spaces as raw and ugly as the first's were sleek and bright. Our protagonist this time is Martin. Martin is a round, bug-eyed, sweaty, oily little man. Martin doesn't talk on camera, he just grunts, whimpers, squeals, wheezes and hacks out asthmatic coughs between shots of his inhaler. His life is as small and cramped and ugly as the doctor's was urbane. He lives with his mother, who resents him for driving away her (sexually abusive) husband. He works the third shift at a parking garage, where he passes the time by watching his favorite movie over and over and over again, assembling a scrapbook from the movie, dreaming of the day when he can make the movie come true.

His favorite movie? Naturally, it's The Human Centipede. 

Martin, as inept as the doctor was skilled, as hapless as the doctor was methodical, his tools as crude as the doctor's were surgical, wants to make his own human centipede. He is in no way equipped to do so, and he doesn't care. He gets his subjects by clocking them with a tire iron, he does the surgery with kitchen implements, attaches everyone with staples and duct tape. It is exactly as horrible as it sounds.  The climax of the movie is an orgy of blood, shit, death, and humiliation, signifying little outside of itself.  Which is not to say that it is a pointless movie. Like the first, it evokes a mood masterfully. Martin's world is cramped and squalid in all its features, soundtracked by industrial thumps and hisses, full of old brick, worn carpeting, dirty bedclothes, and shabby warehouse spaces. In many ways, it reminds me a lot of a less explicitly surreal Eraserhead. Both Martin and Henry have created something, and having done so, aren't sure what they should do with it. Martin chooses to play with his like a sadistic child, pulling the wings from flies on a horrifying scale. 

Basically, the sequel is chock-full of fucking horrible things, ranging from the relevant to the completely gratuitous, and it's this gleeful wallowing in gore and filth and the casual abuse of the human body that has so many people contracting the vapors over it. And to be honest, I don't have nearly as easy a time defending this movie as I do The Human Centipede. If you've never seen the first movie, this one isn't going to make much sense to you. And you're going to be too busy crying, retching, and crying over how much retching you're doing to really take it in. 

That said, as a companion to the first film, it works very well as another take on the same ideas - think of them as variations on a theme of Human Centipedes. Everything about the second is an aesthetic, narrative, and textual comment on the first. Martin's subhumanity and obsession with the first film signifies him as the stereotypical fan of the first film - who else would enjoy the first movie but a furtive, disgusting little deviant? Six can take jabs at both a section of horror film fandom and the critics who were so willing to dismiss the first film out of hand through Martin. The sordid violence of the second film pushes our worst expectations of the first in our faces, like saying "oh, you thought it was going to be a sick movie? This is a sick movie." It has the same undercurrent of black humor as the first film, but as relatively restrained (and no less chilling for it) as the first movie's denouement is, the second's is awful - not in quality, but in experience and implication. There's apparently a third movie planned, and I could see all three of them working together as sort of a triptych. The Human Centipede 2 is a very smart movie playing thuggish and dumb.

And that's where the relationship between intent and content gets tricky. Art uses extremes all the time - just look at the work of people like Chris Burden, Hermann Nitsch, Mark Pauline, and Matthew Barney for example. And sure, each one of these artists has had their detractors, but I think there's a lot less blanket dismissal based on specific content than in genre film.

If you, as a genre director, employ controversial, disturbing, graphic, or disgusting imagery, you run the risk of having your entire movie dismissed a priori merely based on the use of that imagery. "Any movie where you have (insert controversial thing here) is obviously just an attempt to shock people and attract controversy." Any attempt to talk about aesthetic or thematic choices is cut off before the conversation can even happen. "This is just pandering to gorehounds, because that's the only reason you'd ever show (insert controversial thing here) in a movie." It doesn't help when a subset of people respond to these movies with "I have to see this it sounds so fucked up and gross it'll be great LOL" when you're trying to make a serious argument for why a given movie should exist. If it's gross and it's in a genre film, it can't be art. 

Of course, established and respected "serious" directors are largely exempt from this - Pier Pasolini featured child abuse and shit-eating in Salo, John Waters had  weird chicken sex, singing anuses, forced impregnation and actual shit-eating in Pink Flamingos, Lars von Trier had hardcore sex and genital mutilation in Antichrist, and Harmony Korine had actual physical violence in Fight Harm (though that hasn't been released). And there are always people willing to apply the "Any Movie Where" heuristic to those movies, but there's at least enough leverage with each of these filmmakers to attempt a serious conversation. Try that with someone like Eli Roth, Tom Six, or Srdjan Spasojevic. Nope, when they do it, it's obviously just for cheap shocks. How could it possibly be anything else? It's just a horror film.

This is not to say that every horror film has artistic value. Good lord, some of them are complete shit. But at its best, horror is art, and sometimes that art goes very uncomfortable places, as art should be able to. It is possible to depict ugly, horrible things for something more substantial than cheap shocks. A movie is more than a collection of scenes, and genre is no reason to throw the consideration of context out the window.  And honestly, I'd like to see more horror directors taken seriously earlier into their careers than usually happens. That's not going to happen until people stop assuming that the content of a film dictates the intent of the people who made it.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

30 Days Of Night: Goodbye To Romance

It all started with ads for the conclusion for the last movie in the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn. I know I'm not the audience for these movies, and I understand the mechanism behind their appeal, but there's still something about the sight of a chalk-skinned, feral-eyed vampire marrying his doe-eyed teen love and this being a cause for celebration instead of the hideous parody it should be that just makes something rear up in me and say "hang on right one fucking minute."  These are not vampires. These are what happens when you take the sexless appeal of the average boy band and graft it onto the baroque construction of the vampire as romantic figure popularized by intermittently Catholic bondage author Anne Rice.

"But Cliff", my nonexistent strawman says, "what about the original story Dracula by Bram Stoker? Wasn't he a romantic figure?"

I would argue not.

"But Cliff, didn't you see Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation? Gary Oldman was all kinds of tragic and romantic and yearning and shit in that movie. And he cut quite the dashing figure in his dove-gray suit and top hat."

I did indeed see it. In fact, it's one of the few vampire movies I like. But I'd suggest that Dracula was actually the ancient, draconian thing who meets with Jonathan Harker. Dracula had many forms, and the liberation from Victorian repression he represented was a raw, atavistic force, not some romantic ideal. It is my opinion that Dracula's appearance was more a function of cultural mores about gender and courtship than something about the character. That some people construct the idea of the vampire around the elegant, tragic figure Mina sees says more about them than it does about the vampire.

Me, I see the abomination, the thing that lives forever by drinking the blood of the living. And that's why Stephanie Meyer's ridiculous stories got me thinking about 30 Days Of Night.

Barrow, Alaska is the northernmost town in Alaska. It's so far north that it experiences a month-long sunset. It's a cold, flat place, a small American town in the middle of a white desert of snow and ice. The movie opens with residents of the town making their preparations for the long night. Some residents are headed to Anchorage, some are stocking up on supplies, some are shutting their businesses down. Departing residents say goodbye to spouses, vehicles get put into storage. There's no sense of sadness - this is just how life is and always has been out here.

Miles away, a lone figure departs a massive black ship, and begins a long walk across the ice floes toward Barrow.

Eben, the town's sheriff, is busy with all of the last-minute work of getting his community safe and ready, along with small-town sheriff business. As the sun is setting, he's faced with theft, vandalism, and a hostile, unruly drifter making trouble at the local diner. On the surface, it doesn't seem like anything too unusual, except that what's been stolen are all of the town's satellite phones (found burnt in a pile outside of town), what's been vandalized is a local pilot's helicopter, somebody's killed all of the sled dogs in the town kennel, and the drifter at the diner keeps asking for raw meat.

The vampires in this movie aren't romantic at all. They are bestial things, with the same dead-eyed implacability as a shark. They do not seduce their victims, they bring them to ground. They do not drink - they rip, tear, and bury their faces greedily into their victims. They communicate in growls, clicks, and shrieks, along with some harsh, guttural language left forgotten to the civilized world. Their hands are claws, their eyes are black, and they have the teeth of piranhas in mouths raw with blood. They have come to this place, in the middle of nowhere, to feed for thirty uninterrupted days.

This movie isn't so much a vampire movie as we are used to thinking of them - a few true, well-equipped believers at war with a society of blood-drinking sophisticates. This is a siege movie, in which Barrow's dwindling survivors scurry from lit place to lit place, gathering supplies and weapons, struggling as much among themselves as with the predators outside. Old grudges raise their heads, misgivings tear the group away from each other, and all the while, the vampires circle outside in the snow and the dark, waiting for the one mistake that will deliver their prey to them.

Besides the refreshingly merciless take on the genre, 30 Days Of Night is shot beautifully, in what is at times an almost painterly style. The movie is dominated by blues, whites, and grays, interrupted by the warmth of light - sunset, lamps, fire - and blood, from black to vivid red.  The trails left behind as the vampires drag their victims away look almost like brush strokes, and in some scenes, the light from a streetlamp falls in such a way that the entire enterprise almost feels like a stage set - as if Edward Hopper's Nighthawks at the Diner were repainted in the most desolate manner possible. The ship heralding the arrival of the vampires is a black, hulking ruin, blotting out a chunk of the horizon like darkness itself cutting through the ice. A woman pleads for her life with the vampire about to kill her, begging to God that she be spared. The vampire repeats "God?" and looks up to the heavens as if anticipating a response. When the silence ends, it is with the vampire telling the woman "No. No God." Our dreams are not being answered, there are no fairytales here, no brooding immortals who sparkle in sunlight, wedding the true love of their centuries. That's for little girls who have not yet been told the truth of the world. All there is here is blood and cold and indifferent silence speared by the screams of carnivorous things.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Fun With Google 3

mia farrow childlike

serbian film decapitation rape scene

There is no way for this to end well.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

American Horror Story, Episode 2: Can't You See The Blood?

Well, if you're going to leverage the success of your previous shows to do something spectacularly messed-up on a network that seems willing to take some chances, you'd best go big. American Horror Story came out of the gate like the tweaking party guest nobody could remember inviting - the one who won't stop sweating and really, really wants to talk to you about the gold standard and some really compelling business opportunities involving the collapse of Western civilization. A whole lot of crazy, all up in your face at once. I had some concerns after the first episode that a constant barrage of weird would be too distracting to be scary, and the second episode eases up a little on the sheer WTF-ery in every scene. It's still a little frenetic in spots, but with the cast of characters in place, the pace slows down a little. It's less a bunch of stuff being flung at you, and more something unfolding. Some piece of origami, maybe. Folded from a hideous picture, each glimpse, each angle, letting us in a little more to the horrible totality.

Just as the pilot opened in 1978, with the house sitting in ruins, this episode opens up in 1968, with the house serving as a boarding house for nursing students. In 1978, two boys intent on vandalism were mauled by, well, something in the basement. In 1968, the house is in fine shape, and some of the students are going out for the evening. Two others are staying in to study, and because they don't want to get themselves in trouble, late-60s-single-women-style. And when a man comes to the door, hurt and bleeding from a cut on his forehead, the nursing students let him in.

He isn't really hurt, and they don't survive the night.

It's looking more and more like this house is built as much out of atrocity as it is brick.

Meanwhile, the Harmon family, already busy disintegrating when they moved in, are hard at work fucking themselves up even more. They moved across the country to get away from everything that happened to them in Boston - Ben's affair, Vivien's stillbirth. Now Ben's affair is reaching out from one coast to the next. She's pregnant, and wants Ben to come to Boston to help "take care of it." Naturally, Ben lies his lying face off about it to his wife and daughter. Not that it matters as much at this point - he and his wife are forging a tenuous reconnection over her new pregnancy (yeah, that's healthy), and his daughter is pretty much openly contemptuous of him because of the affair. She doesn't fit in at school and she's cutting herself. On the other hand, she's made a connection with Tate, one of Ben's clients. Tate is probably not the healthiest friend to have, but he's pretty familiar with the house - including the knowledge that there is something in the basement. So Ben's off to Boston, and Vivien and Violet are on their own in the house.

And a woman comes to the door, hurt and bleeding from a cut on her forehead.

One of this show's strengths so far is how it keeps us off-balance. In the pilot, that was partially because we had so much information thrown at us. In this episode, it's more how new reveals upset what we think we know. The people who die here don't seem to leave, so it remains to be seen who else is a victim of the house. For the most part, we only have the Harmon's perspective, and that's not very trustworthy. It turns out Constance has a life apart from the house, and it's just as messed up as you might imagine. But Moira? Tate? Are we seeing them as they are? Tate is alternately full of rage and lonely, confused. He knows there's something important about the basement, but pleads ignorance as to what. Moira is a seductress to Ben and an older woman to everyone else. People don't really walk into this house. They're just sort of not there, and then they are. The jittery, disconnected editing of the pilot continues, as if what we're witnessing is fragmented, and the gaps suggest there are things we aren't actually seeing, but should. For the nursing students in 1968, the blood on the man's forehead was a lie, and the truth was much worse. This episode reinforces the idea that what we see may very well be the lie, and the truth might actually be worse. What can't we see?

Episode One

Monday, October 17, 2011

New Least Favorite Horror Film-Related Phrase Ever

The description of upcoming demonic possession film The Devil Inside as a "micro-budget franchise starter."

Goddamnit, this is Not Helping.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Screw The Book, I'll Wait For The Movie

I've just finished reading Pontypool Changes Everything, the book on which the movie Pontypool was (ostensibly) based. To say that the makers of the movie took liberties with the book would be like saying that Picasso's cubist work took liberties with proportion and perspective. The protagonist of the movie appears in one or two chapters in the last third of the book, never sits down in a radio station, and ends up pretty thoroughly dead about as quickly and uneventfully as he was introduced. The rest of the book is a nightmarishly squirrelly trip through the minds of assorted doomed people on the peripheries of a new plague that pretty much razes the human population of a chunk of Ontario. Yes, people eat each other and yes, it seems to be spread through language, but otherwise it has as much in common with the movie as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead did with Hamlet.

I mean, we're talking pissed-off babies cutting their own umbilical cords and going to live with other babies at the bottom of icy lakes, brothers and sisters catching and eating zombies after being abandoned by their parents, sex addicts personifying their Higher Power as a separate being who talks to them, and damn near the first third of the book is the story of the first guy to spot one of the plague victims, and the plague itself doesn't make an appearance until a few chapters in.

It's sort of a challenging read, is what I'm saying.

American Horror Story, Episode 1: A Body Is Like A House

Okay, now this is more like it.  If you're going to do a haunted-house story, a story about a shunned, damned place full of the unhappy echoes of those who have died within its walls, then don't pull punches, or try to make it some genre window dressing for some kind of soap opera (I am so totally looking at you, Bedlam). Just make it balls-out scary.

The first episode of American Horror Story is dense, layered, complicated, and bizarre to a degree I haven't seen since Twin Peaks. Like that show, it's also sharply scary. Unlike Twin Peaks, which took its time winding things up until you were in the middle of a nightmare without realizing how you got there (at least until Season 2, when it all kind of went in the toilet), American Horror Story pretty much grabs you by the back of the head and dunks your head in the sink.

The show opens in 1978, on a shot of an old, dilapidated brick mansion. The lawn is overgrown and the house is beginning to strangle under climbing vines. A young girl in a bright yellow dress stands outside the house, looking into one of the upper-story windows. Two boys come up the walk - twins carrying baseball bats. They've got vandalism on their minds, but before they can walk in and start smashing things, the girl speaks.

"You're going to die in there."

Of course this doesn't stop the boys from going in and smashing things, and of course, they die in there. Forward to the present day.

The Harmon family have moved from Boston to Los Angeles to try and pull themselves together. Ben's a psychiatrist in private practice, Vivien was a cellist, and Violet is their daughter. From the word go, this family is just barely holding together. Everyone is angry and lashing out at everybody else. We discover that Vivien had a horrible, traumatic miscarriage, then Ben had an affair as the loss pushed them apart, and Violet's pretty much disgusted with both of them. This move is intended to give them a chance to start over, as they move into the same house we saw in the beginning, now cleaned and remodeled. It dates back to the 1920s, its first owner a "doctor to the stars," according to the realtor. The most recent owners were a gay couple who put a great deal of work into the house.

Put a great deal of work into the house, and...ended up dead. In a murder/suicide pact.

So this is a house with a long, awful history. To start, we're only getting bits and pieces of it, as people are introduced (a neighbor, a maid, a client of Ben's, the girl from the beginning now grown, a disfigured man) and questions about them raised just as quickly. It's a good thing that FX has committed to 13 episodes of this show, because just from the pilot I'm getting the sense that it's going to take at least that long to untangle the knots we've had dropped into our lap. To say that not everyone is who they seem to be, well, of course not. But we get just enough to upend anything we might have concluded just minutes before. It's like three episodes' worth of dramatic reveals in one episode. I'll say it again: This is a dense show.

The density isn't just the amount of information we get, it's also in the recurrent themes and imagery. Sleepwalking, dreaming, and fire resonate throughout, analogies are made comparing bodies to houses (especially unsettling since the last resident of Vivien's body was dead before birth), and there's a hazy feeling that none of this is quite new, that perhaps, history is once again repeating itself - or maybe it's just the same story over and over again over the decades. You've always been the caretaker of the Overlook.

Even the production choices enhance the sense of unreality and dislocation - the camerawork is a continually shifting beast - odd angles, handheld jitteriness, and an odd, disconnected style of editing that makes it feels like frames have been dropped somewhere, as if continuity has begun to break down. Quick, almost-subliminal shots are cut into the middle of continuous scenes, adding to this sense that reality is slipping, for us as well as the characters. Sometimes this visual business becomes a little distracting, keeping us from really taking in the implications of a shot or a scene before we're on to the next one. It's only mildly distracting (though there was one particular scene that should have been absolutely terrifying and would have been if it hadn't happened and been over so quickly), mostly because you're so busy trying to decode things that the end effect is one of being swept up headlong into the turmoil contained by the walls of the house. That said, I'd like to see the show slow down and breathe a little more. When it does, the silences and steadily held shots can be just as chilling. More prosaically, the effects work is a little uneven - some works at creating a mood of nightmarish surrealism (or surrealist nightmare), others verge a little more on SyFy Original Movie territory. It's not a complete miss at its worst, but it's sitting on the verge.

Based on the pilot, this is going to live up to its title - it's the death of everyone who walks into the house, it's the death of the American family. It's a nightmare curdling in the middle of the City of Angels, and so far, it's shaping up to be an impressive piece of work.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Bedlam, Episode One: By The Way, Did We Mention It Was Haunted?

Boy, is there a dearth of scary stuff on television. It doesn't even need to be gory or adult or anything like that. Just something spooky, you know, something to give you a few good frights. Much of what I've seen in the last few years has been courtesy of BBC America - The League of Gentlemen, Afterlife, the occasional episode of Doctor Who (holy shit, "Blink") and Torchwood (holy shit, "Countrycide", "Children of Earth"). So seeing that they were going to premiere Bedlam - what appeared to be a series about a straight-up haunted building - I was all "woo-hoo!" and setting the DVR. The premise seemed a little goofy - former asylum turned into luxury apartments and haunted by the ghosts of patients who died there - but the ghosts looked cool and the setup allowed for both episodic and continuous storylines. So hey, let's check this out, episode by episode.

So the first episode opens with Kate Bettany trying to sell potential occupants on units in her father's newest development, Bedlam Heights Luxury Flats. Apparently, the building has been in Kate's family for generations, since the days when the Bettany family ran the asylum. What they were thinking, calling the development BEDLAM Heights, positioning it alongside the most notorious example of early insane asylums, well, it's TV so fuck it. But seriously, you wouldn't put up condos on the site of a former German P.O.W. camp and call it "Stalag Gardens" or anything. So no wonder Kate's having trouble filling the units.

Kate lives in the building along with her friends Ryan McAllister and Molly Lucas. Molly kind of has a thing for Ryan, but it's tough to tell whether or not Ryan's gay - he might be, but he's not saying. Then there's Kate's friend Zoe, who doesn't live there and isn't really liked by anyone else. They're all trying to get Kate to go out with them for her birthday. Warren (Kate's dad) comes by as she's finishing up for the day and gives her a lovely antique ring for her birthday. "Where'd you get this, Dad?" "I found it in one of the walls." Gee, thanks, Dad. Nothing says "I love my daughter" more than the personal effects of a long-dead mental patient.

Kate puts on the ring, and a hollow-eyed apparition in a patient's gown appears behind her, and water starts running down the walls. Uh-oh.

Rounding the cast of characters is Jed, Kate's cousin. He's muscular, full-lipped, brooding, tormented, and can not only see ghosts, but can also see how they died. He and Kate are just this side of estranged, mostly because Jed's been in and out of mental hospitals himself as a result of his "gift." He's the black sheep of the family. He's back because he keeps getting text messages on his phone that say "help Kate" or "save Kate" or "Kate in danger" or variations thereof. Jed sees the apparition and knows why Kate needs saving, even while Kate rolls her eyes at him and misses death by that much.

I'm not convinced by this first episode. Part of it seems to be the show's attempt to be both a Melrose Place-style relationship drama and a ghost story. The relationships are inchoate, muddled. More goes unsaid than said, and nobody seems like they really connect. Maybe this is by design, but it's tough to tell who these people actually are to each other, so there's not much reason for me to care about what happens to them. The ghost part is equally problematic, because even though the ghosts themselves are effective, their every appearance is telegraphed by a HUGE! MUSICAL! STING! as if we're not going to know there's a ghost on screen otherwise. It's distracting and robs the show of any suspense or tension it could have. This is too bad, because there's a lot of potential here, and Jed's introduction demonstrates that they can handle ghosts subtly too, they just don't. I'd like to think that some of this is down to this being the first episode, but ghosts don't need all of the fanfare. They can just be there in the background and be way more chilling than if someone kept yelling in our ear "THERE ARE GHOSTS! THIS PLACE IS HAUNTED!" Dude, I know, it's why I'm watching in the first place.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Role of Intent Part One: What He Was Really Saying Was…

So I've been short on time to work on the blog lately. Unfortunate (and a little frustrating, and so I'm thinking about ways to expand what I write so that it's not weeks between entries), but it happens. One of the things I hadn't had time to do was address a recent comment on my reconsideration of Srpski Film. Someone by the name Anonymous was nice enough to write…

"Not to be too critical, but you guys are all pretty much way off the mark. You are all trying to see this movie through what you have heard on CNN and you should understand that the director and people in Serbia didn't watch CNN and their view of their country is way different than yours. The closest you got to what the movie is about is your statement '...that this is the sort of film Serbia produces'. It is a film within a film critiquing the Serbian film industry, its tight connection to the Serbian government and the modern propaganda that it serves. The painting on the wall is the last supper before the battle of kosovo [sic] (14th century). The scene is intended to show how cinema is used for propaganda purposes to stain Serbia's reputation and loosen its grip on Kosovo. The guys that made the film are tired of what they call 'Red Cross' movies and that is the meaning behind the speech Vukmir makes about the victim being the priciest sell."

…which was nice of them, I thought. Who knows how long I would have gone completely misunderstanding the film? It's a good thing Anonymous came along to set me straight.

However, since this blog is one guy, and not "guys", and this guy gets busy sometimes, it took me awhile to read the comment. And while I was in the process of formulating a response (which I wanted to do before I published the comment, so the exchange could go up at once), Anonymous was nice enough to clarify…

"So I see that you censor posts that are not agreeable to your (misinformed) viewpoint. Doesn't matter because the true interpretation of this movie is out more and more on the net and your little piece here looks laughable next to it."

Well, damn. It turns out that I was misinformed, and my "little piece" was laughable. I was wrong about a movie.  Which is funny, because to the best of my knowledge, I've never claimed to be any sort of authority, let alone  "right" about movies.

And so I've been thinking about authorial intent. Specifically, how thoroughly unimportant it is.

Trying to pin down what a movie is "about" is a tricky thing. Sure, there's the plot - in that sense, Srpski Film is about a former porn star who takes one last job to make enough money to support his family and ends up getting tangled up in something very bad. But at the end of the day, a plot is just a sequence of events. When was the last time a synopsis scared the hell out of you? With a few tweaks, I also just described part of one of the storylines in Boogie Nights and the general plot of Wonderland, neither one of which are generally considered horror movies. Shift the role of the porn star from the foreground to a background role as the protagonist's girlfriend and you've got Sexy Beast, which although an awesome movie, is by no means horror.

So there's got to be something else there that gives the movie some emotional freight, something to which we can respond both rationally (we understand what is happening) and then emotionally (it makes us feel a certain way, given a particular context). Much of the experience of a movie isn't the events themselves as much as how the events are expressed, and that's a slipperier thing than just a straight synopsis. There are specific choices in visual, aural, and verbal content that can make the most horrible thing feel mundane, and the most mundane thing feel absolutely horrible. The plot engages us rationally, imagery engages us emotionally. If you want to get people to feel something, you need to use imagery to speak past their capacity for rational comprehension and get in their head, speak to their gut, get reaction instead of response.

(Alternatively, you can use imagery that's really, really specific to you and nobody else, and then you're Matthew Barney or, to a lesser extent, David Lynch.)

So if you're trying to freak an audience the fuck out, you're going use the sort of imagery that's most likely to elicit that, and that varies from culture to culture. You're going to need imagery that speaks directly to the hopes and fears and values of an audience for whom these things are at least in part a product of their time and place. Culture's like the water in which a fish swims, (or like the Force) - it's all around us, in us and outside of us. We are products of our culture.

Think about some of the landmark films in U.S. horror - the giant insects and lizards of the post-WWII era, products of this newfangled "radiation" thing, the mindless body-snatching alien stand-ins for Communists during the Cold War, the crazed hippies of The Last House on the Left, a product of the Sixties and post-Vietnam rage. Would Them! have been so scary to countries for whom radiation wasn't an issue? It would have been scary, yes, because giant ants are fucking terrifying, but it wouldn't have that it-could-happen-here frisson that it had here. Would Invasion of the Body Snatchers have been as scary in the Soviet Union? Probably not. The Last House on the Left remake might have freaked some people out, but the original was off in uncharted territory, in part because it fed on anxieties about youth culture and its perceived threat to respectable suburban types. If you want to communicate something to an audience, speak to them in a language they'll understand.

Which brings me back to Srpski Film (yet again) and what films are "about."

So in my extended piece on this particular movie, I contended that it worked as a story about the victimization of people living under a totalitarian regime, the role of surveillance in their lives, how this victimization affects subsequent generations, and how these pressures and legacies can reduce people to beasts or break them outright. I thought I made a decent case for this perspective, but Anonymous disagreed. His/her contention was that the movie was really and truly about the frustration Serbian filmmakers experience in trying to make art in a country where the state still exerts strict control over film production and distribution. And that's definitely something I've read in interviews with director Srdjan Spasojevic. So I can believe that's where he was coming from. But saying that the movie has one true interpretation ignores all of the history from which its imagery was drawn. It privileges what's being said over how it's being said, when you can't really extricate one from the other. It's as much about totalitarianism as it is about trying to make art as it is about a former porn star getting back in the game one last time.

"But how can a movie be about anything apart from what the director makes it?" asks the complete and total strawman I've made up for this bit. Well, how we say something imparts as much meaning as what we say or why we say it. We communicate in the languages with which we're most familiar, and I think that's as true of culture and the imagery we derive from it as anything else. It's called A Serbian Film because it's in Serbian - not just the spoken dialogue, but the imagery as well. There's a legacy of totalitarianism, of people trying to get by under surveillance and omnipresent control that is evident in the imagery of the film, the metaphorical language of the film.

Even if Spasojevic made Srpski Film about the plight of the Serbian filmmaker (and I have no doubt that's what inspired him, but was that really the central thesis?), how he chose to tell that story adds an entirely separate layer of meaning to the film, and that's a good thing. Personally, I think that when directors set out to make a movie with a really specific message, they usually product something shitty and didactic. Srpski Film doesn't do that. It doesn't beat you over the head with "this is terrible and you should feel terrible and wonder how this could possibly happen in a just world," it just says "yeah, this is happening and you're watching it. What are you going to do?"

At the end of the day, what the viewer gets from the film probably matters most. Not what the director was trying to say, not what someone else thinks the director was trying to say. A good film is "about" many things, and I think it's a mistake to constrain our interpretations.

Next time: What happens when intent is inferred from content, and the upcoming sequel to The Human Centipede.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Dark Mirror: Paranoia Begins At Home

One of my favorite scary movies of all time is Rosemary's Baby. It's both a sharp commentary on women's roles in the late 60s and a supremely atmospheric exercise in tension and paranoia. Mia Farrow's character is childlike and helpless, not because that's her nature, but because that's the only response she has based on how people treat her. No matter how much she tries to assert herself, she is patronized - as a woman, as a pregnant woman, as a pregnant woman who doesn't possess her husband's sophistication.  It is impossible for her to be taken seriously, even as shit gets weirder and weirder. Nobody else seems to notice, so is it all in her head? Can she even know her own mind any more? She lives in a gorgeous, historic apartment building in New York City, but it's a prison where everyone else seems to be her warden - for good reason, as it turns out. It's a druggy, oppressive parody of domesticity with something horrible at its center.

Now, Dark Mirror is not Rosemary's Baby by any stretch. But, given its constraints. it's the one of the few movies I've seen that makes home and domesticity as horrifying as strange, abandoned places are. It's also one of the few putative haunted house movies I've seen where the house is somehow more menacing in broad daylight than at night.

The first thing we see is a woman sleeping in bed with a child. She wakes, raises a bloody hand to her face. Oh dear. Smash cut to many days before.

The woman is Deborah, the child is her son Ian, and they, along with husband/father Jim, have moved from Seattle to (presumably) Los Angeles for Jim's work. They're looking at houses, and we come in as they're looking at the one into which they're going to move. It's a charming place - lots of original details, plenty of light, cute little neighborhood. There's something about the house that captures Deborah's attention - perhaps the quality of the light as it comes through the windows. She loves it and wants to make an offer right there. It's nicely handled - it's not a creepy automaton sort of moment like it could have been. It seems a little impulsive, but we get the sense that Deborah's dealing with a lot around the move.

As it transpires, she wasn't a huge fan of the idea, and she's not adjusting all that well to it. Jim's distant, spending a lot of time at work. She's stuck at home with Ian, who is kind of an annoying little shit. She has a career as a photographer, and is trying to set up a home studio to do commercial product work. Ian makes it difficult for her to work (seriously, this kid is really irritating and in a completely believable way), and she's having trouble picking up freelancing gigs. People don't take her seriously. It's a lovely home, and she can't get away from it.

It's a lovely home, and Deborah starts taking pictures of it. What else does she have to do? There's something curious in the bathroom - two mirrors, set up side-by-side, with another large mirror on the opposite wall. Deborah stretches into infinity here, and decides to take a picture of one of the small mirror - an antique mirror in a gold frame. The flash rattles around the room, and just for a second, we get a glimpse of something vast on the other side of that mirror. Just for a second. But that does it. Something's out, and people start dying.

Dark Mirror's strength is also its weakness - it avoids histrionics and laying everything out for the viewer. At its best, it keeps you guessing and doesn't provide tidy explanations for what happens (after all, how often do any of us know everything about a situation? Leaving things hanging is underrated, I think). Even things that would, in any other movie, be accompanied by music stings and sudden close-ups are allowed to breathe and settle in the air. It's both natural and surreal by turns. The downside to this approach is that it also lets some of the tension dissipate, so the pacing feels off and rather than a rising climax, we get a sequence of events that just sort of get weirder and weirder as things go on. As effective as the twisting sense of confinement and frustration is in the first half, there needs to be more sense of escalation in the second half to really bring it home.

Don't get me wrong - despite the flaws in pacing and action, this is a smart, understated film that avoids a lot of cliches. It's beautifully shot, making the most of light and reflective surfaces to convey what could easily come off as cheap and hokey. Any way you look at it - from either side of the glass - it's a story of an unhappy woman trapped by obligations, expectations, and the times in which she lives. The house is haunting her.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

From Within: Teen Suicide (Don't Do It)

Okay, so adolescence sucks. This is news to exactly nobody. It's a time of massive physical, social, and intellectual upheaval, when your body rebels against you, your mind is opened to entirely new ways of thinking about the world, and the people around you - some of whom you've known your entire life - take on new, strange meanings. Being a teenager in a small, tightly knit community is possibly even worse. You don't get to decide which secrets are yours to keep and which are community property. If you're the slightest bit different, people come down on you hard. The people who've known you your whole life have no intention of letting you become anyone else, for good or ill.

From Within isn't a movie about the horrors of adolescence, but it isn't not about them either. It's what happens when an already scary time finds new ways to be scary.

We open with a young couple - a boy and a girl - sitting on a pier at the edge of a lake. The boy reads something from a book, and then apologizes to the girl before blowing his own brains out. Getting things off to a bang, as it were. The girl, promptly and thoroughly traumatized, runs back to town, only to end up a short time later with a pair of scissors jammed into her neck by her own hand. It's a small town, a folksy, all-American town. A good, old-fashioned American town full of God-fearing Christians (except for those weirdos we don't talk about), shocked by two suicides so close together.

Among those upset are Lindsay and her friend Claire. They both go to the local high school and attend the local church like most everyone else in town (everyone except that one family with the house outside of town). Lindsay's a nice girl, she's sweet and friendly, and the pastor's son seems to have a thing for her. Still, Lindsay has her own problems - Mom's a drunk who clings to her faith as tightly as the bottle, and Mom's boyfriend Roy is an ex-con who shares Mom's devotion to the Lord but manages an aura of greasy creepiness to go along with it. Lindsay's sad, yes, but she's also got her hands full. It's tough enough to just be a kid in a small town without bringing down other people's grief on top of it. The town searches for answers, and of course there are rumors, rumors drawing on long-standing town grudges and unpleasant past events nobody wants to talk about. But that's typical for a small town - nobody ever forgets anything.

Then another girl is found dead, her wrists slashed with broken glass. A girl whose final minutes were spent running from an apparition who looked just like her. As if she were haunting herself.

On balance, From Within is a ghost story that makes as many smart choices as it does poor ones. The setting works - the whole town feels like it's balanced on the edge of an early fall evening, like Halloween is coming. The church is an omnipresent force, communicating a sense of constraint without falling into cultishness, and most (most) of the characters are nicely underplayed - I kept waiting for hysterics and melodrama and for the most part, they never came. Lindsay feels like an actual kid instead of some self-aware parody of adolescence. Even the inevitable "terrible secret" has some room to breathe and doesn't necessarily drive the action. There are moments of bitchy dark humor and it's nicely scary, with an ending that avoids sentimentality. On the other hand, some character progression and events feel rushed, throwing off the sort of rhythm absolutely necessary for a good ghost story. More to the point, the creators sacrificed an opportunity to tell a really good horror story about adolescence for a really easy horror story for adolescents.

Much of the action in this movie revolves around Lindsay's evolving friendship with Aiden - a kid from the wrong side of the tracks. He's all broody and tormented and dark and shit. It was Aiden's little brother who killed himself at the beginning of the movie, and he gets his ass kicked at school because his family has weirdo non-Christian beliefs in a town where everyone goes to the same megachurch. So there's kind of this Romeo & Juliet (or, you know, Twilight) thing going on where the whole thing started as the inevitable next step in some feud and who cares. Take the broody pagans out of it (along with some of the worst dialogue in the script) and you could have a story about what happens when you grow up in a small town with the weight of everyone's expectations on you, and how that weight pushes children in the throes of adolescence into odd shapes, stunted by all of the growth they have to do and no room in which to do it. Some turn to drugs, some turn to casual sex, some turn to alcohol, some turn to weird clothes and music, why wouldn't some turn to messing with forces beyond their control?

The bones of the movie are there, the directorial instincts are generally good, but the obviousness is disappointing. This could have been a story about teenagers, with remote adults disconnected from everything until it's all far too late and people start dying. It could have been a story about how the upheaval of puberty makes it hard to tell when you're crossing a line, about the secrets we keep from our families, ourselves, and each other as we grow. Because at its worst, adolescence is practically a nightmare anyway - why not make it literal?

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix

Friday, September 2, 2011

Four Boxes: Bait And Switch

I'm not especially picky when it comes to the movies on which I'm willing to take a chance.  Some movies are going to be a pre-sold commodity for me because of the director or what I'm able to glean from a trailer. Then there's all the ones about which I know next to nothing - the Netflix Instant queue is great for these, because for every two or three direct-to-video hack jobs, there's one hidden gem. If I'm a little judicious, I don't run into too many stinkers - usually if the premise sounds interesting to me (not too hackneyed or hackneyed in a way I like) and it's got more than one or two stars, I'll give it a shot. At the very least, I'll run into something flawed with potential, or a good idea brought low by poor execution.

Four Boxes is none of these.

Part of the problem starts right out of the (hahaha) box. Here's the premise of the movie:

Trevor and Rob are enterprising young men who run an eBay business specializing in the liquidation of unclaimed estate property. They look for recent deaths in the obituary section and check to see whether or not the deceased has any next of kin. If not, they basically clean out the property and auction the person's possessions on eBay. Ghoulish? Yes. Sleazy? Kind of. Truth be told, one of the few successful things about this movie is how well it portrays the sheer awfulness of the kind of people who'd make a living doing this (the name of the business? "Go Time." So, you know, nice). Their most recent score is a bland McMansion in the middle of some unnamed suburban development. The previous occupant left behind what appeared to be a life of bleak desperation. No furniture to speak of, just mattresses and a lot of boxes and Tupperware bins containing all of his stuff.

Upon investigation, it emerges that there were some not-quite-right things about the previous occupant. He appeared to be suicidal, certainly depressed, mourning the loss of a wife who apparently hung herself in the basement. Photo albums full of defaced pictures, faced cut out or scratched through. Cryptic notes and codes. Odd collections of objects. Rob discovers that the tenant was following a mysterious website called "", ostensibly a voyeuristic webcam site where the original occupant (a hot girl) had moved out and not removed or switched off the webcams. As a result the current tenant was under surveillance without their knowledge. As it transpires, the new tenant is up to no good.

So, you've got two guys going through the personal effects of a deeply disturbed man who was obsessed with an equally disturbing website. On this basis, I was happy to say "okay, let's give it a shot."

But that's…the premise. The execution reads more like this:

Trevor and Rob are shiftless, obnoxious manchildren who speak in appropriated slang slathered with a layer of irony so thick that their voices practically come equipped with air quotes. They see their efforts to resell the property of dead people as a way to get rich, something they can eventually franchise. They are stunted in their lives and relationships, incapable of honest communication. Trevor is slightly more mature, but this just means that he's more sleazy than anything else, and Rob is, in many ways, infantile. Think of Dante and Randal from Clerks with absolutely no charm or redeeming qualities. These, ladies and gentlemen, are our heroes. Their arrival at the house is followed by a desultory examination of the deceased's effects, complete with contemptuous mockery of the man's life and how he must have arrived at the end of his rope. They toss keepsakes and mementoes around, parodying the grief he must have felt.

Into this modern exercise in grave desecration steps Amber, Rob's fiancée (and Trevor's ex-girlfriend). She's equally as horrible as they are, just as prone to completely empty, inauthentic conversation, punctuated with terrible songs played on an acoustic guitar. These three are our protagonists, and they are so disconnected from any sort of empathy as to border on the autistic. Thirty minutes into the movie, I looked at my wife and said "I cannot wait for these people to die." So yeah, it's going to be very difficult to identify with these three. They're as empty and soulless as the suburban sprawl outside their window.

The titular website is equally inert. We're supposed to be watching somebody engaging in scary, dangerous behavior remotely, but it's almost impossible to make out anything on the webcam footage. Everything has been treated with what appears to be a heavy posterization filter, so we get still-frame sequences of muddy color to which the protagonists react with, well, mild interest. The surveilled occupant appears to be a man who walks around his apartment in a gas mask with a towel over his head like a hood. Rob calls him "Havoc." Why? Who the fuck cares? 

Nobody comments on Havoc's strange getup, and there's never really any progressive sense of danger from the website. Every now and then one of the characters looks at it, registers that they're looking at it, maybe invites over one of the others to look at it, and that's pretty much it. Even in the house of a disturbed dead man, watching footage of someone who might be a killer over the Internet, they're more occupied with themselves than anything or anyone else. They come up with cute names for the people they see on the camera footage, and when Amber points out that maybe they should call the police because it looks like Havoc has imprisoned someone, Rob scoffs, saying that nothing on the Internet is real, and even if it is, it's someone else's job to do that. The incident is soon forgotten. 

This is pretty much all the movie is, until close to the end. Inert sequences of three awful people sitting around talking about nothing in the most annoying way possible, and reacting to a possible real-world atrocity like they would an embarrassing video on YouTube. There's nothing scary about Havoc or his potential plans - there's some nonsense about him being a terrorist, building bombs to put in people's tailpipes, and he apparently kills people with a leaf blower, but that's about it. The closest thing the movie has to a climax is preemptively negated by a plot reveal that is probably supposed to shock the viewer, but doesn't because it's just as detached and hackneyed as the original story, making some kind of heavy-handed point at best, and at worst coming off as something the creators did because they had the attention span of a crack-addicted squirrel. This twist is upended yet again, but by that point there's absolutely no reason to care, and all of the arty match cuts and slow dissolves in the world won't give the ending impact. Somebody either thought they were being artistic, or maybe just "artistic", as an ironic comment on artistry in the age of webcams and YouTube.

And out of everything about this movie, I think that's probably the worst part - it refuses to commit to its premise, almost as if that level of sincerity is a bad thing, as worthy of derision as the sad testament to a sick man's last days. It sabotages its own story at every turn, by giving us nobody to care about, by refusing the buildup of any tension or sense of fear, by throwing in twists which not only negate everything that came before, but seem almost contemptuous of the audience, revealing the fraud of the filmmaking process (oh yeah, I get it - what we SEE isn't always what IS, wow, that's "deep", man…) and letting the entire enterpise slowly collapse like a balloon losing air. We're told that we're going to get a story, and what we get instead is the message that wanting a story or expecting to feel something in response to what we're watching is for losers, and this movie doesn't earn that. It's a trite, self-indulgent, piece of shit.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Fun With Google 2

So what search terms come up this week?


artwork naked "women on crosses"

i wish you'd get human centipeded


Gaze into the search engine abyss, it gazes into you also.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Broken: Through The Looking Glass

One of the reasons I think scary movies are capable of being art is that at their best, they do an excellent job of committing to an aesthetic. Horror movies are capable of creating worlds like no other, from Saw's world of sumptuous velvets and rusty gears to Halloween's pools of shadow interrupted by splashes of expressionless white faces, to Night of the Living Dead's stark, grainy, pointillism. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre reminds me of nothing so much as some of Pieter Breugel's paintings, but good luck getting anyone else to listen to you once the words "chainsaw massacre" hit the air. The color palette in The Abandoned makes the world feel sick somehow, and the bright, clean lines of The Shining only make the horrors superimposed on them that much worse. Sometimes the aesthetic refers to a specific historical period, as in The House of the Devil or The Devil's Rejects, in terms of events, and circumstances as well as our understanding of film from that time period. This way you've got the world, how we understand the world, and how we understand films made about and in that world adding to the experience of the story itself. Plus, you know, blood and tits.

Even with all of that, I can't remember the last time I saw a movie that committed to its premise so fully in its aesthetic as The Broken does.

Gina McVey is a radiologist in London. Hers seems like a nice life in the city, with a boyfriend on the cusp of turning into something really serious. We see the two of them at a surprise birthday dinner for her father, with her brother and his girlfriend also in attendance. People are happy and laughing. In the middle of the merriment, a mirror on the dining room wall just…shatters. Out of nowhere, no fall, nothing thrown. It just collapses into hundreds of shards.

How often do we think about mirrors, really?  We need them to help us groom ourselves, to make us into the people we present to the world. They are flat, cool, silvery pieces of glass, and we take for granted that we are facing ourselves in them.

The next day, Gina McVey, while standing on the streets of London, watches herself drive by in her car. Not someone who looks like her - her. Not a car like hers - her car, down to the license plate.

How often do we think about mirrors, really?

The Broken is as simple, clean, and coolly presented a horror film as you could ask for. London is laid out in shades of blue and gray, as if glimpsed by reflection in still water. Dialogue is quiet and spare, space and silence fills most of the movie, and the pace is deliberate. The events play out slowly, measured, like the steady drip of water, music swelling to a sharp, piercing edge at new revelations. Small things are as important as larger things, not all of them telegraphed. There are mirrors, x-rays, cameras. Images and reflections, seeing and being seen keeps everything stretched tight with the paranoia you'd associate with Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Stepford Wives. It's not so much the terror of people not being who they appear to be as being nothing but their appearance - there's something empty and hungry about that, something horrible.

This is the sort of movie that demands patience and careful attention to get the most out of it. The pace means dread rising to terror rather than sharp scares (at least until things start to escalate), and if you don't know exactly what it is you're seeing and why it's important, it's not going to have the impact it should. Small things go wrong, but have much larger implications. You need to do the math to be rewarded, which is totally fine by me. This is the stuff of my nightmares, the innocuous event carrying horrible meaning. My one objection then is that the story attempts one last twist at the end, and it feels unearned because it relies on an experience of previous events that hasn't been drawn clearly enough for us to understand it. It makes the story a little too complicated (when it hasn't been up to this point) and robs the conclusion of some of its power. That said, the trip there is an exercise in premise embodied - this movie is composed of mirror glass. It's cool, slick, precise, and offers up nothing but what we see, silently and without judgment. But when everything comes apart - when the mirror breaks, it breaks hard and sharp, adding red to the palette in drips and pools.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix

Friday, July 29, 2011

Fragile: A Delicate Balance

Good ghost/haunted-house movies are usually studies in winding the audience up. They start quiet, with lots of breathing room between the scary bits, then bring the weird progressively faster and heavier until everything's fallen apart and the protagonists are running for their lives. They're basically extended crescendoes. This works because you've got a threat that can come from anywhere at any time, in any form possible. Long stretches of quiet punctuated by the unfriendly unknown make us really tense with little relief. There's not much room for catharsis, so the final act comes down on top of all of our accumulated anxiety like a freight train. At least, that's the idea. Maintaining this state of ever-mounting tension requires careful pacing. You can't ratchet things up too slowly or the tension dissipates. You can't pile it on too quickly or it becomes shrill and you numb the audience for the rest of the movie.

Fragile does a fine job at this balancing act up to the point when it falls down the stairs, scattering mood everywhere and rolling to an ungainly stop at the bottom.

Amy is an American nurse freshly arrived in England. She doesn't seem too excited - all things considered, she seems sad and haunted, not quite present. She's accepted a temporary position at a hospital located in a remote part of the Isle of Wight - accessible by ferry and a long drive through the woods. The hospital is in the process of shutting down in favor of a larger, more centrally located facility. It's an old, suitably gothic building, filled with bustling workmen and stacks and stacks of boxes and containers. This is a building at the end of its history, its stories to be locked up and razed, buried forever.

Amy's been hired to take care of the last group of patients to be relocated - some children with chronic medical problems who are going to need special attention. She'll be their night nurse, checking respirators, calming them when they wake up suddenly, making sure nothing happens to them in the small hours. Not especially prestigious work - by nature she's a temporary hire, but the nightmares Amy has about some terrible accident on the job in her past suggest that maybe this was all she could get. So she sits in a little island of light, watching a staticky TV, venturing out into the darkness to use the bathroom, to check on the kids. At night, the floor is very, very empty.

Then the noises start. The ones coming from the floor above them. The floor that's been closed up and left abandoned since 1952.

Fragile gets off to a good start - everything is drained of color, and cool blue tones dominate. It's often raining, or just done raining. Amy is distant, slightly hostile. She doesn't want to be here but doesn't have a choice. Not your conventional heroine, and making even her a little unsympathetic just adds to the gloom. Night in the hospital has that natural spookiness that any old, empty building does. Everything is quiet and still, and the shadows stretch out forever. Exactly what you want for a tense, drawn ghost story. You can imagine a pale figure just melting out of the shadows, reaching for Amy to show her some terrible secret.

But that's not really what happens. As things get weirder and weirder, the histrionics get turned up entirely too soon, across the board - Amy heads right for "I know you don't really know me but YOU MUST BELIEVE ME" territory without much layover at "what the hell is happening," the suitably atmospheric score acquires a bad case of soaring, minor-key strings over pretty much everything, and the malevolent presence not only starts lashing out at everyone, but makes itself entirely too visible too soon. You don't want to show the goods too quickly or for too long in a ghost story, since it's that invisible menace that's made audiences so freaked out up to this point. Finally putting a face to it makes it something more like a monster movie. In this particular case, some of the presence's specifics stretch internal plausibility a little, and the makeup effects aren't up to snuff, so you get entirely too good a look, and it stops being scary. When you should be thinking "ohshitohshitrunrunrunrun", you're thinking "that actually looks a little silly." 

So, when we should be at a fever pitch (the kind that makes you scream out loud at the next thing that happens), we're left saying "okay, so…they're going to get out now, right?" And unfortunately, this disappointment extends itself to the conclusion, which doesn't have the courage of the beginning's convictions. The movie walks a tightrope between showing too little and too much, and ends up trying to run full-tilt to the end of the wire.

Fun With Google 1

Okay so whoever ended up here after a search for "porno room of torture"?

YIKES. Backing away slowly.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Yellowbrickroad: Miles To Go Before You Sleep

Every now and then, there comes along a really good scary movie that manages to combine or change up conceits and make it work. Yes, this stands in opposition to my contention that a good scary movie should find a narrative line and stick to it, but when a well-made film manages to upend your expectations or provide something aesthetically novel, it can make for some breathtaking filmmaking. Martyrs comes to mind, as do Cthulhu and The Descent. To that list, I'd like to add Yellowbrickroad, a powerful, well-executed exercise in creeping madness.

In 1940, everyone in the small town of Friar, NH up and left. They walked away from their houses, from meals on the table, from their lives, to head up a trail outside of town. Rescue parties found nothing but corpses - some dead of exposure, more slaughtered by an unknown hand, many more completely missing. Eventually, the town was repopulated. Curiosity seekers came, but nobody could find the trailhead, and the locals weren't about to tell anyone. Friar is a town with a secret.

Cy and Melissa, along with their psychologist friend Walter, have made a long-term hobby out of the study of the Friar disappearance. They've hit a lot of dead ends, followed up a lot of fruitless rumors and false leads. But finally, after much hammering away at New Hampshire bureaucracy, Cy has managed to secure the original case file with the coordinates for the trailhead. This is big. The three of them organize an expedition, adding forestry expert Teddy, mapmakers Erin and Daryl, and medical intern Jill to the team. They're fully equipped and supplied, they're all competent hikers, and their purpose is clear as they set off for Friar.

The locals in Friar are appropriately surly and insular - not just for a shunned town, but for New England in general. So when the GPS coordinates they have for the trailhead dead-end at a movie theater in the middle of town, it's like the town itself is trying to give the expedition the cold shoulder. One local - Liv - takes pity on the group and promises to show them where the trailhead is actually located if they take her along. She's got her own gear, she knows how to get around in the woods, she won't be a burden, she promises.

Good to her word, Liv shows them a trail up into the high country, marked with a stone that says "Yellow Brick Road" on it. Apparently, The Wizard of Oz was a big local favorite. Daryl and Erin take sextant readings, write down coordinates, do the math. Cy takes photographs, and Walter runs everyone through videotaped tests of cognitive function to make sure the expedition isn't getting to them. It's a long trail, and the further in-country they hike, the longer it seems. Daryl finds a hat - it's old, definitely from 1940, but looks like it was abandoned earlier that day. It freaks everyone out a little.

They hike further in, and begin to hear music. It's from The Wizard of Oz. The GPS tells them they're somewhere in Bolivia. The music gets louder. Walter tests Cy, asks him where he was born.

"I was born…I was born on the trail."

It's a good movie that manages to make the wide-open spaces and big sky of the New Hampshire wilderness seem claustrophobic and oppressive. Small things go wrong, then bigger things, then even bigger things until the true scale of what is happening crashes in on us like the music that haunts their every step, crescendoing into suffocating, ragged noise. These are seven people drowning in the forest around them, being swallowed up by a wilderness that does not obey nature's laws.

Yellowbrickroad does a good job of making you feel the weariness and isolation of the protagonist's situation - they're prepared, they're geared up, they're competent, and none of it matters. When they fall apart, it's messy and slow and sad. You root for them to stick together, but there's a dreadful inevitability to it all, and the worse it gets, the weirder it gets. It'd be too simple if they were just picked off by some unknown evil, one by one. It's less like they're singled out and more like they're at the mercy of some natural event that's as unnatural as possible. There's something wrong about these woods, and there always has been. This isn't a "who will survive" movie. This is a "how bad is it going to get" movie, and the horrors it has in store unfold implacably, until the breaking point is reached, at which point it gets even weirder, and even worse. These people wanted to know what happened to the town of Friar in 1940, and they get their wish.

Don't get me wrong, there are couple of missteps - for a movie that relies on a slow, deliberate buildup of dread, some things happen a little too quickly, and it's noticeable. The practical effects in one scene are just clumsy enough that it takes you out of the movie for a minute, and at a pretty crucial point too. Although these are disappointing blemishes, the movie as a whole does a good job of bringing you back in by being visually striking and inventive, using simple effects (and excellent sound design) to create an almost Lovecraftian sense of cosmic terror. The whole third act is a headlong plunge into nightmare, and by the time the credits rolled, I was out of breath. There are far worse things than being lost, than being unable to go home. There are trails that sing and call to you, trails that come to an end somewhere beyond time, space, and sanity.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix

The Hanged Man: Cut, Paste, Copy, Paste.

Much of film - especially horror film - is about artifice.  You're trying to convince viewers of something that isn't actually happening, whether it's that Gotham City is a real place, George Clooney robbed the Bellagio, or the nice house in the suburbs is infested with malevolent spirits. And we're complicit in that as viewers, at least if we want to enjoy the film we are. This is probably why I have the prejudices I have toward criticism based in comparisons to the real world. We are suspending disbelief to one degree or another when we watch any kind of film. Film is designed to facilitate that. There are exceptions - documentaries of course, but also mockumentaries and deliberately artificial films which instead use violation of that disbelief as a storytelling tool. But in general, we're watching a movie under the pretense that we're watching actual things happen, instead of being played out for us.

The Hanged Man screws this up in a big way, and doesn't even have the decency to use its mistakes as subtle clues to some larger end.

The film opens with a montage of people typing messages (which we hear in overlapped voiceover) in some sort of chat room. The tenor of their conversation is one of anger and despair. These are people who wonder why they should go on living. In fact, these are people actively contemplating suicide. As the montage continues, a new voice enters the conversation - one saying he has a poison that will help each one of these people reach a peaceful end. A pact is made, and a meeting place is set. They will meet at an abandoned barn owned by one of the group members, and they will wait for the man with the magic potion to come, so they can all leave this world together peacefully.

So these people - six in all - arrive one by one at the abandoned farm. They insist on addressing each other by their screen names, so we're introduced to Spaceshot, a shy young woman who owns the property; SoCo, a hotheaded young man who doesn't think Dwarfstar (the one with the poison) is going to show up; Flash, as irritating a caricature of a redneck as you could want; Miles, a fairly levelheaded normal-looking guy without much to distinguish him; X-Factor, a young graduate student; and LT56, an investment banker intent on going out with a bang. They gather at the barn, and wait for Dwarfstar to show. And then the local sheriff shows up, and the hallucinations begin, and it seems like everyone is being stalked by some evil presence determined to…kill them?

So there's problem one - make your protagonists suicidal, and suddenly threatening their lives seems kind of silly. Still, you can use an actual threat as sort of a "hey, living isn't so bad after all" wake-up call, so that's not a big deal.

Problem two is a big deal though - and that's that this is one of the most artlessly artificial movies I've seen in some time. Pretty much everything about The Hanged Man screams "hey, this is a movie made by someone who has no idea how to make anything look natural." The dialogue is awkward and not delivered so much as recited - it's a bunch of people saying words someone else wrote, complete with measured pauses between each person speaking, as if everyone is waiting for one person to finish before they begin. That they refer to each other by their faintly ludicrous screen names only underscores how absurd the whole thing is.  It even extends to the cinematography - many shots, especially toward the beginning, are so aggressively staged and composed that even our perspective on the unfolding events feels staged. You can't get away from the feeling that these people are being displayed, running through the motions. It almost feels like a teleplay, but still not a very good one.

On top of the technical issues, the characters themselves aren't terribly believable. The idea of a bunch of people who only know each other through the Internet meeting to fulfill a suicide pact has potential, for sure. The tension between putting real-life selves to their online personas has potential, as does the way that strangely detached intimacy would interact with an even more intimate act like group suicide. These should be lonely, emotionally damaged people, but they aren't. They're just a bunch of people who showed up in the same place at the same time. It's hard to tell if their conversations are awkward because of who they are and aren't to each other or because the dialogue and delivery are so forced. 

Then there's the question of why they're there - the suicide pact is supposed to be contingent on Dwarfstar (the seventh member) showing up with the poison he's concocted. He keeps not showing up, they keep waiting. As one does when this sort of thing happens, they start getting distracted, talking to each other, working out Internet relationships and group politics face to face in real time. Into this narrative void arrives the town sheriff, looking for a car that LT56 stole. Things go bad, and the next thing you know, the sheriff is tied up in the hayloft in the barn and everyone starts hallucinating that he's walking around free, cutting them down with scythes as visions of them killing themselves in entirely different settings flash through their heads. So there's the twist, I guess, but it's staged in a very fitful and distracted way - there's no rising tension, no climax, no twists. Things happen, then they don't. Sometimes the characters remember why they're there and advance the plot, but not all that often. 

For that matter, sometimes the characters remember that they're supposed to be characters, to have history and internal lives and purpose.  We get little flashes of insight into each one - at least one isn't who they pretend to be (on the Internet? Why I never), others lie to themselves. Some of these little bits are trite as hell, but some are actually staged well - there's a bit with Flash that's so good and so surreal it feels like it came from an entirely different, more interesting story. It's hinted at throughout that not only do these characters have their own secrets, but also that where they are isn't necessarily really anywhere - like it's a purgatory in which each character only sporadically remember that they're already dead and how they died. This isn't a spoiler, though - because that's not what's going on at all. If it were, it'd still be a huge clichĂ©, but it'd at least make sense in terms of what we're given. But, it's something else entirely, and its climax is so thoroughly illogical and uninteresting in light of what came before that whatever little goodwill the film has earned by the end goes up in a cloud of "what the fuck?" Maybe it's supposed to be a twist, but twists are usually existing events reinterpreted from a different basic assumption. This is just a flat-out lie, dropped in out of nowhere, out of a different movie even.

And that's probably The Hanged Man's biggest failing - it's cut and paste from the bottom up. The dialogue is pasted in the actor's mouths, the shots are pasted in as storyboard moments with little narrative flow, the story is a bunch of elements pasted in in some vague order without consideration to drawing connections between events. Somebody plunked down all the pieces you need to make a scary movie and slotted them together without once asking why they should bother, and the transparency of that is so blatant as to border on contempt.