Monday, January 31, 2011

On Fandom And Its Problematic Demands: Silent Hill

Warning: Spoilers will follow.

Not all of the problems with modern horror movies are due to business concerns. Some are, but the reason studios churn out sequel after sequel and create "franchises" is that they continue to be profitable. People keep going to see the movies, no matter how mediocre or even shitty they are, as long as they push specific buttons. However, as pernicious the effect of the profit motive on art might be, I think the effect of devoted fandom is no less damaging.

As I see it, the negative effects of fandom are two-fold: On the one hand, fans can be accepting - almost too accepting, as if value is conferred upon something merely by its association with the object of fandom. The qualification "for fans of" often just means "this movie can't stand on its own as a piece of film, but it is guaranteed to appeal to people for whom genre tropes are more important than the whole." And yes, opinion is only opinion, taste is subjective, but I think we can agree that all horror movies are not equally successful at what they set out to do. However, horror film is also a genre (an unfairly maligned one), and as such, devotion to the genre may supersede rigorous criticism. Enough people already talk shit about horror movies, why add to it? 

Hence, the "for fans of" dodge - you can engage in something resembling criticism and still identify yourself as a fan of the genre. So on the one hand, to the extent that a fan community organizes around the genre, rather than appreciating well-made films, there's a potential market for, well, crap. Crap gets distribution, crap gets fan-centered media outlets to publicize it enough to garner it an audience, and that audience is uncritical enough to continue the cycle. But at the end of the day, that's just another expression of the profit motive. 

On the other hand, fans can be mercilessly critical about issues of canonicity. Once a story or world has been established, devoted fans' attention to continuity and consistency can approach orthodoxy. Hell hath no fury like that of someone who finds out that Halloween is being remade, or that zombies are fast now, or that Robert Englund isn't playing Freddie Krueger in the remake. If there's going to be a sequel to a popular film, it needs to not only live up to the first, but be consistent and in continuity with the first. As a result, you get the sort of Pandora's Box that is the overarching story (such as it is) behind the Saw series. Or, in the case of movies adapted from other media, insistence on rigid consistency and continuity with the original property. Never mind that often what works in one medium does not work well in another. When Tolkien's Ring trilogy was adapted for the screen, there were people furious that every single side story and incidental character was not included. In one of the most ambitious film adaptations mounted in the modern age, one stretching to damn near 12 hours in its extended form, people were angry that they didn't include a singing gnome who appears for somewhere around one chapter

Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining is, in my opinion, one of the best horror films ever made. It does, however, take many liberties with the original book. Stephen King didn't like the liberties and threw his endorsement behind a miniseries version shown on television. The miniseries was certainly more faithful to the book, down to dialogue. The miniseries did have things to recommend it, but the one thing it wasn't was balls-out terrifying. What works in books doesn't work on the screen, and vice versa. Strict continuity is often at the expense of narrative and aesthetic quality.

Case in point? Silent Hill.

Silent Hill is based on a series of video games dealing with supernatural goings-on in the titular resort town. Something terrible (or several somethings) happened in Silent Hill a long time ago, and ever since the town has served as sort of an amplifier for the fears, sins, and weaknesses of people who wander into town. The games serve as sort of an anthology of mostly unrelated stories with only the town in common. As video games go, the Silent Hill games are especially notable for eschewing a lot of the campiness found in horror video games in favor of palpable dread and genuinely creepy, unsettling imagery. As a series, the games owe a lot to modern horror film, especially Jacob's Ladder. The second game - dealing with a man who receives a letter from his long-dead wife to meet him in Silent Hill - is a story of long-buried guilt and despair, played out in grainy images of decaying buildings, damned things writhing and vomiting in straitjackets of their own skin, with a soundtrack of industrial thumps and clanks and radio interference. It's easily one of the scariest games ever made. If you're going to adapt a horror game for the big screen and not make it a lurid, overheated mess, this is the series to use.

On the other hand, attempts by fans to make sense of the story behind the games yield accounts contorted and confusing enough to be right at home halfway through the Saw series. The story of the first game, for example, is thoroughly confusing at best, a case of too many elements crammed into one place, each demanding explanation and connection to the others. To wit, from a fan plot analysis hosted at…

"Cheryl never really existed. In fact, neither did Alessa. Both of the girls are only conjurations of Dahlia's cult. See, the cult wanted to bring their lord Samael to the mortal world, so that he could take control of the universe. But for the cult to benefit they would have to be able to control Samael. The only way to do this was to summon Samael into an unborn fetus, a child that the cult could raise and teach to control its powers, all for the benefit of the cult, of course. Dahlia conceived the child somehow, with the help of Dr. Kaufmann. But when the child was born, only half of Samael's Dark Soul had been summoned into the child."

Or, from the Wikipedia entry for the second game…

"At this point in the game, the letter from Mary vanishes entirely from the envelope. In another room, a final meeting with Angela sees her giving up on life and unable to cope with her guilt any longer. She walks into the flames of a burning staircase and is not seen again. Two Pyramid Heads appear, along with Maria, who has been resurrected once more; as she is killed again, James realizes that Pyramid Head was created because he needed someone to punish him. The envelope from Mary finally disappears and both Pyramid Heads impale themselves with their own spears. James makes his way to the rooftop, finally reaching what seems to be Mary. Depending on the choices made by the player throughout the game, this may be either Mary or Maria disguised as her."

So we're already starting off with a pretty gnarled set of ideas, images, and storylines. What works in a game, based on accrual of experience over hours of gameplay and multiple possible courses of action, is going to need to be pared down and streamlined to make an effective movie. Just like the removal of one singing gnome from the Ring trilogy (or, for that matter, not telling the entire battle at Helm's Deep as an incidental flashback), a good adaptation is going to pick and choose from the source material to tell the best story in that world.

And here's where fandom becomes a problem. Everyone takes something different from the game, everyone's experiences are a little bit different, and each and every devoted adherent of the series has their own ideas about what absolutely must be in the movie for it to be good, or for it to be a "real" Silent Hill film. Fans of the series are vocal, and are potential moviegoers. They're going to generate the buzz needed to get more than fans of the game into the theaters. As the director himself said in a production diary, "I know a few fans who have seen the film and I have listened carefully to their comments. I think overall we have been very respectful and that fans will not be disappointed. Silent Hill fans want a movie that they can respect…If the film is successful in the eyes of the fans then I will be happy to make a sequel. If the fans aren't happy with my adaptation then it will be difficult for me to tackle a second one."

So already we have, in addition to the studio underwriting the movie, a fanbase with their own set of demands. And who are these fans to whom the filmmakers are being respectful? Some excerpts from various and sundry discussion forums…

"I need to know the plot of the film before I generate any excitement over it. If the final product is just another film adaptation of a video game then I will probably be disappointed with it regardless of how much time and effort is poured into it. I don't know why individuals feel the need to alter the storyline in a video game in order to bring it to the silver screen but I see this kind of @#$% all of the time."
"what was up with the movie, curect me if i'm wrong but the Rose Da Silva did not have a gun to protect herself from monsters she was just running around looking for her daughter i thought that part was lame."
"I wish they'd just make SH movies actually based on the games already. I came to like the SH movie after awhile- it grew on me. But when I first saw it I was so annoyed how they turned the Order into these pathetic witch burning Christian people. And of course made Harry a woman... anyway, you know who'd make a good Walter? Triple H, the wrestler."
"The entire time me & my closest friend kept shouting out the names to songs. We're both giddy little fangirls. I'm SO glad they kept the music."
"Ugh. So why haven’t I given the movie a worthless rating? Mainly because Pyramid Head was just that cool (even though his total screen time probably hovers around 4 minutes)"
"completely ignore the first film’s existence and make a film perfectly based off of silent hill 2 or silent hill 1. most likely silent hill 2 since the first silent hill movie’s story is the retarded bastardization of the first game’s story."
"I don`t wanna see dozens of people running around in Silent Hill! It`s an empty and abandoned town with just a few characters who hold "darkness in their hearts" (the second SH game). Stop to turn the cult into an ultra-stupid sect who burn witches. That`s not what Silent Hill is about!"

No matter what the filmmakers do or don't do, no matter who they include or omit, somebody is going to be vocally unhappy and insist that the filmmakers' failure to accommodate their idea of what Silent Hill "really is" means that the entire undertaking is bankrupt.

Unfortunately, in this instance, the need to balance the desire to make a scary movie against commercial considerations against fan opinion meant that what could have been a really good, unsettling horror movie with its own vision and aesthetic turned out as a disjointed series of scenes into which entirely too much source mythology got crammed. There's just enough good in the movie to make you wish for what could have been. 

Silent Hill (the movie) is the story of the Da Silva family - Rose, Christopher, and their adopted daughter Sharon. Rose and Christopher are worried because Sharon sleepwalks constantly, putting herself in danger on a regular basis. Christopher thinks she needs medicine, Rose wonders why she keeps screaming something about "Silent Hill" during her episodes. Silent Hill is a former coal mining town, evacuated due to a massive underground coal fire akin to an Appalachian Chernobyl. The ruins of the town have been fenced off and nobody goes there anymore. After an argument over Sharon's condition, Rose takes Sharon, gets into the car, and heads for the smoking remains of Silent Hill. Rose has trouble getting directions - all of the locals insist that nobody goes there and nobody should. It is a shunned place. Rose insists, with the dogged persistence of the mother trying to save her daughter's life, and pushes forward. A late night accident  overturns Rose's car on the outskirts of the town, and she blacks out on the steering wheel. When she recovers, Sharon isn't in the car.

Faced with no other choice, Rose follows her daughter into the town of Silent Hill.

Silent Hill is the picture of a ghost town - empty buildings standing just as they had a decade ago, wrecked cars, litter in the streets. The entire town is blanketed by a thick gray fog and a gentle but constant rain of ash from the fires below. It is dead quiet and completely deserted. It is a bleak place, but initially, nothing seems out of the ordinary (as abandoned towns go). But after enough time spent wandering the town, Silent Hill begins giving up its secrets - the fog rolls away to reveal streets and buildings, entire city blocks, sheared away into emptiness. The neighborhood church is not topped with a Christian cross. Air raid sirens announce the coming of night, of a darkness in which the town peels away to reveal a smoldering industrial hellscape underneath. A darkness in which monsters walk the town.

Silent Hill has many weaknesses, but its audiovisual aesthetic is not among them. The sound of the movie is dominated by hums, distant crashes, bursts of noise. What music there is is repurposed from the game - it's menacing, but in ways not usually used in Western horror films. When was the last time a mandolin sounded so creepy? Visually it's of a piece - this is, at its heart, the story of a little girl who was nearly burned alive and lingered too long, and in her lingering poisoned the town. This town is her waking nightmare, and imagery of fire and ash dominates. The world blackens as night falls, with streets and buildings and walls floating up and away like burning paper caught in an updraft. The creatures of this nightmare world are malformed, as if half-melted or made from burn tissue. They writhe and stutter step, in agony themselves, and when some of them stretch and flex to scream, burning embers are revealed in their cracks and crevices. This is not carelessly chosen imagery - though it might appear to suffer at first from Abandoned Hospital Syndrome, everything we see is an echo of the events that lead to the town as it is now. The recounting of the events are told through scratched and grainy film stock, a home movie of damnation and horror. It's not quite like anything else I've seen. 

Unfortunately, atmosphere and visuals alone don't get it done this time. The dialogue is not good, even for stock b-movie dialogue. It's awkward enough to bring you out of the movie on more than one occasion. Characters taken directly from the game fail as often as they succeed - there is a police officer whose uniform looks more like a fetish outfit than an actual uniform in faithfulness to her original design - and the backstory is entirely too complex. There's a cult that doesn't need to be there, there's a demon whose role is only clear at the end, if then, it appears as though there are multiple parallel realities, and although some monsters are directly connected to the central events of the story, others aren't, and appear to be there because they are popular characters in the game, rather than because they serve the internal logic of the film.

The biggest pitfall with any adaptation is the temptation to put elements from the original property into the adaptation not because they contribute to the story, but because they "have" to be there, lest a community with some acquired sense of ownership scream for a boycott. The Silent Hill games are a rich source of ideas for horror film, but insistence on adhering to some sense of canon in a series of games lacking in internal consistency or narrative throughput means that what we get are not ideas but gestures and references, isolated setpieces intended to evoke the game's experience, rather than contributing to a good, solid story. Profit can take one good movie and bleed its premise dry, throwing away the husk until it grows back enough for a "reboot", but fandom can take one good premise and, like children fighting over a favorite toy, pull it into multiple pieces. What could have been lies on the floor, leaking stuffing while the children who pulled it apart continue their eternal argument over to whom it really belonged. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Abandoned: Location Is Everything

For as much as I keep saying "oh, you don't need characterization and tightly plotted stories to make good horror films," those bloody well seem to be the ones I keep going on and on about. I'm sure this is one of my biases - I like cerebral horror films, mostly because some of the scariest nightmares I've ever had revolved around sudden discoveries or a dawning awareness that something is wrong, or realizing the horrifying implications behind otherwise innocuous images (in this sense, the director that most consistently captures the feel of my nightmares is David Lynch). Still, there are plenty of other elements to film which have to come together to make an effectively scary movie. You've also got to have tension (it's possible to be so cerebral as to verge on inert), you've got to have threat, and you've got to have atmosphere.

The Abandoned is probably one of the most effective uses of atmosphere in horror film I've seen in the last 5 or 10 years. Seriously, every frame of this movie looks like a series of paintings made by someone who has never known happiness. There's not much cast, there's not much story, but the atmosphere alone gets this movie over and then some.

The movie starts in rain and mud and the odd half-light of especially stormy days. A rural couple discover a truck in their front yard, with a dead woman in the front seat and two crying infants next to her. The whole sequence is drained of color, like the rain has washed everything away.

We leap forward in time forty years later, to find Marie Jones headed into the office of a Russian notary, having flown overseas from the U.S. at his request. Marie has apparently inherited the estate of her biological parents - a farmhouse in rural Russia - upon the discovery of her long-dead (and long-disappeared) mothers' body. As there are no other living heirs, the property is now hers. The Russian city is gray and cold, filled with mist, hanging separate in time somehow, the old world and new coexisting. Marie gets directions, gets a car and sets out for the Russian countryside.

Marie first arrives at the farmhouse we saw in the prologue. The couple living there, now very old, tell Marie that she shouldn't go to the property, that it is wrong and damned somehow. This is one of those instances where, were Marie aware she were in a horror film, she would turn right around and go back to the States. But Marie isn't in a horror film because nobody is in a horror film, and dismisses the couple's objections as superstition. Here she also meets a man who says he can guide her to the property at night (it is apparently hard to find and access, and the locals' fears don't bother him). The drive to the property is every night drive through an unfamiliar forest you've ever had - dirt road, fog, trees leaping out in the headlights, deeper shadows behind - and after awhile, there's yet another feeling of dislocation - they could have been driving for minutes or hours, it's hard to tell. The guide tells Marie that the farmhouse sits on an island in the middle of a large lake, the only way on and off is by bridge, and they need to check the bridge for animals before crossing. Marie sits and waits in the truck until she sees the guide in the headlights, and she gets out.

The guide is no longer there. She is alone in the forest, with only her flashlight and the truck's lights to show the way. Then the truck dies. Marie is out here on her own, adrift, with no sense of location, no way to go except forward. She reaches the house, and enters. The house itself is every decaying farmhouse ever - cobwebs and dry splintered wood and beautiful craftsmanship gone to rot and dust. There is a sense of interruption - the house is still mostly intact, but it seems as if it were left in a hurry and never returned to. These plates and chairs and books have been sitting here for decades, exactly where they were when the clock stopped.

Somewhere in the house, an infant screams.

The setup for this movie is simple enough that talking any more about it would give away entirely too much. Suffice it to say that it is a movie about unfinished business, the sometimes loose relationship that time and space and causality have with each other, and what exactly happens when you go home again. Where it shines is in its visual detail. It isn't stylized, but there are very definite palettes for different parts of the movie - muddy browns, cold grays, sickly yellow-greens. The lighting is very natural, which somehow makes everything even worse - this is what it looks like when flashlights throw shadows, when the only light is a yellow lantern, when the sun strains to shine through clouds, or is only a hazy white ball in the mist. It is artful without being stagy, naturalistic in the midst of unnatural things. It is every unfamiliar city and forest and abandoned farmhouse we've ever seen in pictures or our own curious exploration, and in this movie, all of the horrible secrets we imagine these places hold (and tell ourselves don't, really) are laid out for us. Yes, something terrible happened in that abandoned farmhouse. Yes, if you get lost in the forest you won't find your way out. Yes, this movies says, some things are better left alone, and here's why. I've walked through the hallways of this house in my nightmares and woken up with a scream still caught in my throat, left there by the things Marie sees before it's all over.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

S&Man - The Snake Swallows Its Tail, And Somewhere Out There, Somebody Is Getting Off On It

I am a complete sucker for found-footage, mockumentary, verité horror movies. I just am. It's a weakness. When they're good, there's a raw immediacy that builds tension and takes away your ability to use film language to prepare yourself for the scary bits. You don't have musical cues to telegraph bad stuff happening, you don't have specific camera angles that scream out "the creature is going to jump out from here and chew their face off" or "the killer is right behind them and we're going to see that in about three seconds." Don't get me wrong, these same tools can be used to great effect in conventionally filmed horror movies (see: The Shining). But that feeling that you've stumbled across the account of someone's last days or the only evidence that something terrible happened takes away that safety valve, that "it's only a movie" defense. If the film looks like we expect documentaries to look, if we respond to it as we would a documentary, it's easier to buy into the film, to go along for the ride. We forget on some level that it isn't real until it's over and the credits roll.

So in that sense, S&Man is sort of an odd duck. I started off knowing it wasn't an authentic documentary, but felt even less like I'd seen a work of fiction afterwards. Three days later, I'm still not sure how I feel about it.

S&Man is the story of filmmaker J.T. Petty's attempt to make a documentary about voyeurism, inspired by the story of a Peeping Tom from his hometown. Petty's efforts at contacting the voyeur are met without response (go figure). He's already got footage shot and commitments to investors, so he needs to produce a movie even with an uncooperative central subject.

(There's probably an idea for an entirely different movie in there, where a documentarian becomes obsessed with filming a former voyeur, and that could be pretty cool in a Hitchcock/The Conversation kind of way. But that's another one for the "If I made it" files.)

Needing a subject for his documentary, Petty turns to the world of underground horror - low-to-no budget, often exploitation films filled with blood, gore, and tits. Even better than the idea of a voyeur and his gaze is the idea of looking at the market for simulated atrocity - what gaze does this attract? S&Man begins with footage from Peeping Tom, about a man who films women while he kills them. It was disturbing for its time, and it sets the thesis for the film - what do we get out of watching people get hurt? What is it like to see it from the perspective of the one doing the hurting? How different is simulated voyeurism from the real thing? In an attempt to answer this question, Petty goes to a horror convention to interview the people who make and purchase underground horror films, interviewing psychiatrists, film scholars, directors, and actresses. We're treated to a number of colorful characters who obviously love what they do (because they're certainly not going to get rich or larger film opportunities from doing this stuff), making movies that range from the cheesy to the questionable to the horrific.

Among all of these people, one person starts to come up again and again - a young man named Eric Rost. He's quiet, shy, a little heavy, he lives with his mother in Brooklyn. He's responsible for a series of direct-to-DVD movies called S&Man. They're artfully packaged in a minimalist style (in stark contrast to the lurid excess of other filmmakers), and the hook for these films is that they're documentary-style movies, done under the premise that the cameraman is a stalker of young women. The stalker follows a specific woman as she goes about her life, gaining more and more access to her (breaking into her apartment, for example), until finally the stalker confronts the young woman, knocks her unconscious, binds her, and murders her, filming the entire process. Each movie is subtitled with a volume number and a brief description of the woman and her murder (Sandra, Brunette, Throat Cut). Awfully specific - maybe creepily so, but one of the points Petty seems to make throughout the film is just how close much underground horror is to fetish films. If there's a demand, somebody is going to fill it, even to the point of privately commissioned "custom tapes."

As the film progresses, Petty's attempts to get straight answers out of Rost on any aspect of his films - how he auditions actresses, where the actresses could be contacted, how he gets his special effects - are met with evasiveness and a little hostility. Rost doesn't want Petty's crew to follow him while he's filming his latest addition to the series, he says it'd be better if he gave Petty's contact information to the actresses he used and yeah, he's touch with them. The death scenes in Rost's movies lack any technical flair or drama - they are cold, businesslike executions and lingering shots of the motionless body for entirely too long. Rost contacts Petty by email and by phone, which is odd because Petty's phone number is unlisted. Rost is definitely hiding something, and he's up to 11 films by the time the movie starts.

 Of course, logic dictates that we're not actually watching Petty interview a serial killer. However, the lengths to which Petty goes to give S&Man a feeling of verisimilitude make some disquieting points even without the central storyline. Petty actually is a filmmaker, the psychiatrists and film scholars he interviews are actual psychiatrists and film scholars (Dr. Carol Clover, author of Men, Women & Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film), the actresses and film directors are actual actresses and film directors in the underground horror industry. He interviews "scream queen" Debbie D., whose take on what she's asked to do in films seems to be summed up as: It's a living, it's fun enough, and as long as they don't expect me to get seriously hurt or do anything X-rated, okay, as long as the pay's right. Petty also interviews Bill Zebub (the auteur behind Kill The Scream Queen and The Crucifier) and Fred Vogel, head of Toe Tag Films and notable for the August Underground series, probably the closest approximations to snuff films possible for works of fiction.

These interviews are character studies in and of themselves. Debbie D. harbors hopes that her career in underground horror (which seems to be predicated on nudity, and lots of it) will lead to larger film roles, and when pressed on the distinction between "hurt" and "seriously hurt", has to pause, uncertain of how to proceed. Vogel is thoughtful, well-spoken, seems to be aware of the psychological freight of the films he makes, and expresses wonder at how often people ask to be in his movies as victims, even knowing how demanding his shoots are. Zebub seems like someone who is trying to compete with people like Vogel with little success. Footage from one of the August Underground movies in which an actress actually cuts herself with a razor blade is followed by footage from one of Zebub's subsequent efforts in which he does the same thing, complete with the same closeups.

There are even stark differences in personal styles. Vogel is engaged to be married (his fiancée even plays victims in some of his films), has office space for his production company, sets and staff. Much of Zebub's talk is about masturbation and how fans of his films probably aren't good with girls. He engages in the sort of light homophobia you'd associate with a teenage boy, though he is well past adolescence. One especially depressing scene on the set of Zebub's remake of Jesus Christ: Serial Rapist (yep) has a model (not even an actress) lying topless on the bare floor of a bar for hours - not while Zebub sets up the shot, but while he drinks beer and plays around with props, waiting for inspiration (yelling out at one point "eat your heart out, August Underground!"). Eventually some half-assed wound makeup is applied, the shot is done, and the model walks out of the room, half-naked, teetering on high heels and stiff from lying on the hard floor. Nobody acknowledges her at all.

These interviews also reinforce the comparisons with fetish film - Debbie D. talks about how rough some shoots are, Vogel uses safe words on the set of the August Underground movies, and almost all of Zebub's films seem to feature naked women on crosses, regardless of relevance to the plot. And this is, most likely, what makes me uncomfortable. These films are as niche and specialized as fetish pornography, and the line between the two blurs. People clamor to be victims in Vogel's movies, Debbie D. quantifies physical exposure and physical acts, Zebub suggests that his fans masturbate to his movies (and seems to be working out some pretty specific desires himself). Likewise, the line between fiction and reality blurs - the August Underground films are shot on the premise that they are videotaped by serial killers as documents of their acts (Vogel wanted the first film to be distributed as an unlabeled videotape to heighten the effect), as are Rost's, which in the context of the overarching story start to look like they might not be fiction at all. The line between documentary and fiction blurs as Petty uses actual figures in the milieu to surround a fictional story.

Petty makes the observation that underground horror and pornography are almost mirror images of each other on a narrative level - in pornography, a real act (sex) is placed in a fictional context. In underground horror, a fictional act (murder) is placed in a realistic context. What keeps gnawing at me after watching this is that these intersections suggest that someone like Rost is not just a possibility, but an inevitability. I'm one of the last people to go wringing my hands in moral panic, but damned if I don't feel like I just looked under a rock and saw some future atrocity staring back up at me.

IMDB entry
Available on Netflix

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Last Exorcism: The Play's The Thing

"A ceremonial chamber essentially provides a stage for a performer who wishes complete acceptance from his audience. The audience becomes, in fact, part of the show. It has become fashionable in recent years to incorporate the audience into theatrical performances. This started with audience participation, with selected members of the audience called up to the stage to assist a performer in his role. Gradually this developed to such a degree that entire audiences mingled with the cast."- Anton LaVey, The Satanic Rituals
Belief is tricky, especially when applied to horror. I had a discussion about this with my wife the other day, spurred by a showing of the movie Death Tunnel on SyFy. The brief is "college girls spend night in haunted sanatorium, bad things happen", and let's face it, what else are you going to get with something titled Death Tunnel?

(Well, what you get is a lot of post-Saw choppy editing and intercutting between the past and present that seems to take up the first half of the film and really not much else, but that's not the point.)

So my wife points out that by spending the night in an abandoned, purportedly haunted mental hospital, the college girls are just asking for it - no sane person would do this for exactly the reasons outlined. I rebutted by pointing out that part of the logic of the movie is that they live in a world where these sort of things don't actually happen. They don't see anything wrong with it for the same reason we don't see anything wrong with it - shit like that only happens in horror movies, and as far as they know (since even the Scream movies don't get that close to a Pirandello play), they aren't in a horror movie. The belief that ghosts and demons (and even uncatchable criminal mastermind serial killers with ridiculously baroque methods) either exist or don't exist makes all the difference in the personal narrative we construct for our lives and circumstances. Most horror movies have characters who don't believe in these things, so that the proof that they do exist is that much more upsetting - the protagonists are not only in mortal danger, but their entire worldview is being upended at the same time.

The Last Exorcism is an excellent and scary film which is, at the end of the day, about belief.

Reverend Cotton Marcus is a man divided. Raised from early childhood to be a preacher - when other children were outside playing ball, he was studying scripture - he is very good at his job and has been for some time. We see footage of him leading what appears to be a small Evangelical service and he is preaching up a storm. He paces up and down between the pews, raises his hands to the heavens, flings his arms out wide, all the time clutching his well-word copy of the Bible. It's practically one with his hand, like an extension of his arm. His audience is transported, and his calls for amens and hallelujahs are gladly fulfilled. To all appearances, the Reverend Cotton Marcus is at one with the Holy Spirit.

But back at home, with his wife and son, he is not so fervent. His life is one for which he did not ask - he was the fourth or so generation of Marcus men to be preachers. His job was chosen for him before he could speak. His lifetime preaching has shown him the power of the Word to transport, and perhaps to distract. He has realized he can say anything and it will be joyfully received, as demonstrated by footage of a powerful sermon in which he segues smoothly into and out of a line-by-line recitation of a recipe for banana bread without anyone noticing. He's a basically decent man, but it was never a calling for him, and the wear is starting to show.

This is made worse, and his concern more pressing, by the other specialty of the Marcus family: Exorcism.

Cotton doesn't believe in demons, but he believes that other people do. Until recently, he has been able to reconcile his own doubt with the services he provides by telling himself that if others' beliefs suggest that demons are to blame, then the rituals Cotton performs will banish those problems by banishing the "demons", no matter what Cotton thinks. He is a rational man providing irrational aid, but a recent case involving the smothering death during an exorcism of a boy with autism was Cotton's proverbial straw: He can no longer provide this service knowing that it is not only fraudulent, but also beginning to claim lives. So he has asked a documentary film crew to come along with him to his last exorcism, so that he can expose the service for the fraud it is. He picks an envelope from his P.O. box at random, and he and the crew are off to the Sweetzer farm in rural Louisiana.

Louis Sweetzer is a man who has seen his share of trouble - wife dead of breast cancer, he's starting to find comfort in the bottle and a very strict form of Christian faith - the local pastor says Louis left the church because their teachings were "insufficiently medieval" - one which has lead him to homeschool his children and forbid anything secular in the home. He believes his daughter Nell is possessed because his cattle are being mutilated to death (an angry, resentful son?) and her cross pendant has begun to burn her skin (a nickel allergy?). They live in a community full of superstition - the camera crew captures locals prattling on and on about Satanic cults, UFO sightings, mysterious omens. Cotton spends some time with Nell, and she seems genuinely sweet and innocent. She's 14, but seems much younger, occupying much of her time drawing pictures of religious figures.

This is all going to be by the book - a very religious father is keeping his kids from having much of a childhood and the seclusion, combined with the local susceptibility for the fantastic, is making everyone a little crazy. Cotton knows what this is like, and he prepares everything he needs for the exorcism - his family copy of the Malleus Maleficarum, his cross (hollowed out to admit a smoke cartridge), an MP3 player with an assortment of "demonic" sounds on it, monofilament line to make pictures in the room shake, conductive rings to cause muscle spasms in Nell during the exorcism. He is as much a pro at putting on this show as he is preaching, and his patter is smooth and sure. From the outside, his act even looks a little corny, and as much as Cotton seems to be a good person trying to right his past wrongs, the ease with which he pulls off the exorcism con is a little uncomfortable. Money is exchanged, and Cotton throws in a message from the beyond about how it's bad to keep your sadness "bottled up" and how "that bottle" is going to bring Louis nothing but misery. Job done, footage secured, Cotton and crew are off to their motel, miles away, in preparation for the long trip back to Baton Rouge.

Until Nell shows up in Cotton's motel room, in the middle of the night, feverish and not remembering how she got there. Until Nell attacks her brother with a knife. Until Nell kills the family cat.

Until Nell starts talking in a voice that isn't hers.

The Last Exorcism is a well-constructed example of the slow burn - we don't even get to the Sweetzer farm and a low faint hum of dread until about halfway through the film, and it's two-thirds of the way into the second half before the shit really gets ill. The worst of it is tightly compressed - things go very bad, very fast. Until then, we are learning everything we can about Cotton, the Sweetzer family, and the worlds in which each of them live. The performances are all solidly on the right side of low-key - these feel like real people, not stock characters in a demonic possession film. Cotton treads the line between family man, man of God, and con man well enough to generate genuine ambivalence - you don't want to hate him, but you're not really sure you should like him, either. It's a more nuanced portrayal of the priest who has lost faith than you usually get.

Nell's innocence isn't little-girl cloying, either. In one especially effective scene, she admires the Doc Martens one of the film crew are wearing, and when the crew member gives them to her, her face lights up with delight and disbelief. A gift? For her? It's actual joy we see. Louis is a hot-tempered servant of an angry God, but he's also a tired, sad father, full of doubt and grief, still mourning a wife lost despite medicine's best efforts. His son Caleb is full of anger at everything and contempt for his father. This is a movie in which we are supposed to care about the people who are going to face something monstrous, and I did. You know going in that something bad is going to happen to them, and it makes you sad knowing this will end in tragedy for all involved.

As we learn the family's story, as we learn more and more about Nell and her mysterious fevers and disquiet, the pictures full of blood and death she has begun to draw, explanations unfold for the events at the Sweetzer farm. The last act of the movie is filmed in deep shadow, and there's no guarantee that the light is going to show us anything we want to see. Hints and suggestions from throughout the movie begin to pay off, and just when we think the worst is over, it gets yet again worse, veers further into the unnatural. It becomes ever clearer that there is playing your part, and then there is playing a part, and that some rituals are more real than others. You can believe whatever you want, but when the monsters show up in whatever form they come, mythical or secular, your beliefs will not save you.

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