Thursday, February 17, 2011

The House of the Devil: Something Evil, Seen Imperfectly

As I'm writing this, I'm listening to the album Opus Eponymous by the band Ghost. They're a contemporary group, but with a vintage "devil's music" schtick - their sound is vintage Blue Öyster Cult and Black Sabbath, their cover art is something you might see on a Hammer movie poster, and they wear hooded robes on a stage wreathed in smoke and candlelight. It's just this side of cheesy, and not my usual fare, but there's something about the combination of late 60s/early 70s hard rock and theatrical mysticism that appeals to me. It's a combination of things intended to evoke a particular era in music and the culture, and it captures a very specific aesthetic very well.

In some ways, it's the perfect soundtrack to The House of the Devil.

What we're talking about here is a pretty faithful modern attempt at an early 80s horror film, let's get that out of the way right off the bat. From the title card suggesting that what we're about to see is based on actual events, to the freeze-framed credits with static titles, to the diffusely lurid title of the movie itself, to the orange foam earphone covers on the Walkman headphones, to the expertly feathered wings of the protagonist's friend, it's pretty damn period-correct. This illusion of a movie out of time is disrupted only by the sort of minutiae noticed primarily by people who really, really need a hobby, and a lone car alarm early on announcing modernity like the dude who came into the theater late and won't just sit the fuck down.

So aesthetically, it's an 80s horror movie. It's also nominally a horror movie about the 80s, playing on the "satanic panic" that had parents wondering if things like heavy metal and Dungeons & Dragons were gateways for devil worship. Satanists! In YOUR community! That sort of thing. It's an honest homage to an aesthetic and a time in our culture without being too cutesy or smirky-ironic about it. Nobody calls attention to the 80s-ness of it all, that's just how it is.

The House of the Devil
opens with a slow, menacing zoom from behind on a young woman who is looking out of a window. She turns around not to scream or reveal some horribly mangled visage, but to tell a prospective landlady that she loves the place and will take it. The young woman is a college student named Samantha, and as we see shortly after the opening, she's delighted to get her own apartment for good reason - her dorm roommate is a slob who spends most of her time having noisy sex with her boyfriend. The only problem is that she needs $300 for the first month's rent, and she has maybe $85 in her checking account. The rent is due by next Monday. What is Samantha to do?

Oh hey, there's a notice on one of the campus bulletin boards offering a babysitting job for the weekend. It's easy money, what could be bad?

Well, how about getting the job from Mr. Ulman - an older man whose entire demeanor screams "I AM MADE ENTIRELY OUT OF RED FLAGS AND WARNING SIGNS" to start? And did he mention that she won't be babysitting a child, but rather his elderly mother? And that it's worth up to $400 to him for her to do so? And that mother's actually quite spry, but she's very paranoid and is not to be disturbed? And he has a wife who looks like Norma Desmond's younger, creepier sister?

And that this is all happening during a full lunar eclipse?

What could be bad?

We know almost right away that the babysitting job is bad news - it'd be bad news even if this weren't a horror movie, because Mr. Ulman is in speech and mannerism awkward, evasive, and just, well, the words "bodies" and "crawlspace" come to mind. He's the guy in the van with the candy. It doesn't require horror-movie logic to see the bad idea here. Even Samantha and her friend Megan see it to some extent, but Samantha needs the money and what are the odds it'll really be bad? Megan agrees to come back at midnight to pick her up. Until then, all Samantha has to do is pass the time. It's an exercise in watching the victim sit unawares as the monster slowly sneaks up behind them.

So yes, we know right away the babysitting job is bad news, but the movie makes a point of slow-playing the horrible inevitable for a really, really long time. It's a movie of quiet (very little music except at strategic points) in a mostly-dark old house. It feels like being in a strange person's home late at night feels. It's the disquiet of a familiar context (a home) in an unfamiliar form (not your home). All of the little shadows and quirks you ignore in your own house become menacing. Only in this instance, it's even worse than you imagine.  Little things start to add up (or not add up) - why are there a bunch of photos of another family posing in front of the house? Why are they in a trash bag in an upstairs closet? Why isn't Megan returning her calls? Why is there a bunch of hair in the bathtub? Why is she feeling…so…sleepy?

It's a really slow burn (very little resembling "action" occurs until about a third of the way in), but once it lights up, it burns bright and hot, rushing chaotically to a very still, clean, quiet conclusion. This is absolutely fine - it's incredibly refreshing in contrast to frenetic editing intended to stimulate anxiety instead of being actually scary (I'm looking at you, The Sick House), but problematically, the movie tends more toward slow than burn - although the lack of music makes what little there is effective (in one sequence, Samantha dances around the house to "One Thing Leads To Another" by the Fixx, and it's claustrophobic instead of fun, like you want to tell her to take the headphones off because she isn't safe), there are a couple of moments where brief music stings might have actually helped make a revelation stand out as being important. I'm not usually a fan of music telegraphing the scary bits, but here the absence of it keeps some small details from standing out like they should to be effective. Part of sustaining rising tension without action is slowly ratcheting everything up, here the tension tends to dissipate.

Likewise, the visuals can be problematic as well as effective - the house is old and not very well-lit, so much of the action takes place in a tangle of light and shadows. This is mostly cool and atmospheric, but in at least one case a very important detail is difficult to take in because of the poor lighting and not enough time spent holding the shot. The meaning of what we've seen is lost because it's gone too quickly and its lighting and location in the frame leaves us struggling to figure out what we just saw. It's the perfect place for a period-appropriate fast zoom and a music sting, but again, the moment trails away. 

The climax suffers from similar problems, though less so - it's for the most part really intense and old-school scary - but once the shock of what's happening passes, the ensuing action feels slightly dislocated in time and space, like we're not watching everything come to a head (as it should be) as much as a bunch of stuff happening all at once. It's not nearly as problematic in the end as in other parts of the movie, but again, it tries too hard to keep from being over-the-top. I admire the filmmaker's restraint and their success at creating both a historical mood and an atmosphere of dread, but I would have liked some old-fashioned shock, too. A little lurid and over-the-top, like hooded robes and fog machines, goes a long way toward evoking an atmosphere.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Seventh Moon: The Innocents Abroad

Looking at my tags so far, it occurs to me that "travel abroad is a bad idea" is right up there as one of the most frequently used ones. This is probably not by accident. As a species, we tend to prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar, and this probably has an adaptive function: If we've encountered it before and it didn't have us for breakfast, then it's probably safer than something we haven't encountered before. It's a known quantity. Take us out of familiar environs, and all of a sudden we're surrounded by unknown quantities. Who do you trust? Where can you find safety? Where are you? Can you get out again? And there are all sorts of ways to evoke this sense of dislocation and unease - foreign countries are just one of the easiest. You can also take a bunch of city folk out of the city and put them in the country. They might as well be in a foreign country at that point, and with the added fillip of rural areas suggesting older, more primitive ways of doing things. In a Western horror movie, finding yourself in a rural part of a foreign country is sort of a double whammy. For Americans abroad, this is like being doubly removed from "civilization," with all that that entails.

This idea of dislocation, of not belonging here, runs throughout Seventh Moon.

Melissa and Yul are on their honeymoon in Yul's native China - they're in the process of traveling deeper into the country to meet Yul's family and are seeing the sights on their way there. The movie opens with them in a city, shopping and participating in the festival of the Seventh Moon, a time of year roughly akin to All Hallow's Eve. They burn paper offerings to the dead, who rise and walk the land on the night of the seventh moon. These offerings symbolically appease the dead, much like the candy skeletons of Dia de los Muertos or, now that I think about it, Halloween candy. Huh. That never occurred to me before.

(So if candy given to costumed children on Halloween is meant to represent gifts to monsters and the risen dead, then what the hell is going on with Easter candy?)

So, anyway. Seventh Moon. Yul and Melissa spend the day partying and drinking, and by the time they rejoin their tour guide, Mister Ping, they're pretty well lit. Yul, though Chinese, acts more like your average Western frat boy than an Asian stereotype. It's good to see, but it also reinforces this idea of dislocation - it's not really his home anymore, either. His apparently poor Cantonese reinforces this - he doesn't even really speak the language anymore. He's gotten Ping a garish commemorative t-shirt from the festival and babbles embarrassingly about this t-shirt representing the bond they share now. It's a very bro moment, and painfully out of place in this country. Melissa gives Ping a nice bottle of wine, and there's a little arguing around it - Yul wanted to keep the wine for themselves, but Melissa thought it was more appropriate than the t-shirt. Again, divisions - Melissa, as a Westerner, is very out place here, but she has a better handle on niceties than Yul. There's some tension there, and of some of it seems to be wrapped up in ethnicity. Here, they're very aware of being a mixed-race couple and there's some sharpness around that, something brittle and unresolved. 

Ping drives them out into the country to where Yul's family lives, and in doing so, gets lost. Of course he does. It wouldn't be a city-folks-in-the-country movie if someone didn't get lost.  The roads are poorly marked, it's dark, the maps aren't very good. Ping apologizes profusely and stops outside of a small village. He tells the couple to wait while he goes into the village to get directions.

An hour later, he hasn't returned, and so Yul and Melissa head into the village to look for him. What they find is a village with all of the doors locked tight, chained shut, and doors painted with blood. An assortment of live animals are penned up and tied to stakes in the village square. Nobody opens their doors, nobody offers to help. Out here, they take the Festival of the Seventh Moon a little more literally. The dead are expected to walk, and expected to require real sacrifice.

There's not much more to the story than that, and I think that's unfortunate because the filmmakers could have done more with the ideas of cultural, social, and ethnic dislocation - they hint at it, but don't really use it - and the effect of a well-developed visual sense for the movie is undermined by some pacing issues and story choices. The movie looks great and uses color well - the opening is vivid and intense, with lots of light and bright colors in the city, and as the movie goes from day to night (and at the same time from urban to rural), the color drains away until all we're left with is mostly the monochrome of night, interrupted by patches of dull red illuminated fitfully by candles and flashlights. Menacing shapes are chalk white against the darkness. It's a complete transition from one state to another. The camerawork throughout is unsteady, as if filmed using handheld cameras, but we're never given a camera as a direct reference point - nobody's explicitly filming this like in Cloverfield or The Blair Witch Project, but there's also not the formal distancing of fixed or dollied cameras either. The thought that kept running through my mind as I watched this was that it felt like this movie was shot from a second-person perspective. Which, as part of an aesthetic of dislocation, is great.

Still, we don't quite get the ride all of this leads us to anticipate. There are some problems keeping the tension up throughout - instead of the situation becoming progressively worse and worse, it feels like some stuff happens, people react, and then more stuff happens. Taken individually, some of the scenes in this movie are nice and tense or spooky, but moving from one scene to another without a clear sense of escalation or pressure dissipates a lot of the intensity each discrete scene might earn. The overall effect is inert, but not like a drugged or dreamlike inertness. There's a feeling of sitting around until the next thing happens.

There's also what felt to me like a poor story choice about two thirds of the way through that takes the characters out of their way (and out of the action) to restate something that's pretty easy to figure out early on. It's sort of like making a movie in which a bunch of people return to an abandoned hospital that was once the hunting ground of a serial killer, those people start getting picked off, and then two-thirds of the way through, the survivors are dragged into a room to be told by someone that this abandoned hospital was once the hunting ground of a serial killer, and a serial killer has lured them there tonight to be his prey. Not only have we as viewers figured that out, but the protagonists in the movie have pretty clearly figured it out too by this point in the movie. Nobody is learning anything new here, and it stops the momentum dead.

It's too bad, because you've got all of these different pieces coming together - people who aren't familiar at all with where they are, people who think they're familiar with it but aren't, a Western couple imposing their own logic and expectations on an Eastern culture, an urban couple imposing their own logic on a rural culture - it's a great example of people thinking they know everything and discovering over the course of a single night how little they actually know about the world in which they live. But it's hard to get invested - our fear doesn't rise with theirs, we are not shocked at turns of events. We're just sitting there, passive witnesses to one couple's horrible mistakes, ending with a shrug.

IMDB entry
Purchase on Amazon
Available on Netflix