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 cliché, 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.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

How I Would Have Done It: Cigarette Burns

(What I'd like to do in my How I Would Have Done It posts is examine a movie that I think didn't live up to its potential and, well, talk about how I would have done it if I'd been the writer or director. Mostly because just leaving it at "that was dumb" or "that sucked" is kind of unsatisfying, especially when there was something really good buried in there somewhere. I'll be discussing story elements in detail, so all kinds of spoilers await.)

I am a huge fan of stories that operate on the model of "person hired to search for an elusive object finds himself in a world of weird, weird shit as a result." This basic story encompasses thrillers like 8mm, supernatural horror movies like The Ninth Gate, and to an extent, even Apocalypse Now. For me, it's that sense that some secret world lies just underneath the world we know, that behind the most innocuous doors are things that would make us question our sanity. There is mystery and wonder in our world, if we just pay careful attention.

Cigarette Burns is the story of down-on-his-luck theater owner Kirby Sweetman. Kirby owes a lot of money and if he can't pay it off soon, his arthouse movie theater will be closed down. Enter Mr. Bellinger, a film collector who would like Mr. Sweetman to use his extensive knowledge of obscure film to obtain a very rare artifact - a film called Le Fin Absolue Du Monde (The Absolute End of the World). Acquisition of this film is worth 200 grand to Bellinger, because…

…it was only screened once, and everyone at that screening ended up dead or irretrievably insane.

The film itself is practically urban legend at this point - the one known print was thought to be destroyed after the screening, and everyone involved with the creation of the film either vanished or killed themselves. Bellinger seems quite sure that the film did indeed exist, and that there is an intact print somewhere out there.

So what went wrong with the movie?