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.

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