Sunday, December 23, 2012

Downloading Nancy: Lives Of Quiet Desperation

It bears repeating that the lines between horror movies and other types of movies are in my opinion thin and somewhat arbitrarily constructed. Not all horrors are supernatural, and thrillers and even dramas can be horror movies. 

Cases in point are the last two things about which I wrote before now - American Horror Story, currently juxtaposing demonic possession and mad scientists with the cold, ugly repression of mid-60s America; and Lovely Molly, a haunted house story filled with literal and metaphorical ghosts. Hell, one of the most common readings of/explanations for horror film is that supernatural horrors serve as safe proxies for our real-life horrors, and I already spent a bunch of paragraphs talking about what horror movies are and aren't about. The Shining is about a haunted hotel, but it's also about Jack Torrance's fear of not being able to provide for his family. His caretaking job at the Overlook is his last chance before things start getting ugly, and the strain makes him easy prey for the ghosts of the Overlook.

I bring this up again, because one of the scariest, most upsetting movies I've seen this year wasn't a horror movie by any stretch of the imagination, but neglecting it as part of the broader canon would be a big mistake. Downloading Nancy is a drama, it's a tragedy. It's not a horror movie, but it's full of horror.

We open on Nancy, who is taking a bus to meet someone. She's told her husband, Albert, that she's going to Baltimore to hang out with some friends. She isn't. She's going to meet one person, one man. Their conversation is circular, tentative - they both know each other and don't know each other. They've spoken before and are meeting for the first time, for a specific purpose, to do something Nancy has been anticipating and fantasizing about for a long time. 

Our glimpses of her life with Albert are sad, cavernous with silent resentment. He…well, it's not clear what he does, really. Something to do with prototyping and selling video golf equipment to executive-class facilities, like Platinum Club lounges at airports, stuff like that. Nancy spends a lot of time on her computer - she has some kind of computer-based business, and a lot of Internet friends. It's an unhappy marriage, and Nancy's taking a bus to meet someone with whom she'd been talking online. Nancy wants to be free, and this man can help her in ways Albert can't, or won't. Ways that involve ropes and a lot of plastic, like you'd use to wrap up something big and heavy.

The scale is small - a married couple, a therapist, and another man. Nothing here is supernatural, nothing here is elaborate or themed. These are people who have lost their way, lost the ability to connect, who cannot hear what others are telling them, even when they're screaming at the top of their lungs. Nancy and Albert can't communicate anymore if they ever could. Nancy's therapist thinks she's listening, but she's not hearing what Nancy is trying to tell her. Nancy is broken, destroyed inside and has been for most of her adult life, and nobody understands or is willing to accept that. She wants out, and nobody will let her go.

It becomes apparent pretty soon what's going to happen, and the movie has the awful weight of a train rolling downhill. You know where it's going to end up, it's not going to end up anywhere else, and every second it takes to get there hurts. It's just a matter of how bad it's going to get. It's really scary, on a human scale, which is the scariest scale of all. These people live and breathe and hurt in the world in which we live, not another world where men in hockey masks dismember sexually promiscuous teens. That's the worst of it, that we know these people for better or worse, and this could happen to us. There's no safety in critical or ironic distance here. Just pain, and a dreadful inevitability.

The film looks as cold and alienating as its story is . Everyone and everything is bathed in a cold, sickly glow, sterile and empty. It's the America that exists outside of the spotlight, the houses in the suburbs, the business functions in event rooms in hotels, the America nobody bothers to write or make movies about. These places are awful in their familiarity - Nancy's computer desk (immediately evocative of the beginnings of mass Internet culture, when for some people, the computer was something around which you built a little environment), the plastic on the couch, bus stations, hardware stores.  All converging on a terrible end.  The smallest details tell your worlds - we don't know much about the other man, but he lives in a business space, filled to the rafters with videotapes. It's never made clear why, but you know it's nothing good.

Ultimately, it's a story about everyone who has let Nancy down her entire life - family, friends, therapists, loved ones, and the one sent to finish the job. There's nothing supernatural here, what haunts Nancy is memory, not ghosts, there are no serial killers with elaborately staged kills, no vampires, no alien monsters (unless you count how Nancy feels about herself), just loss, crushing inevitability, and one woman, trapped by life, howling like a wounded animal. I don't care what it says on the package or the web page or whatever, this is horror. 

Back From Unplanned Hiatus

Whoops, sorry about that. I had about a month of less free time than I'd like, and about two weeks of "if I'm not working, I'm asleep or eating food, and I might still be working while I'm eating." But that's over for awhile, so I want to get back to posting in earnest. Thanks for your patience.

Holy Shit, American Horror Story YET AGAIN

I'll be honest, I thought that "The Origins of Monstrosity" was a bit of a let-down after both parts of "I Am Anne Frank." I don't know what I was expecting - well, no, that's not true...

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Holy Shit, American Horror Story

So I'm beginning to think I was wrong about the new season of American Horror Story - it's not as good as the first season, it's better. If nothing else, the two-part episode "I Am Anne Frank" stands as one of the bravest, scariest things I've seen as original television programming. In a story about Nazi war atrocities and Lizzie Borden-style patricide, the most uncomfortable thing in part 1 was Lana's aversion/conversion therapy session - stimuli presented calmly and clinically, with a kind, soft voice as Lana submits to awful, dehumanizing treatment - and this shit totally used to happen. They didn't need to make this up. And the critique in part 2 continues with Anne's husband and his expectations for married life, shown in the stagy colors and lightings of period film stock. It ends with people getting what they wanted - Lana getting out, and Anne returned to her happy family, but at awful, awful costs. Yeah, pretty sure the show's creator was thinking "oh, so we got the green light based on last season? Well, you motherfuckers ain't yet seen a thing."

Monday, November 5, 2012

Lovely Molly: Haunted



1. inhabited or frequented by ghosts
2. preoccupied, as with an emotion, memory, or idea; obsessed
3. disturbed; distressed; worried

Generally, haunted house movies feature one of two types of protagonist: People who have stumbled onto the haunted house, unaware of its history, or people who are returning to the house after time away, aware of and perhaps complicit in its history. Either way, the house is an externalizing force - a place to be visited and either escaped or confronted. This is all well and good, and it makes for some scary-ass movies when done well, but the term "haunted" can encompass so much that it seems a shame to focus more on the "house" part than the "haunted" part.

(Yeah, I know they don't all take place in houses, but whether it's a decaying mansion, a new suburban tract home, a farm, a ship, a prison, a hospital, or an entire city, it's still a location, and that's the important bit).

Part of why I really liked Lovely Molly was that it seemed to get the idea of "haunted" - it's not just the house, it's also what the protagonist carries around with her, and the corrosive effect both of those have on her well-being. That, and it's a well-made, supremely uneasy crawl through madness and personal disintegration.

Molly and Tim have just gotten married, and they're an adorable couple, all smiles and very visibly in love. We get the sense that Molly's had it rough, both her parents are dead and she's clean and sober after an extended period of drug abuse. This is a fresh start for her. However, Tim's a truck driver and Molly works on the cleaning staff for a local hotel. They aren't rich, and their families aren't rich, so they move back into Molly's childhood home, a big old stone house out in the country. Oh, sure, it's a little weird to say the least, and there are parts of the house you can tell Molly isn't thrilled about walking into. Something bad happened to Molly here.

But now she lives here with her husband, Tim, and so she's safe. When the newly-installed alarm goes off, it's Tim who grabs the baseball bat and makes sure Molly doesn't get hurt. Turns out it's nothing - they probably just left the door unlocked and the wind blew it open. Of course, Tim's job takes him away from home for days at a time, so there's Molly, all alone in the house. All alone in the dark, in the house where so much happened to her and her sister. The house where her father met an untimely end. Where she and her sister used to hide in the closet, where they felt safe. And then the sounds begin. The rattling doors, the buzzing of flies, the hooves on the floor. The voices calling her name.

It's not really clear how much of what's happening to Molly is in her head and how much isn't, but it doesn't really matter. The house is haunted, she is haunted. If anything, the house is haunting her. The smallest things seem to hold significance - the room she doesn't want to stay in, the one with all of the pictures of her father tending horses, his malevolent gaze almost burning holes through the photo paper, the shed with a crawlspace containing some very, very old stonework, the way she keeps ending up in her childhood bedroom. Honestly, one of the most unsettling moments in this movie for me was the uncovering of a perfectly normal chair. The dread is almost suffocating the longer the movie goes on. There's barely any music, and it's less a continuous story line and more like vignettes - scenes from a marriage, almost - interspersed with video camera footage taken by someone wandering around in the woods at night, initially odd but innocuous, eventually awful in its implications.

The end result is a still, measured portrait of personal disintegration with something terrible (and very possibly supernatural) eating away at the edges and lurking in the background. It's horror that, like American Horror Story, straddles the line between the horrors of this world and the horrors of the next masterfully. It doesn't pander, it doesn't spoon-feed the story to you, and it doesn't hold your hand. It leaves you alone in the woods, in the basement, in an empty house in the middle of the night, and dares you to look out into the darkness.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

American Horror Story - Asylum: Monster Hospital

The first season of American Horror Story was a thorough kick in the ass - sharp, nervy, lurid, and completely batshit insane. Almost every episode had at least one "did that just happen?" moment to it, either in a turn of the story, a particular shot, or a jab at one television taboo or another. Ghosts in rubber fetish suits, fathers crying while they masturbate, girls with Down Syndrome telling little boys "you're going to die in there" - and that was just the fucking pilot episode.

All of this garnered the show a  lot of interest, but I think it sort of missed what was really good about the show - the freedom to stomp on taboos wasn't the point, it was a necessary byproduct of the show's thesis: American horrors.  The first season was a tour through all of our nightmares - ghosts and monsters, sure, but also failing at your job, letting down your family, losing your spouse, being stuck with an unsellable house, infidelity, school shootings, bullying unsuitable boyfriends, abortion, blackmail, impotence, and the whole secret history of the Los Angeles in which it was set - starlets come to make their way in Hollywood only to die ugly anonymous deaths, furtive homosexual assignations ending in stabbings by rough trade, crazed serial killers and their family-like devotees, it's all there, all of our American horror. The stories we tell to keep the darkness manageable, the darkness we're trying to manage, and the darkness too deep to even get a story of its own.

Lucky for all of us, they got another season.

The first thing announced would be that it would be an entirely new story, with some cast members from the first season returning in new roles. That is awesome. It means not getting too bogged down in increasingly complex tangles of story continuity, it means exploring new ideas without shoehorning them in to an existing format, and it means that the story can actually end instead of lingering for seasons and seasons with scant payoff at the end. So this new season has started and it looks like it's going to be as crazed as the first.

The first episode introduces the new location - Briarcliff Hospital, a former tuberculosis ward turned asylum for the criminally insane. In the present day, it's in ruins and carries the reputation of being one of the most haunted places in America. A couple - young, in love, and seriously committed to getting their freak on - has made it their mission to visit each of the most haunted places in America and screw their brains out in each one of them. Which sort of sums up the American Horror Story ethos up to this point - people having really weird sex in haunted houses.

As the couple moves through the house, we flash back to the mid-60s, in the middle of Briarcliff's asylum days, It's run by a Catholic order, and the head nun has some interestingly draconian ideas about mental illness (it's sin, pure and simple) and treatment (purification, via her impressive collection of canes, crops, and flogs). She's also carrying a torch - well, "torch" is too mild a word, more like a cauldron of molten lava - for the monsignor who administers the place. So there's this whole lust/punishment thing going on with her about which say no more. And as much as she yearns for the monsignor, she loathes the doctor enlisted by the monsignor to treat the patients. And by "treat", I mean "on which he performs bizarre experiments in a secret lab on the hospital grounds." He's enlisted the help of one of the junior nuns, who feeds raw meat to half-glimpsed feral things in the woods outside the hospital, and he scrubs down long-disused shower rooms down with disinfectant, fresh scratches scarring the walls. The patients he treats have no family. Nobody will miss them.

Outside the walls of the asylum, mid-60s America has nightmares of its own. Two young couples in love, careful to hide it from the eyes of the world. A young black woman, a young white man, married and quick to close the shades before they kiss. Two young women, a journalist and a schoolteacher, the love that dare not speak its name setting up housekeeping. The horrors of the 1960s weren't ghosts and werewolves and vampires and zombies They were repression, fear, what you wanted crashing up against what society said you could have, the cold, impersonal administration of science and institutional medicine acting as a rough corrective to deviance. There are some flashes of the bizarre - what might be an alien abduction, the beasts in the woods, science gone awry - but these are the terrors of a world not yet ready to burst into massive social change. If the first season of American Horror Story was the hot reds of desire run amok, this season is the cold blues and greys of repression, of desire sealed up and in danger of becoming something misshapen and strange. There are nods to the appropriate horror models - A Clockwork Orange, Shutter Island, The Silence of the Lambs - making this as much a survey of horror in art as horror in life in culture.

Most importantly, it's just as utterly berserk as the first. The first episode is a barrage of images, scenes, dialogue, flashbacks, reveries, nightmares and hallucinations thrown at the viewer just a little faster than what we can process, slightly hysteric in presentation (which given the dominant subject matter is wholly appropriate). Threads start to weave together in the last fourth or so of the episode, and by the time the credits roll, everyone is where they're going to be, their fates decided, all in preparation for the storm to come. I anticipate that this is going to be some seriously good shit and appointment television, straight up.

IMDB entry
Show website
View on iTunes

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Crazies: Volume, Volume, Volume

One of the worst things you can accuse a scary movie of being is anticlimactic. If the whole point is to get people to feel something - fear, anxiety, horror, unease, whatever - then not paying that off is a problem. Even if you're doing a great job scaring/freaking out people along the way, you sort of create an expectation that it's all going to culminate in something even scarier/freakier. I think most people agree on that, but trying too hard is a problem too. You have to know when to let the story breathe, when to let the weight of what's happened settle in, there needs to be quiet.

The Crazies has a good story to tell, but it doesn't know when to shut up.

Ogden Marsh, Iowa is an all-American small town, and they're getting ready for an annual festival. The town sheriff is married to the town doctor, there's a high school baseball game going on, the sun is shining, and you just know a picnic is going to break out at any second. In the middle of this bucolic charm, a lone figure walks across the baseball field, carrying a shotgun. It's the town drunk, looking oddly blank, and his refusal to put down the gun gets him shot like a dog, Needless to say, this casts a bit of a pall over the festivities. In its wake, the people of Ogden Marsh begin acting strangely, and people begin dying. The sheriff is trying to outrace the disaster, but even to the extent he's successful, it's all too late.

Really, it's a pretty straightforward premise, and one easily gotten from the ads for the movie. Where it does things right is in how it tells the story. Nobody really feels hammy or overplayed, the sheriff keeps his cool, and for the most part the movie trusts us to figure out what's going on without holding our hands. There's a cheesy-looking surveillance interlude, but it's not too much of a disruption. At least, this much is true for the first act or so. Once the situation begins escalating, though, it's less a problem of how the story is told and more of how much of a story gets told.

Normally, a small-town-goes-crazy story builds slow and ends with the entire destruction of the town, but we cover that much just in the first act. The rest of the movie is really about what happened, why, and what kind of efforts go into keeping it from happening again. And this is where the problems come in. It's great that the story doesn't take the turns we expect it to take when we expect it to take them, but it also doesn't know when to quit. It keeps adding one more problem, one more twist, one more escalation, until it ends up in the realm of the ridiculous, from what started off as a pretty down-to-earth, plausible story.

Ultimately, this means that the parts that are especially effective get buried under the sheer volume of stuff happening, like someone has something interesting to tell you, but it's stuck in the middle of much less interesting stuff, and the person saying it keeps getting louder, and louder, and louder, until any worthwhile information is drowned out by inanities shrieked at the top of the lungs. What should have just been a quiet story about the death of a town ends up a conflagration, everything we cared about burned away without much consideration for what was good about it to start.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon

Monday, October 8, 2012

V/H/S : Video Nasties

Part of the reason I'm sick of found-footage horror movies is that the more of a proven commodity they become, the further and further away they get from the things that make a found-footage narrative especially effective. After a certain point, at their worst, they might as well be conventionally shot movies with a little red recording light in the corner of the frame. If you're going to make something a found-footage story, it should be not only be shot in a certain way, but the story should be told in a certain way as well. Found- footage with a minimum of backstory is good, because the whole idea is that  it's just raw footage, the documentation of something nobody was ever supposed to see. The lack of provenance is what makes it scary. In that respect, V/H/S works quite well on balance.

V/H/S is an anthology of five short movies, plus a framing narrative, all shot as one type of found-footage conceit or another. At its best, this anthology rediscovers what makes found-footage movies so powerful. It falls short a couple of times, but overall makes a convincing argument for continued exploration of the form.
The framing narrative - titled Tape 56 -  is about a bunch of scumbags who get their jollies from vandalizing abandoned houses and molesting women on the street, all while videotaping their antics. Somebody has offered them money to break into a house and steal a specific videotape. "You'll know it when you see it", the man says. The house is oddly empty, except for an upstairs bedroom, which contains a stack of TVs and VCRs, a bunch of videotapes, and a dead body sitting in a chair. One of the idiots sits down in front of the TVs and starts plugging in videotapes, each one of which is a separate story.

On the one hand, Tape 56 does set a tone of unblinking nastiness that serves some of the best stories in the anthology well. But otherwise, it's pretty unfocused - sure, the unexplained is an advantage in scary movies, but there's not really enough information here to draw any conclusions other than this house is bad, the tapes are bad, and these guys are bad. Each interstitial segment tries to advance the story with action, but because we're returning to it between separate, discrete stories, it's more distracting than anything else. It might have been more effective if we didn't hate these guys from the word go, and if not much happened until the very end. As it is it's too choppy and chaotic to make much of an impression.

Amateur Night

The first entry proper is about three fratboy types who have acquired a pair of glasses with a small video camera embedded in the frames. As you might expect, the whole plan is to go out to the bars, score some tail like a bunch of bros will, and then record some homemade Girls Gone Wild action. Never mind consent, never mind permission, if there's a more literal instantiation of the Male Gaze, I can't imagine what it is. The story itself is short, sharp, and mean - the guys bring a couple of girls back to a hotel room, and the whole thing is extremely rapey from the word go. It really feels like you're watching a video that could be used as evidence in someone's trial - it's intensely uncomfortable and wrong-feeling throughout, and things go south very quickly and in spectacular fashion in a pretty surprising way. The claustrophobically small hotel room, realistically lit, and rapid pace give it a raw, breathless feel that doesn't give you much time to look away or settle down. Does more for contemporary horror in 20 minutes than the Saw series did in six or seven feature-length movies.

Second Honeymoon

Tonally, this is pretty much on the other end of the spectrum from Amateur Night. It's the slowest burn of the group - a somewhat awkward collection of recordings, documenting a married couples' vacation. It's pretty evident after a few minutes that these two are having their troubles;  lots of things left unsaid, lots of uncomfortable silences and even more uncomfortable interactions between the two of them. The footage rumbles and mutters like oncoming storm clouds. It benefits a lot from showing instead of telling, and even the most innocuous exchanges possibly hold some clue as to what's going to happen to both of them. When it happens, it has all of the queasy, voyeuristic creepiness of the most unsettling parts of The Poughkeepsie Tapes. Again, it doesn't overstay its welcome, but might actually benefit from repeated watchings - once you know what's going to happen, you wonder if you could have seen it coming.

Tuesday the 17th

This segment is possibly the shortest self-aware slasher movie ever. It's less a story than a series of necessary plot steps - teens going out into the woods where some teens had previously died, some go off to try and have sex, pointy objects end up places they shouldn't - but that's sort of the point, and that's itself conveyed pretty economically. It starts off pretty straight-faced and initially delivers a sense of unease pretty well, but the more it becomes apparent that it's less about the characters and more about the worlds in which horror movies happen and how found-footage films fit into that, it trades a lot of that unease for commentary, which takes a lot of the edge off of it. It's all sort of over before you knew what hit you, and an uncritical viewing that takes it at face value is probably going to be disappointing, but it's the segment that has the most potential for further analytic discussion. On the other hand, it's just goofy enough in its premise and execution that it kind of kills the vibe built up to this point.

The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger

This one does something pretty interesting with the form itself - it uses a Skype conversation instead of a camera to convey the same queasy feeling of seeing something you weren't supposed to that makes the first two segments so effective. A young woman is having a conversation with her boyfriend, who is still a week or so away from moving out to wherever she is. It's pretty routine stuff to start, but there's oblique references to her "accident", and the longer the conversations continue, the more you realize there's something probably really wrong with her - and something definitely really wrong with him. Had they stuck with that story, it would have fit right in and maybe have been the most disturbing piece in the collection, but it tries to do too much for its running time, throwing in the supernatural and then a weird twist, and the piece ends up losing focus, leaving us saying "what the - what? Huh? What?" when we should be shaken by what we've just seen. On the one hand, it's a really novel, effective use of non-cinematic recordings to tell a story, and to tell it in a way that wouldn't have even been possible when The Blair Witch Project came out. On the other, the filmmakers didn't trust that and tried to cram a bunch of shit in that the movie didn't need.


The final segment is sort of the less overtly vicious companion to Amateur Night. We follow a bunch of dudes going to a Halloween party who end up at the wrong house (whether by accident or design) and seriously in over their heads. It's much less gory than the other segments, but no less scary for it. The pacing is half slow burn and half "oh sweet holy motherfucking shit", and like the protagonists, we barely have the time or attention to take everything in or piece it all together. This shit is happening as sure as if they were filming a race or air show and happened to catch the devastation and chaos. Bizarre things are caught in sidelong glimpses as the camera (cleverly and appropriately incorporated into one of the Halloween costumes) happens to be pointed in the right direction. That we get no explanations or backstory is especially effective here - we have an idea of what we saw, but there are still all sorts of reasons it happened the way it did and we'll never know which ones were the right ones. The protagonists - and by extension the viewing audience - are all hapless witnesses, way out of their league.

It wouldn't have occurred to me before I watched this, but found-footage movies have a lot of potential to be better in the short format than a full-length narrative. In life, homemade footage of even happy occasions is incomplete, a product of the moment, with half-glimpsed looks at the camera, things happening offscreen, and a spur-of-the-moment quality to it. These are all things that help scary stories as well, and I wonder if this wouldn't be a bad thing to turn into a regular series. I'm normally not a fan of franchises, but I wouldn't mind seeing another collection like this. It seems like an opportunity to  showcase all sorts of directors, be cost-effective and so encourage experimentation with the form and as a result would probably make for a better viewing experience. Not all of these work, but they're all admirable shots at doing something fresh and interesting.

IMDB entry
Purchase from 
Watch on Amazon Instant Video

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Gosa: Not The Movie You Think It's Going To Be

Sometimes, when I'm trying to decide what movie I want to watch, I'll play a few minutes of a given movie to get a feel for it - the cinematography, the pacing, the mood, stuff like that. It's not always a predictor of quality or anything - Undocumented starts strong and craps out, Night of the Living Dead starts low-key and keeps ratcheting everything up and up -  but I get an idea of what kind of ride I'm about to take.

Gosa (Death Bell) starts with a young girl surveying a blasted ruin, dotted with burning school desks. The girl calls for someone, and then undead schoolgirls, smeared with ash and blood, erupt from the ground and begin attacking her. The schoolgirl wakes up from what we realize is a nightmare, just as her white nightgown blooms with the blood of her menstrual period. And my  first thought was "oh shit, I cannot wait to see where this is going from here."

Where Gosa was headed, I would have never seen coming. Which is too bad, because that opening scene promised a lot of weird on which the rest of the movie couldn't deliver. 

It's the story of a group of students at an English High School in Korea who are being held over the weekend to drill for some sort of demonstration/competition with their sister school in America. There's some unspecified intra-school drama and weirdness between some of the students, punctuated by real-time reports of academic standings among the top students. Just as the special weekend class begins, the assembled students are confronted with an image on the school monitors: One of the students, suspended in a tank of water, drowning in front of a complex mathematical problem. If they solve the problem in time, the student will not die. They are not successful, and the doors are locked from the outside. In the chaos, another student disappears, only to resurface as the centerpiece of another grisly puzzle. 

Someone wants to play a game, and everyone seems to think it's the vengeful spirit of a dead student. So we've got this sort of Saw/Ringu/The Breakfast Club thing going on. The big hook, then, is whether or not what's happening is supernatural or not. Well, that and whether or not the heroes can figure out what's going on before more people die. It's got the problem, then, of being neither fish nor fowl, less a combination of genres than a couple of different approaches to the same story slapped together. As much as I don't like bitching about movie logic, I couldn't stop wondering why a ghost would need to set up elaborate deathtraps when it's a fucking ghost, already in ugly defiance of all that is natural and holy. Can't it draw the life from their bodies? How does it set up the weird puzzle/deathtrap situations? 

Apart from an inability to settle on an antagonist, it feels a little off in terms of pacing - the heroes have to solve a puzzle or a student dies, but it's less a race against the clock than sort of a stumble - they try to solve puzzles, but it seems like even when they do solve it, someone still ends up dead, so there's not as much tension as there should be. There are a couple of red herrings, but there's no clear sense that we should be thinking in terms of the red herring, so they're less misleading than confusing. The action isn't so much rising as sloshing around in a bucket.

Which is too bad, because as much as I'm not a fan of slashers, and am pretty much on record as not being a huge fan of the whole Saw-style elaborate deathtrap movie, this would have been a great one with better pacing and no ghost imagery. It manages to wrap up the explanation for what's happening and why pretty nicely - it's believable and internally consistent without being obvious from the word go -  and there are some good set pieces amid the desultory murk. For once, I wouldn't mind seeing a remake - not so much because I think an American version could do it better, as because I think American movies of this nature could use a shot in the arm.

Still, that opening scene, with the burning classroom ruin and the zombie students and the menstrual nightmare? Had nothing to do with the rest of the movie. And I still want to see that movie.

Not available on Netflix

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Now Showing

Within a few days of each other, I have learned that...

...Srpski Film is now available in the United States in uncut DVD, digital, and Blu-Ray formats. Although I'm glad that this film isn't going to sink into obscurity, and is being made available intact and uncensored, the vigor with which it's being marketed and merchandised (t-shirts? Really?) makes me throw up a little.

...Snowtown (under the title The Snowtown Murders) is now available on Netflix Instant. This is easily one of the best true-crime movies I've ever seen, and one of the best movies I've seen this year. Check it out.

...Australian classic Wake In Fright has not only received a gorgeous restoration, but Drafthouse Films is bringing it to the U.S. in October. Comparisons to Deliverance and Straw Dogs aren't off-base, but there's a queasy surrealism to it that makes it more explicitly nightmarish. If you can, catch this, and check out the trailer at Apple's trailer page in the meantime.

Plus I didn't have to use my AK, so today was a good day.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Rite: The Really, Really Reluctant Hero

If you're going to do a movie about exorcists and exorcism, you pretty much have to have at least one priest who is grappling with his faith in the cast. I'm not saying that this is a good thing, just that it seems to be an inevitability of the genre. It's not always a bad thing, by any means, but in the case of The Rite, it really doesn't help things.

Michael Kovak works in the family funeral home, washing and preparing bodies for their final viewing and burial. He goes about this business with calm and patience, as a plumber might tighten a pipe fitting or a mason might lay brick. It is work, and should be done well, but it's nothing to get all freaked out about.

He doesn't want to be a mortician like his father, though. He wants to go to college, but family expectations hold him back. Everyone in his family is an undertaker or a priest. So he makes the decision to go to seminary, with the intent of dropping out before he takes his vows. One college education, minus the hassle from Dad. He toasts his last night of freedom over beers with a friend and one last fling with an attractive bartender.

So Michael isn't what you might call a paragon of faith to begin with. It's one thing to be grappling with a faith you feel or once felt, it's another thing to have never really had it and cynically exploit its existence in others. I mean, nothing's happened and still, fuck this guy, you know?

Sure enough, his attempt to hustle an education is pretty much brought to a halt when he tries to resign, because how stupid does he think these priests are? The dean of the school is all "yeah, we can make you pay that shit back if we want to, but here, go talk to this dude in Rome instead." Said dude is Father Trevant - a thoroughly eccentric but well-practiced exorcist, and Michael is to be taken under his wing. Maybe his combination of smarts and attempts to explain everything in terms of secular phenomena makes him especially good exorcist material. Maybe the dean of the seminary just wants to fuck with him. It works either way.

What follows is Michael's education in exorcism, from lectures and films, to time spent with Trevant, who is attempting to exorcise one of the local townsfolk. Throughout, analogies between possession and illness are made, and as much as it serves to tread well-worn issues of faith and reason (possessed or mentally ill? asks every demonic possession film ever), it also provides a nice framework for the nature of possession itself. Trevant tells Michael that you treat possession like you would chronic illness, over many sessions, and its most visible symptoms are physical ones - social withdrawal, self-harm, tremors in the hand.

It's a nice detail, and it makes the initial exorcisms a little anti-climactic. It could be a session in Gestalt therapy as much as anything else, and this is a good thing. It's not clear initially if possession is the problem, so when it is (because you know it totally is), the way its evil seeps into the world around Michael and Trevant is spooky and effective, and as it escalates, the movie starts to become genuinely scary and tense…

…or would, if it weren't for Michael. He is full of doubt throughout, but the things he sees don't seem to have the effect on him that they should. What should probably play as curiosity plays as indifference, what should play as cynical amusement plays as indifference, and should play as shock and terror at the violations of time, space, and nature swirling around him plays as…casual interest. It's only when things get to pants-shitting terrifying that he really feels scared and engaged.

I understand that part of the text is supposed to be the renewal of faith in the unbeliever as he witnesses miracles and horrors, and I hate resorting to "if that were me" criticism, but shit happens to this guy that would have me, as rational and skeptical as they come, peeing my pants and saying "welp, so much for not believing in the Devil." Which is too bad, because that enervation and passivity really drags down what could otherwise be a nicely underplayed take on demonic possession. As it is, we're sort of waiting for Michael to stand up and take on the mantle of hero, as the reluctant hero eventually must. He never really does, and The Rite is found wanting as a result.

IMDB entry
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Not available on Netflix

Friday, September 7, 2012

Back, For The Most Part

So I'm finally settled into my new job in a new city, after a relocation that could generously be described as "challenging." So regular posting should resume shortly.

In the interim, I just saw a trailer for a new (wait for it) found-footage movie that looks like it might actually be good and interesting. Check it out:

Friday, July 13, 2012

It's Quiet Around Here...TOO Quiet.

Hey all,

Apologies for the dearth of recent posts, but I'm in the middle of transitioning to a new job and, as a result, preparing to relocate to another city. So it's probably going to stay quiet around here for another month or so, and once I'm settled in posting should resume (more or less) as normal. Thank you for your patience.

In the meantime; feel free to peruse older posts, offer me an explanation for why I keep getting so many fucking hits because of The Village, like orders of magnitude beyond my next most popular post, and do yourself a favor and watch Blue Sunshine on Netflix Instant. It's not a good movie by any means, but it is so inept and so cheap that it borders on surrealism, and I honestly found myself wondering from scene to scene what was going to happen next. As far as I'm concerned, that's a good time.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Fun With Google 7

poughkeepsie tapes real

In short, no.

lifetime scary movie plot

I don't see this search turning up a lot of results.

the bunny game movie dick scene

Of all the horrible shit that is in that movie, I'm not sure what this person means by the "dick scene."

urinates "the bunny game"

My, that's awfully...specific.

monster impregnates girl

Creepy? Maybe. That it was repeated 3 or 4 times? Creepier.

Dying God penis

Okay fuck this I'm out of here. Internet, you win.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Clinic: It's Quiet…Too Quiet

There was a period of time when my wife and I used to watch medical documentary shows, and in all of their real gore and ickiness, I was never as grossed out by shows set in the ER as much as shows set in maternity wards. Bullet wounds, knife wounds, broken and gangrenous limbs, none of those squicked me out the way live birth did. On TV, freshly born babies look like nothing so much as rubber props covered in slime. It felt like I was watching a monster movie to some degree.

In short: Babies, birth, children, and parenthood are fucking scary.

At best, you get movies like Rosemary's Baby, Eraserhead, and The Exorcist. At worst, you get any number of maudlin, heartstring-tugging Lifetime specials about plucky mothers fighting to get their kids back or protecting their kids from psycho ex-husbands or nannies. Kids are fucking scary, losing your kid is even scarier. That said, The Clinic manages to deftly avoid the obvious beats - most of them, not all of them - to good effect.

I don't usually single out opening credits for comment, but these are nicely creepy - long, low tracking shots of tile floors and rows of hooks, more reminiscent of a slaughterhouse than the titular clinic, the contrast communicates something important about this movie early on: We're telling you it's about one thing, and it's not not about that thing, but it's also not about that thing.

A young couple - Cameron, and his hugely pregnant fiancee Beth - are driving through rural Australia to visit her parents. As near as I can tell from pretty much every movie set in Australia that I've ever watched, this involves long stretches of highway going across flat desert nothing with little towns dotting the route, but miles and miles away from each other. They're arguing a little, but not so much as to be a whole thing. They're young, and in love, and have a lot of stuff with which to deal. In short order, our young couple get run off the road by a truck that's come pretty much out of nowhere.

(This is where I expected to say "A-ha! The truck driver is evil and is going to hound them or come back and try to kill them!" Nope, truck driver was, as near as I can tell, just an asshole.  This isn't important to the movie, but I appreciate it when movies dodge the obvious. It's not the thing you think it's going to be.)

The car's pretty banged up, so they get it towed to the nearest garage and pay for a room at a ratty little motel in one of these tiny little towns. The proprietor is appropriately gross, as is the room, but it's only going to be for one night, so they can deal. This bit hits entirely too close to home for me, being pretty much a reenactment of an unfortunate overnight stay I had in St. Louis. The night clerk looked like his parents skimped on the chromosomes, and the mattress in the room was an air mattress. Aaaaggghhhhhhh but anyway this is about the movie. So Cameron gets up before Beth and goes to get some food, which ends up being sort of a production in this one-horse town. When he comes back, Beth is gone. Creepy motel owner and suspiciously good ol' boy sheriff are less than no help, and so Cameron flips out a little and goes looking for Beth on his own.

Meanwhile, Beth wakes up in an abandoned warehouse, in a tub of ice, with a freshly-stitched incision across her abdomen.

The rest of The Clinic is Cameron trying to find Beth, and Beth trying to figure out exactly what the hell has happened to her. It could be really tired and awful - terrified, traumatized woman running around what turns out to be an abandoned slaughterhouse (see what they did there?), I mean, it sort of has Saw-type "we're going to play a game" bullshit written all over it at first blush, but what we get instead is a relatively low-key mystery - it's not immediately apparent who has captured Beth or why, apart from the obvious baby-stealing, and the movie does a pretty good job of revealing just enough information at any given point in the story to keep us interested without completely throwing us. It could be a lot more histrionic, though Beth's grief and terror are palpable and real, even the highest-tension points for much of the movie take place in quiet and stillness. It walks sort of a queasy line in that sense - we don't get really wound up as much as you'd think, it's much more careful and deliberate, which is good. But at the same time, I sort of wanted to be wound up more - I wanted more visceral scares than the movie really communicated.

So what I'm left with is something akin to ambivalence. Which is weird, because there's a lot about The Clinic to like - it's smart, careful, doesn't overexplain, and takes all of these odd or implausible things that happen throughout the movie and provides reasons for them. It's a movie that doesn't underestimate the viewer - it treats us like adults, doesn't beat us over the head with explanation. It's not airtight - its endgame stretches plausibility a little in a few different ways, but for a movie where people run around, scream, and spill blood, it's pleasantly free of juvenile mistakes or cheap scares. Honestly, I'd like to see more movies with ostensibly lowbrow narratives (like, say, slasher films) handled with this much intelligence and skill, because the end results would probably be scary as hell. As it is, I'm sitting here, quietly impressed with what I've seen, but not really scared or moved as much as I feel I should have been. Like, I don't want to scream watching this, I want to give it a golf clap.

IMDB entry
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Available on Amazon Instant
Available on Netflix

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Penumbra: Having A Really Bad Day

There's an old aphorism that comedy is the absolute worst day of someone else's life. Which is sometimes true, I think, but not always - I mean, let's face it, the story of Oedipus isn't exactly a laugh riot, and I'm pretty sure the day he discovered that he'd inadvertently killed his own father and slept with his mother was the worst day of his life. So what distinguishes funny worst days from frightening or tragic worst days? I think it might be empathy. If we like or identify with the person, we don't want to see them hurt or suffer. If we don't, we're indifferent at best and rejoice in it at worst.

This is why I think it's so important to give the audience a connection to the protagonists of a horror movie - if we don't care, how are we going to be scared? Where it gets a little weirder is when the protagonists are actively unsympathetic, and you sort of find yourself rooting for their demise. Is that horror, or just really black comedy? I'm not saying there are clear-cut demarcations (American Psycho is a pretty tense, scary movie, and it's got some great dark comic moments), but if you're trying to make a scary movie, it helps if we're generally frightened for the protagonists. And I think this is where Penumbra runs into trouble.

Margarita Sanchez is having a very bad day. She's a high-powered yuppie lawyer from Barcelona who, much to her dismay, is stuck in Buenos Aires trying to unload an apartment her family inherited. She hates the country for its dirtiness and lack of sophistication and cannot wait to get back to Spain. She bears the sort of energetic contempt you associate with the aggressively upwardly mobile, perhaps someone trying desperately to outrun her own humble beginnings. She can't even be bothered to be polite to the people around her. She's rudeness and snobbery stuffed into a power suit and tethered to the world by a cell phone.

So Margarita's stuck in Buenos Aires, waiting for the realtor to come by to look at the apartment. The realtor keeps not showing up and not showing up, until finally he does - well, it turns out he was upstairs already, looking around. She lets him in, and he explains that he's still waiting for his boss to show up, and that he was sent ahead to look around. She's impatient enough to start to shoo him off, but his employer is willing to pay about four times what the property is worth to expedite the sale. That gets her attention, and so she suffers his presence while pacing around the apartment on her cell phone, juggling her sister, an annoyed co-worker, a lecherous client, and her boss, all without letting on that she's running late for her meeting because she's trying to get rid of this apartment. She's very busy trying to keep all of her lies straight.

So busy, in fact, that she doesn't take too much notice of the other people who start coming into the apartment, or the fact that none of them really seem like realtors, or that they're very insistent on taking this specific apartment by a specific time, or that Buenos Aires is about to experience a total solar eclipse.

What I think Penumbra is trying to achieve is a mixture of menace and surreal comedy like you might find in one of Roman Polanski's films, but the comedy almost seems more slapstick than anything else, and it's at odds enough with the menacing moments that both end up undercut - the funny stuff either seems less funny or the scary stuff seems less scary. And since we don't really identify with Margarita - she really isn't anything but unpleasant - the scary bits scare us even less. We aren't worried for Margarita because she's pretty much at fault throughout. At most, we watch as all of her previous bad behavior throughout the movie comes back to bite her on the ass in her moments of real need. So by the time things start going really bad, the appropriate response seems less "oh shit," and more "well, there you go."

There are some nice little moments throughout that, true to Polanski's approach, make you wonder not so much if it's all in Margarita's head or not (because we know it isn't), but just how deep the rabbit hole goes - other people's behavior does seem a little off, a little suspicious at times, and it's almost enough to keep you wondering, but not enough to mitigate the way the rest of the movie veers between creepy and goofy without really integrating the two. Our protagonist and her situation are both just terrible enough to leave us undecided between comedy and horror. It's the worst day of the worst person's life, so what are we supposed to feel?

Unavailable on Netflix

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Task: Snatching Defeat From The Jaws Of Victory

I seem to be on a streak right now of movies that don't have the courage to stick to their original premise, that almost make it to the finish line as (to one degree or another) a well-told story but then oops! It's a horror movie, so we need to throw more horror shit around, and any goodwill the film has built up to that point goes right out the window. The Dead tries to do too much in its last 15 minutes, Undocumented doesn't have the guts to do something non-obvious with its premise, and Wake Wood is a great low-key supernatural tragedy until someone decides there needs to be more EEEEEEVIL in it. They get close, and then blow it.

I pretty much feel the same way about The Task, though there's a lot more whipsawing back and forth before all is said and done.

The movie opens on a guy helping a woman with some packages she dropped, after which he is dragged into a van and hooded, along with a bunch of other people. Oh shit, they're being kidnapped! Well, no, not if you know the premise. Said helpful dude, along with six other people, has signed up to be on a reality show called The Task. They have to spend a night in an old abandoned prison (maybe prisons are the new hospitals) and perform a number of tasks (see what they did there?) in order to win a big ol' cash prize. One of the other contestants helpfully exposits that they're all crazy for doing this because don't you know what the brutal, autocratic warden did to prisoners in this prison? It's a place of evil, et cetera ad nauseam. He even wets his pants at the sight of the prison. Oh shit, it's really that haunted and scary? Well, no, the guy who peed was just a plant by the production company to rile up the other contestants. So, see, it's not really a damned place after all, they just want the contestants to think it is.

This is actually the part with which I had the least trouble. MTV used to run a series called Fear, in which teenagers who were probably skimmed off the bottom of the Casting Vats for whichever iteration of The Real World was on at the moment competed for cash and prizes by doing a series of tasks in abandoned places with terrifying histories (which were made up wholesale and tacked onto thoroughly scouted locations). So these kids go in to these old abandoned buildings, pretty much pre-scared, and have to do things that are just going to ratchet up their level of terror and anxiety (sit alone in a totally dark room, stick their hand into an opening to retrieve something, that kinda thing). And the whole thing was captured by fixed cameras and cameras worn by the contestants in sickly nightvision green. Like anything else MTV does, it didn't last, but it seemed like a pretty effective exercise in the power of suggestion and context. So the game in this movie is pretty much Fear, only a little cornier, with even less likable contestants.

Yeah, this was the part that bugged me the most - the protagonists are annoying as shit, to a person. The African-American man (the one getting kidnapped in the opening) speaks mostly in slang, the blonde who wants to be on TV isn't so much a ditz as the cardboard cutout of one, we know the smart girls is smart because she wears glasses and speaks in the verbose pseudo-scientific bullshit that people do when they're trying to appear intelligent,  the British girl and her brother are both edgy and tough and cool and, well, British, and the gay guy isn't just gay, isn't just openly gay, he's a lisping, mincing twink with a fauxhawk who says things like (when told to walk straight ahead) "there's nothing straight about me" and "closets are scary - that's why I came out of mine." It's like, the characters don't annoy me as people, but as a lack of people - they're flat, empty stereotypes. Walking signifiers. People with air quotes around everything they say and do.

(On the other hand, and I'm pretty sure I've said this before - that isn't necessarily a problem for narrative plausibility because those seem to me to be the exact sort of people one expects to try out for reality shows. So I spent a good chunk of the movie wavering between being annoyed by them and wondering if that wasn't actually the point. You get an answer eventually, and I have to give the movie golf claps for it, but more about that in a minute.)

So long story short, one of the contestants has to perform some creepy ritual for his task, and it appears to inadvertently raise the ghost of the brutal warden who ran the prison (wasn't that just part of the backstory? Oh shit! There really was a really brutal and horrible warden and he really committed atrocities!), and then blood, stabby-stabby, people start dying and it's mostly sort of static and enervated. It's pretty much a cycle of 1) Someone leaves the base to complete a task 2) That person ends up dead somewhere 3) GOTO 1. In between, we get to look in on the production crew, who are all sort of awful in their own showbiz ways (and the acting is pretty terrible here too, but again, golf claps) and it takes them too long to react when things start going south and they don't seem too fazed when someone they send out to fix some equipment never comes back, but believe it or not, there's actually a decent explanation for all of this. I was continually irritated by this movie, so when we get to the third act and some mounting suspicions about what we're seeing get confirmed, I was actually a little pleased that they made the choices they did, no matter how obnoxious those choices were up to that point.

But they could not leave well enough the fuck alone, and attempt yet another twist in the last ten minutes, and although it doesn't unravel the whole movie, it's just predictable and poorly executed enough to take any air out of whatever saving grace this otherwise by-the-numbers creepy-stuff-in-abandoned-buildings film gets from its final act. This wasn't going to be a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a little frustrating to see what little charm the movie had snuffed out because somebody didn't think what they had was obvious enough.

IMDB entry
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Watch on Amazon Instant

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Dead: To Dust We Will Return

Zombies are mostly a defanged nerd-culture joke now, and I'm generally over in the corner with copies of Night of the Living Dead and World War Z and 28 Days Later, sulking. But I've started thinking about the contexts in which most zombie stories are set. Basically, the modern zombie story is an urban one, where the zombies are actively predatory and there's a lot of interpersonal conflict. After a certain point, it's less about the zombies than it is about what zombies mean for civilization, relationships, society. This is a function of the urban setting - supplies and shelter are pretty accessible, so once the protagonists have set up their little fortress, the zombies start to become window dressing. What happens when you strip all of that away, all of the first-world resources that mean we have the luxury of interpersonal drama in the face of a plague of walking dead?

The Dead got me thinking about all of this.

The movie opens on a desert landscape of blue and gold, interrupted only by a lone figure swathed in black. He makes his way across the dunes, AK-47 on his back. He could be the hero in some Lawrence of Arabia-style badass war movie, but for the figure who captures his notice - an African man, blank-eyed, managing to hobble along on one really, really broken leg. He's too badly wounded to be alive, and yet he walks. Just the two of them against the desert sun. There's no sense of threat or danger - the man in black just walks around him, out of reach. This is happening now, most of the rest of the movie is an extended flashback to how the man in black ended up here.

The setting is Africa, and the dead walk. The dead walk, and consume the flesh of the living. The man in black is an engineer named Brian, and he is the sole survivor of the last evac flight out. He told the pilots that the plane wasn't ready, but they took off anyway. It crashed in the ocean, and Brian washed ashore. He heads inland. Meanwhile, some time before, it is nighttime and a village is burning. The dead move through the village, falling onto the inhabitants and chewing hunks of their flesh. There's nothing predatory about it, it's just blunt, implacable need. A soldier named Daniel arrives home too late, finding his wife dead and his son missing. The rest of The Dead is the story of how Brian and Daniel meet, and their journey north - Brian to find a plane out, Daniel to find his son.

The Dead is pretty much the antithesis of the modern zombie movie. It is stripped down, stark, and quiet. There's barely any dialogue. These are two men driven by necessity, by their individual destinations and what it will take to live long enough to get there. In the African bush, nothing can be taken for granted - transportation, food, ammunition, fuel, safety - none of it is guaranteed, and the dead are always there. They're in the distance, they come out of the long grass, they're just standing there, and although they're easy enough to outrun, they never get tired. That's something I think a lot of modern treatments of zombies forget - what makes them scary is that they justkeepcoming. Zombies do not sleep, zombies do not retreat and regroup. Zombies just walk and walk and walk, and long after you've run out of breath and ammo and food and water, they're still walking, closer and closer to you. This is a movie that actually manages to make changing a tire into something tense, and the discovery of a working water supply into a major victory.

And that's what I think The Dead does right - it provides a correction of perspective. Brian and Daniel have their differences, and they don't always get along, but instead of being the biggest threat to the group, it's almost beside the point. It doesn't matter whether they like each other or not, because all of that is irrelevant in the face of the threats before them - the walking dead and the desert, both silent and uncaring. You can reason with neither, you cannot hope for mercy, so you stay alive instead. Talking is beside the point, sharing feelings is beside the point. All of that goes out the window when what little safety there was in the world is completely gone.

And the dead are always there. They're in the background, they're walking slowly into focus, unhurried. The steady march of entropy made flesh. The problem is not that you don't get along with the other survivors or that one of them is going on a power trip like on some bullshit reality show, the problem is that the dead are fucking walking and they are going to eat you and you cannot outwit them or outrun them forever. In a land where life is hard, you learn very quickly what's important and what isn't. This is what made the gritty nihilism of Night of the Living Dead so powerful. It's not so much that they're going to end your life, it's that they never stop.

That's not to say that this movie is flawless - I was sort of disappointed in the last act, where the mood the rest of the movie has built sort of goes out the window and way too much happens in the last 10 minutes, not giving any of it time to breathe, but as a response to what the modern zombie has become, it speaks little, but says much.

IMDB entry
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Unavailable on Netflix

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Bunny Game: Here It Is...Look At It

Comedian Wanda Sykes does a bit about strip clubs, describing the different levels of (un)subtlety the dancers have. She wraps it up by describing one stripper at an especially seedy club who comes out already stark naked, stands in front of the customers, opens her legs, and just stands there saying "well, here it is…look at it! Look at it!"

That's kind of how The Bunny Game made me feel.

I'm not one to shy away from transgressive or upsetting films, as I think past posts will attest. Still, when I first read about The Bunny Game, I was given pause. It's the story of a prostitute who is abducted by a truck driver and tortured for five days.  There's almost no dialogue, it's shot in stark black and white, and consists almost entirely of the victimization of the prostitute (referred to only as "The Bunny") at the hands of her johns and the truck driver. There's some interstitial footage of The Bunny at some other unspecified time and of the truck driver (referred to as "The Hog") torturing and eventually killing another victim. That's it. No story of which to speak, just scenes of violence and degradation punctuated by abrasive noises and equally abrasive music.

Okay, so, minimalist and sensationalistic. Perfect fodder for the market depicted in S&Man, the jaded violence fan looking for the next August Underground. But, trangressive? Disturbing? Really? Well, see, here's the thing: All of the violence inflicted on The Bunny by The Hog is unsimulated. The Bunny really is getting the shit kicked out of her, getting asphyxiated, getting dragged naked through the desert, getting branded. None of that is fake, and that's where people are up in arms about this movie. If you're watching this, you're watching someone being tortured, full stop.

So this required some thought on my part. According to an interview I've read with the director, this was a pretty much improvised piece in which the actress playing The Bunny was an active collaborator. They came up with the idea, and she went into it eyes wide open, fully cognizant of what could happen, even embracing the potential risk of making herself completely vulnerable to a stranger (and non-actor, at that) about whom she knows nothing in terms of his capacity for violence.

And there's precedent for this in other films to one degree or another - Christian Bale lost unhealthy amounts of weight for his role in The Machinist, Lars von Trier terrorized Björk throughout filming of Dancer in the Dark, and it shows in the harrowing final act. The shooting conditions for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were so physically uncomfortable and inhospitable that Marilyn Burns was pretty much bleeding and screaming for real. Hell, even Peter Jackson used a take in which Viggo Mortensen broke his foot for The Two Towers. Never mind the isolation Heath Ledger endured to turn in his brilliant performance in The Dark Knight. This point gets lost, I think, in the discussion around this movie. People hurt themselves in film and for film all the time. It is primarily a matter of context and degree that separates movie trivia from moral panic, then.

So given the subject matter (bleak), and the style (unsparing), what is the end result? For what was blood shed and flesh scarred? From where I'm sitting, not a whole lot.

The movie opens cold, hard, and ugly, with The Bunny fellating someone in a back alley. It's unsimulated and violent, with The Bunny gagging on the john's penis as he forces it further and further down her throat. She is a victim from the first frame. The first half of the movie is pretty much a cycle of degradation, grief, rage, and drug abuse. The Bunny wanders around Los Angeles, teetering on impossibly high platform shoes which seem less like a way to make her taller than a way to keep her perpetually off balance, to keep her from standing her ground. She fucks dirty strangers in cheap motel rooms. Some of them beat her. Others take advantage of her being unconscious to rape her and steal her possessions. In between, she cleans herself off, sobbing, and snorts line after line of either cocaine or speed, it's never made clear which. As if it matters. Snort, fuck, cry, rinse, repeat.

We get glimpses of The Bunny's life outside of this as blasts of jumbled imagery, but it all moves by too fast to give us anything to hold as true or real about her. What she is here and now is basically meat - a thing to be used and discarded. At one point, she squats, braced up against a fence, and urinates on the sidewalk. She rearranges her clothes and moves on. It is like we are being dared to see her with anything other than contempt.

The second half of the movie is primarily concerned with her captivity and torture. The Hog is an older man, a truck driver. The Bunny shares some drugs with him, offers him a blow job. He responds by chloroforming her. He puts her in the trailer of his semi, chains her to the wall, and drives his truck out into the desert, where nobody can hear them. What follows is scene after scene of The Hog terrorizing either The Bunny or an earlier victim (listed in the credits as, surprise, "Martyr"). He cuts their clothes away, asphyxiates them, brands them. Plays with their bodies, forces himself on them while they lie bound and gagged. Sometimes we see this directly, sometimes we see it recorded and played back for The Bunny. Point of view is less important than just seeing it. It's just there, people getting hurt by this man. It's often accompanied by loud, harsh music and primitive editing tricks, looping scenes over and over again. Pretty much all this accomplishes is taking us out of whatever drama builds up. With one hand it refuses us the comfort of it just being a movie, and with the other it pushes its artificiality in your face.

And that's pretty much it. There's no real story here. It's just a lot of torture, and then it ends. There's some ham-handed Christ imagery toward the end, but to no apparent effect. She gets hurt one way, then another. There's no rhythm to it, no rise and fall, no quiet to make the noise worse, just blasts of imagery and noise and screaming. There's no reason to care about The Bunny outside of her basic humanity, which the movie spends its first half trying to undermine as much as possible. As near as I can tell, it signifies nothing outside of itself. I know the director and actress intended it as a way for her to work out some issues she had around something traumatic in her past, and maybe that's the case, but whatever came from that isn't really shared with the audience. We don't get included in that, and so all we have are the images on the screen, and they don't say much outside of pain, helplessness, and fear. I'm not big on authorial intent, and I firmly believe that a film's vocabulary communicates as much as the content of the film, but at the end of this, I was left feeling nothing. Not numb, not emptied out, just indifferent. All I could do was ask why - not the "why" of "how can this exist under the gaze of a just and loving god?", but the "why" of "what was the point of doing this?"

Any film - no matter how transgressive - should leave us with something at the end of it. It should communicate something and leave us feeling something at the end of it. The Bunny Game did neither for me. Whatever the filmmakers' intent, what I saw on the screen was empty and awful, and left me no different for the experience.

It did not haunt me. It did not move me, except maybe to feel slightly sad that for all of the blood and tears shed for it, this was all that came of it. A filmic voice saying "here it is…look at it", as if that is reason enough.

IMDB entry

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Undocumented: If Truth Is Stranger Is Fiction, Stick To The Truth

There's something about ripped-from-the-headlines horror movies that sort of bugs me. I feel like associating a story with some real-life events is supposed to lend it legitimacy, sort of a "oh shit, this could have happened to you!" sort of vibe, which should make it more frightening, but I think what it ends up doing is detracting from the story. You can either play it gritty and realistic, which might not be over-the-top enough, or you can embellish the story for the sake of dramatic impact. But if you're expecting real and you get fake, it kind of blows the whole thing. Which is pretty much what happens with Undocumented.

It's not based on a true story, but it's highly plausible. The story concerns a group of student filmmakers who are making a documentary on the trafficking and exploitation of illegal Mexican immigrants. They interview laborers who have been injured on the job, a sweatshop owner, and a friend of one of the film crew, who is hoping to bring his wife and daughter over the border. The filmmakers are going to travel with him and his family and allow themselves to be smuggled back into the U.S. along with a bunch of other hopefuls. They're young, idealistic, and on balance, kind of annoying. All is going as well as a spectacularly illegal smuggling operation can, with a truckload of Mexican nationals sneaking through an old drug cartel tunnel under the border, until they run smack dab into a corpse left strung up in the tunnel.

But - awful as it may be - between the realities of human trafficking and the drug trade, that's not necessarily unexpected. Worse has happened. When the group gets pulled over, well, getting busted by the border patrol is an occupational hazard. Only it isn't the border patrol. It's a group of masked militia members - people who have decided to take the immigration problem into their own hands, and are more than aware than illegal immigrants sometimes just disappear.

The militia leader strikes a deal with the film crew - he'll let them go if they agree to document what his group is doing in their remote desert compound. Of course, what it is that they're doing is exactly what you'd expect a bunch of zealots with no accountability to do to a group of people they've completely dehumanized. They spend a lot of time hosing blood off the floor, and shit starts getting pretty weird pretty quickly.

By all rights, this should be a great setup for a movie - a bunch of people, locked up in the middle of nowhere by xenophobic lunatics, and nobody knows they're missing.  But to take advantage of this, it's probably best to keep it low-key, gritty, realistic. There's nothing about the situation that isn't plausible. It's what would happen if some group like the Hutaree Militia started kidnapping illegal immigrants. I mean, terrible shit like this already happens every day. The story pretty much writes itself. But instead, what we get is entirely too close to a bog-standard teens-in-trouble sort of movie. The characters are just on the wrong side of caricature for the most part. Not wildly off, but just enough that things feel artificial. The sound guy's an irresponsible doofus who can't go five minutes without making some horrible decision, the director is pretty much of one of those "keep shooting, this is great footage" types from the word go, and he's got a past with the producer, whose current boyfriend is apparently a huge douche (his douchiness is firmly and evocatively captured in a single exchange - it's one of the most economical character beats I've ever seen in a movie, and may be my favorite thing about this).  But it all feels a little too loud and stereotypical.

This artificiality and staginess is also a problem with the antagonists - there's a single sequence with the film makers blindfolded, being interrogated by members of the militia, that comes off really well, thick with menace, but once we're introduced to the group's leader (who calls himself "Z") that goodwill is squandered as well. He's too over-the-top, ranting and making dramatic gestures, and what makes it even worse is that most of the other militia members are believable, exhibiting the sort of bland menace I've seen in documentaries about real-life white supremacist groups. They aren't self-aware bad guys, they really believe this shit, and everything they do to the immigrants they capture they do because they genuinely believe these people are less human than they are. That's scary, not the torture-porn bullshit Z cooks up.

And the torture-porn bullshit doesn't make sense in context - it's all theatrical, but until they run into this film crew, there's nobody for whom to perform. There's also not really a clear through-line on the events, how things get worse, or how the film crew get worn down. It suffers a little from being episodic. A bunch of stuff happens, they try to escape, they fail, they end up locked up again, start over. There are moments of menace and suspense, but they're sort of isolated as another set piece among set pieces.

This is all too bad, because Undocumented could have been a good, taut hostage drama - all the pieces are there. A leader with a strong personality and a bunch of alienated rednecks with their own little kingdom out in the desert, an Other who can't even speak the language, and the sort of escalation and craziness that this sort of situation breeds. But - much like Wake Wood, in the end - the creators of this film didn't trust what they had, they gussied up the truth with some bullshit that only happens in the movies, and the final product is the weaker for it.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix

Friday, May 11, 2012

Wake Wood: All Creatures Great And Small

There are only so many stories you can tell. This is a true thing. I don't mean sequels, prequels, or reboots, but pretty much the same premise with different details. The sort of thing where you read a synopsis and say to yourself "I have already seen this", and how different could it be?

I am here to tell you that the details make quite a bit of difference. In the broad strokes, Wake Wood is pretty much Pet Sematary, but in the fine points, it tells a very different story and handles the same conceit with more maturity and grace.

Patrick and Louise lost their daughter, Alice, in a vicious dog attack (ironic, since Patrick is a veterinarian) and are trying to start their lives over again. They've moved to the small village of Wake Wood, where Patrick is taking over the veterinary practice from Arthur, who seems to have stepped straight out of a James Herriot book. Louise reopens a local pharmacy. They're trying to move on, but it's hard. Louise isn't ready to get rid of Alice's things. She holds them close. They can't have any more kids, and they've seen their only child torn apart in front of them.

They like Wake Wood well enough - they're going to be the new people, the city folk, for awhile, but they're settling in, and Arthur's been nothing but helpful with the transition. So when Patrick and Louise run into some car trouble, they make their way over to his estate to get some help, only to discover some sort of ritual in progress. The next day, Arthur drops by to explain…

Now, if you're at all familiar with the abovementioned Pet Sematary, you can probably see where this is going: Couple grieving the death of their child moves to a small town/village with some kind of mysterious secret related to the raising of the dead, couple does a thing they are Not Supposed To Do, and Bad Things happen. Honestly, that's not giving anything away. You can figure out that much just from looking at the poster. But the beats are different. It's the same song in a different tempo and key, and that makes them effectively different movies.

The story told in Pet Sematary is lurid, ghastly, very Tales From The Crypt.  Wake Wood, by contrast, is much more human, much more stately and sad. It's less a story about what lies on the other side of death (nothing good, according to Pet Sematary), and more about the problems of rebirth. The situation in Wake Wood is, in fine English tradition, one of a small village keeping the old ways right along with the new. There's nothing histrionic or bizarre about how Arthur and the town go about the business of resurrection, no robes and gibbering in forgotten languages, just the same calm, practiced hand that Patrick brings to his work with animals (it's no mistake that the resurrection process looks a lot like the delivery of a calf that Patrick performed early in the film). It's set in a quiet courtyard, among implements and tools that look repurposed from large-animal care, but not in a creepy way. It's all very practical and utilitarian. Even the more magical instruments and talismans they use look more practical than anything else. Resurrection, like birth, is a bloody, messy thing, but nobody minds because the end result is good.

So oddly enough, it isn't the supernatural elements of this story that really drive the scary part of the story - it's human frailty. It's people not accepting the limits placed on the gifts they've been given, stepping outside what they're allowed and paying the price for that. In a way, what makes Wake Wood special also makes it less effective as a horror movie. It's a great story about human weakness and not being satisfied with the time we're given, but the last act of the movie forgoes that narrative (and the wonderfully understated mood up to that point) for a more standard creepy-kid one that comes off as muddled, alluding to what seems like some terrible secret, except it turns out it wasn't a terrible secret, it was something we were supposed to guess early on, and so the dramatic impact is wasted.

We go from a moving character study to a lot of people dead because some kid is evil, we guess, because everyone keeps saying something is wrong? The story rights itself for its conclusion, which is as understated as the best of the movie and really fucking disturbing, but it's too bad the filmmakers didn't trust what they had instead of trying to do what Pet Sematary already did.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix

Friday, April 27, 2012

This is Helping

Time Out London recently published their list of 100 Best Horror Films, and it's worth a look. They talked to a metric shitload of people from all across the horror spectrum from established directors to up-and-comers to scream queens to writers to actors to all the rest, came up with a qualitatively sound way of aggregating the results of 100+ top 10 lists, and came up with a representative 100.

Oh, sure, there are some obvious ones you can't have a list without (Psycho, The Shining, Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist), and some that will please aficionados (Don't Look Now, Martin, Carnival of Souls, Phantasm), but they also namecheck some newer films (28 Days Later, Wolf Creek, Martyrs, [REC], Let The Right One In). And that's as a good list should be. Hit the classics, hit the ones you should know about if you don't already, and hit some of the most promising of the new generation. So yay, another list.

Where this list got golf claps from me was for some of their outside-the-box picks - Threads, Dead Ringers, Saló, Eraserhead, The Night of the Hunter, and The Devils, among others. These are either dramas or art films for the most part, and there they are right next to monsters and serial killers and whatnot. Imagine the fuck out of that.

I keep hammering this point, but I'm going to hammer it again - these distinctions are, for the most part, artificial. Art films and drama can be horror, and horror can be art and horror can be drama. Art routinely traffics in the horrific, and what is horror but the furthest corners of drama and tragedy?

So yeah, for as much as I look at shit like James Wan's next project - oh, I'm sorry, his next "branding project" - being a serial killer/demonic possession/haunted house thing told using conventional film techniques and (you guessed it) found footage and it makes me sad, I see things like this and they make me happy. So go check out the list, see what's up, check out the lists of the individual contributors, make some new discoveries. I certainly have.