Sunday, February 26, 2012

Atrocious: Rewind, Fast-Forward, Rewind, Fast-Forward

It's weird - ever since I wrote about how sick I was of found-footage movies, I've ended up watching more of them than I did before. I don't know if this is masochism, the result of thinking more about them in general, or an indicator of how many there are out there, but I'm crossing my fingers that it's just a phase.

So anyway. One of the things that makes found-footage films tricky is that they have to walk an even finer line in terms of plausibility than conventionally shot films. The whole conceit requires that the camera be an element in the narrative as well as a means by which to convey the narrative. Put simply, you've got to find a reason to have somebody filming all the damn time, even under circumstances under which any sane person would put a camera away and run. Some movies handle it better than others, but when it starts to become a stretch, it'll take you right out of what's supposed to be a very immersive narrative style. Anything that reminds you that you're watching a movie, rather than the only existing evidence of the mysterious events surrounding someone's last hours, is problematic. 

So in that sense, Atrocious is kind of playing with fire.

A family of five is getting ready to take a vacation in the Spanish countryside, and the kids are bored before they even leave. Oldest son Cristian and middle child July investigate old ghost stories and urban legends for fun, and now they can't finish up their most recent project. They're going to an old house that's been in their mother's family for ages, and just remodeled after ten years of sitting empty. Supposedly, the ghost of a little girl haunts the countryside and leads people lost in the woods back home. So maybe it won't be a total waste on the ghost-hunting front after all.

The house is suitably out of the way, so there's no danger of the kids getting into town to have any fun. Cristian and July are stuck there with their little brother Jose, playing cards and being restless. There's a decrepit hedge maze out behind the house, closed off with a rusted gate. A perfect place to get lost, in hopes of seeing a little girl ghost. Of course, a friend of the family points out that there are many versions of that old ghost story, and the little girl isn't so friendly in some of them. In fact, in some of them she's the vengeful spirit of a little girl who fell into a well and died. A well very much like one Cristian finds in the hedge maze.

This is all well and good as ghost stories go, and pretty decent fodder for a found-footage movie, but the director decided to start the movie by showing us brief flashes of the climax first, followed by a rapid rewind through the rest of it to take us back to the beginning. Sort of a more intrusive, less elegant version of beginning in medias res and then cutting to a title card that says "X days before" or something like that. The beginning proper is a title card indicating that the footage is police property. So then the conceit is that we're seeing raw footage of some terrible event, captured by the kids' cameras.

For the most part this works out well - there's a good mix of innocuous footage with apparently-innocuous-but-not-really footage, and for the most part everything is underplayed. It takes awhile for the tension to spin up, maybe a little too long - some of the things we're supposed to find creepy are hard to discern, and it's just not the same when you have actors saying "wow, that's creepy" about something we can't see. But there are still the strange noises at night, their parents' weird insistence that they not go outside at night, and then the mysterious disappearance of the family dog. For starters.

And this is where things get problematic. Part of the tradeoff for well-constructed "found" footage is some ambiguity - a realistically handled camera won't frame shots perfectly, and there's always the danger that something will get missed. The climax is somewhat prone to this, but just as it starts to build up a good, coherent head of steam, just as we're about to get some payoff, everything gets fast-forwarded and we get treated to photos and newscast footage of the horrible events we were just watching mere minutes before. That segment concluded, we get yet another rewind, another look at the final events of the climax, and then we get our payoff. Which, narratively, isn't so much of a payoff because there's very little to telegraph it for the observant viewer, even subtly. Sure, you could call it a twist, but it feels more like a last-minute substitution, and unearned at that. The end result is sort of like listening to someone start to tell you a story, stop, restart, stop, restart again, and then end it in a way that doesn't make much sense given everything else they've said up to that point. No, wait, it's not like that, it is that.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The River: Amazonian Horror Story

Before I lost patience with found-footage horror films, I made a note to take a look at this new show on ABC called The River. A small, cynical part of me imagined the pitch as "Paranormal Activity meets Lost", and a larger, less-cynical part of me hoped something that commercially tailored could still yield something worth watching. I didn't exactly go in with low expectations, more sort of a sense of "okay, could you all please not fuck this up?" What can I say? I liked the premise too much to completely dismiss it.

The River is a found-footage story about the mysterious disappearance of Emmet Cole, host of a long-running nature show in which he, his devoted wife Tess, and their adorable child Lincoln explore the Amazon in their boat and check out all the interesting flora and fauna to be found in the river basin. Sort of like The Crocodile Hunter meets Heart of Darkness.

At least, that's how it used to be. When the show opens, Lincoln is a grown man, estranged from his father, and his mother has come to him to convince him to join a new expedition to find Emmet, whose rescue beacon has just gone active after six months of complete radio silence. Naturally, Lincoln joins the expedition, whose other members include the show's producer, two cameramen, a private security person, the ship's engineer, his repair-savant daughter, and the daughter of one of the cameramen who went with Cole. None of these people are new to the Amazon, they've done this trip before, and so we start off with a group who have their shit together. Even Lincoln, who has the potential to spin off into daddy-never-loved-me-as-much-as-the-show histrionics, is pleasantly low-key and human about his feelings. Part of what's financing the trip is the production company that handled Emmet's show, so there's a perfectly good reason for there to be cameramen there. As found-footage conceits go, it's not too bad. It's also really nice to have the protagonists be something other than a bunch of irritating teen cannon fodder. These are grownups, doing grownup things, on a grownup trip.

And then when they find the wreck of Emmet Cole's boat, the grownup trip gets really weird, really fast. The boat is beat and torn to shit, run aground on the riverbank, and there's a room in the ship with some kind of weird shrine in it. A room that was welded shut from the outside. And there's blood all over the bulkheads.

As it stands, the show appears to be about the journey of this expedition further and further into a part of the Amazon where nobody ever goes, a place where reality gets sort of…thin, and the native flora and fauna become increasingly bizarre. This looks like it's going to lend itself to the same sort of weirdo-of-the-week setup that American Horror Story has, introducing a unique threat that somehow ties into the characters' larger story. If i have any broad complaint about the show so far, it's that it's rushing things a little too much. A whole bunch of plot development gets dumped on us in the pilot, which doesn't give us much by which to be surprised later on.

Bombarding us with imagery and information works for a haunted-house setup like American Horror Story because there's a lot of emphasis on the role of the house, isolation, being trapped, being unsafe in intimate spaces where we should be safe. This is a show about a long journey into the unknown, and long journeys into the unknown benefit from the slow burn, a feeling of strangeness that grows the further you go downriver, the further you go into the heart of darkness. The first two or three episodes are very "look, here's some weird shit! Oh no, here's some more weird shit!", which never gives the uneasiness a chance to sink in, never gives us a chance to dread what's around the next corner, what's in the next episode. The characters are also a pretty variable bunch - Lincoln and Lena (the daughter of a missing cameraman) and ship's engineer Emilio are pretty believable people, with moments of strength and moments of doubt. Tess breaks obsessive a little early, going from "we're going to look for him" to "find him at all costs" a little too quickly, and the show's producer and cameramen are pretty cartoony in their disregard for the reality of their situation in pursuit of good footage.

On the other hand, the show does have some strengths - there are moments of real tension and uncertainty, and the cameramen, the built-in cameras on Emmet's ship, and archival footage of the show and tapes that Emmet made right up to his disappearance maintain the found-footage conceit while still preserving some narrative and visual variety. Moreso than most found-footage movies, this show really is building up to be a jigsaw puzzle, with pieces coming from a bunch of different sources and slotting together to communicate something larger. If the producers could just resist their urge to keep us on our toes every minute and let some of the weirdness simmer instead, this would be a no-brainer. As it is, I'll keep watching, not thinking too hard about how they'd continue this story over multiple seasons, hoping they continue to not fuck it up.

IMDB entry
Available on Amazon Instant Video

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


I thought I'd set the contact email address for this blog to forward to my personal email address and, ha-ha, it turns out I hadn't.

So the two of you who weren't spammers or PR flacks and wrote me there - I apologize for never responding.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Reconsidered: The Village

Okay, M. Night Shyamalan has gotten a bad rep. He came out of the gate strong (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable) and then went right the fuck off the rails. That said, I don't think it's entirely his fault. Being "that guy with the twist endings" (and why didn't John Carpenter get tagged with that? His endings are usually twists, and usually awesome) meant his movies weren't going to be watched as movies so much as exercises in how to get to a twist ending. Once you're that guy, there's no way your movies are going to get a fair shake.

I am going to go to bat for The Village.

It gets a lot of flak for being "obvious", but it wouldn't have if it hadn't been directed by Shyamalan. It's a spooky period piece, about a mysterious village plagued by equally mysterious monsters. But if you go in looking for the twist, for the catch, then you're going to throw the story and the setting and the mood aside and turn it into some kind of fucked-up narrative equivalent of "Where's Waldo?" It's like watching Psycho solely to spot Hitchcock's cameo - it's not watching a film, it's gimmick-hunting and screw that. The Village is beautifully shot, atmospheric, and tense. And the "twist" isn't just a gimmick - it's an integral part of the movie's underlying theme.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Dying God: Finally, A New Standard

It's the nature of the Internet that for any movie, there is going to be a vocal minority who declare it the "worst movie ever."  This irritates me because so often, it's the case that the movie isn't anywhere near the worst movie ever. It's useless hyperbole. Flawed, yes. Mediocre, yes. But truly terrible movies are, I think, much more rare than most people imagine. I'm talking about that perfect storm of shoddy production, neglect of narrative, terrible acting, clumsy dialogue, and erratic pacing. If it ends up being offensive? Even better. On top of that, it has to fail to transcend all of those limitations. So-called "worst movies ever" like Plan 9 From Outer Space and Manos: The Hands Of Fate benefit from the weird vision of their creators. There's no denying that these are not well-made movies, but if you come away from the viewing with the feelings of having seen something new, something singular, well, that's still pretty cool. A really terrible movie has to fail even at providing you with anything new in its terribleness. Lots and lots of movies are serviceable, disappointing, maybe even dull. Terrible is an achievement.

Dying God is a terrible movie, motherfuckers.

Seriously, as of this writing, I'm still only about a third of the way into it. Yes, I know, I shouldn't judge/criticize something I haven't seen. But I am having a very, very difficult time imagining anything that's going to redeem what of it I've seen so far.

A little boy is running away from a bunch of machete-wielding dudes. He's carrying some kind of bundle in his arms. He comes to a clearing in front of a truck. He stares at the driver. The driver stares at him. The mob comes into the clearing. The child jumps into the truck, and they drive away from the mob like a kid getting a ride from his dad. The mob tried taking a half-hearted shot with the one rifle they have, but yeah, they're pretty much defeated by the magic power of the internal combustion engine.

The scene changes, and we get the expected "X years later" card on the screen. We also get a dead and near-disemboweled hooker in an alley. Apparently, hookers are filled with colored corn syrup. Detective Sean Fallon is on the case. Sean Fallon is your standard renegade cop on the edge. You know, the one who doesn't play by the rules. Except really, Sean Fallon is less "grizzled antihero" and more "corrupt, morally bankrupt asshole." Seriously, there's having a character who inhabits the moral and legal gray area, but Sean Fallon sells confiscated guns back to pimps, snorts coke from the backs of prostitutes, extorts booze from strip club owners and "favors" from their dancers.  He doesn't even try to hide his contempt for the job. He's not trying to balance being an officer of the law with the compromises necessary to get justice, he's just a dick with a gun and a badge. All of this in the first third of the movie. And as near as I can tell, he's our hero. Welp.

So GunHappy McFoulmouth investigates a series of bizarre sex crimes in between bouts of total depravity. Women are being found all over the city pretty much raped to death, filled with an amount of semen impossible for one person. The sperm remain active for days after death, which should be impossible. What's doing it? Probably the snarling, bestial thing we never actually see dragging the women off. I've watched up to a point where our "hero" gets shot in the back by a pimp, who then gets his faced chewed off by something we don't see before he can deliver the coup de grace. There was also an insert shot of an old man in tribal clothing chanting at some idol. Hmmm. Now, I could be wrong, but I'm betting the rape monster is some creature that the little kid (now the old man) smuggled out of the jungle and it's running around attempting to find a suitable host for an ancient being of evil, waiting to be born into this world.

I could be wrong, but if I am, it's probably something really stupid. Really, really stupid.

Every piece of dialogue in this movie is what happens when you let an 8th grader write his idea of a hard-boiled detective story. It's pretty much just raw exposition peppered with "fuck". I wouldn't mind the production quality (poor) so much but it occasionally boggles the mind. The police headquarters is obviously just an old motel with "Police Department" taped to the front door, one of the most powerful pimps in the city lives in what appears to be a two-room apartment with an old weight bench behind a curtain, and the police morgue, well, I'm pretty sure you don't examine corpses on regular tables. Everything except the establishing prologue looks to have been shot on camcorders, and more than once, the awkward pauses in the middle of scenes get left in. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if this were edited in-camera.

Okay, put it this way: Fallon conducts a stakeout by parking across the street from the people he's watching (through a small pair of opera glasses), and then has a pizza delivered to his car during the stakeout.

And again, I stress, I am only a third of the way into this movie.

Words fail me. So much so that I'm just going to embed the trailer for the movie in this post so you can see for yourself.  Go ahead, take a second…

From now on, before you call a movie you've just seen "terrible", "awful", or "the worst movie I've ever seen," ask yourself: Is it worse than Dying God? Is it really?

(EDIT: In assembling this post, it occurs to me that what I should be saying is that so far, Dying God appears to be tied with Four Boxes for my worst-movie standard. I may need to revise my opinion once I've seen all of Dying God, but my point still stands. Few movies are worse than this.)

Okay For Pity's Sake Enough With The Found Footage Already

When I was a little kid, I came home from school one day and turned on the television. I came in in the middle of a special live news report about some terrorists who had a nuclear device. This was the age of nuclear fear, of mutually assured destruction, and for a very long time, I was scared shitless by the possibility of nuclear war. So this was terrifying, and I couldn't look away. It ended badly, and I panicked, wondering what was going to happen next. It turns out I'd been watching a faux-documentary broadcast called Special Bulletin. It was all fictional.

Ever since that day, I have been such a sucker for verité and found-footage conceits in story-telling that it's not even funny. Epistolary novels, fake oral histories, mock documentaries, discovered footage, the whole nine yards.  When they're done well, there's a bracing immediacy to them that comes from putting our perspective a little closer to the protagonists. We're not watching the events from on high, we're watching from over someone's shoulder. Sometimes, our awareness of storytelling tropes get in the way. We know the killer is about to strike based on the placement of the camera, we know the monster is about to pounce based on dialogue. Music cues danger. Now, good filmmakers can and do subvert those things, but it's hard to get away from them using conventional storytelling techniques. A lot of those are taken off the table in found-footage storytelling. Also, I'm a sucker for the idea that there is a secret history to the world, and these stories represent raw, unmediated evidence.

So I never thought I'd say this, but I am getting sick and tired of them.

See, they're also cheap to make. If you're making a movie that's supposed to look like amateur footage, you don't need all of the resources and equipment that make for clean, slick, professional photography. So budgets go down. Budgets go down, potential profit goes up. Not unlike reality television - you don't need sets, you don't need writers, you don't need actors. Costs go down, profit goes up. Things that make profit go up get more attention than things that don't. As found-footage movies prove themselves profitable, they get made more often than other types of movies. As more and more of them get made, the more quality control starts to slip. Crank them out, get them into theaters or onto video, and make the money before people start to notice how shitty the movies are getting.

I sort of expected this after The Blair Witch Project, but it didn't really materialize. In hindsight, I think it's because The Blair Witch Project was a singular story, and one which made sense to tell using found footage. What subject matter lends itself naturally to this approach? Well, come the rise of the ghost-hunter and other paranormal phenomena shows, haunted house stories made the most sense. You've already got people running around with camcorders looking for spooky shit, why not run around with camcorders and special effects and actually give people spooky shit? Hence, Paranormal Activity. And the money rolled in.

Just like a specific horror movie can be "franchised", usually sucking all of the life, verve, mystery and, well, horror out of subsequent iterations, so can types of movies. Slasher movies enjoyed a rise, fall, and renaissance. J-horror had its brief moment in the sun. Semi-campy remakes of older horror movies had their day. And now, found footage. And so we get at least two more sequels to Paranormal Activity, we get an American remake of a great Spanish film, and we get also-rans and obvious cash-in jobs. I know it won't last forever, but it annoys me.

It annoys me because more than some other genres of horror movie, found-footage movies thrive on mystery. Often, the footage is the only evidence of some horrible event, or the only possible source of explanation for the otherwise-unexplainable fate of some group of people. Sometimes the footage is itself mysterious, without provenance, making what's on it even more disturbing because it's a glimpse into the secrets of the world, the horrible things that occur in lonely places and otherwise go forever unnoticed. That sort of thing really resonates with me, and putting it into a documentary framework sidesteps a lot of narrative conventions that a savvy viewer can spot. Even when we know we're watching a work of fiction, we tend to treat faux-documentary footage differently from more conventional film. If done well, it hits us where we live.

But all of this requires mystery. If we're going to experience somebody's horrible fate from their point of view, we need to be as in the dark as they were. There are going to be loose ends, unexplained things. We're only seeing this because the camera captured it, not because somebody necessarily wanted us to see it. The camera shuts off or runs out of film, or breaks. We're denied a certain amount of closure. We just have to sit there with what we've just seen, and when it's done well, it's tremendously effective. On the other hand, sequels reveal too much, leave nothing unknown or to the imaginations. Inferior imitations lay bare the artifice that goes into making us think there's no artifice by doing it badly. Either way, we lose some of the mystery - either in the story or the telling of the story - that makes this particular type of movie really scary.

So yeah, I've got at least three queued up or on my to-see list, but I'd be lying if I said I was approaching any of them with the same thrill I did the first time I saw The Blair Witch Project or [REC]. When you milk a conceit for all it's worth, you milk it dry and leave nothing but a tired carcass, and at least three sequels to that carcass. Give it a rest.