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.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

How I Would Have Done It: Silent Hill

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

Man, Silent Hill frustrates the hell out of me. I want to like it much more than I do. It's atmospheric, it's got a striking visual palette and an interesting aesthetic, and it's a nice twist on the idea of the cursed or shunned town. But it's messy, incoherent. There's a lot going on, mostly due to the baggage it's carrying as the adaptation of a popular video game franchise. There's too much shit in the movie because everyone has their own ideas about what "needs" to be in a movie about Silent Hill. But I've already gone on and on about that. There's a damn good movie here, it just needs some trimming back, some simplifying, some streamlining.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Caller: There Is No When Safe

I have a dysfunctional relationship with genre and classification. I don't like the way genre comes with rules and expectations and tropes and plot devices and clichés. On the other hand, if those preconceptions didn't exist, then combinations and hybrids wouldn't necessarily be quite as thrilling when done well. When expectations are subverted, it makes it harder for us to put distance between ourselves and the story, and thus more likely that we'll actually engage with it instead. It short-circuits the kind of meta-viewing exemplified by the Scream films, and that means we have to watch it, feel it, experience it without the protection of a knowing smirk. I am all in favor of that. So bring that shit on. Mash up some genres, fake me out, surprise me.

The Caller isn't so much a mashup of different genres as it is a movie that by its nature shows how similar different genres can be. It's basically a ghost story about time travel, or a time-travel story that feels more like a ghost story. Or maybe it's The Lake House as viewed in a warped, cracked, mirror.

Mary Kee is not enjoying herself. She's in the middle of an ugly divorce from an ex-husband who is grade-A restraining order material, and she's just moved in to a shabby little apartment building in San Juan. She's got a lot on her mind, so when the phone rings and it's a woman looking for someone named Bobby, she just assumes it's a wrong number and hangs up. Then the woman - named Rose - calls back. She is convinced that Bobby is there. Bobby promised her that he was coming home any day now…from Vietnam. As far as Rose knows, it's 1973. And when she tells Mary she'll draw something on a wall in the pantry to prove that she's real, Mary blows her off. She looks, but there's nothing there.

But when she scrapes off some old wallpaper, there's a drawing of a rose. 

It's a conversation between two people living their lives in the same place, in two very separate times. And, as it transpires, Rose is very needy and very unstable. One offhand comment changes everything, as events in the present are seen in the past, and events in the past begin to echo forward into the present. As far as Mary knows, Rose hung herself with the telephone cord in grief after Bobby left her. Then how is she still talking to Mary? Well, time travel is complicated, but at heart it feels like Mary is being haunted. And that's what I like about this movie - there's definitely an internal logic to what's happening, but no matter how much we tell ourselves we're watching a story about time travel, something in the back of our heads is saying no no ghosts ghosts shit shit shit RUN. We're too busy being creeped out to wonder about paradoxes.

Part of this is the constant sense of vulnerability we feel for Mary. If it's not the mysterious Rose, it's her supremely creepy ex-husband. He's not overplayed or frothing at the mouth, and so his interactions with Mary feel actually menacing. The camera hovers above and around Mary like it's furtively watching her. A lot of this movie takes place at night, and that doesn't help. Anything can happen in the dark. And as it transpires, anything can happen in the past as well. Mary's conversations with Rose create a circle, a causal loop, and the things Mary say and do now change what happens then, which changes what happens now, and soon any sense of security Mary has is stripped away. Space is not safe, because her ex-husband could be anywhere. Time is not safe, because Rose could change anything. The end effect is supernatural, even if the explanation is not. So Mary is haunted by her own past and someone else's at the same time.

The end result is creepy and suspenseful, and takes place in a world which feels very much like our own. These are believable people for good or ill, and we're watching their lives intersect for better or worse. There are some missteps - creepy music is a little overused throughout the first half of the movie - when a ringing phone is a big part of your story, you want silence to frame its interruptions. There are a couple of cheap scares, and the last act's pacing feels a little compressed. Overall, the story could stand to have some more room to stretch out and breathe. But it does so much right, in details large and small, that I won't dismiss it. Two people make a connection, and lives begin to unravel as a result. For a movie dealing with time travel and abusive spouses and mysterious phone calls and shadowy figures in the background of every family picture, it's a surprisingly human sentiment, and no less disturbing for it.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Ceremony: Home Alone

In the spirit of the last couple of posts, I'm going to tackle a movie that hits on a couple of the same questions - is it really happening or am I crazy, and how do you make a movie scary on a budget? These work well together, because the more plausible the events, the harder it is to draw the line between really happening and crazy, and the easier it is to pull it off without the effects necessarily giving the game away.

The Ceremony tries to take both of these as far as they go, into something approaching horror minimalism.

Eric Peterson is your basic college student on the cusp of graduation. He's at the (improbably large and gorgeous) house he's shared with a couple of roommates, and everyone's in the process of packing up. He's pretty much done with classes, and he's just waiting to hear about an important job offer - his future's so bright, he's gotta wear shades. Phone conversation with some of his bros, a girl who warns him that a group of fraternity pranksters are planning something "epic", and a man about his big-deal job offer. It's his! Of course it's his. This dude doesn't look like he'd know bad luck or adversity if it walked up to him and took his wallet. He has to write an application essay for the job, so he decides not to go out and party, but instead stay home and work on his essay. Maybe the girl will be coming by later. His parents are coming in tomorrow for graduation. It's all coming together.

In doing his packing, Eric realizes that his roommate Jared grabbed some of his sheet music. Eric goes to Jared's room to grab it, and there's a book sitting on the floor in the middle of the room. It's surrounded by lit candles, and it's titled The Ceremony.

In Eric's world, as is the case in our world, books are just books, and not instructions for dark rituals. So he blows out the candles (obvious fire hazard), flips through the (totally innocuous) book, and starts work on his essay. That book was interesting, though…what else does it say?

And who's walking around upstairs?

The majority of The Ceremony is one guy alone in a house, passing the time. Eric cooks dinner, he plays some piano, he tries writing his essay. He kills time like he might on any other night of the week. Then things get odd. Odd turns into bizarre, and bizarre turns into frightening. All of this is achieved with the slightest suggestion - the assumption is that Eric is alone in the house, so anything that isn't that becomes upsetting. Footsteps upstairs, a shadow in a doorway, lights switching on and off. The smallest things add up, and up, and up, and up, and then the voices start. There's something spooky about a big, empty house late at night anyway, so anything out of the ordinary (or within the ordinary, for that matter) is going to ramp up that sense of unease. At the same time, there's nothing inherently supernatural about it. Is it the fratboys playing an incredibly complicated prank? Is it really happening? Is it Eric's imagination? The movie does a pretty good job of keeping us guessing to the very end, and the progression of events feels natural, so by the time things start getting really, really weird, it's sort of on us before we realize it.

To a certain extent, then, The Ceremony is almost…almost…a template for how to do subtle, low-budget horror. The problems with this movie aren't in the cinematography or the acting. There's an attempt to sow doubt early, but the setups are too obvious, there isn't much subtlety to the introduction of the roommate (a religious studies major…hmmm…) or the idea that some group of fratboys like to play pranks by breaking into houses and moving all of the furniture around. The setup is naturalistic, but the story itself feels a little staged. The narrative strings are showing. And…man, I hate to even mention this, it's soooooo fucking nitpicky, and I hate being that guy who quibbles minutiae, but it took me right out of the story. I understand this was a low-budget movie, and by and large it works well, but when your antiquated religious text has a cover page obviously written in Zapf Chancery with the underline function turned on, it blows pretty much any goodwill you've earned up to that point. The ending also fumbles a couple of beats. Not so badly as to ruin it, but enough to sort of make you scrunch up your face like you do when someone almost hits the note they're trying to play, but don't….quite.

Which is too bad, because this is, for the majority of the film, one actor on one set doing all the heavy lifting, which isn't easy. It's not gratuitously bloody, there's no nudity, there isn't even a monster to screw up with cheap practical effects. As it is, it's not bad. It was shot with care, and if the planning of the story itself (and the construction of the most crucial prop in the movie) had just been handled with the same care, it could have been something special.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix