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.

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