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.

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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.

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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.

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