Monday, December 23, 2013

Absentia: All That You Love Will Be Carried Away

In my last post, I observed that if I've disliked movies lately, it's been because they lack restraint, and lean too heavily on a formulaic, assembled notion of horror. The analogy is that of a haunted house ride - you're yanked from scene to scene, and things jump out at you, and you are startled by the sudden shock, and we call it being scared. Which I guess it is, but it's a cheap, shallow, unsatisfying sort of scare, and sells the potential of horror filmmaking (as well as the audience who appreciates it) short.

Conversely, a lot of the movies I've liked lately have shared a pattern as well. They've been restrained, intimately sketched stories about normal people who find themselves in a strange situation and how they react to it. Ultimately, the focus is on the people and these movies work because we recognize and connect with these people and so care about what happens to them. It also allows for more complex storytelling - human beings are flawed and complicated, and can do the right thing for all the wrong reasons or the wrong thing for every right reason, and when this sort of psychological messiness is applied to the events we associate with scary movies, the feelings the movies evoke are bright and sharp. It's not just being startled by a sudden jolt, it's horror - fear for these people, terror at what they're experiencing, and the lingering discordant notes of how their decisions lead to the outcomes they did. In Resolution, two close friends are so locked into the patterns of their lifelong relationship that they don't see what's looming over them until it's too late. In Salvage, people whose relationships are fragile to start are thrown together by a sudden, violent intrusion into their lives and forced to reexamine who they are in life-or-death circumstances. In Scalene, we're presented with three people whose relationship to each other is defined by very specific constraints, and the horror comes from the way those constraints warp and deform natural impulses in shocking ways. In each case, the people respond to their circumstances instead of existing only to the extent that it is necessary for them to put events in motion.

Absentia is an impressive addition to this list, masterfully balancing the natural and supernatural to tell a deeply affecting story about how people handle loss.

It makes its intent known immediately by opening with an amazing shot - a tattered missing person poster stapled to a telephone pole, singular and awful.  Then someone comes along and replaces it with a new copy. Heartbreaking. Someone who is loved is gone from the world, and someone else misses them, and they haven't given up hope. Then the camera pulls back, and we see that the person replacing the posters is a pregnant young woman, and it becomes quietly devastating. In a matter of maybe two minutes, we are drawn into this woman's world.

Her name is Tricia, and her husband has been missing for seven years now. She's spent these seven years in a sort of limbo - he kept being gone, and she came up with all sorts of stories explaining his disappearance in ways that allow her to think of him safe and happy somewhere (such is love) - but she's also torn between waiting for him and moving on. The father of her child is obviously not her husband (such is how we deal with loss), and although she's out replacing the missing-person posters she's been posting and replacing for seven years now (seven years!), she's on the eve of something important: After the mandatory seven-year waiting period, and many forms and many hours spent with an attorney, Tricia is about to declare her husband dead in absentia. She's out replacing the posters to get rid of the last batch she had printed up - you know, just to get rid of them. We tell ourselves things to help us to feel better.

Tricia comes home from her errand of seven years to find a young woman sitting on her stoop. Her younger sister Callie has come to stay with Tricia and help her make all of her different transitions between life and death a little easier - the declaration, the impending childbirth, moving out of the apartment she shared with her husband. Exchanging death for life and moving on. There's some awkwardness, some hesitancy, but just glimpses. They're genuinely happy to see each other, if not a little nervous. There's a lot there going unsaid, and then it gets said, like lightning flashing behind storm clouds and passing just as quickly.

And this is one of Absentia's biggest strengths, though not its only one: Tricia and Callie have the easy, believable chemistry of sisters. They speak in a familiar shorthand, allude to past events without actually elaborating on them (a common expository shortcoming), and move back and forth between sniping at each other and expressing genuine sympathy in the ways that people who have shared a lifetime can. This intimacy locates the story in a very believable world - this isn't a movie, these are people's lives, a few days out of many in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles. We know these people, and may even be them.

They're a study in fundamental contrasts as well. Tricia has stayed in one place, settled in. She's the quiet responsible one, who holds down a job, lives her life in the wake of an ongoing tragedy without overt complaint. She keeps calm and carries on. Callie moves restlessly from place to place, living on couches, out of her car, with a series of people, a nomad. Her restlessness extends down into her very being, as well. She's voluble and sarcastic, sharply perceptive, constantly on watch. Scenes of Callie running punctuate the story beats in the movie - she's always running. Each retreated in different ways from an unhappy home life (absent father, emotionally damaged mother) - Tricia settled for the security of marriage, even if she wasn't happy, just to have something onto which she could hold. Callie sought the oblivion of drugs, to escape everything, and her moves from place to place have been punctuated by stays in different rehab facilities. Each has come to cope in different new ways as well - Tricia meditates, tries to separate herself from earthly attachments, sources of suffering, and Callie prays, wants to believe there's a plan to it all and that something better waits on the other side.

It's this notion of another side that starts to intrude on their lives, the closer Tricia gets to the day when she signs the papers. It all begins innocuously enough - a feeling like there's someone else in the room with Tricia, and the odd experience Callie has when she's out for one of her runs - she heads through a tunnel that separates Tricia's neighborhood from a park, and there's a man lying there. He's malnourished, very pale and weak. Callie hesitates, and the man looks at her.

He says "you can see me?"

It is this simple question, and how Callie responds to it, that begins to unravel everything. And this is what is great about Absentia - it never stops being a movie about the lives of real people, people with desires and shortcomings and regrets and love, and how they deal with the uncertain space between life and death. How it expresses that, however, shifts neatly from the natural to the unnatural in turns, slowly iterating on its initial sense of sadness and unease, raising the stakes until we're faced with the realization that there's nothing safe about the world in which we live. There's something awful waiting on the other side of the wall, something that is…elsewhere, and it is terrible beyond comprehension. We are eased into a nightmare through careful imagery and smart reversals of expectations we base on that imagery. It's not just a good story, it's a good story that knows when to upend convention - to let us think we know what's going on until we don't.

It accomplishes a lot of this with very little - everything is handled with care, intelligence, and restraint. We get a sense of the relationships between people based on how they act, not by being told. It's not just Callie and Tricia, though they are certainly the heart of the movie, it's also the people with whom they interact. Like the opening of the movie, many shots communicate a lot about these people economically, with a look or gesture or shift in voice. This same economy even extends to the supernatural elements of the story. There are no big productions here, no music stings telling you when to be scared or flashy special effects, just the quietly horrific intruding on everyday life with no fanfare. A single shoe lying in the street, the rustle of a shower curtain, a blurry figure slumped in the background, chirping and scuttling, unexpected, shocking manifestations, all create the deeply unsettling feeling that there is a world just beyond this one, pressed up against our waking world, in which horrors are perpetuated and into which people can and will vanish for reasons we can never hope to understand. No rhyme, no reason, just an implacable alien hunger, motivation utterly divorced from any sense we could hope to make.

Just as it never stops being about real people, Absentia never stops being a story of loss and how we deal with it. It just makes it more and more nightmarish, and it ultimately ends how it began, with people negotiating the space between life and death by attempting to exchange death for life, only to discover the futility of imposing human logic on something completely divorced from it. People vanish all the time, and all we can do about it is tell ourselves stories that explain it in safe ways, and keep up appearances, maintain the search, keep hope alive, even as the horrible truth lingers in the corners of our perception.

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Available on Netflix

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Unborn: Laying It On A Little Thick

(WARNING: I'm going to end up spoiling this movie over the course of this entry.)

Lately I've been thinking about restraint, and how underrated it seems like it's become in modern mainstream horror. It's not enough to let creepy shit happen in the background and let the audience discover it, it's not enough to suggest, to hint, to horrify through implication. Pile on the musical stings and the scares, because unless people are shown scary things every five minutes, they might forget it's a horror movie!  It's like the cinematic equivalent of those haunted-house rides where things pop out and go "BOO!" at you around every turn. Is it actually scary, or just startling? Part of what makes scary things scary is the way they contrast against the regular, everyday, "real" world. It's the intrusion of something evil and wrong into our safe, comfortable existence, and for it to work, it requires that we be grounded in that safe comfortable existence in the world of the movie before it all gets turned upside down.

The Unborn is in such a hurry to be a scary movie that it doesn't stop to establish the world in which it occurs before it starts messing with it.

The movie opens with a young woman out for a run. As she's jogging, she discovers a blue child's glove lying in the middle of the path. She stops to pick it up, and then bam! There's a creepy-looking little boy - all anachronistic clothes and chalk-white skin with dark circles around his eyes (his unnaturally blue eyes) and not saying anything - standing there. Then bam! The boy is gone, replaced by a dog wearing a blank white human-faced mask (actually not as silly as I'm making it sound). Then she's following the dog into the woods, where it vanishes, leaving the mask on the ground. The young woman starts digging around in the leaves under the mask, and she finds…a fetus. Yes, it was all a dream, though the movie at least has the good taste not to end the scene with her sitting up in bed screaming. The sequence is equal parts heavy-handed cliche and effective spookiness, but what is more problematic is that it's, like, the first five minutes of the movie. We don't even know who this person is and bad shit is already happening to her.

This person - Casey - is a college student who lives with her well-to-do father. Her mother passed away when she was younger, from causes initially unspecified. Soon enough, the weirdness seeps out of her dreams and into everyday life, when she catches the kid she babysits holding a mirror up to his newborn sibling's face and chanting some weird shit. When she puts a stop to it, the child (not the creepy kid from her dreams but kinda weird in his own right) states matter-of-factly that "Jumby wants to be born" before hitting her in the face with the mirror. And it's all downhill from there - she starts hallucinating, and she's developing heterochromia in the eye that got hit with the mirror. That eye is turning an unnatural blue.

Some sort of supernatural force is after Casey, and the body of the film is concerned with investigating a rat's nest of family secrets - the circumstances surrounding her mother's death (which, as it transpires, was a suicide), who "Jumby" is, exactly, the identity of the mysterious old woman her mother went to visit - and what they have to do with the malevolent force intruding on Casey's life. There's nothing wrong with this sort of approach, but ghost stories generally benefit from space, silence, and careful attention to detail, and this movie can't help but pile shit on, like we'll stop being scared the instant there isn't something creepy happening or as soon as the shocking twist revelations stop coming. The result is a barrage of imagery and story beats that doesn't stop long enough to become scary. It's technically well-executed - some of the imagery is a little obvious, some of it is really effective, and it's more or less internally cohesive, but it it really suffers from the decision to drop us head-first into spooky supernatural stuff before we even have a reason to care. It doesn't help that everyone in the movie is more of a character than they are a fully realized person. That's not a problem in and of itself if the story or the mood or the imagery or the atmosphere makes it easy to overlook the lack of characterization, but the filmmakers are hanging an absolute glut of plot and imagery on characters who don't so much interact with each other as say and do what they would probably say and do regardless of what's going on. It feels less like they're reacting to what's happening to Casey and more like they're just sort of saying stuff when it's their turn to talk. It makes what's already sort of a confusing mess feel a little sterile and calculated as well. The machinery is showing.

And when I call it a glut of plot and imagery, I mean the filmmakers do not know when to quit. It's not enough to just have a mysterious kid - the mysterious kid has to look dead, and he has to do that thing where after a second or two into the shot, his face goes all distorted and scary for no apparent reason. It's not enough for the protagonist to be hallucinating this creepy kid in a crowded club, it has to be followed immediately by a scene where she's trapped in the club's bathroom while the toilets and faucets vomit up blood and insects everywhere. It's not enough for her to be haunted by the ghost of her unborn brother (which is a pretty cool premise in and of itself, and could make for a really good, squirmy, uncomfortable movie), that ghost has to actually be a demon who was trying to possess her unborn brother after possessing the brother of the protagonist's grandmother - a brother who died as a result of experiments performed on twins during the Holocaust. I mean, come the fuck on - that's, like, two or three movies' worth of premise right there. It's not enough that the demon can possess people, it also has to twist them into weird shapes while it does it (except when it doesn't and they just look sort of like the "zombies" from 28 Days Later). The filmmakers just keep piling shit on.

It's just all too much of a muchness. Even the climactic exorcism scene suffers from this excess - pretty much any movie that involves an exorcism builds to the exorcism and that carries with it a certain feeling of anticipation or dread that doesn't need a lot of extra help. Only here. the exorcism is being held in an abandoned church that's had creepy graffiti scrawled all over the walls - like it's not enough that people have gathered to perform this ritual, you have to have the actual walls going BOO! as well? And the unwillingness to let the characters have lives outside of what's necessary to drive the plot ends up being problematic, as the end reveal for the cause of the whole thing presupposes information we didn't really have. Why didn't we have it? Because the movie begins, cold open, with the weird shit starting. It's not a huge cheat or anything - it asks us to believe that something totally plausible happened - but that we're expected to understand and accept that after the fact just calls attention to how much is sacrificed for the sake of cramming in as much stuff as possible, just for the sake of setting up the ending.

I feel like  a lot of my problems with films I haven't liked lately have been some variation on the idea that they're just going through the motions - putting the "scary parts" into a negligible narrative framework without any sense of context or feeling that these things have emerged from a believable world with real people in it. I wonder how much of this stems from a sense of contempt for horror as a genre - or contempt for genre film in general. As if "genre film" means you just have to hit the right notes, include the right type of scenes, and you'll have a hit. The Unborn doesn't feel as cynical or lazy as that - it's got pretty high production value and a surprisingly strong cast - but it feels desperate to get the job done, like it doesn't trust its audience to be patient or to catch subtle details, or to get caught up in the atmosphere of the film without some bit of business going on onscreen. And that's just as dismissive and contemptuous of the audience as the most obvious cash-in.

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Unvailable from Netflix

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Tapes: Shit Happened

I've given found-footage movies a lot of thought. At their best, they can be among some of the most effective horror movies out there because they take advantage of our tendency to see amateur footage as more "real", and eschew a lot of the cinematic cues we've come to associate with horror over decades of moviegoing. However, for this very reason, they're more demanding to make well - people have to act and sound more natural than they would in a conventional film, there are constraints on how you can tell the story through cinematography, you have make allowances for the idea that someone is always filming without stretching plausibility. They may seem easier because you don't need pro-grade cameras and lighting and all of that, but that just means you have to be really good at everything else, or every single mistake will show through. Few things look more stupid and cheap than obviously artificial stabs at naturalism.

Very stupid, very cheap case in point: The Tapes.

First red flag? The opening title card. A black screen fades up to a message in that sloppy-typewriter typeface that's supposed to convey grittiness. The message? "the footage [we] are about to see…is real." No it fucking isn't. Telling us that it is (with a musical sting in case we missed the point) just calls attention to the artifice inherent in a found-footage movie. "11th February 2008: Police find several video tapes at scene of brutal crime [sic]." Oooooh, spooky! There's more in this vein about how the parents of the victims are letting you, the public, see…THE TAPES, but at this point, who cares? It's a stab at reproducing the opening of The Blair Witch Project, but the first reason it worked in the latter's case is that it just presented us with a premise - these students went missing while making a documentary, and now their footage has been found. It suggests authenticity (since what we're going to be watching is documentary footage direct from the source) without calling attention to the suspension of disbelief that accompanies watching a horror movie. It's a nice little bit of sleight-of-hand that lets us forget that we're just watching a movie. On the other hand, opening by saying HEY GUYS THIS IS TOTALLY REAL OKAY? immediately calls attention to the fact that yes, we're just watching a movie.

The second reason the Blair Witch title card worked was because it left open exactly what happened or what we were going to see. There was a mysterious disappearance and hey, the footage might tell us something. So when weird shit happened and bad situations got worse, there was tension and fear and horror because we weren't sure where it was all going to end up, we just knew it was going to be bad. The Tapes tells us that the footage was found at "scene of brutal crime," so there's already some indication of what happened. However, not content with any sort of ambiguity, the introduction (and sporadically throughout the beginning of the first act) intersperses fake talking-head footage with parents, siblings, and police. The parents don't say anything because they break down at the first question they get, the sibling mumbles something about how it's been two years and nobody knows anything, and the policeman is kind enough to tell us that they think "cult activity" might have been involved.

So before pretty much anything else gets started, we know that we're going to be seeing TOTALLY REAL NOT KIDDING THIS HAPPENED footage of a "brutal crime" that involves a cult. So pretty much any opportunity for surprise, uncertainty, ambiguity, you know, things that are scary? Yeah, that shit gets pitched out the window before anything's really even happened.

(Not only are there no real surprises left, then, but given the way the movie ends, it makes the policeman's statement look more witless than anything else - given what we see over the course of the movie, footage this cop has presumably seen, the only logical response to "it might be cult-related" is "oh, you think?")

So what happens? Well, we're basically watching a bunch of home-video footage of Gemma, Danny, and Nathan. They're nominally trying to shoot Gemma's audition tape for the reality show Big Brother. They're doing this because Gemma's entire plan for her future is to be rich and famous. Famous for what? For being famous. She's going to have a line of shoes, perfumes, her own show, all starting with her appearance on a reality TV show. She aspires to be the lowest form of celebrity, and her boyfriend, Danny, is more than happy to encourage her when he's not zooming in on her tits or acting like he knows anything about show business. He's a posturing blowhard. Their friend Nathan is along because the camera is his. Nathan doesn't fare as poorly as the other two at first, but he's also given less to do at first. Basically they're driving around dreary seaside England trying to find places to shoot Gemma when they aren't busy getting into snowball fights or answering their cellphones while the camera is running. They're immediately unlikable.

In the course of their afternoon out, they end up at a pub where one of the locals gives them grief about running their camera inside. Danny has a lot to say about what he was just about to do the guy - you know, if he's said one more thing, oh, the ass-beating he would have gotten, he didn't know how close he was to getting it, shit like that - but one of the waitresses tells them not to mind, he lived up at a nearby farm and was kind of a jerk, and oh you know what? He hosts swinger's parties up at his farm. Our protagonists are suitably skeeved out and go home…

…only Danny decides that he and Nathan should drive up to the farm with video cameras and surreptitiously tape the promised orgy and sell it as a DVD for money. So Danny gets Nathan out of bed so they can do this thing - Danny's even brought along his own shitty camera to supplement Nathan's - and although it would be far easier if it had been just the two of them, Danny decides to bring Gemma along for…reasons? He tells her they're going to make it part of her audition tape. Which, for a reality show? I'm pretty sure that "hi, I'm here videotaping a bunch of lumpy middle-aged people having group sex without their consent" isn't going to get you anything more than a shitload of legal trouble, but it's pretty much a fifty-fifty split at this point between this being a contrivance bent to near-breaking just to get the protagonists out and into harm's way and it being the genuine thought process of three deeply stupid people.

So the three people we already know are going to meet a specific bad end at the hands of a cult traipse out to a shitty, dilapidated farm, and wait for the farmer to leave.  Once he leaves, they find themselves a good hiding place in preparation for the orgy they assume will be taking place that night, (though none of the information they got at the pub included dates and times), and…no, I'm just kidding, they tear through the property, even though they don't know if there's anyone else beside the farmer living there. They break into buildings where they can conveniently discover tarot cards scattered around, mysterious symbols spray-painted on walls, bondage gear, all of the sort of things that might stand a chance of eliciting a sliver of unease in the audience if we weren't primed to anticipate exactly this from the beginning. They throw shit around, run outside and have more snowball fights, play soccer with a ball that they've find, and generally make themselves as noisy and disruptive as you shouldn't be when you're in the middle of breaking into private property.

But again, I'm torn, because it's exactly the sort of idiotic behavior you'd expect from people with no idea of how much danger they're in. These are exactly the sort of people who, in life, meet bad ends. I'm not a big fan of the idea that people in horror movies should be faulted for not behaving rationally - Monday-morning quarterbacking at its worst - but it's egregious here. They don't know who else is there or when the owner is coming back and don't seem to care. Once people do come back, they don't really stop arguing or goofing off - they should be scared shitless, at the very least of getting caught, and instead they're bitching at each other over things like sharing sandwiches - and for fuck's sake, they're in the middle of hiding in a shed from the weirdos who live on this farm and take the time to try and have a sandwich?

These are seriously the most inept protagonists I've seen outside of slasher-movie parodies. Not just slasher movies, slasher-movie parodies. You're not worried or anxious over the thought of them getting caught and tortured or killed (partially because we already sort of know something bad happens to them) because they're so bad at self-preservation that their capture and eventual horrible fates are as inevitable as the death of someone who decides to walk in front of a bus or check to see whether a gun is loaded or not by pointing it at their face and pulling the trigger.

It's a short movie, and all but the last 20 or 30 minutes is these three farting around until someone does something stupid and gets caught. Because of course they're going to get caught. They have to get caught, first because they're idiots, and second because the narrative demands it. You could make the argument that they're idiots because the movie demands it. Then bad things happen to all of them, the bad things we saw coming from the opening title card. Because yes, the farm is a meeting place for cultists, and of course they're going to do bad stuff to the protagonists once the protagonists get caught because it's not a horror movie if bad things don't happen to these people. When the bad guys arrive, it is in minivans, without fanfare, and without any sense of menace or unease. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but we're never given a reason to fear these people, and you sort of get the impression that if these three hadn't been there, nobody would have gotten hurt. Which, as evil cults go, makes them a bit crap as well.

The whole thing feels like an exercise in working back from an inevitable conclusion and rigging up decisions and events that justify the conclusion, not the organic outcome of a series of decisions made by autonomous agents. There's no connection, no sympathy, just a sense of "what the fuck did you think was going to happen?" That this occurs in an ostensibly realist setting just makes it that much clearer how comprehensively flawed the whole production is. In conventional horror films, that it's just a movie is beside the point. In a found-footage horror movie, being aware that it's just a movie collapses the whole enterprise.

Ultimately, what we're left with is lots of aimless footage of a shitty, dilapidated farm, interspersed with single-frame shots of things that I guess are supposed to be subliminal attempts to scare us or make us feel uneasy, but instead just call more attention to how artificial the whole thing is. There's no tension, no moment of revelation that communicates how much danger the three are in, just some dudes show up, some things happen, and then some bad things happen. Even the movie's one shot at redemption - a final shot that doesn't rely on the camera getting knocked to the ground - is bungled by the actor's delivery and lousy writing. You can't understand half of what they're saying because they confuse terror with incoherence, and what you can hear is so trite that it doesn't matter. Everything that happens feels profoundly unnecessary. This movie could have never been made, and the world would be no poorer for it.

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Salvage: Who Are The People In Your Neighborhood?

I got into an argument with someone who made the mistake of telling me they thought that the book World War Z was stupid because it was just a bunch of people whining and there were hardly any zombies in it at all.

(No, I haven't seen the movie. No, I have no plans to do so.)

What I told this person was that that was exactly what made the book so good - that it wasn't about zombies, it was about people. All of the best stories - the most horrifying and the most inspirational - are about the people in extraordinary circumstances, not the circumstances themselves. Zombies, especially as they're portrayed in contemporary film, are basically a natural disaster. What makes a natural disaster into a compelling story isn't the spectacle of the disaster itself (maybe at first, but it's hard to sustain over a whole story), it's how the disaster affects and changes the people caught in it. In fact, I think this is good advice for horror movies in general: Keep people first as much as you can. The more we understand, identify, and connect with the people in the film, the more the things that happen to them (and the things they do) will evoke a response. A "scare" isn't a "scare" because of staging, lighting, or effects. It's a "scare" because it represents something about to happen to someone in whom we are invested enough to care about their outcome.

Salvage is a small-scale, intimate siege story populated by well-rounded characters, and the results are generally quite good.

We open on a quiet neighborhood somewhere near the English seaside, and it's all pretty domestic - a boy delivering the morning paper, a father and daughter driving to grandmother's for Christmas Eve, milk bottles on doorsteps, everyone knows everyone else. It all seems nicely bucolic at first, but then you notice the cracks - a couple arguing violently in a foreign language, the father's dropping off his daughter at her mother's house and she doesn't want to go, the paperboy gets spotted by the arguing couple and is forced to abandon his bike to flee into the woods.

Everyone's too busy with their own problems to pay attention to the news story about the mysterious cargo container that's washed up on the nearby beach, and as their personal dramas escalate, nobody notices the soldiers now patrolling their streets.

Salvage does an excellent job of putting very believable people in a really messed-up situation. It's unclear for a good chunk of the movie just exactly what's happened, so we find out as the characters do, and although not all of it is a surprise or shocking twist, we're kept off our feet just enough to make it interesting. Something (or things) is/are attacking people in the neighborhood, tearing into them with surprising brutality, and the military are busy keeping everyone in their homes, cutting off communication with the outside world, not letting anyone leave. In that sense, the movie has a very similar feel to The Crazies, 30 Days of Night, Splinter, or  [REC]. The basic feeling is that the outside is hostile - people who leave their homes die in bloody, horrible ways, and men with guns are keeping people from going anywhere. It's not clear exactly what it is, but people from the community are turning up dazed, covered in blood, holding weapons, and their loved ones are dead in their homes.

Between the rapidly mounting deaths, the isolation, and the pervasive uncertainty, Salvage is a deeply tense movie. Part of that is because ultimately, the horror and the violence isn't just confined to one force or antagonist - there's the violence inherent in whatever is threatening the neighborhood, the violence used by the military sent in to contain it, and the violence that naturally emerges from human weakness and frailty - both physical and emotional. There are conversations and arguments and decisions in this movie that are as painful to watch as the physical attacks, and it works because the people feel like actual people, with feelings and histories and flaws and virtues, conveyed through simple pieces of dialogue, little behaviors, looks on faces. "Show, don't tell" is almost a cliche, but things like the pictures a person has displayed on their mantel, the way they fiddle with their wedding bands, the way their faces fall or light up, all of these contribute to a sense that these are people with whom we might share a life or a community, and that connection helps us feel their triumphs and failures intensely. In a situation where those triumphs and failures concern basic survival in the face of something (or things) killing off everyone around you, everything is stretched unbearably tight.

It also helps that the movie is made with a sure touch, without being showy - first, it's economical. It all takes place in a fairly small area, and some apparently little background details from early on come back toward the end in ways that reinforce just how quickly things went to hell in this sleepy little neighborhood. There's very little physical movement for most of the movie, mostly the protagonists trying to find ways to get outside or to move from one house to the other. Just trying to get across the street is a dangerous proposition. Second, it's unsparing. The violence is sudden, visceral, and horrific. Injuries are awful, deaths are worse, and we aren't given much distance in either case. People scream and cry and choke and bleed out, and everyone reacts just as badly to it as you or I would. Heroism and action in this movie isn't pretty. Third, it's willing to play with our expectations. Nothing is what it seems, and as the characters' understanding of the situation changes, ours does too. Even our own meta-understanding ("oh, they think it's this, but since I know I'm watching a horror movie, I know it's really this other thing") changes. Some moments feel a little choreographed, like "something scary is about to happen…yep, there it is," but others manipulate that sense of expectation, reverse it or add one more beat to it that catches us off-guard. All of this reinforces the idea that these people - these people for whom we come to feel first distance and contempt, then sympathy and compassion - are caught in a world turned upside down, where nothing is certain and death is bloody and swift. The focus on the people instead of the circumstances gives everything more weight and impact.

It does have its weak moments. There are a couple of highly improbable escapes - though to the movie's credit, a character I expected to swoop in and save the day never showed up again - the explanation we get for the event that kicks the whole thing off is a little unfocused and that robs the revelation of some of its impact, and although there's not an overuse of practical effects, what we do get is just cheap-looking enough to undercut its effectiveness somewhat. To the extent that there is some misdirection employed in our understanding of what exactly is going on, the truth ends up being sort of anticlimactic. I appreciate the narrative ambition, but I wish they'd stuck the landing a little better. But these aren't deal-breakers. This is a taut, deeply human story about loss, regret, and our attempts to make things right cut short in howls of grief and rage.

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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Black Swan: Art Damage

It's not often that a movie that could be considered horror gets serious consideration as something other than genre entertainment, so when one comes along, it's kind of a big deal. It's honestly sort of tough to write about a movie like this, because at this point so much has already been said about it, for good or ill, insightful or no. I'm just one more dude watching this movie about which most people probably already have an opinion. But here it is: Black Swan is a striking, vivid depiction of tension, repression, and paranoia, but one that doesn't quite make it over the finish line with its strengths intact.

The film opens with the prologue to Swan Lake, and pretty much tells the whole story in a few minutes - the white swan is engulfed by a dark, bestial figure. This is not going to end well.

The swan is ballerina Nina Sayers, a dancer in a New York ballet company experiencing some rough financial times and hoping to renew interest with a radical reinterpretation of the classic Swan Lake. The company's star, Beth MacIntyre, is retiring (not of her own volition, it seems) at the end of the season and the company's director wants a new dancer for the principal role as the Swan Queen. Nina wants the role badly, but it's a tough sell. She's technically as good a dancer as there is, but the role demands that she dance the part of the Black Swan, desire incarnate. Nina is drawn as tight and thin as a bowstring, all whispers and hesitancy, kept trimmed into arrested development by a deeply controlling, enmeshed mother. She's a grown woman with the bedroom of a 12-year-old, all stuffed animals and pink wallpaper. She's like some kind of hothouse flower or bonsai tree, built to specific purpose and not really good at thriving outside of very specific environments. She's not very worldly, and it becomes pretty clear pretty quickly that she is essentially prey in this situation. Everyone - from her mother to the company director to other dancers - is poised to take as much advantage of Nina as possible.

The defining image, then of this film: Nina breaking in a pair of toe shoes. Pink satin stitches ripped, laces burned, soles scuffed, scratched, broken. The shoes themselves share some uncomfortable similarities with footbinding, and it is the idea of constraint in the service of aesthetics, breaking something to bend it to a larger purpose, that runs through the movie like a single shrill chord under everything else. The pressure around dancing the role of the Swan Queen compresses Nina even further, and insecurity turns to suspicion, suspicion turns to paranoia, and paranoia starts to fray everything around the edges, until it becomes clear that we can't be sure how much of what's happening to Nina is actually happening.

Watching this movie is like watching someone standing on the uncertain ice in the middle of a frozen lake. Everything in the film is black and white and gray except for Nina, who is pink and white, and one libidinous blur of a night out, all strobing green, blue, and red. There are mirrors and reflections everywhere, used to tremendous effect to call into question exactly what it is Nina is experiencing. The camera circles and paces around Nina like a predator, waiting to strike. When things happen, they happen quick and sharp, in sudden, startling reveals. At first, we detect little cracks and chips around the edges of Nina's sanity, then the cracks spread, and spread, and everything falls apart into hallucinatory spectacle.

But, in the end, the film doesn't build to as hysteric a pitch as I might have hoped. It's about Nina's disintegration, but just when you expect everything to go completely batshit insane (because that's the way it's been heading, in often surprising fashion), in the end it stops short. Just when you expect everything to collapse, it…doesn't, and then the credits roll. Behind-the-scenes features suggest that the film could have been more gruesome and nightmarish in some of the details than what we got, and that sort of bugs me. It's not that I wanted more gore or anything like that - everything leading up to the denouement suggested that what we were seeing was someone's life spiraling into chaos, and a lot of really uncomfortable (physically and psychologically) stuff made it in. This movie goes some interesting places for something that actually got nominated for Academy Awards, and I think that's why it bothers me. There was an opportunity here to really push the envelope, to embrace the horror of what's happening to Nina, to pay off the degree to which the tremendous pressure she's under has warped her view of reality, and the tools of the horror film are tailor-made for exactly that. If you want to show what a nightmare someone's life has become, make their life the stuff of nightmares.

It's oddly appropriate, since the biggest criticism leveled at Nina's performance of the Black Swan is that she doesn't cut loose - she's too formal, too restrained to achieve transcendence in her performance. Admittedly, my own criticism is at least partly ideological - this is one of those cases where one director's horror film becomes another's "thriller" or "drama", but I think it's an important distinction. Make no mistake, this is a beautifully constructed movie, with impeccably realized characters and a real eye for detail and unsettling imagery. Most bog-standard horror films tend to emphasize the unsettling imagery over things like strong visual style and fully developed characters, so seeing that there was an opportunity here to tell a scary story in masterful fashion, to demonstrate that horror can be art and art can be horrifying, that shrinking back at the very last moment made me a little sad. Just as the truth of Nina was compromised by everyone else's needs, so was her story.

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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Scalene: Three Sides, None Equal

There's a long, honored tradition in literature and cinema of telling the same story from multiple points of view and using contradictions and inconsistencies between the tellings to build up our understanding of the story, often with one last narrative providing sort of an "a-ha" moment, a final revelation, the discovery of which makes us call everything else into question. It's an especially useful technique for horror movies and thrillers, because that one last piece of information can trigger the horror of discovery - the feeling we get when the full implications of what we know reveal themselves and our full understanding of what we've just witnessed overwhelms us.

What does this have to do with the movie? Well, a scalene triangle is one in which all three sides (and thus their angles) are different. As a title goes, it's simultaneously a little too cryptic and a little too on-the-nose, but Scalene does a fine job of fulfilling the title's thesis and giving us three perspectives on a series of events, in the process telling a smart, restrained story about human failing and the tragedies that the simplest of decisions can loose upon the world.

We open on extremity - an older woman, obviously at the end of her rope, telling a younger woman that she wants "him" back. We don't know who "he" is or what relationship these two women have, but the encounter is brief, awkward, and ugly in its violence. Something lead this older woman to do something terrible, and the rest of the film lays out the chain of events that culminated here, tracing three people's paths to their final destinations.

The older woman is Janice, mother to a young man named Jacob. Jacob has something very wrong with him, and at 26 years of age, he requires constant supervision and care. The younger woman is Paige, and she is Jacob's caregiver. Something has happened between the three of them, but saying much more betrays the careful unpacking of events that makes up the majority of the film. Suffice it to say that everyone has been hurt irreversibly, and although we can try to find fault, it's like the title says: There are three sides here.

Scalene tells a very sad story in three different ways: Janice's story runs backward from her final encounter with Paige to the incident that started it all, Paige's runs forward from the decision that brings her to Jacob to her final encounter with Janice, and Jacob's is brief and unmoored by time, place, or logic, but just as revelatory all the same.

It's almost a cliche to say that nothing is what it seems here - if it were, why play with chronology? If there are no secrets to be revealed, why not just walk us from the beginning to some awful end? But the movie doesn't quite tip its hand - no, not everything is what it seems, but everything isn't not what it seems either - we might be able to trust our first impressions of these people after all, but not for the reasons we think. By the end of the film, there's an understanding that good people can do terrible things, and that even the right motivations or the best of intentions can't excuse our crimes. To come to that understanding, we have to watch events unfold (or in Janice's case, collapse in on themselves) and see what brought Janice to the end of her tether, what brought Paige into Jacob's life, and how Jacob ended up as he did. Our understanding shifts and changes kaleidoscopically - forms vary, but the underlying colors remain constant. They are always the same people, but our understanding of what it means to be that person is transformed.

Janice cares for her son, but the strain of taking care of him is pulling her apart slowly but surely. And it's clear why - Jacob can't be left unsupervised for any amount of time, he's very sensitive to stimuli and doesn't always have a good sense of what appropriate behavior is, as strongly outlined by Paige's first night with him, when an attempt to share pizza with Jacob underlines that he's isn't just someone who needs care, he's a 26-year-old man, physically fit and possessed of a 26-year-old man's needs but without any means to monitor or moderate his own behavior. He's a ticking time bomb's worth of id, and Paige is well-intentioned, but very young and maybe a little idealistic. It becomes clear in this single scene that she might be in a little over her head, and doesn't know it yet.

But Janice makes the choices she does, too - she's still a woman, her husband left sometime in the past, and she doesn't always make the right choice or handle Jacob's care with the painstaking attention it requires. Paige may ask some inappropriate questions, but that doesn't make Janice's answers to those questions any more convincing, and their relationship dynamic over time does its own share of work to create the events that follow. All of this is handled deftly, we learn a lot about these people by watching them interact (or fail to interact) and it's because we're shown who they are, not told. The urge to lay blame and point fingers is strong, but the film doesn't urge us in one direction or another - it shows us what happens, and lets the course of events speak for itself.

In addition to thoughtful characterization, there's a strong, confident visual vocabulary at work. Color underlies the three main characters and suggests something about affinities between them. Shots are well composed to reflect the characters' internal states - in the aftermath of terrible deeds, characters are placed at the center of the shot and scenery appears to move around them; they are not so much in motion as they are frozen in the awareness of what they've done as the world moves around them. The brief interlude from Jacob's perspective is especially effective - our point of view wanders constantly, regardless of where the shot is focused, and everything we see is unreliable. He's trapped in a waking nightmare.

At the same time, the deliberate emphasis on imagery and perspective never feels gimmicky or stagey. This movie is set very much in everyday life, and the juxtaposition between the world the characters inhabit and how we see them calls to mind for me a less-flashy One Hour Photo, a comparison that extends to the story as well - we know something bad has happened, and the movie is finding out exactly what happened and why. By the end we feel horror, pity, and disgust, not so much for any one person as for the entire situation, and a lack of pat answers or tidy resolution means we keep thinking about what we've seen and more importantly, what we might have missed.

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Monday, October 28, 2013

Dead Birds: Insert Scary Thing Here

Scary movies inspire a lot of different emotions - horror, terror, tension, dread, disgust, anxiety, sadness, take your pick - and can work in any number of different ways, which is part of why I think the distinction between horror movies and thrillers is sort of artificial and I keep just tacking toward using the term "scary movies" instead. Often they do this by getting us engaged in the story as it's presented - whether it's through identification with or sympathy for the protagonists, interest in the specifics of the situation in which they find themselves and a desire to know how they got there and what's going to happen, or just imagery plucking at the nightmare, lizard-brain depths of the subconscious with no regard for logic - we want to watch, and we feel things, and this experience tells us something about ourselves or the world that we might not know otherwise. Scary movies are really good at this because they can get at things that aren't safe, that may be uncomfortable.

Dead Birds, on the other hand, inspires little more than indifference, or maybe curiosity as to why this story was told at all.

The setting is the Civil War-era American South, and a detachment of Confederate soldiers has just made a deposit of gold at a small-town bank when they are rudely interrupted (read: gunned down in a welter of cartoonish gore) by a group of six irregulars intent on taking the gold for themselves. As they ride out of town, they make for an abandoned plantation house one of their fellow soldiers told them about before dying of his wounds. It's made clear early on that they shouldn't be riding out toward "the old Hollister place" - an itinerant preacher tells them there's no such place and they should turn back, they seem to ride through the forest for ages without any landmarks, and when they do get there, it's a big old place set back in a sea of dead corn. The scarecrow gives them the creeps (and we know this because one of them tells us that the scarecrow gives them the creeps), and a bizarre-looking beast one of them compares to a hairless mountain lion gets shot as it comes running at them through the corn. It's a pale, veiny thing that looks absolutely nothing like a mountain lion, but it doesn't seem to bother them that much.

Once they get to the house, they begin to search it to make sure they're the only ones there. And like you do after a heist, one guy starts enlisting another guy to screw the others out of their shares, we see that there's a bit of a love triangle between two of the men and the woman in their crew, and there's a freed slave who seems pretty acutely aware that they're as likely to shoot him and take his share as anything because hey, Civil War-era South. As they explore, odd things start happening - one person hears children's voices, another thinks someone else is in the house with them, there's a door to the basement they can't get open, and then they find a book…

…a book with instructions for raising the dead.

And then night falls, and a storm traps them in the house with something else.

Horror set during the historical past is a dicey proposition - not only do you need to get the audience to believe that the terrible things you depict are happening to people we should care about to some degree, but also get them to overlook the additional layer of artifice imposed by things like period settings, costumes, and dialogue. It's hard to scare people when they're acutely aware that they're just watching a movie, and nothing says "you're just watching a movie" like locations that look like sets instead of places, clothes that look like costumes instead of what people wear, and dialogue that sounds like a bad imitation instead of words that are actually said by people. These don't seem like Confederate irregulars - they're too clean, too healthy, and they talk like modern people who are trying to talk like they imagined people did in the 1800s, which means every now and then someone inserts a "I reckon" or "for true?" into the sort of shit people say now. (I'm not even sure people actually said "for true" in the 1800s, for that matter.) We're not at all transported back into the Civil War - the artificiality of the conceit never goes away.

Apart from believing them as people from another time, it's hard to care about these people at all. They're thieves, so they're unsympathetic, they're ready to turn on each other, so they're unsympathetic, and they're all taciturn and seem completely unfazed by pretty weird shit (until the third act, when the hysterics get turned up like someone said "okay, be scared…now"), which deadens any opportunity to establish a mood. Why should we care about these people?  They're barely people - they're ciphers with maybe one trait each (the leader, the woman, the kid, the asshole, the black guy, and the one who isn't any of these other things), and all of their communication is in grunts and monosyllables. A large part of the first act of this movie is people wandering around this huge house alone or in pairs, occasionally trading sentences to minimal response, reacting to nothing. I enjoy a good slow burn, but usually it's a good idea to use the time when nothing's happening to establish who these people are, so that when things do start happening, we identify or connect with the characters enough that their experiences resonate with us. The only thing we know about these people by the time the first act is done is that the leader and the woman are a couple, the kid has a crush on the woman, and the asshole wants to screw the black guy (and maybe everyone else) out of their share of the gold. Small foundation upon which to build any engagement or goodwill on the part of the audience.

Case in point: When they find the strange book - full of anatomical diagrams, arcane writing, and things drawn in what appears to be blood, someone recognizes it as a ritual for raising the dead and says so. The others basically say "huh," and keeping searching the house. Any mystery that book could provide falls dead, not just because it would make sense in context that the character who knows this might not want to share that tidbit with the others, but also because this unpleasant bit of information elicits no real reaction. This isn't some tactical realism complaint, though you'd think given some of the other stuff they've just seen by this point, it should at least make them uncomfortable that a book like this is just lying around. More importantly, it's just dropped in our laps as the audience, with no build-up, no context, and no sense that it's affecting the people on the screen. They don't care, so why should we?

This passiveness and inertia extends to the structure of the film itself. There's no sense of pacing - in the first act, barely anything happens to the protagonists, and barely anything indicates that there's any real reason for them (or us) to be worried. They're in more danger of turning on each other than anything else, but this too is communicated through monotone, mumbling conversations between people with little discernable personality, so there's no tension at all. In the second act, when weird stuff starts happening, it happens in isolation to everything else going on around the protagonists, so we see a thing happen, but nobody apart from the person affected reacts or responds to it right away, so it doesn't feel like it really matters. It's not a natural progression of events, it's just a series of scary things that have been inserted into the movie because scary things have to happen in scary movies.

This almost mechanical approach extends to the horror elements (and they really do feel like elements, rather than an organic outgrowth of these people in this place at this time) as well - unnaturally pale children appear from nowhere and suddenly turn into hideous creatures, mysterious beasts roam the corn outside the house, there's a scarecrow that creeps everyone out, people hear voices, there's the aforementioned book, and basement door that mysteriously won't open (until it does). They don't emerge from exploration or discovery or a sense that something is escalating, they just sort of happen at intervals, the characters maybe say something about them (or if it's a more direct encounter, we don't see them again for a bit, if at all), and then things continue as they did before. These moments have all of the verve and intensity of a title card insert that says "A scary thing happens now."

This tendency is ratcheted up in the third act, when the scary things are piled on fast and thick (without any real increase in tension) with a lot of exposition mixed in to tell us (rather than show us) that bad things happened here. No, really -  at two different points, a character actually stands at the foot of someone's bed and tells them what happened in this house.  And this sort of has to happen because the horrible events that are supposed to serve as the engine of evil in this place are sort of incoherent - there's some internal logic to what happens, but it still feels less like an organic series of events and more like a bunch of images and set pieces that someone thought would look cool and then worked backward to create a story that would justify inclusion of all these things. There are a number of loose ends and unexplained inconsistencies, and although I think leaving some things unexplained is generally a good thing in horror movies, here it feels less like they're being left deliberately ambiguous and more like somebody just forgot that this stuff happened after it served its purpose in whatever scene it was featured.

In the end, people die (or don't, or do) and by the time the sun rises everything is resolved (or is it…? Oooohhhh, spooky!), and we're sort of left wondering what the point was of any of it. And no, it's never clear why the film is called Dead Birds, though it's just as inert and unremarkable as one, so yay for giving me a chance to make a cheap title joke, I guess?

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Saturday, October 19, 2013

Chained: Child Is Father To The Man

As I've said before, horror movies generally don't get serial killers right. You can't treat them like you would fictional monsters, because serial killers are real, and making them into nigh-indestructible criminal geniuses with a flair for the theatrical cheapens and trivializes the real pain and suffering they cause to people. But that's inevitably what happens: They're bugfuck crazy, dress up in costumes, stage all of their murders as elaborately as possible, taunt their pursuers, and make sure to monologue long enough for the good guy/final girl to get the drop on them (until they return to kill again - franchisability is the name of the game, after all).

And what turns these people into sex-crime supervillains? If there's an explanation (there isn't always one, all the better to make them as close to an unknowable monster as possible), invariably it's an abusive parent, usually (though not always) the mother. This goes all the way back to Norman Bates, and then you've got Thomas Harris' Tooth Fairy and Buffalo Bill, both of whom have serious, serious mommy issues. In Rob Zombie's remake of Halloween, Michael Myers' mother is a stripper with terrible taste in boyfriends, and in Friday the 13th, the mother is the one doing the murdering. What would Freud say about that? Even the recent remake of Maniac, which does a lot right, features a coke-addled slattern of a mother figuring heavily into Frank's fractured psyche.

All of this is just to say that Chained - a movie very much about a serial killer and warped ideas of family - ends up largely being a very pleasant surprise.

We open on a kitchen, shot from a medium distance, almost like a play. There's a boy in the kitchen, and when he hears a buzzer, he rushes to open a door for whoever's on the other side. In comes a man, dragging a screaming, sobbing woman behind him. They go through the kitchen to somewhere off-camera. Then the real screaming begins, and the boy hides under the kitchen table, covering his ears in vain.

The boy's name is Tim, but the man (himself named Bob) calls him Rabbit. Tim/Rabbit and his mother were unfortunate enough to get into Bob's cab one day, and instead of taking them home, Bob took them to his house, out in the middle of nowhere. Bob killed Tim's mother, and decided to keep Tim as his own. A new name, a bed in the kitchen, chores to do (make breakfast, keep the house tidy, make scrapbooks of missing-persons articles, clean up the blood when Bob is done with his latest victim), and books to read (anatomy texts). Bob has decided that he's going to raise Rabbit to carry on the family business, so Rabbit needs to  know the human body inside and out. And because Rabbit tries to run (as rabbits do), he keeps Rabbit on a long, long chain. Long enough to reach to the crawlspace, so Rabbit can dig graves for the bodies Bob buries there.

When it begins, Rabbit is only nine.

With one nicely done cut, we follow Rabbit from his first two weeks of captivity forward in time to his eighth or ninth year in Bob's house. The little boy has grown up, and we get a sense of the warped reflection of domesticity the two have established. Rabbit keeps the house clean, Bob hunts. Rabbit and Bob watch TV in the evenings. Rabbit and Bob play cards - after a fashion, it's a sick memory game using the driver's licenses of all the women Bob has killed - and Rabbit and Bob discuss Rabbit's future. After all, Bob knows Rabbit doesn't want to spend his whole life chained up in the house, and Bob wants Rabbit to carry on in his footsteps. Bob thinks he's teaching Rabbit how to be a man. As is usually the case, the teenaged Rabbit has very different ideas from his "father" about what he wants to do. It is this battle of wills that dominates the second half of the movie, as we learn more about who Bob is and how Rabbit feels about his captivity after all this time.

A lot could have gone wrong with this movie - the idea of serial killer as mentor or father figure is hackneyed enough to make my teeth itch  - but by and large, Chained is a restrained, surefooted examination of the relationship between fathers and sons. The violence occurs largely in the background until the final act, Bob's predations largely observed in their aftermath. Much attention is paid to small details: The plastic safety scissors Rabbit uses to clip newspaper articles for Bob's scrapbooks, the variety of tools hanging up in Bob's garage, alongside two or three freezers and rolls of plastic tarp, mutely awful in their implications. The jar for money, the cigar box for driver's licenses. All just set dressing, but important in sketching out the limits of Rabbit's tiny little world. And the carefully observed human scale of this movie means that we feel just how tiny Rabbit's world is - so much of the movie takes place in Bob's house that the moments that don't feel like as much of a breath of fresh air to us as they would to Rabbit. The colors and light of the outside world gleam and pop compared to the squalid murk of Bob's house, and after long stretches of the same interior shots over and over, new scenery - any new scenery - just serves to sharpen the claustrophobia of the rest of the movie.

Bob is a serial killer done right - he's not clever or creative, he's a crude, fumbling, inarticulate lump of a man, all damage and violence and pain and confusion. His lack of self-awareness makes his past a prison, and though he isn't exactly sympathetic, he's not a caricature or a villain either. He's not a monster, but he does monstrous things, has had monstrous things done to him. We get flashes of his past, and they tell us how Bob became who he is, why he does what he does. Rabbit grows into someone spooky and feral, as confused and damaged as Bob, the interplay between his learned helplessness and rage and grief at his captivity palpable on his face and in every action. When Rabbit rebels, it's not an assertion of decency and humanity, it's the petulance of the boy who doesn't want to be like his father - a warped, mocking, travesty of father-son relationships.

There are no elaborately staged kills or bizarre rituals or taunting clues here. Just a man so emotionally and socially crippled that he's incapable of seeing women as anything more than whores, incapable of interacting with them except through rape, and in his own mind, left with no choice as a result but to murder. His attempts to be a father to Rabbit are equally stunted by his inability to connect or communicate in any terms other than those of violence. Bob so desperately wants to do better for Rabbit than was done for him, but the lessons he learned from his own father damn him, The story's resolution requires us to reconsider what we've seen in what at first seems like a sudden upsetting reversal, but really was there all along, built as deeply into the story's beginning as a man is built into the boy from whom he will grow.

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

American Mary: Cut Deeper

One of the things scary movies do well is explore uncomfortable ideas and ask uncomfortable questions about justice, fairness, safety, good and evil, human frailty, the nature of life and death, stuff like that. All of our most cherished ideas about how the world works are capable of being put under the microscope, of going under the knife. They cut open our understanding of how everything is supposed to be and reveal the squirming guts within.

Okay, so that got more pretentious than I would have liked, but the point stands. Horror at its best often doesn't let us have the safety or sanctity of our illusions, and American Mary is a movie poised to dig deep into taboos about the body, only to shrink back from the real, frightening thing it could express. It has the knife in its hand, and flinches.

Mary Mason is a medical student, and a bright, promising one at that. She wants to become a surgeon - a demanding discipline in a demanding profession. Her teachers are assholes, but what's the old joke? "What's the difference between a surgeon and God?" "God doesn't think he's a surgeon." She's working hard, and she's broke. Medical school isn't cheap, and she's behind in her bills. In a moment of desperation, she answers an ad for some non-sex modeling/fetish/photography work. She puts on her sexiest lingerie and a long coat to go to her "job interview."

It's just as creepy and sad as you'd think. Show the club owner the goods, turn around so he can get a good look at her ass, give the club owner a massage. You can see the doubt, uncertainty, and discomfort on her face. But just as it's about to get sadder and creepier, someone barges into the room - there's a problem downstairs. It turns out someone's gotten hurt, and hurt badly, though it's never specified how. Mary's a medical student, and the club owner tells her that if she can fix this guy up, he'll give her $5000 and she won't have to show him her tits. What a deal. Mary keeps the guy from dying, takes the money, and runs home to throw up and freak out at what she just did. And then the next day, she gets a phone call from Beatress. Beatress works at the club, and heard about what Mary did. Beatress needs someone discreet, with medical training. Money is no object. Beatress has a friend who wants some surgery done.

Some very…unorthodox…surgery. Something surgeons won't do.

So Mary has a certain set of skills, and needs money. There are people who require those skills, and will pay a premium to get things done to them that the modern medical community won't do. Mary really needs the money, and that need takes her places she never thought she'd go.

It's as promising a premise as I'd want. I'm a sucker for hidden-subculture movies, where shit you'd never think existed not only exists, but there are entire economies built up around it, and are lurking behind any door, down any basement, on secret websites. The realities about illegal cosmetic surgery are horrifying enough that a horror take on them could make for a vividly disturbing movie, a look under some very real rocks at what squirms beneath them. Unfortunately, there are enough problems with American Mary that the possibilities largely go squandered.

One of the biggest problems is how tonally jarring this movie is - there are moments of real menace and discomfort, to be sure, but they're often juxtaposed with dialogue that's glib almost to the point of being goofy. Sometimes it works, helping to ground Mary as someone not in need of rescue - for good or ill, she knows what she's doing, and doesn't have a lot of patience for fools. It's especially effective when she's talking to someone she has horribly disfigured in the cool, even tones of a doctor providing post-op assessment and care, and there's a conversation scene at a party that's bizarre enough that it feels like an outtake from David Lynch's Lost Highway. Instances like those are good, helping to sell a feeling of increasing disorientation, disconnection, and unreality. But other times it completely undercuts the mood that has built up - I think it's meant to be blackly funny, but instead it yanks you out of the moment.

This disconnect spills over to the type of story the movie wants to tell as well - is it an account of one woman's moral and mental disintegration? Is it a journey into the depths of a bizarre, secret subculture? Is it a revenge story? It touches on all of these, but doesn't really earn any of them.

In the beginning, you get the sense that this is going to be the story of how Mary, initially desperate to fund her education, starts compromising her principles in ways that become increasingly horrific, except that after a couple of brief episodes of shock and revulsion, Mary is shown embracing what she does enthusiastically to the point of becoming something of a prima donna. It's not really about the increasingly bizarre things people are willing to do to their body, either, because very little of what's presented is really that outre anymore, and the most shocking things we're going to see are some of the first things we see. There's no journey from "odd, but what harm could it do?" to "really? Well, I need the money" to "oh holy shit what the fuck is this?" It gets weird early  and everything after that is going to be shocking at best to people with no previous exposure to the idea of body modification. On the other hand, if you've spent any time on the Internet or watching weird documentaries on TLC, much of this will not be anything new, and - at least in my case, as someone who's had a copy of Modern Primitives on his bookshelf for about 20 years now - not that shocking at all. There's definitely a revenge story to be told here, and the ideas and events related to it are some of the most effective parts of the movie, when it really hits a nerve with a feeling of casual disregard, almost contempt for the privacy and autonomy of someone's body.

But that's wrapped up by the end of the first act. The second act flounders, sort of poking at each of these different stories (and still at its best when it's focusing on the revenge aspect) to see what will work, but doing so without a sense of pacing or continuity. The third act loses the plot entirely, ending the film on a note so anticlimactic and unearned it felt like the filmmakers genuinely weren't sure where to go with their story and just decided to end it instead.

This is all the more disappointing because there's some real promise here - there's a great, varied visual palette at work, ranging from grimy, shadowy callbacks to the basement dungeons of Hostel to cool, gleaming operating theaters to airy loft apartments and warm, sensual penthouses. Some of the best-composed shots let their most important information happen in the background without calling extra attention to what's going on, often making what we see even worse, and there's both cleverness and restraint in how gratuitous gore is avoided - for a movie ostensibly about illicit surgery, we don't see a lot. Although the acting and dialogue don't work as often as they should, when they do connect well with the material, it lends a bracing acerbity to the darkest parts of the movie. And the basic idea is really sound, and between Mary's customers and her teachers, with her in between, there's a lot of room to explore the intersection of body image, consent, technology, power, and biology. But this movie doesn't dive in - it shrinks back, not just from spraying blood and guts everywhere, which is a good thing, but it shrinks back from the ideas as well.

The more I think about it, that restraint really does end up being the movie's undoing. I was really looking forward to a journey down the rabbit hole as Mary finds herself in a position to fulfill the needs of people with increasingly stranger and more specific desires, pushing the limits of what our body can and was meant to do, and coming out the other end completely transformed by her own transformative work, as monstrous as the monsters she makes. Instead, we got a Lifetime Movie of the Week about the extremes of cosmetic surgery, complete with an angry husband. There's no real interrogation of the ideas that technology makes our flesh malleable, and that desire can make the shapes it takes increasingly strange. There's no real, legitimate cost to Mary in what she is doing that we can see after the first 30 minutes or so. There's a germ of an idea that legitimate surgeons are just as morally corrupt as Mary, but that entire question is settled early and not revisited often enough to make it a source of tension or suspense, and in some moments when we should be experiencing real fear or disgust, goofy character moments distance and disengage us from sincere experience. For a movie about illegal surgery, it just doesn't cut deeply enough.

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A Note About American Horror Story

So I've had plenty to say about the first two seasons of American Horror Story, a show that's been responsible for some of the most daring and horrific stuff I've seen on any TV ever. Unfortunately, the third season has started and where I am right now, I don't have cable or an Internet connection strong enough to support streaming video as of yet. (As it is, it takes me a good 30-45 minutes just to upload a single post.) So I haven't been able to watch the third season, and I'm trying to avoid as much information about it as I can so that I'm not spoiled for when I do watch it. I'm disappointed that I won't be able to follow along with it right now, but I wanted to put this out here so anyone who has read my comments on previous seasons doesn't wonder why I stopped talking about it.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Resolution: Story Ghosts

Ghosts are generally portrayed as spirits stuck in a particular place, often doomed to reenact the behaviors that led to their undead state. Sometimes the ghost is malevolent, sometimes it' s sympathetic, but either way, something needs to happen to free them from the cycle in which they're trapped. So ghost stories are as much about the ghost's story as about the ghost itself. It's a wonderfully flexible conceit, because you can use it to create monsters (the mad doctor in the remake of The House on Haunted Hill), tragedies (the little girl poisoned in The Sixth Sense), or neat little flips from one to the other (Samara in the remake of The Ring).

Resolution does something really cool by making the story itself into the ghost.

Mike is on his way into a rural part of (presumably) the Pacific Northwest after receiving a video file from his friend Chris. The file shows Chris having a grand old time, living out in the woods with a dog companion, shooting at birds, shooting at cans and bottles, shooting at nothing, talking to empty air, smoking a whole lot of crack (or crystal meth, it's never really made clear), and sitting in the middle of a field, screaming at nothing.

So Mike's come to help Chris get clean, whether he wants it or not. Chris insists he doesn't want help, doesn't need help, and would prefer to die of his own excesses in his squalid shack out in the woods. Chris has pretty much alienated everyone else in his life, and Mike's pretty close, but he's willing to make this one last attempt to rescue his friend and his friendship. There are some complications - a couple of drug dealers insist that Chris has a stash of their drugs, and they want it back. Chris doesn't know where it is, and assumes he smoked it all. It also turns out that Chris is squatting on tribal land and is about to be in a lot of trouble. Mike has 5 days to dry Chris out and bring him back to civilization to go into rehab. So it's all pretty tense. In the middle of managing everything, Mike discovers a box of really old photographs under the house, photographs that seem to chronicle the death of two people. Even stranger, the last photo directs Mike to a nearby shack, where he finds an old phonograph record that again seems to be an audio recording of someone's death.

And this leads to another recording, which leads to another recording…

Resolution really skirts the edges of what you'd typically call a horror movie. For the first half of its runtime, it's pretty much just the story of two friends, one of whom is going down for the third time, the other willing to stick out his hand yet again. The threats are drug dealers, sketchy tribal property owners, other assorted misfits and castoffs who live in the woods, and Chris' own worst impulses. The weirdness takes awhile to build, and it happens in the background, without fanfare, eliciting the same sort of deadpan creepiness as the similarly low-budget and rural Yellowbrickroad, but with the supernatural elements pushed as far into the background as they were pushed to the fore in Yellowbrickroad. The tension begins as a natural extension of the situation in which the protagonists find themselves, and then slowly starts to spill over into something much stranger. The woods are filled with stories, told in photographs, journals, slides, 8mm film, VHS, records, and none of them end well. Instead of ghosts, the woods are haunted by the stories themselves, the stories the ghosts would typically tell. It's hard to talk about this movie without giving away too much, because it isn't really clear what's happening until the absolute end of the film, and everything sort of coheres once everything has happened that's going to happen. It's such a low-key, understated approach that I was still putting pieces together well into the credits - it wasn't so much a shock of realization as realization settling in, like sediment sinking to the bottom of a pond.

It also reminds me of the movie Monsters, in that it's as much about the relationship between the two protagonists as the circumstances in which they find themselves, and that attention to the characters, their history, and their relationship is a tremendous asset to the film. These feel like two real people who have known each other a very long time and have had as many bad times as good, and are now at a point where they have to examine that relationship and who they are as people. It's well-realized enough that we don't really notice how strange things are becoming - even considering a whole cast of oddballs, from UFO cultists to escapees from a mental hospital to oily, predatory house-flippers, all of whom sort of pop up out of nowhere - until it's right on top of us, and Chris and Mike are swallowed whole by their circumstances.

Ghosts have stories to tell, and these stories serve an audience. You'd be excused if you thought you were the audience for these stories, but you aren't. There are a lot of weird people in the woods, and there are a bunch of reasons why they could be there, just as there are a bunch of reasons why what's happening to Mike and Chris is happening, but the reasons aren't really the point - the reasons are sort of a necessary part of something much bigger and ancient, and very, very hungry. Resolution takes its sweet time, putting all of the pieces in place, and when the penny finally drops, you realize that every little quirky diversion throughout, every odd occurrence, they were all pointing to something meaningful and monstrous the whole time.

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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Maniac: The Male Gaze

One of the most common explanations for the appeal of scary movies (because wanting to watch terrible things happen to people does demand some sort of explanation, let's face it) is that they allow us to deal with unpleasant feelings and ideas from a safe distance. Regardless of what's happening on-camera, we know there' s a camera and a crew and actors and thus what we're watching is a work of fiction. This makes it safe and okay. 

(Okay, sure, there are exceptions like The Bunny Game, where the violence is unsimulated, but there's still a director and a crew and everyone involved knows that they're making a work of fiction - to be glib about it, it's still a movie, just with much more demanding stuntwork.)

This idea of distance is important. Conventional film generally uses a third-person perspective, where the audience are unseen observers. We see what is happening, but we aren't directly involved. It's this very removal that makes breaking the fourth wall effective - calling attention to the artifice calls attention to our role in the film's events. We're watching, and in fact what's happening on screen is for our amusement and entertainment. In Blue Velvet, Frank Booth turns around to look at Jeffrey Beaumont and says "you're like me", but he doesn't look at Jeffrey, he looks out at the audience, directly implicating us in his sadism. Even found-footage films don't escape this idea of distance because the idea of the camera is even more explicit than in conventionally-shot films.

Maniac is a supremely unsettling exercise in getting rid of distance and the sense of safety that goes with it.

As the movie opens, we're watching two young women leaving a club. They say their goodnights and go their separate ways. We continue to follow one of the women as she attempt to hail a cab, getting harassed by a man who wants her to come party with him in the process. It's a brief but nasty moment, full of predatory sexism with the thinnest veneer of politeness and manners possible, and we watch the whole thing play out from some distance away. As the man looks like he's not going to take no for an answer, the woman gets away, but something worse happens.

A voice, apparently from nowhere, says "leave her alone." 

We're watching all of this happen from the perspective of a specific person. And this specific person pulls his car out of a parking space and turns to follow the woman. She isn't able to get a cab, but that doesn't seem to matter, as the disembodied voice says "it's okay, Judy, I know where you live." Our point of view follows Judy home, and proceeds to cut out the lights in her building. Our point of view follows Judy to her door, and then asks her not to scream, telling her how beautiful she is even as it drives the knife home.

Maniac is, basically, a slasher movie shot in the first person. Sure, this has been done before to one degree or another, but my (admittedly limited) knowledge of slasher movies suggests that usually there's something there to maintain distance - an eyehole vignette effect to make it look like we're seeing the world through the mask the killer wears, for example. There is none of that here. We see everything the killer sees without any way to mediate it. We are right there as people are dying, and we don't have the luxury of looking away.

And what a point of view it is: The killer, a pale, twitchy young man named Frank, is a tangled ball of stunted sexuality and Oedipal conflict, glued together by migraines. He works as a restorer of antique mannequins, and lives in the back of his shop. Because we see the world through his eyes, it becomes pretty evident pretty quickly that Frank's relationship with sanity is really, really tenuous. He meets a woman through an online dating service, and on a dinner date with her, his anxiety is visualized - we see other people as he sees them, all staring at him in mute judgment after his date asks him a question, time slowing to a crawl. When it all becomes too much and he starts to get a migraine, his vision goes blurry and shaky around the edges, and he hallucinates blood running down his date's face. His sick lurching to the bathroom to choke down some pills is ours. We are essentially trapped in Frank's perspective, looking out from behind his eyes.

It's a queasy, claustrophobic, unpleasant feeling to have to see what he sees and not be able to look away. We are strapped into his experience of the world, up to and including the fear and desperation on his victims' faces as he murders them. It functions as a bracing antidote to slasher movies - like the film is saying "oh, you like seeing people stalked and brutally murdered? Okay…HERE." It's the "oh, you want to smoke? Here - smoke a whole carton!" approach to giving us what we think we want. We're along for the ride as Frank finds women, stalks them, kills them, scalps them, and takes the scalps back to his apartment, where he staples them onto the heads of mannequins who intermittently seem to come to life. We're never made completely privy to how Frank ended up the way he did, but increasingly vivid episodes of hallucination sort of tell the story - his father was out of the picture, his mother brought home lots of strange men (sometimes not even bothering to bring them home, instead entertaining them in alleyways), with little Frank watching. A fractured logic springs up through these episodes - the blurring of lines between mannequins and people, women in general and Frank's mother, Frank as he is now and as he was as a child. He was broken early on, and nobody was able to put him back together.

(Interestingly, the movie does break the first-person perspective in just a few places - on a couple of occasions when Frank kills, and in the rare instances where he's able to make a a human connection. What at first seems like an irritating break with the conceit instead seems like it's saying that it's probably really hard for Frank to really recognize that those two actions are separate things, that one is not a substitute for another).

It's tempting to dismiss this movie as a sensationalistic spin on the slasher genre - it's a remake of a film of the same name from 1980, and although it's set in present-day Los Angeles, it feels as scuzzy and menacing as the original, set in New York City. The city, huge and expressionless, is empty when Frank's victims need other people the most, and the rare daytime scenes are shot with an overabundance of light and color that contrasts with the grimy darkness in which most of the movie is set. The score is mostly analog synthesizer, which works with the cinematography to give it a feeling of something closer to Taxi Driver or The Warriors than Friday the 13th. So it'd be easy to file it away as an exploitation homage and leave it at that, but there's a lot here to think about once you get past the horrific violence.

It's a movie about one man's utter disintegration and the human cost of that disintegration, but in using first-person perspective, it also serves as an exercise in seeing and being seen. There are a lot of shots of Frank in reflection, so we see him as he sees himself, as we see others as he sees them and how others see him via their reaction - usually obvious fear, though not always. We're introduced to Anna, a young artist who strikes up an unlikely friendship with Frank, when she comes to his shop to photograph his mannequins for an exhibition. We first meet her with her camera up in front of her face, acquiring images and a point of view in as aggressive a way as we do via Frank. The long lens is almost a weapon.

Along with gaze, projection also becomes an important theme throughout - Frank projects his mother onto other women, a trip to the movies with Anna (to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, of all things), ends in a hallucination of Frank recalling the death of his mother shot in the style of a silent movie, as he projects himself into the images projected onto the screen. Anna's installation features a series of mannequins Frank restored, with her own face projected onto the blank faces of the mannequins. What we see, what other people see, what we wish to see in others, what others wish to see in ourselves. This is a lot to take on for a movie about a dude whose mask of sanity is held on by dental floss, but it helps immerse us in a nightmare, where there's a secret vocabulary of imagery providing the underlying rhythm for a life spiraling rapidly out of control. As the movie progresses, Frank's point of view becomes increasingly less and less reliable, and there's not a lot we can do about it. We're aware that there's a watcher, there's someone being watched, that something's being projected and that someone's doing the projecting. This is what film is, but it's presented in a way that makes us question the whole act of watching and projection, and makes us question what we're trying to get out of it.

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