Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Okay, Fine, American Horror Story. You Win.

As shocking and disturbing and upsetting as American Horror Story has been this season, it took a musical number in the day room at Briarcliff to really unsettle me. There have been a lot "oh shit!" moments, a lot of "did they just say/do/show that?" moments, but Sister Jude's rendition of "The Name Game", complete with impromptu dance party, is what should be a moment of sunshine in an otherwise bleak existence, except since it's all going on in Jude's head, instead it feels weird and manic and brittle in a way that isn't shocking, per se, just deeply uneasy. I continue to be impressed.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Next-To-Last Exorcism

The Last Exorcism is getting a sequel. It doesn't need a sequel. It really doesn't need a sequel. Part of the reason it's a good movie is that it actually fucking ends. But it did well, so of course it's getting a sequel because heavens fucking forfend a movie be good and left to stand on its own. For fuck's sake.

That said, they've done at least one thing right: It isn't a found-footage movie. The first movie wasn't really about the girl who was possessed, it was about the guy doing the exorcism. Trying to find a whole new reason for someone to be lugging around a camera everywhere filming this poor girl would just be insulting. So that's something. Also, I gotta admit, the trailer looks pretty good.

Don't get me wrong - not every sequel has to suck. But the reasoning that leads to them and the priorities underlying the production of so many of them mean that yeah, more often than not, they're going to suck.

I really hope this one doesn't suck.

The Bay: Dad, You're Embarrassing Me

I don't like to talk about directors in posts about movies, because I want to make an effort to keep the focus on the movie itself and avoid conflating the movie with the director as a public figure. Horror film is full of iconic directors, and so I think it's easy for discussion to be diverted from the work to the people who made it, at which point you aren't talking about the movie anymore. That said, when someone not known for directing horror movies makes a horror movie (and it gets recognized as such, as opposed to being labeled a thriller or drama because it was directed by someone respectable), it's worth noting. When someone not known for directing horror movies directs a found-footage horror movie, I think that's even more notable. If I were going to be an argumentative dick about it, I'd say that a noted mainstream director should be able to make a really good horror movie, since the assumption seems to be that genre films are less demanding than mainstream ones. Barry Levinson has made some really good movies, and some not-so-good movies, but he's a respected director nonetheless. 

The Bay is not one of his better movies, and I think its failures are indicative of how difficult a good genre film can be to make.

The small Maryland town of Claridge sits on the Chesapeake Bay, chock-full of wholesome American values. It's the Fourth of July, and the town has turned out for the annual fireworks and assorted celebrations - dunk tanks, crab-eating contests, parades, the whole works. Like every small town, Claridge has its secrets and its petty corruption. The mayor runs an industrial-size poultry farm, and between the desalination plant he's set up to use bay water for the chickens and the staggering amount of chicken shit and industrial waste he's dumping, well, a lot of palms are getting greased. But what could be bad? Bay water is brackish, so nobody's drinking it. The important thing is that everyone's having fun and that the festivities go off without a hitch. 

Which they do, until people start getting sick from the crabs, and start climbing out of the dunk tank with burned, blistering skin. And getting weird rashes. And dropping dead.

The Bay is a found-footage movie, stitched together from multiple sources. Surveillance footage, home video, phone cameras, police dashboard cameras, everything. It's presented as a Wikileaks-style collection of suppressed footage, narrated by a survivor via a recorded Skype interview. So the narrative conceit is pretty clear - we're seeing the only remaining evidence of some horrible occurrence in Claridge, spanning roughly one day. The government has covered it up somehow, and the survivors are intent on making sure the truth is heard. If Levinson stuck to that conceit, if he fully committed to the constraints of that approach, it would have been a really good movie. But he doesn't, and his lapses into more conventional film techniques undermine the final product.

The Bay ducks the omnipresent-cameraman problem of found-footage films by stitching together footage from different sources, but doesn't stay honest to that mode of presentation - it veers between a hastily-assembled collection of recordings and a more professional production. It's a collection of raw footage, but there are instances of montage and narration over still images, and footage is re-used throughout to provide context - sometimes in painfully unsubtle ways - which suggests more opportunities for editing than a collection of suppressed footage should have had. It's really distracting - if you don't have narrative immersion in a found-footage film, if the provenance of the footage isn't believable, then it's going to lose a lot of its effectiveness. I really wanted to buy into the story here - the threat hits a nice balance of plausible, alien, and disgusting, and the terror and confusion is believable throughout. It sort of reminded me of what it was like to follow coverage of the flooding that occurred in the wake of Hurricane Katrina: Things just keep getting worse and worse, things are falling apart, and people just keep failing to do anything about it. Then a montage happens or footage that should be shaky and rough is clean and bright, sound is too clean, or footage is sourced from places there shouldn't be access to, and the illusion is broken. 

On the other hand, the acting is just right - nobody seems like a professional, conversations sound natural, and the closest thing we have to a protagonist is a communications student from American University who is just so excited to be covering something…anything…for the local news affiliate, and when shit starts going bad, she handles it as well as anyone in her position would, which is to say poorly. There's nothing heroic here, and the threat provides enough danger to make things tense and scary without ramping up to ridiculous levels, which is nice. The film ends a little anticlimactically as a result, but I think it's worth the tradeoff for a story at human scale. 

It was a promising idea, but like the characters in it, who aren't sure how to tell their story, complete with false starts and do-overs (the ones who know they're speaking to an audience are generally the most awkward), the film itself isn't quite sure how it wants to tell its story, and it suffers as a result. Barry Levinson took a leap by working in a style and genre with which he has little to no experience, which is admirable, but it's a demanding one that requires adherence to specific cinematic and narrative principles and Levinson can't quite bring himself to abandon what he knows. It's a little like watching a dad try to identify with his adolescent children by using their slang. It doesn't sound right, the clash between one generation's language and another's mode of speech makes it all awkward, and you sort of end up feeling bad and wishing it could have gone better by the time it's over. 

Unvailable from Netflix

"Fan" - The Other "F" Word

The first "F" word is, of course, "Franchise."

Film critic Mark Kermode recently gave a very nice review to the upcoming film American Mary which, being a movie about the underground world of illegal surgery, has been on my radar for awhile now. He uses references like Takashi Miike and David Cronenberg, so this movie is not fucking around. He expresses some surprise that more critics haven't been all over the movie, but in his discussion of it, I think he pretty much answers his own question.

He basically observes that advertising this movie for horror fans includes putting together a trailer with some sleaze to it, as if horror fans need to be lured in with a guarantee of lurid content before they'll go see something. So that sucks, but what what bothers me even more is that I'm not sure which alternative is worse: That he's wrong, but the perception of someone who enjoys horror film as someone who can and should be pandered to with lurid, sensationalistic bullshit is so firmly entrenched in popular culture that it's a throwaway point, something so part of the conventional wisdom that it doesn't even merit critical examination; or that he's right, and horror movies are mostly (if not entirely) viewed by people chiefly attracted to lurid, sensationalistic bullshit.

Either way, why should the mainstream pay attention to this movie? Why should it pay attention to any scary movie? More to the point, why should horror films be given serious critical attention if they're just spectacles for bloodthirsty cretins who need sleaze and gore before they'll pay attention to something?

It's tough to navigate the demands of art and commerce, and that's true for pretty much any mode of expression. It's even tougher to navigate the demands of art, commerce, and a specific audience who by their nature straddle the line between the two. Expectations for genre film are routinely low to start with, and visible, vocal fandom often drives them even lower. So yeah, I see fandom as a problem, and this sort of discussion is a symptom of that problem.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Citadel: The Feral City

"Once a vital component in a national economy, this sprawling urban environment is now a vast collection of blighted buildings, an immense petri dish of both ancient and new diseases, a territory where the rule of law has long been replaced by near anarchy in which the only security available is that which is attained through brute power."   -Richard J. Norton, Feral Cities

I don't think urban decay gets enough attention in horror movies. I mean, yeah, there's abandoned hospitals and prisons and whatnot all over the place. I mean urban decay, the slow blight of neglect and willful ignorance, the creeping rot of failed social experiments. I mean, let's face it. When you live in a city of any size, there will always be sections labeled HERE BE MONSTERS on your mental map. Neighborhoods in which you don't want  to be, whole sides of town, particular streets, particular intersections of particular streets. The specific geography might shift by race and class, but the basic idea remains. Hell, The Warriors is a hallucinatory feature-length take on this idea - it's an entire movie about a group of delinquents trying to get from the Bronx to Coney Island. It's a pulp crime thriller about a commute. So all of the weird shit left to happen when the government abandons chunks of a city - from slums to abandoned suburbs to cities within cities - that's fertile ground for horror. It's mystery, it's atrocity, and it's only a few miles away.

Citadel makes an admirable stab at exploring the idea of the feral city. It's a little obvious and doesn't do as much with it as it could, but not for lack of trying.

Tommy and Joanna are moving out of their shitty apartment in a shitty tower block in a shitty part of Ireland. Tile floors, cinderblock, and an elevator that only works when it damn well feels like it. The housing council has gotten them a new place and they're excited - Joanna's expecting, so they'll be raising their child in a better place. They're almost entirely moved out - Tommy's just taking one last suitcase down to the taxi - when a gang of hooded figures surround Joanna and start beating her. Trapped in the defective elevator, Tommy can only watch. And so ends Joanna, punctured by dirty hypodermic needles and dead of a mysterious infection. 

Their daughter, however, is born healthy. So Tommy is left to move into their new place without Joanna, and with a new baby girl and crippling agoraphobia. Would you blame him? The last time he walked out the door his wife died right in front of him. He can't work anymore, he has to go to group therapy, and Social Services are coming to take his daughter away because he isn't a fit parent. And on top of that, the mysterious hooded figures haven't gone away. They're coming for his daughter.

At its best, Citadel isn't so much about the mysterious figures who killed Joanna as it is about Tommy's increasingly desperate circumstances. He has no support system, no money, and he's the only thing keeping his baby daughter alive. Poverty's as terrifying as anything fictional, and his life stands on a knife's edge. One thing goes wrong and there's nobody there to catch them. Of course he's agoraphobic - one false move, one step outside and everything could fall apart. There's an especially effective sequence revolving around Tommy trying to complete a series of bureaucratic forms before the only bus of the day leaves. It sounds mundane and ridiculous, but it's not, not to Tommy - those forms are what he needs to keep a roof over their heads, the bus is the only way home, and every second he's not at home both he and his daughter are in danger from the vagaries of everyday life. What monster can compare to that?

Ultimately, we find out what kind of monster does compare: Feral children, their weapons - bricks, pipes, used hypodermic needles - the rubble and detritus of the slums. It's the worst, most decaying, condemned tower blocks that are shitting them out like poison oozing from an old sore. Condemned high-rises, monuments to Brutalist indifference churning out new plagues borne on the backs of the old.  As metaphors go, it's a little heavy-handed, and the explanation for their existence is too, but the monsters aren't what killed Joanna, they're just a symptom of the larger problem of poverty and urban decay that continues to threaten Tommy after her death. If this seems a little slight and obvious, that's because it is. 

There's a lot you could do with the idea of a feral city, a no-man's-land where everything gets weirder and darker the deeper in you go, the further away from sunlight you venture, and Citadel underserves it. What's there is good, though - there are some tense, creepy moments, everything goes nicely underexplained, and it mostly eschews cheap drama for a clear and careful focus on Tommy's story. When his story is over, so is the movie, and without a lot of the cliches you'd expect. Still, the condemned tower blocks cast a long shadow in this movie, and it'd be good if more of it were about what's casting the shadow instead of the protagonists' attempts to eke out a living in its shade. 

Not available on Netflix

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Sinister: Father Fails To Know Best

People make bad decisions all the time in scary movies, but they're typically made without all of the information we have as an audience ("don't read from that book, it's evil!"), or they're made under the assumption that that information is bad ("the crazed killer escaped the asylum? Nonsense! Besides, he will never get past us. Get out of here, you old fool!").  It's part of that whole "why didn't they just…" criticism I don't like. But every now and then, you get a movie where even discounting the supernatural or otherwise unrealistically horrible factors in play, people are making just shitty, awful decisions, and you can kind of see why things are going to turn out bad for them. Case in point? Sinister.

Ellison Oswalt is a true-crime writer whose last great success is ten years behind him. Oh, sure, he wrote a couple more books, but neither of them caught fire the way his best-seller did, and it's looking like he's out of gas. What's an author to do? He could teach, he could write or edit textbooks, but nooooooooo, that's not the life this married father of two wants. Why get a steady gig, one that will provide for your family, when you can continue to chase the sort of once-in-a-lifetime success few ever experience once, let alone twice or more? So Ellison and his family periodically pack up and move to the site of some horrible crime so Ellison can research it and write a book about it.

Needless to say, this behavior endears him to no one. He alienates law enforcement by being openly critical of them in his books, his kids are miserable from having to move around a lot. his older child has night terrors from wandering into Dad's office full of grisly crime scene information when he was little, and as much as Ellison talks about justice and telling the victims' story for them, it's just a speech. It didn't used to be, but now it's a line of patter, to reassure himself as much as his wife or the people who resent him moving in to their town to pick at the carcass of a recent tragedy. What he wants is wealth and fame and money. He wants another fifteen minutes. He watches old videotaped interviews of himself, warped and fuzzy from age, and it's hard to tell if he wishes he were still that person, talking so passionately about justice, or if he's contemptuous of himself for being so naive. 

So for his most recent effort, Ellison moves everyone to a small town in Pennsylvania, where a family of five has been horribly murdered, hung from a tree in their back yard. The youngest daughter went missing, and it's the missing-persons case on which Ellison is focused. Not content with just living in the same town, Ellison moves his family into the home where the murders took place, and then doesn't tell them that's where they're living. And yeah, I guess I can understand why, and sure, they got the house for a song, but come on. Even if there were no more to the story than that, that's a pretty creepy, shitty thing to do to your family, especially when one of your kids is already traumatized on some level by stumbling on some crime scene photos when he was 8 or 9.

And because this is a horror movie, there's definitely more to the story than that. Ellison finds a box labeled "Home Movies" in an otherwise totally empty attic, and inside there's an 8mm projector and several reels of film, labeled "Pool Party", "Family BBQ", "Lawn Work", etc. The first one is titled "Family Hanging Out", and it's innocuous footage of a family playing catch in their backyard, just chilling out…

…until it cuts to four bodies swinging from the very tree under which they were playing seconds ago. 

And the next reel, "Family BBQ", ends similarly. In fact, they're all home movies that end in horrible death for a family. and they date back to the mid 1960s. And for just a second, just a moment hanging in time, Ellison considers turning the film over to the police. But it's been ten years since he had a hit. So, instead, he watches another reel. And another, and another, damning himself more and more deeply every time he flips the Start switch on the projector. And that's when it begins. The mysterious figures, the odd noises in the attic, the sense that there is someone…or something…standing behind him, just out of sight. Because there is. Something ancient and terrible. 

It's like Jack Torrance moved his family to the Overlook specifically to write about all the horrible shit that happened there, and then was surprised when bad shit started happening

In a way, it's a Pied Piper/Peter Pan story, and you could argue that none of what happens would happen if Ellison would just grow up, quit chasing fame and fortune and start being a responsible husband and father for once. Which is nice to see in a horror film - it's not a character study, but it's nice to see something besides Average Family Moves Someplace Evil, to at least have an idea of why the protagonist is making the decisions he is. Likewise, the supporting characters seem believable as well - the sheriff doesn't want him in town for absolutely good reasons, and the obligatory Comic Relief Deputy ends up being one of the sharpest tacks in the whole story. In fact, the scope of the movie is small, and that's to its benefit. It all pretty much takes place in one house, and almost all at night. It almost feels like one of those movies where its constraints make it better - were it not for the budget and promotion behind this, I could totally believe it as an indie horror movie shot on the cheap by using a cast or crew member's house, and only shooting at night.

It's uneven as hell, though - the "home movies" are very well done, very uncomfortable, the grain of the film and the artificiality of the color make them queasy and disturbing. They look wrong and evil, and as Ellison spends more and more time looking into the story behind the murders, his world starts to become fragmented and artificial - not overly so, but just enough that it feels like the evil contained in the movies is starting to bleed through. And also? holy shit the sound design. The music is understated and uneasy in a way a lot of American horror movies don't get, the insectile scraping and squeaking of the film projector, the loud WHUMPs  and crashes and creaks coming from upstairs, all make for some excellent set pieces.

Maybe that's the problem - this is a bunch of good set pieces, but it doesn't all necessarily tie together as well as it should. Depending on what's going on at any given point, there are two visions for this movie. Is it an unsettling story about human weakness and frailty in the face of inexplicable evil, or is it a broad-strokes monster movie about some ancient bad guy with a specific M.O. and back story? You know, the kind of thing that lends itself to sequels and franchising? Well, where are we in the run time? 

These conflicting visions extend even to the aesthetic of the movie itself. As the supernatural component of the story becomes more manifest, it relies on makeup that doesn't stand up to close examination, and a lot of the dialogue and acting (though not all, which almost makes it more problematic) is just hokey and overdone enough that it makes it hard to take the movie seriously. Just as tension starts to ratchet up, or a mood is established, somebody says something or something pops up somewhere that just undermines all of the goodwill the movie built up to that point. This conflict ultimately compromises the story - a twist (one which someone observant has probably already guessed by this point, but no matter) is telegraphed before its formal reveal (which is one of the creepiest and most unsettling sequences in the movie) , so when the formal reveal does come, it's robbed of a lot of its power, and instead of saying "holy shit!" it just sort of lands with a "well, no shit." And, worst of all, I think, what could have been an effective, gut-punch of an ending is pretty much ruined by a cheap jump scare most likely designed to say HEY LOOK THERE COULD BE A SEQUEL SO LOOK OUT FOR SINISTER 2: SINISTERER! Even the end credits serve as an opportunity to back-load history for the ostensible Big Bad of the piece. 

One of the writers has apparently said (this from Wikipedia, so take it with a grain of salt) that the design for said creature changed from something less conventionally monstrous to what was in the movie because they were afraid that their original design would hurt the movies' chances at being franchised. If you read my blog on a regular basis, you'll know just how angry this makes me. If you haven't, these posts will give you an idea of why this makes me want to punch a producer or studio executive right in the heart.

That's the worst part of it, I think. It really sort of felt like a tug-of-war between a good, solid, scary film in the vein of The Ring and cheap franchise pandering - an opportunity for brand establishment instead of a movie first. Somebody wanted to tell a scary story about a man whose weakness costs him everything, and somebody wanted product with an identifiable central character to start a franchise, and the end result is just good enough to be a disappointment. We all lost.

Unavailable on Netflix

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Reconsidered: Wake In Fright

(What I'd like to do in my Reconsidered posts is take a more in-depth look at films that I think have something to offer beyond the text. A solidly composed horror film is a wonderful thing, but a solidly composed horror film that keeps me thinking about it for days afterward is an even more wonderful thing and a joy forever. I'll be writing with the assumption that the reader is familiar with the basic plot and characters, so needless to say, all kinds of spoilers ahoy.)

Normally I come up with a Reconsidered post as I'm writing something up - thinking about things that wouldn't work in an unspoiled post, but that bear mentioning or closer examination. In this case, the whole idea hit me, months later, all at once out of nowhere.

Well, not quite out of nowhere. Basically, the thought process started with me thinking about a short story (well, the beginnings of a short story) I wrote ages ago about a man who takes a vacation from his middle-management job. He's one of those guys who hasn't grown up yet, still tries to party like he did when he was twenty years younger. He goes to some resort town, and his first night there, he gets so wasted that he blacks out. When he comes to, he's neatly dressed, everything's in its place, and his hotel room smells of bleach. It isn't until he checks his digital camera that he discovers that during the night, he brought a woman back to his room and had sex with her. After which he tortured, murdered, and dismembered her. In his blackout state, he did all of this and cleaned up after himself.

Yeah, creepy, ooohhhhhh, whatever. My problem at the time was that I couldn't figure out why he did it, how he did it, or how to get him out of that room. More recently, I'd watched a pretty disturbing documentary on the drug scopolamine, and it gave me some ideas of things I could do to flesh out the story.

Still awake? Cool. So that whole thing got me thinking about my fondness for this sort of story - somebody loses a fair amount of time, and by the end of their journey to figure out what happened, they're an entirely different person from the one they were. Bonus points if the person has to discover this through some record of what happened while they were out. David Lynch's Lost Highway plays with this idea, and is one of my favorite movies. A big chunk of Srpski Film's second act is Milos discovering what he's done by looking through tapes of Vukmir's raw footage. So that got me thinking about Wake In Fright.

In Wake In Fright, John Grant goes on a bender in a small Australian Outback mining town on his way to Sydney to see his girlfriend, and the bender takes him to some low, awful places. It's a classic piece of Australian cinema, and a nice restored version of it is getting a limited release in the U.S. In mentioning this, I point out that although Wake In Fright sort of belongs to the same family of stories as Deliverance or Straw Dogs, it's more nightmarish and surreal than either of those films. And that's when the light bulb went off.

What if the events of Wake In Fright didn't actually happen?

As I think about it, the majority of the movie could very well be a nightmare that Grant has while sleeping off a blackout alcohol bender that never took him further than the bar in Tiboonda. This interpretation also suggests that Grant is probably a closeted gay man in pretty deep denial.