Friday, June 7, 2013

The Tall Man: Fractured Fairy Tales

I recognize that my definition of horror is much looser than most people's, and that's mostly a conscious decision on my part. I don't like the idea that the themes and imagery with which horror films play should be prescriptively confined to a genre, nor do I like the way that genre classification is used to marginalize and delegitimize films along class lines. Horror belongs to everyone and everything, as far as I'm concerned.

One example of how this can be problematic is the occasional dissonance between a film and how that film is presented. One recent example might be Cherry Tree Lane, which is a well-acted, nuanced, utterly unsparing chamber drama about class divides told through the story of a home invasion. It's quite good and I'd recommend checking it out. However, the advertising makes it look like some kind of slasher film, which it really, really isn't. 

The Tall Man is another example - it's billed basically as a monster movie, but it really, really isn't. If anything, it's a fable or fairy tale. One could be forgiven going into The Tall Man for thinking it's going to be a monster movie - the premise suggests it, and it's directed by Pascal Laugier, who directed the excellent (and utterly monstrous) Martyrs. And fables and fairy tales sometimes have monsters in them, but they're not really the point. The point is what the monsters have to say about the world in which they exist.

Julia Denning is the closest thing the town of Cold Rock has to a doctor. Which is to say that she's a nurse, her deceased husband was the town doctor, and Cold Rock is a dying mining town with little to offer the people who remain. As the movie opens, she's delivering a child into the world - it's a problematic pregnancy, the child might not make it. The mother is in her teens, almost a child herself, and she's been brought to Julia because the nearest hospital is too far away, and the girl's own mother doesn't want to attract too much attention to the child. In addition to deep poverty and a rapidly dwindling population, the town of Cold Rock has a secret: One in awhile, a mysterious figure known as The Tall Man kidnaps a child from the town and spirits them away, never to be seen again. 

Not only are these people losing their way of life - their past and present - but they're losing their future as well. A pall of melancholy and dread hangs over the town like a toxic cloud. Julia is doing the best she can for these people - she genuinely cares about them and gets frustrated when they don't do the right thing, when they continue to make bad choices, to put their lives at risk. She has a child of her own and a friend who looks after him when she's gone. She's suffered loss of her own before, and she's trying to make it work in a town ruled by superstition and irrational beliefs, because these people have nobody else. 

And then, one night, The Tall Man comes and takes Julia's boy away from her.

What follows is a mad, headlong chase down one rabbit hole after another. The premise really is just the beginning, and the less you know about the story going into it, the better. That said, it isn't a monster movie, not in any conventional sense. It's beautifully shot - the decaying remains of a company town in the Pacific Northwest, grudgingly little sunlight pushing its way through the clouds, the warm golds of Julia's home, the shadows in the forest and the old mines, the cold, sterile light of hospitals and jails. Where these people are at any moment is telling us as much of a story as the events playing out before us, and those events tumble and spill and upend each other at every turn. As in Martyrs, Laugier does an excellent job here not just of communicating the pain and sadness with which these people live, but also forcing us to question our understanding of the world in which these people live over and over again. Nothing is what it seems, but everything is what it seems at the same time.

The Tall Man is a fable, a story about how and why things are the way they are, and how they should be. Julia's journey keeps her (and us) off-balance every step of the way, and though in the end we know what has happened and why, how we're supposed to feel about that is left hanging in the air, the last lines of the film a question, inviting us to ask ourselves what it is we've just witnessed.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Innkeepers - Spaces Between

The composer John Cage once wrote a piece called 4'33, consisting of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. It can be interpreted as an artistic prank, a comment on the nature of music, the logical extension of musical or compositional theory, or an attempt to be provocative. I got to thinking about it because I think 4'33 highlights the importance of silence or space as a part of almost any creative work. Pauses accentuate sound, space highlights form, blank canvas calls attention to color. In silence and space lie all of the possibilities of what could come next, and the opportunity to contemplate what we've seen or heard. The Innkeepers makes good use of silence and space to tell a ghost story that is measured and sympathetic, almost to the point of being sad.

Claire and Luke work at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a historic hotel in its last weekend of operation. Their boss has already taken off, most of the hotel's rooms have already been stripped, and they have exactly three guests for the weekend. It's going to be a long shift, and they've got a lot of free time to fill. Luke is trying to get a ghost-hunting website up and running, using legends surrounding the Yankee Pedlar's own ghost (a spurned bride named Madeline O'Malley) to kick it off. So he and Claire are spending a bunch of time trying to pick up ghostly voices using recording equipment and trying to record ghostly manifestations. They're also occasionally taking care of the few guests they have and spending the rest of the time engaging in the sort of aimless, time-wasting banter universal to any customer service job. As the weekend wears on, strange things start happening, little by little - sudden drops in temperature, faint voices - and one last mysterious guest checks in, insisting on the now-closed honeymoon suite.

If this all sounds very small-scale, that's because it is. There aren't a lot of musical stings and sudden zooms and mysterious figures in ragged clothes floating toward the camera. It's an almost intimate story about a place and the people in it at a very specific moment in time, and how those things evoke something larger than the sum of their parts. It's an intimate story made up of long stretches of nothing interrupted by moments of something, like a spare melody being played very slowly, leaving plenty of room to let the notes hang in the air. 

There's more humor than you'd expect as well - Claire and Luke are very much the prototypical slackers in low-level service jobs, and though both aspire to something better, this movie captures them at a point in their lives where that hasn't happened yet, and much of their interaction consists of the sort of acerbic humor common to any service industry job, born out of the need to amuse yourself during stretches of downtime, with your customers (and their attendant frustrations) as your primary source of material. They have the camaraderie that comes with that sort of work environment as well, and you can see them edging toward some more honest form of connection as the movie goes on. It isn't critical to the story, but it feels true, and when bad shit starts happening (as it must for this to be anything remotely resembling a horror movie), it's the humanity we've seen up to that point that highlights the bad shit as silence highlights sound.

And when bad shit starts happening, it begins with the hotel itself. The Innkeepers does a very good job of capturing a sense of place and setting a mood early on. By having two people working an extended shift at a mostly empty hotel on the eve of its closing, you get the creepiness of an empty house multiplied by the singular loneliness of the overnight shift at pretty much any job, and it's the hotel's last weekend, which adds a certain sadness as well - the sadness of something once full of life coming to an end of its own. The hotel is dying, and its last employees and guests are ghosts of a sort as well. Every hallway and every room is really, really empty, so when they aren't, when there's something there, or something makes a sound, it's startling. 

This minimalist approach doesn't always pay off - there may be a little too much space between tense moments, or a little too much humor and humanity, and the sense of unease that's been built up by the more mysterious goings-on tends to dissipate, and ultimately it probably lessens the impact of the climax a little as well. Still as an exercise in atmosphere and commitment to a more deliberate approach to horror that forsakes sensationalism for building toward a payoff over the course of the entire film, it's very much worth considering. Director Ti West's previous long-form effort, The House of the Devil, had a similar slow-burn approach (and a different set of strengths and weaknesses), and I suspect that with each film, West is getting closer to something that's going to be an unqualified success. So I'll let this one hang in the air, contemplating what I've just seen and wondering what's going to come next.