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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Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Last Exorcism, Part II: Little Girl, No Longer Lost

The Last Exorcism was one of those movies that clearly and unambiguously did not need a sequel. It told a well-developed story in an atmosphere of tension and unease, and any narrative loose ends that remained at the end belonged there. It was well-acted and reasonably smart, and pretty fucking unsettling once things got moving. It was also commercially successful enough that someone thought a sequel would be a good idea, and so one got made whether it was a good idea or not. My initial reaction was something on the order of "oh, goddamnit" when I first heard about it, but it got a pretty good critical reception and the trailer didn't make it look too stupid.

The Last Exorcism, Part II does a lot of things right, but ultimately suffers from erring a little too much on the side of caution.

The movie follows Nell Sweetzer - the young woman ostensibly afflicted by demonic possession in the first film - from rural Louisiana to the city of New Orleans. It picks up at an undefined point after the end of the events of the first movie, and wisely doesn't try to explain how Nell got to the city. Instead, we get a nicely creepy opening sequence that serves as a little bit of misdirection and establishes that Nell is on her own in the big city. She finds a place at a home for at-risk young women, with everyone under the impression that she's run away from a cult. It's not an unfair assumption, given that Nell is (as she was in the first movie) very much an innocent. She's a shy, sheltered girl who is in the process of becoming a woman. She is sometimes plagued by nightmares, fragments of memory of what happened to her before, but is in the process of working through them. She gets a job on the housekeeping staff of a nearby hotel, and even turns the head of a nice young man who works at the hotel as well.

She's also being followed from a distance. Shadows lurk behind the door, and something calls to her in her dreams. She begins having visions, and something begins to stir inside her. Strangers approach her on the street and say "he loves you so much" without making it clear who "he" is.

It's shot as a conventional film, instead of in a found-footage style as was the first, and this is also a smart decision, as trying to explain why someone else is filming Nell would strain the fuck out of some credulity. It also trades the claustrophobic feeling of the first film for a much greater sense of space and quiet, underscored by the feeling that there's something sinister threaded into Nell's life. The evil that haunts Nell reveals itself in small, measured ways - a masked figure in the background, mysterious phone calls, voices half-heard on the radio, innocuous remarks with something lingering just under the surface. There's a constant sense of unease as the world gets weirder around her but it's never clear how much of it is her imagination and how much is actually happening, or the degree to which she's ascribing dark motives where there aren't any intended (or where it's just garden-variety dark, like another resident of the house pulling some mean-girl shit on Nell). It's all fairly understated until late in the game, and leaves a lot for the viewer to piece together.

I like horror movies that reward careful attention and don't try to spell anything out, but after a certain point, you begin to expect that things will escalate, that evil will push its way into the world, and it doesn't, not to an extent that really raises the tension that much. This lack of hysteria is generally a good thing - it's nice to have a demonic-possession movie that isn't overburdened with shrieking and screaming and really weird hallucinations to the point that you're like okay I get it, there's evil here - but it also makes it feel a little inert. The first movie played things slow and quiet for the most part as well, but when things got bad, they got hysteric and weird in very short order, like the whistling shriek of a teakettle on the boil. The mood here never really gets up to much past an especially vigorous simmer, and it hurts the overall impact, especially combined with some cheap effects work that distracts when it should horrify.

There's also something a little problematic about the movie's central thesis: The exorcism in the first movie referred to the Rev. Cotton Marcus' last exorcism before he renounced the practice as a sham, and the exorcism here refers to Nell's increasing sense that there's something wrong with her that needs to be addressed. This movie is about Nell instead of being about Cotton Marcus, and part of what's going on is that Nell is finally taking agency for herself for the first time in her life - this is her story, textually and metatextually - and part of that is Nell's awakening into the world, both as someone who is no longer this sheltered country girl, but also someone who is starting to become a woman. There's a strong element of sensuality to this movie. As Nell walks through the street during a Mardi Gras parade, she marvels at all of the colors and textures of the costumes and decorations. She runs her hands along beads and fabrics and drinks in all of the color and music with her eyes, alive in her delight and wonder at the richness of the world.

What's problematic is that this awakening (in multiple senses of the word) is tied up with the struggle for Nell's soul - the demon who supposedly wants her is described as loving her and trying to seduce her. Nell herself is bashful about the idea of romance and attraction, and what's moving her towards her emerging libido is this evil that's trying to possess her. Having the prime mover for a girl becoming a woman being a demon is, subtextually, pretty fucked up, and although I think it adds something important to the movie both thematically and in terms of imagery, I don't like the taste it leaves in my mouth. It does tie in nicely to the idea that the struggle for Nell isn't just between the forces of darkness and the forces of light, but between those forces and Nell herself. She hasn't had much of a say in her life up  until now, and she's tasted freedom. She's been made aware of a larger world, and now she wants to make decisions for herself. The bad guys want her for evil, the good guys want her for good, but nobody's bothered to ask Nell what she wants, and the implications of this are staggering.

Again, though, what could have been a powerful, thoughtful take on a pretty overdone idea ends up being undermined by the story's failure to really raise the stakes or tension. The good guys (a set of exorcists who, while more scientific in their approach that the huckster Marcus, don't seem quite as competent) don't show up until fairly late in the game, and so we don't really get a sense of their role in the whole thing. They're there to help Nell, but we don't know enough about them (or her romantic interest) to get a sense of who they are to her, so what should be a struggle for Nell's soul in the metaphorical as well as literal sense doesn't really feel like it. As a result, the decision Nell makes in the end doesn't feel as earned as it should have.

There's a lot going on here, and I get the sense that the filmmakers were trying to make this movie in a careful, intelligent way. It shows, and it's still easily one of the better demonic-possession movies I've seen (the juxtapositions of the creepy and the mundane, along with the sense that Nell is sort of being pushed around by people who know what's best for her hearken back to Rosemary's Baby, which is never a bad thing), but in all of their caution and care and desire to not overdo it, they rob the story of a lot of the power and emotional intensity it needs to really drive the point home. When something new is born into the world, it screams. This movie is missing the screams.

IMDB entry
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And As Long As I'm Talking About Body Horror...

...I see now that the superb film Antiviral is available on Netflix Instant. Go get that shit.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Errors Of The Human Body: The Flesh Is Willing, But The Spirit Is Weak

Pretty much any scary movie involving scientific research is going to go to the "man is the real monster" well at some point - arrogance, weakness, hubris, all lead characters otherwise the epitome of sanity and reason to do awful, insane, irrational shit. You don't really have a movie otherwise. But every now and then, as I've discovered, you can hope for one where the awful, irrational shit doesn't come from the direction you're expecting. You're so busy watching one part of the story for the moment it all goes pear-shaped that the seeds of the truly awful part get sown unseen in a whole other part of the story. A little misdirection, when applied well, goes a long way, as it does in Errors of the Human Body.

Geoff Burton is a geneticist who has just arrived in Germany to start a new research job. He's an American, outrunning a failed marriage and the death of his newborn son at the hands of a rare genetic abnormality. He hasn't published anything in years, and he was forced out of his old job because his research was taking a turn for the controversial. On paper, we know who Burton is - he's the Frankenstein of the story, driven mad by tragedy and trying to defy the laws of nature. But that's not who he is at all, not in this story. He's a deeply wounded man who has been cut loose from his moorings, alone in a strange country. He's introduced to Rebekkah, who once interned for him and with whom he apparently he had a bit of a fling, and Jarek, who is intense and incredibly creepy, rattling off monologues to Burton about using viral vectors to introduce vaccines to Third World populations ("they're going to get bit anyway") and Stalin and Mao's beliefs that ideology is communicable. He doesn't blink enough and has a little trouble with the concept of personal space.

Rebekkah's working on something called "the Easter gene" - the trait that allows salamanders to regenerate limbs - and how to introduce it into mammalian biology as a healing factor. She's hit a bit of a dead end, and wants Burton to help her. Jarek wants Burton to help him because he sees Burton as a fellow maverick - someone more interested in pushing the envelope than worrying about protocol. They both misread Burton to one degree to another, but Burton would much rather work with his former intern than the dude who wants to rewrite diseases into tools of social engineering. In the course of hashing out his role with Rebekkah (personally even more than professionally), he discovers that Jarek is stealing her research and running experiments with it off the books in a secret lab. Burton takes back Rebekkah's material and takes one of Jarek's test mice for good measure. And when you have a mouse infected with Something Unnatural, bad shit has to occur, which it does in pretty short order. Geoff starts to wonder why he was offered the job in the first place, what everyone's agendas are, and just how intent the people at this facility are at transforming exactly what it means to be human.

There's a lot of striking imagery, and lots of well-composed shots - the movie looks great, even when it's ugly. Everything is either cool and sleek and minimal, or grungy and utilitarian. The basic wrongness of Jarek's little side experiments is summed up nicely by a lab fridge that has half-eaten sandwiches next to biological samples, and a lab space that's little more than a cul-de-sac in a basement  walled off by a strong fence and some plastic sheeting. It's the same juxtaposition of the scientific and the industrial that worked so well in Antiviral. Geoff looks sort of slack and doughy, like his own skin doesn't fit, like a living person who has had someone else's face transplanted onto his. Jarek is manic, taut and hairless, like a skull with a doctorate, and everything outside the lab is icy and forbidding, nighttime is a forest of shadows and the day is lit by the glare from snow and flat gray clouds. There is precious little warmth in this movie, and what moments there are get snuffed out like a candle or illuminate Geoff at his lowest.

What makes this movie different, is that - all biotech imagery (and title) aside - Errors of the Human Body is not the body horror story you think it's going to be. It has all the requisite moving parts for a body horror story, everything is cool and sterile, there's a clandestine lab tucked far back in the basement of a research facility, and there's research conducted outside the bounds of ethics and professional courtesy with the potential for profound transformation - but that's not where the ugly secrets are. There are allusions to freakish possibilities for biology, but they're beside the point. The point is the decision someone made with the information they had available to them, and how that wrong decision would be their undoing. It's a movie about tampering with nature, but not in the ways you'd think. It takes the better part of the movie to get there and we spend most of the movie wondering when things are going to get monstrous. When they do, it's not a proliferation of tumors or rogue bodyparts sprouting from improbable places. It's in a single question, one which recalls a single flashback from earlier in the movie, and the careful observer will, in what seems like a premature resolution to the events of the movie, recognize exactly what the importance of that moment was, what the question implies, and the awful truth settles on your heart like a stone.

It's a bit rushed toward the end - we're supposed to get a sense of Geoff's mounting paranoia and isolation, but we're given so little time in which to experience the things that are happening to him that what should be circumstances closing in around him feels more like just trying to figure out the sort of office politics common to any research job. The abbreviated course of events makes his inevitable freakout seems like it's coming from the wrong place. As a byproduct of this, characters that start off mostly played quietly and to a human scale quickly escalate to histrionics, and it doesn't feel earned, just like someone turned the volume knob up suddenly. This is mostly forgivable, though, because I can't remember the last time I saw a movie that hid its beating heart so well and revealed it in such small ways. The obvious threat was never a threat - it was this thing lurking on the periphery while you busied yourself with the prospect of a monster in the making. The monster was there the whole time.

IMDB entry
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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Prowl: Missed It By That Much

As one of the musicians in This Is Spinal Tap sagely observes: "There's a fine line between clever and stupid." We don't always notice one way or another - plenty of good scary movies fall down on the plot, dialogue, or character fronts, but if what's happening onscreen keeps us invested, that's probably more important, and we don't always notice how smart a given movie is until it does something unexpected or otherwise subverts the expectations we have for the genre. But when a clever movie starts getting stupid, that can be a problem. Give me something that raises my expectations and I'm happy, but I've seen more than a few movies that lose the courage of their convictions and go for something easier and more cliched in an effort to meet someone's expectations of what a scary movie "should" be. Generally, they suffer as a result.

Prowl is not a complicated movie, but it is a generally good one. Unfortunately, it spends a good chunk of its running time walking a very fine line between being confident and smart about its material and falling into the sort of cliches that come part and parcel with the genre, and that wavering is ultimately a distraction.

Amber is a small-town girl with big-city dreams. Not so much to become a big star or anything, she just wants to get out of her little town. She's sick of looking after her alcoholic mother, misses her father, and has dreams where she runs and runs and runs away from something that keeps trying to bring her to ground. A small get-together at her friends' house sketches out the limits of her world - her friend Suzy, Suzy's complicated-relationship boyfriend Peter, spacy rich-kid Ray and his girlfriend Fiona, and nerdy, yearning Eric. They like where they are, interpersonal drama and all, but Amber doesn't. She's got a line on an apartment in Chicago, but the person offering to rent it to her has gotten a better offer, and unless she can drop off a deposit in the next day, he's going to rent it out to the other prospective tenant instead. Desperate, Amber turns to her friends to help get her to Chicago in time (which turns out to be a much more complicated affair than you'd think, but not in a way that feels implausible), and after much negotiating and eating of crow (nothing like having to hit up your nerdy friend for the use of his car the day after firmly rejecting his advances), the whole gang is on a road trip…until their van breaks down maybe 20 miles outside of their hometown. Well, shit.

Luckily, a trucker headed into the city takes pity on them and lets them pile into the back of his trailer, asking that they just not mess with the cargo he has in the back. They're smart about the offer - they take pictures of themselves with the trucker to let their friends know where they are, and one of them rides up front with the trucker to keep him honest (of course, nerdy Eric draws the short straw on that one). And they're off, making the best of the back of the trailer with booze and weed and music and Truth or Dare. Everything goes swimmingly until the truck takes a bad bounce and a swerve. Attempts to get Eric to answer his phone up front get only the trucker, who claims Eric is asleep, and he's awfully reluctant to wake him up. Then - peering out of holes in the side of the trailer - they notice they aren't anywhere near Chicago. Then one of them wonders why the trailer has holes in the side in the first place. Inevitably, someone messes with the cargo - it turns out this guy is carrying bags of blood, and it's not a refrigerated truck.

And then the truck stops, and the trailer door opens on a huge, abandoned factory space. Figures scuttle through the rafters and down the walls.

The premise of Prowl isn't that complicated - there are hunters, and there are the hunted. For the most part, the movie does a very good job with a very basic setup - it's a stripped-down, kinetic movie with little to no superfluous material (the same director made the far superior Rovdyr, which has all of this movie's strengths and few of its weaknesses). Everything that happens has a point and a purpose, even the smallest, most inconsequential asides at the beginning of the film. Once the action starts, everything moves quickly and decisively, and although there isn't necessarily a lot to outright scare you, there's a good overall atmosphere of tension and fear for the most part. As teen-meat setups go, it's a reasonably intelligent take - the party scene is a deft, economic sequence, communicating a lot about who these people are without necessarily spelling everything out, and that's one of the movie's strengths - the ability to convey a lot of information, trusting in the ability of the audience to make sense of what's going on without belaboring the obvious. The protagonists are actually pretty competent throughout - they make very few dumb decisions, and actually take action against the creatures hunting them, instead of completely breaking down. We're mostly kept in the dark about who/what the antagonists are, which is for the better, because when the lead antagonist starts talking, you get the feeling if they'd let the dialogue go on on any longer, it would go right headfirst into stupid cliche.

And that's where this movie gets into trouble - it is constantly veering back and forth between being on the right side of the line and being as stagey as any other I Know What You Screamed Last Summer When You Took A Wrong Turn on Friday the 13th sort of movie. When Amber tells the trucker (apparently in all seriousness) that she has to get to Chicago because it's her destiny, your eyes roll completely up into the back of your head, even though it ends up paying off in the end. Amber's friends spout teen-movie homilies one second and talk like normal human beings the next. It's pretty apparent what's hunting them, and it feels like the movie wants to give us some sort of explanation, some sort of mythology, but stops short. It's better that way, because there's no reason to think that the explanation we get would be anything special, and so you wait to cringe at how cheesy it's going to be, but it never comes. But still, based on the wildly uneven tone of the movie overall, it could come at any second, so the cringe just sort of sits there, just under the surface of your face, waiting to happen.

Our sense of place and time is sort of a problem, too - you get the idea that the meat of the action is supposed to be taking place at night, but there are flashes of daylight as the protagonists move from one place to another, and since they're running from abandoned warehouse to…another abandoned warehouse?…it gets easy to feel like this is less about people trying to escape a bad situation and more like they're doing laps around a very large set. To its credit, though, its final act has a nice little reversal that feels just unexpected enough to be a pleasant surprise, but is still rooted very solidly in everything that came before (even redeeming some of the sillier and less understandable moments from earlier in the film), and the ending feels refreshingly ragged and free of closure in a good way. It avoids cliche as often as it flirts with it, but in doing so, you get the feeling that you're watching a good movie that has a mediocre one trapped inside it, struggling to get out.

IMDB entry
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Unavailable from Netflix

Sunday, September 8, 2013

V/H/S/2: 2 Clever By 1/2

Although normally I'm firmly in the "sequels are a bad idea" camp, I'm more than happy to make an exception for anthologies, where you don't have to worry about reducing subsequent iterations to tangled continuity and whatever gimmick someone decided was the reason people liked the first one in the first place. Plus, short films - when they're good - are especially effective in horror, because they don't overstay their welcome. Something scary happens, and then it's over before it can be over-explained. It retains its punch. The scariest horror fiction I've ever read has, with a few exceptions, been short stories and novellas. So giving a bunch of different directors an opportunity to do their particular thing in a lean, efficient fashion appeals to me tremendously.

The first V/H/S was pretty good - five short films shot using the found-footage conceit, and mostly being pretty good despite the danger of that particular approach being run into the ground. It was at its best when it fully embraced the found-footage aesthetic, and at its weakest when it called attention to the conceit by deviating from it. When found-footage films are at their best, it's because there's a rawness and an immediacy to the footage that makes it easier to believe that you aren't just watching a movie - that this actually happened, and you're witness to some awful document.

This makes it all the more puzzling as to why V/H/S/2 wastes so much of its energy and potential on an examination of the conceit for its own sake, at the expense of actually telling scary stories.

The framing story - titled Tape 49 - is, maybe tellingly, more self-aware than the framing narrative was in the first film. A pair of private investigators are hired by a woman to track down her son when he sort of drops out of sight. The two of them break into his house, and find not a whole lot of anything except piles of videotapes, TVs, notebooks, and his laptop, which has some sort of video diary on it. One of them starts poking around the house trying to look for him, the other starts looking at the diary and the tapes.

 It's paced better than the framing narrative was in the first film and is much more coherent, so it ends up being much creepier and an actual addition to the story. However, part of it also involves the missing son essentially explaining where the tapes come from to a certain extent and hinting at a network of collectors. This smells like the beginning of a mythology, and this is exactly the sort of shit that gets sequels into trouble. The point isn't where these tapes are coming from any more than the point of Hostel was to explain how the murder-holiday business was run. It's that they exist, and the protagonists are now caught up in it, and what happens now? To the extent that attention is being paid to the existence of the tapes, it takes away from our ability to accept their existence and immerse ourselves in the stories they tell.

Phase I Clinical Trials

The first entry is a tidy little ghost story about a man who volunteers to test out a new prosthetic eye, on the condition that the visual information the eye receives be recorded for the manufacturers to use as test data. As you might expect, this new eye is capable of seeing all sorts of stuff we shouldn't be able to see, and things get very weird, very fast. To the extent that it works, it's effectively scary- when the camera is your eye, you can't really look away and everything has to happen on-camera, and the ghosts don't need to do too much to elicit fright. A lot happens that isn't explained outright, and although not having a complete picture of what's going on is good (and thinking about it a little afterwards fits a lot of pieces into place, giving this one a little staying power), how it gets there feels so artificial and unnecessary at points that there could have been a better way to handle it. This is largely down to some very wooden acting and dialogue. This segment is one of the most naturalistic, and so the staginess of the characters is really disruptive to the feel it's trying to create. Also, in what's going to be an unfortunate theme throughout, it's a little too low-rent for its premise. The clinic where the prosthetic eye is implanted looks less like the sort of hospital you'd expect would be capable of implanting an artificial eye, and more like my vet's office. Again, it calls attention to itself and takes you, even for a second or two, out of the story.

A Ride In The Park

This is sort of the "funny one" of this entry, but it feels a little slight. A man is going out for a bike ride, and turns on the little GoPro video camera he has mounted on his helmet to record some footage of the ride. Why he's doing this isn't really clear, and the artificiality of the camera's conceit make it feel a little shoehorned in. His ride goes along nicely until he runs into some people who are sort of oddly shambling down the trail, almost as if…okay fine, they're zombies, and now he's stuck in the middle of an outbreak of the walking dead, caught live on helmet-cam. The segment has a good mixture of gore and slapstick moments, reminding me of some of the animated shorts shown at Spike & Mike's Sick & Twisted festivals or the movie Braindead/Dead Alive, and although I'm pretty sick of zombie movies (especially jokey ones), a surprisingly touching ending redeems this one to a degree. On the other hand, it meanders a little, which although appropriate for a movie about the walking dead, feels like the conceit was supposed to carry it more than it actually did. And again, some of the dialogue was really, really shitty. Part of the strength of found-footage is verisimilitude, but if the actors can't pull it off, it comes off even more stagey and artificial than a conventional film approach.

Safe Haven

This segment is the most fully-realized, and probably the most horrifying, but is also the one that is least classically found-footage. The story of a film crew making a documentary about a controversial People's Temple-type cult, it features a mixture of cameras, both sourced on the protagonists (everything from conventional video cameras to button-sized spy cams) and from surveillance footage. Because there are so many points of view, it loses some of what makes found-footage movies most effective, because our point of view isn't limited or constrained - we have as much access to everything that's going on as we would in a conventionally shot film, and we lose some of the you-were-there feeling that you get when you only see what the one camera happens to see at a given moment. It becomes especially distracting when you realize the whole reason a particular camera is placed where it is (it doesn't really make much sense in the context of the film) is probably to capture specific scenes at the end, and it feels like a cheat, like the filmmakers were less concerned with making a found-footage film than making a scary film and finding a way to fit a found-footage aesthetic on top of it. 

It's too bad, because it's probably the closest to capturing the out-of-control, utterly-batshit terrifying-things-are-happening-and-holy-fuck-what-do-we-do-about-it feeling that marked the first V/H/S at its best. When the film crew realizes what the cult plans to do, it's too late, and it's oh so much worse than anyone could reasonably expect. Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn't know when to stop, and in the final shot, a poorly-done effect undoes a lot of the goodwill engendered by the rest of the segment. 

Slumber Party Alien Abduction

This one struck me as ugly and sort of pointless. We open on a bunch of obnoxious suburban kids harassing each other, and it's the best, most naturalistic acting in the entire collection - this is exactly how annoying preteen kids act. Mom and Dad are going away for the weekend, and older siblings are doing the babysitting. Needless to say, these teenagers have their own fun in mind, and the preteen kids do their utmost to sabotage their older siblings at every turn. As promised in the title (which bugs me - it feels so lazy, like the filmmakers didn't care enough to keep anything a surprise), aliens show up, and everything goes nuts. Not in an especially interesting way - kids are being shitty, then there are aliens. There's also a disconnect between what we're seeing through our single-camera perspective and what the protagonists seem to see. From our perspective, there's all kinds of bizarre shit going on - bright lights and loud noises out of nowhere - but none of the protagonists seem to care. It feels like someone forgot to tell them they were supposed to be surprised by these things. 

When the shit hits the fan, the footage is almost too realistic - it's too fragmented to get a sense of space, direction, or sequence, just a lot of running and screaming with the camera pointed at absolutely nothing. It's disorienting and abrasive - lots of bright lights, bright colors, and oppressively loud noises on top of the shrieking of the protagonists, and in the utter absence of reference points, the audience is confused instead of scared because just trying to figure out what we're supposed to be watching is exhausting.  There are a lot of people to keep track of, and the point of view is hard to follow, and again, the most important effects don't work, which just makes the whole thing feel like some cheap, stupid home horror movie much like some of the kids are making at the beginning of the segment. If that had somehow played into the events, like this was some kind of joke that got out of control, it could have made for an effective subversion of the found-footage conceit, and could have built to some good tension. Instead, it feels like a deliberately shitty found-footage movie, like a perverse joke on the audience that ends on a gratuitously nasty note. The whole thing feels juvenile and sort of contemptuous of the audience, and it doesn't earn any of it.

In sum, V/H/S/2 is disappointing, and I think it's because it spends more time thinking about the conceit and trying to subvert it than actually doing something within its constraints. Most of the cameras are placed in implausible ways (a prosthetic eye, mounted to a bike helmet, strapped to a dog), and when they aren't, there are so many that it might as well be a conventionally shot movie. Very few of the segments really achieve a sustained sense of naturalism, and the one that does is almost willfully over-naturalistic to the point of incoherence. Instead of relying on realistic threats, most of the segments stretch for something supernatural and fail to convey it convincingly. In other words, these are found-footage movies that feel like they're trying to run away from being found-footage movies as fast as they can, and although that potentially makes for some really interesting critical readings, it doesn't make for good scary movies.

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Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Lords Of Salem: At What Exactly Am I Looking?

One of my favorite things about scary movies is the sheer audacity of the imagery you get sometimes. Trying to scare people means unsettling them, shocking them, provoking them, and horror filmmakers with real vision at their best dredge things up from nightmares and elevate them to art. I suspect that any number of people who turn up their nose at horror films would probably not do so at the works of Bosch or Goya or Bacon. Michael Myers standing in the shadows, the only thing visible his impassive white face. Freddy Krueger's tongue protruding from the receiver of a telephone. Leatherface swinging his chainsaw around wildly against the setting sun. Two men glimpsed behind a door in the Overlook Hotel - one in a tuxedo, the other in a bear costume, blank and awful. Rosemary's gauzy, half-remembered reverie with the Devil. The stitched-together obscenity of the Human Centipede contrasted against the clean, stylish modernity of its home. Martyrs' commingling of flesh and steel, violence and serenity. At its best, horror film is by turns confrontational, surreal, and even moving. How is that not art?

Rob Zombie's first film - House of 1000 Corpses - struck me as a bit of a mess. There was a gritty slasher film in the manner of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in there somewhere, amid more impressionistic interludes unrelated to the overall narrative, and the whole thing ended in a lurid, highly stylized manner more appropriate to something like Hellraiser or A Nightmare on Elm Street. There was a lot of vivid imagery, but it felt disconnected - less a movie than a series of set pieces in different styles. Stylistically, it felt to me less like a movie and more like a sketchbook.

However, he followed it up with The Devil's Rejects and Halloween, both of which were much more focused and reconciled the disparate styles of his first movie well into an identifiable aesthetic. I know a whole lot of people who'd argue with me on the artistic merit of Rob Zombie's movies, but snobbery be damned: Those two movies are art. There's a point of view rooted in rich cinematic tradition and an arresting attention to visuals. There's an awareness and active subversion of popular culture without didacticism. There's a conversation between the original material upon which the films draw and what he does with it. I think of the rude scribbles and splashes of color contrasted against blank cinderblock walls in his remake of Halloween, and the dusty, garishly lit carnival/ghost town/bordello run by Charlie Altamont in The Devil's Rejects, and I marvel that anyone can dismiss any of this as thoughtless.

So what I'm trying to say is that Rob Zombie is one of those directors I think of when I'm thinking of audacious, provocative imagery in horror films, and initial impressions of The Lords of Salem suggested that it was going to fall much more on the impressionistic side of things than his previous films, with touchstones like Rosemary's Baby and Ken Russell getting thrown around a lot. Anticipation being what it is, maybe there's no way this film could have lived up to my expectations, but The Lords of Salem, at least in the form it was finally released, is more than a bit of a mess.

We open on witches - grubby, mostly-naked women engaged in foul rituals - and their capture and defeat at the hands of the devout during the time of the Salem Witch Trials. The queen of these witches curses the women of Salem and the descendants of their executioners. And now, just as suddenly, it is the modern day, where we follow Heidi, a DJ on a popular radio show in Salem. As her shift comes to an end, she picks up a package left for her at the station - a wooden box, containing a record by a group calling itself The Lords of Salem. She takes it home to give it a listen, like you do. The music on the record is atonal, almost poisonous, and Heidi is taken by a strange malaise upon hearing it. Nevertheless, she decides to give it a spin on the show the next night. It's not the first strange thing to happen to Heidi this week, either. Somebody's moved into the vacant apartment down the hall from her, even though her landlady swears the apartment is still vacant.

When Heidi plays the mysterious record on her show the next night, it seems almost to call to the women of Salem, to awaken something in them. It freaks out her fellow DJs, and Heidi starts having nightmares. The door to the apartment down the hall is open again. The landlady's sisters have come to visit her from England, and they invite Heidi in for a spot of tea. Something is awake in Salem.

Now, if there was one person I'd want to make a movie about a cursed record summoning the spirits of long-dead witches, it'd be Rob Zombie. His style is tailor-made for that sort of subject matter, and seeing what he could do with something driven more by imagery and less by action was an exciting prospect. Unfortunately, what we get is incoherent and unfocused, and loses a lot of the impact it could have had as a result. There's nothing wrong with impressionistic moviemaking per se - going for a mood or feeling over coherent narrative or character depth can be really effective, especially in horror, where mood and feeling can count for so much. Sometimes just presenting imagery that bypasses the conscious and hits us right where our nightmares live makes for the scariest of scary movies.

However, if you're going to do that, pacing is critical. You have to establish a rhythm that starts slow but ratchets everything up at a steady pace - it has to go from normal to "wait a second" to "what was that?" to "what the FUCK?" to "OH GOD" with a sure and steady hand, so that by the end of it, we're immersed in the insanity, and The Lords of Salem is all over the place. Nothing happens, then weird things happen, then less-weird things happen, then nothing happens, then nothing happens, then really weird things happen, and the story bounces back and forth between a couple sets of characters, without their storylines really complementing each other. Tension and suspense and atmosphere get burned off with every cutaway, so what should feel like escalation feels more like a series of set pieces cut up by interstitial cards telling us what day it is (a nice nod to The Shining). If it's supposed to communicate the progression of events, it doesn't really succeed, because sometimes days pass with really weird shit happening, sometimes they don't. We bounce back and forth not just in space between different characters, but also in time, going back to the original witches more than once, but these segments don't clearly communicate anything but what we already knew - there were witches, and they died with their purpose unfulfilled. It's distracting, and leaves us looking for more of a story than there actually is.

As it is (and this is important because this film apparently had a troubled production history that meant the movie Zombie wanted to make wasn't anything near what we actually got), it's probably this ambivalence about whether to tell a story or bombard us with images that is most damaging to the film. The main story is basic, minimal, even - DJ plays evil record, begins process of personal disintegration that leads the devil's forces into our world - and that's absolutely okay if you want the nightmarish imagery that comes with that to do the heavy lifting. But it doesn't really become a truly imagery-rich film until past the halfway mark, at which point the whole thing feels lopsided instead.

It doesn't help that more than once, we're presented with imagery in the form of nightmare sequences - which works okay once or twice, but starts to feel formulaic after awhile - and that some of Zombie's choices for imagery are so bizarre that they stop being scary because the viewer's first impulse is to try and figure out what they're looking at, rather than having just enough to grab onto to make its deviations really disturbing.

I don't doubt Rob Zombie's vision - he's already demonstrated that he's capable of making excellent movies with a specific point of view - and I am not for a second going to ding a filmmaker for trying to stretch his wings and do something ambitious. And when The Lords of Salem works, it works very well. The song that begins the whole process falls at an intersection of primitive, dissonant, and mournful that makes it a haunting in and of itself - listening to it at points in the movie made it feel like it was sinking into my bones and wouldn't go away for a few days. There are isolated images and set pieces - one especially striking one at the end, set to the song "All Tomorrow's Parties" - that stuck with me long after the movie as well. The problem is that these are just pieces, elements, isolated moments. They don't tell a story that, however slight, would give them the contextual scaffolding they need to have maximum impact. But developing ideas to their fullest require time, focus, attention, and support, which it sounds like were in short supply for this film. So as it stands, it's an ambitious failure, and the sort of thing likely to become legend in the "but have you seen the director's cut?" sort of way. Maybe it's destined to become a film whose "real" or "true" version is the stuff of legend, rumored to have really disturbing effects on the people who see it. That'd be a pretty good movie for Zombie to do, now that I think about it.

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Remake: We Aren't What We Were

It's been a little while since an acclaimed horror movie that wasn't made in the United States got an American remake, and now…just now…as I'm typing these words…I'm realizing maybe for the first time how much of an expression of cultural privilege the idea of a remake is, as if it's only the United States that can't seem to watch the same fucking movie the rest of the world did.

Which isn't to say that there isn't a market or appreciation for movies not made in the United States here in the U.S., there definitely is, but there's definitely this feeling at some level of the film industry that the movie doesn't "count" until it gets its American remake. Maybe that's a function of the everyday American moviegoer not "getting" it and expecting to have everything handed to them in cinematic language they understand. Maybe it's the idea that the American version will somehow always be "better", even when it really, really, isn't. I'm not sure it's not any more depressing that any other number of things about the film industry in the United States, and I probably should have twigged to this a long time ago, but there it is.

Believe it or not, that's not the main point of this post. That just sort of popped into my head as I started writing.

What I wanted to talk about was the upcoming remake of Somos Lo Que Hay, remade in the U.S. as We Are What We Are. I'm not someone who believes that the original is always good and the remake is always bad, though it does bum me out that movies don't always get the audience they deserve until they're remade (see above). Remakes vary in quality and in the degree to which they depart from the original. You've got cases where the remake shifts things just enough to take advantage of cultural differences in the audience ([REC] to Quarantine comes to mind), others where you get bigger changes that still preserve what made the original good, even when the narrative departs significantly (Ringu to The Ring), and instances where the remake manages to completely betray the heart of what made the original so good and make you wish movies never got remade (Spoorloos to The Vanishing). So there's a fair amount of freedom in what it means for something to be a remake.

We Are What We Are caught my attention because it looks like it's pretty much telling the same story, but inverting everything else about it.

The original is the story of the sudden death of a family's patriarch, and the attempts of his family to maintain their way of life in the wake of his death - it's a story of mounting desperation, as the rest of the family attempts to fill the role vacated by the father and secure the necessary materials for an undescribed ritual before the clock strikes midnight. The family lives in Mexico City, and the dead father leaves behind a wife, a daughter, and two sons who jockey to pick up where he left off to keep the family alive. The remake relocates the family from urban Mexico to a rural part of the United States, and it is the mother who dies, leaving behind a husband, a son, and two daughters.

These seem like very simple changes - just flip adjectives and there you go - but having watched the trailer, it really does change the entire feeling of the film. Setting it in the country frames it less in terms of poverty and running out of time and options, and more in terms of an attempt to maintain a way of life against encroaching civilization. I'm curious to see what reversing the genders of the family does, because a big part of the original dealt with the construction of masculinity, and I don't know if it'll be the same here. Finally, the original's less about what the family does and more about how the father's death fractures them and makes them question themselves and their place in the world. I'm curious to see how much of that is preserved in the remake, because the trailer makes it look (as it probably should) like a more traditional horror film, cutting back and forth between the family and the people in the community who begin to put some puzzle pieces together in the wake of the mother's death.

Honestly, I think that's for the better - one of my criticisms of the original was that although it had some interesting things to say about gender roles, it wasn't scary. It wasn't so much a horror movie as a drama with horror tropes slapped on top. The trailer for the remake puts much more focus on the idea that there is Something Wrong with this family, and there's lots of thunder and lightning and menace seething under the surface. I'll be interested to see if they're able to pull it off.