Monday, December 23, 2013

Absentia: All That You Love Will Be Carried Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He says "you can see me?"

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

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

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

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Available on Netflix

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Unborn: Laying It On A Little Thick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Unvailable from Netflix

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Tapes: Shit Happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Salvage: Who Are The People In Your Neighborhood?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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