Monday, July 28, 2014

Låt den Rätte Komma In: Boy Meets Girl, And Everyone Learns Something, Or Dies

Part of what I think is so funny about the continued insistence that horror film is some kind of separate genre, to be kept neatly away from the “thrillers” and even “dramas” of some types, is the way that otherwise straightforward stories are spiced up, seasoned with the trappings of horror to make something that gets more serious consideration. It’s as if it’s a sign that horror movies can be taken seriously after all, but only when it’s not so much a horror film per se as a drama or character study with some nods to the genre. Monsters, for example, is basically Before Sunrise with alien monstrosities littering an apocalyptic landscape. Not especially scary, but there are monsters.

And more than anything else, Låt den Rätte Komma In (Let The Right One In) is a tender coming-of-age story, that just happens to feature a vampire as one of the characters. It’s very humane in its observances, and it’s thoughtful, but I’m not sure if it’s actually horrifying, strictly speaking.

It’s primarily the story of Oskar. He’s a shy, sensitive kid who likes books and has odd interests, and accordingly is a target for bullies at school. He’s an easy mark, with “victim” written all over him. He is also a ticking time bomb - you can only bully a kid so long before he snaps, and though he hasn't snapped yet, we can see it from where he's standing. As the film opens, he's got a knife and he's practicing his tough-guy talk like a junior Travis Bickle. This is a kid who has been through a lot, and his parents - divorced - as is so often the case, don’t really seem to notice it. But there he is, looking at his reflection, rehearsing his revenge, using the language of his abusers against them in his imagination...for now.

And then a new family moves in next door. Well, it’s just a man and a young girl, a girl about Oskar’s age. They don’t socialize much, and instead of spending time down at the local pub, the man is busy papering over all the windows. He’s also preparing the tools of his trade - a funnel, an empty jug, a sharp knife, rope, and a tank for administering anesthetic gas.

As it turns out, the young girl - Eli - has some very specific dietary needs.

And so it goes, that quiet, shy Oskar meets quiet, shy Eli on the jungle gym in the little courtyard in front of the apartment building. He’s out there at night for lack of anything better to do, and so is she. They strike up a tentative friendship and really, it’s not all that different from any other friendship between two kids who aren’t getting what they need from the world around them. In some ways, Eli's situation isn't so different from Oskar's - they both have parents (or parental figures) who let them down, who fail to provide what they need (Eli blood, Oskar real attention), and it's in this that they forge a connection and begin to actually reach out to another person for the first time. Eli isn’t twelve like she looks - as she puts it, she’s been twelve for a very long time - but she’s not some creepy mature-beyond-her-years Anne Rice vampire doll either. She’s a kid, and she’s sort of been a kid forever, and a really lonely one for obvious reasons. Oskar’s a lonely kid too, and maybe sort of old for his age because he’s had to put up with so much with so little understanding from his family. His mom is overworked, trying to support Oskar without any help and so the little details of his everyday life slip by her. There are moments of connection and love between them, she’s doing the best she can, but she can’t juggle everything without something getting short shrift. Oskar’s father seems affable enough and seems to love his son, but it’s unclear whether he’s just irresponsible in that way where he likes spending time with Oskar just fine until something more interesting comes along, or if he’s an alcoholic. It could be both, it’s hard to tell since he’s not so much abusive as just sort of benignly neglectful of Oskar. Eli’s protector/guardian/whatever tries to get her blood to feed on so she doesn’t have to put herself at risk, but he isn’t very good at it, and this is her life (such as it is) on the line. They are - her peculiarities aside - two kids looking for in each other the love and care they aren’t getting elsewhere.

And really, in all of this, Eli is sort of the lesser of two monsters. The bullies who torment Oskar are what really threaten him, or are at least of what he is really frightened. The ways they torment him are acutely and sharply observed, immediately familiar to anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of playground abuse. The ringleader is a smirky little kid named Conny, and he has two sidekick types (because they always do), and together they make every day at school a minefield for Oskar. Honestly, my stomach tightened up more anytime they showed Oskar at school than when Eli was looking for blood. This is the real threat as far as Oskar’s concerned, and when Eli’s nature is irrefutably revealed to him, he seems more disappointed in or betrayed by Eli than anything else, like when you discover your crush is human after all (only she isn't and that's the problem). In either case, there's an escalation of stakes - it becomes clear what Eli needs to do to survive, and she gets more and more desperate with people starting to take notice, and even though Eli’s support gives Oskar the courage to fight back, striking back at the bullies only makes things worse, since as is often the case, Conny has an older brother who is even worse than he is, and these two worlds collide to awful result.

It might not be the most horrifying horror movie I’ve ever seen, but it is very well realized, full of careful, restrained detail. The world that the kids inhabit, away from adult attention, is believable throughout - even the bullies aren't cardboard villains. Conny is pretty much an unredeemable shit, but there are some misgivings on the part of the two sidekicks at how serious things are getting, even as they vacillate between discomfort and going along with things in the way that kids do, especially when they’re following a ringleader. Eli's vampirism plays out in little details - bare feet in snow, the reaction of animals, silence where there should be sound, and the actress manages to look both just as young as she is and simultaneously very old and very sick with only small help from effects. When it manifests more overtly, it can be startling, a reminder that oh yes, she is basically a monster and what does it say that this is Oskar’s closest friend? There’s a certain dispassion to the way the film is shot and how events play out - Eli’s violence and Conny’s are given equal footing, which makes the end a nice meeting of the two, but the disengagement makes it a film that engages the head more than the heart or gut, the kind that elicits golf claps rather than gasps. It’s very well-made, but there’s a certain heat missing (insert jokes about the cold and Scandinavia here). Ultimately, it's a monster movie but the monster isn't the point - it's the relationship, and how the monstrosity is just another condition to negotiate in the pursuit of connection that is the real point.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Available on Netflix

Friday, July 25, 2014

Reconsidered: Berberian Sound Studio

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

This particular reconsideration is sort of an exception. Usually I’m going back and looking at a movie in terms of how particular cinematic or narrative elements impart particular themes or express ideas that might not be immediately apparent. I’m usually looking at subtext. Here, though, the reconsideration is one explicitly of text.

A big part of Berberian Sound Studio is the way that Gilderoy becomes increasingly isolated by language - he doesn't speak Italian, and so for him (and anyone else watching the film who doesn't speak Italian), it's a very alienating experience - we can infer much of what's going on but we can't be for sure. There’s always some ambiguity at the least, and some parts of the film become downright impenetrable. And this is as much a part of the film as anything else - it’s about Gilderoy losing his way, losing himself in this very dysfunctional situation. So in this particular case, it isn’t so much about looking more closely at what’s already there as looking at what we can’t necessarily “see” because language keeps it hidden. So I watched the film again, this time with an English subtitle track that also translated all of the Italian dialogue. What I discovered was that watching the film with subtitles for the Italian didn’t completely change its meaning - it mostly just sharpened what was already there. It did, however, clarify some things, and to a certain extent, being less immersed in the isolating aspect of language highlighted some other ways that sound and silence are used to define Gilderoy’s relationship to the filmmakers.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Okaturo: Missed It By That Much

Most of the found-footage movies that get made anymore tend to be of the raw-footage variety - you know, “this terrible thing happened and here’s the recovered footage to tell the story”, that kind of thing. Which makes sense, there’s an immediacy to it that can ramp up the tension and fear just by virtue of not knowing what comes next, like you are experiencing the events just as the protagonists did. That’s the quality that gives The Blair Witch Project its sense of disintegration and madness in the face of an invisible menace and [REC] its careening, oh-shit-things-just-got-worse momentum. But I think there’s also something to be said for the mockumentary, the docudrama in which an investigative team seeks to answer a question and gets far more than they bargained for. It sacrifices some of the immediacy, but also allows for possibly a more complex story to unfold.

Okaruto (Occult) builds its story quietly and deliberately, leading the viewer down weirder and weirder roads until you realize you've ended up someplace batshit insane without quite knowing how you got there.

The film opens on three young women visiting a scenic waterfall. They’re just goofing around, passing the camera back and forth on a bridge that goes over the falls, when suddenly there’s a commotion at one end as people run from an assailant. When all is said and done, two people will be dead and a third scarred by the hand of a knife-wielding assailant. At this point, the film flashes forward several years to a documentary crew trying in retrospect to make sense of the attack, working with a friend of one of the victims. The film moves back and forth between investigations in the present and a Zapruder-like examination of the camcorder footage from that day. Little details take on greater significance, and not everything is exactly as it seems at first.

This is, on its face, pretty much Spooky Found Footage Movie 101. What makes Okaruto interesting is the way in which it hints at the much larger mystery hiding behind the initial one. There’s very little in the way of conventional scares, with everything unfolding primarily through conversation and small moments. Every turn, every reveal, makes the story a little stranger, and it shifts pretty quickly from being about the victims and bystanders of the original stabbings to being about whatever those stabbings set in motion. There are red herrings and false leads, but pretty quickly the focus shifts to Edo, a survivor of the original attack who seems to be something of a drifter, and from there the film becomes more about Edo’s life now and how it has changed since he survived the attack. It functions a lot like a pot of water being brought slowly to a boil - everything seems innocuous enough, or conventionally spooky enough to make you think that you have a decent handle on what’s going on, but by the time you realize that you’ve ended up in another different type of horror altogether. There are no real spikes in drama or tension - things just sort of happen in or out of frame, and there’s an unflappability about everyone involved that disguises exactly how high the stakes are getting until you realize what’s being planned, and then it’s too late. Things have developed their own momentum, and you’re just along for the ride.

As events move closer to their inevitable conclusion, the film gets tenser and tenser, counting down from hours to minutes to mere seconds, and just when you think you've wrapped it up neatly as a folie a deux with a reasonable explanation, the end drops one more twist on you. And herein lies the film’s major problem. This has been a low-budget film all the way through, and generally that’s okay - that’s one of the things that found-footage films do well. They make cheapness a virtue instead of a distraction. And as long as the weird supernatural stuff is kept low-key, the obvious lack of budget isn’t too distracting. But then, in an effort to throw in one more fillip, the filmmakers attempt an end stinger that goes beyond low-budget into the realm of so cheap as to be downright silly. The end result is a big gamble gone wrong, robbing the film of a lot of the power it might have otherwise. It's sort of like ending The Blair Witch Project with cardboard-and-tinfoil outtakes from an old episode of Doctor Who. Which is too bad - if they'd ended it a little sooner or had been a little less direct, carried the quiet, deliberate subtlety of the rest of the movie all the way to the end, it could have been spooky as hell.

IMDB entry

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Divide: I Don’t Know What We’re Yelling About

I don’t see the point of film criticism (if I can be so presumptuous as to call what I do criticism) as being to say “that was good” or “that sucked.” It’s dull and reductive and heaven knows there’s enough of that kind surrounding horror movies. I mean, for fuck’s sake, when people write straight-faced reviews that base their opinion of a film on the quality of the “kills” or the gore or the amount of nudity, it’s, well, depressing. But there certainly is an evaluative component to it, a tendency to a broader valenced judgment. I like some movies and dislike others, I’m not going to pretend otherwise, and I usually come away from a film with a sense of “I like it” or “I don’t like it” predicated on how well it succeeds at some things or fails at others. Sometimes I’ll be indifferent, but not often. I can count the number of movies I’ve watched and thought “I have nothing to say about this” since I started doing this thing on one hand.

But it’s rare that I’ve watched a movie that I generally disliked, but which managed to stick with me after I watched it. So, I have a lot of things I don’t like about The Divide, and I cannot say in all honesty that it’s all that good, but there are some things it did which have haunted me, so I can’t just dismiss it out of hand. I’m sort of wrestling with it.

We open close on a woman’s eyes, in which an inferno is reflected. A single tear rolls down her cheek, and the shot reverses to show a city ending in nuclear fire. The apocalypse has come, and the residents of a single apartment building are trying to flee the destruction. They head for the basement, where eight manage to find shelter along with the building’s cantankerous superintendent.

It becomes pretty clear pretty quickly that the super doesn’t really want them down there. He’d been preparing the basement for just such an eventuality - an ad hoc survival shelter to wait out a nuclear strike. And now he has eight uninvited guests. They’re a collection of types - a motley crew in the studied way afforded by most disaster movies. You’ve got Eva, who has “Final Girl” written all over her, her boyfriend Sam and their neighbor Adrien, who are cut cleanly from the cloth of “well-meaning, but ineffectual”, Marilyn, who is a Mom, and her daughter Wendi, who is a Little Kid. There’s Delvin, who is the stern, level-headed authority figure, and Josh and Bobby, who are pretty much unreconstructed scumbags from the moment they’re on screen. And then there’s the super, Mickey, who is irascible and paranoid and kind of xenophobic. 

And this is the first problem with the movie - with the exception of Mickey, who is probably the most caricatured to start but is the only one with anything resembling any sort of personal history throughout - every one of these people is exactly what they appear to be, and they don’t so much change as disintegrate over the course of the film. They’re the sum of their traits and nothing more. The entire film is essentially one long, slow descent away from humanity, so we’re sort of handed a bunch of archetypes only to watch them become even less than what they were to start.

It’s a long, slow, descent, and a loud one, too. It starts off at a pitch of shrill panic and then sort of stays there. Most of the film basically has two volume settings, loud and louder. Not all of it, to be fair, but the quiet moments don't seem to be placed with regard to anything like mood or pace or rhythm. Sometimes it's quiet and...most of the time it isn't. Things happen, except when they don’t. Characters rarely communicate in anything other than shouting and cursing and screaming, and it’s grating. If you’re doing to try and tell the story of a group of people trapped together and descending into madness, you need some sort of trajectory, and if characterization isn’t going to provide it, then the mood should. It’s hard to ramp up tension when everything’s already dialed in tight. Crescendos can’t start at maximum volume.

Its tone-deafness is matched by a lack of narrative direction. It's not so much the story of society breaking down as it is the story of a bunch of hastily-assembled pieces of society refusing to cohere, the same way you can't just construct a vase by stacking shards of pottery on top of each other. These are not people who get along to begin with, so we aren't really seeing anything valuable lost, and there's nothing surprising or revealing about the events as they transpire. The people you think are going to be assholes turn out to be assholes, the people you think are going to be weak turn out to be weak. The only question is how long does it take them to lose their humanity (not long at all) and how far do they fall (pretty fucking far). There's no tension to speak of, it's just two hours of wallowing in misery and then it ends on the only possible note it can, and guess what, it's not a positive one. That said, in the final act, as everything falls apart, it goes to some really interesting places to depict the inhabitants’ slide into depravity. The grimy industrial setting does some of the heavy lifting here, the makeshift nature of their resources does too, as does the flickering, yellowed lighting, and the rest falls to some unconventional, almost absurd imagery that give the last half-hour or so a fevered, claustrophobic feeling that really communicates a descent into madness. Bad shit comes bubbling up out of people’s brains as they become less and less human, and it makes you feel queasy and uncomfortable. I’ve still got images from the end of the movie stuck in my head almost a week later, and that doesn’t happen very often. To its credit, it makes the utterly bleak ending - a panorama of a world completely ruined - almost refreshing. The air is toxic with radioactive dust, and it’s still fresher than what you’ve been breathing for the majority of the movie. It’s not a small accomplishment.

In addition, the film does tease certain things beyond the obvious - what's happening on the outside suggests a larger mystery that's never really explored, and the early signs of radiation sickness among the characters suggest an even more miserable end than what we got somehow, but it’s a problem that these things are never really foregrounded. No, all of the damage here is due to human venality, weakness, and greed. At its most surreally grotesque, it does afford an experience that can come close to being compelling, but stacked against the film’s other shortcomings they end up being just flashes, fleeting moments buried in the cinematic equivalent of a 16-year-old shouting "EVERYTHING SUCKS!" for two hours straight.

Unavailable from Netflix Instant (Available on DVD)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

We Are What We Are: Communion

Remakes are common in film. Especially (although not exclusively) in horror film. It’d be easy to decry it as part of some creative bankruptcy (see also sequels), but it’s probably more about hedging bets. You can take a chance on a new and untested idea or you can trot out a new iteration of something that worked the last time (that these are often things that started off as new and untested ideas often escapes the people making these decisions, but turnover in the upper levels of the film industry seems to be pretty brutal) for a guaranteed return. Now, it’s probably not a 100% guaranteed return - plenty of sequels and reboots/reimaginings/refloggings of a dead horse don’t make the bank that the studio expected, but still, sometimes you gotta sit your ass down and grind a few safe hands. It’s part of doing business.

Honestly, I can sort of appreciate the logic (even if it makes me itch from a creative standpoint), and there are plenty of instances where the remake turned out reasonably well or even better in some ways. What doesn’t happen very often is a case where a remake makes some really interesting and programmatic changes from the original and comes out the other side as an interesting product on its own.

Yet, that is exactly what has happened in the case of We Are What We Are. Even more interestingly, it seems to share some of the same shortcomings as the film it remakes, for somewhat different reasons.

We open on a gray, rainy day in rural New York, on a woman driving into town to run some errands. She seems a little fidgety and uncomfortable. She picks up some supplies - a flashlight, rope, some tarp - and heads back out to her pickup truck. She stops by a bulletin board to look at a missing-person poster. And, as promptly and naturally as she paid for the goods, blood begins pouring from her nose and she falls flat on her back, insensate, into a pool of water, dead before she hit the ground.

She is (or was) Emma Parker, wife to Frank, mother to Iris, Rose, and Rory Parker, and she has left the family in a bit of a lurch. She was out trying to secure food for her family when she died, and now this responsibility falls, as tradition dictates, to oldest daughter Iris. It’s not just a matter of picking up groceries, this is a traditional meal, one accompanied by days of fasting and ceremony. One that is necessary to keep the Parkers from becoming sick, as they understand it, as was the case for their parents, and their parents’ parents, going back centuries.

One that will require Iris and Frank to make good use of a tire iron, ropes, tarp, and the hidden room beneath the shed.

This movie is a remake of the Mexican film Somos Lo Que Hay, but although it keeps the basic story intact - the death of the primary provider, a ticking clock, and the family’s terrible secret - it systematically inverts most, if not all of the particulars of the original. Instead of being set in the hot, crowded confines of Mexico City, it’s set in overcast, spacious, emphatically rural upstate New York. Instead of the father dying and leaving his family destitute from squandering his earnings on prostitutes, the mother dies, leaving the family bereft emotionally, but not broke. Instead of two sons who keep falling short for their own reasons and a youngest daughter who has the most initiative even though she’s forbidden by custom from being the one to bring home a victim, there are two daughters who are equally competent, and a younger brother who basically functions as an innocent in all of this. The original was frenetic, the desperation of a family trying to avoid poverty and getting food on the table as both ritual and necessity. The remake is careful and deliberate in its pacing, an exercise in how this night is different from all other nights.

Another important shared trait between the two films is the degree to which they examine gender through events. In the original, women were forbidden from hunting, even though they were the only ones with the determination to get it one. One son couldn’t stop thinking with his dick, and the other was chafing against family responsibility as he grappled with his sense of self as a closeted gay man in a culture that prizes machismo. It was a fairly adversarial treatment, with everyone straining against expectations.

The remake doesn’t really take this angle at all, but instead it does some interesting things with the idea of caretaking and providing for family. I find this especially interesting, because in some lines of gender research, the traits typically ascribed to women and to femininity as an idea are described as traits of communion, in the sense of interpersonal caretaking and nurturance. Of course, communion also describes the idea of attaining oneness with another, as well as the act of consuming the transubstantiated flesh of Christ, the first sacrifice. Eat of this bread, it is my body.

So all of the people around whom this story revolves are taking care of someone and missing someone. They’re dealing with the need to care for others in the face of loss. The Parkers care for each other and miss their wife and mother, the town doctor who takes care of Emma’s body misses his daughter, the handsome deputy who helps the doctor (and is sweet on Iris) misses his dad. All of these actions are held pretty much in equilibrium. Everyone does what they must to care for those whom they love, it's just that some things carry a heavier price than others. There are clear parallels between scenes of the doctor doing the autopsy on Emma Parker and her daughters preparing a body for butchering - each is doing what is necessary, what is prescribed and has been so for centuries. It’s what we do. We take care of our own.

It’s a somber and stately movie, almost too much so at times. The original felt so hectic that it seemed more distracting than anything else, and so any real sense of tension dissipated in the face of shrill insistence. It was an interesting movie, but not an especially scary one. The remake inverts that as much as anything else, and the overcorrection is equally problematic. It’s not an unusually long movie, but the stoicism of the characters and the deliberate pace make it feel a lot longer than it actually is, and this contributes to a relative lack of tension (some of which may be due to my familiarity with the story from the original, to be fair - there weren’t too many surprises for me) for the first three-quarters of the movie or so. It does pay off in the end, in some pretty shocking ways completely different from the original, but it takes its sweet time getting there, so when all of the other shoes drop in the back half of the last act, it feels a little jarring, even though it’s startling and effective. It's the slowest of slow burns, an iced-over lake where the cracks begin slowly, then spread, until finally in the last 20 minutes all gives way as understandings converge, and reckoning comes in a horrible communion.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Available on Netflix

Friday, July 11, 2014

[REC]: Escalation

One of my least favorite criticisms of the act of criticism is when people say “quit seeing things that aren't really there”, as if film exists in some kind of perfect objective state in which there is a single thing that it means. Films are expressions of the time and place in which they’re made and horror films are no different - the things that scare us are the things that scare us, and the world in which we live drives the choices made by filmmakers, from the writer on up to the editor. But as much as I like to think about the themes that come out of horror films, as expressions of the time and place in which they’re made, sometimes I’ll run across something that doesn't really engage me on that level, and that’s absolutely okay. Sometimes what you get is what seems utterly to be an expertly crafted exercise in fear, and that’s okay too. I’m not saying that you couldn't deconstruct these films, and certainly different people see different things, I’m just saying that sometimes I’ll watch a film and I’m not thinking at all about its themes because I’m sitting there wide-eyed and slack-jawed muttering “ohshitohshitohshitohshit” over and over again. And it’s important to recognize those too.

[REC] is to me first and foremost a masterfully executed, raw-nerve exercise in the rapid escalation of terror, and I’m using escalation in a couple of senses here.

Angela Vidal is a TV news reporter in Barcelona. She hosts a late-night special interest show called While You’re Asleep, which takes a look at what goes on in the city during the small hours, during the graveyard shift. The film opens cold, no credits, with her and Pablo, her cameraman, getting some intro footage for the night’s episode. They’re going to be spending a shift at a firehouse in the city, seeing what it’s like for firefighters, who could be called into action at any moment during the course of their work week. It’s a found-footage approach, with our entire point of view coming from Pablo’s camera. 

We follow her into the station house, where she does some typical goofy stuff like putting on their uniform, looking at the trucks, interviewing some of the firefighters, trying to slide down the pole, you know, fluff-piece stuff that will make for good TV. The problem is that a lot of the more interesting stuff is going to be contingent on something bad happening, and as a journalist you both want it to happen so you’ll have something to cover, and don’t want it to happen because you’re a human being with a conscience. Angela will be following two firefighters named Alex and Manu for the rest of the evening, and you can see her getting sort of ancy about not having anything interesting for the episode. She’s finally starting to relax a little and shoot some hoops with the firefighters when a call comes in. A woman is trapped in her apartment and sounds like she’s hurt. Angela and Pablo jump into the truck and away they go.

It’s pretty routine stuff - lots of people gathered in the lobby, worried about the screaming coming from her apartment, but the firefighters handle it professionally, cracking the lock on the door and entering to assist the woman. She’s an older woman, and she looks distraught. Right up to the point where she rushes the security guard who entered with them and tears out a chunk of his throat.

Things start moving fast, with the hectic urgency you’d expect from something being filmed in a war zone. There isn’t time to figure out what’s going on and we go where Pablo goes. We’re just as much an onlooker and just as confused as anyone else. Why did the woman go berserk? Who can tell? Someone is bleeding out and now everyone in the lobby is freaking out and the remaining security guard is trying to get the camera shut off but Angela pushes back - she’s a journalist and this is part of the story. And then something else happens, and someone else is seriously hurt, and it’s becoming very clear that there is something very wrong with the woman upstairs. And it might be infectious. And a medical team has arrived. Not to help the injured, but to seal off the building. Whatever it is, they don’t want it spreading.

From this point, [REC] is a spring that gets wound tighter and tighter as crisis piles on top of crisis. People start dying - or suffering injuries that should be killing them, at least, and there’s no way out. Just when you catch your breath, something else goes wrong, some new fillip of information raises the stakes yet again. The situation within the apartment building isn’t containable, but it’s not escapable either, and Angela and Pablo become determined to document all of it. What started off as a routine emergency call keeps getting bloodier and bloodier and weirder and weirder, and there’s just enough space to put together the pieces yourself, and there’s a nice bit to put together, fed out in little incidental details throughout, all of which pay off in one way or another, although usually before anyone in the film itself is able to correlate them, because they’re all in the middle of a crisis and are too busy dealing with the results to figure out the cause. Once the problems start, it all becomes a headlong rush to an ending as bizarre (but still totally consistent with the overall narrative) as any you could imagine. It is a bad night that never stops getting worse, until it pitches over the edge into nightmare.

Found-footage films, in my opinion, live or die on the degree to which you believe that you’re watching unmediated footage of something that actually happened. When it works, it’s wonderful, and when it doesn't, the artifice is somehow even more evident than in conventional films. One of the advantages to this film from a technical standpoint is that the cameraman is actually a cameraman, and Angela is played by an actual reporter. Neither of them are actors. The premise gives them a reason to be there with a camera, and the motivation to film as much as possible, and having professionals play these roles means their behavior is pretty much what you’d expect from a news crew caught in really bad situation. More than many, it feels like you really are watching something terrible unfold in close to real time. 

I also mentioned escalation in a couple of meanings early on, and that’s where [REC]’s next big strength comes in - its use of space and location within a pretty confined area. The majority of the film takes place in a single apartment building, and who is where at any given moment becomes really important as the situation gets riskier and riskier, and the film ends up being as much about movement in confined space as anything else, a feeling heightened by the relatively limited viewpoint offered by a single camera. Interestingly, as things get worse, the survivors are driven further and further up into the building, and as they go up, things get worse and worse and weirder and weirder, culminating in a blind fumble through a long-abandoned penthouse where the awful truth is revealed. The metaphor usually has us descending into danger, but here the protagonists climb, driven on by the threats below. As the situation escalates, so do the characters, all pretense of normalcy stripped away, ultimately along with things like light and space. It ends in darkness, lit only by the sick green of infrared, giving the whole thing the feeling of a normal night that climbs in tension until it enters the realm of madness, of things that shouldn’t be. It’s like The Descent run in reverse, reaching for oblivion.

Unavailable on Netflix (Available on DVD)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Ten Of My Favorites - The Second Five

Following from my previous post, I offer another five of what are ten of my favorite horror films. I know it's not an especially unusual list (going over the first five. I'd argue that it's basically an exercise in "no shit"), but these are largely the ones that have stuck with me ever since I first saw them, in many cases for years. I've seen plenty of stuff that I consider favorites, but these are ones that have never gone away.

6. The Silence Of The Lambs

I've said ad nauseam that I don't like conventionally constructed serial killer movies, and I mean it. But every rule has its exceptions, and in this (and Se7en), I have my exception. It's a measured, largely somber film that offers very little on-screen violence (although what violence there is is gruesome to a degree almost but not quite at odds with the restraint of the rest of the film), but doesn't look away from terrible aftermath or emotional violence - as gross as it is in spots, I think the scene where Buffalo Bill mocks the screams of his prisoner disturbs me more than any of the gore. And in Hannibal Lecter, you have a remarkable character - someone whose evil is rarely (but not never, which is important) openly displayed, but rather coiled within him, a dangerous trap waiting for a misstep to spring it. He's built up to be this monster, and when he is introduced, immaculately groomed, standing perfectly still in the middle of his cell, it is a chilling, alien moment, terrible intelligence behind his eyes and the slightest observation calculated to cut like a razor. Once you know how events play out, you realize just how much and for how long Lecter toyed with the authorities, slipping private jokes into the most innocuous of phrases, setting out a trail of clues the whole time. And when the mask slips, the contrast of the mannered with the bestial is bracing. Somehow, it's worse when he lightly brushes Starling's finger than when he clubs the guard to death.

7. Martyrs

It's not often that you run across a film that can actually grapple with some pretty high-minded ideas (the virtue of sacrifice, ordeal in the service of transcendence) while still being utterly visceral and unpredictable. What really sells Martyrs for me is its sense of viciousness and despair once it really gets going. We're presented with a mystery early on, but it seems to be unresolved until things are clarified with a shocking juxtaposition, painted in gouts of blood over a canvas of cozy domesticity, which in turn is then further iterated into a sort of ghost story told with contorted, agonized figures who turn out to be something other than what they appear, and open the door to a further, even less comprehensible truth, which tells another story, and another, and the pain never lets up, because the pain is sort of the point of the movie, examined from different angles, like a triptych, variations on a scene of suffering. You're kept completely on your toes throughout, and no matter what nightmare places the story goes (and it is unsparing in its violence and scenes of - and this is important - suffering), it's telling a coherent, thoughtful story the whole time. It's almost painterly the way it uses terrible imagery as metaphor, but it never stops punching you in the stomach. It's sort of my platonic ideal of the modern horror movie - one that balances extremity with serious ideas and skillful cinematic technique.

8. The Devil's Rejects

A lot of the things I like about this movie are the same things I like about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - it's a wild-eyed gonzo rampage told using the aesthetics of grindhouse cinema (yeah, I know, I just wrote that and I'm sort of rolling my eyes at it too, but I can't think of a better way to say it). Now, because it's a modern film told using a specific retro cinematic style, it doesn't have quite the same punch as the films it emulates - it's played straight, but there are so many nods to other films (especially in terms of casting - watching this film is a fucking Who's Who for pop culture enthusiasts of a certain age) embedded in it that it's hard not to read it on some level as a commentary on the films from which it takes cues. But it's a love letter to those films, so you get this heightened distillation of all of these images and ideas from all these different movies, all compressed into one delirious rollercoaster ride. The stylization gives it an impact that some of its progenitors lack and lend it moments of perverse beauty in places. It's not the real thing, it's the hyperreal thing.

9. Lovely Molly

One thing I feel like is missing from most modern ghost stories is a real sense of dread. Ghosts are too often puzzles masquerading as threats - find out what the ghost wants (or what object you need to defeat it) and the problem is solved. But there are ghosts and then there are ghosts - as I said in my write-up of this movie, there are many ways you can be haunted, and Lovely Molly does an excellent job of weaving the different meanings of haunting together into a story that communicates both lingering evil and very real trauma and personal disintegration. It doesn't rely on cheap jump scares - no distorted figures in white jumping into frame here - just careful background details, little noises, objects framed in a certain way, all of which tell you why it is bad that Molly is back in this place, because it has always been a bad place for her and whatever hurt her as a child is still here. Death didn't shorten its reach. And then as things get worse, its escalation is observed in short, sharp intrusions of evil and madness into the world. We are given everything we need if we pay attention, and so the half-open closet door, the thud of hooves, the mysterious camcorder footage, all of it comes together into one terrible truth, finally embraced. It's devastating.

10. The Blair Witch Project

I managed to dodge the whole viral "these people really went missing" publicity campaign, because my first exposure to this movie was a picture in some magazine, showing the cast and crew celebrating getting into a film festival. So I knew it was fiction from go, but that did not matter, because the premise was so neatly encapsulated - these people mysteriously disappeared while making a movie, and now we've found their footage - and the way it was presented, as raw information, just completely hooked me. It was like nothing else I'd ever seen. It's easy to pooh-pooh found-footage horror since the Paranormal Activity franchise made them a huge moneymaker, but there's something really gripping about having all of the little tricks and strategies you use to keep yourself comfortable in a scary movie stripped away from you, and one of the strengths of this movie is uncertainty - it's not really clear if what you're seeing is due to the supernatural or just a portrait of the psychological disintegration of three students lost in the woods, utterly out of their depth. It stays this way for quite awhile, which gives it sort of a Shackleton Expedition snuff-film feel, like you're witnessing a preventable tragedy. But then in the last act it drops new information on you, and before you're really given a chance to collate everything, you're hit with a lot of really cryptic imagery and it's only after you stop to put the whole thing together that the full implications come crashing in on you. I must have seen it five or six times in the theater, and the final image of Mike, standing in the basement, still resonates with me, inexplicable but terrible.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Ten Of My Favorites - The First Five

Recently, someone asked me if I would be willing to list, say, my top ten horror movies. I'm not normally the kind of guy who likes doing lists - they seem sort of glib to me, and what works for me might not for another person. also, there's something about ranking works of art that seems a little weird to me. Like, there's not necessarily one thing that makes one movie better than another, necessarily - they're both good, but in different ways. And making a list always opens you up to objections - why this movie and not that one, how can you have this movie but not this other one, how can you say this movie is good but this one isn't.

So, having gotten all of my caveats and yes-buts and general ass-covering out of the way, here are ten of my favorite horror films. These are the ones that I think have stood the test of time, or will stand the test of time, or continue to haunt my brain long after I've watched them. They are in no particular order, except maybe the ease with which they came to mind.

1. The Shining

Holy shit, this is basically the ur-horror movie in my mind. The original story by Stephen King is good, and it is scary, but as I've gotten older it's struck me as more sad than scary, the story of a man trying desperately to hold his life and family together and failing. Stanley Kubrick's complete makeover jettisons a lot of that (although I do find Jack more pitiable than anything in the very end of the film, almost put down like a mad dog), for something that reaches past sense and reason and pushes direct nightmare buttons with nothing more than meticulously chosen framing and lighting and pacing and angles. I remember watching an ad for it as a little kid, and first you see Danny running through the hedge maze, and then it cut to a shot of Jack, lit primarily from above, turning around slowly with an utterly maniacal look on his face, and the image was so primal and raw that I had to change the channel, and anytime an ad for it came on, I'd do the same or even leave the room. I finally got up the courage to watch it eight or nine years later, and it was a censored version on network TV, constantly interrupted by commercials and stupid weather alerts. Didn't matter, still scared the everloving shit out of me.

2. Night Of The Living Dead

Man, fuck zombie movies as a genre. Completely overplayed to the point of parody. Not entirely incapable of doing something fresh or interesting, but generally overexposed and missing what I think the best part of the ideas of zombies are - their utter relentlessness. The thing about Night Of The Living Dead - and why it has retained so much of its power over the years - is that it, like its titular living dead, never stops or slows down. It's in black and white, so at first it feels a little quaint, like one of those early 60's horror or science fiction films that now feels more campy than anything else. But it isn't. It starts slow, and builds, and builds, and builds, and just when you think it's gotten as bad as it's going to get, it gets worse, and worse, and worse. The walking dead don't stop, and the tension and horror of what it is they are never stops either. You think you've seen everything the movie has to offer you, and then it says "no, I am not finished with you yet," and it ends with a bleak punch to the gut. It doesn't care what you want, it just knows one thing: Implacable forward motion.

3. The Thing

I've already said my piece about this film, but it's totally memorable to me as one of the first monster movies to actually fill me with a sense of loathing or revulsion. The alien reallyis alien - it's not some dude in a rubber suit with some extra appendages or forehead ridges. It flat out does not make sense in terms of how we understand life on this planet. And as its biology is beyond our comprehension, so are its motives. We don't know what it wants. It cannot (or will not) communicate. It only assimilates and propagates. The overall sense of tension is helped by the fact that all of the characters are basically trapped in a hostile environment and they don't like each other very much to start, so the stakes are immediately ramped up (the outside is hostile) and there's little to no margin for error when everyone's damn near ready to shoot each other as it is and now they have another reason to hide things, to lie about things, to fly apart instead of working together.

4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

No amount of stupid sequels and reboots and sequels to reboots can dim the gonzo, utterly batshit power of the original. In the words of the immortal Joe Bob Briggs, "by the time you're done watching this movie, you'll think it was actually made by cannibals." It is raw, grainy, kinetic, and immediate. The whole thing hurtles along like a fever dream on amphetamines, with a gloriously hot, grimy visual palette and lunatic energy. It starts off weird and just stomps on the gas and hurtles forward from there. I remember being in middle school and some kid relating the plot of it to me, and it sounded so bizarre and ridiculous that I chalked it up to a playground bluff - he hadn't seen it but wanted to act like he had so he made up the most fucked-up thing he could think of to pass off as the actual movie. When I finally saw it, it was exactly what he had described. It's not especially gory - something I think a lot of modern pretenders forget - instead, it derives its power from its amateurishness, which makes it look like somebody's snuff-film home movie, combined with fast, tight action, extreme close-ups, and piercing feedback in lieu of conventional music in spots. You think you're seeing more than you actually are, and that makes it even worse. It's a screaming, squirming, utterly alive film.

5. The Ring

Yes, people will argue that the original, Ringu, is better. That's fine. I certainly think it has a particular charm and power, and it has strengths that the American remake does not. But I think that as a Western viewer, with Western sensibilities, the American remake is the better horror film. It's perpetually overcast, which makes everything feel more dreary and oppressive, and it takes its time in putting all of its pieces together, drawing disparate images from the cursed tape and the life of the people most intimately involved with it into a coherent story over the run time. Sudden, shocking nightmare sequences and brief images remind us that something terrible is going on here, and by and large we don't understand it. This is where I think the film especially shines - its ability to keep some things a mystery. The original explains who and what Sadako is, but in the American version, Samara's father says only "some people weren't meant to have a child", and everything that goes unspoken within that - that this person did, and what did they do to make that happen? - casts even more of a sheen over what is already a story suffused with a sense of doom.