Thursday, February 12, 2015

Afflicted: Dude, Where’s My Humanity?

I’m not a huge fan of horror comedies, or maybe I just think of them more as comedies than horror. Mostly it’s because so many of them seem to hew to the Scary Movie-style broad parody that pokes fun at the laziest tropes and clichés indulged in by horror at its most rote and formulaic. That sort of wink-and-nod at the camera bugs the crap out of me, because it takes me out of the experience, that sort of “we all know we’re much smarter than this material, right?” just cuts what might be the best parts of the film off at the knees. I like my horror films played straight, in earnest. (I’ll make an exception for Scream, but that’s mostly because it really was played straight with the very specific exception of two characters.)

But I’m not really here to talk about horror comedy or ham-handed “subversion” via pointing out and mocking the obvious. I’m here to talk about Afflicted, which largely distinguishes itself by not falling prey to the obvious. It’s blackly funny, but not a comedy, and it does manage some subversion, but without being overly pleased with itself. It doesn’t do everything right, but it is in many ways a pleasant surprise.

We open on home video footage of Derek Lee and Clif Prowse at their going-away party. They’re old friends who are about to embark on a trip around the world. There’s something initially maybe a little irritating about them. Derek has just quit his IT job so he can take this trip, and Clif is a filmmaker who wants to document the whole thing and periodically upload their footage to a website documenting the trip so other people can follow their adventures along with them. So it really is, initially, sort of a story of privilege. Derek and Clif are two tech-bro types who have the sort of lifestyles that allow them to just quit their jobs and, you know, travel, and turn it into a travel blog. There’s a little of the blithe disregard for other cultures that punctuates the events in Hostel - especially at the beginning, when Derek and Clif meet up with some friends of theirs who are in a band, who just happen to be playing a Paris. There’s a definite frat-dudes-in-an-ad-for-a-new-Apple-product feel to it. You could see these guys setting up a Kickstarter for this experience and being really puzzled when nobody is really stoked to underwrite their months-long party.

That said, this is only our initial impression, and the filmmakers leaven these first moments with a certain amount of humanity. As it turns out, Derek has a life-threatening brain aneurysm, which explains his desire to get all bucket-list at this moment in his life, and it also plausibly explains his resistance to getting help until things get really, really bad, which, this being a horror movie, they will.

In fact, it’s while they’re hanging out in Paris with their beardy indie-rock friends that things go awry. The others are all desperate to get Derek laid, because that’s what bros do, and sure enough, Derek ends up chatting up (and making out with) an attractive woman at the club, and Clif is getting it all on tape (because that’s what bros do) until Derek and the woman leave. And of course, bros being bros, they head back to the hotel to see if they can actually document Derek getting some Parisian strange. And, you know, considering Clif’s plan is to upload their adventures for everyone on their website, this little detail feels both incredibly crass and completely plausible.

Sure enough, they get back to the hotel, and sneak in quietly. They slowly and carefully open the door...

...only to find Derek alone and badly bitten on some very bloody sheets. The woman is nowhere to be seen.

One trip to the hospital later, Derek feels a little weird, but that’s understandable given what he’s been through. His friends are worried because all he remembers is getting hit in the head and then waking up with his friends around him. He’s got an aneurysm, after all - is this going to affect him? And that’s when things start getting weird, as Derek starts...changing.

Clif is a documentarian by nature, and he’s already determined to document their trip, so he continues to do so. They came prepared to film everything with a fair amount of pro gear, so the omnipresence of cameras makes a certain amount of sense. The film eve opens up very much like you'd expect a documentarian to start a travelogue, with actual editing and post-production effects like you’d expect from someone with some filmmaking skill. And it’s not even really a selfish thing - Clif is Derek’s friend, and he’s acutely aware of Derek’s health situation, and he wants to memorialize this time they have together. You get the sense that it’s really less narcissism and more his gift to Derek. So what starts off as the wacky adventures of two globetrotting buddies becomes something else entirely as Derek’s condition deteriorates in strange ways, the footage becoming increasingly less polished the more dire the situation gets. There are some moments here and there where you say to yourself "would they REALLY be filming this?" but it's not egregious, and given that this is being uploaded for their friends and family, the footage refreshingly doesn't exist in a vacuum - the more people see, the more worried and horrified they become by what’s happening.

Unfortunately, it's a little obvious from the start that Derek is turning into a vampire - he develops an acute (and graphic) sensitivity to sunlight, he becomes stronger and faster, etc. - and that blunts some of the tension, because it's less "holy shit what is happening to him" and more "okay, so here's what's going to happen next." That said, it also makes for some nice, blackly comic moments, as Clif turns to the Internet for answers, much to Derek's quiet exasperation (the look on his face when Clif mentions “domain over certain classes of vermin” is wonderful), and in one of a few thrillingly kinetic sequences, Derek tries to outrun police while getting increasingly and vocally frustrated that they keep shooting him. It's not often that you get a first-person perspective on the impossible leaping and wall-crawling often attributed to vampires, but here it's very effective, and simple action sequences turn dizzying. There’s also something refreshing about Derek’s initial exhilaration. Not only is he not dead, but he can punch holes in rock walls and outrun cars. It’s intoxicating, the way he’s gone from living under a death sentence to becoming a superhero.

There's also a certain pathos to all of it - vampires here are not the doomed romantics of Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer novels. As his condition advances, Derek becomes sick, and miserable, and increasingly frustrated and saddened by the terrible things he keeps doing and keeps having to do. He holes up in an abandoned building in Paris, huddled on a concrete floor, and there's nothing elegant or beautiful about it. For the most part, just when Afflicted could make a really obvious choice, it tends to go for something a little less obvious, and that is very much to its credit.

Actually, the more I think about it, the film of which it reminds me most is An American Werewolf in London. It’s about two buddies abroad and then something awful happens to one of them. It mixes tension and dark humor and gore in a similar fashion, though it’s not quite as obvious as to put “Blue Moon” on the soundtrack. It's maybe not paced as well - the opening drags a little, then Derek's transition is really quick, and as things progress there are some lulls, mostly attributable to Derek's attempts to find answers to his condition (which means spending time with the "rules" of vampirism, which to me always detracts from the story), but there's enough good to balance the bad, and it ducks clichés enough to redeem the ones it embraces. It gives you a story familiar enough that the surprising choices really stand out.

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