Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Digging Up The Marrow: Imitation Of Life

So on the one hand you’ve got film-as-fiction, and on the other you’ve got documentaries. One is a lie, the other is the truth (yeah, documentaries have agendas and what really is the truth anyway, but you know what I mean). In horror (not just horror, but here is where it’s been most profitable), you have the found-footage film, which ostensibly tries to employ the pretexts and filmic devices of the documentary to tell a fictional story that will hopefully feel rawer and more immediate, and maybe bypass some of the safeguards in our brain that keep us from fully engaging with a fictional story. This is all well and good, but found-footage as a narrative device is overstaying its welcome by a country mile. Whatever benefits you might derive from filming everything like it’s been shot by a handheld video camera or surveillance cameras are pretty much swallowed up by “oh Jesus, not this again.” It’s become another form of artifice, as empty a gesture as the most obvious and conventional techniques of film-as-fiction (oh shit there’s a monster behind the door aaaghhhh!).

This leads to an interesting hybrid, where fictional stories are located inside what appear to be actual documentaries, so you’re still watching a work of fiction, but one with more extensive trappings of legitimacy attached to them. It takes the “a bunch of people filming a documentary” conceit of at least 70% of all found-footage films and follows through. S&Man did this and ended up working as a really interesting commentary on the role of specific types of horror film in the lives of their audience, though not so much as an actual horror film (you cannot believe that someone would release a documentary in which they knew they were party to the activities of an actual serial killer).

Likewise, Digging Up The Marrow is an interesting attempt to reconcile the realities of horror film with the idea of actual horror, but it falls flat as a story even as it provides some interesting insights into the nature of horror film, its relationship to its audience, and its relationship to real horror.

Adam Green is an actual honest-to-goodness horror film director, responsible for such diverse fare as Hatchet, Frozen, and Spiral. The film opens as he’s going about his busy life, working on new films, a TV series, doing the convention circuit, the whole thing. He talks about how as a kid he wasn’t frightened by monsters, but fascinated by them, and how it was probably this impulse that got him into horror film...the hope that someday he’d find out that monsters were real and he’d get to meet them. Into Green’s life comes a man named William Dekker - an ex-cop who claims to have spent years investigating the existence both of actual monsters and the subterranean cities they inhabit, a network he refers to as “the Marrow.” It’s Dekker’s contention that throughout history, children born with deformities did not, as thought, die shortly after birth, but instead were guided to the Marrow, where they grew up in a world parallel to our own, beneath and alongside us in births, deaths, marriages, divorces, triumphs, and tragedies.

Green, as the sensible filmmaker he is, is pretty sure Dekker is a kook, but begins documenting his meetings with him nonetheless to see if it goes anywhere. The little boy in him wants to believe. Dekker has sketches of sighted creatures, collected news stories, even maps of potential portals to and from the Marrow, and lucky for Green, there’s one in a public cemetery not too far away.

So, of course, Green and one of his directors of photography go with Dekker to stake the place out. And there’s nothing, and more nothing, and more nothing.

Until there’s something, misshapen, right up in their faces and screaming.

The rest of the film isn’t terribly surprising - Green wants to push for even more proof, his wife and coworkers are afraid he’s becoming obsessed, Dekker’s afraid of them being found out for some reason, and digging a little into Dekker’s background reveals that it’s not really clear at all who he actually is. None of this is surprising, and honestly it all falls a little flat. It’s not dissimilar from S&Man, but that film probably worked better because it was far more naturalistic - it was less ambitious, but the added plausibility gave it an impact that Digging Up The Marrow doesn't have. Serial killers lurking among the denizens of micro-budget direct-to-video horror plays as much more likely than actual monsters discovered by someone with several notches more legitimacy.

And honestly, I think it’s the difference in Green’s role within horror film that ends up being this film’s undoing. It's supposed to be a documentary, but everyone's a little too glib and arch - everything everyone says seems to be tuned as dialogue, rather than how people actually speak, so you're very conscious that what you're watching is a product, a construct intended to signify certain things without being those certain things. (A quick glance on IMDB reveals that, yep, all the dialogue is scripted, and boy is it obvious.) You're never really able to buy it as a documentary that gets out of hand, even though it's grounded in actual filmmaking and uses actual people from horror film to shore up its credibility - again, S&Man worked much better in this respect because nobody seemed like they were acting, for better or worse, and the stakes were more believable. This feels designed from stem to stern and the artificiality works against it.

Likewise, in terms of artificiality, it doesn't help that the practical effects don't really hold up. It feels like a cheap criticism, but practical monster effects are really hard to do well without looking completely unbelievable (or even ridiculous), especially on the budgets most horror movies have. I acknowledge that it’s a really high bar to set, but if you're going to tell me that these don't look anything like practical effects (by having people in the film actually say, out loud, “those did not look like practical effects” they need to not, you know, look like obvious practical effects. The illusion doesn’t hold up. Its narrative premise is that horror is intruding on the real life of people who make fictional horror for a living, but it’s so thoroughly produced and directed and designed that it doesn’t for a second feel like real life. It all ends up feeling sort of pointless. Again, according to IMDB, Green made a point of casting a well-known actor as Dekker so people wouldn’t be fooled into thinking any of this was real. Then what was the bloody point of the whole story in the first place?

In its own way, however, this film is interesting though, even if not for its intended purpose, because horror as it's presented here is so thoroughly created, produced, and marketed. The film is filled with posters and t-shirts for various films Green has made, often recontextualized into cartoons or heavy metal band logos, which indicates the degree to which they've been absorbed into larger pop culture to the point of no longer really being something that’s especially frightening. It’s another product to be consumed. So, really, this film does comment upon the tension between actual horror - real monsters - and horror's commodification. The filmmakers want so badly to believe in real monsters, but their very presence outside the portal to the Marrow threatens to drive them completely away, and when they show their footage to well-known horror movie actor Kane Hodder he cynically can't see it as anything but another creation or construction. His first assumption is that this is one more product to be presented and consumed by an audience wanting more sequels, more gimmicks.

The people most invested in actual horror are the ones most responsible for it disappearing.


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

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