Thursday, July 30, 2015

I Am A Ghost: Samsara

samsara (noun)

1. Buddhism. the process of coming into existence as a differentiated, mortal creature.
2. Hinduism. the endless series of births, deaths, and rebirths to which all beings are subject.

I’m sort of surprised this never occurred to me before, because it’s hardly a revelation - if we consider especially the Buddhist idea of samsara, the idea that suffering is the product of attachment to earthly things, well, you’re basically talking about ghosts at that point too, aren’t you? Films dealing with ghosts and hauntings talk all the time about the spirit being unable to let go of something from their life. Attachment to worldly things is the cause of suffering, and ghosts, by their definition, suffer. They are trapped between. I feel like I’ve stumbled onto something everyone else already knows here. 

But anyway, I am here to talk about I Am A Ghost, which is an impressionistic, understated story of one person’s attempt to free themselves of earthly suffering, experienced as, essentially, an endless series of births, deaths, and rebirths.

The film begins with an excerpt from an Emily Dickinson poem - “One need not be a Chamber / to be Haunted / One need not be a House / The Brain has Corridors / surpassing Material Place”, which neatly summarizes the central elements of the film in a few lines, but I’ll get to that in a bit. This and the title card are followed by a series of static shots of a large, old house, accompanied by an underlying ambient hum, which establishes a certain tension. The emptiness is tangible and pregnant with its own disruption. You wait, and wait, and wait for something to happen. Something has to happen any second now, to break the absolute emptiness and stillness.

When it is broken, it is not by anything horrifying, it is broken by Emily, who is a prim young woman in a white dress reminiscent of an earlier, more modest time. Emily goes about her day - we meet her making her breakfast, as the radio plays old, old news reports and music, she tidies up, goes grocery shopping, and the next day she wakes up with a yawn to do it over and over again, the exact same actions, the exact same way, slotted in a different order. Even within this sort of iterative, permutated Groundhog Day, it soon becomes clear that something is a little off - the oddly menacing way she raises her butter knife at the breakfast table, throwing up at the bathroom sink, her hand bleeding and bandaged.

The thumps and groans coming from upstairs, the voices calling her name.

As it becomes clear, this house, and the things that happen within it, are the limits of Emily’s life, and they occur and reoccur in different orders and variations, one or two new things showing up gradually. Like the poem says, there’s a person, a house, and a mind. Like I keep restating in most of my reviews of haunted-house stories, houses can be haunted, and so can people. Eventually, we begin to discover why this is the case, as Emily begins talking to an unseen woman named Sylvia, and what has been a series of statements and restatements starts to take on new value as we begin to see those familiar scenes from unfamiliar angles, as Emily begins to talk, as we get new pieces to fit into the puzzle, as the picture slowly becomes clearer. Emily is in this house, and there’s something very special about Emily in this house, the way she inhabits its rooms, and as we come to discover, something equally special about Emily’s mind. 

The pacing is interesting - long takes, very understated music and little to no dialogue for the first half of the film, and it’s just the same collection of scenes over and over again, in different rhythms, with variations in order, the occasional new scene inserted. It’s a very artificial approach, but it pays off, because the early tension of the opening dissipates under this relative familiarity, the same things over and over again, and it is only as we first get new bits of information introduced that we started to feel uneasy again. It has the effect of lulling us into a false sense of security and as we find out more about Emily, as the truth is revealed, the tension comes back with a vengeance as the place that has become so familiar is made threatening again by the new revelations, and this makes the endgame a much different experience from the rest of the movie. Just as you begin to wonder whether or not this is actually a horror movie, it kicks in with an almost Lynchian purity and primitiveness. This big, old house suddenly becomes claustrophobic because there really is nowhere to run, for the characters or the audience.

The filmmakers do a lot with very little - the film is almost entirely carried by a single actress, it’s set almost entirely in a single location, and so shot composition and editing (along with the tasteful deployment of split-screen and some unobtrusive effects) do most of the heavy lifting instead of gratuitous musical stings and gore and a lot of screaming. The majority of the film gets over on mood and setting alone, and so when it does branch out into something less restrained, it’s almost cathartic in its intensity. In lesser hands, its premise would have been a complete shambles, the sort of thing that makes me roll my eyes so hard they end up in someone else’s eye sockets, but by staying focused and presenting us with just what we need to know to understand what’s happening, it brings it into clarity.

It’s almost a horror film as haiku, distilled to its essential elements to tell the story of one woman’s attempt to break the cycles associated with memory and denial and flight from the truth. Houses are haunted, people are haunted, and when we hold onto something because we don’t want to let it go, or to let it free, we suffer. And when we suffer, we can’t move on. Samsara is the wheel of suffering borne of attachment to earthly things, and until Emily reconciles her earthly attachments, she cannot be free of suffering. Even in the end, which deftly avoids cliché, it isn’t made clear whether or not she truly is freed at all.

Unvailable on Netflix

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Drownsman: Mean Girls

For all of the moral panic surrounding them, slasher films are a deeply conservative expression of the horror genre - they are worlds in which any misstep, from a rashly-made decision to drinking to defying authority to mocking traditional values to extramarital sex, tends to be rewarded by death of varying degrees of violence and ickiness. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the idea of the Final Girl. In most slasher movies, women make up a decent chunk of the victims. Maybe not all, but most, and it’s typical for the upstanding, virtuous, oh-let’s-just-say-it-she’s-a-virgin  woman in the bunch to be the one who survives and even turns the tables on the antagonist. So the hot take is that women are victims, unless they are “pure,” in which case they aren’t. On top of everything else that might give one pause about slasher films, that the women in them are defined almost entirely by their relationship to men (and their value in patriarchal terms) might not be the first thing that comes to mind, but it’s a problem.

The Drownsman is interesting, insofar as it’s a story driven almost entirely by women, in a genre where that’s hardly typical. Unfortunately, this would probably mean more if their portrayals weren’t so utterly unsympathetic and the story they inhabit so transparently formulaic.

It begins at the end of another movie, - one about a serial killer named Sebastian, who ritually drowns his victims, and the Final Girl who defeats him…or so she thinks. Black screen, panicked breathing, open to a woman lying in a crawlspace terrified as a hulking figure drags her toward a tub. She begs him not to, and when he puts her in the tub, she catches him off-guard by kissing him, then stabbing him with a shard of glass. You know, like women do. But ah, there’s a twist - when she submerges him in the tub as she stabs him, he...vanishes. Gone. It’s just her in the tub. Screams and smash to black.

Then, we flash forward to a different movie, this one, about a young woman named Madison and her three best friends, one of whom, Hannah, is engaged to be married. As they’re out celebrating, Madison has an accident, and falls into the lake…

...and wakes up in some nightmare basement, with a sodden, hulking monstrosity looming over her.

Flash forward yet again to a year later, and it’s Hannah’s wedding night, and Madison - the maid of honor - is trapped helplessly in her room as rain pours down outside. She’s developed a profound fear of water and so, afraid of leaving the house, misses the wedding. Hannah is furious, because God it’s been a whole year and can't she just be over it by now. Never mind that she takes all of her fluids intravenously because she can’t even drink a glass of water, this is Hannah’s night. Madison’s friends - Hannah, Kobie, and Lauren - decide to stage what they think of as an intervention, because as far as they’re concerned, Madison just needs someone to humor her crazy shit for a second and everything will be fine again. The intervention takes the form of sort of a séance-meets-exorcism-meets-immersion therapy, using a woman who has experience contacting the dead, and because we are dealing with the ghost of a serial killer who has a thing for water, shit goes all kinds of wrong from there in a real hurry.

And this is the first problem with the movie - her friends are not just unbelieving, they’re unsupportive to the point of utter callousness. Hannah sets up this “intervention” with the help of a medium, but expects…and even insists…that it be a hoax, a going through of the motions and she’s immediately nasty and dismissive to the medium when she tries to insist otherwise. This goes beyond being a bad friend into psychological cruelty. Lauren blithely refers to Madison as “our crazy friend” and there’s no appearance of any sympathy or goodwill from any of them. If these are her best friends, it’s a toxic fucking relationship.

Needless to say, it’s very difficult to connect emotionally with any of these people (even Madison seems written more as a cringing victim than anything else - and though that isn’t necessarily bad as a way of demonstrating just how traumatic an encounter with the supernatural would be, it makes it hard to really get on her character’s side). This isn’t really a movie about the toll mental illness can take on the friends and loved ones of the sufferer, and though that could be a good movie (The Taking Of Deborah Logan almost gets there sometimes...almost), this film is by no means equipped or inclined to go down that path, so what we have instead is a bunch of really shitty people that we’re supposed to believe are Madison’s friends because they keep saying so, rather than showing it. Contrast this with the complicated-but-believable relationship between the two sisters in Absentia, for example. As a result, we pretty much know right away that this is going to be a movie in which these shitty people get picked off by a vengeful ghost one by one, and that’s exactly what we get. No real surprises to be had on that front, and so the opportunity to feel bad for these people as they die, one by one, is diminished because they’re people who dismissed forces they didn’t understand and who therefore deserve their fate. We’re just marking time between kills at that point.

The Drownsman is, however, notable for being pretty much entirely about and concerning women, though - the antagonist is male, and there’s maybe one secondary male character and, I think, one other speaking part for a man total. Hannah’s fiancée/husband never shows up, and isn’t even really mentioned even when it’s established Hannah’s getting married. Were it not for the bad guy, this film would almost past the Bechdel Test, which is worth noting. But that’s…about it. Because in every other way, it’s really rote. The dialogue sounds like dialogue, that is, it sounds like exposition, not how people actually talk, and the acting is uniformly just wooden enough to highlight the problems with what’s actually being said. The film doesn’t really pay much attention to external logic (sure, just walk in unannounced into a mental hospital in the middle of the night and say you’re there to see a patient, why not? That’s how it works, right?), or even internal logic (without spoiling much, this vengeful ghost plays by a set of rules, like all vengeful ghosts, but they only seem to apply when necessary for the plot). The antagonist is made more monstrous than strictly necessary (he doesn’t just drown women…he drowns them because he stayed in the womb for 19 months as a child and longs for the sound of his mother’s heartbeat…what the fuck?), and the whole thing ends with absolutely no attention to or respect for anything else that happened in the film. I think it’s trying for the sort of last-minute reversal that The Ring pulled off nicely, but because it occurs without context or reference to anything else that happened, it just comes up as something beyond cheap and into cinematic Calvinball territory.

It’s too bad, because its production values are pretty high, and it does have some well-done moments (Madison sitting on her bed, distraught on the night of Hannah’s wedding, the rain pouring down the window reflected onto her was a nice touch), the ghost is handled well for the majority (not entirety, but majority) of the movie, the effects are pretty good, and water is a great hook - it can go almost anywhere, it’s ubiquitous and necessary for life, and drowning, as a manner of death, is certainly less over-done that death by various and sundry sharp things. There’s almost no blood in this movie, and that’s a good thing. But all of this is in service of a story so completely by-the-numbers, assembled with so little insight into human nature, care for plausibility, or sense of anything but a constructed narrative that it undoes any goodwill engendered (ha!) by the things it does right. Ghost stories work because something unnatural and unreal is intruding on the natural and real, and nothing in this film - not the way the characters relate to each other, not the way institutions or social niceties work, nothing - feels natural or real. These are a group of women, propped up as terrible to each other, set up to be knocked down as they move from one setpiece to another, the people with which they interact having no sense of life or even existence outside of the moments they need to be in the movie to move the plot along. And so, in its own way, it reinforces the very status quo - cinematically and in terms of gender representation - that it could have just as easily subverted.

Unavailable on Netflix

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Canal: Going Deeper

One of the critical pieces of any horror film (well, any film, but let’s stick to the subject) is knowing how far you’re going to push your story - sure, it’s all about twisting the knife, raising feelings of dread or fear or disgust or anxiety or whatever, but separate from that, I think, is the sense of escalation - are you going to hinge things on one moment or incident or revelation? Are you going to present the story one way and then throw in a twist or three? Are you just going to plod along with setpiece after setpiece in what I’m coming to call the “things happen, then more things happen” school of storytelling? As things get worse for the protagonists, how much worse are they going to get? 

The Canal is a sharp, unrelenting story about perception and reality, and the way the truth is buried - literally and figuratively. The key here is unrelenting - this is a film that does not stop tightening the screws at all.

David Williams is a film archivist, and we meet up with him and his pregnant wife Alice as they are in the process of buying an old historic home in Ireland, near an old canal. They’re optimistic, happy, and excited about the future. But then, as we flash forward five years, there’s a distinct note of melancholy - David seems a little weary, a little beaten down, and it's clear that in the five years since he and Alice (and their young son Billy) bought their house some distance has grown between them. They love their son, but David spends a lot of long nights at the office, and increasingly, so is Alice. There’s one particular client with whom Alice seems to be spending a lot of time, and it’s beginning to worry David. It’s the picture of domestic discontent. He doesn’t want to believe the worst, but there it is. Into what is already a stressful life comes a new package of old, old police crime-scene footage from the early 20th century that David needs to work on restoring and preserving. It’s grim stuff - films taken at the site of a multiple murder, where a man killed his wife and children before ending his own life. Not the sort of thing a man already at odds with his own life needs to think about.

Especially when David realizes that the footage was shot in his house.

As it transpires, David and Alice’s historic home was indeed the site of a brutal murder, and the knowledge, combined with his own fears about his deteriorating relationship with Alice, begin to haunt David. It all begins with the story of a man whose marriage is failing, and plunges downward from there. There are ghosts here, and like any other good ghost story in recent memory (see also Lovely Molly, Absentia, Oculus), there’s a focus on the ways we can be haunted both by the mundane and the supernatural, and on the merging of past and present, the reliving of old events over and over again. David is obsessed with the house, David is obsessed with his increasing distance from Alice and protecting his son, and the two begin to blur. To that end, the denouement is pretty much what an observant viewer thinks it's going to be (and this really is one of the film's few shortcomings), but what’s especially noteworthy here is the trip it takes to get there. This film is not content to say “oh hey, maybe there are ghosts,” it peels back revelation on top of revelation stirring up all of the hidden muck of secret histories, letting nothing remain unburied, so that we come to realize that the real story behind the house’s past and David’s present is much, much worse than one would expect going in. Even though the ultimate outcome is more or less what we’d expect, the reasons for and implications of that outcome pack a much bigger wallop than they would otherwise. 

It helps that the film is nicely understated for the most part. It relies primarily on briefly-glimpsed things, shadowy visions, and nightmare sequences for most of the heavy lifting, along with well-executed sound design and a keen sense of shot composition that establishes relationships early on, framing things in tight boxes like the old film that provides David's initial revelations, and provides for some truly striking images. As the story progresses, the film bleeds over into David's nightmares, David's life bleeds over into the film, and the present recapitulates the past. In that sense, it reminds me to some degree of Sinister, but where that film took an interesting idea and tried to build a film around it and then build a franchise around the film at the expense of the story they were trying to tell, this film just concerns itself with telling its story, seeing it out to its logical conclusion, digging past domestic tragedy and the horrific and the supernatural into madness and nightmare and evil, leaving the viewer gasping for breath as it comes to a close.