Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Deep Fear: Not As Deep As It Thinks

Trying to make a movie - any kind, really - that is “about” something is, in my opinion, generally a losing proposition. Mostly because all films are about something insofar as they’re a product of a particular time and place in a particular culture, rely on a particular level of technology (which feeds into an aesthetic), as well as the experiences and worldviews of the director and cast in terms of the choices they make. Whether people are consciously aware of it or not, thematic narrative is an emergent property of the filmmaking process. So when someone consciously decides that they’re going to make a film that addresses a specific theme or issue, they run the risk of making it didactic, hectoring, and obvious. Not always, but usually the ones that work the best in my experience address whatever it is in terms of someone’s experience, through the circumstances of their life. There’s a difference between telling a story that leads to the viewer saying “that’s fucked up” and making your entire film 90 minutes of you telling the audience “well, actually, this is fucked up.” It really does come back to “show, don’t tell” most of the time. 

And this is one of the problems with Deep Fear, though not the only one. It’s only fitfully effective, lacks structure, and in its attempts to say something about a larger issue, can’t quite overcome its clichés. 

It doesn’t get off to a promising start, with one of those prologues that tells us what we already know, that there’s something bad down in the tunnels below Paris. A graffiti artist is listening to music on a cassette Walkman circa 1989, but it just happens that he can fast-forward exactly to the start of the next song. As someone who actually used that technology, that is…not really a thing. Right off the bat, it seems like plausibility is not going to be a concern. Soon enough, there are strange noises coming from the end of a tunnel, artist gets dragged off. 

Fast-forward about four years or so, and three friends are sitting in a bar, shooting the shit over drinks. Henry is celebrating his last weekend as a civilian before reporting for military service. Max and Sonia are there for moral support. Well, Sonia does nip off to the restroom to meet an acquaintance who sells her a little baggie of something to keep the party going and clues her in to something fun he’s going to be doing tomorrow night if she and her friends want in .And this is how Henry, Max, and Sonia meet up with Sonia’s friend Ramy for a night of exploration. See, Ramy knows a way into the Paris catacombs, the ancient tunnel system running under the span of the city, once used for the disposal of the dead, now an enormous labyrinth ripe for exploration and the sort of things you do away from the prying eyes of the law. 

There are all kinds of things down there.

Apart from the on-the-nose prologue, it takes awhile to set things up, spending a lot of time with the characters Which is fine, but it doesn’t do much to develop the characters themselves. Henry is kind of a bro, Max is a dorky hypochondriac (we know he’s a dork because he wears glasses), and Sonia is…not white. That’s kind of it. So we’re given the opportunity to learn about them, but there’s nothing to learn. There’s a nightmare sequence that underlines Sonia’s otherness in a way that feels shoehorned in, and kind of unnecessary given what happens later. Ramy is their guide, and otherwise kind of a nonentity. There are a few other characters, but they’re even less than that. None of them are especially obnoxious, but nor is there enough to really feel much of a connection to them either. 

Once they get down into catacombs, things pick up a bit with the blind claustrophobia of the setting. There are lots of tight squeezes, uncharted areas, and unstable tunnels, and the precariousness is pretty well-realized. It’s by no means of the same caliber as The Descent, but it’s reminiscent, especially in terms of needing to manage your way through increasingly smaller spaces and worrying about collapses, not knowing if there’s another exit somewhere. There’s good potential here, and a run-in with some neo-Nazi skinheads sets up the opportunity for real tension (as well as making the earlier nightmare sequence less necessary than it already was), but though it provides the impetus for everything that happens in the third act, it’s sort of forgotten almost immediately until it becomes relevant again, but when it does, it’s not in any meaningful way. It’s a very fitful film in this way - it has promise that goes undeveloped, tension that dissipates when its cause is sort of abandoned for the next thing, and the third act starts by developing something interesting before discarding it for a pretty stock-standard “people get picked off one by one by implacable monster” thing. The nature of the monster, without spoiling it here (don’t even read the IMDB entry for this one, really, the brief blurb gives too much away), isn’t especially imaginative either. It’s something we’ve seen before, and ultimately it doesn’t amount to much beyond people getting fed into a metaphorical meat grinder, with an ending that makes a fairly on-the-nose statement about the immigrant experience in France. 

It's interesting to think about alongside As Above, So Below, though - that film used the premise better but had an utterly ridiculous protagonist. This film had the better protagonists (or at least more believable as people) but didn’t use the premise all that well. There’s also a touch of Creep (the somewhat icky 2004 one) in the idea of the ghosts of war continuing to lurk under the surface of the cities wounded by it, and though it isn’t as invested in humiliating its protagonists as that film, it’s not really doing anything with the idea either. It sort of feels like the filmmakers had a generically solid idea for a monster movie set in the Paris catacombs, but decided it needed to “mean something” and so they made character and narrative choices that amount to “treating people badly because they’re different from you is bad.” Which isn’t exactly earth-shaking as revelations go. Fairly shallow for a film set so far below ground.

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

À L’intérieur: What's Black And White And Red All Over?

I’ve talked before about how the once-vaunted New French Extremity ended up being more hype than substance (not to mention nebulous as all get-out - the Wikipedia entry includes a whole lot of films that aren’t even French), but for every Frontiere(s), which wouldn’t know subtlety if it walked up and smacked it in the face with a lead pipe, there’s a Martyrs, which has a thesis, actual narrative craft, and a willingness to let some things remain ambiguous. What these two ends of the continuum have in common, and seems to be broadly characteristic of the movement (to the extent it actually exists) is a confrontationally graphic use of violence and a tendency toward nihilism. When it’s done well, it makes for a singular experience that is by no means for everyone. And when it’s not done well, you get Frontiere(s)

À L’intérieur (Inside) is definitely done well, and what it lacks in narrative sophistication it makes up for in atmosphere, tension, and a use of violence that blows right past glib and titillating and lands smack dab in the middle of outright grueling. I can’t remember the last time a film made me exclaim “that is fucked up” out loud so many times before it was over. It's an unrelentingly intense, disturbingly intimate siege film marred only by one totally unnecessary stylistic choice.

The totally unnecessary stylistic choice makes itself known immediately, with what is pretty clearly a computer-generated animation of a child in the womb, floating peacefully. It’s fake, it’s clearly fake, and it’s faintly ridiculous. There’s an opening voiceover as a woman talks about how her child is safe and nobody’s going to be able to take it away from her now. Which is maybe a little intense, but then there’s a screeching of metal, a shattering of glass, and a cutaway to a visibly pregnant woman sitting in the wreckage of a car, dazed and bloodied, a man slumped over dead in the seat next to her.

The woman is Sarah, a photojournalist, and the man was her husband. She lost him in the crash, but her baby is still alive and healthy. Flash forward a few months, and it’s Christmas Eve. She’s going to deliver on Christmas Day. What does she care? The man she loves is dead, she has no interest in seeing her extended family, no interest in celebrating anything. So she makes plans for her editor to drive her to the hospital tomorrow morning, and settles in for the evening, all alone in a house that’s a little too big now. And then there’s a knock on the door. There’s a woman outside, asking to come in and use her phone. Sarah’s understandably skittish, being all alone in the middle of the night, so she begs off, suggesting the woman go to a house down the street, it’s Christmas Eve, there will be plenty of people home elsewhere.  But the woman persists, so Sarah says that her husband’s just gotten home from his shift and is asleep. The woman promises to be quiet, but Sarah isn’t giving in.

And then the woman says “your husband isn’t home, Sarah. He’s dead.”

There are at least a couple of general reasons to watch horror. One is entertainment - the adrenaline thrill that comes from being startled, from tension and release. It’s the ability to experience scary situations vicariously. Horror as thrill ride. The other is art, in the sense of experiencing a creative work for the sake of the experience it evokes, the way it makes you feel. This can be more complicated than thrills, and can prod at our boundaries, maybe take us beyond them. When you go past your limits, everything is new. Inside is most definitely not entertainment. As is the case with Martyrs, people who watch horror films to see teenagers get skewered by a masked maniac are not going to like this film, because the violence in it has consequences. It’s not the punchline to a joke. There’s visible suffering, it’s up close and it’s damage and pain, people don’t die right away and it’s messy. It’s upsetting because it’s supposed to be. You’re not supposed to enjoy it. 

But even by those standards, fuck this is a violent film. Blood is everywhere, right from the opening scene and impressionistic opening credits that turn it into something textural. The majority of the film takes place inside Sarah’s house and by the end it is absolutely painted red, as is Sarah.. Blood sprays, spurts, spills, smears all over the place. You can’t get away from it. Harm is quick and brutal, except when it’s prolonged and agonizing. Whatever sharp object someone can find, it’s getting used in as graphic a fashion as possible. It’s not a complicated story, Sarah’s being put through a wringer and she has no idea why, and by extension so are we. That’s the point - the absolute senselessness of it, the way this horror finds its way in in the form of The Woman (she is never named). This is happening, regardless of how you feel about it. It’s an intimate film, mostly two people in a single location, and a lot of it happens up close. The violent moments, sure, but also conversations, examinations of faces exhausted, in agony or fear or rage. Apart from a blackly funny sequence toward the start featuring a nurse who absolutely cannot read the room, there's pretty much no humor either. It’s not a film with a lot of opportunity for distance.

But there are films like this that are just endurance tests without a lot of value otherwise, and a big part of what separates this from grosser, more exploitative stuff - still looking at you, Frontiere(s) - is that it’s clearly made with skill. This is a film that uses lighting really, really well - shadowy interiors, backlit figures like darkness cut out of the world, remorseless fluorescents, complemented by a grain to a lot of shots that gives it a rough and immediate texture without looking cheap or like an attempt at pastiche. The pacing is efficient, accomplished largely by interrupting action with sudden, shocking cutaways that keep the audience on the back foot. This isn’t a film that strictly adheres to the rhythms of a scene, anything can happen at any time, and so once it gets going, it always feels tense. There isn’t a lot of exposition - it doesn’t need it, like I said, it’s a pretty straightforward story - but there’s enough ambiguity that you’re sort of left wondering exactly what has happened, little throwaway lines that make you say “wait, what?” and are never followed up, so there’s this faint air of mystery to it all that lingers once it’s over. Performances are believable all around, with The Woman especially standing out - she’s calm, feral, and piteous by turns and the energy is always palpable. Sarah spends most of the film in shock, literally or figuratively. This is a woman who’s already grief-stricken, thrust into something so much worse. And the whole thing is scored using minimal, pulsing synthesizer, some strings and white noise, it’s effective all the way through without ever being intrusive, coloring scenes without upstaging them.

That said, there are some moments that beggar belief - one group of police officers makes a baffling choice regarding someone they already have in custody, people who by all rights should be dead aren’t, but just as often it adds to the surreally nightmarish feel of the whole thing, where not everything is explained neatly and so you sort of wonder how much of this is or isn’t actually happening. The film never commits either way. More egregious is the repeated use the dodgy CG effects of a child in the womb, as if the baby is reacting to everything going on around it. It’s hokey, the effects look cheesy, and it adds nothing to the film. You could cut out those interludes (of which there are more than a few) and it would only help the film. But despite that corny nonsense, the film gets over because everywhere else it’s utterly sharp and ruthless, unsparing and implacable. This was one that had me feeling wrung out afterwards. It’s a hell of a thing, and maybe the only other film apart from Martyrs that justifies New French Extremity in horror. 

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Alleluia: Not For Love Or Money

I don’t run across a lot of doomed romances in the process of writing this thing. Maybe “romance” is the wrong word because most of what I’ve seen have been the stories of two people who end up entwined in something incredibly destructive to both of them. The folie a deux isn’t restricted to horror - I mean, Heavenly Creatures, Bug and Natural Born Killers aren’t technically horror movies, Dead Ringers probably is though - but for the most part, any kind of love story in horror tends to be a folie a deux. Dracula is not a love story, so miss me with that nonsense.

Alleluia, loosely based on the real case of Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, could be mistaken for a folie a deux, but I’m not sure it is. It’s a study in appetite and need, and what happens when two unappeasable hungers meet each other. It ends up being more of a reversal of what you initially expect going in and kind of an interesting companion to the director’s earlier film, Calvaire.

Gloria is divorced, and lives with her daughter. A friend of hers is trying to encourage her to get back out there, which is tough when you’re a single mom and work as a morgue attendant. Nevertheless, her friend answers an ad placed by someone named Michel and Gloria agrees to meet him for dinner. Michel, at least to the outside observer - or at least to me - is, well…off-putting. He presumes to order the wine without consulting Gloria and then manipulates the entirety of their conversation, managing to make being a shoe salesman into something kind of creepy. He does some intro-level Sherlock Holmes shit, determining things about people based on their footwear. Maybe it’s a difference in cultural sensibilities, but nothing about this dude says “second date” to me. Gloria ends up taking him home and to bed with her.

And the next morning, of course, he’s up and almost out the door when she catches him. He explains that he has to come up with some money to pay one of his vendors - sales haven’t been great lately - and she offers him money. There’s some back-and-forth about how it’s a lot, he can’t possible take it, but eventually he does, and promises to be in touch soon. After a day or so, Gloria is having sobbing fits, curled up in the fetal position. So she goes out looking for Michel, and sure enough, finds him at a local nightclub carousing with any number of women. She’s been played, and she confronts him. He admits to it, admits that this is what he does - he seduces lonely women, takes their money and moves on.

And just when you expect her to kick him in the nuts and spit in his face, she asks to be with him. He can keep doing what he’s doing, she’ll even help. She just wants to be with him. And he agrees.

The obvious story here would be that Michel has not just seduced, but has in fact ensnared Gloria, making her an increasingly more willing accomplice to his increasingly more deranged crimes. It’s certainly set up that way at the very start, but it becomes clear pretty quickly that he’s more broken and damaged than he is sinister, and she, in her desperate, near-feral hunger to be loved and desired, is actually the more dangerous of the two. Michel doesn’t know any other way to relate to people, and is to some degree replaying out one of the most central relationships in his life over and over again. Ultimately, it’s not really about the money for him, it’s about the seduction and the money is just a way to sustain this lifestyle for him. If anything, he’s more pathetic than anything else.

But Gloria…whatever had been brewing inside of Gloria ever since her divorce, meeting Michel absolutely uncorked it. Her loneliness and need to be loved and desired is all-consuming, as is evident in the fits of sorrow and despair she experiences when Michel isn’t around, or when Michel is doing what she knows he does. It’s in how she talks about love as this all-consuming force. Michel compulsively seduces other women, because it’s the only thing he knows, and Gloria cannot stand to see him with other women. It’s obviously a dangerous combination and you know it isn’t going to end well. The film is divided into four acts, each named for a different woman, and with each one you see the tug of war between their competing appetites get more and more intense, more and more violent. And it isn’t a jealous, abusive man keeping a woman prisoner, as is the case more often than not in real life, it’s this man desperately trying to placate this woman that he’s afraid to cut loose.

As I said above, it’s directed by Fabrice du Welz, who is also responsible for the very good films Vinyan (another take on obsessiveness) and more relevant to this film, Calvaire. Visually, it takes place in the same France as Calvaire - it’s very muddy, rainy and gray, and the homes and villages are kind of squalid. It’s a place where the sun shines through clouds if it shines at all, full of miserable little hotels and apartments, old farmhouses that have seen a lot of wear. It’s as if in a world with so little beauty, the search for something good becomes obsessive. And it’s textually and thematically sort of a riff on some of the same ideas as Calvaire as well - the way loneliness and isolation warps our ability to make healthy, functional connections with others. and having the same actor play Michel as played Marc in Calvaire adds to this - he’s like Marc gone to seed, exploiting people’s attraction to him instead of running from it, but still ending up the witness to (and victim of) violence done in the name of desire. He is still an object of obsessive attraction, and even though Michel leans into it in a way that Marc did not, the end result is still the same. In trying to be what someone else wants him to be, it never ends well.

That said, of the films I’ve seen by du Welz, this is probably my least favorite (which still makes it better than a lot of what I watch). The translation is a little clumsy in places, which imparts a flavor to some exchanges that I’m not sure is what was intended, and though Michel’s realized well-enough in terms of why he is who he is, Gloria’s leap into the deep end feels very abrupt. We don’t know much about her beforehand, so it’s difficult to tell if her obsession is the result of extensive neglect or even abuse, or if Michel’s seductive talents are just that powerful (there is the little ritual he does ahead of each conquest, though that doesn’t seem to be something meant to be taken literally). The end result makes it feel sort of arbitrary and I think we miss out on some potential depth there, though their resulting dynamic is realized very well over the four acts of the film. It’s uncomfortable to watch in a number of places, doesn’t deal in clean platitudes, and has an ending that puts the “bleak” in “oblique,” and these are all good things in my opinion. So really, I’m nitpicking. It’s sort of a truism that love makes us crazy, and it’s equally so that the behavior of people in romantic movies would be hideously illegal in real life, but there’s no fantasy here. Just hard, sad truths about need.

IMDB entry
Available on Tubi
Available on Amazon

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

She Will: Ashes

It’s got to be one of the most tired cliches in writing about scary movies - using the word “visceral” as a sort of double entendre, referring both to the way a film can grip you on a level other than the intellectual and how lots of horror films are really gory. Get it? Get it? Because there are guts! Annoys the hell out of me. But, that said, I think there’s something to the idea that a film should be visceral, or that at least in horror a visceral element is important. Appreciation is good, but being moved? That’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for the films I watch to make me feel things, if not especially comfortable or reassuring things.

And that is, I think, my only real problem with She Will. It’s a gorgeously shot and constructed story of righteous vengeance and reclamation that ends up being, in the final analysis, a little too cerebral.

The film opens with a long shot of what resolves into a view of a lake, a forest, a horizon. Gradually it becomes evident that we’re seeing it inverted, the lake is the sky and the forest the ambiguous dividing line, an abstraction like a warped Rothko painting. There’s a woman on a train watching the lakeside view blur by, and her reverie is interrupted by intrusive flashes of some kind of medical procedure - operating room lights, hovering masked figures, a scalpel slicing into flesh, juxtaposed with the application of lipstick. Red against skin, and a voice-over talks about the importance of masks, wearing masks as a form of self-preservation.

The voice belongs to Veronica Ghent, a retired actress who has just had a double mastectomy and is now traveling to a remote retreat in Scotland to rest and recuperate far from anyone’s prying eyes. She’s accompanied by Desi, her nurse, but doesn’t seem especially happy about it. She doesn’t like being told when to take her pills. She doesn’t like much of anything, it seems. You get the sense that her life has been difficult. She’s imperious, cutting, someone with decades of practice at keeping others at arm’s length. Her current state of vulnerability is deeply unpleasant to her and she doesn’t want anyone’s help or attention. She refers to herself as a “forgotten movie star,” gulps Tramadol and stays as far from the spotlight as possible. She has nightmares, wakes up gasping.

It's a difficult time for her - along with the major surgery, it’s all over the news that the director responsible for her first major role in a universally acclaimed film is about to receive a knighthood. She has memories of that time as intrusive as the surgery. She remembers her younger self, bruised and battered. She was “special” to him. She was 13 years old. And now he’s being celebrated while she’s tried to make herself as invisible as possible, described in the media as “retired” and “controversial.” You know, sort of like how actresses who complain about sexual harassment are labeled “difficult.”

And so she arrives at this resort in rural Scotland, only to discover that it won’t be a solitary retreat after all - those are booked later in the year, right now they’re just booking group retreats, and Veronica recoils with the idea of spending her recuperation among other people, and you sort of don’t blame her - the people at this retreat are largely buffoons, sneering and pretentious, entitled. She wants to leave, but a rainstorm has washed out all the roads and nobody can get a signal on their cell phones. So they’ll have to make the best of it. Veronica and Desi are given a cabin far away from everyone else, and it’s maybe a little more rustic than she’d like, but it keeps her distant. It’s right on the edge of the forest, and this part of Scotland is known for its restorative properties.

You see, so many women were burned here as witches that their ashes have changed the composition of the soil. And Veronica finds herself sleepwalking out into the forest. Clinging to the earth.

The shape of this film becomes apparent pretty quickly. This is a place where women have been subject to men’s whims for a very long time, and so Veronica’s loss and grief and long-festering trauma, the blithe indifference of the other guests, they’re just one more in a long history of similar stories, of a land that has in its bones the oppression of women, the subjugation of women to the needs of men. It’s just under the surface in more ways than one - the women who are guests at the resort are clueless at best and smugly complacent at worst, not wanting to see the boat rocked because then they’ll lose what meager scraps of privilege they’ve been afforded. But the women who work there have a sort of weary awareness about them - they’ve seen a lot, and not just the difficulties of riding herd on city folk out in the countryside. Veronica being here in this place awakens something in her, or maybe something here begins to speak through her, use her as a conduit or vessel. Centuries of women needing to be heard. Needing justice.

One of this film’s biggest strengths - and it’s a big one - is the coherence of its vision. It’s absolutely beautifully shot, full of exteriors where the sky looms, low and pregnant with rain, and the grass and mud so tactile as to be almost sensuous, contrasted with the bright, sharp angles of a city, the coldness of concrete and marble. The nights are full of shadows inside and out, the days are somber if not gloomy, and a night in the only nearby pub renders the mundane almost magical, painting one character into a study in gold and silver…at least before it all goes wrong in ugly, squalid, and utterly inevitable fashion. Motifs are repeated and juxtaposed and recombined in such a way that communicates exactly what’s happening without needing a lot of exposition, often verging on the hallucinatory, and indeed the line between reality and reverie isn’t ever really all that firmly drawn. There’s blood, there’s lipstick, there’s earth and fire and the memory of a young girl and of hundreds of women before her, all playing out in Veronica’s mind like a broadcast from centuries of trauma. It’s a story of renewal, cleansing, one that reappropriates fire as way to purify instead of eradicate, and we watch Veronica blossom as she channels what has happened here before to redress what is happening now, and continues to happen over and over again. The imagery is an easily comprehended vocabulary, not especially cryptic, and it means we intuit the story as much as we watch it.

So it's a very beautiful movie, one with a clear point of view, but it’s also a cold one - there’s a detachment, a restraint to a lot of it. The moment Veronica meets the other guests is rendered as claustrophobic and oppressive as any cocktail hour could ever be, but after that it really does maintain a certain distance on everything, which robs it of some of the visceral impact that I think would really let it sing. I appreciate the irony of this criticism in the face of the sexist assumption that women are “too emotional,” but as much as this film engages intellectually and points to the pain Veronica and so many others have suffered, it doesn’t really bring the viewer into that. There’s no crescendo to the film, no pitch of howling rage or fury. It ticks along , thoughtful and measured. But it seems to me that the centuries of pain and oppression and cruel indifference that it astutely and acidly etches for the audience demands something that burns hotter than that. Fire isn’t polite and restrained, it’s hot and eats everything in its path, leaving only ashes, and I think the film could have used more of that.

IMDB entry
Available on Hulu
Available on Amazon

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Don’t Breathe: Yes, Man Is The Real Monster…But Which Man?

Is there any life left in the idea that at the end of the day, it’s humanity that is the monster, not the monsters themselves? I don’t know. It’s pretty well-trod ground at this point. Sometimes it comes at you from a surprising angle, sometimes it feels sort of inevitable, and sometimes it’s so loudly telegraphed that the movie itself is almost beside the point. I don’t think it’s necessarily the weighty revelation that more obvious examples seem to think it is. Yes, people can be fucking terrible. We know.

But that’s not entirely fair, because I think any movie explicitly intended to convey some kind of social message is off to a bad start. More often than not, they end up didactic and tiresome - the cinematic equivalent of someone wagging their finger in your face. But when you don’t center it, when you just make it a part of the movie’s landscape, I think it can still work. And I’m mostly thinking this because Don’t Breathe - which is better than I thought it was going to be, if not as good as it could have been - isn’t afraid to muddy the moral waters a bit across the board.

It's early morning in a quiet Detroit neighborhood. The sun’s lighting the tree-lined streets with gold, and all is quiet, except for the man dragging a body down the middle of the street. Some time before that, a trio of thieves are breaking into a very nice house with a crisp efficiency. Alex times how long they have to get to the alarm and disable it. Rocky dresses up in the owner’s expensive clothes, dreaming of a better life, and Money breaks things and pisses on the carpet. This is how they afford things. They break in, steal stuff, and fence it. Times are hard in Detroit for the kind of people who don’t live in those fancy houses. But it’s getting tougher - Alex insists that they don’t take cash, and stolen goods don’t pay out as well. Money is especially unhappy with this situation, and their fence tips him off to what could be an especially lucrative score. There’s a blind Gulf War veteran who won a big settlement when a wealthy young woman hit his daughter with her car. So there’s this old blind man sitting on a ton of cash - an easy score.

Alex is reluctant to take the job - large amounts of money mean bigger sentences if they get caught and cash means victims aren’t just going to collect the insurance money and call it a day. But Rocky and Money both want to make it happen, and rather than let them run off and get themselves caught, Alex comes along. The house is the only one occupied in one of Detroit’s many ghost neighborhoods - nobody around for a couple of blocks in any direction.

Nobody around to see a man dragging a body down the middle of the street in the early morning.

In the fine tradition of any sort of heist movie, what should be an easy score turns out to be absolutely the farthest thing from it. The old blind military veteran is extremely resourceful and, as it turns out, extremely fucking dangerous. Things turn ugly quick, leading to an extended game of cat and mouse between him and the three intruders who are on his home turf. In a lot of ways, it’s shot and framed more like a monster movie than anything else - the blind man (as he’s named in the credits) is not at all afraid of violence and is more than capable of killing. He moves quietly, sniffing the air like some kind of apex predator, which is disconcerting when it’s an older man in an undershirt moving through the sprawling maze of his house. It’s an appropriately quiet film, with the soundtrack primarily consisting of ambience, generally well-deployed, spiking at the right moments, but letting silence do as much work as you’d expect in a situation where any sound gives away where you are. There are some nice visual touches as well - a lot of it takes place in shadowy interiors, with limited light spilling in an illuminating things just enough. There’s one sequence in total darkness that’s shot as if using light-intensifying cameras, so everything is shades of gray (appropriately enough), almost like a daguerreotype. The action is cut very fine, all about economy of movement and place, the need to be absolutely silent as someone passes within inches of you, so there’s a claustrophobia to it, combined with the slightly nightmare feeling of being trapped in a sprawling, labyrinthine house that seems to keep going in every direction (especially down), as if it doesn’t really end.

It’s an interesting balance, and there’s a nice ticking tension to most of the film made up of near miss after near miss and the thing someone needs being inches away, but those inches being the difference between life and death. As the film winds on, the protagonists discover just what this man is capable of, and it’s so much worse than they could have imagined.

But in other ways, it’s very much not a monster movie. There are humanizing touches to the blind man as well, moments of fear and grief and uncertainty. When he realizes there’s more than one intruder in the house, he’s clearly afraid, as any vulnerable old man on his own would be. He just wants to be left alone, to grieve his lost daughter in his own way, and never did anything to Alex, Rocky or Money except be there and have a lot of money that they wanted to take. He’s done bad things (very bad things, as it turns out), but he’s still a person. And Alex, Rocky, and Money are just people, but they’re capable of bad things. Make no mistake, this film is not a character study - Rocky is the girl who dreams of getting her and her little sister out of their abusive living situation, Alex is the brains of the operation, careful and methodical, and Money is the loose cannon, a wannabe gangster who’s clearly a liability. And that’s pretty much it. And at the end of the day, they have made a decision to rob someone who is, to all appearances, a vulnerable old man, precisely because he seems to be an easy target. They know about his grief and loss, and they don’t care, because it just means he’s sitting on a lot of cash that they want. It’s a tricky proposition to have a film where the protagonists are mostly unsympathetic, but there are some nice twists and reveals that keep everyone involved from being either unambiguously good or bad. Everyone is what they appear to be, but more than that besides, and it does make everything a little more complicated and keeps it from being reduced to a cartoon.

On the other hand, the third act ends up being a bit of a problem. There’s a bunch of unnecessary last-minute exposition, one last-minute reversal after another, and the whole thing feels like it ends maybe three times before it actually does, with some pretty cliched Final Girl stuff at the end. There are som serious implausibilities throughout (like, this is one really resourceful blind man). But again, it’s maybe redeemed a bit by the underlying moral ambiguity of the whole thing. It’s not so much “who will survive and what will be left of them” as it is “who will survive, and what were they made of to begin with.” It manages to take an ending that is in many ways pretty stock for the genre and keep it from feeling like a triumph in any direction. Some people won’t like that, but I’m here for it.

IMDB entry

Available on Tubi
Available on Amazon

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

We’re All Going To The World’s Fair: Whoever’s Watching

Scary movies about malevolent technology can be a risky proposition. Something that seems absolutely contemporary when it comes out can feel hilariously dated maybe a year or two later, and this is especially true of anything having to do with the Internet. If the writer or director isn’t familiar with Internet culture, it becomes very apparent very quickly and then you’re just watching it for the irony because it’s almost impossible to take seriously.

So I think that We’re All Going To The World’s Fair works as well as it does because it’s not a film that posits the Internet as some kind of malevolent entity as much as it is just a fact of everyday life, but one with very specific consequences. It’s not a film about technology, it’s a film about the effect of technology on people. It’s a film about loneliness and the difficulties of connection in an age of social media, draped in the trappings of a horror film.

It opens on a teenage girl’s bedroom. Not an especially unusual one - it’s cozy, decorated with fairy lights, tidy but not overly so. And very quickly, we realize our point of view is this girl’s webcam. Her name is Casey, and she’s making a video, possibly to share on YouTube. She’s looking at us, and we’re looking back at her, except she’s not really looking at us, she’s looking at an audience, the audience she assumes will be watching this. She tells us (or rather, whoever will be watching) that she’s going to take “the World’s Fair Challenge.” This involves drawing a small amount of blood and repeating over and over “I want to go to the world’s fair, I want to go to the world’s fair.” See, when you do this, you become part of a community centered around all of the people who have taken this challenge, and begin experiencing strange transformations shortly afterward. They share videos documenting their transformations and experiences. But it’s okay, she’s got her stuffed lemur Poe to keep her safe through whatever happens next.

And soon enough, she begins to feel alienated, separated from her body. Like something else is beginning to inhabit it, and all she can do is watch.

The specifics are a little murky here, it’s described as “an online horror game,” but it isn’t really presented as such - it’s closer to something between a TikTok challenge, an ARG, and urban legends as old as Bloody Mary and as relatively recent as Ben Drowned. Possibly it’s a collective form of storytelling. But this is really nitpicking, because it’s really just the pretext for everything that comes after. This film takes place in a world that seems profoundly empty. It’s a world of houses separated by wide swaths of land, highways passing through stretches of strip malls and the shells of abandoned big-box stores, cars speeding by on their way to someplace else, anyplace else. Casey wanders this bleak landscape, apparently unburdened by school or friends. Her father exists only as a voice shouting angrily from offscreen and as a set of headlights pulling up into the driveway as Casey finishes the dinner she made for herself, seated alone at a dining-room table. Her life is on her computer, where she makes videos that she uploads for people to respond to, as she responds to their videos. It’s easy to imagine this being a world of people inside, alone, staring into glowing screens, looking for some kind of contact. In the very rare instance that there’s more than one person in a frame, the other is inevitably obscured - a shadowy figure walking by in the background, or a crowd of people seen only as a faceless blur. In this world, Casey is an island, unmoored and adrift.

Really, it’s a story about lonely people broadcasting their experiences to whoever’s watching, a careful look at the dissonant confluence of intimacy and performance that is social media. Casey’s videos catch the attention of someone who runs a channel about the challenge, what he refers to as “endgame-level content,” and their conversations are the only instances we have of Casey actually talking to another human being. In lesser hands, this would be a simple Internet-predator story, the challenge being some kind of snare for unwitting minors. But, thank goodness, it’s nothing that obvious or cliched. It really does seem like Casey is experiencing some kind of transformation, something like possession. But it also seems like she’s struggling with feelings that maybe she can’t even really articulate, a sense of loss for something she doesn’t know she’s missing. So the question becomes whether we’re watching her being slowly consumed by some kind of supernatural force, or if she’s an isolated, unstable girl experiencing some kind of catharsis. Is this really happening to her? I mean, something is definitely happening to her, but what? How much of this is real, and how much is performance? How much of Casey is Casey, and how much of it is the game? How much of any of us is real, and how much is performance?

I know that I’m describing in a way that makes it sound pretty cerebral, and that’s because it is. And maybe that’s the kiss of death to a certain kind of horror fan who’d sum it up as “dumb” and “boring” and “slow.” But if they can’t give themselves over to a story, can’t empathize with the characters, and just sit there like a baby bird, waiting to have jump-scares and “brutal kills” regurgitated into their waiting eye-mouths, that’s their fucking problem. There are definitely some very tense, uncomfortable moments of psychological horror, even some body horror, and there’s a real undercurrent of dread throughout. Whatever the reason, it’s clear Casey isn’t safe. But more than anything else it inhabits the world we live in, locates the uneasiness in the way anyone can share themselves with anyone else who’s tuning in without any guarantee of reciprocity or actual connection. You cast these bottles with messages in them out into the dark, and you have no idea who’s reading them, or if anyone is. There’s horror in that.

In some ways it feels like a film that’s going to hit hardest for a particular age range, one of which I am a part - people old enough to remember a time before the Internet, especially as it is today, but young enough to have been an active participant in its earliest years, familiar with those liminal forms of intimacy that could define so much of early Internet culture in a way that feels like just another part of the landscape today. It’s not as harrowing or bleak as, say, Downloading Nancy, but it occupies some of the same space - how much do we really know about each other, what is the difference between knowing someone online and knowing them in real life, what is performance and what is identity when the line between them is so blurred. It’s not scary in the jump-out-and-yell-“boo” sense, but it’s certainly unsettling at points and deeply haunting and melancholy in its end.

IMDB entry

Available on Amazon 

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Dabbe 5: Zehr-I-Cin: The Devil’s In The Details

When I wrote up Dabbe: The Possession about seven months ago, I observed that by all rights, I should not like it. It was a found-footage film about demonic possession, and the second in a series of seven films. I’m really picky about found-footage films, stories about demonic possession can get very cliched very quickly, and I am not at all fond of sequels or (ugh) franchises And yet, I really liked it. It had a real energy and sharpness to it, and coming from a culture fairly different from my own, it felt fresh in a number of ways. It wasn’t perfect - the translation was pretty clumsy and there were some pacing issues, but overall I thought it was a solid effort, intense and spooky in equal measure.

So I was genuinely curious to see if lightning would strike twice, and I have to say, Dabbe 5: Zehr-I-Cin (Dabbe 5: Curse Of The Jinn), an eerie and tense account of the sins of someone’s past, makes a good case for itself.

The film opens in voiceover, with an account of something that happened in the village of Viransehir in 1979. It’s the last recorded testimony of a mullah who lived in the village, alluding to something terrible that he warned the villagers against trying. The villagers didn’t heed his warning, and terrible discoveries were made there. Black magic, human sacrifice. The mullah vanished, leaving behind only some notes and audiotapes. We cut to a cave, a woman giving birth surrounded by other women. As soon as she’s delivered the child and the cord is cut, the baby is whisked off someplace by a group of men carrying rifles. The woman screams in anguish, begging to have her baby brought back to her.

Meanwhile, in present-day Istanbul, Dilek and her husband Ömer are asleep in their home, when Dilek is startled awake by the sound of someone in their house. She tries to wake up her husband to see what’s going on, but he just rolls over and pulls the covers over himself even tighter. Not exactly the picture of chivalry. As she moves carefully through the house, she can’t find anything. The next morning, she’s fighting exhaustion while getting Ömer off to work. The noises in the middle of the night didn’t help, and when she tries to settle down for a nap she’s plagued by nightmares.

Strange noises, nightmares, and soon enough, doors slamming shut by themselves, glassware smashing onto the floor. There’s something very wrong going on in their house.

So this is the fifth in a series of seven movies, which let’s face it, if these were being made in the U.S., would mean we’d be faced with a stale retread of something that might have been good the first time around, but is now just a bunch of motions through which everyone is going, with a storyline as contrived and convoluted as Godzilla is tall and irritable. But in this case, based on the two that I’ve seen, what we have instead are distinct, unrelated stories that share a number of broad narrative beats. They’re more like variations on a theme than anything else. Which means, on the one hand, that we don’t have to navigate the tiresome rationalizations for why this particular monster/demon/serial killer is on the rampage yet again, which is nice. On the other, the similarities mean that some things that should be a surprise end up being less of a surprise, and afterward I realized just how many of the same notes both films hit. I suspect that if I watched a bunch of these films back-to-back that they’d get formulaic pretty quickly.

But in the moment, it works, and that’s largely because it’s also as much its own thing as it is a riff on the same themes as the previous film It’s not a found-footage film like Dabbe: The Possession was (and thank goodness for that), and it’s more visually inventive as a result. The color grading runs from warm tones to sickly, grainy, greenish pallor, many shots are slightly distorted with fisheye or tilt-shift effects and vignetted, giving even mundane moments a sense of unease or unreality. Points of view change regularly - there’s some SnorriCam work, shots framed like they’re from surveillance footage (even though they aren’t), shots that are surveillance camera footage that glitch and stutter to good effect. So things seem slightly unreal, but there’s also paranoia, a feeling of being watched. Sound design is very good as well, using slamming doors and sudden crashes to keep things feeling tense. The tools are all pretty simple, there’s not a whole lot in the way of special effects (which is good, because some of what there is ends up being sort of dodgy), just knowing what looks and sounds creepy, and it goes a long way. And when things really start to pop off, it can have the same kind of frenetic intensity that reminds me of The Evil Dead, which goes a long way toward giving what could otherwise be fairly simple conceits some real edge.

Like the previous film, it’s a story about curses and djinns, not demons or devils, so it’s something a little more complex than your usual “demon possesses young woman for reasons” story. Again, there’s a past at work here, the culmination of something that happened a long time ago, so on top of the horror there’s something of a mystery element to it that keeps it from descending into an assemblage of scares. It’s not an especially character-driven film, the performances seem fine, though again I think stuff gets lost in translation and though none of the characters are really obnoxious, nor are they especially developed. It doesn’t really hurt the film, and you don’t have any unintentionally comic translations this time around, fortunately, but I wonder if a little more subtlety would have helped. It does share pacing problems with the previous film - for most of its running time things move along at a nice clip, but the end drags on a little too long and threatens to lose focus.

And I think this is ultimately my biggest concern with the film - all of the ways it is broadly, structurally similar to the previous film. The characters are all different, details are different, how the story gets told is different, and this is all to the good. But in both films, you’ve got an opening alluding to something terrible that happened in a small village years ago, passing references to apocalyptic events, a young woman suffering under a curse, a betrayal, a return to where it all started, and a framing that suggests this was based on true events. None of those things are by themselves problems - some of it is a little hackneyed, maybe - but it meant I was able to anticipate some things that would have been better off as surprises. It’s still a formula, even if it’s not the one I usually find tiresome. But on their own, both films in this series that I’ve seen have been very well-executed, enough that I’m genuinely interested in seeking out the others. But I’ll probably give myself some time in between them, in the hopes that maybe I will be surprised the next time around.

IMDB entry

Available on Netflix
Available on Amazon