Thursday, June 11, 2015

Aaaaaargh, Technical Difficulties

So first it was a serious winter malaise, then it was several months of getting my ass kicked at work, and just as work was beginning to subside, my laptop gave up the ghost. I've got notes on The Canal to write up, and some more thoughts on franchising after watching Never Sleep Again, the documentary about the Nightmare on Elm Street series. Hopefully I'll get the computer situation figured out soon, and get back to writing soonish. Thank you for your patience, and watch The Telephone Book on Netflix. It's not a horror movie, but it's pretty fucking strange.

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.

Huh.

IMDB entry
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Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix

Friday, April 17, 2015

Calvaire: Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places

I think it’s pretty well established at this point that horror films don’t just evoke horror anymore - dread, fear, anxiety, terror, revulsion, there’s a whole palette of feeling and experience with which a filmmaker can work and still be seen as making horror films. I think this is generally a good thing. I think seeing horror films as a vehicle for scares, shocks, and cheap thrills is limiting and probably a little condescending, and the more moods and shades of feeling available, the more corners of the human condition they can illuminate, and the more possibility there is for horror films to be the art they can be.

That said, it wasn't until I watched Calvaire (Ordeal) that I realized just how rarely horror taps into feelings of sadness, loneliness, and sorrow by comparison.

Marc Stevens is a singer for hire. He does weddings, parties, private engagements. We meet him as he sits at a mirror, putting on stage makeup, getting ready to perform old love songs for a roomful of women at a retirement home. He has a little banner with his name on it tacked to the wall, he comes out in a cape with his name on it. His music is prerecorded, and he serenades a shabby, fluorescent-lit room full of aging pensioners with all the charm and sincerity you could ever want. He’s a hit. He’s been here before. He’s always a hit. He returns to his dressing room to take off the makeup and get ready to hit the road for his next engagement. One of the women comes back to his dressing room, and Marc knows her by name. She’s worried that the next time he comes around she won’t be alive any longer, and she makes a fumbling pass at him. It’s exactly as painful as you’d imagine, and the camera doesn’t look away. Marc isn’t cruel to her in his rejection, but she is cruel enough to herself for both of them. And it’s not just her - one of the nurses at the home, responsible for paying him, buttonholes him on the way out and makes a pass of her own. She seems desperately lonely. They all do. You get the impression that Marc’s visits are one of their few bright spots, and they’ve invested a lot in him. He’s obviously uncomfortable with it as he coaxes his brightly painted van stubbornly to life. He can’t stay. He has to hurry to his next gig.

Well, you can’t have a person on their own, driving through the countryside without car trouble, and sure enough, Marc’s van - which sounded none too healthy when he left the retirement home - breaks down in the middle of a very foggy nowhere, in the middle of the night, after a close call with an animal. He spots a sign for an inn some distance away, and he heads for it. It’s late, but the innkeeper - a man named Bartel - lets him in and makes up a room for him anyway. It’s been awhile since anyone stayed at the inn, Bartel says, but the rooms are clean and he’ll fix Marc something to eat. Bartel tells him he can look at his van in the morning, and he tells Marc that he used to be a performer, too - a comedian. He understands artists, because he used to be an artist too, before he lost his wife, Gloria. Bartel seems lonely too. But he wants to help Marc and enjoys his company.

Just don’t go down to the village, Bartel tells Marc. They don’t...understand...artists there. Not like Bartel does. He understands Marc very well.

Marc reminds him so much of Gloria.

What ensues serves as your basic spiral into nightmares, as Marc learns more about Bartel, the village nearby, and his own role as a fresh face in this very isolated community. It definitely gets bad (it’s called Ordeal for a reason), but what I find especially interesting about Calvaire is that no matter how horrific it gets, it never loses its steady undercurrent of sorrow and loss - the feeling that everyone in this film (perhaps even Marc) does what they do out of some desire to feel love and connection. These people aren’t monsters, no matter how monstrous their deeds, they’re just stunted and deformed by their lack of love and ability to connect to each other in healthy ways. Bartel and the men of the village are mirror images of the women at the nursing home and the nurse there. They are all yearning for the resurrection of their memories, of the fondest recollections of their past, or maybe just for a chance at love and connection in a world that doesn't provide it. In that sense, Marc's predicament is just a nightmarish reflection of his everyday life. Same shit, different day.

And shit is probably a good word for it. The film's palette is a thoroughly dismal one - everything is dingy and shabby and run-down and muddy and squalid and decrepit. The nursing home is clean, but maybe a little frayed around the edges. Bartel’s inn is also clean - mostly - but much older and in rougher shape. The village is basically an unbroken sea of mud and shabby, sickly-lit buildings. Shafts of light break through overcast skies, only to illuminate marshland, wet, churned fields with sparse, stubby tufts of grass peeking out. Everything is dirty, everyone is selfish, nothing is pure. It doesn't go out of its way to draw attention to the terrible things that are happening - there’s no melodramatic music (in fact, outside of Marc's songs and one especially unsettling interlude in the village, there’s no music at all), there is little in the way of obvious camera staging - a mixture of quick cuts and long takes is used to linger on suffering and move things from bad to worse economically. 

And things do go from bad to worse - horrible things happen casually, because out here in the backwoods, life is different from how it is in the cities and towns. Bartel isn't lying when he says the villagers are different - they’re all brutish men, inarticulate to the point of silence, and occupied with strange, unwholesome customs. A lot goes unsaid in this film, but if you read between the lines, the story is really, really not a happy or pretty one. It’s not often you can describe a horror film’s tone as sordid, but that’s exactly how it all feels. What begins as sadness darkens to dread, which descends into grotesquerie before landing at outright nightmarish surrealism as things get worse for Marc who, throughout it all, really does seem blameless. He’s a man trying to do his job the best he can, despite all of these people projecting their need for love, long-lost love, love irretrievable, onto him. By the end, Marc is almost gone, swallowed by all of the dreams and memories people have projected onto him.

Unavailable on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Brood: The Mind/Body Problem

brood

(noun)

a number of young produced or hatched at one time; a family of offspring or young.

(verb)

to think or worry persistently or moodily about; ponder:

to dwell on a subject or to meditate with morbid persistence 

to cover, loom, or seem to fill the atmosphere or scene

It’s something that’s been argued over by philosophers and other assorted scholars of human behavior for centuries - what’s the relationship between the mind and the body? Is the mind a product of biological systems (the body) that facilitate consciousness, or the illusion thereof? Or is our sense of ourselves as a living thing - a body - the product of our consciousness? Is the mind something separate? Is it the purpose of the body or a byproduct of it? Where does one end and the other begin? There’s a certain anxiety associated with feeling detached or alienated from your own body, of feeling like this unwieldy meat vehicle is completely out of your control, and horror exploits that through the terrors of vampirism, lycanthropy, zombies, disease, mutation...the list goes on. The mind is too - the idea of “psychological horror,” where the psychology is threats to the mind and consciousness, rather than the body. But there’s something especially squirm-inducing about the intersection of the two, when both the mind and body are warped and the horror of one scars the other.

The Brood may not have aged as well as it could have, but its ideas about modernity’s collision with humanity and the tyranny of mind over body are still potent.

It’s the story of Frank and Nola Carveth. Nola’s in intensive psychotherapy for issues stemming from what appears to have been an abusive childhood, and this leaves Frank on his own to raise their daughter, Candice. Nola’s in the care of Dr. Hal Raglan - a pioneer in a field of study he terms “psychoplasmics” - the externalization of suppressed feelings and conflicts as physical trauma. A young man’s conflicted feelings about his father erupt into boils during a demonstration, and this is apparently cathartic. Dr. Raglan has written a book about his approach, titled The Shape of Rage. Nola is in intensive one-on-one treatment with Dr. Raglan and despite Frank’s protestations, Raglan won’t let him see her, because she’s at a critical stage in her treatment. For example, Nola and Raglan, through the use of psychodrama, work through Nola’s hatred of her alcoholic, abusive mother.

A mother who dies mysteriously, shortly after the session in question. She’s found viciously beaten to death by some unknown assailant, and Nola never left the clinic.

As wacked-out as the idea might seem, there’s precedent in early theories of  psychotherapy - Freud’s ideas about psychoanalysis stemmed from an experience he had with a colleague’s patient - a woman code-named Anna O, who had gone spontaneously blind, and later paralyzed, presumably as a response to having to take care of her bedridden father. Freud believed the body was preventing the mind from acting on unacceptable urges. The mind hijacks the body.

More than taking advantage of this tension, The Brood serves, like the filmmaker’s previous Shivers, as another comment on the ways that modern life shapes and is shaped by the body. In Shivers, it was the closeness of modern high-rise living taken to the extremes and the post-Sixties relaxing of sexual mores, and here it references what were at the time new fads in psychology and self-improvement, like EST or primal scream therapy, combined with the narcissism that arose from the abandonment of Fifties stoicism, resulting in the disparaging label “the Me Generation.” People were beginning to talk about their feelings and their struggles and their pasts instead of suppressing them, and though it was probably a swing too far in the other direction, it was an understandable overcorrection, and lead to a lot of quack ideas about self-actualization. Raglan, as an example of one of these many gurus hiding behind a thin sheen of psychology instead of spirituality, encourages his clients to somaticize their feelings and unresolved issues, making the "lancing the boil" or "draining the wound" metaphors literal.

And we get the picture clearly enough with regard to the protagonists - the way Nola's parents conduct themselves tell you everything you need to know about them. The constant refills of drinks, the nips from the flask, the huge gulf between her mother’s recollections and her father’s. All of the trips to the hospital. You can only imagine what her childhood was like, but you know it wasn’t good. Frank is a man in over his head, trying to balance work and being a single father for all intents and purposes, and the father part's going lacking. But it's hard to be wholly sympathetic - there's definitely a strong undercurrent of bitterness that makes you wonder, just as we do about Nola's childhood, what things must have been like between them before Nola went into Dr. Raglan's care. In the middle of this maelstrom of toxic anger and bitterness is Candice, mostly mute throughout, buffeted one way and another by the legacy left both by her parent's marriage and the abuse her mother suffered. And behind all of it the mystery of a body count that seems to escalate with Nola’s distress and target those by whom she perceives herself to be wronged.

It's very much a film of its time, and to the extent that there are indeed monsters in this film, the practical effects go a little lacking to the modern eye, and things that should be viscerally frightening feel more like placeholders because the artifice is too obvious. Nevertheless, it still by and large gets over because of the absolute audacity of the concepts presented here - feelings literally made flesh, the perversion of motherhood, both by Nola and Nola's mother, the way children are constantly at risk - for physical abuse, neglect, and as witnesses to horror - throughout the film. I suspect it'd be very difficult to make this same film today without some folks being really up in arms, and it's that unsparing quality, that willingness to put taboos about the body and society aside to interrogate these ideas, that still gives this film power decades later.

IMDB entry
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Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix

Friday, April 3, 2015

Honeymoon: In Sickness And In Health

One of the earliest horror movies I can remember watching as a child was 1958’s I Married A Monster From Outer Space. No real surprises here: There’s a woman, she marries a man, he turns out to be an alien in disguise, and his intentions aren’t good. The title tells you exactly what you need to know. And movies like this aren’t just a product of the quaint Fifties, they’re still getting made today. We just tend not to think of them as horror movies, because by and large, “the person I just married turns out to be evil” stories show up primarily on Lifetime, where they alternate with “someone is having an affair and it’s causing problems” movies and “I want my kids back” movies. 

But if you want to talk about horror movies as allegory for real-life anxieties (as some do), the uncertainty that comes with the realization that you’ve just committed to a life with another person is definitely in the wheelhouse. That sort of commitment is rife with second-guessing, and what better way to cathart that than a film where the new bride or groom literally becomes a monster?

So I’m really glad that these filmmakers made Honeymoon, because it’s a creepy and masterfully paced story that turns all the awkwardness of a new marriage into a nightmare, restoring the “my spouse is a monster” riff firmly to horror film.

Paul and Bea are just married, and they’re headed into upstate New York to stay at the summer cottage Bea’s family own for their honeymoon. The opening of the film alternates their drive there with scenes from their wedding video - Bea recounting the proposal and marveling at her new status, Paul recounting their disastrous first date and the failed camping trip that ended up being the proposal, the two of them being adorable at each other. And all seems well enough - they’re sort of on the irritating side of cutesy, but it’s to be expected of a young couple flush with newly affirmed love and a life together ahead of them. There’s banter, talk of the future, heroic amounts of sex, all of what you’d expect. And then, in the middle of the night, Paul awakes to find the other side of the bed empty. Bea is initially nowhere to be found, and with mounting dismay, Paul heads outside into the woods, where he eventually finds Bea standing naked in a clearing, insensate to the world.

It’s weird, she’s not normally a sleepwalker, this is the first time this has happened. She doesn’t know where her nightgown went, she can’t remember what happened...

...and she doesn’t know what those strange marks on her thighs are. Or why she’s starting to have trouble remembering things. Or why she doesn’t want Paul to touch her anymore.

Right in front of Paul, Bea becomes a very different woman from the one with whom he fell in love, from the one he thought he married. Of course, every new couple has those moments where they wonder who it is they've married - there's this sort of threshold that you cross, however ineffable, where you realize that however well you thought you knew this person, they can still surprise you in good and bad ways, and it's not always where and how you'd expect. So we see Bea and Paul on their honeymoon, and you can tell they're a couple - they've got their little in-jokes, their private language, the shared memories based on hours of conversation, all of that. But even so, Paul's errant crack about her "womb" after some especially vigorous marital sex gets Bea sort of twitchy over the idea of kids and motherhood. It's the kind of tense moment any newlywed couple is going to have, as the reality of a future together sinks in, that yes, now you have to confront these possibilities. What this film does well is it starts at that moment of uncertainty, when Paul and Bea are on that cusp between the couple they were before and the marriage they are now, and just starting to explore what that means, and then proceeds to erase everything either one of them knew, a bit at a time, until it becomes clear that something awful has happened. Bea starts acting strangely, having trouble with increasingly basic things, and in some ways this is a metaphor for how a married couple has to renegotiate life together - they have to learn this new way of being together, and Paul is frightened, she's no longer the Bea he knew, and as the film goes on, the implications of that get darker and darker and darker.

This gradually unfolding horror works because the pacing is excellent. It starts maybe a bit on the slow side, with lots of time spent on Paul and Bea frolicking in the woods, but when things start to go bad, it's just a bit at a time, a little thing here, a little thing there, all adding and building on each other in a slow ratcheting up of tension that doesn't really ease up as it moves through possible explanations for what's going on, so by the time the truth is revealed, you don't really have any outs. It begins idyllic, then notes of unease creep in, and the unease gives way to tension and distance between the newlyweds, and then the tension turns to paranoia, and the paranoia to terror, all without a hitch

It's a story told with minimal music, lots of quick cuts, almost dividing the first half or so of the movie into vignettes, with this shifting to longer scenes as things escalate. Lots of moments of stillness and nature in repose - ants, worms, caterpillars, the almost alien life of the forest, scuttling around us all the time and going barely noticed. Impressively, it really feels like a folie a deux almost, as even though things seem to be centered on Bea, Paul hardly remains a model of reason himself as he sees everything he thought he knew about the woman he loved slip through his fingers just as things were going to get good.. There's an interpersonal disintegration dynamic then that adds some real notes of sadness to the tension and the dread. In some ways, this film sort of reminds me of kind of a mirror image of Antichrist - in both, a couple heads into the woods, but here it is to celebrate a beginning rather than to cope with an end. This is a story of promise, not loss, but the outcomes are similar - all sorts of horrible things are waiting in the woods, and in the end, there is nothing that male rationality can do about them.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Oculus: Past Is Prologue

One of the more annoying narrative devices to show up a lot in horror film is the opening flashback. It’s usually a short, tense scene that ends with someone dying, usually though not always punctuated by someone else screaming, and then a title indicating that now it’s 15 years later or some shit like that. You can trace this at least as far back as Halloween, and I've discovered, having watched a fair number of films in the course of writing this thing, that this construction shows up a lot, and frankly it’s sort of tiresome. Like, yes, we know something bad has happened here or that the place has a terrible history or whatever - it’s a horror film, we didn't expect everything to be okay. Honestly, I think more horror films could benefit from the surprise evoked when we have no idea where the threat is going to be coming from instead of telegraphing it in the first ten minutes. Sometimes it’s used well, to set up reversed expectations or to misdirect, but just as often it’s a quick scare to say “oooohhhh! Bad things on the way!” That’s lazy and cheap.

But that’s a lot of words to basically say “flashbacks bad” when I’m about to turn around and talk about Oculus, which, although suffering from being less subtle than it could in places, is a deft exercise in examining the past’s effects on the present.

We meet siblings Kaylie and Tim Russell when they are very young, and something bad has happened. Their father has done something terrible, and little Tim - not more than ten years old - shoots his father to death. This is all revealed in a flashback, presented as a dream that now-adult Tim, 11 years later, has as a resident of a mental hospital. In this dream, he finally saw himself - not his father - holding the gun, and this is judged to be progress. He’s finally accepted his role in what happened, and he’s being released. Not really groundbreaking stuff, but it does set up much of the film’s thesis going forward - the intrusion of past on the present, the unreliability of memory, and the vagaries of perception.

Upon release, Tim reconnects with Kaylie, who grew up in foster care while Tim was hospitalized. She’s engaged and has a great job at an auction house. She’s delighted to see Tim, and any awkwardness he worried about dissipates quickly. Kaylie’s glad to see him out, wants to help him get set up on his own, and the sooner the better. See, she needs his help.

Everything that happened, Kaylie explains, happened because of an antique mirror their father had hanging in his home office. This mirror - called the Lasser Glass, after its first owner - has a long and bizarre history. The people who own it tend to die in very, very strange ways. Kaylie’s used her contacts in the world of antiques and estates to track the mirror, and she’s finally managed to secure it. She needs Tim’s help to destroy it, once and for all. She’s brought the mirror back to their family home, and she’s set up elaborate recording equipment and failsafes. She’s intent on proving that the mirror has supernatural qualities, that it was responsible for the death of their parents, and then she wants to destroy it, once and for all.

As far as Tim’s concerned, he’s just gotten out of the hospital to discover that his sister is barking mad.

What follows is an exercise in temporal, perceptual, and narrative unreliability. The film is about a cursed mirror, and so it reflects (ha-ha) distortions of both perception (we are not as we see ourselves in the mirror) and memory (we do not remember things as they happened). By placing the protagonists back in their childhood home, it enables the film to superimpose past experience upon present events, which works both as a narrative device and as an instantiation of the mirror's power - past and present blur both for us and for the protagonists, what they see (and so what we see) is not what is, and as the movie progresses the lines between these two things blur further and further until the end is almost a complete superimposition of one over the other. As viewers, we are as lost and unsure of what is real and what is illusion as the protagonists are, and only become aware of the terrible truth when it is too late. The use of recording devices gives us a perceptual counterpoint - we see the characters do something, and then see a playback that indicates something else entirely. We’re also subject to the unreliability associated with cinema - we see everything one way in one shot, and then in the next it has changed. We end up as wrong-footed by the depiction of events as the protagonists are by their experience of them.

In addition to the narration, the characterization is also nicely unreliable - none of these people are really fleshed out all that much, but you expect Tim to be the unstable one, having just been released from a mental hospital, but it becomes clear very quickly that he's the more stable of the two. Kaylie, having had to deal with the trauma of what happened when she was a child without any sort of professional help, has grown up to be someone who, on the surface, looks happy and accomplished, but it is a pretty skin stretched tight over the bones of obsession. Her entire life has led to this point.  Likewise, in the past, what could have been a stock-standard story of “one parent goes nuts, terrorizes the other” is complicated by an instability that seems to have nothing to do with the supernatural. Yes, their parents could be falling under the spell of an evil mirror, sure, or they could just be snapping from the stress of a recent relocation and starting a new business. Nothing is as it seems, textually, subtextually, or metatextually.

From a technical standpoint, Oculus shares a lot of the same strengths as the director's previous film Absentia - the juxtaposition of the supernatural with human failings like guilt and denial, a restrained and assured compositional style that doesn't telegraph every single scary moment - but the jump from indie filmmaking to something more mainstream means that some of the subtlety that hallmarked that film is lost. Music stings are a little intrusive, dialogue (especially in the beginning) is a little too baldly expository, the evil nature of the mirror is underscored a little too neatly (do we really need all of the whispering to tell us that the mirror is evil?) and all of this maybe makes the film a little more conventional than it should be. It feels at points as if the audience is being underestimated - not outright condescended to, but there were more than a few moments where things could have been even more underplayed and it would have still been really effective, if not moreso. It's a much less…crowded…film than the short with which it shares a title, confirming my hunch in its case that the short’s story was solid but needed more time to be told. This feature-length film borrows a lot of story conceits from the short, and giving them more time and room to breathe helps the premise tremendously.

The whole experience is one of characters and audience alike being immersed in the madness of the mirror, leaving you with the lingering feeling that even what you saw on the screen may not "really" be what happened, that there is some reality beyond the construct of the film, and we aren't getting the full story, which - shortcomings and disappointing conventionalities aside - is a hell of a trick for a piece of fiction to pull off.
I'm not one for sequels, but given the idea that the mirror is the character here, with a long and bloody history, and both this film and the preceding short are blissfully free of fussy mythology, I actually wouldn't mind seeing more tales of the Lasser Glass, especially if it remains as remote, sinister, and implacable as it does here.

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

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Houses October Built: A Bunch Of Assholes In Rubber Masks

(Just as a prefatory note, this one’s a little spoilery)

Okay, it looks like I’m going to have to say it again. I tried to be nice, I tried to be polite, I tried to be fair, and I tried to be subtle, but as it turns out, that didn’t work.

CAN WE PLEASE HAVE A FUCKING MORATORIUM ON FOUND-FOOTAGE FILMS, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY?

Yes, sometimes the premise and narrative style makes for raw, immediate, unsettling filmmaking. Sometimes it makes for interesting metacommentary. But increasingly, it’s resulting in dumb, shoddy assemblages of cliches that never cohere into anything good, or even scary. Sloppy, lazy filmmaking that uses the home-video schtick as an excuse for poor cinematography, lack of action or character development, absence of mood, or a well-developed story.

Case in point: The Houses October Built, which hangs a slightly mean-spirited story on this narrative conceit in such an artless fashion that it actively borders on contempt for the viewer.

We open on a title card explaining that the footage we are about to see was shot by a group of people who were traveling across the country to visit haunted house attractions...or by the proprietors of The Blue Skeleton, an “underground” haunted house. Okay, first, the title cards are rarely a good idea. They’re usually overwrought at best, and completely ridiculous at worst.

The next thing we see, after some gratuitous video noise, is a presumably unconscious woman being stuffed into the trunk of a car. So, you know, no points for subtlety. Apparently, we are about to see footage of bad things happening to some people. Which, no shit.

What transpires is largely the video diary of five people - four men and a woman - who are going to take a trip through the Southwest and South, visiting as many haunted house attractions as they can, trying to find the scariest, most extreme “haunt” they can. The guys are pretty much bros all around, named Zack, Bobby, Mikey, and Jeff. Mikey has a beard and is pretty much the drunken asshole who gets you all kicked out of the bar because he can’t not do something he isn’t supposed to. The other three are mostly indistinguishable from each other, except one of them is really into the idea of the trip, like it’s his mission or something. The woman is named Brandy and I think she’s dating one of them and/or is the sister of one of the others, who can fucking tell. She’s a woman, and ultimately, that seems to be her most important trait. These people are ciphers at best, and our introduction to them is them passing around the camera at a bar somewhere in Texas as they’re getting ready to board their RV.

Whichever one of them masterminded the trip is intent on going to as many of the home-grown, rural attractions as possible, under the assumption that the more “backwoods” they are, the more extreme they’ll be because they’ll be less concerned with liability or safety issues and it’ll be a purer experience somehow. This is exactly the sort of patronizing bullshit you’d expect from a bunch of city fratboys who decide to slum it for some rural color, and that’s pretty much how they interact with the locals they meet at each attraction. This leads to the people they encounter becoming increasingly more and more hostile to them while they troop on, mostly oblivious, all the while searching for “The Blue Skeleton,” sort of the holy grail of underground haunted houses, an invitation-only affair that you have to be in the know to attend.

Until people from one attraction show up at another. Or by the side of the road between towns. And when even these dimwits start to realize that maybe some bad shit is about to go down, that’s when the invitation to The Blue Skeleton comes.

Honestly it’s not a bad premise - haunted houses are getting more and more extreme, some like Blackout ride a line between haunted house, BDSM experience, and art installation in pretty uncomfortable ways, some like McKamey Manor pretty much making the attendees willing participants in a live-action recreation of the August Underground movies. Playing with that idea of pushing the envelope in sort of an arms race of extremity, combined with what is undoubtedly a sporadically regulated seasonal industry could make for a really disturbing exploration of a hidden subculture and the price you pay for turning over too many rocks in search of cheap thrills. Of being the fish out of water, suddenly aware that you’re stuck in a strange town with a bunch of people who mean you ill, and nobody really knows where you are. The problem here is in the execution, stem to stern

The whole thing is presented ostensibly as found footage - shot either by the protagonists or by the people running The Blue Skeleton, but some of the footage makes no fucking sense at all. If they're documenting visits to haunted houses, well, most of them don't allow cameras in the first place, so there's a big problem with the whole raison d’etre for recording right off the bat. Second, why the fuck do they have remote cameras installed inside their RV? For that matter, why are there remote cameras installed OUTSIDE the RV, on the roof and the grille and the side? And they are definitely supposed to be there - there’s a brief scene (becoming sort of obligatory in any multi-camera found footage film, I think) of the cameras getting installed and tested. Yes, we get it, we see the characters put them there, and it’s the filmmakers trying to quick-cheat conventional camera angles with a paper thin narrative rationale. There's no possible reason for the location of these extra cameras, and worse, they aren't even taken advantage of in a way that you'd expect - if someone places a camera somewhere, you expect it to capture useful footage, to be important to the story. Nope, they mostly just capture interminable footage of the highway and the protagonists slouched in the RV, bored with the road.

Which leads to another problem - the pacing. Pretty much the entire first half of the movie is just the protagonists driving through Texas, going from haunt to haunt, alienating people and being out-of-town assholes the whole way, interspersed with long stretches in the RV full of nothing. It's not really a slow burn, it's more than nothing happens, occasionally interrupted by tiny bits of something, until the second half of the movie when things begin to escalate. And then the escalation is a problem, because we’re faced with an implausibility that makes having remote cameras on the roof of an RV look downright sensible. If these yahoos are being threatened by angry locals (which certainly seems to be the case), why on earth would the angry locals film all the shit they're doing to these people? The first scene in the film proper is a body getting thrown into a trunk, and we see the person starting to come to as the car drives off. Only this is all ostensibly found footage. Why the hell would you not only record yourself kidnapping someone but actually I swear I shit you not put a camera in the trunk of a car, especially if you're going to be using it to kidnap someone? It goes beyond laziness and an inability to commit to a narrative conceit and loops around to actively dumb. It didn’t just take me out of the moment, it set the moment on fire and pissed on the ashes. It made me angry with how dumb it was. And the very end of the film takes this idea one step further in ways that just scream “we didn’t just not pay attention to what we were doing, we actively stopped caring at some point.”

And if the unsympathetic characters and the gaps in narrative logic and the erratic pacing weren’t enough, there’s a pervasive aimless and lack of focus right when things are supposed to get really tense. When things do escalate, there's never really a clear sense of what's happening to the protagonists - there's neither a point where it becomes definitively clear that they've gone past the point of no return, nor is it really the case that things get worse and worse without them really noticing until it's too late. Bad stuff happens, and at first they disregard it because they don't live in a horror movie which, fair point, and then they disregard it even though most sane people wouldn't, and then it just becomes a matter of "we have to do this anyway, we've come this far" which is the hallmark of bad writing, because that's essentially shorthand for "there's no plausible reason why anyone would do this but otherwise we wouldn't have a movie so welp!" Basically, bad things happen, more bad things happen, and then the protagonists find themselves in a really bad place, stuff happens to them that we don't really get to see, one final really bad thing happens, film over, smash to black and title. With no sense of escalation, progression, or location of the protagonists in any kind of narrative space. First they're here, then they're there, then they're somewhere else. And there are bits of real menace throughout - some of the interactions with angry locals look pretty fucking real, and Brandy, as the sole woman with this group of guys, is singled out for some seriously ugly treatment at a couple of points. Credit to the film, there’s no gratuitous nudity (oh no wait, there is, when they decide to go looking for directions at a strip club), but the sum total of Brandy’s existence seems to be “get menaced by really creepy rednecks.” In a better movie, it’d be really unsettling, but here it just feels exploitative and gross.

At the end of the day, you've basically got a bunch of angry rural types in "scary" costumes menacing a bunch of out-of-towners to lethal ends, interspersed with a bunch of interview footage of haunted house workers who exist only to hammer home the point that oh yeah, weird bad shit could happen at a haunted house - people get injured, lots of these folks don’t have insurance, safety permits or inspections, people don’t vet employees and the people who work at them could be really unbalanced to begin with, so OOOH THEY COULD BE IN DANGER, and it's painfully obvious the first time, totally unnecessary the eighth, and actually kind of shitty and insulting to the people who live in the country and run haunted houses  by the tenth. The film never rises above the obvious, and as a result is never scary or even unsettling. It's like so many haunted houses that promise a genuinely frightening experience, only to deliver people in stupid costumes popping out and going "boo!" and expecting you to be impressed.

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