Monday, April 21, 2014

Contracted: Danger Close

A lot of horror is metaphor or allegory (Alley Gory would be a good name for a horror movie blog. Just not this one.) or something otherwise representative of other, bigger, scarier terrors. We watch scary movies as a way to deal with real-world fears in a safe and vicarious way, through oblique symbolism, so this theory goes. Giant ants are nuclear terror. Zombies are communism or loss of identity (which is also sort of communism). Monsters are safe versions of unsafe things, the real-world fear held at arms’ length by myth.

Which I think is what makes Contracted compelling and problematic at the same time. There’s next to no distance between the symbol and what it’s symbolizing, and the end result is queasy and unsettling. Two days after seeing it, I’m still not sure exactly how I feel about it.

This is the story of a young woman named Samantha. Samantha is in sort of a transitional place in her life - we don’t know much about her to start, and details are layered in slowly over the length of the movie in the form of asides and inferences. The picture we end up putting together isn’t especially pretty, but more about that later. Samantha is on her way to a party and keeps trying someone named Nikki on her phone, but Nikki isn’t picking up. So Samantha’s alone at the party, a fact that gets all kinds of significant looks from her friend Alice, who seems bound and determined to get Samantha really trashed. There’s also Riley, who screams “Nice Guy” from go, with all of the problems that tag carries with it, and Zain, who’s more than happy to offer Samantha drugs - you know, just for old time’s sake. She is surrounded by people who profess to care about her and none of them have her best interests in mind.

Nikki never shows up to the party or answers any of Samantha’s calls, and dejected, Samantha ends up pretty trashed. And that’s when he appears. A pleasant, nondescript man she does not recognize. He is friendly and just a little out of focus (as everything is) - he came with “a friend.” That’s all he says. And he hands her the drink he says is hers, and she drinks it, and the moment is exactly as thick with dread as you would think. And the results are exactly what you think, with her and him in his car, everything slipping in and out of consciousness as she pleads with him to stop.

Cut to the next morning, Samantha waking up in her own bed with only flashes of what happened the night before. Her mother calls her to breakfast and surprise surprise, Mom is no better than her friends, any maternal feelings she has are bound up inextricably with feelings of disapproval and control. A lot goes unspoken between them, but we get the feeling that it’s all right there, below the surface, years of fights. It’s tense and unsympathetic as Samantha goes to meet Nikki, who it transpires is Samantha’s...girlfriend? Ex-girlfriend? It’s hard to tell, and again, the whole story is played out over the course of the film but it’s apparent right away that Nikki’s humoring Samantha. There’s no real affection there, just possession and performed defiance of heteronormativity. Nikki’s there until she isn’t. She’s there until she leaves.

(And this brings me to one of the things that gives the film its unsettling feel - everyone in this film is just two steps off from being plausible people. The performances aren’t over-the-top enough for stylization or camp, but they’re still oddly glib or cartoonish while still being low-key and underplayed. It’s strange and dislocating, and it’s especially evident in Nikki, who ticks every checkbox on some weird adolescent male idea of what a lesbian is.)

So this is Samantha’s world in total: She’s trying to be herself, but everyone around her has their own ideas about who she is, and she only exists to other people to the extent that she serves their needs. And she’s not feeling so good after the other night - are hangovers supposed to last so long? And what’s that weird tracery of veins working its way up her torso? And why is she bleeding so much and so heavily?

What happened to her that night?

It’s probably not giving away too much to say that when Samantha was raped (because she was, without question), she got something from her rapist. Something beyond venereal and well into the realms of body horror. She has nothing good or healthy in her life, and she has been raped, and now she is literally dying from the inside. It's spiritual and emotional malaise made literal - the damage is apparent to everyone, but nobody takes it as seriously as they should until it's too late, or they misunderstand it. Nobody recognizes what Samantha is going through and the dynamic she has with everyone in her life drives her to keep hiding it, to keep making bad choices, to look for love and support where there's none to be found.

She is a dead woman walking, and you can see how this is a problematic metaphor. She has been raped and now she is dead inside. What is this saying? Is it responsible to communicate this in a film? Or is it appropriate to think of it like I think of Srpski Film, a serious story told using the sharpest images at the pitch of a scream? I don’t know, and that uncertainty pervades my reading of this film.

But I can do my hand-wringing on my own time. As to the film itself, it's just on the right side of the line from didactic - the metaphor isn't veiled or subtle at all, but nor does anyone really call attention to it. The imagery used to tell it likewise walks a line between the understated and horrific. There's a nice mix of subtle effects and more painful, disgusting body horror stuff that tightens the screws nicely as the movie unwinds, where we’re given little hints as to where things are headed, and the hints get larger and larger and the consequences get worse and worse. It’s sunny Los Angeles, so everything is bright and sharp and hard around Samantha, who wanders from place to place, helpless against the forces marshalled against her and waging war from within and without. In its most gruesome moments (physically and emotionally - the devastation is total), there’s a kinetic energy to it that lends it power, the cartoon turned into a nightmare. There are touches of visual flair here and there in the framing of shots and use of different camera techniques to communicate Samantha’s disintegration, and though the end is a little overdone, it’s only by a matter of a few seconds and hardly ruins everything that came before. It’s maybe a little too on-the-nose, but that’s about it.

In the end, it’s a tough call. It's hard to watch because it really is about Samantha's life disintegrating around her (and Samantha disintegrating along with it) and there's really not a sympathetic ear for her or much opportunity for agency and redemption. Even when she does stand up and take charge of her life, she mostly ends up doing the absolute wrong thing, because nobody’s been there to really help her look out for her own interests. It reminds me of the way we spend the entire run time of Dancer in the Dark watching Selma's life fall apart and come to a bad end, and that bypasses a lot of more conventional horror movie morality for something darker. It takes a real-world horror - the horror of victimization, physical and emotional - and equates it with its monstrous counterpart instead of making one a distant symbol for the other. That’s either audacious or dismissive, and my uncertainty at which it is is part - not all, but part - of the reason I’m still haunted by this film.

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Friday, April 18, 2014

Ahì Va El Diablo: The Meaning Of Possession

Sometimes you think that everything that’s been done with a theme or a premise has been done. Sure, some people might tackle it with more wit or energy than others, but certain stories are going to evoke certain images, certain themes will inevitably emerge, and even if the details vary, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you’re going to experience. But sometimes, just sometimes, someone takes those ideas, those images, those themes, and puts a little bit of a spin on them, or approaches them in a way that acknowledges them while still taking them to a conclusion other people wouldn’t.

Ahì Va El Diablo (Here Comes The Devil) is very much a story of demonic possession, but it handles the idea of “possession” in a way that confronts its traditional meaning without a lot of squeamishness or pulling away, and the end result is haunting and profoundly unsettling.

We open on two women having sex to what sounds like sort of a grindhouse porno soundtrack. It’s not exactly what you’d expect as the opening of a horror film, though it is what you might expect for a certain flavor of exploitation film, but the point isn’t cheap titillation. The sex, for at least one of the women, ends with some serious guilt and ambivalence that yanks us right out of the cheap-thrill reverie this sort of thing is typically meant to provide. There are real implications for human desire with which people have to grapple. The conversation between the two women is interrupted by someone knocking on the door downstairs, and what was a difficult conversation about the nature of desire and society’s expectations turns into a violent assault that leaves one of them near death. The assailant manages to escape, collapsing with his box of grisly trophies at the mouth of a cave.

Normally, I’d read this as one of those barely-related scenes that serves to give the game away before the movie has even gotten started (still looking at you, Offspring), but here it ends up serving as sort of a compact thesis for the rest of the film: Desire comes in many forms, gender complicates its understanding, and ultimately ends in terrible violence.

The story proper begins with Felix and his wife Sol, and their children Adolfo and Sara. They’re on a family outing in the country, and the day is winding down. Sol is concerned about the kids because she can’t see what they’re doing, Felix isn’t worried and is glad to have some time free of them, and Sol retorts that he’s hardly ever around because he’s always at work. They’re a couple strained by the demands of parenthood, being at that place in their life where it’s really settled in that they aren’t the crazy young lovers they used to be. There are bills and field trips and responsibilities now and the cracks are showing.

The trip is somewhat rudely interrupted when Adolfo comes back to report that Sara’s hurt - she just sort of started...bleeding. Felix and Sol twig to what’s going on pretty quickly (their Sara just became a woman), and they head to a gas station to pick up some tampons. Felix does his best (and is actually pretty sensitive and thoughtful) to explain what’s going on to Adolfo and Sol gives Sara the menstruation talk. Awkward moment addressed, the kids ask if they can explore a nearby hill. Sol puts her foot down that they shouldn’t be gone more than an hour and gives Sara her watch to make sure. The kids head off and Felix and Sol take the time to talk and actually get in some all-too-rare fooling around.

The next thing they know, it’s dark and the kids haven’t come back.

Felix and Sol spend a tense night in a nearby motel, waiting for news. The next day, the kids turn up, all is forgiven, and the kids relate their trip into a cave at the top of the hill. (No prize for guessing whether it’s the same hill from the opening or not, because of course it is.) They seem okay, they aren’t hurt, but they seem more distant, changed by the experience.

They came back...different.

From here, we’re hip-deep in the story of what exactly happened to them in that cave, and Felix and Sol’s attempts to make sense of it. As their children become stranger and stranger to their parents, their parents push further and further to find an explanation for what they’re experiencing, and the trip takes them (and us) in some pretty dark and unexpected directions. Saying more than that does the film a disservice, but it negotiates the natural and supernatural deftly, and there’s plenty of horror to be found in both here.

There's a strong link between sex and the supernatural in this film. It's certainly not the only film to make this connection, but as in the introduction, it doesn't feel like it's being used as a source of titillation or a cheap way to heighten the sense of threat. Possession is possession, be it natural or supernatural, and blood attends both. Desire is saying "I want you", and there is more than one way to want someone. Often in movies dealing with demonic possession, the possessed will offer themselves sexually to the people trying to exorcise the demon, sure, but it’s typically done to embody the idea of the devil as a creature of base lust and temptation, playing on the frailty inherent in the flesh. Here, it’s not nearly so simple. Sex and desire are agency here, decisions made by mortals for mortal reason. The devil doesn’t use sex as a weapon here, and it’s not quite something as simplistic as a vector either. It’s more of a condition, a state of the world that co-occurs with the devil. Earthquakes punctuate important events in the film, suggesting everything that’s happening is some expression of an ancient, primal force instead of a simplistic sin/temptation setup.

As I alluded to above, there’s a strong gender component to the events of this film as well - Felix and Sol deal with what's happened to their children in very different ways, and their ability to communicate effectively breaks down pretty quickly. Felix finds comfort in a rational explanation, while Sol puts more and more pieces of the puzzle together and comes to an increasingly less rational explanation for what happened and is continuing to happen. This isn't the first Mexican film I've seen that puts gender roles front and center for its story, either, but unlike Somos Lo Que Hay, there's actual tension and unease here to complement the way masculine and feminine roles limit available choices in a bad situation. It’s not window dressing or plot mechanics either - just as desire is inextricably intertwined with possession, the burdens of gender roles suffuse the dynamic between characters and shape the directions in which each of them travel through the story, even to its devastating conclusion.

On top of that, it's got a great visual style. The film is shot in a style reminiscent of Tobe Hooper's in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - a lot of sun and heat ends up on the screen, bright colors, fast, sharp zooms, sudden bursts of violence, lots of blood when there’s blood to be had. It's more polished and trades Hooper's gonzo energy for a slower, more measured pace that intersects the rational and irrational, wide shots suggesting tiny beings struggling against vast primal forces, tight shots communicating isolation and paranoia, stacking one bad thing on another until we find ourselves in an old-school hallucinatory sequence that confirms what we've known for the better part of the film, and does so in fine Ken Russell psychedelic fashion.

The rest, then, is about how the situation - as horrible as it is - gets dealt with. It's resolved in a way you probably won't see coming, but fits very, very neatly with everything that's come before. It's not a matter of plot pieces fitting into place, but rather a natural, logical extension of the character's psychology taken to its worst possible place. Felix and Sol's efforts to understand what happened to their children lead them - together and separately - to make horrifying, irrevocable choices, ones that suggest the power and privilege wielded by men, as well as the way that privilege allows evil to continue to live in the world. The devil is everywhere, it suggests, and the implications linger long after the film is done.

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Available from Netflix

Monday, April 14, 2014

Offspring: Like An Actual Movie, Except Not Actually Good

I don't like binary or otherwise quantified criticism - thumbs up and down, three out of four stars, crap like that. First, it's really subjective and takes a single viewer's experience and reduces it to a yes/no verdict, and no two people necessarily watch a film the same way. Second, it's reductive and doesn't communicate the strengths or weaknesses of a creative work at all. Why does it work or not work? What elements contribute to its success or failure, and how? To what degree is that assessment a product of the viewer's own perspective and ideological stance? I mean, I guess if you're just approaching it as a consumer and trying to rate your experience of the movie as you'd rate any other commercial good that you'd consumed that'd be okay, I guess, but it strikes me as a little too trite to call it "criticism."

I'm only on and on about all of this because sometimes I find myself at a loss as to how to talk about something I've just watched. Is my appraisal thematic? Narrative? Technical? Ideological? What's my way into this film, if I'm going to devote page space to it? Some posts come to me almost fully-formed, sometimes spilling over with enough ideas that I have to write about them more than once. Others take a little longer to work up, and sometimes the film is just elusive enough that I find myself at a loss, and I end up engaging in exactly the sort of self-reflexive navel-gazing I'm doing right now.

Folks, I am just going to have to be straight with you. Offspring is one of the worst movies I've ever seen. It is amateurish in its execution, gross, cheap and pointless. I am going to try and dissect exactly why that is, but it's not going to be pretty.

The problems with this film are not apparent right away - the opening credits play over a series of newspaper articles about mysterious disappearances along coastal areas in New England and Canada. It's a timeline of about 120 years, and as a narrative device, it's not especially innovative but it gets the job done. It's an efficient way to communicate the premise. No, it's after the main credits that the problems begin. A woman comes home (from what is apparently a long night of being a drunken slattern), and there's a certain…cheapness…to the camerawork, as if it's been shot on home video. It's not especially well-lit, and the woman is pretty obviously doing her best impression of someone who is drunk without being believably drunk. It's almost silly in its exaggeration. Now, I'm not a big-budget film snob by any means, but I've seen enough low-budget films to know that it's possible to make something look good without it necessarily looking expensive. This establishing scene doesn't look expensive, but it doesn't look good either. The first impression is "enthusiastic amateurs with a camcorder."

So our drunk lady staggers up to her house, only to find it silent. She keeps yelling for the babysitter, but nobody answers, and her noisy stumbling through the house brings her to the kitchen, where she discovers that her babysitter has been butchered. It's handled reasonably well at first - she's drunk enough not to notice the bloodstain on the doorframe, but we do, and as she enters the kitchen we see a bloody leg in frame just before it registers with her. And she discovers the body and we tilt up to, well, we tilt up to a bunch of kids in loincloths and crude tribal paint. The effect is less "terrifying" and more "who let the summer stock production of The Lord of the Flies in here?"

That's the moment when I realized that this was probably not going to be a good movie, because the reveal of the antagonists is so underwhelming that any tension built up by the previous scene is completely lost. I actually almost laughed out loud, and that's when you know you've lost your audience. The woman screams, she is killed, and up comes the title. Any goodwill this film built up in its opening credits is gone in mere minutes because it's asking us to believe that a bunch of kids playing dress-up and sort of sitting there without any visible emotion (except maybe awkwardness at having found themselves in this situation) are feral cannibals, and we just…can't. There's no energy or conviction at all. In fact, it's silly. It's also problematic because the film has tipped its hand early - there's no sense of mystery now, nothing for us to wonder about. We know what the threat is, and any shock associated with it is lost before it even has a chance to accumulate.

So, having blown it on two fronts by the end of the opening credits, we're introduced to our protagonists - an artist named David, his wife Amy and their little baby Melissa. They have a cute little house in a small town in Maine, and one night David is out in his home studio, looking out the windows into the country night, and he sees a scantily-clad young woman standing off in the distance, watching him. She drops something on the ground and vanishes into the tree line. And see, that's how you open a movie - establish a mood of idyllic rural life, and then drop something weird into the middle of it. Except we've already got a pretty good idea of what’s coming because we already saw a bloodbath before the damn credits were done.

But anyhow, day breaks, and David’s family is joined by Amy’s sister Claire, who is in the middle of a messy (and exhaustively exposited) divorce, with her son Lucas in tow. It is made very clear that her soon-to-be-ex is a very bad man (Amy begins a conversation with her sister by saying “so let me get this straight...” before laying out paragraphs of everything that’s happened to her sister, to which her sister responds with paragraphs of her own, both of them speaking in ways that only poorly written characters speak), and he’s skipped town, vanished with a ton of money that he embezzled...except he’s on his way here to the small Maine town for reasons. There’s no point for the ex-husband to be in this movie, and there’s no point to the scene in which he’s introduced - he damn near rapes a hitchhiker after delivering another mouthful of awkward-as-fuck dialogue, and we never see the hitchhiker again, and it’s just there to tell us that he is a bad man, which we already know. There’s no reason for him to be headed to the island, he’s just one more body to put in the way of the events that are about to occur and to serve as a catalyst for some pointless cruelty about which more later maybe.

So we've got our good guys (David et al.), our coked-up wild card (the ex-husband), and a bunch of local cops and people from the sheriff’s department, who appear to be mildly concerned with the abattoir they find in the unnamed drunk lady’s kitchen. They go off to grab Stock Old Drunk Guy Who Used To Be A Good Cop But Saw Too Much #436 from his house so they can all go on a manhunt looking for the people who did this.

And then there’s the cannibals in their cave, grunting and hooting and speaking gibberish, with us having absolutely no insight into who they are, why they are like they are (they’re the descendants of some Scottish lighthouse keeper, but that means they’re cannibals why?), or why they’re doing any of what they’re doing. They only make sense if you assume they're a bunch of kids playing at being feral cannibals, rather than actually being feral cannibals. In fact, that's kind of how the whole movie feels - it's cheap, shallow, and juvenile, like a bunch of teenagers playing at making a movie, rather than actually making a movie. The young woman we spotted outside of David’s house says some nonsense and two others whip her with branches. Why? So she can pretend to be hurt and stumble into David’s house - a clever ruse that should make it easier for the other cannibals to sneak in and take everyone unawares, except it’s immediately followed up by all of the cannibals breaking the windows and storming in all at once, through everything BUT the door David opened for the girl. Then a bunch of gore happens, and the ex-husband shows up, and survivors and cannibals and cops and the ex-husband all sort of go running in different directions, and the rest of the movie is just these groups sort of wandering around unspecified parts of the Maine coast.

And that’s the next problem - there’s no clear sense of time or geography. People are over here, and now they’re over there, and some people go one way, others go another, in a way that feels a lot like the filmmakers organized the whole thing around specific scenes and then stitched it together in something resembling temporal order without giving any consideration to why people do the things they do or even thinking in terms of cause and effect. This wouldn't be a problem if I thought we were intended to feel dislocated or disoriented, but this doesn't play like a movie about people caught in a nightmare where time and causality are suspended. This plays like a movie where real people are supposed to be caught in a real predicament, but none of it feels real at all. It’s just a bunch of scenes that I suspect someone thought would look cool.

And what a bunch of scenes they are. Lots and lots of pointless gore and violence - beatings, eviscerations, people getting shot, stabbed, decapitated, and impaled without any sense of narrative logic or pace or rising tension. Some dudes over here die in bloody ways, then some dudes over there die in bloody ways, the women are spared only to be terrorized at creepily gratuitous length (the smarmy estranged husband sells everyone out immediately even though there's no apparent benefit to it, he just seems to get off on cruelty even when his own life is threatened), someone we thought died didn't, and then they go kill some more people and then they really DO die, and then there's even more violence - and violence per se isn't the problem, but the violence here communicates nothing. It's not the result of someone's actions or decisions, it's not a way to convey what's at stake, it's not a way to raise the tension, it's just a bunch of horrible shit that happens, free of implication or context, until it stops happening and then the credits roll. We’re supposed to empathize with the protagonists, we’re supposed to root for the good guys, we’re supposed to be afraid of the cannibals (or maybe we’re supposed to understand them? It’s hard to tell when they’re played as nonsense-spouting cartoons), but none of it works because none of it attempts to connect on a human, empathic level. These aren't people, they’re cliché-spouting types and poorly defined at that. Wooden characters saying wooden things, speared on cheap-looking weapons in sprays of the cheapest-looking fake blood I've seen in ages, to no apparent purpose.

I suspect this isn't my most thoughtful or insightful post ever, but watching Offspring was exhausting in the degree to which it tested my goodwill. Everything looks cheap, everyone sounds and acts fake, nothing makes any sense, there's no real reason to care about anyone, it's devoid of mood or atmosphere, it's devoid of tension, and it all ends on a fairly nasty note that only highlights the pointlessness of the whole affair. It's not even funny or absurd in its ineptitude. It's just shit.

Unavailable on Netflix Instant (Available on DVD)

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Would You Rather: Choosing Not To Choose

I don’t have a lot of patience for movies that have as their premise a bunch of people kidnapped by a psychopath and forced to participate in some kind of game or experiment. A big part of this is that it ends up intersecting a lot with what I actually do for a living, and it’s irritating to me personally when the filmmakers misunderstand the nature of experimentation (or the nature of human behavior). But that’s idiosyncratic to me and not necessarily the biggest problem. If a story’s engaging, it’s easy to overlook nitpicky shit. No, what really bugs me about this type of movie is they often end up being really obvious and didactic about the depths to which humanity will sink when forced into some dire situation. Obvious and didactic are never good looks for a film regardless of genre. If you have to beat your audience over the head with a point - hell, if you even go into it thinking that you need to consciously make a point - you’ve already blown it. But even worse, these movies are rarely as smart as they think they are, because the reality is often just as bad if not worse than what movies can dream up. They think they're making a comment on human nature, but they aren't telling us anything we don't already know.

Would You Rather is sort of an odd duck in that it gets the psychology part more right than most films do, but that strength is repeatedly undermined by multiple narrative and tonal missteps.

We start on a young woman named Iris, who is trying very hard to get a job waiting tables, to what is obviously no avail. They want someone with more experience, he’ll mention her with regard to a hosting position, but no promises. It’s not going to happen. She’s moved back home because her parents have died in an accident, leaving her to deal with their debts, their estate, and her brother, who has leukemia. Iris isn’t a marrow match, so it’s just a waiting game at this point. A waiting game framed by the donor recipient list, unpaid bills, fresh grief, and a ticking clock. She goes to meet with her brother’s doctor, who introduces her to a wealthy philanthropist named Shepard Lambrick. Mr. Lambrick invites Iris to a dinner party, where she will be one of eight people considered for assistance from his family’s foundation - all the money she’ll need to meet her late parent’s debts, and her brother will get moved to the top of the donor list. All she has to do is come to dinner.

Well, come to dinner, and then play a game against the other seven guests.

As you might imagine, the other seven guests are all other people who need the foundation’s help for one thing or another, though it doesn’t bother to elucidate everyone’s reason for being there, which I appreciated - that always feels really stagey, and incomplete information can be a big part of certain types of games. And as you might imagine, the game itself isn’t anything simple or comfortable. Lambrick is your garden-variety rich weirdo who enjoys debasing other people because he has the power to do so. (I am reminded of the reason given in 8mm for why a captain of industry had a snuff film made: “Because I can.”) The game is a high-stakes variant on “Would You Rather?” where people are made to choose between two distinct but equally undesirable options. Here, the options are undesirable enough that people pass out from shock and tarps have to be laid down to deal with blood spatter. It’s not just the grand prize keeping them there, either. Once they commit to the game, the gun-wielding thugs appear to ensure obedience. The game will continue until there is one person left, one way or another.

As I said, the game itself is one of the things that movies like this typically botch, but Would You Rather does well. It’s basically a dilemma game, where you have to decide between two possible outcomes, pitting equally compelling interests against each other. The idea is that your choice illustrates something about your character as a person, a thesis advanced early in a nicely queasy bit of business with two of the contestants during dinner involving personal principles and cold hard cash. Lambrick believes that everyone has their price, and having established that, works to see just how dearly they’ll sell themselves to meet it. The game escalates from simple if unpleasant decisions to hysteric sadism that almost entirely abandons the pretense of the central thesis while still insisting on adherence to the rules, and I found myself simultaneously wincing and nodding appreciatively at every escalation.

But that’s where the skillful execution ends. Movies like this work well when the human factor takes center stage - our failure to behave as rational actors, our willingness to discard higher principles for the sake of survival - but here there's a lot of campy dressing on top of it that undercuts what could be a really tense, devastating story. The wealthy benefactor and his arrogant shit of a son are preening villains pretty much from the start, cartoon characters set among people, and it's distracting. The casual introduction of the game's nature is nicely disturbing, but having two characters who nail every heartless rich psychopath cliché without adding anything deeper cheapens it. If this were a more stylized, campy movie throughout - like a nightmare version of Clue or something - it'd be fine, but arch caricature for the antagonists and low-key (or in the worst cases, utterly wooden) portrayals of the protagonists make it feel like two movies smashed together.

The writing isn't great - the dialogue never sounds completely natural, it's all very stagey to the point of distraction, written by someone with no ear for how people actually talk to each other. Again, this wouldn’t be a problem if everything else about the production was equally stagey, but it isn’t. The acting is wildly uneven as well. Although some of the protagonists come across as believable people reacting as you might expect them to in such a strange situation, others never rise above the level of type (the cynical wild card who isn't there to make friends, the gambler, the earnest good guy). Again, it feels like two different movies sitting at the same table, and it’s not clear what sort of mood the filmmakers are trying to establish.

On top of the tonal inconsistencies, the film is also plagued by some puzzling pacing and story decisions. The first couple of acts still manage to build up a nice feeling of tension on the back of the game itself, but then the tension is broken by a couple of completely unnecessary diversions from the main story - the strength of the film is these people in this room, making unthinkable decisions as a timer counts down. Anything that moves us away from that moves us away from what makes it good. For any given story beat, it avoids and embraces obvious resolutions in roughly equal measure, and the whole thing ends on what struck me as an unnecessarily nihilistic note given the implications of what came before - like the whole situation wasn't bad enough, the end just throws on one more fillip as sort of a middle finger. But even then, it wasn't the "last shocking twist" that I was afraid they were going to use, so yay for blowing it in something other than the most obvious way, I guess?

Would You Rather wants to play for real, human stakes and expose us to people suffering under the increasingly suffocating constraints of this game, morally deformed by the crushing weight of need and the power to grant that need. But it also wants to be a campy, lurid, blackly comic EC Comics-style exercise in people getting their just desserts, and the two don't work well together. We're supposed to either delight in someone's punishment or dread it at any given moment, and we're supposed to see them as real people or archetypes, depending on the person. The film has a thesis: You have to commit. Choose one or the other. But it doesn't have the courage of its own convictions.

IMDB entry
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Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix Instant (Available on DVD)

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Devil Inside: A Faustian Bargain

The business of film - like the business of any art - is basically fucked up. It’s the intersection of creative impulse and calculated commerce, where on the one hand you have what you hope are expressions of a particular aesthetic sensibility and worldview, and on the other all of the positioning, marketing, and investment decisions used to justify the underwriting of the creative endeavor. The thesis is bound up inextricably with its antithesis. Like it or not, art gets sold to us, in every sense of the word, and horror film often provides some of the worst examples of this in action. What other genre so nakedly reproduces successful formulae, in the forms of sequels, “reboots” or iterations on a particular style of film? Art and commerce are, on average, wildly out of balance in horror. At least, that’s how I see it. And it affects my opinions about the films in which I choose to invest my time.

Case in point: The Devil Inside.

I didn’t watch this for a very long time, because I was suspicious of its origins as a "micro-budget franchise starter", as ugly and cynical a phrase as I can imagine. You can hear the marketing gears turning, bland men in conference rooms mistaking demographic projections for art. That it is a found-footage demonic-possession movie didn't help, either - two genres ripe for overexposure and cliché, easy to do badly. Besides, The Last Exorcism already exists and slam-dunked the fuck out of that story, how good could this be? To add insult to injury, it got out pretty quickly that the movie ends with a title card that basically says "for more on this story, go to this website", where the website is just links to a bunch of YouTube videos of additional footage. It's a shoddy, ham-handed attempt at the kind of cross-medium marketing that worked so well for The Blair Witch Project. Lots of money men, fumbling to create a hit out of the sort of reasoning that misses the point entirely.

So I’m going to be honest - I was very skeptical going into this. But I am being honest when I say that I was pleasantly surprised by this film. I don't know that it has the textual richness of The Last Exorcism, but it doesn't need it. It's a well-crafted, nicely understated story that builds up little details to an end that doesn't at all need the gimmicky "go here to find out more" hook at the end and works just fine without it.

The film opens with a title card that basically says that the Catholic Church doesn't officially recognize the performance of exorcisms, and did not assist in the making of this film. It's a nice touch, because it establishes the documentary nature of the film without actually lying - of course they didn't help, it's a work of fiction. But it's enough to set the ground rules for the nature of the footage that we're going to see (important for a found-footage film to work) and it doesn't violate those rules (critical for a found-footage film to work), so the artificiality of the conceit is quickly forgotten in favor of the story.

The story opens with a 911 call played over a black screen, broken only by a transcription of what’s being said. A woman is calling to report the death of three people, confessing that she killed them before disconnecting the call. Our view shifts to police footage of the crime scene, appropriately banal and professional in its treatment of death - no corny, melodramatic cop lines, just police noting what they see and dispassionately recording the scene. This footage transitions neatly into footage of a news report that a woman named Maria Rossi was arrested at the scene of a horrible multiple murder.

Flash forward several years later to a professionally-produced talking-head shot of a young woman named Isabella Rossi - Maria’s daughter. Her mother was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and has been hospitalized ever since Isabella was a young girl. Some things about the case have always bothered Isabella - first, it’s a hell of a thing to grow up knowing your mother may have murdered three people. Second, the facts of the case always struck her as a little odd - the three people murdered were members of the Catholic clergy, the rumor was that the murder took place during an attempted exorcism. But nope, it’s not a case of demonic possession. Officially, the church says, possession isn’t an actual phenomenon, and they don’t do exorcisms.

So why, after the murders, was Maria Rossi - a citizen of the United States - remanded to a hospital in Rome?

The remainder of the movie is Maria and her filmmaker friend Michael traveling to Rome to find out just what exactly the deal is. It’s presented sensibly - she’s a grown woman who wants to make peace with a troubling past, she’s a daughter who wants to advocate for her mother, and it’s tough to live a life dogged by mutterings about demonic possession. In Rome, she hooks up with two priests attending a class on exorcism - the Vatican doesn’t perform them, but priests are free to learn about them as a theoretical exercise - and finds out that they’re performing exorcisms on the sly, in defiance of doctrine. They see it as doing the Lord’s work even if current politics won’t let them do it openly. Needless to say, Isabella finds out very quickly that yes, exorcisms occur, and demonic possession may really be a thing. She gets the priests in to see her mother, and well, things do not go well.

I don’t want to say any more than that because one thing this film does really well is that it doesn’t traffic in the obvious. Well, in the broad strokes it does. The story beats themselves aren't a huge surprise - the situation is established (what happened to Mom all those years ago), we meet our protagonists (the daughter, the cameraman, and rogue priests doing exorcisms outside of church oversight), and then the other shoe drops (yes it's a demon, and it's way more powerful than anyone expected). These are not surprises. But they're executed well, and apart from a couple of cheap startles, they don't always play out in the most obvious ways. Where this film does its best work is in the details. This film is not afraid to let things happen in the background or barely in frame, it’s not afraid to hint at things and let them go unexplained, and it’s not afraid to let something horrible just sort of sit there on screen without shoving our faces in it. While things are happening in the foreground, it’s building up an a quiet, careful internal logic that tells the story without being obvious about it. It even handles the omnipresent-cameraman tack well - it's a documentary, so of course there are resources to capture as much footage as possible, and things aren't always framed perfectly or captured on-camera at all. It stretches plausibility a couple of times, but not for too far or for too long.

As odd as it sounds, I think my biggest criticism of The Devil Inside is that it's almost too competent, but I recognize that that criticism is based to a great degree in my reluctance to engage with this movie. For a good chunk of the movie, it was a lot easier for me to admire its construction than to really immerse myself in the story. I was probably waiting for it to suck or pull a wrong move because I didn’t want to appreciate something with such a nakedly commercial provenance, but it wasn't really until the third act that I stopped thinking to myself "nicely done, filmmakers" and started going "oh shit." But that’s entirely on me. The climax of the film builds tension and a sense of headlong rushing from bad to worse really nicely, so that by the end even little ol’ cynical me was wondering what the hell was going to happen next. It really doesn't need that terrible “for the rest of the story” title card at the end - the story has been told. There's an obvious sequel hook built in (this is a micro-budget franchise-starter, after all). but it doesn't feel as artificially established as I was afraid it would. You could tell another story about these people, and though I suspect it wouldn’t have the same power (because sequels almost never do), it wouldn’t be as ridiculous a stretch of narrative as it is in the Saw films or as ham-handed a way to build a franchise as the end of Sinister. It’s a skillfully-made, nicely creepy take on a type of movie that could be half-assed and still return a profit, and I’m sort of bummed that all of this money shit polluted how I saw it and pollutes how movies like this gets made.

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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Deathwatch: War, What Is It Good For?

You don’t see a ton of horror movies set during wartime. This is probably for a couple of reasons - first, it’s hard to foster an atmosphere of dread and helplessness when your protagonists are trained to kill and armed to the teeth. Second, it’s hard to compete with wartime in the scary and disturbing stakes. If you’re going to make a horror movie set during a war, you might as well just make a documentary because what the fuck can you come up with that is worse than what these people are going through on a daily basis? Sure, there are exceptions, especially if we cast a wide enough net to call Apocalypse Now a horror movie, but not many. Most of the ones I’ve seen have ended up falling flat because they try to impose a supernatural threat onto a natural one that’s so much worse, trivializing it in the process.

Deathwatch is ostensibly a movie about the horrors of war, but it doesn't have the confidence to let war be the horror that it is

We open on World War I, which seems to be the point in history after which people stopped even trying to convince themselves and others that war was a noble endeavor conducted by gentlemen. That was always a myth, but it was a myth that died hard. World War I was a point in history when killing technology considerably outpaced strategy and tactics, so pretty much every battle was just throwing soldiers into a meat grinder made out of bombs, gas, tanks, and automatic weapons. And that’s where this movie begins - with a bunch of British soldiers in a trench, about ready to go over the top, where they are most certainly going to die.

There’s a bunch of them, and not a lot of time to get to know them as people. The unit is pretty much described at its extremes by underage, naive Shakespeare, who is sixteen years old and freezes when ordered to leave the trench, and near-bestial Quinn, who wears animal pelts, German medals, dog tags, and scalps on his uniform. Everyone else sort of falls in between the two - the competent sergeant, the posh captain out of his depth, and then others might have a defining characteristic or two, but they aren't the point of the movie. They're soldiers, by nature they should be undifferentiated, as monochrome as the smoke-choked sky and muddy trenches. And they’ve been ordered to go over the top, to leave their trench and charge to occupy the enemy trench. This is how the old ways of waging war run headlong into the new ways. Most of them will die, blown to bits by artillery or gunfire, tangled and bleeding out in nests of barbed wire, choking out on poison gas. But they are ordered to go, and they go. Many die, but not all, and when they see the thick fog advancing toward them, they know it’s probably a gas attack and grab their masks...

...only to find themselves in the forest, under an uneasy gray light, surrounded by fog instead.

Lost and a little confused (it was night and there was gas, now it’s day and there’s no gas), nine remaining soldiers make their way through the forest to an enemy encampment, abandoned except for three German soldiers who appear to be trying to warn them away. From what, they can’t really tell, but they all seem far more worried about something other than the nine soldiers holding them at gunpoint.

If my description feels a little vague and clumsy, that’s a reflection of how things play out. The transition from the battlefield to wherever they are now is sudden enough to feel like a continuity error given only passing consideration by the protagonists, and the remainder of the film squanders a lot of the opportunities afforded by the setting. WWI lends itself especially well to nightmare hellscapes - endless, blasted fields of trenches and mud and blood and bodies and barbed wire, and Deathwatch works best when it lets those things exist alongside the characters, just sitting there alongside piles of mud that upon closer examination turn out to be corpses, rats crawling all over everything. It's terrifying to us but it's business as usual for them. It’s all very evocative, and is probably the best thing about the movie - it feels appropriately nightmarish, so the casual way the characters move through it makes it nicely disconcerting. They aren't stupid teenagers ignoring danger signs right in front of them, this is their reality.

The horror, then, should emerge organically from the surroundings so that the protagonists don't realize anything is wrong until it's too late, but instead we're sort of fed this narrative of this being a fundamentally evil place where they will turn on each other, and sure enough that's what happens (when it's not other, completely unrelated things) more or less, so there's not a lot of surprise. The movie tells us what's going to happen, and then it happens, and not all that convincingly at that, so there’s no shock or dread or uncertainty. The mostly-undefined, context-less “evil” manifests itself at different times as walking corpses (sort of), disembodied voices, and a really artificial-looking red mist. There's no internal logic to it - it's just "evil" and that's supposed to mean something, and none of the manifestations are convincing enough to be frightening, so what should be a unit descending into madness is a bunch of guys running around and yelling.

In the end, everyone does what it's sort of telegraphed they're going to do, and there's no real surprise or point to be made apart from the obvious futility, pointlessness, and inevitability of war. It feels like a purgatory, and that's exactly what it is, no surprises there either, and so trite and on-the-nose in its resolution as to be a little insulting. Given how much of WWI as we sort of understand it today is the clash between the belief in war as a noble enterprise and the ugly reality of it on the battlefield, that we get exactly what we expect is a real disappointment.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Last Days On Mars: What Is This Quintessence Of Dust?

Science-fiction horror, like historical horror, is a tricky beast. You're already asking your audience to suspect disbelief on one axis (monsters exist), and at the same time you're asking them to suspend disbelief on a second (this is all occurring in a future yet to happen). If the viewer's too caught up by the implausibility of the setting, it makes it harder for them to invest in the story to a degree that they'll be scared when you want them to be. And, for that matter, I suspect that "aliens" occupy a different space in our head from "monsters" - they may be adjacent, but our expectations for how the protagonists interact with them may differ enough to make the experience a little confusing. The best way to approach it, then, is to try and minimize the degree to which the details establishing it as a science-fiction story make it feel fantastic (e.g., the truckers-in-space angle taken by Alien), and make your alien as indistinguishable from a monster as possible (e.g., the Lovecraftian nightmare at the center of The Thing).

(Speaking of, I re-watched the director's cut of Alien recently, and was watching some behind-the-scenes stuff, and hearing Ridley Scott describe it as his attempt to make "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in space" was illuminating. I don't know that he succeeded at doing that, but I suspect that taking that approach to the film IS a big part of what made it successful.)

So on these two counts, The Last Days On Mars does things right. I wouldn't put it in the same league as Alien or The Thing, not by a long shot. But it's a well-constructed, almost meditative film about, essentially, the failure of humanity - both as a species and as essential nature.

Sometime in the distant-enough future, mankind has sent people to Mars. Not once, but twice. The second mission is coming to a close after six months. They're on short time, with 19 hours and change remaining until the relief crew shows up and they get to board a ship home. They're trying to wrap things up and two crew members - a paramedic named Lane and a technician named Campbell - are driving a rover out to one of the research sites to pick up Kim, who is busy collecting core samples. They're in a hurry because there's a massive sandstorm coming and everyone needs to be back at base for a debriefing. Lane and Campbell are grousing because they know Kim is going to be a pain in the ass about it. Nobody seems to like Kim too much. Sure enough, she stalls for time and complains about not finding anything. She's abrasive, but there's a layer of frustration underneath it. Her research is coming up snake eyes - she's been on another planet for six months, just spinning her wheels.

Their arrival back at base sharpens this - there's a second scientist, Petrovic, who ducks out of the briefing by feeding the base commander a line about needing to repair a sensor. As it transpires, he's really trying to get back out to a dig site to collect some more samples - samples he intends to backdate, scooping Kim and securing for himself sole credit for discovering evidence of bacterial life on Mars. He is cheerfully unapologetic about this - he thinks it's funny - and we wonder just how well he's fooled everyone else. It's no wonder Kim is so angry. In fact, the whole situation is really dysfunctional - Brunel, the base commander, is largely ineffectual at keeping his crew in line, and there's a lot of hostility and free-floating resentment in the air, punctuated by frequent power outages and other equipment failure. The vehicles are falling apart. The base is falling apart. They are falling apart. They're less than 20 hours away from leaving, and not a moment too soon.

And then, as you might expect, something goes very wrong at the dig site. Petrovic has just discovered something really important in a core sample, but before he can communicate what it is, the entire ground around the sample site collapses into a sinkhole, taking Petrovic with it. Back at base, Kim - in open defiance of regulations - has gone through Petrovic's work and has figured out what he's up to. Before anything can be done about it, the technician who accompanied Petrovic calls in a mayday. After assessing the situation at the site, it's concluded that Petrovic must be dead because there's no way he could have survived the fall with his suit remaining uncompromised. Base doctor Dalby volunteers to stay behind while everyone else goes back to retrieve the gear needed to pull the body out of the sinkhole. Only when they return there's nobody there. No Dalby, and no Petrovic. The hole is empty, except that it's teeming with some sort of mold or fungus.

Back at base, there's a knock on the airlock door. Petrovic and Dalby - or, rather, what's left of them - have returned.

In the basics of its premise, The Last Days On Mars isn't much of a surprise - this is a story of contagion and transformation. To the extent that it succeeds, it does so by not overplaying things. Everything feels plausible, and it's helpful because we don't spend too much time on the science-fiction trappings as a result. Yes, they're on Mars, but it's never really played for spectacle - it's just there to highlight that this is a hostile environment, and there's a very low margin for error as a result. Early in the film, a massive sandstorm thunders across the landscape, but nobody is awed by it - it's just another hazard they've had to deal with for the last six months. It's helpful because being on another planet isn't really the point - the point is that everything is dangerous, and the sooner the specifics of why that is fade into the background, the sooner we can engage with what's happening in the present.

This sense of restraint is extended to the characterization as well. We don't get a lot of depth on all of these people - there's eight of them - but most of what we do learn we learn economically, through their actions and reactions, not exposition. You can infer a lot based on how people talk about other people, and how they respond to events. Dalby and Petrovic probably have a thing based on the vehemence of her reaction to Kim's criticism of him and to news of his assumed death, but it's never stated outright. Petrovic seems to be better liked by the crew in general than Kim, even though Kim isn't the one lying and falsifying records to snag credit for a major find, and you get the sense that Kim's the only one who sees through his bullshit and it's made her even angrier. Lane and Campbell seem to have a bit of history, but it doesn't seem to be romantic, Brunel seems tired, worn down by six months in this (literally and figuratively) toxic environment. Complex relationships are sketched in quickly and efficiently through acting choices. And just as our initial understanding of these people is established, much of it gets upended when the other shoe drops. We know just enough to be surprised, but it never feels like a convenient or plot-driven reversal. As one of the characters puts it early on before things go bad, crises are how you find out who people really are. The answers aren't always the ones we expect here, for good or ill.

Where this movie works especially well is in tension - when things go bad, they go bad quickly and then do not let up for the rest of the film. The pacing is relentless, but splitting the crew up early means that cuts can be made from frenetic action to quieter suspense and back again so that we aren't fatigued by non-stop running and yelling, but the sense of threat never dissipates. Everything is at a premium - air, power, fuel - and that scarcity makes every decision count, and every setback that much worse. The crew is extremely vulnerable - they're at the mercy of the environment and the threat that's overtaking them, and one injury can mean certain death one way or another. Every success comes at a cost, every failure pays a high price and you're just sympathetic enough for the most part that you want to see these people survive.

The heart of this movie, then, is how these people let each other (and themselves) down - physical frailty in the face of the environment is matched by psychological frailty. These people are selfish and weak, almost to a person - just as the base keeps breaking down, so do they. The question then becomes to what degree their failures as people are or are not liabilities in the face of this larger outside threat. Some of the least sympathetic people turn out to be the strongest, and some of the most sympathetic turn out to be the weakest at a tremendous price. One of the symptoms that plagues people infected by the alien bacterium is the gradual stripping away of humanity, of memories and experiences, and the characters wonder out loud if the people their teammates were aren't still trapped inside their bodies. Humanity fails itself, and so humanity recedes. In the end, everything - air, water, food, fuel, power, humanity - is a scarce resource, and decisions have to be made about what needs to be conserved and what can be expended. Crises strip away humanity and lay bare what lies beneath it.

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