Friday, August 22, 2014

Oh And Dammit This Just In

So it turns out Nicholas Winding Refn won't be doing the haunted hotel movie after all.

Dammit.

But hey, maybe we'll get some more movies where ghosts look like normal people until suddenly their faces go all distorted and spooky or something. That'd be pretty cool.

Sometimes I Hate It When I'm Right

When I wrote about the promising-only-to-blow-it-in-the-clutch-because-of-the-fucking-obsession-with-franchising exercise in poor real estate decisions titled Sinister, I predicted that there would be a sequel on the way. This was pretty obviously going to be the case, given that a single antagonist was sort of clumsily shoehorned into the third act (to the point that its backstory was still being established by the end credit sequence), and the filmmakers pretty much admitted that they revised their original idea because they were concerned about the franchisability of their story. The story that the film set up initially - although creepy - wouldn't really work for subsequent iterations because it didn't have an identifiable villain or an explanation for its events. These are also the things that made the film fucking scary to begin with. No pat explanations, no mythology, no "rules" for the bad guy, just some extremely weird, dark, disturbing shit that exacts a terrible cost. That's frightening, not some mediocre makeup and jump scares. But if the motivation was to plant the seeds for an endless parade of sequels, well, that just won't do.

And sure enough, Sinister 2 is in the works. A woman with kids moves into the house from the first film (and the kids are twin boys because of course they are), thus beginning the sequence of events again. I'm sure the demon will be summoned somehow, bad things will happen, and we'll learn more about the demon, and we'll learn how to defeat it, so that Sinister 3 can change that up for no good reason or throw in some additional iteration or implausible resurrection of the bad guy after the events of 2, and by Sinister 6: 6ini6ter6, we'll be looking at a bunch of fun-loving college students who move into the house and defeat the demon in its own dimension or some hackneyed bullshit like this because that is what happens when you approach horror films as opportunities to prop the same moth-eaten costumes and cheap cinematic tricks up again and again and again for an audience more concerned with the comfortable familiarity of easy shock than actually being scared, like deep-down scared.

On the other hand, this sequel is being directed by the same dude who did Citadel, another promising-with-problems film, so maybe it'll be interesting to see a non-American sensibility at work.

Oh, who am I kidding. I'll be surprised if this is any good at all.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Silence Of The Lambs: Objects Of Desire

(Warning: If, by some chance, you haven’t seen this movie yet, well go correct that post-haste, and know that I’m going to be pretty casual about discussing the story throughout, so spoilers ahoy.)

I've lost count of the number of times I've watched The Silence Of The Lambs, lost count of the number of times I've read the novel on which it was based as well. I know this movie very well, at least in a story-and-dialogue sense. On the other hand, I've never actually sat down and watched it with sort of a critical perspective, and doing so for the purposes of this post, I noticed some things I've never noticed before. However many years and viewings later, I find myself still surprised by this film.

It’s a procedural, about FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling. She’s a focused, driven student. She wants to be of service, to do an important job very well, to prove herself even if it’s not immediately apparent to who. She begins the film running through the woods, but it’s a neat little inversion - she’s not a victim or Final Girl. She’s on an obstacle course, pushing herself as hard as possible, to make herself strong. Starling is pulled off the course and summoned to the office of Jack Crawford, head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science division. These are the people who profile serial killers, who tell the field agents for whom they should be searching. This is what Starling wants to do when she graduates. She wants to come to work for Crawford. With this in mind, Crawford has asked her to run an “errand” - to administer a behavioral questionnaire to a notorious serial killer named Hannibal Lecter. As it transpires, Lecter has no interest in the questionnaire, as much as he does in discussing Crawford’s current active case - the hunt for an entirely different serial killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill.” Lecter seems to know something about the killer, and about the case.

Which is interesting, given how long Lecter’s been locked away.

In lesser hands, this would be utterly cringeworthy, and iterations on exactly this premise have been exactly that cringeworthy in what are indeed lesser hands. Serial killer movies often come across as trite to the point of offensiveness, I think, and I think the thoughtfulness with which the filmmakers approached the subject goes a long way toward distinguishing this film from other treatments of the same topic. The larger budget and major-studio clout enabled them to work directly with the FBI, basing their killer on actual case files and giving the setting and the dialogue some procedural realism. The film is also played entirely with a straight face, with a certain quiet and somber gravity about it that makes it feel like something terrible happening in the world we inhabit, not some smirky showoff for a gimmicky murderer or excuse to run an improbably costumed hulk through an abattoir filled with indiscreet teens for ninety minutes. 

And maybe there’s a class argument to be made, here - that this movie is good because the studio gave it the money to be good, and recruited talented filmmakers and known talents, and paid for good sets and lots of research that poorer filmmakers just don’t have. Maybe all the shitty, awful serial killer films aren’t entirely the filmmaker’s fault if you need big-studio budgets to fully realize the idea. Because on paper, this could be a shitty, terrible movie. Money made it good, and that same money and the legitimacy it provides is probably why this film won a shitload of Academy Awards instead getting four stars from some blog writer who goes by the name “Doctor Morbid” or some shit as the height of its critical reception.

But that’s not really why I wanted to write about this film. This time, when I sat down to watch The Silence Of The Lambs, I think I put together for the first time some things that had sort of occurred to me on the periphery before, but had never really crystallized because I was just sort of watching it for the familiar experience of watching it, listening to the rhythms of the dialogue and the events, admiring the neat little narrative fillips. So some of this will probably occur to some of you as sort of a “no shit, Sherlock” sort of thing and yeah, you’re right. But this is what happens when you approach a familiar piece of art with new eyes.

First, women are pretty much entirely objects in this film. I mean certainly, there's the obvious ways, in terms of Buffalo Bill skinning women to make himself a girl suit in an effort at transformation (as if one can appropriate femininity by literally putting it on) and the way he, as a serial killer, depersonalizes Catherine in order to make it emotionally easier to starve, murder, and skin her. So yeah, for Buffalo Bill women (and womanhood) are actually objects, it’s not even metaphorical. But it's also embodied (ha) in the way that people treat Clarice throughout the film - there’s a brief but telling scene where Clarice and her friend Ardelia are jogging and a bunch of male students running the other way look back to check out their asses as they run. There’s asylum chief Chilton's comments to Starling about her looks and the way he hits on her. Sure, we’re not supposed to sympathize with him, we’re supposed to think he’s a creep, but it’s really the obviousness of his sexism - not the sexism itself - that distinguishes him from other male characters. Crawford and Lecter both employ Clarice as a tool, or pawn, or go-between. Clarice begins the film following Crawford’s orders and chasing down Lecter’s clues, and she develops agency over the course of the film as she takes more and more initiative, until ultimately it’s just her on her own, literally in the dark and surviving entirely by her own wits. Even Senator Ruth Martin - a powerful, capable woman - is ultimately there not for her own sake, but as a proxy. Her influence is invoked under false pretenses by the FBI to provide an incentive for Lecter, and Chilton subverts that to wield her authority in service of his own self-promotion, which Lecter in turn exploits. She is, at best, a figurehead throughout her negotiations with Chilton and Lecter, appearing, making pronouncements, and vanishing again into a cloud of government men. And then there’s poor Frederica Bimmel, and the unnamed girl in West Virginia, unseeing bodies examined and documented as evidence, as objects for inquiry.

Second, there's also a strong undercurrent of seeing and being seen running throughout this film. It’s something I think I’d noticed on casual viewing but this time it really hit me how many of the shots in this film are close-ups on faces. Most conversations are shot as alternating close-ups on the two people talking, so it's as if we're taking the point of view of each person in the conversation in turn, and it’s pretty rare to see more than one person in frame at a time. Almost all of Clarice’s conversations with people are shot this way, so we’re focused on her face to one degree or another, with the tightness of the shot sometimes heightening tension, sometimes giving us space to see her react. A lot of her conversations also occur across barriers or dividers - bars, plexiglass, even desks. There’s something in her way, something between her ability to see others and others seeing her. We see Catherine from Bill's point of view, and Bill from Catherine's, and there’s always distance between them, indicating the depersonalization otherwise indicated by Bill’s use of “it” to refer to Catherine. In West Virginia, we see Starling being stared at by a roomful of cops, with the perspective switching from just her to a multitude of eyes pressing down on her. Buffalo Bill performs for a video camera - sort of a desperate loneliness in that he has nobody else to see him, but he wants to be seen so badly. Even his closest interactions with women occur through the mediation of nightvision goggles - he’s always a step removed from the thing he wants most. Framing the majority of the shots this way makes the film very intimate and immediate- we’re seeing everything through the eyes of the people in the film. Lecter even comments on this, asking Clarice if she’s aware of eyes looking her over, appraising her. We first covet what we see every day.

And then finally, on top of all of this, there's what I’ve appreciated about this movie from the first time I ever saw it: Hannibal Lecter, playing the long game. From his earliest appearances in the film, he has an excellent idea of what's going on (after all, memory is what he has instead of a view, and he’s encountered Bill’s earliest work), and he spends most of the film's runtime amusing himself, waiting for everyone else to catch up. In his first meeting with Clarice, he alludes to her good bag and cheap shoes - accessories (often made of leather) that signify the feminine, and he notes the skin cream she uses. There's all of the other quick jabs - allusions to "Simplicity," his remark to Starling about how "you're so close to how you're going to catch him," his catty aside to Senator Martin about her suit. It’s easy to point to the obvious bits about Lecter - his dramatic “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti” line, most egregiously abused - but it’s this hidden breadcrumb trail he leaves throughout the movie, purely for his own amusement, that contributes so strongly to one of the most chilling portrayals of villainy in the 20th century. It’s an expression of the same manic glee in his eyes when Clarice comes to him desperate, with time running out, the effortless shift from his animalistic savaging of a police officer to his appreciation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. He’s not divided between man and monster, he’s fully at home with both. No real histrionics, no monologuing, just a glint in his eye at some private joke. It’s a pity the character became caricature, as sequels so often allow, but in this film Hannibal Lecter is a vivid monster: An aesthete with the blank, unfeeling eyes of a shark.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Spoorloos: Terrible Knowledge

Something I've come back to every now and again over the course of this thing is the idea of “terrible knowledge,” usually to describe that moment when either the protagonists of a film or the audience put all the pieces together and realizes something frightening or upsetting or disturbing that until that moment was hidden or obscured. Sometimes I call it “the horror of discovery”, but it’s the same idea, the “oh shit” moment when the full implications of a films’ worth of little details and asides and clues converge into a single conclusion. It’s usually a twist ending, a sudden reversal of something we took for granted (what do you mean that guy was only a figment of his imagination?) but sometimes the inevitable, obvious conclusion can carry just as much dread along with it.

Spoorloos (The Vanishing) isn't...exactly about the journey more than the end, but the way it builds to its conclusion by playing on the characters’ (and our own) need to know is masterful.

Rex and Saskia are taking a vacation, taking a long trip in the car from Amsterdam to a small house in the French countryside. There’s some light banter, but some of it is oddly strained. Rex doesn't want Saskia to drive for some reason, even though he’s getting tired. Saskia’s talking to Rex about a recurring dream she has, of being trapped in a golden egg and feeling utterly alone. They run out of gas, and Rex goes to get more, leaving Saskia to get increasingly upset at being left alone. She seems to be terrified of being abandoned, and Rex seems to resent it a little. We don’t know why they have this dynamic, but there it is. Meanwhile, elsewhere, another man - Raymond - packs for his own little trip. He has a sling, a fake cast, a rag, and a small medicinal bottle. It’s not immediately clear where he’s going or what he plans to do, but it doesn't look good, either.

Saskia and Rex come to a rest stop. He apologizes to her, they make up, enjoy some time stretching their legs before they get back on the road. Saskia offers to grab beverages for the two of them and heads into the rest stop, walking right past Raymond, who waits outside with a paper.

Saskia never comes back.

The rest of the film bounces around in time and perspective. Saskia disappears, Rex spends the rest of the day searching for her. Then we’re with Raymond, months before the disappearance. We watch his life, his plans, his little exercises and notes as he prepares for a single day. Then it’s three years later, and Rex hasn't forgotten Saskia. In fact, it’s hard for him to think about anything else. Over the course of the film, these two men orbit each other, Saskia’s absence the nucleus holding them both. Like Raymond, the film is careful and meticulous - everything matters, almost every little detail means something if you pay close attention. It's not gratuitous or some kind of blatant puzzle exercise either, where we can “solve” the movie. It’s really not too difficult to figure out in broad strokes what happened. It’s not a Chekhov's Gun situation where everything exists only to drive the plot, it's more of a case of a singular event emerging from all of the little intersections of fate and chance. This happened because these people were in this place at this time, and this went the way it did, and that went the way it did, and this is the end result. We go through most of the movie before we get a complete picture of the events of that day, with only Rex’s maddeningly incomplete account to go by for most of it. 

But that’s good, that sense of the unknown, of absence, of unanswered questions. Spoorloos is about as far from sensationalistic as you can get, but all the creepier for it. Raymond is careful and methodical, and it's chilling to see how neatly he conducts his life in the face of what it is he plans to do (and then has done). Everything in his life plays a role, everything is a moment for rehearsal, the lies he tells about little indiscretions are there to camouflage even larger, more hideous indiscretions, and the way he moves smoothly from one to the other while still being a husband, family man, and teacher is one of the most disquieting things about the movie. The way he involves his home life without his family’s knowledge is almost monstrous. Raymond doesn't have a mask of sanity to let slip. There’s no slavering maniac here. He holds his life as a husband, father, and provider in perfect superposition with the horrible thing he has done. Rex is tormented by that day, by the way that Saskia slipped through his fingers, and he works tirelessly to try and come to some sort of understanding - he plasters posters asking for information everywhere, he goes on television, he searches photographs and videotape for the barest scraps of clues, and this obsession crowds out anything else that might be good in his life. It's similar ground to that covered some years later by Absentia to equally good effect - the wreckage that a sudden disappearance leaves behind and the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of it all.

So really, what the movie ends up being about (apart from the capriciousness of fate for all involved) is the idea of knowing something. Rex has pretty much given up his life over the last 3 years, he is driven utterly by the need to know what happened to Saskia that day. Raymond has his own questions, about himself, about his capabilities, about what it means to be a good man and whether or not it possible to be good without the existence of evil. It’s a matter of how far each one of them is willing to go. How far will Raymond go to find out who he is, and how far Rex will go to find out what happened to Saskia. Yes, on paper that's sort of cheesy, “how far will one man go” and all that, but it's played out as a literal journey here as well. The film takes place as a function of travel, the distance between Amsterdam and the cottage, between Raymond’s home and the rest stop, and in the final act, there is a literal retracing the actual steps of that day. Both of them wanted to know something, and for each of them, their knowledge each exerts a cost, and the sickest joke of all might be how much of the movie is foreshadowed even in the first shot. It opens on a close shot of a stick insect - something that hides in plain sight, hiding the absolute gut-punch of an ending in plain sight as well. Like I said, it’s all there, in the little details, everything you need to know.

Unavailable from Netflix
(NOTE: The American remake is available from Netflix on DVD, but it is, to say the least, inferior to this version. Don’t get them mixed up.)

Monday, August 4, 2014

Oculus Chapter 3 - The Man With The Plan: 2 Hours Of Story In A 30-Minute Bag

I’ve always thought horror lends itself well to the short form, at least in fiction. It benefits from brevity and an ending that comes before you can think about what you read too much. It gets in, does its work, and gets out. It’s the rare horror novel I read that doesn’t drag a little at points, because it can be hard to sustain a sense of unease or dread over an extended narrative. What I’m starting to discover, though, is that that doesn’t necessarily hold true for films. I’m not sure what it is, but I think having to sit with the images in front of you does something to sustain mood in a way that parsing words doesn't. There are exceptions - see the first V/H/S film - but I think the successes really make a case for the need for pacing. In a long-form film, you can get away with a little drag or a little bloat if you pay it off, but in a short film you need to be bang-on with your pacing, economic with your setup, and concise with the means you use to evoke emotions in the viewer. You’ve cut out all of your margin for error.

Oculus Chapter 3: The Man With The Plan tries to cram a feature-length story into a short film, and I think it suffers as a result.

It’s a very simple setup. There’s a man named Tim, and he’s sitting in a room with three video cameras, some food and water, two phones, a voice recorder, and two alarm clocks. He’s arranged for the delivery of an antique mirror to this room, and as the film begins he’s signing for the delivery. Nervously, he asks the deliverymen to place the mirror on an easel and to cover it with a sheet, all the time his back to them. Once they’ve gone, Tim begins explaining the history of this mirror - which dates back from the 1700s and is known as the Lasser Glass. Throughout the centuries, people who have owned this mirror have come to sudden, violent, and often inexplicable ends, usually in the room where the mirror is kept. It is rumored to be cursed or haunted, and after extensive research into its history, Tim has secured the glass, for the purpose of testing it, experimenting with it, and getting the results on tape to determine once and for all what effect it has. He has three video cameras on independent power sources, all aimed at the mirror. He has two phones - a landline to a specific number, and a cell phone on which a friend will call him every hour to make sure he’s okay. He has food and water, alluding to a particular case from the mirror’s history in which this seemed to be a concern. He has two alarm clocks - one to remind him to change the tapes, and one to remind him to eat and drink. He has taken precautions, he is careful and methodical.

He is the man with the plan.

In this, the subtitle essentially tells us what we need to know. Tim is one of those people (typically men) who are determined to see science, technology, and reason triumph over the supernatural. Tim isn’t so much trying to prove that the Lasser Glass isn’t cursed, though, he’s trying to prove that it is, and so he’s using the tools of rationality to defeat the mirror. He’s actively adversarial toward the mirror, taunting it and provoking it. Of course, things can only end badly for Tim, the rest of the film - the mirror’s provenance established - is just a matter of how badly and in what ways.

The simple setup is very much to the film’s advantage. This was obviously (though not to a distracting extent, with some exceptions) made on a low budget, and the premise works with that. One man, one mirror, one room. For most of its run, the film uses very little things well - point of view does a lot of work here in terms of subjectivity and objectivity. There are essentially three points of view here. There’s what we see, there’s what Tim sees, and then there’s what the cameras see, and the consonance and dissonance between these three perspectives makes for nice little creepy details to which no attention is called. They’re just there in the background or the foreground, quietly announcing that something is not quite right. There are sudden reveals or shifts in perspective that accomplish the same thing, the sense that in this room, we can’t trust anything to be what it seems, even in this tiny space. Tense moments are punctuated not by musical stings, but by phones ringing and alarms going off. For the most part, the first two-thirds of the film are a nice exercise in horror in miniature, minimal setting, simple premise, little things doing a lot.

The weak link for the majority of the film is Tim’s portrayal. When you’ve only got one person in the film, they have to do a lot work, but in a case like this, when you’re basically telling the story of one person’s mental disintegration in the presence of a cursed object, restraint is critical. You have to believe that this is a typical guy who is going to some very weird places in his head because of this evil mirror, and Tim gets played a little too over the top too quickly - the idea is that the mirror affects people and makes them do things they wouldn't otherwise, but Tim seems pretty unstable right from the get-go, and it gives his disintegration less power than it would otherwise. He’s played sort of loud and already kind of mad-scientisty instead of as a quiet, rational person doing terrible things in an equally quiet and rational way, so the movie tips its hand a little in that respect. We also learn over the course of the film that Tim’s interest in the mirror isn’t strictly objective, and though it makes sense that he has personal history with the mirror, it feels a little too on-the-nose and maybe a little more than the narrative of a short film can handle.

This sense of trying to do too much also contributes to the film’s biggest stumble as it concludes. The climax of the film gives away a little more about the mirror than the budget can really handle, so what was minimal becomes more obviously low-budget, and it moves away from the objectivity/subjectivity that works for the first two thirds or so in favor of a literalism that doesn’t really seem all that effective or convincing given what came before. Given everything we know about the mirror, the very end is also sort of anticlimactic and a little confusing. It feels like it’s trying to bring in a ton of mythology about the mirror and tie it to Tim’s own experience and show us what the mirror really does, but the nature of this particular approach isn’t really up to the task and so the end really doesn’t use any of the film’s strengths to its advantage.

I sympathize with the filmmakers - apparently this is one of nine possible stories the writer and director have thought up about the Lasser Glass (hence being Chapter 3), and certainly the cursed-object angle is great for multiple films because it can use an anthology format instead of serial sequels. Indeed, this preceded the recent feature-length film that shares its name, and is presumably one of the other nine stories they've thought up. I can understand wanting to tell a lot of story, and the short film is a tough format in which to work because you've only got so much time to set up the premise, build up a mood and then pay it off. The scale is small, the tools are simple and generally well executed, it just tries to do too much in the end and that sort of blows the tight, minimal vibe it had going in. If you can scare people with a whisper or a voice or a sudden change of perspective, work that angle instead of trying to go bigger.

IMDB entry

Friday, August 1, 2014

World War Z: The World Ends With One Bang After Another

Okay, I’m just going to be blunt here. I am fucking sick of zombies. I am sick of zombies because zombies have been so overexposed that they’ve entered the realms of the comedic. They’re a pop-culture punchline, and the subcultural obsession with them is equally as much of a joke. The idea of a “zombie apocalypse” is nothing more than mental masturbation fodder, an opportunity for people to fantasize about themselves as badasses-in-waiting, some kind of narcissistic reverie that saps the possibility of anything apocalyptic or even genuinely frightening. The point of an apocalypse scenario is that almost everyone will die, and the world will be brutally hard for those who remain. The odds are not ever in your favor, and the living may envy the dead. I feel like that point has been lost.

It’s a shame, because zombies, handled well, can make for really good and startling commentary on the human condition, mostly because I think they’re one of the few monsters who work best in the background. You can’t talk to zombies, they aren’t criminal masterminds, their entire thing is that they don’t think, they can’t reason, they just keep coming. Night of the Living Dead knew this to tremendous effect, even today. 28 Days Later, for all the whining about “fast zombies”, knew this too. The Dead knows this very well. Zombies are best when they are handled like a force of nature, because then they become the background condition against which humanity can be explored and tested. In fact, one of my favorite zombie stories isn't even a movie, it’s the book World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. It’s presented as an oral history taken many years after a zombie plague completely reshapes the social, political, economic, and geographical landscape of our world. It’s a collection of stories, some epic in scope, some highly personal, about people at all levels. Soldiers, politicians, children, bystanders, movers and shakers, and those moved and shaken. The zombies are almost the least important thing about it, as a thoughtful examination of what the real implications of a “zombie apocalypse” might be.

So I was pretty nervous when I found out that World War Z was being turned into a feature-length motion picture. I always thought the book would be best served by a Band of Brothers-style miniseries treatment, like a historical drama from an alternate universe. But nope, instead we get two-ish hours of blockbuster that manages to both capture the book’s virtues better than I thought it would and betray them by fitting them into something too close to the big action-movie template.

Gerry Lane is a loving husband and father, busy making pancakes for breakfast before taking his wife Karin to work and his daughters to school. Gerry used to have a really tough job that took him all over the world, but he doesn’t do that anymore, and Karin seems happy about that. They end up stuck in Philadelphia rush-hour traffic, and in their waiting for lights to change and cars to inch forward, Gerry - ever observant - notices a large number of police vehicles whizzing by. Eventually these vehicles become so careless that one clips his side mirror off. And then there’s more, and more, and then an explosion somewhere far behind. Something massive is moving up the street, some roiling chaos. People stagger down the street, lurching and twitching, attacking anyone they see.

And those they attack begin to twitch and lurch as well.

The premise is brutally simple: It’s a virus of some sort. It is communicated by contact with bodily fluids. It makes a person crazed, insensate, and violent. It also appears to keep the body animate after death. It takes hold quickly, within a matter of seconds. It propagates before Gerry’s eyes. From here, the movie moves very quickly. Gerry gets a phone call from someone very high up at the U.N. It turns out that Gerry used to be an investigator for the U.N., a job that took him to the worst parts of the world and showed him humanity at its ugliest. In fine action movie tradition, Gerry has a very particular set of skills, and he’s being called out of retirement to help tackle this threat. And it’s this basic premise that, to me, showcases both the strength and weakness of this film. It’s strong in that even though this is one of the oldest angles in the book, it’s given some teeth by the scope and desperation of the situation. Gerry and his family - after a harrowing escape through the streets and buildings of Philadelphia, culminating in an early-dawn helicopter lift - aren't whisked to safety because it’s the right thing to do, it’s because he’s useful to what’s left of order in a world collapsing at a frightening rate (as it would when you’re dealing with a virus that makes Ebola look like the sniffles), and he and his family are only allowed shelter on the condition that he do the job. Otherwise they get to fend for themselves. It doesn’t feel like contrived villainy - shit really is that bad and there really isn’t any room for dead weight. It helps the film feel like it really is dealing with an unimaginable pandemic.

On the other hand, it also sets up the narrative frame for rest of the film, which in broad strokes is exactly what you’d expect from a big-budget action film. Gerry is whisked from location to location in search of a potential vaccine, a desperate attempt to stem the rising tide of casualties. That’s not necessarily a problem, because I think on its face it honors the idea of the book - this is just one story out of many stories playing out over the course of the pandemic. What we get is a slam-bang story of adventure from the point of view of one of the major players in this point in history. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I can understand wanting to go with something like this instead of the story of Jurgen Warmbrunn (the only recognizable name from the book), which would have been a tale of...reports, and collating information. But the downside is that the middle third of the movie ends up being Gerry bouncing from location to location, punctuated by big action setpieces which feel, well, punctual, in the sense that they very clearly demarcate transition from one place to another, and it all feels pretty mechanical. This also serves to sap some of the tension from the film, because we start to know that it’s been X amount of time since something went really wrong, so here comes something bad...and that’s exactly what happens. If the filmmakers had trusted themselves enough to turn the volume down a little, to put more focus back on the people, it would have gone a long way.

On the other hand, I have to balance this against the positives that the film’s scope brings. Shuttling Gerry from place to place really does communicate the feeling that everything went to shit everywhere in a hurry, and the story doesn’t always take the turns that you think it’s going to, usually to a pretty fatalistic bent. It could have been so much more clichéd than it ended up being, and I like how they handled the idea of the zombies in the film - the rapid onset is something particular to the movie, and not typical for zombie films, but I think it helps underscore the idea that this really is a force of nature. Zombies are an overwhelming force in this film, appearing in packs that become hordes that become actual tidal waves, an insensate mass of appetite living only to propagate itself. When it works, it’s sort of breathtaking, And they work individually as well, in the tenser, quieter moments that dominate the last act of the film, the zombies are twitching, croaking, contorted things, entirely oriented by stimulus and unnaturally vital. They’re utterly lacking in humanity, and there’s nothing glib about confrontations with them - they’re ugly and scary and threatening. They’re as much a force of nature as sharks or wolves or avalanches or tsunamis, all things evoked by the representation of zombies here. It’s the sort of thing you need a blockbuster budget to pull off, and they do.

So it’s a tough call in the end. Sure, as a fan of the book there’s a part of me that sort of wanted to see key moments like the Battle of Yonkers or the formulation of the Redeker Plan or the reclaiming of cities once humanity regrouped, but I firmly believe that slavish devotion to the source material for the sake of the fans is a bad idea. So my problem is less with the lack of fidelity to the book than the imbalance between spectacle and human-scale conflict. It’s appropriately somber throughout, and the ending manages to avoid being a happy one without being gratuitously bleak. Sure, the second one has been greenlit (because of course it has), but I think I’m okay with that, because the sense I got throughout is that this is one story, not the only story. Maybe having introduced the idea with a lot of fireworks, subsequent efforts can tackle smaller, more intimate stories at all different scales. I know, I know, but a man can dream.

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Available on Netflix

Monday, July 28, 2014

Låt den Rätte Komma In: Boy Meets Girl, And Everyone Learns Something, Or Dies

Part of what I think is so funny about the continued insistence that horror film is some kind of separate genre, to be kept neatly away from the “thrillers” and even “dramas” of some types, is the way that otherwise straightforward stories are spiced up, seasoned with the trappings of horror to make something that gets more serious consideration. It’s as if it’s a sign that horror movies can be taken seriously after all, but only when it’s not so much a horror film per se as a drama or character study with some nods to the genre. Monsters, for example, is basically Before Sunrise with alien monstrosities littering an apocalyptic landscape. Not especially scary, but there are monsters.

And more than anything else, Låt den Rätte Komma In (Let The Right One In) is a tender coming-of-age story, that just happens to feature a vampire as one of the characters. It’s very humane in its observances, and it’s thoughtful, but I’m not sure if it’s actually horrifying, strictly speaking.

It’s primarily the story of Oskar. He’s a shy, sensitive kid who likes books and has odd interests, and accordingly is a target for bullies at school. He’s an easy mark, with “victim” written all over him. He is also a ticking time bomb - you can only bully a kid so long before he snaps, and though he hasn't snapped yet, we can see it from where he's standing. As the film opens, he's got a knife and he's practicing his tough-guy talk like a junior Travis Bickle. This is a kid who has been through a lot, and his parents - divorced - as is so often the case, don’t really seem to notice it. But there he is, looking at his reflection, rehearsing his revenge, using the language of his abusers against them in his imagination...for now.

And then a new family moves in next door. Well, it’s just a man and a young girl, a girl about Oskar’s age. They don’t socialize much, and instead of spending time down at the local pub, the man is busy papering over all the windows. He’s also preparing the tools of his trade - a funnel, an empty jug, a sharp knife, rope, and a tank for administering anesthetic gas.

As it turns out, the young girl - Eli - has some very specific dietary needs.

And so it goes, that quiet, shy Oskar meets quiet, shy Eli on the jungle gym in the little courtyard in front of the apartment building. He’s out there at night for lack of anything better to do, and so is she. They strike up a tentative friendship and really, it’s not all that different from any other friendship between two kids who aren’t getting what they need from the world around them. In some ways, Eli's situation isn't so different from Oskar's - they both have parents (or parental figures) who let them down, who fail to provide what they need (Eli blood, Oskar real attention), and it's in this that they forge a connection and begin to actually reach out to another person for the first time. Eli isn’t twelve like she looks - as she puts it, she’s been twelve for a very long time - but she’s not some creepy mature-beyond-her-years Anne Rice vampire doll either. She’s a kid, and she’s sort of been a kid forever, and a really lonely one for obvious reasons. Oskar’s a lonely kid too, and maybe sort of old for his age because he’s had to put up with so much with so little understanding from his family. His mom is overworked, trying to support Oskar without any help and so the little details of his everyday life slip by her. There are moments of connection and love between them, she’s doing the best she can, but she can’t juggle everything without something getting short shrift. Oskar’s father seems affable enough and seems to love his son, but it’s unclear whether he’s just irresponsible in that way where he likes spending time with Oskar just fine until something more interesting comes along, or if he’s an alcoholic. It could be both, it’s hard to tell since he’s not so much abusive as just sort of benignly neglectful of Oskar. Eli’s protector/guardian/whatever tries to get her blood to feed on so she doesn’t have to put herself at risk, but he isn’t very good at it, and this is her life (such as it is) on the line. They are - her peculiarities aside - two kids looking for in each other the love and care they aren’t getting elsewhere.

And really, in all of this, Eli is sort of the lesser of two monsters. The bullies who torment Oskar are what really threaten him, or are at least of what he is really frightened. The ways they torment him are acutely and sharply observed, immediately familiar to anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of playground abuse. The ringleader is a smirky little kid named Conny, and he has two sidekick types (because they always do), and together they make every day at school a minefield for Oskar. Honestly, my stomach tightened up more anytime they showed Oskar at school than when Eli was looking for blood. This is the real threat as far as Oskar’s concerned, and when Eli’s nature is irrefutably revealed to him, he seems more disappointed in or betrayed by Eli than anything else, like when you discover your crush is human after all (only she isn't and that's the problem). In either case, there's an escalation of stakes - it becomes clear what Eli needs to do to survive, and she gets more and more desperate with people starting to take notice, and even though Eli’s support gives Oskar the courage to fight back, striking back at the bullies only makes things worse, since as is often the case, Conny has an older brother who is even worse than he is, and these two worlds collide to awful result.

It might not be the most horrifying horror movie I’ve ever seen, but it is very well realized, full of careful, restrained detail. The world that the kids inhabit, away from adult attention, is believable throughout - even the bullies aren't cardboard villains. Conny is pretty much an unredeemable shit, but there are some misgivings on the part of the two sidekicks at how serious things are getting, even as they vacillate between discomfort and going along with things in the way that kids do, especially when they’re following a ringleader. Eli's vampirism plays out in little details - bare feet in snow, the reaction of animals, silence where there should be sound, and the actress manages to look both just as young as she is and simultaneously very old and very sick with only small help from effects. When it manifests more overtly, it can be startling, a reminder that oh yes, she is basically a monster and what does it say that this is Oskar’s closest friend? There’s a certain dispassion to the way the film is shot and how events play out - Eli’s violence and Conny’s are given equal footing, which makes the end a nice meeting of the two, but the disengagement makes it a film that engages the head more than the heart or gut, the kind that elicits golf claps rather than gasps. It’s very well-made, but there’s a certain heat missing (insert jokes about the cold and Scandinavia here). Ultimately, it's a monster movie but the monster isn't the point - it's the relationship, and how the monstrosity is just another condition to negotiate in the pursuit of connection that is the real point.

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