Friday, March 6, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Unavailable on Netflix

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Afflicted: Dude, Where’s My Humanity?

I’m not a huge fan of horror comedies, or maybe I just think of them more as comedies than horror. Mostly it’s because so many of them seem to hew to the Scary Movie-style broad parody that pokes fun at the laziest tropes and clichés indulged in by horror at its most rote and formulaic. That sort of wink-and-nod at the camera bugs the crap out of me, because it takes me out of the experience, that sort of “we all know we’re much smarter than this material, right?” just cuts what might be the best parts of the film off at the knees. I like my horror films played straight, in earnest. (I’ll make an exception for Scream, but that’s mostly because it really was played straight with the very specific exception of two characters.)

But I’m not really here to talk about horror comedy or ham-handed “subversion” via pointing out and mocking the obvious. I’m here to talk about Afflicted, which largely distinguishes itself by not falling prey to the obvious. It’s blackly funny, but not a comedy, and it does manage some subversion, but without being overly pleased with itself. It doesn’t do everything right, but it is in many ways a pleasant surprise.

We open on home video footage of Derek Lee and Clif Prowse at their going-away party. They’re old friends who are about to embark on a trip around the world. There’s something initially maybe a little irritating about them. Derek has just quit his IT job so he can take this trip, and Clif is a filmmaker who wants to document the whole thing and periodically upload their footage to a website documenting the trip so other people can follow their adventures along with them. So it really is, initially, sort of a story of privilege. Derek and Clif are two tech-bro types who have the sort of lifestyles that allow them to just quit their jobs and, you know, travel, and turn it into a travel blog. There’s a little of the blithe disregard for other cultures that punctuates the events in Hostel - especially at the beginning, when Derek and Clif meet up with some friends of theirs who are in a band, who just happen to be playing a gig...in Paris. There’s a definite frat-dudes-in-an-ad-for-a-new-Apple-product feel to it. You could see these guys setting up a Kickstarter for this experience and being really puzzled when nobody is really stoked to underwrite their months-long party.

That said, this is only our initial impression, and the filmmakers leaven these first moments with a certain amount of humanity. As it turns out, Derek has a life-threatening brain aneurysm, which explains his desire to get all bucket-list at this moment in his life, and it also plausibly explains his resistance to getting help until things get really, really bad, which, this being a horror movie, they will.

In fact, it’s while they’re hanging out in Paris with their beardy indie-rock friends that things go awry. The others are all desperate to get Derek laid, because that’s what bros do, and sure enough, Derek ends up chatting up (and making out with) an attractive woman at the club, and Clif is getting it all on tape (because that’s what bros do) until Derek and the woman leave. And of course, bros being bros, they head back to the hotel to see if they can actually document Derek getting some Parisian strange. And, you know, considering Clif’s plan is to upload their adventures for everyone on their website, this little detail feels both incredibly crass and completely plausible.

Sure enough, they get back to the hotel, and sneak in quietly. They slowly and carefully open the door...

...only to find Derek alone and badly bitten on some very bloody sheets. The woman is nowhere to be seen.

One trip to the hospital later, Derek feels a little weird, but that’s understandable given what he’s been through. His friends are worried because all he remembers is getting hit in the head and then waking up with his friends around him. He’s got an aneurysm, after all - is this going to affect him? And that’s when things start getting weird, as Derek starts...changing.

Clif is a documentarian by nature, and he’s already determined to document their trip, so he continues to do so. They came prepared to film everything with a fair amount of pro gear, so the omnipresence of cameras makes a certain amount of sense. The film eve opens up very much like you'd expect a documentarian to start a travelogue, with actual editing and post-production effects like you’d expect from someone with some filmmaking skill. And it’s not even really a selfish thing - Clif is Derek’s friend, and he’s acutely aware of Derek’s health situation, and he wants to memorialize this time they have together. You get the sense that it’s really less narcissism and more his gift to Derek. So what starts off as the wacky adventures of two globetrotting buddies becomes something else entirely as Derek’s condition deteriorates in strange ways, the footage becoming increasingly less polished the more dire the situation gets. There are some moments here and there where you say to yourself "would they REALLY be filming this?" but it's not egregious, and given that this is being uploaded for their friends and family, the footage refreshingly doesn't exist in a vacuum - the more people see, the more worried and horrified they become by what’s happening.

Unfortunately, it's a little obvious from the start that Derek is turning into a vampire - he develops an acute (and graphic) sensitivity to sunlight, he becomes stronger and faster, etc. - and that blunts some of the tension, because it's less "holy shit what is happening to him" and more "okay, so here's what's going to happen next." That said, it also makes for some nice, blackly comic moments, as Clif turns to the Internet for answers, much to Derek's quiet exasperation (the look on his face when Clif mentions “domain over certain classes of vermin” is wonderful), and in one of a few thrillingly kinetic sequences, Derek tries to outrun police while getting increasingly and vocally frustrated that they keep shooting him. It's not often that you get a first-person perspective on the impossible leaping and wall-crawling often attributed to vampires, but here it's very effective, and simple action sequences turn dizzying. There’s also something refreshing about Derek’s initial exhilaration. Not only is he not dead, but he can punch holes in rock walls and outrun cars. It’s intoxicating, the way he’s gone from living under a death sentence to becoming a superhero.

There's also a certain pathos to all of it - vampires here are not the doomed romantics of Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer novels. As his condition advances, Derek becomes sick, and miserable, and increasingly frustrated and saddened by the terrible things he keeps doing and keeps having to do. He holes up in an abandoned building in Paris, huddled on a concrete floor, and there's nothing elegant or beautiful about it. For the most part, just when Afflicted could make a really obvious choice, it tends to go for something a little less obvious, and that is very much to its credit.

Actually, the more I think about it, the film of which it reminds me most is An American Werewolf in London. It’s about two buddies abroad and then something awful happens to one of them. It mixes tension and dark humor and gore in a similar fashion, though it’s not quite as obvious as to put “Blue Moon” on the soundtrack. It's maybe not paced as well - the opening drags a little, then Derek's transition is really quick, and as things progress there are some lulls, mostly attributable to Derek's attempts to find answers to his condition (which means spending time with the "rules" of vampirism, which to me always detracts from the story), but there's enough good to balance the bad, and it ducks clichés enough to redeem the ones it embraces. It gives you a story familiar enough that the surprising choices really stand out.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
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Unavailable on Netflix Instant (Available on DVD)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Begotten: Stop Making Sense

Okay, so that’s enough winter vacation/hibernation/seasonal affective disorder for awhile, let’s get back to the business of saying words about scary movies.

Horror at its worst tends to be dreadfully literal (as opposed to literally dreadful, which is horror at its best), spending all of its time on details and information instead of feeling. It’s really difficult to scare someone by going through their head. You have to go through the gut, hit them with something that they feel, even if they don’t completely understand it. Some of the most iconic images in modern horror - Mike standing in the corner in The Blair Witch Project, a man in a bear costume in The Shining - don’t make “sense” the way a hulking figure in a hockey mask does, but they’re far scarier. Horror is really good at showing us things that set us squirming, kept apart from the cool light of logic.

Begotten is pretty much this idea taken visually and narratively to its furthest extreme. It shows us things without judgment, comment, or explanation, and the end result is supremely unsettling.

It opens with the phrase “Like a flame burning away the darkness, life is flesh on bone convulsing above the ground.” And in its own way, that’s probably the perfect encapsulation of what this film is about - it’s about the relationship between the flesh and the earth, told in light largely occupied with pushing back against the dark. It begins with a masked figure, in a ruined, ramshackle house. The figure is seated in a wheelchair, and the figure begins to disembowel itself with a razor. From its blood and entrails, a woman crawls.

And then it gets weird.

I know, it sounds like the set-up to a dumb joke, but this is a really difficult film to describe in anything resembling conventional terms. It’s so expressionistic and abstracted that it doesn't really make sense to talk about a "story" at all. It’s a sequence of images, events with something approaching an internal logic to them. If it's "about" anything in the conventional narrative sense, it's about the cycle of life, portrayed here as a raw, spasming thing subject primarily to ordeals and tribulations in its brief time upon the earth. Life rises from death, over and over and over again. 

On the surface, that’s not an especially horrifying conceit, though. I mean, that same idea can be expressed as “baby born in the immediate aftermath of some horrible event and gives hope to the survivors” and that’s not horror at all. But, as I said at the beginning, it’s not about the facts, it’s about the feeling. And this film’s cinematic aesthetic does an excellent job of making the “circle of life” completely discomfiting. The film is shot on black and white reversal film, which has the effect of eliminating grays almost entirely. This film is black and white, and pretty much nothing else. It’s made up entirely of stark images shot through with grit and visual noise, to the point that what we're watching is always just on the verge of decohering into mere shapes and streaks. It’s like a Rorschach blot come to life, always shifting, revealing something only to hide it, meaning constantly hovering just at the edge of awareness. We can sense what’s going on, even if we’re never quite sure of what we’re seeing. This disorienting visual palette is accompanied by an utter lack of dialogue, which has been replaced with ambient noise, chirps and gurgles and gasps and heartbeats and nature sounds. The end result feels like we're watching something impossible. Like a direct line to someone's nightmare or a primal creation myth in action, something that no camera should be able to capture, and yet here it is. Something about it feels ancient and arcane and sort of wrong. It bypasses reason and logic, and is all the more effective for it.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Shivers: The Social Disease

Think about Western culture’s metaphors for romance, attraction, and sex. A lot of them pivot around the idea of losing control, of going crazy, of surrendering to something larger than ourselves. It’s the little death, it’s getting lost in another person, it’s sweet surrender, it’s a bad case of loving them, it’s fever. Love, lust, and attraction are typically described like an external force imposed upon us. Well, what if that were the actually the case? What are the implications of that? If our loss of control, our loss of self was imposed on us from without?

Shivers (also titled They Came From Within) brings a nicely detached, clinical eye to this idea. It’s interesting, and definitely bold for its time, but as important as it is in a historical context for introducing us to the idea of body horror, as a piece of film, it doesn't hold up as well as it could have.

We open on a sales pitch for Starliner Tower - it’s a luxury apartment complex on an island near Toronto. It’s got all the latest modern conveniences - an underground parking garage, furnished apartments with brand-new appliances, tennis courts, a huge swimming pool, entertainment, shopping, and even medical facilities. If you don’t want to, you never have to leave the island except to go to work. Everything you could want in one place, the epitome of modern living circa the mid-70s. After we’ve been shown the slide show, we move to follow a young couple who are there for a tour.

Well, them, and an older man who is apparently in the process of strangling and dissecting a young woman in her apartment.

Things get pretty weird pretty fast in this movie, as it becomes quickly apparent what one of the big problems of Starliner Tower is. It’s a self-contained environment, sure - a self-contained environment in which things are bred and spread and attempt to be contained. The older man is a doctor, and he has been working on a very interesting bioengineering project for some time. The young woman, as it becomes clear, has served as sort of a vector for it in all of the ways you might expect of an isolated high-rise apartment community in the mid-1970s. It was the era of free love, when the rejection of conventional sexual mores had spread from the counterculture to the suburbs, the era of key parties and swinging and a rejection of the status quo that still managed to be firmly underpinned by deeply sexist assumptions about human sexuality. The suburban malaise of infidelity here has costs, in the form of a parasite that radically reshapes human behavior, turns people into mindlessly hedonistic creatures who want nothing more than to couple, to spawn, to pass the parasite along and replicate it.

This setup - a single location, locked down and isolated, and a threat that spreads easily and isn’t immediately obvious- can be an excellent formula for isolation and paranoia. Almost a cross between [REC], where limited opportunities for retreat and location in space play a very important role, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where anyone could be the enemy, threatening to assimilate you into a mass consciousness. These are potent ideas, but here it's not really fully taken advantage of. If everything you need is on the island, that's worth exploring, if everything you need is in this luxury building, that's worth exploring as the idea of a closed system that ends up being its own undoing, but it never really takes advantage of that by ramping up the paranoia or emphasizing the isolation of the people in this high-rise. It's a little stilted in its dialogue, and feels sort of airless. Scenes don't really follow naturally one from another as much as they each sort of happen in their own space and then get chained together. The acting is a little awkward and amateurish as well, which doesn't help in the dramatic stakes, though it (combined with the unmistakable aesthetic of 70s suburbia) does sometimes lend it, in modern viewing, the feeling of an instructional training film gone horribly awry, which is sort of an interesting vibe. It doesn’t really build up momentum or a crescendo - things happen, then more things happen, and then they happen at a faster pace and it gets frantic, and then it’s over. The ideas are there, they’re just sort of sloppily executed.

And it’s really too bad, because those ideas are really provocative. Shivers is a movie about a parasite that subsumes all other feelings to that of sexual arousal, engineered in the hopes of making people less rational and more intuitive, more sensual. It’s like someone took this lesson from the counterculture and almost weaponized it - liberation as tool of mass oppression. That’s because the way it’s portrayed in the film, there's nothing really hedonistic or titillating about it. It's an ugly, invasive process, and people afflicted act more like, well, hosts to a parasite with its own agenda than people perpetually turned on. They are just masses of grunting, writhing flesh, as devoid of humanity as the things inhabiting them. The really interesting expression of this idea comes in late, as one character under the control of the parasite describes her belief that all flesh is erotic, all life processes - including death - are sexual, and disease is just the love of two alien creatures for each other. It's a daringly dispassionate look at the body and desire (one the director would explore to far greater success for the majority of his career), and especially interesting given this movie was made in the 1970s, when much of the hedonism (and casual sexism) that emerged from the counterculture had gone mainstream. The era of "free love" is a really interesting thing to characterize as a parasite spread from host to host, reducing human beings to insensate bodies in perpetual rut. It's just too bad it isn't more persuasively conveyed.

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Available on Netflix

Friday, December 5, 2014

In Fear: Going Around In Circles

It’s useful to talk about narratives in terms of motion and travel - a story progresses from one point to another, action rises and falls, events gain momentum. When the narrative’s sense of motion and travel is married to actual motion and travel in the events of the film, in some ways it sort of makes the job of thinking about the movie easier. We can tie the actual journey to the metaphorical one.

In Fear, at least initially, explores the same set of ideas at both the narrative and thematic level. It’s a movie about travel, about a journey, and what happens when the journey goes awry. It’s a movie about getting lost, and unfortunately, that ends up being true at every level.

We open on a voiceover - a young man named Tom is calling a young woman named Lucy. They met a couple of weeks before, and maybe there was something there. There was at least enough promise to him that she gave him her number. He fumbles over inviting her to a music festival in rural Ireland, and she picks up the phone and accepts. So we pick up with them finishing up at a pub - Lucy in the restroom, Tom walking out - before they get back in the car. He’s booked a hotel for them to stay in for the night instead of driving right to the festival, and this puts Lucy off a little - he’s springing this on her, and they just met, and yeah, it’s a little forward. The whole point of the music festival is that it wouldn’t be just the two of them, they’d be among friends and now he wants a little alone time first. You get the sense that Tom thinks it’s romantic, and Lucy thinks it’s a little inappropriate. They haven’t known each other very long, so there’s a sense of awkwardness there. Each of these people is very new to the other, and you sense that they have very different expectations. A car from the hotel meets them in front of the pub to guide them to the hotel, and off they go.

Adding to the tension of these two new-to-each-other people is something that apparently happened back in the pub. Lucy got hit on by the barman, who called her a “fine, strong-looking young thing.” Which is right up there with “good breeding stock” as shitty complements go. Tom apparently got into some kind of altercation with some other people while Lucy was in the restroom, but it isn’t clear what happened. Neither of them really want to talk about it.

So they follow the guide car through the winding country roads, past trees and fields upon trees and fields. They come to a sign with additional directions to the hotel, and the guide car drives off down a side road. They turn left, they turn right, they come to dead ends. They backtrack, follow the signs again, end up where they started off. Tom and Lucy are lost, and the sun is going down.

The sun is going down, and they are being watched.

It’s basically a story about two people in unknown territory, both emotional and geographical. To that end, it starts off as a nicely spare, deliberate story filled with slowly mounting tension. There are a lot of mysteries here - Tom and Lucy are mysteries to each other, it is a mystery what actually happened between the two of them and the locals back at the pub, it is a mystery how they managed to follow direction signs and end up completely stranded in the middle of the Irish countryside, and it is a mystery who the fleeting figures dogging their every step are. Almost everything here is an unknown quantity. The majority of the film is on the shoulders of just two people, and they do a pretty good job of being a couple that's barely a couple - it’s only two weeks they've been "together" so everything is fragile, especially since only Tom is even thinking of them as being together. Lucy very obviously hasn’t made up her mind yet. As their situation gets worse and worse (and weirder and weirder, which it does), their connection frays further than the initial misunderstandings, but it’s to a believable degree. The interaction between the two of them feels exactly like what you’d expect from two relative strangers thrown into a frightening situation, with all of the potential for frailty and betrayal that implies, but without really descending into histrionics or caricature. They do a lot with little looks, small shifts in tone of voice, in choice of words.

In fact, one of the film’s strengths is the degree to which it is able to rely on small moments. First Tom and Lucy are awkward, then they are getting lost, then night is falling, and then they’re faced with all of the shadows and twists and turns of the country roads, then they begin to see half-glimpsed figures, and so on. It takes its time to set things up, and it makes for a good slow burn. But then, in the third act, when some of those initial mysteries get resolved, it swaps that simmering tension for something sharper and more intense. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in doing so it loses its footing. The majority of the film is highly ambiguous - it’s not clear where the threat lies or who is tormenting them. Any number of different things could happen, but as the possibilities are narrowed down, as the ambiguities resolve, the pacing ends up getting thrown off, and the final reveal doesn’t emerge all that organically from what has come before. So, when it should be at its tightest and tensest, when their situation should be revealed as something deliriously worse than it already is, it ends up losing steam, burning off all of that accumulated anticipation in a series of somewhat connected setpieces that deflate a lot of the mystery right when things should be hitting maximum what-the-fuckness. The story spins its wheels, as do the characters, who go from braving the relative safety of their car to explore their surroundings to potential victims yanked from location to location, as if the filmmakers are trying to wind everything up and pay off everything they’ve set up, whether it makes sense to do so or not. The film, quite simply, begins as a set of unknowns, and ends up lost. There’s a certain metanarrative elegance to that, but it makes for a disappointing film.

IMDB entry
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Available from Netflix

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Jug Face: Old-Time Country

You know who routinely gets a raw deal from horror film? People who live in the country. Going all the way back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, people who live out in the sticks, the boondocks, the middle of nowhere, etc. are routinely portrayed as debased and subhuman. Sadistic at the very least, often cannibals, inbred to the point of monstrosity. Maybe it’s because the country is shorthand for the unknown, the place where you can’t find your way back, the place where your cell phone can’t get a signal. The place where you are lost. Don’t get me wrong, it’s tremendously effective, this sense of being out of your depth and at the mercy of those whose world it is. At its best, it’s terrifying, and at its worst it’s one more tired cliché.

That said, it can be a problem. Horror film, like any other creative work, cannot be separated from the cultural context in which it occurs, and painting an entire swath of a country’s population as nasty, brutish, pig-ignorant monsters over and over again is, well, a little creepy. Even when it’s the noble, stoic dignified country folk of We Are What We Are, well, they’re still doing awful things in the name of tradition, in the name of the “old ways.” It’s the same shit, just in nicer clothing.

In this regard, Jug Face is interesting. Like the aforementioned We Are What We Are, it deals with traditions, the old ways, and what happens when youth insists on defying them. But this isn't the stately country of We Are What We Are, this is squalid and ramshackle and at least in the beginning, uncomfortably cartoonish. But that changes as it's made clear what's at stake, and what begin as tired redneck tropes clarify over the course of the film into wickedly sharp commentary on the desperation of life as the rural poor and how things that seem monstrous from the outside might be the only way to survive.

The opening credits are done in the style of folk art, describing silently the life cycle of a rural community. They tell us who and what this community is - what's important, what their rituals are, how life goes on in these woods. A man spins clay into a person’s likeness, that person is chosen to go to the pit, where their blood is spilled, where they are given to the pit, and so life goes on. Life revolves around the pit, as it always has.

Our way into this small community is Ada. We meet Ada as she’s running into the woods, chased by a handsome young man. They seem like two young lovers, stealing a moment for a kiss. This is our first impression. This is our romantic impression. But there’s not a lot of room for romantic ideas in these woods. The young man is her brother, and he half-cajoles, half-forces her into sex with him. You get the sense that they’ve been doing this a long time, and that it’s mostly based on him wanting to fuck her whenever the mood strikes him. Ada puts up with it more than anything else. Their return to the community (it can’t even be called a town - it’s just a loose collection of shacks and run-down trailer homes in the middle of the forest) brings more bad news: Ada is to be married (well, “joined”) to another young man. It’s already been arranged between their fathers, as it has been since olden times.

Ada doesn’t want to marry this other boy. She loves her brother, even if they can never, ever speak of what they’re doing (to its credit, incest is frowned upon here). But the bad news keeps coming. As it turns out, Ada is pregnant (and of course, her brother denies any culpability or responsibility for it), and the bad news keeps coming - Dawai, the community’s oracle of sorts, has spun a new “jug face” - a likeness of someone in the community to be given to the pit.

The face is Ada’s.

Needless to say, Ada isn’t thrilled with the idea of dying, and she buries the jug out in the woods. But that’s not how sacrifices work, that’s not how the pit works, and soon, people start to die, as they will continue to die until the pit gets what it wants, as it always has.

At first, Jug Face hits all of the worst stereotypes of the rural poor - there’s incest, living in trailers and shacks, selling moonshine to get by, all kinds of dialect and antiquated traditions, and to be honest, I almost turned it off in disgust when Ada’s father picks up some roadkill to save for dinner. It starts out awfully close to ugly caricature. But, as the movie progresses, these people become less caricatures and more people living in a very specific and difficult set of circumstances, and the young woman who wants to break with those traditions isn't a free spirit looking to move her community into the 21st century, she's scared and selfish and keeps running away from her responsibilities and obligations. Normally this causes problems anyway, but here, the problems are on the scale of people dying suddenly in messy ways, their spirits damned to haunt the forest forever and never know peace. No matter what Ada does, there's no reasoning or bargaining or ducking around the truth - until the pit gets what it wants, people will die. 

The methods these people have for dealing with people who violate the rules are harsh and brutal - from sudden, sharp episodes of ugly domestic violence to public flogging - but it's because they live on a knife's edge and death is omnipresent, like the clockwork ticking of some unknowable beast. The choice they have is this: Give up one person every full moon, or lose as many people as it takes before the sacrifice is made. There is always death, this is the price of life, and because life is precious, this bargain is enforced very strictly. Life in the country is hard, life when you’re poor is hard. Both together are unfathomably hard, and the pit becomes a metaphor for a pitiless human condition. This life will consume the young and the old, arbitrarily and suddenly. Defiance of this fact causes nothing but further suffering. 

The film does a lot with a little - spare, clean cinematography and good use of light go a long way, as do the repeated use of specific colors to articulate what's happening and some tasteful CGI is employed for the more supernatural elements that these people accept as their lot. It's never too much, it doesn't get overplayed or look overly artificial. It’s just enough to tell us that this is how it is, and how it has always been.This is a small community of people kept alive by hewing to some very old traditions, and they don't play by the rules the rest of us do. They probably would if they could, but the pit wants what it wants. The pit heals, the pit provides, and so when the pit wants blood, you’d better provide it.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Taking Of Deborah Logan: Forgetting Who You Are

Demonic possession stories go hand-in-hand with disease narratives. They’re the more spiritual cousin of body horror, where in both instances our bodies (and minds) become less our own over time, much in the way that the progress of degenerative diseases robs us of our ability and identity and dignity over time. They’re scary because they both tap into a loss of agency and identity that is damn near primal as fears go. Historically, many of things we define as mental illness today were once thought to be demonic possession, so it makes sense that most modern possession stories would begin as failures of the medical model. In The Rite, possession is treated as a long-term degenerative illness, complete with progressive symptomatology and the expectation that it will be managed, with periods of activity and remission. The Devil Inside takes a more conventional narrative approach, where possession is mistaken for disease, and the arrogance of medicine ends up costing the protagonists a great deal. Whether it’s a virus or a demon, it’s inside you, and it’s robbing you of your life.

The Taking Of Deborah Logan takes a slightly different tack, hiding the presence of an evil spirit behind the symptoms of a more conventional disorder. It’s an interesting approach, and the film starts strong before collapsing under the weight of its own narrative expectations and constraints.

A title card presents the film to us a priori as a documentary - or at least as a collection of footage taken from a documentary, along with surveillance video and whatever other sources the filmmakers were able to curate. We get the sense that what we are seeing memorializes an attempt to make a documentary - an attempt that went wrong somehow.

We open on Mia. She’s a young medical student who is, for some reason, making a documentary about Alzheimer’s disease and its effect on caregivers as a culminating project for her degree. To this end, she’s contacted Sarah Logan, who is taking care of her mother, Deborah. Deborah’s the sort of woman someone would describe as a “tough old bird”, very concerned with manners and propriety and remaining independent. She’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and is still struggling with what it means to have this disease. The dynamic between Sarah and Deborah is interesting, and one of the best parts of the movie’s first half. Sarah’s agreed to this documentary because money’s tight and they need the compensation. Deborah doesn’t like the idea, though, of having her helplessness documented on camera. She raised Sarah by herself and doesn’t like the idea of needing anybody, so there’s a push-and-pull added to what’s obviously already a very fractious relationship. Deborah doesn’t approve of how Sarah lives her life, and Sarah’s running herself ragged trying to manage her mother. Things are tense, and the addition of the film crew just makes things tenser. But Deborah agrees, and Mia, along with her crew Gavin and Luis, bunk down in the Logan household, setting up surveillance cameras and living onsite to capture everything.

It isn’t too soon after they arrive that things start to go awry. Deborah’s disease is progressing quickly - unusually so - and her behavior becomes increasingly erratic. She forgets things from the day before. She starts to believe people are hiding her things. She goes out into the backyard in the middle of the night to claw holes in the earth with her bare hands.

She begins talking to herself while staring into a mirror, begging some unseen figure to “let it stop.”

Like I said, it’s an interesting tack- it’s one thing to mistake what is obviously (to the audience) demonic possession for disease. That goes all the way back to The Exorcist. It’s another to hide possession behind the symptoms for an actual disorder. Of course Deborah is behaving erratically. She’s got a degenerative neural disease. The idea is that things get weirder and weirder until they become impossible to explain in terms of modern medicine. That’s fine. The problem is less with the story this film has to tell, and more with how it chooses to tell it. For something that’s relying on the mask of sanity and plausibility to sneak in the supernatural and trying to buy our goodwill with narrative verisimilitude, it doesn’t do a great job of selling the story it’s trying to tell.

It tries to establish narrative legitimacy through a found-footage approach, with its opening title card and the visual markers of hand-held and surveillance cameras, but it's never quite clear what the purpose of this collection of footage is or who it is for. If we’re watching a documentary intended for an audience, it’s entirely too sloppy. If we’re watching raw footage, why is there occasional background music? Part of making found-footage work is locating the footage in a specific type of documentary context, and this film sort of bounces back and forth between contexts as convenient for effect. In fact, by the halfway point, the idea that we're watching archival footage is pretty much abandoned for essentially conventionally-framed shots ostensibly taken from different sources of footage. It might as well have been a conventionally shot film, and probably would have been all the better for it, because the found-footage premise is stretched thin enough here to take you out of the film. 

And on the topic of verisimilitude, it also doesn't help when medicine features pretty strongly in the central narrative and many of the details don’t actually ring true for modern medicine. You have doctors talking about "split personality syndrome", something that Dissociative Identity Disorder hasn't been called in decades by medical professionals, if ever. Mia says she’s making this film for her “PhD thesis”, but she’s a medical student, so she’s a candidate for an MD, not a PhD. Even if she were a psychiatrist, it would be an MD she earned. I’m not a medical doctor, but I’m not aware of a culminating research product being necessary for an MD. And when you do present a culminating research product in fulfillment of a doctoral degree, it’s typically called a dissertation, not a thesis. And why is it a film, and not a scholarly paper? I’m not a gigantic fan of nitpicking-as-criticism, but this really reads to me like the writers didn’t do some very basic homework beforehand, and again, it takes you out of the film. That, or Mia doesn’t know what she’s talking about and she’s making the whole thing up, which could have been a cool twist, but nope.

The pacing is all over the place as well. The idea is that Deborah is degenerating slowly because she has Alzheimer's disease, and things start off subtly enough, but as things get worse, they start getting piled on pretty quickly. It’s not so much a decline as a sharp, rapid drop that isn’t well-accounted for by the passage of time In addition to her decline, we have the paranormal goings-on and that’s fine, but there are also hints of some hidden family secrets, and it all just ends up being too much for the narrative to carry. There are so many pieces to the plot that an explanation for the majority of what's really going on is sort of dumped on us about halfway through, in a huge glob of exposition that stretches believability by piling an entire mythology into maybe ten minutes' worth of film (to the point that one of the protagonists says "oh yeah, I'm surprised you haven't heard of this”, and then cues up a documentary-within-the-documentary to explain to them - and us - what's really going on) instead of letting the story either emerge more naturally or maybe finding a different way to explain things that doesn't require its own movie. It’s just a ton of detail and backstory crammed in in as inelegant and artless a fashion as possible, right up there with the sudden appearance of a professor to explain the entire history of the demon in Sinister. This isn’t the story of one woman’s struggle to remain in her own mind and body anymore, it’s the staging ground for yet another bogeyman, and it feels cheap.

It doesn’t help that most of the characters aren't especially sympathetic either - Mia is opportunistic from the start, lying to Deborah and Sarah to make them feel more at ease with no apparent compunction (which would be a pretty big ethical breach), her two cameramen are both unprofessional assholes, and Sarah, probably the most sympathetic person in the film, is a woman obviously pushed to the end of her rope by the strain of caring for a mother with whom she obviously has a very complicated relationship. That relationship would have been a really interesting thing to explore more, and could have been a way to get into the ideas of family secrets and provide some context outside of an exposition dump, but in the back half of the film it sort of gets sidelined and all Sarah gets to do is run around and yell a lot.

Which is too bad, because there are definitely some good ideas here. It starts strong enough, and for once the paranormal party isn't Satan or someone like that, which gives the whole thing an interesting twist and provides some really striking imagery - but the filmmakers tried to do too much all at once. They could have told a lot of the story through inference, spreading out necessary information through the whole of the film, and maybe made the central beat the slow mutual disintegration of Deborah and Sarah, pushing things into stranger and stranger territory instead of basically abandoning those factors halfway through to try and shoehorn in a bunch of complicated backstory. Deborah wants to be who she is, not what’s colonizing her, and she struggles against her worst impulses only to fail. The film essentially does the same thing.