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.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Europa Report: Out Of The Blue, Into The Black

People sometimes talk about horror films being “chilling,” which is a nice way to somaticize the experience of being frightened. There’s a shudder, a sense of discomfort and abandonment. We don’t call it “being left out in the cold” for nothing. The cold is threatening to our survival, as the dark is threatening to our survival. But there are chills and then there are chills. There’s the sudden shudder that sweeps your body, sure, but there’s also the slow, creeping cold. The kind that sneaks up on you a bit at a time and sinks into your bones, until you realize that all warmth is gone.

Europa Report, set against the blackness of space, is an understated, well-executed example of the monolithic, all-consuming chill.

We are told that what we are watching is declassified footage from the first manned space mission to Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter. Data taken from the moon suggested the presence of water underneath its icy crust, and patches of high temperature. And where there’s water, there might be (or once have been) life. Oh, sure, they could send out another probe, or they could send experts capable of doing things a probe can’t in order to make the most of what is basically a one-shot mission due to its cost. So a crew of six astronauts boards the privately-financed Europa One to make the long, cold trek into the dark. It’s not clear what happened to the mission, but the footage has only been recently declassified, and the talking-head interviews with the mission director and one of the astronauts suggests that something went very wrong.

In fact, the first footage we see is mostly crew members asking what they’re going to do about something that just happened. Someone is missing, and they’re talking about what they should tell his family. It’s elliptical, but it’s very apparent that someone is missing. And they aren't even to Europa yet.

It’s not an especially shocking beginning, but this isn't a movie that trades in quick scares, really. It’s measured, and unfolds in fragments that aren't entirely linear, as befits the nature of deep space communication. We’re seeing footage that took a long time to get back to Earth, and as it develops, the mission had problems with its communications array, so we get bursts from different perspectives, jumping back and forth in time as one disaster after another besets the mission. The atmosphere (ha-ha) is nicely understated- these characters are all pros, used to keeping their head in an emergency and working in dangerous conditions. An air of quiet competence surrounds them, even when things are going badly, and we know almost from the beginning that the mission hasn't gone off without a hitch, even if it takes some time to really get a sense of what’s happened. Personalities aren't especially fleshed out, but they don’t feel like stereotypes either. These are people who have gotten used to working with each other, for good or ill, and the dynamic emerges, like everything else, bit by bit and piece by piece.

In some ways, the mood reminds me of the front half of Alien, though the crew is far less contentious with each other, and the films is less an escalation into terror as it is a slow undertow of dread, as one thing goes wrong after another. It's a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach that moves at a glacial pace, but never stops. It's not so much that nobody can hear you scream in space, as is it that it will take them months and years to hear it from where you are. It's a feeling of doom, abetted by the realistic scale of the whole mission and the relentlessness of an utterly hostile environment. 

The fragmentary nature of the narrative allows the filmmakers to play with our expectations a bit as well - it's worth keeping unspoiled, but there's a reveal in the third act that undermines a lot of our expectations for where everything is going, in a way that basically says "all bets are off" without really being a twist, per se. Basically the film, like the implacable dark of space itself, says that it doesn't matter what we want or what we expect - this is what's happening, this is why it happened that way, and this is the price we've paid for what we know now, as the narrative assembles itself and the last pieces fall into place, and the true cost makes itself known.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Mockingbird: Let Mysteries Exist

One of my least favorite things in horror film is over-explaining. A big part of what makes things scary is mystery, and often the more we know about the antagonist or the circumstances in which the protagonists find themselves, the less potential it has to frighten us. It’s certainly possible for revelation to be frightening, but when there’s this urge to sort of tie everything together into a neat package of history and rational and causation, at best it saps some of the horror out of the proceedings, and at worst you get the sort of pants-on-head ridiculous mythology and backstory emblematic of most extended horror franchises. It stops being about “oh shit what is happening” and starts being about “well, now this is happening.”

One of the strengths of Mockingbird is that it knows well enough not to overexplain.

It opens with a title card that says “Once Upon A Time, In 1995”, and a disturbing slow point-of-view shot that ends with a young boy screaming “I did what you told me! I filmed everything! I never stopped filming!” before coming to a bad end.

(Again, I find these sort of opening setup shots a little annoying because yes, we know bad things are going to happen, you’re not establishing mood here. But it’s not egregious, and makes sense later on.)

Then we cut to a point-of-view shot of layers of wrapping paper being removed from inside the package, and this resolves into a man picking up a video camera out of a box and showing it to his wife. It appears to be a prize from a sweepstakes she entered the last time she was at the mall. Having established that this film does not take place in a world of ubiquitous recording devices, the camera (a pretty big, bulky thing) is a novelty, and the man sort of films everything, taken with the idea of this new toy, while his wife gets their two children ready to spend the weekend with their uncle. There is an intertitle that reads “The Family.” Next, we meet “The Woman”, a young woman living on her own in a guest house on a large estate. She’s in school, feeling a little lonely in a new city, and she’s received a camera as well. She plays around with it for a while as well. Finally, we meet “The Clown”, a slovenly young man who appears to live with his mother and doesn’t seem like he’s got a lot in the way of prospects. He receives a camera too, and he seems to think that he’s going to win a contest.

Four people, three cameras, and they soon enough discover that the cameras won’t turn off - they keep recording no matter what they do. And then they receive instructions as to what they need to do next, and what will happen if they stop recording. And then the opening scene begins to make more sense.

It could be thought of as a found-footage movie, albeit one that neatly sidesteps the "why don't they stop filming" problem by making it impossible to stop filming even if they want to, but it doesn’t really feel like a found-footage film, because what we’re seeing is less presented as raw documentary or archival footage as much as point-of-view as storytelling conceit - we see what the various protagonists do in real time, and the constantly shifting perspectives within as well as between protagonists keeps everything immediate and disorienting. The action is periodically punctuated with intertitles, all presented in a red, white, and blue color scheme that echoes the clues and objects presented to the protagonists throughout. It all feels of a piece, like the point wasn’t so much to present the footage as a real record of something that happened than just a way for us to be as much in the dark as the characters.

And the film does do a good job of keeping us in the dark - the intertitles give us sort of an idea of what to expect, insofar as they serve to punctuate the proceedings and suggest that we’re about to see another setpiece or incident, but they’re phrased mostly in terms of games (Surprise, Guess Who, Now You See Me…, etc.) which essentially undoes whatever closure we get from the presence of the title cards. We know something is going to happen, but without being given any real indication of what it’s going to be. The entire film takes place over the course of a single night, and the escalating nature of what our protagonists are put through as the night wears on is kept nicely tense as a result. It really isn't clear what's going to happen next, although we have some idea from the opening that it isn't going to be good, and it’s really, really difficult to predict where it’s going to go. We’re just as much adrift as the people we’re watching or through whose eyes we’re witnessing what’s going on. In some ways, it’s what’s good about found-footage without any real need to maintain the level of verisimilitude necessary for found-footage to work.

There’s not a lot of characterization to be had here - the family love their kids, the woman feels lonely and vulnerable, the clown is pretty much a loser ready to abandon his self-respect for a chance at a quick buck - but this is one of those movies where the whole point is less who these people are, and more about pieces being moved around a chessboard, and while we're watching it, it works. Their feelings of fear and desperation are palpable to us because we’re seeing events through their eyes, but we’re also an audience, we’re outside observers, and as such it becomes clear to us that everything that’s happening is engineered for theatrical effect - it's just obvious enough that a lot of it is recordings and misdirection and props. But that isn’t a problem, if anything it makes things even weirder, and the point is trying to figure out where this is all leading. Because the film doesn't ever really show us the antagonists, or give us any insight into their motivations, or try to explain how they're doing all of this, it leaves us free to concentrate on the mystery, on the sense of not knowing what's going to happen next.

Arching over all of it is the slow realization that these four people are somehow connected to each other through this macabre game, and the film takes its time bringing them all together, carefully revealing what the connections are and how it’s all going to fit in such a methodical way that the ending only really becomes apparent a few minutes before it resolves itself. Even knowing that things aren't what they seem, we know it's not going to end well, and the end gives us one last stinger, one last mystery, before turning the cameras off, leaving us as much in the dark as anyone else in the film. Under close examination, it falls apart a little - it’s tough to believe the antagonists are really capable of doing what they did, and there’s no sense of why these people were chosen or what the purpose was, but it’s like the clown says: “Let mysteries exist.” Sometimes it's better when we don't know everything, because the twisting feeling that mystery gives us in our gut as we watch four innocent people twist in the wind is evocative in ways that hours of mythology and backstory never will be.

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Available on Netflix

Monday, October 27, 2014

Contagion: Going Viral

The whole idea behind me spending October looking at the horror of non-horror movies is, on some level, about tapping into broader things that we find scary and observing the universality of horror. As outlined in One Hour Photo and The Conversation, surveillance is scary - the idea that we’re being watched, that we don’t have any secrets. Now, I’d like to turn to the idea of disease and infirmity. If it’s frightening to learn that our lives are not our own, it’s even more frightening to learn that our bodies are not our own either, that biology can rebel against us. We are not even safe inside ourselves, the call is coming from inside the house. As killers go, disease is, I think, even worse than the biggest, scariest masked man with a sharp object. It’s invisible, it’s silent, and it’s everywhere all at once. It does its work quietly, and often by the time you figure out what’s going on, it’s too late.

Contagion is ostensibly concerned with one specific disease, but I’d argue that it’s really about two, and how they work together with lethal efficiency in ways that are actually pretty similar to how a slasher movie might work.

The film opens with a black screen, and a cough. Innocuous enough, we meet Beth Emhoff, a marketing bigwig for some large company. She’s in the airport, on the phone with somebody during a layover. The subtitle reads “Day 2”, and this lends it a sense of urgency right out of the gate. Something is happening, and it's already begun. It tells us that whatever we’re about to watch, we’re too late to stop it. The camera follows Beth’s hands as they handle a glass of water, her phone, it catches her coughing. She’s coming back home from a business trip overseas. She’s got a bit of a fever and a cough, probably picked up a bug on the airplane.

A fever and a cough turn into a higher fever, and seizures, and in a couple of days, Beth Emhoff is dead.

This is the point at which the other shoe drops. An autopsy reveals something very disturbing (“Should I call someone?” “Call everyone.”) even though we don’t know exactly what it is. The killer lies in shadow, the monster is hidden. The film takes on the point of view of a predator. There’s a focus on hands, handled objects, the movement of visibly sick people from place to place, the things and people with which they come into contact. We're watching a killer stalk its victims. We don't know what it wants or where it came from, just that it's lying in wait, and then the bodies start to drop. A cough, a fever, seizures, death. As sure and certain as a falling axe or machete or butcher’s knife.

The rest of the film follows multiple strands of action - the people from the CDC, overwhelmed by the enormity of their task and hindered by political concerns, an epidemiologist from the World Health Organization who ends up in over her head, the family of Beth Emhoff, who appears to be Patient Zero, and Alan Krumwiede, a conspiracy-minded blogger warning of the dangers of Big Pharma, touting homeopathic remedies with an eye on profit. All set against the backdrop of a country coming slowly to grips with this new, terrible thing.

What transpires over the course of the movie, then, is two different forms of viral transmission. The first is the disease, a biological virus, which moves from host to host, infecting, mutating, and killing. The second (as in The Conversation) is information, which is a memetic virus. Alan Krumwiede is Patient Zero for the memetic virus, introducing the idea into the public consciousness that homeopathic tinctures of forsythia cure the disease but the government (and Big Pharma) are keeping it a secret for reasons. This misinformation leads people to spend money on a useless remedy, ramping up demand to the point of riots and the looting of pharmacies that carry it. Krumwiede is an interesting character. It’s tough to pin down how much of his own bullshit he believes - he certainly seems sincere in his belief that the economics of disease treatment are driven by profit, manipulated by massive pharmaceutical companies for their own benefit, but he also seems perfectly aware that forsythia does nothing. He leverages the audience for his website as a tool to make money for people who manufacture homeopathic remedies as cynically as any pharmaceutical company. He wears a full-body protective suit to pass out flyers that say the government lies and that a cure exists. He plays all the angles, a craven opportunist blithely sowing discord and justifying it as the way of the world. I find him even more disturbing than the disease and the existence of people like him much, much scarier than Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees.

The two viral transmissions are the real killers here, but as in slasher movies, much also can be chalked up to human frailty. One man’s desire to protect his loved ones triggers a panic, ignorance of apparent danger infects others, bad decisions are made for good reasons, venality and pettiness hinder treatment, greed foments civil unrest. Just as human failings open people up to danger from masked men wielding sharp objects (it’s always the teens doing drugs and having sex who die first), so here do they give the disease a vector, a path to kill thousands upon thousands of people. Whether it’s how fragile our bodies are or how easily we are duped, how easily we panic, and how selfishness warps our thinking, we betray ourselves. The killer was inside the house the whole time.

It's not horror because death here isn't especially gory, just sad, and the dead don't rise up to walk again, but that's really all that separates this from a zombie-apocalypse movie. It's basically World War Z without the zombies. The deaths and the scale of the deaths are still there, people act selflessly to save others, selfishly to save themselves, they do the right thing and the wrong thing as they would in any horror film, and with the same result. It’s especially timely as the United States grapples with the presence of highly lethal ebola virus and a movement of people across the country decries the process of vaccination based on spurious logic and outright fallacy, leading to outbreaks of disease nationwide. The twin viruses of disease and misinformation do their deadly work, and isn't that horrifying enough?

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

This Week In Dumb Criticism

So, director Eduardo Sanchez has just released a new film - a found-footage Bigfoot film called Exists. This isn't really on my radar because I'm not big on Bigfoot films and I find myself getting pickier and pickier about found-footage films in general. So it's the sort of thing I'd give a miss anyway.

But that's not really the point. The point was that I found out about this film from a review on the Onion's A.V. Club site. The writer opens by pointing out that Sanchez was one of the directors who made The Blair Witch Project, a fine piece of filmmaking. Okay, fine. The writer doesn't like Exists, and though I find the criticism a little condescending ("the human meat isn't very interesting", "A number of movies use monsters as metaphors for larger ills, but Exists works best when it’s just offering up cheap thrills to match its intentionally (if still shoddily) cheap look."), what bugs me the most is the way the writer winds up their review by basically saying that Sanchez has ended up, and I quote, "a pretender to his own throne."

Which would make sense if Exists were Sanchez's return to directing after The Blair Witch Project, but it fucking isn't. In between his directing debut and his most recent film, he's made three other feature films and contributed a short to V/H/S/2. I've written about three of these four efforts here myself - Seventh Moon was interesting and atmospheric, if a little inert in some ways, his short from V/H/S/2 was kind of goofy and artificial, and Lovely Molly was fucking great, one of my favorite horror films from this decade. Sure, only the short uses the found-footage conceit, but that doesn't stop this writer from completely eliding this guy's interim creative output to put a smug little flourish on the end of his review. It's just amateur-hour shit, and as much as I like the A.V. Club for entertainment news in general, their treatment of horror has often been as predictable and patronizing as so many other mainstream outlets - unless, of course, it's a name director involved, in which case there's every chance it'll get a good review, because everyone loves a high-profile director slumming it. I don't know what I expected, but I at least think a cursory glance at Sanchez's IMDB page would have been in order before hanging the whole hook on the first thing the guy ever did.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Conversation: Signal And Noise

As I continue looking at horror in non-horror movies, I’m still thinking about the idea of surveillance that started with writing about One Hour Photo. Like that film, The Conversation is also about surveillance, but appearance is the least important thing going on here, either cinematically or thematically - it's not about what we see, but what we hear and consequently what we know. Information, not image, is the weapon of choice here.

The film opens on the titular conversation - a man and a woman walking through a park in downtown San Francisco during lunchtime. They're surrounded by other people, performers, musicians, the everyday noise and clatter of life in the city. We can't quite hear what they're saying, though - instead of naturalistic dialogue, what we hear is the output from a number of devices recording this conversation, with varying degrees of comprehensibility. Much of it, at least initially, is lost in garble, a noisy, lossy recording. There are men perched in high places with scoped directional microphones, looking like nothing so much as snipers. There are two other men on the ground - innocuous, middle-management types, wandering through the crowd, sitting on benches, carrying packages. As the couple talking weaves in and out of the crowd, their conversation weaves in and out of focus.

Somebody really, really wants to know what they're saying.

One of the innocuous men on the park benches is Harry Caul, surveillance and security expert. He's in business for himself, taking work from the government, law enforcement, and, in this case, private clients. He's careful, quiet, and intensely private, possibly because someone in his line of work knows just how fragile privacy is. Deeply serious, as religious about his work as he is about his Catholic faith, he's not somebody who lets anyone in as a matter of course. Harry’s been hired by the director of a large corporation to record what these specific people are saying during this conversation they’ve so painstakingly decided to have in a noisy public place. It has to be their voices, not a transcription, and the tapes must be delivered to the director and the director alone. And this is where Harry runs into trouble, when the director’s assistant insists on picking up the tapes instead. When Caul refuses, the assistant makes some vague threats, suggesting that Caul is in over his head - after all, he knows what’s on those tapes. And so Harry retreats to his workshop, where he takes the source recordings and goes back to work on them, peeling away layer after layer of noise and interference to try and reveal the horrible truths embedded in this apparently innocuous conversation.

As you might expect, there's an insistent strand of paranoia running through this film. Harry lives his life as if someone is trying to force their way in, whether it's getting into his apartment (his doors have multiple locks and alarms) or asking personal questions about his life. Even a harmless birthday gift moves him to cancel home delivery of his mail, and he lies about things like his age, simply so that no one person has the truth about him. Whatever motivated the job he's taken as the film begins, he's dealing with equally secretive people at a very large corporation, where a lot of money is at stake. His basic distrust opens up cracks, whether it's pushing people away from him, or attracting attention from forces within the corporation who want for themselves the tapes he's made of the conversation. As Harry continues working on the recordings, the film keeps returning to the conversation, with new layers of meaning revealed with every pass. Noise gives way to signal, obscurity gives way to meaning, and as Harry's comprehension grows, so does ours in a slow, but steady terror of discovery.

Much like visuals do a lot of the heavy lifting in One Hour Photo, sound does a lot of the heavy lifting here. Conversations are clear or obscured, and there's a lot of interplay between action and representation of action - life versus recording. And again, secrets are the point - in One Hour Photo, they provided a counterpoint to appearance, and here they act as currency, a medium for power and influence. This is neatly illustrated by an extended sequence of Harry interacting with a jealous rival, in which no physical violence occurs, and voices aren't even really raised, but knowledge, secrets, and recorded information serve as punches and counterpunches in a contest of dominance. This extends into visuals as well - people move in and out of obscured sightlines, talk to each other from behind the wire of a cage or the blurriness of plastic sheeting. Even Harry's name - Caul - is a word for a translucent veil of skin that covers the faces of some newborn children. Concealment and obscurity is everything.

It's not really a horror movie, no, but it uses the same tools of tension and release to achieve the same effect. The film is an extended slow burn, with everything playing out in small, gradually revealed details until the climax, which takes all of the tightly compressed anxiety and paranoia of what came before and explodes it outward in a single moment of sudden, shocking violence that carries the cathartic release of a scream and much more of a punch than any of the rote stabbings, impalements, or beheadings of your typical slasher film. Harry is right, there is something terrible happening here, and the revelation of what exactly that is forces its way into his life (and our attention) with exactly the same amount of violence as you'd attribute to a home invasion, and so living in Harry's world exacts a terrible price. It's deeply frightening, not just in specific events, but implication as well. Nothing and nowhere are safe.

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Available on Netflix 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

One Hour Photo: Image Capture

When I first started thinking about the idea of spending an October writing about non-horror horror films, I didn’t really think of it too much in terms of specific themes. It was more just thinking “hey, this is a film that is in its own way scary even though it’s not really considered horror.” But as I’m thinking through the films I want to write about, I’m starting to see some themes emerge. The first is the idea of surveillance.

Horror uses the idea of surveillance as a tool to build tension all the time - shots from the point of view of the antagonist are a time-honored way to signal that something bad is going to happen, and this idea is taken to its queasily logical extreme in the recent remake of Maniac, where it implicates us in the antagonist’s violence while at the same time making us feel helpless - we are seeing what the killer sees, but we cannot intervene. Omnipresent surveillance situations create a sense that your life and fate are not your own, that if every move is tracked, any attempt to escape would be futile. Whether it’s a supernatural creature or a killer or technology is irrelevant. It’s always a monster, ready to rob us of our lives, if only metaphorically.

One Hour Photo is putatively a thriller, so I’m maybe fudging my own non-horror thing here, but it’s by no means an obvious one. It’s a measured, smart take on the idea that appearances are deceiving - which is an easy thing to bungle by being too on-the-nose - and more importantly, the ways in which our apprehension of those appearances are in and of themselves a potential form of violence.

It opens with a shot of a camera, its lens staring back at us unblinking. The shot is held just long enough to make us uncomfortable. Nothing happens, just a single lens looking back at the audience. Even though it's a representation (an image of a camera taken by yet another camera) and not the real thing, that sense of being watched is palpable. It resolves with a video rendering of the actual image it’s seeing. It’s a man, having his mugshot taken. Something bad has happened, though we're not quite clear on the specifics yet.

The man is Seymour “Sy” Parrish, and he’s as quiet and mild-mannered as can be, which makes the detective’s statement that the photographs they took from Sy “aren’t very nice” even more puzzling. What could this man have done, that he’s being held by police pending the arrival of his attorney from Legal Aid? This sets the stage, and the clock is turned back to many days before this moment.

Before this moment, Sy works at Sav-Mart, a large WalMart-type megastore in the suburbs. He works in the photo department, where people drop off rolls of film and he develops them for quick pickup. Sy loves his job and take pride in it. He has all sorts of regular customers, and he pays attention to them. Among his customers is Nina Yorkin, by all appearances a reasonably well-off housewife. Nina is married to Will Yorkin, who runs a design firm, and they have a sweet, sensitive young son named Jake. Sy’s been printing their photos ever since they got married - their wedding, Jake’s birth, anniversaries, vacations, birthdays - all in vivid color. Nina drops off some film, and asks Sy for two sets of prints of each.

Sy prints three sets.

As it transpires, we discover that Sy is a very lonely man. He’s one of the last to leave at the end of the day, and after he stops for a late dinner alone at a diner where the waitress knows him by name, he takes the bus home to his nearly-empty apartment. Just him, a hamster, and the Yorkins’ photographic memories. There’s almost no there there, he’s a desaturated nonentity, and he lives his life through the Yorkins. As time goes on, Sy imagines himself more and more a part of their life, as if he were a close family friend, or perhaps a relative. He’s not a bug-eyed madman, he’s just lonely and doesn’t have much going for him, and the Yorkins’ life makes for a warmer, more colorful alternative. Of course, nobody’s life is as wonderful as it looks - even Sy himself points out that nobody takes a picture of something they want to forget - and as his obsession with the Yorkin family grows, so does the disillusionment as the cracks in their own fa├žade are revealed. Sy becomes angry with them, and starts to come unraveled.

So right off, we know this is a film about appearances, about form. Will works in design - his job is to attend to both form and function. He creates images. Conversely, Sy is a servant to images - it's his job to bring images of other people's lives into the world, and other peoples' lives are what he has instead of a life of his own. His own home is empty, devoid of any identity, save what Sy borrows from others. He hangs on to image the way a drowning man hangs on to a life raft, and over time begins to mistake the life raft for the life it’s supposed to save. When the life he’s imagined for himself fails to match up neatly with the reality of what it means to be Will, Nina, and Jake Yorkin, Sy can’t handle it. It’s all he has.

But that’s the most obvious aspect. Which isn’t to say that it’s not worth considering - Sy and the Yorkin family are largely painted with a great deal of sympathy and humanity, which isn’t typical for a film about someone’s obsession - it’s just not the most interesting bit. It’s not just about image, but also about the act of recording that image. Photographs are documentation, memorialization, but, the film argues, there's a predatory aspect to them too. Even discounting the largely apocryphal stories of indigenous tribes who believe that taking someone's picture steals their soul, think about the language - "image capture", "taking a picture", "shooting.” As Sy observes at one point, "snapshot" is a term taken from hunting. It's this idea that further helps to elevate the story above what could in lesser hands have been a painfully trite story about how not everyone is as happy as they look, ending with an important lesson learned. No, it's this idea of photography as an act of taking that gives One Hour Photo its low, humming undercurrent of tension and dread. We know something bad has happened when the film opens, and the more the film plays on the idea of being watched and of life moments ending up in the hands of someone to whom they don’t belong, the more afraid we are to see exactly where it goes

It's further supported by a strong attention to visual style - it's a film about image and appearance, and what we see communicates who these people are. The Yorkins are shot in warm, soft light most of the time, their ultra-modern house all rich browns and polished metal and tasteful sprays of color from flowers and Jake's art on the refrigerator. Sav-Mart is all sterile, gleaming whites and cold fluorescents, devoid of humanity, and both Sy's apartment and Sy himself are beige and washed-out to the point of near-colorlessness. The only color in Sy's life comes from the photos he has of the Yorkin family. The film is interspersed with photographic montage, recalled moments lit like photographs, replayed in slow-motion as if the moments themselves are slowing down to their final stasis, captured on film. Sometimes the photographs become scenes of their own as the line between life and its documentation, between your life and the life of others, begins to blur.

Even with all of this, though, it could have still been easy to fall into the trap of pat answers - the flip side to "they seem like this" is "but they're really like this" which risks reducing these characters to type, and the film neatly dodges this at several points. We're lead to expect events to go one way, and then they don't - it's not so much a twist as a sidestep. The Yorkins are a troubled couple, but it's never really clear exactly where fault lies - both Will and Nina make bad decisions, each has legitimate grievances, and when Sy's obsession finally overwhelms him and he acts out, the rage you expect from someone in his position is there, but it's shot through with raw pain that comes from a place much older than his fixation on the Yorkins. We expect someone who is obsessed to become angry when his obsession lets him down, but it's unexpectedly human, and the film's final moments unspool for us exactly how Sy became the kind of person who would take solace in the life of another, and feel so in thrall to photography as a way to capture, or take something. After all of the tension and fear and violence that has come before, it’s this awful confession that, in a few sentences, lays the idea that images are a form of violence out for the audience, not just naked, but flayed in its directness.

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