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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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.

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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.

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.

IMDB entry
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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?

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