Saturday, July 28, 2012

Hotel (2004) dir. Jessica Hausner

Logline: Irene, a reserved young woman, takes a live-in job at a hotel in the German countryside and soon discovers that the girl who previously held her position disappeared suddenly without giving notice. While attempting to discover what happened to her predecessor, Irene encounters the quiet hostility of her co-workers, learns of the legend of a local witch who once lived in a cave, and finds herself drawn deeper into the woods...

Germany and Austria have had a spotty history with horror films. Though the German Expressionist movement gave birth to cinema's first great horrors (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem (1920), Nosferatu (1922)), the country's horror film history has been colored since then by its sparsity. The Krimi films of the 1960s dabbled in the horrific (bloody murder committed by zany, perverse masked killers), but the 1970s featured an almost total lack of original German or Austrian productions. (Germany did, however, co-finance other European horrors, including several Italian gialli and more than a few of Jess Franco's films.) In the 1980s through the early 1990s, an underground gore movement began in Germany, resulting in fare like The Burning Moon (1982), Nekromantik (1987), and Violent Shit (1987). Since then, all has been quiet.

The exception is Jessica Hausner's Hotel, an exquisite, subtly menacing film that--lacking a cinematic heritage--finds its roots in a different art form with a long tradition in Germanic cultural history: the fairytale. The fairytale influence is understated but always present. Here we have, at its simplest (which is not to call the film itself simple), a cautionary tale about an innocent seduced by evil temptations and gobbled up for her transgressions. We have the folksy rural setting, a witch living in the forest, and a lucky pendant that (the film strongly implies) provides physical protection. Some of the fairytale symbolism is overt: Irene, decked out in her red hotel uniform and sporting the missing employee's red-framed eyeglasses, looks as if she's on the way to Grandmother's house, while her new, local lover--smiling widely and lasciviously as they ride the elevator to her room for some late night rule-breaking--has some awfully big teeth. Irene is repeatedly drawn to the forest, despite its dangers, outside of the cold, sterilized modern protection of the hotel (dangerous in its own way, perhaps), her curiosity leading her to an inevitable end. We receive the sense that the forest and its purported witch have a long tradition of swallowing up fallen innocents (Irene discovers the name of the missing hotel employee, along with the names of several other young women and their lovers, carved into the bark of a tree outside the witch's cave), and that Irene could not put a stop to her metamorphosis into this fairytale archetype even if she desired to-- which, of course, we're not sure she does.

The film's pacing, visual style, and sound design are entirely its own. Long, brooding shots of poorly-lit vacant lobbies, corridors, and rooms are filled with the creaks and hums of a location with horrid vitality slumbering in its very foundations. A regularly-repeated audio motif of sourceless screams echoing from the trees punctuates the forest's timeless menace. The hotel and its surrounding forest have the ability to create endless walls of shadow at will, beckoning Irene to probe their depths and borders. All of the film's technical competencies converge to produce a terror without release, almost unbearable in its relentlessness. At scant over an hour, any complaints over the film's lack of action (eg. "NOTHING HAPPENS!") are absurd and issue from a shallow reading. Hotel is a piece of modernized folklore at its finest, as ambiguous as it is ambivalent, and sodden with a brand of creeping unease that contributes mightily to its veritable feast for the film-going senses. The fact that it has taken me this long to even hear of the film is inexcusable, but points toward the film's need for increased awareness from the horror community.

Despite my belief that most dedicated horror viewers and scholars would appreciate what's being offered here, Hotel also exists as a fairly unique film in genre cinema. One can't even make critical connections between it and other films without sounding convoluted: it's as if, halfway through filming Hotel Monterey, Chantal Akerman decided she'd rather make Polanski's The Tenant infused with the mythological ambiguity of The Blair Witch Project. I suppose someone could attempt to make the case for the film transcending its genre trappings, but doing so would seem to be missing the point. Hotel, along with other recent European horror films like Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day (2001) and Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani's Amer (2009), is working towards reconfiguring the genre, shirking high concepts, body counts, and typical frights in favor of reducing horror to its fundamental, archetypal essence. (That these films are being created primarily by female directors is all the more exciting. In the long history of horror cinema, women have rarely been at the helm, and the fact that these three women have been independently responsible for three of the strongest horror films of the new millennium serves to demonstrate what a colossal loss it has been by keeping horror a boy's club). If these films have the sort of influence that I hope they will, we could be looking at a new European horror renaissance-- one fueled not by the lengths to which the films will go to shock, as do those entries of the regrettable New French Extremity*, but by the desire to give expression to those fears that lurk down in the very depths of the human condition.

*Denis' Trouble Every Day has long been--I feel erroneously--linked to the New French Extremity. If you need me to explain the differences between what Denis' film is doing and what something like À l'intérieur (2007) or Martyrs (2008) is aiming for, well, how about this: Trouble Every Day brings the themes of monstrous sexuality hinted at in Harry Kümel's Daughters of Darkness (1971) to a boil, while À l'intérieur and Martyrs are content to throw gallons of blood onto the screen and entice their actors to never stop screaming.

Friday, July 27, 2012

[REC] 3: Genesis (2012) dir. Paco Plaza

Logline: A sequel/prequel/something-or-other to the two previous times that a couple of cameras got trapped inside a quarantined building chock full of demon-possessed zombies. This time out, a wedding reception gets iffy when the guests start trying to chew each others' faces off. Will the newlyweds arrive at the airport in time to catch their flight to the honeymoon? Will there even be a honeymoon? Discover the answer to neither question (but do discover your tolerance for pain) in [REC] 3: Genesis.

A short time ago, I imagined that if the world was just, kind, and fair (as we so often hope it is despite the evidence), then The Devil Inside would be the worst horror film I would see this year. The world, ever-willing to let me writhe in agony from the moderate comfort of my couch, bestowed upon me Paco Plaza's [REC] 3: Genesis soon thereafter. The Devil Inside is a pointless string of video images shoddily crafted for the sole purpose of generating ticket sales that dwarf its production budget-- this makes it a contemptible work, I'm sure we can agree. On the contrary, [REC] 3 is an idiotic film, all too confident in its nonexistent wit and charm; a film not only alienating to fans of the series' previous entries, but also assuredly daft to even those souls latching on to every insignificant entry in the past decade's zombie boom. It's a film whose motives are entirely perplexing, fashioning a wildly uneven end-product capable of eliciting no more than groans less passionate than those of the shambling undead. I despise and have no respect for a film like The Devil Inside; I can only pity [REC] 3.

So the biggest issue is the film's tone. While the two previous [REC] films (which I've enjoyed to varying degrees), busied themselves by being no more than relentless P.O.V. roller-coaster rides, [REC] 3 decides that it will be a horror comedy of the zany, gross-out variety (its obvious touchstones being Dead Alive and The Evil Dead, though its mundanity and graspings for emotional resonance mark it as an ill-advised attempt at Shaun of the Dead-level comedy). It's fair to assume that this switch-up of the series' M.O. would be off-putting even if the switch were largely successful (imagine if, after Parts 1 and 2, the producers of the Friday the 13th series then jumped straight to Jason Goes to Hell for their third outing). But the comedy that fuels the film (if we dare call it comedy) is roughly as subtle as the electric mixer that our heroine shoves into the mouth of a zombie in the third act. Whenever it's obvious that we're supposed to laugh (such as during the several low angle shots offering us deliberate peeks up the bride's torn dress, or when a Child Entertainer named Sponge John (copyright issues, he repeats) is forced to evade the zombie horde in his bow-tie-adorned sponge costume because he's not wearing anything underneath), its humor falls somewhere below the lowest common denominator. On most other occasions, it's unclear what reaction the film is aiming for-- when the new husband lops the arm off of his infected wife and she tells him immediately after that she always knew he'd make a good father, are we intended to chuckle? It hardly matters when considering that we never feel the urge to, but even so: why then continue that climactic scene by tossing in false and cloying emotional notes and resolving the whole bloody affair as a bullet-riddled melodrama? The parts don't mesh, and each part would produce a dreadful-enough film on its own. Those first two [REC] films, if nothing else, were at least visceral and frightening. [REC] 3 is just goopy, and it can't figure out the proper pronunciation of "boo!" Our heroine wields a chainsaw and our hero dashes around in a protective suit of armor, and somehow [REC] 3 is still devoid of charm. Looked at in one way, that's an accomplishment.

Putting aside its narrative failings, it's also one of the more annoying recent examples of a film exploiting the found footage aesthetic without bothering to commit to it. The initial two [REC] films were found footage through-and-through, even if they never bothered to divulge how the footage was recovered (it didn't matter-- those [REC] films used the FF aesthetic not because of its storytelling potential but because of where it placed the viewer in relation to the action on screen: as a part of it. This is a different approach from most other FF films (even those that are exclusively P.O.V.) and it produces an effect akin to those motion theater rides I used to go on at the local Funscape, or (as a reference for anyone who is not me) Disney World's Star Tours). [REC] 3 needlessly stamps out on the found footage route for approximately twenty minutes before having one of its characters smash the camera in disgust at the operator's contrived rationalization for continuing to film (a staple of the genre: "people need to know what happened here!") and quickly transforming itself into the traditionally-lensed, cliched zombie comedy I've already described. It makes a few momentary relapses into FF by way of security cam footage and helpful night-vision navigation, but it never attempts to attain its predecessors' immersive effect (little of the zombie carnage occurs in the FF sections). If Plaza (co-director of the first two films and sole director here) is so determined to separate his film from the aesthetic that dominated the previous entries, why remind viewers of how much better they were by including and then disposing of such a blatant visual reference back to them? (Even the sequel to [REC]'s American remake, Quarantine 2: Terminal, knew not to make this mistake). Is Plaza's more-than-figurative smashing of the camera supposed to imply that his traditional approach is better? An awfully misguided assumption if so. Regardless, it's not as if adding a shaky camera operator to the exact content of this film would make it any more palatable. Like the drunk uncle who crashes the film's wedding and introduces the infection to the guests, [REC] 3 is embarrassing, unwanted, and fundamentally diseased, inspiring in all who it encounters a desire for it to wander off to some secluded corner and mercifully expire.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Meltdown 03: Lost & Found (Part V)

Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County (1998) dir. Dean Alioto

One of the few pre-Blair Witch FF films, Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County is an expanded, slightly higher-budgeted remake of the director's own UFO Abduction a.k.a. The McPherson Tape (1989), a hoax tape that was passed around the UFO community for years on home-recorded bootlegs as some of the most compelling evidence of alien contact. Of course to our eyes now it looks rather quaint, but if you can transport your mind back to 1989 it's easy to imagine the film's effect. Coming so early in the initial FF movement, Alien Abduction doesn't have much prior material to rip off, and so manages to stake out its own ground, unlike those of the current decade who seem all too aware of their predecessors' tricks. The film's desire to be mistaken for genuine found footage is its greatest asset-- events unfold in real-time, the situation escalates as one would expect it to (rendering the camera's constant presence more natural), and characters act believably (the C.O., soon after his first alien encounter, wets himself; he then spends the next few minutes running upstairs to change his pants). Moreover, the film's premise is spectacularly eerie: the large McPherson family gathers on the old, remote homestead for Thanksgiving dinner as an alien spacecraft lands nearby, knocking out the electricity and forcing the family to hole up in the house to defend themselves. As the house is transformed into a creepy, candlelit rural haven from the slowly encroaching alien presence outside, the film builds so well to its climax that when it arrives it cannot help but be a disappointment (it is). The film's low quality home video resolution is also a benefit in that it makes the few brief shots of the aliens all the more convincing, allowing us in one extreme close-up to see the peach fuzz coating the scalp of one of the aliens. The found footage is inter-cut with brief, non-distracting interview segments with various "authorities" (on UFO abductions, video manipulation, and the like) around commercial breaks (Alien Abduction originally ran as a TV special on UPN). The best of these is an interview with the film's director, Dean Alioto, who claims that he believes the footage is real, but if it is a hoax then he "should have directed it." Wink!

In Memorium (2005) dir. Amanda Gusack

In Memorium [sic] is a film notable for misspelling its own title. Someone involved in the production, or maybe one of its fans (?), has taken to smugly claiming that it's "Paranormal Activity before Paranormal Activity," which is utter horseshit because there's almost nothing shared between the two. While in Oren Peli's film the lunkhead Micah plants his camera around the house in order to capture the supernatural shenanigans afoot, In Memorium features its lunkhead protagonist setting up cameras around the house he is renting because he has cancer and wishes to record his body wasting away in its final month of life (because, what else is he to do?). This lunkhead only just so happens to capture some ghostly goings-on because, as it so happens, his illness has supernatural origins (Gasp! This aspect is actually kind of neat, in a deranged way. The premise is that a shitty dead mom is returning from the grave to enact revenge against her embarrassed sons. Whoops, *SPOILERS*). It's a bad movie-- one proudly displaying melodramatic acting, a shaving cream bikini, and a recurring joke about stale crackers-- but I'm probably being more hostile towards it than it deserves because its use of the FF conceit is a total joke. The dying lunkhead has installed security cameras covering every inch of his rented house, but instead of the footage looking like actual security cam footage (see: Paranormal Activity 2, Apartment 143) it's more akin to a series of cinematic medium shots that you would forget were meant to be coming from consumer cameras if not for the fact that every once in awhile you catch a glimpse of one strapped to a wall. The film also edits its scenes between different camera angles, allowing for cinematic perspectives but obliterating any semblance of FF verisimilitude. I do, however, thank In Memorium for one brief line of dialogue that shall stick with me for some time to come: the dying lunkhead, when describing how he met his girlfriend on the set of an independent film, relates that "the film cost nothing, but she looked like a million bucks." One of those things is true.

The Devil Inside (2012) dir. William Brent Bell

A complete and unrepentant waste of everyone's time, The Devil Inside has approximately one novel idea: the notion that there is a group of rogue, unsanctioned priests performing exorcisms all around Italy. The rest, as they say, is garbage. Most of the notes I took during my viewing of this film became incredulous questions rather than  observations: "is this a movie? are these even characters? am I supposed to buy this as High Definition footage from 1988? is that what's called "development"? are these supposed to be set pieces? what does this ending offer to the story? what story? who are they trying to fool here?" After fourteen films in a row, it's only The Devil Inside that has managed to make me angry. It's neither frightening, interesting, original, nor enthusiastic (jeepers, even Blackwood Evil has it beat on that last count). For a film about the salvation of souls, it sure could use one of its own. Sniff that irony. It's a cash-grab with a well-edited trailer that somehow managed to net over $100 million, despite its R-rating. A FF film has never given me motion sickness, but I'm feeling queasy now. Is this the genre's death knell? It certainly feels like the death of something or other. My innocence? The FF genre is in a weird spot halfway through 2012-- yeah, we had Chronicle, but we also had Project X. Today, a new Asylum FF flick (which they have the gall to label under the genre "Reality") is being released, to the cheers of no one. Where do we go from here? Can this genre, battered and bruised as it may be, be rescued? Where are the innovators and the storytellers? Innocence lost, but they can't steal my optimism: those champions will arrive, and soon. But they won't be the minds behind The Devil Inside. Of this I can assure you.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Meltdown 03: Lost & Found (Part IV)

The Haunted House Project (2010) dir. Cheol-ha Lee

Today's three entries are mostly ghostly. Considering the mammoth success of the Paranormal Activity franchise, it's to be expected that some filmmakers with low ambitions might try to wrangle that same lightning. As of this writing, no independent paranormal FF film has come close to replicating the Paranormal Activity films' simple and effective formula (easily on display with minor variation in each of the three (soon to be four) films, all of which--I must point out--are available to rent or to own, prospective filmmakers take note). Rather than mocking up a streamlined scare presentation in line with those films--following their clear program of metered frights and escalating chaos--the copycats see fit to linger their productions on a whole lot of nothing, hoping that their atmospheric locations or actors' "performances" can occupy the gaps. Guilty of these sins is today's first entry, South Korea's The Haunted House Project, which barely manages to distinguish itself from the smattering of recent paranormal investigator-centric FF flicks (Grave Encounters (2011), 8213 Gacy House (2010), Episode 50 (2011), Evidence of a Haunting (2010), today's Apartment 143 (2011), and so on ad nauseam). The location is a rundown cookie factory (the filmmakers mistaking "horrifying" and "horrifyingly delicious" for synonyms) and the investigators--though clearly giving it a go--could trick you into believing they arrived on set sans pulses. Predictably, it's not until the final act that the film even begins to register as a horror film, and I will admit that these twenty or so minutes have a visceral quality to them that I found pleasant. Two moments in particular stood out to me as deserving of being housed in a better film: in one, a crew member is unexpectedly dragged through a doorway by forces unseen and found afterwards with his head twisted 180 degrees; the second concerns a skittish female investigator who has been possessed by one of the cookie factory's ghosts and now engages in some too-flexible torso contortions. Even then, after singling them out, I can't call either moment striking in its originality, but they are elevated by the film's better than average cinematography. Regardless, there's nothing new with the application of its FF method either-- in this case the action is filtered through the further contrivance of a news crew following the investigators. A slow news day, and dull bullhorn to my second.

The Amityville Haunting (2011) dir. Geoff Mead

The Asylum, the production house responsible for The Amityville Haunting, is more widely derided for their endless string of micro-budget mockbusters (see: Transmorphers (2007), Snakes on a Train (2006), American Warship (2012)) all timed for release in conjunction with their blockbustin' better halves, the intention being to (I guess) trick old folks out of their rental money (an astounding business model in 2012, I'm sure). Anyway, Asylum must have been pretty thrilled when the low-cost FF movement reared its pretty head as a bankable format because they've already cranked out more of them than just about anyone else-- Monster (2008), Paranormal Entity (2009), 8213 Gacy House (2010), Anneliese: The Exorcist Tapes (2011), The Amityville Haunting, Alien Origin (2012), and 100 Ghost Street: The Return of Richard Speck (2012). The only one I'd seen prior to the specimen at hand was 8213 Gacy House-- it was enough to confirm for me Asylum's mission of mediocrity. But I'm glad I gave The Amityville Haunting a chance anyway, because it's more entertaining in its moronic abandon than the previous three entries in this marathon combined. There's no foundational significance to the location being the Amityville house beyond brand recognition (no attic, no trademark weeping windows, one brief shot of flies), as it seems to be no more than a random, modernized suburban house that happens to eat people (no kidding, there are actual slurp/crunch noises in the soundtrack). The film is constructed around a quite consistent series of house-related deaths occurring to anyone who happens to visit the new family living there (a realtor, a worker from the moving company, the town's resident seducer of teenaged daughters, an old Army buddy). The family is, for awhile anyway, amusingly blasé about the gruesome deaths taking place all around them, and the regular pace of the carnage doesn't leave much room for one's ire at the film to rise too high. The most entertainment the film offers is derived from the C.O., the family's tween-aged son, who expresses fright as if the emotion is akin to that accompanying a stubbed toe and who is always willing to deliver some trenchant observation or maxim to the camera (eg. "Nobody knows what it's like to be a kid except kids!" and "I got in trouble for spying on my sister-- who cares? Everybody gets spied on once in awhile"). Helpfully, his camera's video chooses to corrupt and degrade itself during most of the on-camera death scenes, in consideration of the film's budget. Undeniable junk, but approachable as such.

Apartment 143 (2011) dir. Carles Torrens

While by no means a flawless film, Apartment 143 easily swoops in to steal the day. It's a solid and consistent flick with a simple yet intriguing story to tell. With no nonsense, it does just that. I presume we can rest some of this light praise on the shoulders of the film's screenwriter, Rodrigo Cortes, who in 2010 delivered the Ryan Reynolds vehicle Buried, an equal parts entertaining, gut-wrenching, and preposterous little film, and who here manages to cleverly combine the two most popular found footage tropes of the moment (hauntings and demonic possessions) into one sound, mysterious package. But director Carles Torrens is no slouch either, giving his film a distinct visual appearance despite its found footage approach-- the image here is bathed in muted blues and browns, being as murky and downtrodden as its grim back story of sickness, betrayal, and death. He also manages to corral some decent performances from his cast, who put a good deal of believable emotion into their roles when required. And yes, the film lavishes some necessary attention onto its poltergeist activity, coming off on more than one occasion as pretty creepy indeed. What separates Apartment 143 from so much of the paranormal investigation FF chuff is that it refuses to squander our time setting us and the characters up for the haunting-- the investigators enter the apartment knowing something paranormal is up, and the apartment wastes no time proving it to them. Being so forthright about its paranormal activity from the word "go" allows the film to build up to some intense set pieces. But the film isn't entirely humorless either: my favorite scene features a shot of a widower being forcefully tossed through a glass door by a poltergeist smash cutting to a different shot of said widower and the rest of the crew sitting sedately at the kitchen table eating breakfast. Throw in some delightfully goofy pseudoscience and an engaging mystery surrounding the poltergeist's source-- and I'm well pleased. The lame "shock" ending won't deter from enjoying the remains. Three to go.

The end is nigh: next time, Alien Abduction: Incident at Lake County (1998), In Memorium (2005), and (blech) The Devil Inside (2012).

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Meltdown 03: Lost & Found (Part III)

Zero Day
(2003) dir. Ben Coccio

If films like the last two served only to break my spirit in re: the found footage film's storytelling potential, a film like Zero Day then barrels into my life to forcefully remind me of exactly how sublime the method can be when used with a deft and subtle touch. There is no question or nagging doubt tossing around in the back of my cranium that prevents me from calling this the best found footage film I've yet encountered (meaning, not just within the constraints of this marathon-- out of all of them). Admittedly, it's not the best found footage horror film, considering it aspires more to dramatic weight than a chilly atmosphere or a visceral boo. But that's also not to claim that the film (which plays out as the lock-boxed confession tapes of a pair of Columbine-esque school shooters) is devoid of its horrific elements-- barring the nauseating release of its inevitable ending, we are also faced throughout with the horror of the two teens' steely determination to carry out their deed. The FF approach goes beyond being merely appropriate to the subject matter, ending up as an essential foundational device. How else could we more closely engage with these boys to understand their true motivations and those that they offer to the world (which are not quite the same thing)? Gus Van Sant's Elephant (2003), with its cold, distancing pop psychology and rationalizations, hasn't half the emotional power. The intimacy of the shared video diary in Zero Day creates a direct link between monsters and viewer that is never not unsettling. We find ourselves naturally able to relate to and enjoy our likeable, charismatic protagonists as they show us how to duct tape shrapnel to pipe bombs-- the cognitive dissonance is almost unbearable.

But it's this too-close approach that enables it to be the most sensitive and realistic film to engage with the Columbine shooting. It allows the film to be adamant in not placing blame upon the old whipping posts (we see that the boys' parents are absolute sweethearts; the boys burn all of their personal possessions before Zero Day with the intention of preventing journalists from blowing their influence out of proportion). Our teen heroes repeatedly blame the high school experience and the dreadful treatment they receive from their peers, but the film smartly never openly agrees with them. In fact, all of the visual evidence we're given is to the contrary (both are affable young men who speak to and blend in with others easily; one of them even has a sort of girlfriend). When the camera is passed around a prom limo from which one of the boys has just exited, we hear the remaining teens in the car briefly discuss that their discomfort with the two future-shooters arises not from dislike but from the degree to which the two have chosen to ostracize themselves from the larger high school social life (although, as we see how dreadfully (though benignly) obnoxious the limo teens are, we do not fault the shooters for staying away). The blame that the film's intricate video diary chooses to reveal falls nowhere but on the teens themselves and their narcissistic psychopathy: they're not sure whether they want to will their confession tapes to Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, or Wolf Blitzer, but they both agree that they should leave the tape running as they exit their car and head towards the school on Zero Day, rendering the scene as cinematic as two bold cowboys riding off into the sunset. Zero Day is an incredible film that with little other than two strong teenaged actors and an understanding of the (at that point still infant) FF genre creates a narrative rife with pathos and social commentary.

Paranormal Effect (2010) dir. Ryuichi Asano & Teruo Ito

Paranormal Effect adheres to the old adage "If It Isn't Broke, Don't Fix It, Just Do It Faster and Change It Enough So You Don't Get Sued." The first half is no more (and considerably less) than Paranormal Activity in Japan. It's not simply a rip of that film's broad concept but also its explicit beats: dopey boyfriend buys expensive camera and decides to film everything despite his significant other's pleas against it; dopey boyfriend disrespects the spirit world (here colored with some patented American disregard for foreign traditions and beliefs); a night vision camera set up to document the couple's bed captures the quasi-possessed girlfriend sleep walking off-camera to do whatever it is quasi-possessed women do; quasi-possessed girlfriend, in her sickness, refuses to leave the haunted residence the night before bad shit goes down. It's blatant and all, but then the dopey boyfriend vanishes and we still have half the film left. Left to its own devices, the film is even less compelling: ten minutes of grating psychiatric interviews with the recovering girlfriend (conducted by a Japanese actress hired presumably only because she could read the English lines, if not deliver them) followed by a prolonged dual paranormal investigation/psychiatric rehabilitation back at the old, plagued flat. Adobe After Effects ghosts whiz across the screen or briefly appear in the foreground, and the crew is "menaced." Paranormal Effect's one bit of (pardon pun) effective scare-making is a self-replenishing bathroom tub full of putrid brown water, unsettling in its very clear implication that any number of horrible things could be lurking underneath-- but of course the film spoils this, too, in a pitifully splashy climax. In searching for the film's poster, I discovered to my astonishment that a sequel is on the way. We are twice blessed.

Road to L (2005) dir. Federico Greco & Roberto Leggio

Road to L (or Il mistero di Lovecraft) possesses one of the more intriguing and promising concepts of the marathon, at least for those both bookish and with a penchant for cosmic horror. It strings itself around the fictional discovery of a lost section of H. P. Lovecraft's diary, which strongly implies that a) he once visited Italy (curious, the film tells us, because previously it had been thought that the perpetually cash-strapped Lovecraft had never left America), and b) whatever grim things he witnessed there were directly responsible for his creative transition from writing comparatively simple supernatural tales to the more far-reaching, grandiose Cthulhu mythos. Set up as an Italian documentary crew's investigation of the veracity of the unearthed documents, the film has primed itself for success. This makes it all the worse when it founders under the crushing weight of its own cloying ineptitude. Road to L is hardly even a film. Though its premise is one ripe for exploration, the filmmakers (who apparently possess little deep knowledge of either Lovecraft or Italian folklore) assume that the mystery they've devised isn't even enough to occupy a short film. In the place of, say, an unraveling mystery, directors Greco and Leggio devote approximately two-thirds of the running time to the shrill arguments between crew members (because naturally we do care if it is the audio technician or the on-screen host who is sleeping with the pretty Italian production assistant). Considering that this crew, unlike many FF whiners, is not in a precarious or life-threatening situation, we despise them all the more. This padding is discarded for a brief ending (which features the all important discovery of some grainy found footage). In these final moments, Road to L shoots for the heights of Lovecraftian dread (finding particular inspiration in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth"), and winds up somewhere in the dank gutter. Marvel at the sight of out-of-focus fishmen slathered in blue paint-- assuredly, your wits shall scatter. Thus ended the first day of my marathon. Abandon hope, all ye who dare to follow me into day two. You know, in case you were expecting things to shape up, or something.

Our next installment, if you dare: The Haunted House Project (2010), The Amityville Haunting (2011), and Apartment 143 (2011).

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Meltdown 03: Lost & Found (Part II)


The Black Door (2001) dir. Kit Wong

While flawed to a regrettable degree, The Black Door is without question the most compelling entry in these first two installments of the marathon. Lensed as a documentary horror with several instances of found footage worked into its overall composition, it fashions a unique and engaging structure. When it pauses the main narrative in order to integrate sixteen minutes of faux-8mm found footage from a Satanic ceremony back in 1932 (which in its grainy, degraded, sepia-tone glory looks almost genuine!), I found myself riveted and pleased as it cut back and forth between the two, allowing the tale to unfurl as a genuine investigation of sorts (later on, the film also features a more typical first-person FF exploration of an unnerving abandoned house). While the film's well-developed, super-creepy back story elevates the material, it's somewhat dampened by the present day narrative, which is overly grim and laborious in its pacing, dwelling on the lackluster performances of a handful of unprofessional actors. Which leads me to the film's most distinguishing and off-putting characteristic: the numerous talking head interview segments play out more as long, unprompted monologues, with the C.O.'s infrequent dialogue exclusively (and distractingly) ADR'd in post-production. These monologues allow these amateur performers to go on at length uninterrupted, but they don't have much to add. And that's the film's major issue, at one hour and forty something minutes. But there are enough noteworthy elements for me to recommend: literal blood baths, double Un Chien Andalous, Satanic resurrections, gruesome demon stigmata. With some judicious editing, this would have been an enviable, creative flick. In closing, marvel at the wildly inappropriate trance club track that plays over the closing credits.

Blackwood Evil (2000) dir. Richard Catt

I've already pointed out that there weren't many earnest attempts to recreate the Blair Witch's Project's aesthetic and structural approach in the immediate wake of that film, and that's true; however, there were a few that bothered to try in the year or two that followed, and I've yet to see one as ill-conceived, -planned, and -executed as Blackwood Evil.  Shot on low-grade consumer video (the camera operator has one of those shoulder-mounted clunkers that records directly to VHS), the film is ostensibly the record of a nightly news reporter's hard-hitting journalistic investigation into allegations of ghosts somewhere in the area (any ghost will do). It's a bit of a stretch on verisimilitude, though, considering that the reporter and her cameraman capture approximately no useable footage (star Joanie Bannister's portrayal of a video journalist includes turning away from the camera and walking towards the distance while stumbling through the scattershot information scribbled on the note cards held down by her waist). Pretty much for the duration, nothing happens. The crew being camped out in a purportedly haunted property that stays all too quiet, the plot hinges on the increasingly aggressive banter between the crew and the property's owner, a wet blanket who for no discernible reason has agreed to let them film there in spite of the fact that he would seemingly sooner murder them. If there was any reason to track down Blackwood Evil it would be because of these spirited improvised barbs, which are difficult to fathom even as you hear them-- believe it, dialogue that actually inspires viewer doubletakes. The deaths, when the mercifully befall our crew, are all offscreen, but the aftermaths' gore effects (while lacking by most standards) are quite impressive considering every other area of the production. The FF aspects are exactly no more complex than you'd expect (the C.O. takes pains to remind on more than one occasion that he has been instructed to "film everything"). The crew's giggly, fourth-wall shaking enthusiasm signals that those involved aren't totally soulless in their attempt at filmmaking, but that's poor solace to take. This one is harder to get hold of than most FF films. As far as I can tell, it has never received a commercial release and though someone involved in the production hosted the entire feature on YouTube a few years back, it has since been removed. I don't believe this removal was fueled by shame, but perhaps it should have been. Those in the know are privy to the proper channels where one can scour for a copy, though may I recommend that those brave few simply take a long bath or nap instead. Here, check out the film's official Angelfire webpage.

June 9 (2008) dir. T. Michael Conway

Looked at one way, June 9's structure is better than that of some: a gaggle of boneheaded teens use a camera to record their middle class suburban malaise and tasteless pranks played upon a neighboring town with a cursed past as hints of menace begin to creep into frame from the peripheries. There's even a fun framing device wherein a mysterious party views the tapes after the fact, a device used to similar effect in superior FF outing Evil Things (2009). Looked at in a different way, one could call this approach a diligent producer of tedium. The film's structure is more the latter than the former because its cast of (actual!) teenagers is only as likeable as a cast of teenagers can be (not very): they film themselves attempting to smoke cigarettes through their nostrils, breaking mailboxes for kicks, and engaging in philosophical exchanges about the nature of existence ("Ezra said to take a left turn" "Yeah, well, Ezra is a fag"). Their collective sole redeeming quality is their insistence upon hanging out with their overweight, misfit pal Berty, who is suitably endearing in his headphones-strapped solitude. The film does eventually segue into a pretty effective Two Thousand Maniacs!-esque climax (softened only slightly when the cultish townspeople begin tapping the teens on their skulls with obviously rubber mallets). It's at this moment that the film pulls its only inventive FF conceit by passing off the camera to one of the villains (a little boy townie) for a ten-minute post-credits wrap-up showing us the flipside, or how the cheery murderers live. An intriguing way to conclude, even if it features the film's most knuckleheaded moment: the child, focusing the camera in on a praying mantis he's found in the grass, exclaims, "Hello, grasshopper." June 9, a day that will live in obscurity.

But wait, there's more! Next time: Zero Day (2003), Paranormal Effect (2010), and The Road to L (2005).

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Meltdown 03: Lost & Found (Part I)

Before we launch into this, my third reckless movie marathon in a series of who knows how many, a small collection of disclaimers is probably in order:   

Disclaimer 1: Without reservations, I find the found footage movement in contemporary horror to be the most promising development the genre has seen in a long while.

Disclaimer 2: Regardless of this belief of mine, I discover many found footage horror films to be execrable, at best.  

Disclaimer 3: This variable quality has to do with the fact that the found footage genre is, by its very format, constructed around the amateur, the consumer, and therefore has inspired even those without talent or inspiration to give it a go.  

Disclaimer 3.5: This is especially true in the current boom with the FF output from professional production studios. To create a found footage film in the era before prosumer HD camcorders was a decidedly unprofessional task that required skill, ingenuity, enthusiasm, and acceptance of the knowledge that your film was probably never going to be shown in theaters (unsurprisingly, The Blair Witch Project's success was sort of unable to be immediately reproduced with contemporaneous technology (the cash-ins were far more frequently straight direct-to-video parodies)--we don't see the current boom start until 2007-2008, when digital video allowed the conceit to be a good deal more practical and attractive). Today, any studio small or giant can crank one out for nothing, make it look and sound roughly as good as any mainstream fare, and watch as it collects a larger return on its investment than anything that they actually put effort into. Unfortunately, the films seem to make bank in spite of whatever their cinematic qualities may be, and therefore those producing them seem uninterested in whether or not they turn out to be decent films outside of the gimmick. This is a flaw. 

Disclaimer 4: Despite everything I've previously said, I believe some found footage/documentary horrors to be exceptional in their employment of the form to tell riveting, effective horror tales, where the style becomes not a gimmick but a legitimate and useful form of storytelling. Films like Exhibit A (2007), Megan is Missing (2011), The Last Broadcast (1998), Lake Mungo (2008), Trash Humpers (2009), Evil Things (2009), Behind the Mask (2006) and of course progenitors such as Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and The Blair Witch Project (1999) stand as exemplars of the format's strengths.  

Disclaimer 5: I have semi-definite plans about attempting to write something long about the genre for publication. I have spent far too much time collecting, absorbing, and thinking about these films to let it all go to waste. I'll keep you updated.

So, that nonsense out of the way, I'll have you know that I spent 48 hours watching 15 semi-obscure found footage/documentary horror films (which is my new two-day record, for what it's worth). These films span this fresh decade and the two previous. One was possibly the best I've ever seen from the genre, a few were admirable, and some were about as creatively bankrupt as one can fathom. So join me in this bout of two-day hysteria, and let's swear off motion sickness together. A final chilling fact: I have enough unseen found footage films after this to fuel at least three more marathons of comparable length. Brace yourselves.

Evidence (2011) dir. Howie Askins


Evidence is a fine beginning to this marathon because it stands as a suitable example of how the FF aesthetic can be used to little effect. In essence, its first 2/3rds is a Blair Witch clone with skunk apes, but there's no real impetus for any of the events shown to be filmed (the camera operator is making a documentary about his friend because... his friend has never been on a camping trip before?). It might be possible to excuse this absence of FF necessity (or logic) if it weren't for the film incessantly reminding the audience of the approach's artificiality. Like several recent FF films (most egregiously Skew (2011)), Evidence decides to have all of its characters whine that "the camera thing is annoying" and treat the camera operator as if he's a maniac for never ceasing to film (curiously, the film also spends an inordinate amount of screetime setting up the C.O. as a genuine sociopath, but fails to pay it off). One might be tempted to label these and other gently meta moments (like when the C.O. self-consciously sets up establishing shows and narrates with soundbites like "EXT. DAY: Pan around to our heroes") as signs of the film's playfuyl awareness of its own methods, but they feel more like fumblings for a rational excuse for the film's existence. The skunk apes are rather effective the first few times we see them (reminiscent in their movements of the pitch-black male aliens from Attack the Block (2011)). Typically, the film's best and worst attempted frights derive from the Blair Witch mold (best: the discovery of the characters' previous night's dialogue carved into the trees surrounding their camp in the morning; worst: the skunk apes sabotaging an RV's engine by gumming it up with dry leaves when no one's looking). The film's most prominent detriment is its gratuitousness: gratuitous bickering, gratuitous female nudity/girl-on-girl makeout sessions, and gratuitous prolonged action sequences. Lapsing into the utterly incomprehensible, Evidence's final act would make for a serviceable video game, I suppose. The same can't be hazarded for its status as a film.

The Wicksboro Incident (2003) dir. Richard Lowry


There's something to be said about the charm of a mockumentary that follows around an amiable drunk old codger with his patented alien detector (looking more like an ostentatious child's toy zapper than a genuine electronic device) while maintaining a more or less straight face. The Wicksboro Incident is not great cinema, but as an early entry in the subgenre that's clearly putting in effort, it earns some good will. While beginning as a talking-heads documentary horror about a a subtle alien invasion and the government-instigated vanishing of an entire town (call it Errol Morris' UFO Abduction), the film then cleverly segues into an FF film (replete with a camera confession à la Blair Witch) as events progress, with the implication that an off-camera party edited the footage together after the fact. I say clever because this move shifts one's expectations for the film and its characters-- if they completed the doc, we assume that everything turned out alright for them, while the gradual revelation of the FF method prevents the typical evacuation of tension that several FF films (and their opening title cards of impending doom) often suffer. The narrative's background and mythology are fun enough, but it's a shame that little of it is resolved through the documentary crew's investigation (the film's latter half is solely composed of scenes wherein the group is pursued by shadowy men in black--which do manage to be fitfully suspenseful). The film's major recommendation falls upon the presence of Lloyd, the old, kooky codger. He's the sort of chap who purchases all of a roadside convenience store's ancient cheap wine, falls asleep with lit cigarettes in his hand, and makes sure to scan a seafood restaurant for aliens before the crew chows down. In short, an American treasure.

Welcome to the Jungle (2007) dir. Jonathan Hesleigh

The ludicrous opening title cards inform us that, "People go missing every day. But not the son of the Vice President of the United States. And not in cannibal territory." So we're off on an adventure. Produced by Gale Anne Hurd of T2 and Aliens fame, Welcome to the Jungle (a.k.a. Cannibals) is an early entry in the prosumer boom of the genre and, while aesthetically on par with anything being produced at the moment, seems interested in being little more than an obvious throwback: Cannibal Holocaust lite. "Lite" for numerous reasons: the violence, conflicts, and displays of American brutishness are all significantly neutered variations of the former film's attributes. Even skimpier is the social commentary which--while arguably scathing in the earlier film--is entirely absent here. Rather than displaying the brutal cultural resemblances between the "civilized" and savage societies through the exploits of a violent documentary film crew, Welcome to the Jungle quickly launches two cloying young couples from a vacation in Fiji into a money-making manhunt in cannibal-infested New Guinea (I knows it's what I'd do on vacation!). But this omission is fine because the film is much more concerned in fashioning a no-frills nail-biter than a film with a social agenda. Unfortunately, it places more dramatic weight upon interpersonal conflicts than the obvious--and much more compelling--situational conflict (most of the film's running time is occupied with the straight-laced, mission-oriented couple loudly squabbling with their hopelessly inebriated, jungle-party loving companions. One suddenly begins to wonder why they don't simply kill each other and be done with it). The film is competently shot and occasionally effective in constructing horrific images (I'm thinking particularly of the long scenes of the cannibal tribesmen creeping along the shore, warily stalking the protagonists floating down the river on a raft), but there's little compelling and nothing creative about it. In consideration of the subgenre landmark that it's ripping from, it's difficult to say its scant ambitions earn it a pass. I've just now noticed that I've gone this entire capsule review without mentioning the film's use of FF, which should tell you how integral it is to the narrative. A section in the first act is framed like and contains all of the cinematic ingenuity of an episode of The Real World.

Stay tuned for the next installment (of five), featuring The Black Door (2001), Blackwood Evil (2000), and June 9 (2008).

Monday, July 2, 2012

American Horror Story (2011) Season 1

Logline: The Harmon family is falling apart after a miscarriage and an illicit affair, so perhaps moving across country into a notoriously haunted house replete with a gaggle of poltergeists will bring them back together.

The first season of the FX television program American Horror Story is one of most successful and satisfying pieces of horror fiction  produced in a filmed medium over the last ten years. Bold, maybe, but I have no qualms about saying as much. The program is contemporary while, by design, mired in history (historical, diegetic, and cinematic)-- the sort of program that will provide its viewers with a brief vignette visualizing a hypothesis about the death of Sal Mineo alongside a scene wherein a teenaged ghost attempts to type into his browser the correct spelling of "YouTube." It has all the lurid, melodramatic appeal of an addictive daytime soap opera but shot through with a manic sensibility in the construction of its characters and the progression of its storylines. While aware of its own pleasures as a product of kitsch, it does not settle for conducting itself with nothing more than knowing irony, instead striving towards a sense of commingled earnestness, eccentricity, and situational levity. Moreover, despite its many narrative curve balls, its mini-series ethos concludes the first season as a cohesive whole-- an independent narrative successful in crafting a universe with an internal logic all its own. One could call it an amalgam of Dark Shadows and Twin Peaks with a more prominent injection of horror into its veins, but that would be discounting the sense of condensed completeness that American Horror Story revels in, and which neither previous show (in their much longer, eventually stifled runs) was able to so deftly attain.

The first season of American Horror Story stands as a concentrated assemblage that culls inspiration from all areas of the horror canon, both cultural and cinematic: haunted houses, mad scientists, monstrously deformed children (It's Alive), the reanimated dead, home invasions, bodies in meat grinders, school shootings, gaslightings, leather-clad rapists, demonic pregnancies (Rosemary's Baby), the Antichrist (The Omen), The Black Dahlia, psychotic lovers (Fatal Attraction), Halloween hijinks, the lost colony of Roanoke, and ghosts who think they own the place (Beetlejuice). And although it is a program marked by its excess (sex, violence, and perversity are omnipresent), it never feels bloated or overblown. The writers mesh these elements together in a not-too-trying nonlinear presentation that feels only occasionally episodic but (finally) thematically sound. Its peculiar, breakneck editing (coupled with scenes that play out in what's closer to double-time in comparison to other prime time fare), kept me in a state of constant alert, regardless of the logical narrative turns that were being made-- this disorienting effect softened as the series fell into its groove and I became more attuned to its whims, but the approach never disappeared. Even more, at times the show manages to be unpredictable without resorting to unresolvable mysteries or incongruous twists-- another leg up over certain recent programs that shall not be named.

All of this said, I'm also convinced there's a bit of depth here beyond its transcendent use of pastiche. The inability of the Harmons to see beyond the surface of their house's ghost infestation is reflected in the show's actual production-- it is slick and glossy with an almost obscene suburbanized Gothic aesthetic, its apparitions more often mundane than terrifying (we're talking about a show that, in the season's later half, features a cast consisting of almost 80% ghosts). The recurring gag of the Eternal Darkness car tour (showing you the locations of all of L.A.'s most gruesome murders) underlines the show's central ambivalence towards its own concerns with history: when history is preserved, it faces the inevitability of becoming a commodity (example, one ghost is thrilled to have become a news item in L.A. history as "The Boy Dahlia," and seems less concerned with the fact that he's now dead). The Harmons' Murder House is a haunted American icon, representative of a horror tradition at large that needs preserving (in film, primarily, but also to some extent in reality, as the absence of such iconic locations renders the fictional situations implausible and lifeless-- as Phil Coldiron wrote about Ti West's The Innkeepers and its equally traditional horror location, "who could imagine a ghost story set in a Courtyard by Marriott?"). But, that history which goes through the conscious act of preservation becomes something quasi-artificial and archetypical, rather than singular and untouched (I think the show's title can be taken literally, as in: this is "the American Horror Story"-- maybe all of them). It's an odd fate for traditional horror to have, but the alternative is worse: one character in the show wants to buy Murder House in order to raze it and build affordable housing on top. Thankfully, the show's ghosts refuse to sit idly by while that happens, and the season's finale reemphasizes the expressed desire to let sleeping houses lie (the anthology aspect of the series, promising no continuation of the Harmon family's story, helps further this point), although its pre-epilogue Hallmark Christmas tableau complicates any such easy proclamations about preserving the sanctity of traditional horror sans commercialism. American Horror Story pillages the corpus of American horror for every usable item of interest, but it does so with obvious affection and respect. Could one make that same claim for the hollow cinematic cash-ins of the past decade, those banking on brand recognition and our desire to dumbly cozy up against past images of terror embedded in our cultural memories?

Lastly, as with most involved soap operas, American Horror Story is also by parts an ensemble character piece, and the performances from the cast are appropriately unrestrained. Of particular note is Jessica Lange, of whom not enough good things can be said concerning her virulent, Gothic Blanche DuBois, and Evan Peters, whose character is one of the more nuanced portrayals of a bonafide sociopath I've seen (he plays Tate not with barely-concealed monstrosity but self-deluding crocodile tears). Knowing that both of these actors (and a few others) will return for more next season in an entirely different story and location has me looking forward to this October with more than the usual enthusiasm.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Nomads (1986) dir. John McTiernan

Logline: A French anthropologist starts ranting and raving and spits his life story into the ear of a doctor before dying. That doctor then unwittingly relives the last week of the anthropologist's life, wherein he discovered the horrible secret of an ancient tribe of demonic nomads living unnoticed in the city of Los Angeles.

In 1987, John McTiernan directed Predator. In 1988, Die Hard. 1990, The Hunt for Red October. But before he briefly became Hollywood's action film director par excellence, he wrote and directed a film casting Pierce Brosnan as a French anthropologist hot on the trail of a leather-clad street gang of Inuit demon spirits, or Einwetok. His is a career trajectory that is difficult to reconcile with the content, tone, and execution of his debut feature, which I'd hesitate to call a good film but is (assuredly) a weirdly absorbing one. Nomads is more interested in letting us observe and contemplate its action rather than laying it all out as concrete exposition, and so it can come off as leisurely and elusive (sometimes to its detriment) but also immersive-- at times, particularly during Brosnan's early investigations of the nomadic gang, we feel as if we're playing the part of anthropologist too, trying to formulate an understanding of their culture in tandem. Add to this the further mediation of experiencing Brosnan's anthropological adventure posthumously through Lesley-Anne Down's visions (as she tries to make sense of him), and it's clear we're dealing with all this interest in observation through a few layers: we're watching her watching him watching them. Fittingly, the information we receive about the nomadic Einwetok culture is sparse and diffuse, leaving us (and the film itself) with a chillingly incomplete understanding.

On that note, it's also worth pointing out that the film's commentary on anthropological observation and cultural voyeurism is conflicted. After all, this is a film that treats the delinquent homeless of urban settings as a primitive culture and declares their nomadic tendencies to be the result of nothing more than an evil Inuit spirit. But, on the other hand, Nomads also feels critical of Brosnan's anthropologist, who both interferes with the practices of and eventually attempts to destroy the culture he's observing and documenting. In the end, he's destroyed/subsumed by that culture, and that seems appropriate considering his boorish, culturally-insensitive behavior. What I found to be most condemning of the anthropological gaze is the film's labeling of its drifting, homeless youth population as one invisible to "civilized" society and, ultimately, resistant to study or documentation (they fail to appear in any of the countless photographs that Brosnan takes and develops of them, a less-than-subtle hint that a group of people cannot be understood through the observation of appearances alone, regardless of how "scientific" such observation purports to be). In fact, Brosnan's anthropologist cannot understand them at all until joining them through death, while Lesley-Anne Down and us are left mystified on the other side. It's our failure to comprehend the nature and intentions of the Einwetok (for instance, can we call them legitimately evil, or simply possessing customs beyond our comprehension?) that make any definite interpretation dicey. Is the film trying to complicate our understandings or snap judgements about certain subcultures or demographics within our society? Maybe.

Thinking and writing about it, I'm growing more fond of the film than I was while watching it. Brosnan is fine, but his French accent is ludicrous and unnecessary to the narrative. The group of nomads (who include both Mary Woronov and Adam Ant amidst their ranks) are appropriately enigmatic and with a grinning menace, but basically look like the other Lost Boys that Kiefer and Bill S. Preston left back at the collapsed hotel. A surprising amount of the film is relatively dialogue-free, and these portions (especially Brosnan's investigations) are almost riveting, but the proceedings start to drag once the action is transferred over to Down and Brosnan's widowed wife. Several reviewers on IMDB have labelled the film an "urban fantasy," which sounds alright to me-- it's urban, fantastical, and about as irresolute as you would figure such a pairing would be.