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).

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