The Blair Witch Project is an important film for me. I'd caught the horror bug young-- I was wearing out VHS copies of Gremlins, Critters, and The Monster Squad as a toddler and before I graduated to the double digits I'd moved on to fare like Halloween and The Blob-- but it was on Friday, July 30th, 1999 that I beheld The Blair Witch Project on the opening day of its wide theatrical run and horror started to really matter in my life. I'll leave the discussion of that singular film to another time and place, but I would like to spend some words catching up with its two directors, Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick, who have each been quietly establishing their own careers in horror in the years since. Upon seeing the initial trailer for Sánchez's Lovely Molly earlier this year, it dawned upon me that I had not seen a single film by either director since that debut collaboration. Why would I so completely ignore the current work of two filmmakers whose first film I hold in such high esteem? I can tell you it wasn't an intentional avoidance, and there are probably a couple of external factors contributing to it: a) besides their loose involvement in the Blair Witch sequel (which I've always enjoyed on its own merits) and the television/Internet hybrid series Freakylinks (of which I was a major fan back when it was airing (I may have run a fan site (I'll never tell))), both Sánchez and Myrick sat inactive in the immediate wake of their mutual success, the former not making another film until 2006 and the latter not until 2007. b) All of the films that both Sánchez and Myrick have directed since then have been released either direct-to-video or through small theatrical runs. I would have had to have been paying pretty close attention to catch them. So, egg on my face, I've decided to rectify my ignorance by viewing all of their films and covering each here on the blog. First up is this post, dedicated to all three of Sánchez's: Altered (2006), Seventh Moon (2008), and Lovely Molly (2012). A second post chronicling my experience watching all of Myrick's should arrive sometime in the next few months. Without further excuses:
Altered, a somewhat unusual alien encounter film, is not the strongest start Sánchez could have had to his solo directing career. It has that unmistakeable mid-noughties horror flavor that accompanies a film trying to be jokey and grimly serious in equal measure. That's an almost impossible ratio to juggle, and so (no surprise here) the film falters in its tone throughout. Worse, the majority of the humor is just crass and groan-inducing, rendering most of the quipping characters a tad repugnant. (IMDb tells me it was originally scripted as a comedy entitled Probed. For once, I totally believe the information IMDb is providing). Moreover, this stale, omnipresent humor also detracts from the few attempts at generating legitimate tension: an alien slowly unraveling a character's intestines to the other side end of the room is, despite what you might think, funny. Nevertheless, it's those aforementioned twists on the typical alien encounter formula that kept it of some moderate interest to me. It's structured in media res, the entirety of the film playing out as a prolonged third act, leaving much back story and character motivation to unravel over time through inference rather than blunt exposition. In a film such as this, I found the use of my brain--in whatever limited capacity--to be refreshing. The characteristics and technology of the alien visitors is also quite well-conceived, and (though we see far too much of him) the primary alien even manages to be fitfully creepy. There's a certain pleasure to be had in watching a rubber-suited alien prancing about on screen in a film from as late as 2006, but that's a small recommendation.
Although possessing its own share of issues, Seventh Moon is, without question, a more accomplished film than its predecessor. For one, it has its tone figured out. Seventh Moon is only concerned in its situational horror elements, to the point of willful simplicity. At the expense of character and story, the film acts like an eager voyeur waiting to see what will happen when it places mice and snakes into the same maze. It can't be called a sophisticated storytelling approach, but it does make for a gripping viewing experience. While its integration of (actual?) Chinese folklore and traditions makes it somewhat unique (and so of interest on that score alone), I found myself most enamored with the film's eccentric cinematography. Like the later Chernobyl Diaries, Seventh Moon appears to be directly inspired by the aesthetics of the found footage movement without ever explicitly being one. Particularly in its opening act (but to a lesser extent throughout), the camerawork develops an extreme amateur handheld style, filming the protagonists from an uncomfortable distance and picking up their voices through the camera's mic alone-- at one point, the camera even gets knocked over! Even though no one is actually filming the events in the diegetic world, the style results in the unshakeable feeling that there might be some camera-strapped voyeur present, which smartly reflects aspects of both the film's M.O. and plot. Fortunately, the film's mission to frighten is competently accomplished by the hungry Chinese ghosts that chase our protagonists across the Chinese countryside-- they're terrifying in their voraciousness and (unlike Altered) the film wisely keeps them obscured or out of focus for the majority of their appearances. The film's flaws derive less from its inherent situational/survival horror aspects than from its insistence on trying to complicate that simple formula with emotional resonance for its story and characters during the conclusion. Some rather obvious and conventional final act plot revelations and scenes of Amy Smart mourning do little to elevate the material, so instead sort of bog things down. I'm not convinced we desire emotional closure in a film like this; we only want to see if the mice are going to find their way out or not.
Lovely Molly (2012)
Something about "third times" and "being charmed." But, honest: Lovely Molly is a tremendous film, one of my favorites released so far this year. Aesthetically, this is a continuation of Sánchez's retrieval and reconfiguration of found footage methods. Instead of mirroring the camerawork this time, he has his characters utilize a handheld camera when necessary and logically appropriate-- say, during a wedding, or when trying to capture proof of a ghostly entity. The film even begins with its lead actress, Gretchen Lodge, facing down the camera Heather Donahue-style and giving a crying confession, but besides this obvious connection the remainder of the FF sequences never feel shoe-horned in simply because Sánchez is the Blair Witch guy. They feel organic to the film, a familiar and fitting way to throw us off balance and, in moments of great distress, help us to identify with Molly's terror. The transitions between the found footage and traditional cinematography are seamless, which demonstrates that a touch of skill and finesse can pull it off without frustrating the viewer-- hopefully this will prove the antidote to [REC] 3's bad faith/camera smashing. (Sánchez's next film, a found footage Bigfoot film entitled Exists, is filming now. I can't wait to see where he'll take the form in this context).
The story in Lovely Molly has the depth and resonance missing from Altered and Seventh Moon: Molly, a newlywed and recovering drug addict, moves back into her unoccupied family home with her often-absent trucker husband. Unexplainable late night break-ins and other unexplainable supernatural occurrences transpire, leading Molly to believe that the vengeful, demonic ghost of her abusive father has returned from the grave to continue his work on her. While attempting to prove and understand his ghostly reappearance, Molly begins to lose her cool (an understatement). A definite ambiguity hangs over the events: is the demonic paranormal activity real, or merely a psychological manifestation of Molly's heroin addiction? (The recurring horse symbols would seem to argue for either interpretation). Regardless, the film stands as a chilling exploration of the lingering effects of sexual and emotional abuse. There's even a nice economic subtext here too, with out two attractive newlyweds holding down shitty jobs (a truck driver and a janitor), having no health insurance, and maxing out their credit cards (yay, America!).
Before I forget to mention it, Lovely Molly is also ridiculously scary. Gretchen Lodge's performance has an unnerving, brooding intensity in its own right, but couple that with a lip devouring, ghost rape, and a deer carcass birthing from a basement ceiling, and this is one grungy, horrifying flick. Of additional note are the wonderful sound design and the work by the band Tortoise on the terrific score, crackling with deafening white noise and feedback. At its conclusion, the film also contains one of the most horrifying movie moments of all time. I exaggerate not. You will know it when you see it. (One of the only complaints I'd lodge against the film would be that it fails to end immediately after this shot. We're given a brief coda that while logically consistent, also scatters some of the previous scene's visceral effect).
A film that Lovely Molly reminded me of during my viewing is another film from this year, Nicholas McCarthy's The Pact. Both films have strong-willed female leads, haunted family homes, troubled family histories, characters with drug problems, and a focus on shaky sisterly bonds. They both even share the same grimy yellow hues, drenched over every scene. But The Pact is such a dull, uninspiring movie. (So dull and uninspiring that I neglected to cover it here on the blog. What was the point?). It possesses no sense of subtlety when its material clearly begged for some. The Pact tries hard to freak you with screechy jump scares and by stabbing Casper Van Dien in the neck, all to no avail; Lovely Molly, working like the charmed film that it is, knows that the scariest thing on earth can be a hug.