Thursday, July 4, 2013

June 2013's Footstones

Being a List of the Assorted Horrors I've Consumed During the Month of June, 2013.

V/H/S/2 (2013) dir. Eduardo Sánchez, Adam Wingard, Gareth Huw Evans, et al.

The loathing at the foundation of my being that I felt for the first film in the V/H/S anthology series was generated by three salient facts about its production: 1) the repugnant "ironic" misogynism derived from its meathead fraternity party tone, 2) its lack of interest in the found footage genre as anything but a cheap delivery system for "BOO!s," and 3) a disinterest in employing the horror anthology format to create a coherent world for its stories. Sadly, my complaints matter very little to anyone, and V/H/S was a resounding financial success on VOD and home video, especially considering its scrappy roots, and thus a fast-tracked sequel was greenlit soon after its general release. The infernal spawn of this newly fledged series, V/H/S/2, featuring a new crop of established horror directors trying their hands at the shaky cam, is embarrassingly bad.

All of my complaints about the original are present here, supplemented with some new ones. As a found footage film, it hardly registers as attempting a semblance of verisimilitude. We find tapes edited together from multiple cameras, nonstop lazy fantasy camera gimmicks, non-diegetic scores and Inception foghorns, and the requisite post-production camera malfunctions. Like that of the previous film, Simon Barrett's wraparound story makes no attempt to connect the individual stories into a larger fictional world (which appears to now contain winged demons, zombies, aliens, ghosts, and a goat-headed Antichrist) or explore the origins or purpose of the bizarre underground VHS tape fetishism club that is the film's flimsy conceit. The existence of these perfunctory wraparound stories in the V/H/S films is a head-scratcher. If the filmmakers don't care about developing a unified world for these short films, why bother with including this weak connective tissue? Why not simply present them as a collection of short films? The only conceivable answer is that the filmmakers wish to include a believable, realistic narrative framework to explain how the audience is seeing the shorts, but this effort is made to seem ludicrous when contrasted against the films' copious technical  dismissals of logic and reality. Otherwise, the wraparounds simply provide more opportunities for between-story cutaways to quick shots of figures lurking in the background, and that's always a plus, right? Right? As is the case with the initial film, if this is not an entirely cynical appeal to the lowest common denominator's wallets then I am extremely depressed.

The shorts in brief: Adam Wingard's "Clinical Trials" displays the same oafishness as his contribution to the last film, including-- as it does-- the suggestion that ghost attacks can be prevented by having sex with a nude woman while a literal voyeuristic male camera eye watches the action. How did this man also make the wonderful A Horrible Way to Die (2010)? Eduardo Sánchez, fresh off the fantastic Lovely Molly (2012), takes a huge step backwards in his subgenre efforts with his short "A Ride in the Park," which is an only partly clever concept stranded without a story (and half of that concept is swiped-- almost certainly unintentionally-- from the insufferable Last Ride (2011)). Jason Eisener's short "Alien Abduction Slumber Party" is an obnoxious riff on Alien Abduction: Incident at Lake County (1998) with trying-too-hard dog-splatter shock value. I'll give a hesitant seal of approval to Gareth Huw Evans's section, "Safe Haven," which contains an ounce of narrative and is at least amusing in its nonsensical mayhem, but it's clear that this short (already the film's longest by a good margin) could have benefited from the fleshing out that a full-length feature could provide.

As a whole, this is the worst sort of creatively barren dreck. It closes with a shotgun-blasted tongue wagging, a thumbs up, and a split-second frame showcasing some bare breasts. Bravo. I'm being harsh about this film and its makers but that's because there's some (seemingly) talented people behind it and their efforts are no more complex than a Youtube "REAL GHOST" video with mediocre production values. The FF mode of storytelling fascinates me because of its potential for subtlety and unique storytelling possibilities, but more and more often lately it's being used (and abused) by hack filmmakers to create so-called "visceral experiences" that are so calculated, phony, and devoid of story that it prevents any sort of immersion within the cinematic world. And being that immersion is what these filmmakers seem to want to accomplish with the aesthetic, what's the fucking point if you ignore reality and narrative coherency for the sake of convenience and lazy thrills? I don't think the people behind this movie are stupid, so my only guess is that they don't care. They see (correctly, unfortunately) that teenagers and indiscriminate horror fans flock to low-budget, low-effort FF films with copious jump scares, so they set out to make some (quickly, cheaply) in that mold. I think the V/H/S films are a high profile demonstration of how allowing FF to become pure aesthetic rather than a mode in which to tell a story produces nothing of any value. Anthology horror films, by their nature, can often be slight, but this thing is non-existent.

Hatchet III (2013) dir. BJ McDonnell

Imagine if the opening scene of Jason Goes to Hell (1993) had been stretched out into two feature length films. Now crawl into a ball and begin muttering to yourself while swatting imaginary flies wearing "Hatchet Army" t-shirts. Adam Green has done well for himself against the odds, establishing (on the strength of really only one film and a tacky seasonal online short) a coterie of genre fans who salivate over his work and defend it with passion. This adoration has elevated him to the status of a bonafide genre personality (he co-stars in a sitcom about himself, for Gozer's sake!) and his chief creation, the ghostly disfigured hillbilly Victor Crowley, into the pantheon of iconic indestructible slasher baddies. It's important to note how remarkable an achievement this is, regardless of the quality of the films that Green has had a hand in. There are three Hatchet movies. How did this happen, especially after the critical, financial, and PR disaster that was Hatchet II (2010)? Scott Glosserman tried to create a new franchise villain for the genre the year before Green with his superior film Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) and has unequivocally failed, so such a task appears downright herculean in the post-'80s horror landscape. And yet Hatchet is now a trilogy

The initial Hatchet is a fun enough film, and though it's steeped in juvenile humor it also manages to overcome those groans and become (on occasion) genuinely frightening, primarily due to our uneasiness over the hulking Crowley and his abilities. Hatchet II finds the navigation between humor and horror more arduous: misogynist "jokes" dominate and the practical gore is played exclusively for "laughs." Worse, we're shown too much concerning Victor Crowley's convoluted background, which demystifies this spectral baddie while trying to make us sympathetic to his plight. Hatchet II was not well received outside of Green's core fan base, and the unrated film was pulled from the several dozen cinemas it was playing in after only a few days. Perhaps the experience of that sequel soured Green from taking directing duties on this third chapter, though he remains on staff as writer and executive producer. (However, Green clearly has a sense of humor about himself: he cameos in Hatchet III for one brief shot as a man in the Sheriff's drunk tank who gives an offended look when the Sheriff (Zach Galligan), after being told the events of the previous two films, comments that the yarn is the stupidest he's ever heard.) 

Hatchet III is directed by Green's cameraman from the two previous films, though this passing of the reins makes very little difference: this is every bit what you'd expect of a second Hatchet sequel, if not somewhat less than. It lazily repeats the "mercenaries hunting down Crowley" story from Part II and does nothing else with it. The film even continues to take place on the very same night as the other two, as if the filmmakers are incapable of evolving their story out of familiar swamps, or perhaps hesitant to experiment with their barely-there formula and risk not giving those Hatchet Army standard bearers exactly what they want. Consequently, the film is littered with dumb jokes, excessive gore (of which some is bolstered with cheap computer VFX, effectively tarnishing the series' self-avowed practical effects cred), and too many glimpses of its invulnerable villain, who is less an agent of fear than a walking threshing machine. Seeing a welcome  yet bulkier Zach Galligan struggle through a Louisiana accent isn't enough of a draw to make the endeavor a worthwhile one. This, like its predecessor, is DTV garbage. The fact that-- technically-- it's not is one to admire, but I don't have to be happy about it.

Pacific Heights (1990) dir. John Schlesinger

Pacific Heights, John Schelesinger's high anxiety thriller about the horrors of financial responsibility and the sociopathic viciousness of those aspiring to maintain personal wealth, is one of the finest horror films of the 1990s. It's that almost unheard of thriller that manages to set its audience to squirming without resorting to egregious shock tactics. Rather, it taps into the subconscious nightmare of anyone who has ever had a monster for a landlord or tenant. Michael Keaton's sparse but perfect performance as the tenant from hell is effective because of his absent presence: he's the unseen monster making ceaseless noise behind the locked door. Worse, he's the monster with the legal right to be there. Although Pacific Heights seems to me to be pointedly critical of the desire for upward mobility, the foremost charge levied against the film is that it's a horror film for yuppies. But so what? I can't think of anything scarier than being a yuppie. 

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