Friday, August 2, 2013

July 2013's Footstones

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

The Conjuring 
dir. James Wan

James Wan's The Conjuring is an excellent major studio-backed horror film, among the most well-crafted in several years. It hits every note of demonic terror to supernatural perfection. Essentially, it's the best Greatest Hits of 1970s-1980s Major Studio Horror that's been produced thus far, incorporating elements of such pop culture titans as The Amityville Horror (1979), Poltergeist (1982), and The Exorcist (1973) into its ceaseless assault of innocent audiences. (Appropriately, those involved had the good sense to make it a period piece set in 1971.) It's good press that The Conjuring is the first film to be given an R-rating by the MPAA not because of any specific content but because it's simply too scary. However, this badge of honor from the MPAA also inadvertently articulates an almost intangible quality of the film itself: it's horror filmmaking at its purest, most refined state. Every accelerated plot point, every dread-filled pause in the action, every move the camera makes is executed for maximum fright effect. To aid this, the filmmakers adopt the feeling of '70s horror alongside its base mechanical parts: The film avoids CGI and paces its jumps with suspense. It establishes a concrete sense of space with the Perron family homestead (one of the more simultaneously beautiful and creepily atmospheric movie houses of recent years) and then drops a thick, palpable layer of unheimlich menace over it. Deplorable teenagers aren't shoved in front of us as our protagonists, but a pair of loving and sympathetic families is. There's no story-betraying sting-in-the-tail twist, just the schmaltzy, reaffirming Poltergeist II-styled message that Love Conquers All (with a little help from Jesus, too: though the film's general lack of cynicism is refreshing, the social and religious conservatism implied by its conclusion is a tad too old-fashioned, supporting (rather sneakily) an overly traditional notion of the family unit as a man and a woman with clearly defined gender roles popping out an endless string of children in service of God. For more on how this implicit message is at odds with the more interesting and dynamic changes to social and cultural values brought about in the '70s, check out Jed Mayer's excellent essay on the film).

All of these deliberate stylistic choices signal that The Conjuring is determined to be a classical horror movie updated for modern viewing sensibilities, much like Wan's two previous horror films, Insidious (2011) and Dead Silence (2007). But The Conjuring sidesteps the eccentric creativity of those previous films in favor of conventionality. Every recognizable scary movie element is here: the dead dog, the child who talks to ghosts, the birds who fly into windows, the hidden basement, the possessed doll, the invisible force that pulls on your feet at night. Noting all of these components helps one to realize that The Conjuring might be the most generic horror film of the past decade, but not to its detriment. The film's effect lies in its ability to compound those elements of horror movie lore into one seamless though overstuffed entity that hurls itself incessantly at its audience and sticks, leech-like, at the back of our necks. It's exhilarating to watch the film push two hours but never outstay its welcome and not once lose the attention of its rapt audience. The Exorcist can't claim that much. 

True, it is a bit of a downer that Wan, one of modern horror's top directing talents, chose to retreat from the slightly more daring propositions of his early horror films, Saw (2004) included, because The Conjuring-- as technically excellent as it may be-- doesn't attempt to add anything new to the genre's repertoire. (Perhaps the absence of his frequent partner, screenwriter Leigh Whannell, has something to do with this relative lack of daring.) Even worse, Wan is beginning to display signs of a desire to move out of the genre, as we might guess from his recent landing of the Fast 7 gig. We're fortunate enough to be the recipients of Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013) a couple short months from now, but if that's the last we see of "James Wan, Horror Filmmaker" for the foreseeable future, then we certainly have a lot less to look forward to. But maybe our future isn't hopeless. The monstrous financial success of films like The Conjuring and The Purge (2013) this year is heartening, for it shows the major studios that they can take risks on mature, inexpensive, and creatively made R-rated horror films because an audience hungry for them indeed exists. (Perhaps unfortunately, the equal success of Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013) back in January also tells them that the easy-to-please teenage audience is still breathing, too.) If the studios decide to take a few more of these chances in the coming years while avoiding the big budget horror flops, remakes, and tossed off sequels of the recent past (all of which have had diminishing returns) the genre will be better off for it. And, who knows, maybe something more bold and original will slip past some executive's desk and into theaters.

dir. Jamie Blanks

The magnetic tape in my VHS copy of Urban Legend (1988) has degraded to the point that Rebecca Gayheart's irrepressible mane always looks like its snowing, and yet, as frequently as I've enjoyed that supreme slice of late '90s slasher throwback cheese over the years since its release, I've been neglectful in checking out the further work of its Aussie director, Jamie Blanks. Because Blanks displays in Urban Legend the most playful and perceptive understanding of the subgenre of any of his contemporaries during the latter part of the decade, this neglect of his subsequent films is especially egregious with regard to the second slasher flick he directed a mere few years later. Valentine (2001) switches out the stock college campus setting of Urban Legend (which brought to mind such campus slasher classics as Final Exam (1981) and Girls Nite Out (1982)) for that of the equally recognizable holiday party (like those in April Fool's Day (1986) and Killer Party (1986)). Valentine also trades on the time-honored slasher tradition of jilted dorks taking revenge against adults for affronts committed when they were childhood classmates, just like the jilted dorks in Slaughter High (1986) and Class Reunion Massacre (1978) do. Though based on a thriller novel by Tom Savage, it's clear after only peeping at the source material's jacket copy that the basic story was reconfigured by its screenwriters and director with the classic (and less-than-classic) slasher canon in mind. The resulting picture is not quite as much fun as Urban Legend is (it's missing that film's irresistible legend-based hook), but it's roughly as successful with regard to its aim of placing standard '80s slasher tomfoolery into the context of the new millennium. What inspires the killer's nose to bleed right before he makes his kills? On what planet could David Boreanaz be convincingly cast as an alcoholic? Why does Denise Richards strip down for a solo indoor jacuzzi dip during the middle of a party in a house that isn't her own? Why are these questions? The acting is bad, the punning valentine notes the killer sends his victims are worse, and a stalking scene set in a video-art museum installation is strikingly, nearly sublimely goofy. Valentine is the genuine article, a decade and a half too late.

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