Wednesday, June 25, 2014

ESSAY: No, YOU'RE Next: The Transformation of a Home Invasion Thriller

Abstract: A consideration of the possible influence one little-known home invasion thriller had on another, much more well-regarded home invasion thriller. A nasty case of plagiarism? Well, we wouldn't be shocked if the makers of the latter had caught a late night television broadcast of the former at some point. Regardless, this isn't a case of outright thievery; it's a demonstration of how a thriller film becomes a horror film, and of the fine line separating cliched earnestness and intentional self-parody in cinematic storytelling.

This essay features discussion of:
You're Next (2013) dir. Adam Wingard
Below Utopia (1997) dir. Kurt Voss

Allow me to describe for you a horror film. Help me to remember its title.

It goes like this: A young couple is driving to a family get-together. The man (a college English teacher) is anxious because his relationship with his wealthy family (though particularly his father) is strained due to their perception of him as a failure. The woman--the man's significant other--is also anxious, considering this will be her first encounter with his family. The couple arrives at this isolated family estate in the countryside, and many tense encounters are had between siblings and between children and parents. During dinner, a trio of ferocious mercenaries invade the home and murder most everyone inside. The young couple survive by evading the killers, and, eventually, they're able to turn the tables on their aggressors by way of borrowed weapons. In particular, the woman demonstrates her physical and emotional resilience to the terror surrounding her in this second half. 

The killers successfully done away with, a twist is tossed our way like a live hand grenade: the male half of this couple staged the whole grisly affair. See, he hired the anonymous assassins to murder his entire, much-maligned family so that he would be the sole recipient of their vast estate. (It appears that being an English teacher simply wasn't paying the bills.) He then decided to put his girlfriend through this harrowing ordeal so that she could serve as an innocent witness to the authorities concerning the senseless carnage and, thus, discourage any suspicion that might turn in his direction. But, now that she has learned the truth of her boyfriend's nefarious scheming and mass familicide, she has no recourse but to murder him in retaliation, which she does.

What movie am I thinking of?

You might be thinking that I'm thinking of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett's recent home invasion horror film You're Next (2013). Actually, I was describing the film Below Utopia (a.k.a. Body Count, 1997), starring Alyssa Milano, Justin Theroux, Tiny Lister, and the incomparable Ice T. But you wouldn't be wrong, either, because what I've described above is the same basic story (and accompanying minute details) seen in You're Next. The two films are identical in this broad sense, separated only by their respective decades of release and the fact that if you're reading this blog you've most likely seen the one and never even heard of the other.

I'm hesitant to label the similarities between Below Utopia and You're Next as the product of an act of deliberate plagiarism by the latter against the former. Kurt Voss's Below Utopia isn't exactly startling in its originality, and it's possible that writer Simon Barrett was simply working from the cliches of the twisty, surprisingly long-lived inheritance scheme thriller genre when he was drafting You're Next, resulting in a film the travels the same well-trodden path. But I have a tough time swallowing that line. The two films are much too much alike for the resemblance to be mere coincidence, and I would wager that Barrett was influenced at least unconsciously by the earlier film, if not directly. Either way, I have no doubt that Barrett had seen Below Utopia prior to writing his film. This isn't a criticism. I'm equally as certain that Barrett and Wingard had seen The Strangers (2008), Funny Games (1997; 2008), High Tension (2003), Them (2006), Inside (2007), and numerous other contemporary home invasion thrillers before writing You're Next, too. In its postmodern self-awareness, Barrett and Wingard's film is striving to upset the expectations of its specific subgenre, and thus it requires a resemblance to (and familiarity with) those prior films within that subgenre. It's to be expected.

The complicating factor in all this is that Below Utopia isn't a horror film, despite the fact that the majority of home invasion films are. It's a thriller, certainly, perhaps a crime or a drama film, but it's not horror. Almost all of its violence happens off screen, with the emphasis being not on forcing the audience to gawk at the visceral images of a family being demolished but on encouraging that audience to follow the loopy plot twists and stay ahead of the action. The film's antagonists aren't shadowy, menacing madmen, but Tiny Lister checking the radio for basketball scores and Ice T cracking wise between gunshots. It's shot and edited in a flat, suspense-bereft late-'90s DTV style (despite it having received a theatrical release), and while you might run the risk of being absentmindedly entertained by the events on screen, being afraid seems unlikely.

You're Next transforms the same basic story into something that could not be mistaken for anything but a horror film. The film intends to shock, terrify, and amusingly astonish by the lengths to which it goes in sowing its mayhem. Frenetic handheld camerawork, palpable tension punctuated by cheap jump scares, iconic villains, unflinching brutality leavened by audience-rousing reprisals, buckets upon buckets of fake blood: it's all the things midnight movies are made of. Considering its foundational commonalities with the earlier film, You're Next is best viewed as a revision of Below Utopia, seeking to amend the errors of the "original" film's presentation. In a commentary track on You're Next's home video release, Barrett expresses that his desire in writing the film was to correct what bad home invasion movies got wrong. That it does. Despite its novel twists and turns (which You're Next co-opts as its own), Below Utopia is as typical as they come, with audible DUN-DUN-DUNs soundtracking its revelations and strained grasps at psychological complexity. Nevertheless, Below Utopia still presents the horrific concept of a man callously ordering the deaths of his entire immediate and extended family. Does not such a horrific concept deserve the casing of a horror film that You're Next provides?

But You're Next has value beyond this transformation of genre, whatever the truth is concerning its source. In that same commentary track, Barrett and Wingard agree that what is necessary in contemporary horror cinema is not necessarily new material, but new perspectives on that material. You're Next is better classified as an upheaval than a new perspective. Despite their claim that the film contains no overt "postmodern winks," Barrett and Wingard approach You're Next as self parody. The film lulls us into a sense of familiarity by beginning like an earnest slasher film and playing up narrative cliches like the motiveless thrill-killers and cinematic cliches like the sights and sounds of an unnaturally creaky old house. But it's not all that long before the film disregards our expectations and embraces the absurd, with blenders to the head and the apparent immortality of Joe Swanberg's character (another aspect mirrored, though without comment, in Below Utopia's similarly immortal brother character of Justin, as portrayed by Nicholas Walker). You're Next encourages its characters to blindly but knowingly play into genre cliches by splitting up and wandering into dark rooms despite the presence of murderous psychopaths and then milks these moments for dark humor. Simultaneously, the film creates characters and moments that subvert those cliches, like Final Girl Erin (Sharni Vinson), whose childhood training as a survivalist makes her beyond circumstantially resilient, in contrast to so many other horror movie heroines. In short, the film strives successfully to be as unpredictable as it is knowingly hackneyed.

This is because You're Next is pointing out the conventional flaws of films within the subgenres of the slasher and the home invasion thriller while self-consciously reveling in those flaws. To an extent, it's devaluing the earnestness of those other films and acknowledging how crudely fun they can be. It's a film that puts on lurid display its exhaustion with the cliche of horror narratives motivated by nothing but their villains' inherent sadistic evil (à la The Strangers) or hoary psychological derangement (à la Inside) by leading us towards those cliches and then making them vanish, much to our discovered elation. Like Scream (1996), which Barrett and Wingard strangely assure us their film is nothing like, You're Next allows us to feel smart for noticing its manipulation of conventions and its evacuation of faux-realism from a horror movie scenario that rests in absurdity.

Case in point: Below Utopia falls into the trap of faux-realism-through-cliche when it attempts to ground the reasoning for the by-proxy massacre in the sudden and inexplicable mania of Justin Theroux's previously sane character. It's amusing to watch Theroux ham it up as a secret psycho, but this attempted justification of the family massacre plot is far from a satisfying development, as it's trying too hard to explain away actions that are artificial and born of genre narrative necessity anyway. This phony realism, propped up by groan-worthy storytelling banalities, is the state to which so many home invasion thrillers fretfully strive. Why? Unlike most other horror subgenres, the home invasion thriller is constrained by its location. What could be more real or sacrosanct to us than our homes? It's for this reason that most audiences find the notion of home invasion skin-crawling, but it's also for this reason that filmmakers working within the subgenre actively forgo including levity or self-awareness in their productions in the interest of playing on those very real fears. Thus, home invasion thrillers are by and large dour, self-serious affairs, mired in their flimsy sense of authenticity, regardless of the level of preposterous genre fantasy they depict on screen. Like Below Utopia. (Or, for instance, Inside, in which the goopiest, goriest, stupidest blood fantasies are enacted without the trace of a smirk.)

In rebellion against this trend, You're Next embraces the artifice of its plot throughout, and pointedly (and humorously) recognizes the barbarity of its central inheritance scheme, with its mass familicide being ordered for no reason more complex than the accelerated transference of wealth between uber-greedy family members. Barrett and Wingard have re-structured their borrowed plot around the act of the wealthy swallowing up all those around them in the pursuit of more wealth, despite all good sense, placing these actions within a hysterical reality dictated by the logic (or illogic) of the conceit. What the filmmakers achieve is a state of genre filmmaking unadulterated by the restraints of verisimilitude that so many works of fantasy are hobbled with. They've taken a series of films set in its ways and liberated it for a receptive audience, but this insight is partially lost if it's never made clear to us what, specifically, they were taking to begin with, but for a chance encounter with it in the discount DVD bin. If the influence is there (which I suspect it is), it's frustrating that Barrett and Wingard have been so coy about it in the publicity surrounding the film. After all, it's sort of the point.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

ESSAY: The Sacrament (2014), Willow Creek (2014), & the Shape of Found Footage Horror to Come

Abstract: An essay on the current state of the found footage subgenre of horror. Prognosis: Fatal, probably, but that death nerve keeps on twitching. An examination, in particular, of two recent and once-promising FF films (The Sacrament [2014] and Willow Creek [2014]) that fail to add much new to the subgenre while basing their approaches to the form in those of a couple of films over a decade old. The found footage movement appears stagnant, but does any opportunity for advancement or maturation remain? There are slow-burning glimmers of hope.

This essay features discussion of:
The Sacrament (2014) dir. Ti West
Zero Day (2003) dir. Ben Coccio
Willow Creek (2014) dir. Bobcat Goldthwait
The Blair Witch Project (1999) dir. Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick

Back in 2012, after the release of the non-FF but sneakingly like and advertised-as FF horror film Chernobyl Diaries (2012), I predicted that as found footage horror films began to fall from favor, as Hollywood studios and independents alike began to realize that the success of Paranormal Activity (2009) was not quite as repeatable as they'd hoped (even for further Paranormal Activity films), what we'd begin to see was something akin to osmosis. Screened alongside mainstream fluff at the multiplexes for long enough, found footage horror would begin to rub off on its more traditionally filmed peers to the extent that the two would soon become indistinguishable, I imagined. The handheld, documentary style would pop up in films that weren't intended as faux-documentaries, and the emphasis on "character" and "narrative" in traditional horror would evolve into an emphasis on the audience's "experience" of the audible and visual horror. I will pat myself on the back for this one: the fingerprint of the found footage movement is omnipresent as of 2014. You'd have a smaller list by simply noting those films that don't in some way utilize the found footage aesthetic, but for the sake of supporting my claim here's a collection of relevant films that do: Sinister (2012), The Conjuring (2013), The Banshee Chapter (2013), Lovely Molly (2012), The Apparition (2012), Oculus (2014), The Purge (2013), The Quiet Ones (2014). None of these films could reasonably be classified as a found footage horror film, and yet each either contains sections that utilize the FF aesthetic or are traditional horror movies filmed in an FF-reminiscent style.

So my glimpse into the crystal ball of horror cinema's future proved me correct that once, but could I manage a repeat performance of foreseeing? Later in 2012, while fuming over the detritus released to the general public under the working title of The Devil Inside (2012), I posited that all of the creative potential in the unadulterated FF form hadn't been evacuated quite yet, and I was certain that those storytelling champions of the subgenre were riding their horses into view from off on the horizon. Any second now, they'd be here, and found footage horror would find its redemption in the public's eye through their efforts.

I'll admit that I was maybe less of an oracle on this matter. The last two years of found footage films, both major and minor, have been pretty much what I had hoped they wouldn't be: hours upon hours of paranormal investigation or Satanic happening found footage with ambitions stretching no farther than "BOO!" As the gap between consumer and professional digital video fast closes, another sort of osmosis is happening in the realm of budget horror cinema, in which narrative inspiration seems to be derived from supernatural Youtube Gotcha! videos with the highest number of views. The creative bankruptcy of the majority of FF films being produced and released at this moment signals that the subgenre is undoubtedly at its lowest point.

Yet, I wasn't entirely foolhardy in my prediction. In the last few years, a handful of genuine filmmakers have indeed seen the value of the non-traditional found footage form in communicating their stories on screen and thus have produced found footage films of their own. For instance, Barry Levinson (The Bay [2012]) , Renny Harlin (Devil's Pass [2013]), and Bernard Rose (Sxtape [2013]) have all directed found footage horror films within the last two years. Sure, those three aren't exactly visionary filmmakers (as each of their FF films indicate), and, moreover, their embrace of the FF form might be rooted in practicality (promising an FF film's budget might be the only way these relative old-timers can find work within the ever-youthful genre), but the point stands. Filmmakers raised and practiced on traditionally filmed cinema are turning toward the found footage form for some reason or another. Notably, this year saw the limited releases of two promising found footage films from two very different but equally legitimate directors: The Sacrament, directed by Ti West (The Innkeepers [2011], The House of the Devil [2009]), and Willow Creek, directed by Bobcat Goldthwait (God Bless America [2011], World's Greatest Dad [2009]). Perhaps, I imagined, these bonafide filmmakers, whose previous features I find to be both intelligently and artfully crafted, would indeed be the subgenre's ghoulishly pallid white knights, rescuing it from the clutches of insipidness.

My imagination was a bit too romantic. The Sacrament and Willow Creek are both fine films, and in style and execution are among the most satisfying the found footage crop has produced in the past few years. Yet, while watching them, I couldn't shake the vague sense of disappointment that comes with reliving a once-fond experience after years spent apart and finding it somehow diluted, cheapened in the interim. Against my hopes, the majority of what these two films bring to the subgenre is a rehash of what had already come before, over a decade earlier, in a pair of superior films (namely, Zero Day [2003] and The Blair Witch Project [1999]). Despite the best efforts of these talented artists, the subgenre in their hands remains a set of carnival rides eroded with age and held together with rubber bands.

Allow me to explain:

First, there's Ti West's The Sacrament. Heading into it, I held an unreasonable amount of hope for this one. I felt the subgenre needed a savior, and who could be better equipped to accomplish this salvaging than one of our best contemporary horror filmmakers? I nearly peed myself in anticipation when I found out West was making an FF film. Sure, his first effort in the subgenre (the "Second Honeymoon" segment from the FF anthology V/H/S [2012]) wasn't revelatory, but it was the shining pearl of relative intelligence and creativity in that turd pile. I hoped that a full-length effort, unencumbered by the anthology format, might prove even stronger. But The Sacrament is a disappointment. It's been accused of being a slavish faux-reproduction of the Jonestown Massacre, and that it is, but that fact alone doesn't make it a wasted effort. The Jonestown Massacre is a bizarre and perplexing event in American history that no number of talking head documentaries can suffice to make total sense out of. Thus, The Sacrament poised itself to be an enlightening, if fictional, dramatization of events that could attempt to explain, on some level, the damaged human minds that caused it.

It's at this point that I'm reminded of Ben Coccio's faux-Columbine shooting found footage film, Zero Day. What that film and The Sacrament have in common is the use of the found footage form to bring immediacy to a historical tragedy, to allow our camera eye to witness the events firsthand without the glossy layers of Hollywood filmmaking separating us from the very real (if, again, slightly fictionalized) carnage. But, in contrast to Zero Day, The Sacrament doesn't succeed in this goal of making real the horrifying unreality of the actual events. Being a "Horror Film" first and foremost, The Sacrament keeps its cult members frightening and alien to us, and thus we're never presented with the opportunity to know or understand them. We are made to become firsthand witnesses to the events, but we leave them knowing no more about why they happened then those real-life viewers watching television news reports of the Jonestown Massacre's aftermath. It's a problem of perspective: Zero Day utilized the found footage form as a video diary of its Columbine-esque killers, and we, aligned with them as viewers, were encouraged to identify with them and their deeds. The film doesn't justify the actions of its teen murderers, but it allows us to, on a human level, understand a bit more about these killers (both real and imagined) beyond the sneering villain yearbook photos burned into our brains. The Sacrament, released a decade after Zero Day, neglects to forcefully provide us that human identification, and thus its use of this particular history-pilfering form fails. By the close of the film, we know nothing about the motivation of Gene Jones's supernaturally charismatic Father, nor do we truly understand what it took for his many followers to blindly live and die by his dictates, against their better sense and reason. The Sacrament strives to be a Creepy Cult Found Footage movie, not a Chilling Investigation of the Human Condition and Mass Suicide, and thus reeks more of "exploitation" than "examination." This observation doesn't render The Sacrament's most powerful scenes, like the inevitable Kool-Aid guzzling, any less visceral, but it does make them feel significantly more hollow.

And if the connection between The Sacrament and Zero Day feels more spiritual than direct to you in this argument about found footage's inability to advance, then consider Bobcat Goldthwait's found footage Bigfoot hunt, Willow Creek. Before Willow Creek, Goldthwait had never made a  horror film. Regardless, it was difficult for me not to be intrigued by the prospect of what he could bring to the subgenre. His previous, darkly comedic features proved to be winning satires with a keen eye focused upon the shallowness of our current media. Could Willow Creek enact a similar critique, perhaps with that keen eye focused on the innumerable Bigfoot Hunter or Paranormal Investigator "reality" television programs littering the broadcast schedule? Somewhat unfortunately, Willow Creek is a straight-up Bigfoot hunt found footage flick. Bigfoot FF is some of the worst out there at the moment (beaten for the title only by Abandoned Asylum Ghost Hunter FF), so as this realization about the film's intentions dawned on me about a third of the way through my viewing of Willow Creek, I feared for the worst. Fortunately, Willow Creek's steadfast return to the basics of the found footage form reveals the lingering potency of the subgenre's style.

But, simultaneously, Willow Creek reveals the subgenre's unwillingness to move that style forward. As a Supernatural Documentary Gone Awry FF, Willow Creek follows, beat-for-beat, the exact structure of the subgenre's chief progenitor, The Blair Witch Project. As in The Blair Witch Project, we witness the intrepid protagonists of Willow Creek preparing for their documentary shoot, filming introductory footage, entering the relevant town and interviewing the locals, heading to a famous local spot and filming more footage, camping out and being relentlessly terrorized at night while in a tent, getting lost in the woods, and perishing in an enigmatic ending in which much camera-whirling carnage is had and a vague callback from earlier is made. Goldthwait's film is not as succinct as The Blair Witch Project (the townie interview section of Willow Creek drags on far too long), but despite sharing an identical structure, the film doesn't prove grating. While more ramshackle and amateurish than I would have banked on, the film features amiable performances and enough suspense to justify its existence. But still, the question must be begged: is aping (pun intended) another decade-plus-old entry in the subgenre the best that a legitimate filmmaker can muster in 2014? Does such an obvious purloining of previous source material (however effective in isolation) herald the death knell of found footage? Has the shaky well run dry?

I'm still unsure. Considering The Sacrament and Willow Creek in retrospect, I realize that each film's most effective scene provides something to the viewer that traditionally filmed narratives would be extremely reluctant to and that most FF films of yesteryear would also most likely shy away from in their push toward kinetic, nausea-inducing camera movement: the extended stillness of frame. We see this in The Sacrament's horrific stationary long shot of the force-injection of cyanide between once-loving family members. We see it in Willow Creek's remarkable, nearly 20-minute-long tent-entrenched long take. (Actress Alexie Gilmore's face throughout this shot is the film's MVP). These shots may not be new uses of the form (even each of Paranormal Activity films makes occasional use of the camera that lingers), but they're by far the most prolonged and effective uses of a stationary camera that I've seen in the subgenre. Each of these scenes (though brief when considered in the larger running time) remind us of FF's effectiveness as a form, of the squirm-inducing splendor of the camera that won't flinch, and of the filmmaker whose presence is felt only through an absence of interference, who refuses to give us relief through a cut to quieter pastures and instead leaves us as helpless as a camera dropped to the ground. Moving forward, I hope the FF movement embraces this stillness of stationary horror. Let the cameras fall-- and remain-- where they may.