Friday, September 26, 2014

A Dreadful Decade (Part IX): The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh (2012) dir. Rodrigo Gudiño

Logline: After inheriting the estate of his estranged mother (Vanessa Redgrave) upon her death, Leon Leigh (Aaron Poole) visits her empty home to gain a sense of closure to their unresolved relationship. Alone in the house and surrounded by her collection of occult relics and decorations, Leon begins to recall his traumatic childhood, during which his mother incessantly tried to induct him into the bizarre cult of angels that she and her husband belonged to. Over the course of the night, the ghosts of Leon's past and the monsters of his present will converge in order to test the strength of his disbelief.

Analysis: There are two different interpretations that we are encouraged to read from Leon Leigh's journey back through his tortured personal history and decayed family relationships. Rather than being antithetical to one another, these separate readings are both required pieces of the same sad puzzle.

At first, we're encouraged to read the haunting that Leon experiences while spending the night in his mother's home as symbolic of him confronting the trauma of his childhood spent with her. We learn as the film progresses that Rosalind subjected the juvenile Leon to borderline sadistic "games" that sought to pressure him into becoming a believer of her occult faith in the power of angels. The rift that formed between mother and son was caused by Leon's steadfast refusal to "play" his mother's game and his eventual flight away from the oppressive coercion she placed upon him at home. Now, separated from his experience for many years, Leon begins to subconsciously doubt his decision, despite his outward gestures demonstrating his continued agreement with the conclusions of his younger self (e.g. putting his cigarette out in an angel statue's stone eye). Leon begins to fear that his mother was right, and that by turning his back on the angels of her faith he has encouraged the angels to give up protecting him from the horrors of the world. Thus, the horrors of the world come scraping at the front door, in the form of a snarling, impossibly long-limbed cat-beast, a creature that could have oozed its sickeningly hairy form from the pages of one of M. R. James's tales. Thanks in part to the rationalizing psychological advice of his girlfriend/therapist as given through various phone conversations over the course his harrowing night, Leon is eventually able to shake off his frightening hallucinations and renew his conviction in the falseness of his mother's beliefs, ridding himself of her cloying spirit and his lingering self-doubts in the process. As a final gesture indicating that he's ready to move on, Leon announces his intentions to sell off every bit of Rosalind's property. This chapter of his life has been completed.

But the film's final moments provide us with the second interpretation of the events that have transpired. Rosalind, who has been speaking to us throughout the film as a disembodied voice on the soundtrack, finally reveals her words as emanating from beyond the grave, rather than from the written last will and testament of the title. From her restless spirit, we learn of her suicide, and how it was motivated by her son's unwillingness to forgive her, the loss of faith that accompanied her belief's inability to set things right, and the subsequent loneliness that crept up on her, "like an animal ready to pounce," over the years spent without her beloved son. We learn that in her continuously cruel desperation to coerce and control her son's feelings, she leaves Leon a suicide note reading, "Do you miss me as much as I miss you?" Finally, we learn that Leon never reads the note, for he never deigns to visit her accursed home, even after she bequeaths it to him. The Leon of the film is Rosalind's fantasy, an imaginative torture she puts herself through nightly as she watches, again and again, her son abandon her and her beliefs, even as she cries out pitifully for him to stay. The ghost becomes the haunted, and rightfully so. Rosalind's inability to understand the effect of her actions on her son, and thus her unwillingness to seek forgiveness or change her ways, marks her for her haunted fate. We could call this existence Rosalind has made for herself a sort of hell, but perhaps not: in her imagination, at least Leon wills himself to remember her, if only for a night.

Technical Merits: The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh is writer/director/Rue Morgue Magazine founder and president Rodrigo Gudiño's first full-length feature film, produced after creating only a handful of short films prior. Though inventive, his shorts lack the substance to elevate them above their visual gimmicks. What is so surprising about Rosalind Leigh, then, is how confident, controlled, and deliberate its style feels, and what a boon it is to the film's realization of its narrative. Though minimalist by design and budgetary necessity, the film hardly feels like an apprentice effort. Gudiño effortlessly blends long takes, voice-over storytelling, found footage, single location shooting, dodgy (but well-masked) CGI, and documentary-esque explorations of visual space as if to do so were his second nature. You could label the film's freewheeling, ever-evolving style as the product of an overeager first-time filmmaker wanting to cram all of his newly learned tricks in at once, but that feels to me like the wrong assessment. There's a clarity of purpose in the film's every wild and unexpected stylistic shift, as it seeks to make strange once again the horror stories and situations that we've become overly familiar with. I don't necessarily understand every one of Gudiño's stylistic choices (uh, opening credits over the little brother of Kubrick's cosmic fetus?), but I suspect he has his reasons. And, even if not, the cumulative effect of the film's technical experimentation is a breed of weird I can still get behind

Pared down to its bones, Rosalind Leigh contains no plot development or horror set-piece that we could call wholly unique, but the myriad ways in which these familiar elements are presented to us sure make them feel that way. An example: a character calls up a home security company to review the footage from the camera outside the front door of the house he's in. We've seen this scene before in other horror films, and we know it might (very likely) end with the discovery of some fiend or creature barely visible somewhere within the frame of the blurry footage. Gudiño makes this typical scene strange by a) implying vaguely, and without future consequence, through religious music on hold and creepy amateur web design that the security company is run by the mysterious angel cult, b) presenting the customer service representative on the other line as a strangely lifelike computer-generated voice that can seemingly respond to complex human language commands, and c) having this impossibly strange computer be voiced by the very same actor who is speaking to it over the phone. Nothing of any particularly horrific value occurs during this scene, plot-wise -- unless you find a man on the phone sitting at a computer to be a terrifying sight in and of itself -- but the film's off-kilter presentation of the action makes it one of many uniquely disquieting scenes sown throughout the film, sprouting strangeness.

Relevance: As a single-location, (more-or-less) single-actor horror film, Rosalind Leigh bears a certain resemblance to the excellent middle portions of the two adaptations of Susan Hill's The Woman in Black (1989; 2012), in which our lone protagonist wanders around the dreary home of a now-deceased occupant and uncovers curiosities, documents, and recordings that reveal a macabre secret history underlying the present day narrative. But unlike both versions of The Woman in Black, Rosalind Leigh realizes that the isolation and anxiety produced by this haunted ramble can be intensified by never leaving the property. We're given no respite from the subtle terrors lining the walls and lurking behind every door of Rosalind Leigh's unheimlich abode, and this helps make the film one of the stronger examples of horror cinema fascinated with architecture and physical space. Like The Shining's Overlook Hotel, The Innkeepers' Yankee Pedlar Inn, or Session 9's Danvers State Hospital, Rosalind Leigh's grotesque home is essentially the film's secondary protagonist, and exploring the very form and atmosphere of this space provides many of the film's most suffocating terrors. (And, again, unlike those other films, Rosalind Leigh never allows us to fill our lungs with the air from any other location, not even for a moment.)

Also of interest to horror fans is Rosalind Leigh's exploration of the relatively untapped potential of angels as objects of horror. Sure, we can't help but see shades of Doctor Who's Weeping Angels in the possibly animate angel statues of Gudiño's film, but the defining characteristic of Rosalind Leigh 's angels (besides them not being, well, time-energy feeding aliens) is how creepy they act while ostensibly trying to save our souls from an afterlife of torment. That's an impressive feat. The film employs its angels as symbols of the uneasiness you feel when a little old lady on the street hands you a church pamphlet while cheerily informing you that you're going to burn in hell. The horror of these angelic figures is generated from the jarring disconnect between the dual religious messages they impart to their victims, alternately turned towards them with open arms and turned away with grimaces carved upon their faces: If you believe in me, I will comfort and protect you; If you disbelieve, fear the worst. These are the sort of benignly horrific angels that cinema could use more of. They're a welcome development away from the mopey badass angels of The Prophecy (1995) and Legion (2010), and they're just about as frightening as a winged John Travolta in Michael (1996).

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Dreadful Decade (Part VIII): Absentia (2011) dir. Mike Flanagan

Logline: Seven years after her husband vanished without a trace and with his death now having been declared in absentia, Tricia (Courtney Bell) is finally beginning to move on with her life, despite feeling haunted by his absence. She's pregnant with her first child, involved in a new romance, and reconnecting with her long-estranged younger sister, Callie (Katie Parker). But when her husband, Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown), appears bloody, malnourished, and traumatized on the street in front of their home, Tricia's life is once again thrown into confusion and turmoil. Where has Daniel been for the past near decade, and what does his disappearance have to do with the large number of missing persons in the immediate area over the past century? The answers lie within the walls of a dark cement tunnel, underneath the reality we perceive, in a fantastic hell of unearthly origins.

Analysis: Absentia is a film about loss, grief, and the ghosts of past shames haunting us in the present. It's a film about sisterhood, family, and sacrifice. Perhaps strangely, it's also a film about the cruelty of a greedy bridge troll. Well, as we learn, it looks a little more like a silverfish than Shrek, but a troll nonetheless. Fortunately, the film's emphasis isn't placed on exploring the wickedness of a fairy tale monster, but on examining the sad lives of the gruff goats the troll gobbles up in his hunger. Though the film takes the Norwegian fairy tale "Three Billy Goats Gruff" as its partial inspiration, we're left to experience the alternate version, in which the goats fail to outsmart their adversary. We're watching the previous goats, the ones who attempted to cross the bridge before the fairy tale proper begins: the goats whose lives gave the troll its reputation for voraciousness.

These are battered, broken characters, hobbled by their addictions, mistakes, and regrets. Tricia has lost seven years of her life searching for and mourning over her lost husband, whom she never really loved to begin with. (They were high school sweethearts, we learn, and their marriage was a rash and unhappy decision.) Callie has been adrift for most of her adult life, struggling with drugs and doomed romantic relationships, all while alienating herself from her family and loved ones. Both seek solace through various methods (Tricia through rounds of therapy and meditation; Callie through religion), but both cannot escape their demons (Tricia is haunted by visions of her accusatory husband; Callie keeps her emergency stash in a jewelry box beneath her crucifix). Their lives are not happy ones, and just when things begin to look up (the sisters reconnect, a baby is on the way, a romance is in bloom, a new house is being hunted for, a fresh start is on the horizon), life kicks them off the figurative bridge into the muck: Daniel returns and then disappears once more, Callie starts using again (or at least everyone assumes-- and always will assume-- she has), romance is ruined, plans are scrapped, and trust and faith evaporate.

The film's tagline proclaims, "There are fates worse than death." True: there's always life. What option do Tricia, Callie, and even Daniel have but to absent themselves from their situations, to retreat to a realm that's not quite death but far from the disappointments of earthly existence? In their turns, all three are spirited away to a subterranean nether realm, existing beyond the laws of matter and possibly time. But, you might be asking, isn't this all the fault of that greedy troll and his famous appetite for those who wander onto his terrain by mistake? Surely these three weren't asking for their grim fates. Ah, but a counterargument: consider how easy it is for those characters who remain to justify away the absence of those missing, to imagine the hundred reasons they would have to simply disappear. When Callie attempts a trade with the troll for Tricia and her unborn infant, we might commend her selflessness for offering up herself first, instead of the customary neighborhood pets. But is it selflessness of selfishness? Is Callie envious of her sister's tortured quasi-oblivion? It might seem the cruelest trick when the troll spits out only Tricia's unborn fetus in response to Callie's offer before collecting its flesh bounty from her, but perhaps it's not a trick at all. Perhaps Tricia is precisely where she wants to be, absent from the pains of the past seven years. And as for Callie, it's telling that our last image of her in the film is a tranquil one, shot from behind and through the strange perspective of the realm she now inhabits, looking out into what she used to know as her cursed reality. We see that her new keeper has its insectile arm draped lightly over her shoulders, as if in comfort.

Technical Merits: Absentia is a testament to the potential effectiveness of horror on a limited budget, With over a third of its production funds crowdsourced from a Kickstarter campaign, the film didn't have an inordinate amount of money to play around with, but writer/director/editor Mike Flanagan sure makes the most of his pennies. Unable to afford lavish special effects to create the film's eerie subterranean netherworld or its mammoth insect overseer, Flangan and his cinematographer choose to employ suggestion and subtlety (those oft forgotten tricks of the trade) in those spots of the film where visual horror is necessitated. The dreary digital sheen of the film's mid-level high definition video is made an aesthetic asset rather than a mark of its financial inferiority: its startles us with its placement of an ancient, folkloric evil within the context of the mundane contemporary world and the digital lenses we now more often than not glimpse it through. 

This is what budget horror cinema should look and feel like in the current decade. That Flanagan was able to accomplish so much with the pocket change (relatively speaking) that he had for Absentia, and then turn in a glossy, Hollywood-esque followup with (in Hollywood's terms) a paltry $5 million for his next feature, the excellent Oculus (2014), should shame most other horror filmmakers out of the genre. You know what else cost $5 million? Paranormal Activity 4 (2012), which was funded and produced by Blumhouse Productions, just like Oculus was. It shouldn't be, but it's like comparing rotten apples and blood oranges. The rotten apples should start paying attention to the superior fruit.

Relevance: Absentia is a candied house of horrors for its viewers. As we approach it, the film gives off the sickly sweet appearance of a character drama. We imagine we'll get up close and personal to the lives of our principles, tasting the bitter outer layers of trauma and hardship before our taste buds hit the saccharine redemption at the center. Ah, but we are mistaken, for this is a witch's candy house, and as we wander inside we discover the horror locked in the basement: the endurance of the scarier fairy tales and folklore against the progression of time, sugarcoating a Lovecraftian realm of supernatural, subterranean terrors and torment. Our mouths taste sour before we're pushed into the oven, off of the troll's foot bridge, into Grandma Wolf's gaping maw. We've been tricked. The film ushers childhood bedtime stories and nightmares into horror's contemporary era, but its revisions of these interchangeable tales we dimly recall from our youth are only surface-level. (A bug for a troll isn't much.) To truly frighten us, it knows that it need only tell us the tales again.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Dreadful Decade (Part VII): The Innkeepers (2011) dir. Ti West

Logline: On the last weekend of the historic Yankee Pedlar Inn's operation as a business, front desk clerks Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) embark on a ghost hunt when not serving their few remaining guests. The two minimum wage workers hope to capture evidence of the presence of Madeline O'Malley, the hotel's famed phantasm, for fun and possible profit. But Claire is soon to discover that the spirits of the Yankee Pedlar Inn are very real, and that they have their own plans to capture her, too...

Analysis: In traditional ghost stories, ghosts aren't created by accident. Fate (or the authorial hand) pushes certain characters-- even on occasion the protagonists-- towards their haunted afterlives, bestowing upon them an existence lonelier than death. Such a fate may seem cruel and unfair, but we can't shake the feeling that these characters are marked for ghost-dom, and that they might lead more productive lives postmortem than they were able to while still breathing.

In The Innkeepers, Claire is already a sort of ghost when we meet her. Her aimlessness and twenty-something ennui places her somewhere between life (or adolescent vigor) and death (the inevitable daily grind). When, early in the film, she flees from the range of the insipid juvenile babble issuing from the mouth of a similarly aged barista (Lena Dunham), we realize that Claire has divorced herself from the concerns of young adulthood, but her inability to even comprehend a life or passion outside of her dead-end job illustrates her failure to assume the (sometimes soul-crushing) responsibilities of being an adult. At one point in the film, Luke accuses Claire of being in the throes of a "quarter-life crisis," but this is news to her: even with the inevitable closing of her place of employment mere days away, Claire hasn't given a moment's thought to her plans post-steady paycheck.

This absence of forethought on Claire's part is because she is exactly where she's supposed to be, among the other lost and purposeless spirits (a widower, an abandoned bride) haunting the Yankee Pedlar Inn. Claire has been marked by fate: as Luke notes, when trying to comfort her, "Everything happens for a reason, Claire. Nobody just winds up at Yankee Pedlar." His aren't hopeful words.

The film posits young adulthood and minimum wage work as a sort of purgatory that one can either aspire a way out of or be trapped in forever. (Though the film also acknowledges the difficulty of making anything of one's self in our busted, post-bubble economy. What exactly is one to do for a "legitimate career"? Open a hotel?) Luke is spared a ghostly existence because at least he's trying, however poorly, to achieve a level of success outside of the doomed inn. On the contrary, Claire subconsciously realizes she has no aspirations, prospects, or literally any place else to haunt, and the end of the business is, for all intents and purposes, the end of her aimless wheel-spinning.

The rotten economy leads to the demise of both Claire and the Yankee Pedlar, but it's the hotel that emerges as the major figure worth mourning. The film imparts to us lots of little intimations that the Yankee Pedlar has a real, tangible history, and that the hotel itself is actively resisting becoming obsolete, forgotten, and unoccupied (it's making new ghosts, after all). And, if we can't bring ourselves to feel sympathy for a woman unable or unwilling to pull herself up by her still-corporeal bootstraps, we can certainly lament the loss of a home for wayward souls.

Technical Merits: Separated by actual title cards, the film's chapters unfurl before us like those of the best supernatural literature: slowly but certainly, like graveworms to the corpse buffet. The Innkeepers abandons the retro style of Ti West's previous films The Roost (2005) and The House of the Devil (2009), but revels in the slow-burn horror of the latter. West's avoidance of a deliberately nostalgic style in this retro-narrative-influenced outing is appropriate, juxtaposing the lurid appeal of ancient history (the historic hotel; the classical ghost story) with the overwhelming sterility and blandness of the modern world (dispiriting economic recession; contemporary horror cinema). Thus, West keeps much of The Innkeepers snail-paced, its exquisitely framed images rolling deliberately, almost fluidly, across the screen. He allows only fleeting glimpses of the supernatural to crawl into his compositions and remind us of the gracefully sinister storytelling traditions wallpapered over by the 21st century's drudgery.

Like all effective horror films (and like very few of its contemporaries), The Innkeepers understands that true horror is not located in the repeated build-up and release of suspense. Rather, horror is generated by mood and atmosphere, by the disquieting framing of the camera or by editing that lingers serenely on the ghastliest of sights just long enough to sear them into our retinas. In this vein, West openly pokes fun at his peers and their over-reliance on build-and-release jump scares: in one scene, Luke spooks Claire with one of the many Youtube videos in which a half minute of silent anticipation is shattered by a demonic shriek and the enlarged image of some variation of Linda Blair's face. Put into comparison with the mastery of the genre's form on display in The Innkeepers, the bulk of modern horror looks roughly as complex and polished as the uploaded shock-video efforts of hypothetical Youtube user dEMonIAC94. Sure, West is rubbing other filmmakers' noses in their own laziness a little bit (even if lightheartedly), but I won't fault him for setting a higher standard.

Relevance: The Innkeepers is a little like Charles Dickens's "The Signal-Man" (1866), if you transported the latter's action from the lonely railroad tracks of England to a lonely historic inn in Connecticut. Both The Innkeepers and "The Signal-Man" are concerned with protagonists stuck in dead-end jobs, haunted by spirits of their own static lives, and ultimately consumed by their inability to extricate themselves from their situations. There's not an exact resemblance between the two works, but Ti West, The Innkeepers' writer and director, is quite obviously paying homage to the tradition of classical Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories that "The Signal-Man" is a sterling example of: quaint, melancholy tales of the relationship between fate and the supernatural.

The film's use of this classical ghost yarn form is important because of its increasing obsolescence in 21st-century horror cinema. Traditional ghost stories simply aren't feasible in our postmodern era. Look at the ghost films of recent years: Paranormal Activity (2009), Ringu (1998), Kairo (2001). Each of these films strives to place the figure of the ghost outside of its familiar territory (no more haunted manors, hotels, moors, or cemeteries) and thoroughly enmesh its existence with the most recognizable elements of modern technology (home video cameras, telephones, VHS tapes, televisions, webcams, and the Internet). The postmodern ghost transcends fixed place and lives out its afterlife digitally through our devices and media; the traditional ghost that The Innkeepers homages is stranded, rattling its chains to deaf ears while irrevocably tied to its location. And the fact is that America's haunted locations are dying. Demolitions, re-modelings, and renovations are eradicating the country's architectural history, replacing buildings of character with antiseptic McMansions, planned communities, and strip malls. At the time of The Innkeepers' release in 2011, Phil Coldiron wrote, "who could imagine a ghost story set in a Courtyard by Marriott?" No one can, and that's why the majority of traditional ghost films produced in the last decade or so (The Others [2001], The Orphanage [2007], The Devil's Backbone [2001], The Awakening [2011]) have been period pieces set in foreign countries, alleviating our difficulty in imagining a contemporary America with standing buildings old enough to have a history.

The ghosts of yore dematerialize with the shuttering of their local haunts, and this is a reality worth mourning. In the for-real operational Yankee Pedlar Inn (est. 1891) and its ghostly inhabitants (both "real" and imagined), West finds dual last bastions worth celebrating, and his film's intelligent drawing of parallels between the demise of historic architecture and the growing irrelevancy of ghost stories demonstrates his fondness for and eagerness to preserve both, if only temporarily. Sadly, but appropriately, he ends The Innkeepers with the image of a door being shoved closed, both literally and figuratively. We could claim a spirit's forceful push was the cause, but the handprints smudged on the frame are our own.