Monday, February 8, 2010

2009 Horror Movie Postmortem PART 2: FAREWELL TO THE FLESH

JUST FOR LAUGHS

So like I was getting at in the last post, I think within the next few years we're going to see horror start to trend back towards a more fun, funny style. And to prove my point, I think we had a decent crop of horror comedies in 2009. Most notable of course was Sam Raimi's long awaited return to the genre, Drag Me to Hell. I don't think it holds a candle to his Evil Dead series, and I still wish it had gone for a gore-tastic, hard R-rating, but it was a breath of fresh air: an exuberant burst of energy in dour times. Something of an updating of Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon, Drag Me to Hell is a countdown-to-doom style horror movie that derives great pleasure in toying with the audience's expectations. Raimi is something of sadist and enjoys heaping punishment not only upon his heroine (Allison Lohman, who I must say successfully plays the Bruce Campbell role of abused protagonist) but upon the audience. The thickness in which Raimi lays on the ending, piling happy ending upon happy ending until everyone in the audience realizes that something truly awful is imminent, is worth the price of admission alone.

If I'm cheating by lumping in David Twohy's A Perfect Getaway with the horror comedies, then fucking sue me. For a tense thriller it damn sure has a witty screenplay. In fact, while not the best horror screenplay of the year, it is definitely the most clever, not only because of its big (and somewhat predictable) plot twist, but also because of some nice structural touches (such as a flashback extended to the point of brilliant absurdity) and amusing self-referential humor about said twist. I am also quite fond of the way the film's slow-burn atmosphere combusts in the final 15 minutes and it becomes a nutty, over-stylized action/chase movie.

Overrated but still fun was Zombieland, essentially a comic riff on the modern fast-moving zombie movies. On the positive side of things, Zombieland has a great cast, some real laughs, and an agreeably goofy and energetic visual style (what with the screen captions, gratuitous slow motion, etc.). But why this film was the breakaway horror-comedy hit of '09, and not Drag Me to Hell, I will never understand. Except that zombies are the zeitgeist now, and Raimi horror films are a relic of a bygone era. The zombie horror comedy subgenre has brought us some true classics (say, Return of the Living Dead and Shaun of the Dead)... does anyone believe that Zombieland lives up to the legacy of those films? Maybe I'm being unfair in making the comparison, but I think my preference is because the other movies I mentioned work both as comedy and as horror, where as Zombieland wants to be fluffy and likable to the degree that it doesn't even have the balls to kill off a major character.

Okay, I think I already made a brief allusion to not being a Diablo Cody supporter in the last post, so I'm not going to harp on it here. Truth is, I don't dislike her work thus far either and Jennifer's Body, while mostly being a bad movie, at least had a handful of memorable jokes. There aren't enough horror movies made by women, so I want to credit Cody and director Karyn Kusama for making a horror movie about teenage girls that doesn't condescend or dumb itself down for the When a Stranger Calls crowd. But the film doesn't have enough ideas to sustain its bloated 102 minute run time, Kusama never manages to craft any memorable set pieces, both of the hypothetically satisfying conclusions are underwhelming, and it's beset by unnecessary structural flourishes that serve no purpose (i.e. the film is told in flashback for no reason, and late in the film there is another flashback sequence that explains information that might as well have been given to us from the get-go). Juno, for its problems, is a good and funny movie, and reasonably well-crafted. This feels like an incomplete screenplay with a few funny ideas.

Trick 'r Treat, by one of those dudes who wrote the Brian Singer X-Men movies, was a highly amusing take on a subgenre I'm quite fond of: the horror anthology. Although none of the stories are as tightly crafted, and none of the endings as bitterly ironic, as they could be, there's a playfully dark humored spirit on hand here that reminded me somewhat of Tales From the Crypt. Highlights include a LOT of children getting murdered and an agreeably convoluted Magnolia-esque style of storytelling.

I learned about the horribly titled Murder Loves Killers Too from Outlaw Vern, and while I admired its ambition (trying to do a low-budget slasher take on De Palma-esque theatrics), I just don't think the execution was solid enough. On the one hand, I want to praise the film for trying some stylistic flourishes, and some potentially amusing structural surprises (killing off characters earlier than you'd expect, going off on an unexpected tangent during the final act) on a tiny budget. On the other hand, I think it's that very budget that prevents the film from realizing its ambitions. De Palma's films succeed in large part because of their fluidity; Murder Loves Killers Too is too often awkward and stilted. Add to that the fact that the film's best moment is stolen from Sergio Martino's Torso, and you're left with a film I just can't get behind.

CRUELTY-FREE FREE

Meaning that these movies are cruel. Not sure if that comes across. It was the best title I could come up with.

When it comes to movies, I'm not much of a moralist. I rarely, if ever, get offended by violent or sexual content, or socio-politcal content, or moral messages in films. If I ever get offended, it's usually when I feel like a movie is condescending to me. When it comes to the other stuff, I'm a lot more concerned with the execution of a film and not so much about whether or not its message conforms to my own personal beliefs. So when I tell you that there were two horror films this year, Deadgirl and Eden Lake, that really rubbed me the wrong way, please understand that I'm not going all Jonathan Rosenbaum on these films and acting holier-than-thou.

Deadgirl'
s problem is that it employs a very serious matter (rape) for shock value, but then cops-out of actually dealing with it. By making the rape victim be a zombie. Yes, this movie is about teenage boys imprisoning and raping a zombie. What I think bothers me here is that, by making the victim a fictional monster, it takes the victimization out of the rape. There is no emotional toll in this story, it's content to leave it at dude, pretty fucked up that they're raping a zombie, huh? As much as this premise doesn't sit well with me to begin with, something interesting could have been done with it as an exploration of amorality and viciousness amongst teenage boys. Instead, the film never finds any insight, preferring to turn its villains into Snidely Whiplash types, before descending into just another zombie bloodbath.

Eden Lake, interestingly enough, is also about cruel teenagers. Unlike Deadgirl, I think it has more courage of conviction and actually makes an attempt to explore its themes. It's in the execution where things go wrong. The film is about a 30-something couple that is initially harassed, and then eventually assaulted and tortured by a gang of teenage creeps. The filmmakers are not without skill, and the early sequences did a very good job of making me uneasy. As it plays out, however, the film both becomes less and less credible as a thriller yet also more and more sickening in its violence. Now, I get it, a movie like this is supposed to be unpleasant. I don't have a problem with that, I've enjoyed many movies like that. My problem is that as the movie becomes more absurd, the violence seems less and less fitting to the material. There's a wide gap between the grimness of the violence and the cliched contrivances of the plot, and the violence becomes bothersome for the wrong reason: because the film doesn't earn it.

Okay, the whiny, crybaby, Roger Ebert portion of this post is over with, because I saw a disgusting, miserable, vicious horror film last year that I'm actually enthusiastic about: Martyrs. I'd describe the plot, but it seems pointless as the movie defies easy description and the plot completely changes directions every 15 or 20 minutes. I'm not sure, piecing the whole thing together, that the story really makes a lot of sense, but the abrupt shifts in story are part of what makes the film unique; it is impossible to guess where it's going next. Although perhaps a little roughly put together visually in a few spots, Martyrs is a consistently strange, disturbing and tense horror film that combines elements from different subgenres (revenge film, monster movie, torture porn, psychological thriller) in a one-of-a-kind way.

Less successful were Shuttle and The Collector. Neither was a particularly good film (although both had their moments, I suppose) but both get a pass if you have nothing better to do. Shuttle, about a group of people abducted by the guy driving their airport shuttle has a few nasty surprises up its sleeve and some decent atmosphere, but most of the suspense is sabotaged by its creaky plot, which has to do way, WAY too much contriving to keep its characters in danger (seems like they should have had a much easier time escaping). The Collector, about a serial killer who likes to set elaborate traps in the homes of his victims, the directorial debut of one of the dudes who co-wrote the last few Saw movies, suffers from the same problems in tone I've noticed of a lot of horror movies these days: is it trying to be fun or is it trying to be disturbing? A scene of someone getting graphically tortured will be followed by a presumably comic sequence of a cat accidentally tripping a trap and meeting a goofily gruesome end. Each moment undercuts the next, and all that's left is some mildly entertaining gore effects. And as far as those go, The Collector does have one classic moment: a girl trips and falls into a room full of bear traps.

ARTSY FARTSY SCARY MOVIES

I've noticed a trend amongst some horror movie fans to reject, almost as a rule, serious-minded horror films in favor of the more pulpy genre fare. Now, I'm a big tent kind of guy. I love my art, and I love my trash, and if you want to mix the two together, even better. So it irks me to see horror movies outright dismissed by some fans as "pretentious" just because the films take themselves seriously. That's what happened to my tied-for-favorite-horror-movie-of-2009 Antichrist.

Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of valid reasons not to like Antichrist.
The film is longish, slow, sometimes confusing, deliberately obscure and goes so far over-the-top in places that, if the film isn't working for you, it probably seems laughable. It's the kind of film where if you don't submit yourself totally to its over-saturated atmosphere/mood, it will likely be a tedious experience punctuated by a few moments of crass provocation.

But from some of the comments/critiques I've read out there, you'd think that director Lars Von Trier was an asshole just because his movie strikes a serious tone, has a few recognizable themes (grief, therapy, misogyny), and some slightly arty trimmings (some uses of black and white, slow-motion, and some heavy handed symbolism). Like he shouldn't be ambitious. There's almost a knee-jerk reaction some folks have to this sort of thing; they assume that Von Trier thinks he's smarter than them, so instead of meeting the film on its own terms, they try to out-condescend Von Trier and insist that his movie is meaningless trash. If you're going to hate on the movie, then that's cool, but this is totally the wrong track.

Personally, I don't think Antichrist has a deep message or is an "important" movie. I loved it because of its heavy, doom-laden atmosphere, its ability to disturb, the power of its imagery, the strength of its performances, and the genuine suspense/fear I felt during the final act. It's a skillfully made, nightmarish mood-piece that effected me on an emotional level, more akin to a Nosferatu than a slasher movie.

It takes a special kind of skill to make a movie so fucking bad that it pisses away all the goodwill that a beloved cult film like Donnie Darko has earned you, but Richard Kelly managed to do just that with Southland Tales. Well, I'm happy to say that The Box serves as something of a redemption. It is not a great film, and the last chunk of it is a mess, but it feels more like the movie he should have made after Darko. It's set in the same world of mundane middle America, as a profound weirdness slowly but surely inserts itself into everyday life. The best parts of The Box happen in the first 2/3rds; Kelly has proven himself a master of the "what in fuck's name is going on here?!" style of suspense, as subtly strange details pile on top of each other in the most unnerving manner possible.

Not up to snuff with his best work but still more remarkable than most films of its ilk, Park Chan-Wook's Thirst was an intriguing, darkly funny combination of earnest morality play/religious inquiry, and vampire grand guignol. Almost every one of Park's films features an abrupt shift in tone, but I thought Thirst's was less successful than others. Perhaps this is because movies like Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance go from fun to serious, whereas Thirst does the opposite. I can't deny how entertaining the final act of the film is, but it does feel like many of the more serious themes from earlier are dropped in favor of a stylized blood bath.



To be concluded in Part 3.... whenever I get the chance...

7 comments:

Thomas Lovecraft said...

Very interesting insights. Looking forward to part 3.

Dan said...

Thank you, sir, whoever you are...

Thomas said...

You´re welcome. Although I wasn´t a big fan of ANTI-CHRIST, I think it´s a relief to hear someone say they like it without trying to over-analyze it. I can understand why you like it but I had a hard time taking it seriously.
I think that Von Trier was an interesting filmmaker but he´s fallen into a rut lately and any new Von Trier movie is sadly predictable in the emotional terror it subjects the viewer to.
But I think it´ll be interesting to see where he goes from here.

Dan said...

I can think of a million and one valid reasons not to like ANTICHRIST. It just kind of irks me when people outright dismiss it as pretentious instead of actually explaining what they didn't like about it.

Joseph said...

Actually, Thomas, I thought ANTICHRIST represents a surprisingly refreshing return to earnestness after his long and dull period fucking about with sylistic and narrative postmodernism.

Whatever you may think of the story, I think Von Triers is more interested in what he's saying than how he's saying it this time around. Or at least, it's less of the point.

Thomas said...

I guess that I had a hard time getting into the movie because I didn´t see the point of it. What´s he trying to say?
I think that Von Trier is a very calculating filmmaker and his movies has an almost operatic quality in the many emotional hardships that they subject the viewer to (like DANCER IN THE DARK, for example) and I can appreciate that but this time around, I just didn´t get it.
And since we´ve all seen the movie I´m not ruining anything when I say that the infamous scene with the fox had me laughing out loud. That was when the movie lost me.

Joseph, I reckon you´re right. At least from what I´ve gathered from the press he did for the movie he didn´t seem to be at all interested in conveying any kind of message.
ANTICHRIST is a very difficult movie to pinpoint. I´ll definitely give it another chance down the road and I´m not ruling out that I may appreciate it then. Think of the many factors that come in to play when you watch a movie and you decide whether you like it or not: you might´ve had a shitty day at work or whatever the hell might be going on in your life. ANTICHRIST is one of those movies that you have to be in exactly the right kind of mood to enjoy. I think. I´m rambling...

Dan said...

Let me split the difference, guys. I think ANTICHRIST is a refreshing break from the norm for Von Trier. It's lacking in the arbitrary restrictions that Von Trier has placed on himself in the past. Those gimmicks can be fun and lead to creativity, but they aren't always the best way to tell a story. I think ANTICHRIST benefits from the fact that its less experimental than other Von Trier films.

On the other hand, I would argue that its more of an emotional experience than one with a message. Joseph, I've really loved your analysis of the film on my blog and over at Vern's site. You've decoded the film in an interesting, meaningful way. Yet everyone I've talked to has had a different interpretation of the film, often with ideas in direct contrast with each other. If there was a message Von Trier was trying to get across, then I think he failed, because I can't find two people who agree about what the film "means."

So I think the best way to look at it is this: is it an effective horror film? I thought it was atmospheric, engrossing, unnerving and ultimately intense. Since I liked it on this level, it's been worth it for me to try to delve into the subtext. But Thomas, if you just didn't find it scary, then that's that. You don't need to criticize the film for lacking a message, you can explain why you didn't think it worked as an emotional experience and leave it at that.

Anyways, thanks both of you guys for the discussion here, I enjoyed hearing from both of you.