Thursday, February 11, 2010

2009 Horror Movie Postmortem PART III: DAN'S DEAD - THE FINAL NIGHTMARE

BRATS

I know I talked before about remakes being the predominant theme in horror movies these days, but I realized I was wrong. For some reason, 2009 was all about killer children movies. I already mentioned Children of the Corn and It's Alive in the remake section; It's Alive wasn't half bad, but the best movie about a flesh-eating baby to come out last year was Grace. What I liked about Grace was that it was a rare horror movie with complex female characters, dealing specifically with feminine themes. It has an evil baby in it, sorta, but mostly its about how far a mother is willing to go to protect her child.

I believe Ghost House released two kid themed horror pics in '09: The Children and Offspring. I can't really recommend Offspring, about a pack of savage children who go around disemboweling people and stealing their babies, to anyone besides gorehounds. But it does have the distinction of being the most violent horror film I saw last year. It's passable but forgettable, and I guess worth seeing if you're just looking for something that makes you go "ewww!" every few minutes. The Children is a little bit more fun: some sort of virus turns kids into homicidal maniacs, turning on their families, so their parents end up having to kill them to save themselves. I have the same problem with both movies, though: children aren't a credible threat. The movies are kinda fun in a fucked-up, can-you-imagine-having-to-kill-a-child sort of way, but they aren't for one minute scary, because you don't believe for one second that some little rugrat would be able to take you in a fight.

All five of these movies that I mentioned have their moments, but leading this pack of snot nosed brats was the woefully underrated Orphan, probably my #3 favorite horror film of the year. What looked in previews to be a lame, generic collection of "boo!" scares turned out to be the most awesomely manipulative thriller of the year. This movie pushes some fucking buttons. Children are constantly put in danger, or forced into psychologically traumatizing situations. The heroine is distrustful of the titular orphan, but of course no one believes her and thinks she's the one losing her shit. There may be some sexual tension between the orphan and an adult man. The film is tightly-crafted and engrossing while also being completely ridiculous. It stars Vera Farmiga and Peter Saarsgaard, and they actually get to play a flashed-out, believable, sympathetic married couple. The critical drubbing the film received is a sign to me that mainstream film critics don't like or don't understand horror films; the only ones they praise are either horror comedies, or postmodern gimmicky crap like Paranormal Activity. I'm not saying there aren't reasons to dislike Orphan, but the reviews paint it as kitschy trash, when I would argue that its a skillful exercise in audience manipulation.

GHOULS 'N GHOSTS (& MISCELLANY)

One of the incidental leitmotifs on my blog has been my bias against ghost/haunted house movies. Which isn't to say that there haven't been many excellent movies in the genre, I just find that, more often than not, making the bad guys ghosts encourages lazy storytelling, plot holes and lots of arbitrariness. 2009 was a... typical year for these kinds of films. Unborn and 100 Feet were your usual cavalcade of nonsense, both with ghosts that are seemingly all powerful and yet can't defeat a single, unsupernatural woman (100 Feet, for example, has a ghost that's strong enough to break every bone in a man's body, but at another point loses a seemingly physical (?) altercation to Famke Jansen). It's hard for me to give a shit when the rules aren't consistent from scene to scene.

Of course the big ghost flick of the year was Paranormal Activity. Allow me to be positive here for a second. I think it's great that a film of such humble means went on to be one of the year's big box office winners. It's just too bad that it's a shitty movie. Let me just say it: I don't get it, guys. What was the big fucking deal about Paranormal Activity? It's a movie predicated on an overused gimmick, executed even less artfully than these movies usually are. Even the fans of this movie don't seem to have much to say in defense of the filmmaking. Apparently some people found it scary; I found it too repetitive to be particularly effective, and often times hokey (i.e. a ouija board catching on fire... the filmmakers expect me to take a fucking Parker Brothers toy, best known as a way to scare your gullible younger sibling, seriously?)

At least the ghost/monster thingies in Seventh Moon are kinda cool looking creepy, white, naked people. I appreciated that part, but not so much all the incoherent shaky-cam cinematography and strobe-light editing. It's difficult to feel scared when you can't clearly see what the hell is going on.

The Thaw was an acceptable giant bug movie with some fun gross-out special effects and a Val Kilmer cameo. But the problem is that I'm going to forever remember it as "that horror movie with the heavy-handed, completely inappropriate global warming message." I like it when horror movies try to work in a little commentary, be it social or political or whatever, but it needs to be done shrewdly, in a manner well integrated into the narrative. By about the 8th time one of the characters in The Thaw needlessly interjects a comment about mankind's responsibility to take care of the planet, you're going to turn on all the lights in your house and leave your car running in your driveway just to spite the filmmakers.

Serious horror movies like Dead Birds and lame horror-comedies like Undead or Alive have tried the whole western-horror blend before; it's an intriguing idea but I feel often an awkward fit. The iconography of the two genres maybe isn't compatible; who wants to see a strong, incorruptible Western hero type in the vulnerable teenage girl role? John Carpenter probably has mixed the two the best, but his trick has been to set his films in contemporary times or in the future, and not make them actually westerns. That said, The Burrowers combines the two genres in about as satisfactorily a manner as you could hope for: cowboys vs. monsters. If that premise appeals to you, then I would think you'd like this movie.

I can't quite put my finger on what didn't work about The Broken, although that's at least in part because my memory of it is already fuzzy. My recollection is that it was a horror movie heavily dependent on atmosphere over story, but that the atmosphere was not well executed. The story involves people being killed and replaced by doppelgangers, but it was never clear to me where the doubles came from, what motivated them or what the "rules" governing them were... and a (somewhat predictable) twist near the end further confused matters for me.

Finally, although it didn't really have any ghosts or monsters, I needed somewhere to stick Thomas Jane's directorial debut Dark Country, sort of a horror movie take on old cheapie films noir like Detour. It's short, sweet, agreeable and features a memorably sexy performance by Lauren German.

SPECIAL JURY PRIZE

Haha, hey, remember back in the first post when I was bitching about how I hadn't seen The House of the Devil? Well, that was like 3 or 4 weeks ago when I started writing that shit, and in the mean time it came out on home video and I saw it. And what I suspected from what I had read about the film was true: it and I are a match made in heaven.

I saw Ti West's Trigger Man a few months back, and it was the kind of film I admired more than I actually enjoyed. I said in my post:

"It took balls for West to make a horror film so dependent upon silence and stillness (something I hear he goes for again in House of the Devil, reportedly to greater effect) and I respect that. I bitch a lot about horror movies that skip right to the payoff and aren't willing to take the time to build a moment. Trigger Man is not one of those movies. It is serious about earning its thrills and is committed to its style. And the result is only moderately effective."

I'd like to think that Trigger Man was a stepping stone to The House of the Devil. West has figured out how to delay gratification until the last possible moment, while making the build-up just as entertaining. It is tied with Antichrist for my favorite horror film of the year.

The House of the Devil has everything that I've long been bitching about other modern horror movies lacking. It's deliberately paced, meaning its willing to let itself breath, to take its time to build a moment rather than rush headlong towards the payoff. It's scary, but in a fun way, not in a brutal way. It pays homage to a certain era/style of filmmaking, while retaining a sense of originality. It's concerned more with suspense than with titillation. And, though this may be a polarizing issue, the storytelling is streamlined to its essentials.

One thing that I often find that can sink a horror film is an overabundance of plot. Fear is kind of an elemental thing; you don't want to overexplain it. A complicated story can work some times, but more often than not its a distraction. When a strange noise wakes me up in the middle of the night, that's enough to get the adrenaline flowing a little bit; a complex backstory won't add to my fear.

The story of The House of the Devil is simplicity itself. It's about a young girl all alone in a big scary house. For my money, that's all a horror movie needs for a premise. All the rest of the details help add to the potential scariness in the premise. The heroine is a likable college girl with understandable motives (she needs rent money to move out of her shitty dorm, so she takes a babysitting job at a creepy, secluded house), so we give a shit about what happens to her. The homeowners are kind of creepy, but in a genial way, so a mood of menace is established but also plausibility that the girl wouldn't leave. Much of the movie is a slow tightening of the noose, as the girl (and the audience) only gradually understand the danger that she's in. Shit only hits the fan in the final 10 minutes or so.

I'm not going to ramble on about the rich, early 80's atmosphere of the film only slightly touched with irony, of the strength of the performances, of the film's masterful use of sound and score, or the careful, playful way it slowly doles out creepy details (and occasional bursts of violence) to draw the viewer in. Just know that The House of the Devil gets my highest recommendation. It's a must-see for all lovers of horror movies.



And that, my friends, officially makes THE END. See you in 11 months or so when I round-up 2010.

10 comments:

Patrick said...

I saw "House of the Devil" last night and was very impressed. I was half expecting some sort of kitchsy reference filled experience. If it hadn't been for the constant harping about how it was a throwback/homage I would have just assumed it was a really well made movie. You have any idea if the director promoted it that way or if it was just the internet community?
One of the things I was most impressed with was how much fear he was able to squeeze out of just opening doors and for allowing the character to develop not just in the beginning but right in the middle of the suspense.
Between this and how much I liked the structure of "Phenomena" and "There Will Be Blood" I'm going to have to find more dynamite style movies where a slow start leads to a short but explosive finale.

Thomas Lovecraft said...

Ah man, I still haven´t seen ORPHAN yet. I have it laying on the shelf and I´m gonna try to catch it this weekend.
I definitely agree with you regarding GRACE: it´s easily the best of the bunch when it comes to 2009´s killer-baby-movies.
THE BURROWERS was a pretty fantastic little flick, I thought. It´s one of the few truly successful attempts at marrying the western- and horror genre. I was very impressed by its mood and effects. It brought back fond memories of TREMORS.

Dan said...

Patrick,

From what I gathered in interviews with Ti West, he's not making as big a deal of the 80's thing as nerds on the internet have. I don't really get it myself; it's a cool touch that adds a little visual texture to the movie, but it's hardly the most interesting thing about it.

If you can find a bootleg of it online, I recently saw an older Belgian (I think) movie called One Night.. a Train that's kinda slow paced but interesting, and flies off into a surreal, Twilight Zone-ish ending in the last 10 or 15 minutes.

Thomas,

If I recall, the dude who did BURROWERS has made a few other decent horror movies as well that you might want to check out if you haven't. I believe he's the same guy who did the MIMIC sequel that's done in the style of REAR WINDOW.

Thomas said...

I know. I liked J.T. Petty´s installment in the MIMIC-franchise but I didn´t think it was anything special. His debut film, SOFT FOR DIGGING, was also kind of original in that it didn´t have that many lines in it and was as close to a silent film you get these days. Despite this I wasn´t prepared for how great THE BURROWERS was. I hope that it turns into a franchise. I´d love to see these creatures again. The world needs more horror-westerns.

Joseph said...

Great posts, man. Looking forward to next year already.

But since we're talking about Horror/Westerns, I'd like to submit that RAVENOUS is pretty close to acceptable, thanks largly to its unique setup and great cast. It doesn't really have cowboy trappings but I think it qualifies as a Western. As much as I like the TREMOR movies, I think there could be a future in Western Horror of a more APPALOOSA/UNFORGIVEN/OPEN RANGE vein. Quiet and slow, milking the tension from the isolation and desolate, open spaces.

Dan said...

I saw RAVENOUS when it came out in theaters, but I honestly don't remember much about it other than a vague sense that I didn't like it. But I was in high school then, so all my opinions at that time are suspect.

Joseph said...

Well, unfortunately it's not all that good. But it's ALMOST great. Greatness is totally in sight, but it just doesn't quite get the tone right and the performances are all over the place. Not to be a sexist, but I'm not sure director Antonia Bird was the right choice for an all-male cast of cannibal soldiers. She seems to kind of think its sort of a campy comedy but everything else points to grim period horror. Actually, maybe I shouldn't cite her gender as a failing point, given that the exact complaint could be made about Joe Johnson's WOLFMAN which has an identical diagnosis. Both have so much going for them it's easy to imagine how they could have been great, but for some reason the directior seems to be running in the exact opposite direction.

Andy Sandwich said...

I also saw House of the Devil and thought it was pretty fantastic. For the most part, it really is kind of perfect in its build-up and momentum, and I admit to being honestly and genuinely spooked and unnerved through most of the movie, which never happens to me anymore. I especially thought that the moment where (SPOILERS AHEAD) you see what's on the other side of that closed door you assume the old woman is in, with the dead bodies lying on the pentagram was just awesome. That one shot, and earlier when the friend gets killed, are the perfect amount of momentum to sustain the suspense and get that heart pumping. About 10 seconds of an actual threat in the first 80 minutes, but it works so well. Also liked when the satanist woman pulled her wig off.

Apart from completely loving it and being thrilled by it, the only thing I didn't like was that opening "these percentages believed in satantic cults in the 80's, based on true events" bullshit. It's such stupid opening text that it almost sets up the movie to be a tongue in cheek wink wink nudge nudge Grindhouse thing, but then the remainder of the film isn't jokey at all (which is good thing). And to have the stupid obligatory based on true events caption just rubbed me the wrong way. Does every horror film have to have that stupid label for its audience to give a shit about it? If anything it makes me care less, and why it's even here in the beginning of an obviously fictional, impossible movie is beyond me. Again, if it's a joke, why does none of the rest of the film resort to humor like that? There are funny lines and a humor in the performances of the evil satanist couple, and I'd say the suspense is fun suspense, but nothing is as outright goofy as that opening. It feels like its part of another movie.

Dan said...

Well, I definitely think the opening text was a joke (hence the line about the remaining 20% of American's believing the lack of evidence is attributable to a government coverup), and I can see your point about the rest of the movie being mainly serious. But to be fair, the movie isn't ENTIRELY serious and offers plenty of fun little nods, nudges and winks along the way, just not in an overt, distracting way. Think of the cheesy newscaster, or the ridiculous fliers up on the boad at the college. I think West is signaling to the audience that he wants them to have fun.

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