Saturday, February 26, 2011

Review: Lake Mungo (2009)

I wish I’d stumbled upon Lake Mungo while channel surfing at 3 am. Its faux-documentary format is a spot-on recreation of your standard “real-life haunting” TV program, and without knowing it was fiction going into the film, I would have spent at least the first hour wondering if what I was watching was real.  The chills would have been absolutely convulsive.
As it was, I went in fully aware of what the movie was, and found it pretty boring.
Don’t get me wrong, Lake Mungo is a well-made film with a talented cast that is 100% convincing as the grieving family and friends of Alice Palmer, a 16-year old girl who drowned before she starts making appearances in the background of family photographs and videos. The problem is the inherent limitations of making a film in this format.
Lake Mungo’s primary asset is also one of its biggest downfalls. The cleverly executed documentary format is precisely what makes the relatively tame ghostly appearances work. You see a glimpse of a shape moving across the frame or a blurry face reflected in a mirror, and it’s far more terrifying than it has any right to be, simply because it so closely resembles countless accounts of supposedly real hauntings. The lo-fi recording equipment also works to the film’s advantage. The film’s scariest moment comes in the form of a maddeningly pixilated cell phone video that looks hauntingly real precisely because the image quality is so bad. The less you can see, the more your imagination fills in the gaps. At the same time, the documentary format severely limits the suspense and sheer visceral impact the story could have. Very little can be shown in real-time, because the film relies so heavily on talking head narration.
The real downfall of the movie, however, is not its format, but its structure. After a good solid half hour of steadily-building creepiness, a twist in the narrative utterly destroys the film’s momentum. The middle of the movie drags horribly and I couldn’t help but wonder if the movie had anywhere left to go.  But as hinted at earlier in the film, there is the matter of the deceased character’s secret life still to be uncovered, and the film begins to get interesting again.  I say begins, because it never follows through. You get enough juicy secrets to tantalize your imagination, but believe me, whatever you might conjure in your mind is certain to be far more exciting than what the secret turns out to be.
Near the end, there’s one big scare that really worked for me, followed by an epilogue that dragged on and on.  One of the film’s final scenes uses a great narrative device that intercuts video footage of Alice before she died with footage of her mother after her daughter’s death, both describing the same encounter with each other.  It’s a cool scene, but by then, it’s too little, too late, and you just want the movie to end.
I chalk up Lake Mungo to a noble experiment.  While it’s an interesting viewing experience, it never seems to kick into high gear and deliver on the scares it promises early on. It does, however, have enough going for it that I hope writer/director Joel Anderson continues his career in the horror genre.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Final Girl Film Club: Frozen


Can I just start by saying that I am ridiculously excited to finally be able to participate in the Final Girl Film Club? For those who don't know what it is all about, the Final Girl Film Club is the brainchild of the inimitable Stacie Ponder, whose horror blog, Final Girl, is one of the best around. Each month she picks a film for her fellow bloggers to review, and links to all our posts. This month's pick was one I'd been dying to see anyway, Adam Green's Frozen.

When I heard about Frozen, I thought the premise was too weak to base a feature on. Don't get me wrong, the prospect of being stranded on a chairlift is terrifying, but the main dangers are height and cold, which don't generally play well on the screen. After all, watching someone freeze to death is only incrementally more exciting than watching golf on tv, while seeing someone plummet to their end is only exciting for the five seconds it takes to go kersplat. But then again, I had heard so many good things about the film that I had to see it. I was not disappointed.

Adam Green has certainly stepped up his game since Hatchet. While I liked Hatchet, I enjoyed it because it was funny. As far as I can remember, there weren't many scares and no real tension to speak of.  But Frozen was practically all tension. From the opening shots, Green imbues the machinery of the chairlift with a sense of cold, unfeeling menace. There's no music, just the squeal of steel cables on massive rotating wheels.

When the 3 lead characters are introduced, there's tension of another kind. Joe (Shawn Ashmore) is annoyed with his lifelong friend Dan (Kevin Zegers) for letting his girlfriend Parker (Emma Bell) tag along. Her presence not only holds them back (because she can barely ski), it also represents the loss Joe feels at losing his BFF to a girl. I like that Green spends ample time on characterization and setting up the relationships, because it definitely pays off once the horror part begins. After Dan has fallen to his death, there's a great scene where Joe and Parker start laying into one another, blaming each other for their situation. I found this scene even more upsetting than the death itself. The surviving characters have been terrified out of their wits, are trying to deal with an impossible situation, and have both just been emotionally devastated by their friend's death, and yet they continue to viciously inflict emotional wounds on one another. It was uglier than the bones sticking out of Dan's legs. This scene, for me, is emblematic of everything that is right with Frozen. There are characters you actually care about, a well-written script brimming with emotional truth, and phenomenal performances by the leads that really make the movie.

Another favorite scene: After the lift has stopped but before the characters suspect that something is horribly wrong, you can see the lights for night skiing behind them, shutting off one by one. The darkening of the lights starts in the distance and steadily moves closer, so the audience sees what's happening before the characters do, creating suspense rather than surprise. Something about it reminded me of the feeling you get when you first hear the shark's theme in Jaws. You can just feel the dread in your stomach. It's magically delicious.

If I had one complaint about Frozen, it would probably be the wolves. I'm no expert, but I'd think the pack would likely steer clear of a ski resort with its high human traffic. Also, I don't think New England has too many wolves these days. However, this is a small complaint, and given a choice between wolves and no wolves, I'd feed Shawn Ashmore and his brother to the hungry pack.

It is my firm coviction that movies cannot be evaluated objectively. One's enjoyment of a film depends on their expectations, their personal experiences and attitudes, their current mood, and the circumstances in which they watched the film. This being the case I'd like to note the several factors that influenced my enjoyment of Frozen. First off, I watched it during a subzero cold snap, which made things that much more real for me. I live in the heart of ski country in the Montana Rockies, yet I've only been skiing once. I found riding the chairlift to be a singularly unnerving experience. Montana also has a significant wolf population, with a large pack living just a few dozen miles to the north of where I live. A few years ago, a pack slaughtered a hundred head of sheep in a single rampage, and no one can figure out why (I suspect it was a political protest at having been reintroduced to the state). All of this means, of course, that I was predisposed to find the movie scary. However, it is totally to Adam Green's credit that he executed the film with such skill.

One last fun fact: the week after I watched Frozen, the chairlift at my local ski resort derailed. There were no deaths, but several minor injuries. Perhaps if they'd have watched Frozen they would never have gotten on that lift in the first place. See, horror movies can be good for you.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Can we retire the term "torture porn" already?

When the term "torture porn" started popping up, I figured it was just a case of mainstream movie reviewers finding yet another way to write off horror films as a degenerate art form. But then I noticed the term creeping into horror blogs as a shorthand for the kind of movies even some die-hard horror fans don't like. I understand why these ultraviolent, graphic films are off-putting for most reasonable human beings, but I also find the label "torture porn" to be lazy, presumptuous, and insulting.

The purpose of any horror film is to be scary, to ferret out our most primal fears and manipulate them, bring them to the surface and make us face them. For some people, these deepest of fears involve the supernatural, or vicious, man-eating beasts. Personally, I can think of nothing scarier than being captured, bound, and tortured to death by some sick bastard who is getting off on my pain and fear. Movies like Hostel and Saw (around which the term "torture porn" seems to have originated) cut right to the heart of this fear and put it on display, daring you to watch. It's not a comfortable viewing experience, and it's not meant to be.

So if these films are doing exactly what horror is supposed to do (disturb, unsettle, and frighten the viewer), why are they so quickly dismissed by certain viewers? Perhaps they are too effective. Maybe they are just so disturbing that some viewers don't get what they want from them, which is entertainment. Many horror fans like their scary movies to be more fun than disturbing. Take away the element of fun, and what's left? Just the pain and fear. They are suspicious of the motives of anyone who would like horror devoid of fun. They don't understand the appeal, and can only imagine that fans of this kind of horror must get off on watching violence. So obviously, torture movies must be like porn to these sickos.

This is what I find so insulting about the term "torture porn." It implies that fans are fetishists who take pleasure in the pain of others.  Now I can only speak for myself, but the attraction for me is much different. I only enjoy horror films when I can put myself in the place of the victims and feel their fear. To me, all good horror asks its audience the question: What would you do?  How would you react in this situation? To get the most out of a horror film, viewers must make themselves vulnerable, lower their defenses, and let the movie do its work on its own terms.

Perhaps this is another reason some are so quick use the "torture porn" label - the inability to lower those defenses, to let themselves be scared. If you can't put yourself in the victim's place, you either identify with the killer (and probably do get off on the violence), or you act as a voyeur. A viewer who doesn't feel fear during a torture scene must see it as pointless violence for violence's sake. No wonder it seems like nothing more than porno for psychos.

Not long ago, I watched Pascal Laugier's Martyrs for the first time. It was the single most powerful film experience I've ever had, and despite being relentlessly brutal, harrowing, and ugly, I thought the film was absolutely beautiful. Yes, there were prolonged scenes of torture, but this was really a film driven by ideas, and the violence was used in service to these ideas. The violence could certainly been toned down, but it would have been to the detriment of the film. Laugier is not content just to present the ideas as pure ideas, but wants the viewer to experience them vicariously. The end effect is emotionally devastating. I ascended from the mancave literally in a daze, to which my wife can testify.  The next day, I looked up reviews to see what critics were saying about Martyrs. In retrospect, it was probably a little naive, but I had no idea how many people would despise the film. Going through the negative reviews, I found that the "torture porn" label was ubiquitous and uniformly applied by critics too lazy to try to discern the film's meaning. And that's the problem with the term - it's a cop-out. It allows critics to decline the challenge presented by films such as Martyrs. I'm not saying these movies are for everyone, but those who dislike them should at least explain themselves rather than resorting to such a tired, misapplied label.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Thoughts on Babysitter Wanted

Warning: Major spoilers ahead

Okay, I know there was a good movie in there somewhere, but between the script and the direction, something went horribly wrong.  I didn't know a thing about this movie going into it, but here's what the cover looks like:

So, it looks way brutal and horrifying, yes? I most definitely was bracing myself for some disturbing shit, but I ended up laughing so loud that my wife said she could hear me cackling through the floor. So what exactly went wrong?  Shall we dissect this film? But of course.

First off, from the very opening scene, you get a pretty good sense of what is going on. You see bare flesh with black marker lines that suggest butchery. Pretty chilling, right?  But then, early on when the babysitter is first being shown around the house, the whole plot is blown when the mother instructs the babysitter to only feed her child the food in the containers marked with his name. You can clearly see through the tupperware that each meal consists of bloody cuts of meat. So, with an hour and fifteen minutes to go, you already know the plot is about a child, most likely a demon, who lives off of human flesh. Now, I've got to say, this is a pretty cool premise for a horror movie, but for God's sake, don't blow the whole plot fifteen minutes in.

The tragedy of this movie is that there are so many great oppotunities to be truly scary and unsettling, but the filmmakers managed to blow them all. If the film was just a straight-up shit sandwich, I'd have switched it off and watched something else, no biggie. But the frustrating part is there's much to admire in this film. The performances are solid (for the most part), the look and feel of the movie are spot-on, yet at every turn, something just falls short. For instance, there is a scene in which a large, scarred, scary dude busts into the house, obviously out for blood. The babysitter, in her very annoying habit of explaining to herself what is perfectly obvious to the viewer, says aloud, "I need to find a weapon." She ransacks the house, and in the process opens a cabint to find several human skulls and an upside-down cross surrounded by burning candles.  This is obviously supposed to be a big beat in the script where she realizes what is really going on, but instead she just closes the cabinet, presumably thinking, "No weapons here," and moves on.

Speaking of the big scary dude, once you figure out the plot, the character is completely ineffective as a red herring. If the child is a demon, this guy must be the demon slayer, right? As if the movie didn't project his true identity 3 miles away, the filmmakers thought it clever to make his weapon the freakin' Ajanti Dagger from The Golden Child (okay, maybe not everyone would get that reference).

All in all, Babysitter Wanted is a strangely compelling mess that absolutely reeks of amatuer filmmaking, but has enough redeeming qualities that you kind of hope the filmmakers will hone their skills, study some early John Carpenter, and come out with a better movie in the future.

Five Reasons to be Stoked about the Current State of Horror

I’m more excited about horror now than I’ve ever been, including my teenage years when Freddy Krueger was all the rage and we still believed Friday Part 4 was the final chapter. Part of the reason for my excitement, I’ll admit, is that I hardly watched any horror for the better part of a decade. I blame my kids. As soon as my first son was born, I completely lost my tolerance for screen violence. But after eight maddening years of non-stop child-rearing, I was more than ready to see some good blood-letting. When I returned to the fold a few years ago, I was amazed at what I had missed.  Great things have been a-brewin’ in the world of horror over the last decade. So here’s my list of the top 5 reasons I’m stoked about the current state of horror.

Horror makes me happy!
1. Europe is bringing it – Remember late’70s/early ‘80s horror, and that rugged collection of independent filmmakers who could take a shoestring budget and craft it into the gritty, disturbing films that would become the future classics of the genre? You know, before Hollywood smelled the money in all that blood? Well that’s what’s going on in Europe right now. Armed with tiny budgets and endless imagination, the new Europeans horror auteurs are bringing scary back. Even in this new age of ultra-gore, these filmmakers are finding new ways to unnerve us. My fellow Americans, it’s time to shed that irrational fear of subtitles and embrace the new century’s best horror.  Here’s your must-see list:
High Tension – Alexandre Aja’s slasher on steroids is relentless and brutal. Lots of people have a problem with the ending, but don’t let that ruin it for you. Besides, if it was just a straightforward slasher, you wouldn’t spend the next three days thinking about it.
[REC] – This is the absolute masterpiece of the found-footage horror genre. By the finale, I literally could not believe my eyes.  I was like, “I know what I’m seeing isn’t real, but it’s not CGI either, so what the hell is that thing?” My wife had to sleep with the lights on for a week.
The Descent – If you seriously can’t stand subtitles or dubbing, behold, here’s one in English.  Spelunking is just inherently terrifying, so I was pissing myself before things even got weird. Director Neil Marshall seems to be moving away from horror for the moment, but this and Dog Soldiers should be enough to earn him a place in horror history.
Also check out Frontier(s), Sheitan, Martyrs, Slaughter Night, and The Orphanage, at the least.

2. New School American Horror – Forget Hatchet’s tagline, this is the New School of American horror, and it’s looking damned promising.  Here are some of the Yanks who are taking it to the next level.
Adam Green – Seriously, I didn’t think Frozen would be that scary. I mean, the premise is terrifying – being trapped on a ski lift for a week in subzero temperatures—but really, how can you make that into a movie?  Ask Adam Green, or better yet watch his film to see how it’s done.  While Frozen is his finest, Spiral is another fine, unsettling character piece, while the Hatchet movies bring the fun back to slasher flicks.
Eli Roth – Okay, lots of people don’t like Eli Roth, but come on, have you seen Hostel II? I strongly suspect that it’s his personality people have a problem with, because his skill as a filmmaker speaks for itself, and his movies get progressively better.  With any luck, Roth’s best films are yet to come.
Rob Zombie – Quiet down everyone. I know, I know.  All of Zombie’s films are deeply flawed in numerous ways, but it’s hard to argue that he has established himself as a unique voice in American horror.  Love him or hate him, his films are always interesting.  He’s got brutal, gruesome imagery down to a science, so if he just brushes up on his suspense, he may change some minds yet.

3. Indie Horror – I went to film school in the late 90’s and remember having to sign up weeks in advance to get a few hours in one of the editing suites. Student and amateur filmmakers today don’t even know how lucky they are.  These days editing software comes standard with pretty much every computer, and even cheapie $100 digital cameras are capable of shooting video and sound.  Of course, there’s more to filmmaking than equipment, but at least there’s opportunity for young filmmakers to practice, hone their craft, and even make a releasable film on practically no budget.  Paranormal Activity, of course, is the little indie that could, but there are hundreds of lesser known films out there vying for the opportunity to become the next big thing.  I honestly haven’t seen that much indie horror, so I don’t have a list of must-sees. I can recommend Stacie Ponder’s Ludlow (see my review here), but that’s about it.  Hopefully this blog will start to attract some followers and people will start sending me screeners (Dawning and Dead Hooker in a Trunk, I'm looking at you).

4. The Horror Blogosphere – My current obsession with horror is only half about the movies themselves. There’s a thriving horror community out there that is getting the word out about the best of what’s bloody. Back in film school, it wasn’t so hard to find like-minded people who loved nothing better than to talk movies, even horror movies all day.  Since joining the workforce and moving to a low-population area that is more rest home than college town, I’ve run low on real live people to discuss my interests with.  Now all the hardcore horror heads are online and I’ve been introduced to so many great films that I want to give the whole internet a big, groping hug.

5. Availability - Back in the day, if my video store didn’t have it, I didn’t get to see it.  These days we have Netflix streaming hundreds of titles to my freakin’ videogame console.  Some indie filmmakers let you watch their films for free on the web.  Forget that no good movies ever come to my local theater, who needs ‘em? My other main source of horror films is the venerable pawn shop.  Back in 1999, I got my first DVD player, and the first movie I bought for it was John Carpenter’s Vampires.  I got it from a pawn shop for $8 (VHS tapes were $5).  These days, most pawn shops in my area have a massive selection of DVDs for $2-$3 each.  I must have bought 80 movies in the last two months.  Now all I need is the time to watch them.