Sunday, February 26, 2012

Mumblecore Horror - A Horrible Way to Die

If there's one thing I'm a sucker for (aside from a good horror movie), it's a superdepressing indie drama about addiction and damaged lives. At long last, there's a film that gives me the best of both worlds. Adam Wingard's A Horrible Way to Die combines the no-budget shaky-camera aesthetic and character-driven, emotional focus of an arthouse (mumblecore, if you want to get derogatory) flick with the grimness and brutality of horror. Yeah, nothing makes me grin like a film devoid of humor or hope.

I should note that this isn't a movie for everyone. If your horror leanings are more Return of the Living Dead than Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, you may not find much to enjoy. Likewise, if shaky camera gives you a headache or otherwise peeves you, you're gonna want to turn this off 10 minutes in. Personally, I'm rather fond of the handheld aesthetic, which may explain my superhuman tolerance for found footage horror. Bottom line, if you can tolerate (or heck, even enjoy) the cinematography, A Horrible Way to Die holds many rewards.

At its heart, A Horrible Way to Die is a tragic love story involving Sarah, a recovering alcoholic who was so drunk for so long that she never picked up on the clues that her live-in boyfriend Garrick was a serial killer. When the film opens, Garrick has escaped from prison and is heading back to Sarah's town. Meanwhile, Sarah is doing her best to heal, attending AA meetings and starting to date Kevin, who she met there.

Amy Seimitz gives a flawless (IMHO) performance as Sarah, and I can't wait to see more of this actress. She comes off as mousy and withdrawn, but she's been through too much to take shit from anyone. Her wounds are raw, but just beginning to heal. When she decides to take a chance and trust Kevin enough to meet him for a dinner date, it's an act of incredible bravery.

The first time you see Kevin looking at Sarah in AA, he comes off as incredibly creepy, but when he eventually asks her out, he's so awkwardly charming and sincere that he wins you (and Sarah) over. I'm going to make myself vulnerable for a minute and admit I'm a huge sap. If my wife was one to go for chick flicks, you'd hear no complaints from me, as I'd secretly enjoy them while pretending not to. And I'll readily admit that for me, half the pleasure of watching A Horrible Way to Die was watching this damaged girl learn to trust again and form a relationship with this awkward-but-nice guy.

Speaking of nice guys, as far as serial killers go, Garrick has to be one of the nicest out there. In his first scene, Garrick helpfully tells the girl he's got tied up to watch her head as he lifts her out of the trunk. Then he repeatedly assures her that everything is going to be okay shortly before strangling her. It's as if he never quite believes he's going to kill anyone until his compulsion gets the better of him, and afterwards, he's always remorseful. The film draws a nice parallel between Garrick and Sarah, because they are both ruled by these compulsions that make them despise themselves. Killing is Garrick's addiction, and you get the sense that the nice-guy side of him isn't a false front, but a genuine side of his personality, and the one he wishes was in control of his actions. Now, I can't say how psychologically realistic this is, but it made for an interesting character.

If you haven't seen the film and it sounds like something you might like, now's the time to stop reading, because I can't take this discussion any farther without giving away some MAJOR SPOILERS.

I don't know about you, but I didn't see the ending coming at all. And the first time around, I wasn't too happy with it. It seemed like a cheap twist for the sake of having a twist ending. On top of that, I really liked Kevin, and I wanted his feelings toward Sarah to be real so that when one or both of them wound up tortured to death, the horror would cut deep. That's what I've been waiting for: a horror film where you care so deeply about the characters that when they're murdered, you're left devastated. Instead, Kevin turns out to be a serial killer groupie who, along with his 2 friends, have captured Sarah and arranged for Garrick to meet them in a secluded cabin to get his revenge for her turning him in to the cops. It seemed far-fetched, and worse yet, totally out of character for Kevin.

Here's the thing though, watch it again and you can see there was no cheating. There were subtle, damned-nigh imperceptible clues to what was coming. At their first date, Kevin, a supposed recovering alcoholic, chooses a restaurant with booze covering every wall. He claims he didn't realize it until he walked in the restaurant, yet when Sarah says she has no idea what she wants, he says, “It’s all pretty good." If he knows the menu so well, he obviously frequents the restaurant, but if he was really an alcoholic, he would definitely have noticed the wine bottles everywhere.

On the second viewing, I found Kevin so creepy that I could hardly believe it hadn't been obvious all along that he was a predator. Mostly it's just the way he looks at Sarah when she's hinting at secrets he already knows. What I had chalked up to his being awkward (or even being a less than convincing actor) I now interpret as dead-on acting choices. He's awkward because he's a psycho trying to appear to be a nice guy.

Once I got over not getting the ending I was expecting and hoping for, I realized that the actual ending was better, because it contains the whole point of the film. Through the whole movie, you just sort of assume Garrick is heading home to get revenge. Instead, he ends up rescuing Sarah from her captors and letting her go. He still loves her deeply and feels guilty about failing to be the man he should have been for her. As he's cutting her down from the ceiling, Sarah tells him she missed him, and means it. Once she's been freed, they exchange a loaded glance, we get a quick flash of a love scene from earlier in their lives, and she leaves while he collapses from the stab wound he's sustained.

Earlier I pointed out the parallel between their addictions, which is why, on some level, Sarah understands Garrick. Maybe she doesn't understand the compulsion to kill, but she understands uncontrollable compulsions to do self-destructive things and to hate yourself for it. She also never personally saw his brutal side. He was always gentle and loving with her, which is why she can't hate him despite all he's done. In their shared glance at the end you can see that they still love each other despite everything, and that they both know they have to let each other go. Classic star-crossed lovers with a deep, black twist.

The one thing missing from A Horrible Way to Die was any sort of scare factor. There was some decent tension in parts, but it was way less of a scary movie than a dark, bleak drama. But the good news is that Adam Wingard's next film, "You're Next," looks to be a balls-out home invasion type horror movie with the 3 principle cast members from AHWTD appearing. Plus, Ti West is playing a character named Tariq, so I'm obviously there.

For a dissenting opinion on A Horrible Way to Die, check out the If We Made It Podcast with my friends Jeff and Tucker, in which they also give an insightful review of Lucky McKee's The Woman before ranking A Horrible Way to Die lower than Santa Claus: The Movie in their Flickchart.

I'm fishing for comments with this one, so please let me know what you thought of A Horrible Way to Die. Was it as good as I made it out to be? Worse than Santa Claus? Somewhere in between? Let me know. And when you're done commenting, head on over to the MMM Facebook page to see what I thought of Dolan's Cadillac. Then call your mother. She has heard from you in so long. Also, you might think about a haircut.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Final Girl Film Club: Hell Night

Before I get to the glory that is Hell Night, I'd like to take a moment to thank our hostess, the talented Ms. Stacie Ponder, not only for giving us lesser bloggers a bit of free publicity, but also for this kick-ass stick figure rendering of Chromeskull stabbing Lena Headey in the head:

I see you are jealous, as well you should be. This is the custom artwork drawn directly on the back cover of my deluxe edition of Stacie's Slashers 101 mini-comic. The good news is, you don't have to spend the remainder of your days wallowing in envy--you can totally order your own over at Final Girl. I suggest you take a moment and do that right now. I can wait...

Done? Which slasher did you order? Dr. Decker from Nightbreed? Gahh! Why didn't I think of that? Now I'm freakin' jealous.

Anyhow, on with the review!

 Hell Night (1981, dir. Tom DiSimone)

The Verdict: Hell Night is a fun, but uneven, foray into cheesy 80s horror that works best when it (however lamely) attempts humor rather than horror.

Hell Night pours on the awesome so thick that within the first five minutes you will be convinced that it is the end-all be-all of 80s horror. Unfortunately, the film cannot keep this pace up for long. In fact, the film is at its best before any of the horror elements come into play. The movie begins with one of those mythical, end-of-the-world-blowout, 20-keg frat parties that you could only believe were real back in the 80s. Girls flash their cleavage while bringing drinks and smokes to drunken jocks who puke on trophy cases and throw kegs through the picture windows. Motion pictures exist precisely because parties like this do not.

Awesomely overblown period setting, check. But what about the characters? We've got Surfer Dude who comes dressed as Robin Hood and wise-cracks his way through the party while ogling Party Girl, who is dressed as a flapper and dancing provocatively, and who is perpetually carrying a small pharmacy somewhere on her person, despite the smallness of her outfit. There's also Frat President, who is a pig, but a charming, affable pig who gets points simply for the time, effort, and obvious passion he puts into scaring pledges shitless on the big night. Next there's Sensitive Guy, who is the more serious-minded type. You know, the guy who is in a frat but isn't really a "frat guy." Sensitive Guy is clearly set up to be the love interest for our Final Girl, Linda Blair.

Ah Linda Blair, I finally understand my friend Shannon's obsession with you. When we meet Linda's character, she is observing the party in a knowing, above-it-all manner that shows she's the smartest, most confident, flat-out coolest girl in the room. Her baby-fat cherubic face is the perfect counterpoint to her sultry baritone voice and wise-beyond-her-years demeanor... can you tell I was crushing on her something fierce?  The funny thing about Linda Blair is this movie is that in the beginning, she doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the cast. She's just a little bit too good as an actress, and she's clearly slumming. In the early scenes, Hell Night shows you tantalizing glimpses of the actress Linda Blair might have become had her career not been derailed by drug convictions (how quaint it seems that in the 80s a drug problem could turn public sentiment against an actor). Alas, as the film goes on, her performance deteriorates, mostly because the filmmakers don't give her anything compelling to do or even remain true to the character they've set up, More on that later.

Hell Night's greatest strength is its humor, although I was never quite sure if it was legitimitely funny, or so bad that it was funny. If you're being generous, you might consider the script a clever send-up of the frat-boy mentality. Or you could argue that the filmmakers possess a frat-boy mentality and any laughter is at their expense. Ultimately though, it doesn't matter. With it or at it, I laughed a lot.

Take for example, this bit of dialogue:

Lackey Nerd: "What a twat. We should have left her behind."
Frat Prez: "What for? Her behind's her best part. We should have keep her behind and left the rest of her."

Tell me, if you can, whether or not this is genuinely funny, or so lame it's hilarious? I'd say it's a bit of both. Imagine this joke as delivered by me and Jack Nicholson:

It could totally work, but the ham-fisted set-up and delivery take it over the edge into lamedom. The cumulative effect, however, is a joke that works on multiple levels, and is perfctly suited to the aesthetic of Hell Night.

Where Hell Night falters is whenever it attempts to build tension. When the pledges finally get locked in the murder/suicide house, the audience gets all these agonizingly slow scenes where people are creeping carefully along corridors, and you can tell by the way the shots are framed that nothing is going to happen. Rather than perched on the edge of your seat, you're sitting back waiting for the scene to end so you can get to the kills.

Speaking of which, the kills are pretty damned cool in that low-budget, infinitely inventive kind of way. At one point, a mongoloid twists Lackey Nerd's head around backwards. Within seconds, you realize the inherent cheapnesss of the effect. All they did was begin the head twist, cut, put the Lackey Nerd's jacket on backwards, then continue the twist. Such a simple effect, but in the seconds it takes to realize how it was done, you've already gasped and cringed at the brutality you thought you saw.

Alright, here's my biggest gripe of the movie. When we're introduced to Linda Blair's character, she comes off as this super-cool above-it-all outsider girl who isn't quite sold on the sorority life, yet is gaming the system for its potential benefits. During her conversation with Sensitive Guy, she shows herself to be highly intelligent, independent, and possessed of those masculine traits (being an auto-mechanic) that make her every guy's dream girl. I was sold. My firm expectation was that she would be one of the most kick-ass final girls of all time.

And then...

She spends the rest of the goddamned movie being a goddamned damsel in goddamn distress. I mean, goddamn! Okay, perhaps that's an exaggeration. She has her moments, particularly near the end of the film, but for the most part she gets frightened, yells for help, seeks comfort from Sensitive Guy, rinse, repeat. The only time she shows a spark of her potential inner bad-ass is when Surfer Dude's shotgun clatters to the floor with the Dude himself nowhere in sight. Sensitive Guy cowers near the staircase while Linda insists she's going to get that gun. Coincidentally, this is the only scene in the film that even hints at tension, and gave me a pretty good jump scare (belated spolier alert).

I can't end this review without a huge shout-out to the best thing about Hell Night, Linda Blair included: Surfer Dude. This man deserves a standing ovation for perfectly capturing the gleeful cheese that Hell Night represents (go ahead, stand up and applaud, I'll wait). Every moment you watch him on the screen is a moment that God subtracts from the span of your days. Every lame joke that spews forth from his pseudo-mustachioed lips utterly kills. And it's not that he's partiularly good, it's just that his enthusiasm is infectious. When he excitedly describes what it's like to surf to Meg, well, a less-luminous being would have ground the movie to a halt, but between he and Meg (her naughty interludes are half the fun), the screen lights up. Am I over-selling this? Anyway, he's really fun to watch, especially when they give him lines like, "The world's gone crazy!" in earnest.

So, for all it's faults, I've got to give Hell Night 2 enthusiastic thumbs up, with one caveat: This is a film best enjoyed with a roomful of rowdy, drunken friends to carry you through the slow parts.