Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Excision (RIchard Bates Jr, 2012)

It's no surprise that so many horror films feature adolescents and that they are the audience the films are meant for. Unless you're the most fortunate of individuals, the kind who won all of the lotteries of fate, granted the genetic ticket to have grown into someone that matches societies description of physical beauty, a materially comfortable and secure home, a relatively well adjusted family, and the confidence that comes with all of that, chances are adolescence is not going to be an easy, simple time in your life that doesn't involve stress and confusion that you're barely capable of handling.

Horror films are a great outlet for that stress and tension, and many of them are created by people who understand that experience from a very personal standpoint. The best of these kinds of films distill that combination of sheer terror, youthful energy, and the hope that somewhere, somehow the confidence and capability the world seems to value are going to available. In the case of horror films, they usually aren't available to the characters until after some horrible, terrifying experience has threatened their physical safety, their immortal souls or something else your average teenager finds of great value. It's not a mistake that for decades, horror films were based on a lone survivor having watched their entire circle of friends unceremoniously massacred by a maniac wielding a variety of different weapons. It represented both the connection to community that many teenagers experience and fear losing and the degree of competition in that community. As budding adults, teenagers and adolescents are basically new converts to the adult experience. They haven't quite gotten there and don't have the acceptance that an adult does though. As with any other new convert in any other subset or society, they're also the one's who are going to most forcefully enforce group norms as part of the insecure need to feel they belong and deserve their place, and in doing so, they end up creating a hyper competitiveness, which comes out in horror films as the inevitable whittling down of the community or competitors to one lone survivor, who has survived because of some combination of traits they've drawn on either purposely or by chance, that the others lacked.

Excision explores many of those same ideas from a perspective that couldn't be more different from your standard horror film. After seeing it to the end, few people would argue that this isn't a horror film, but it doesn't deal with it's characters or it's content in the way audiences generally expect a horror film with an adolescent as the central character to deal with them. It's instead presenting a view of that experience and the kind of hyper competitiveness that comes with it from the perspective of someone who is more or less experiencing it from the outside and not as a member of a small community of friends.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Imposter (Bart Layton, 2012)

One of the unfortunate truths about American movie audiences is that they just aren't going to go to the multiplex to see a documentary. Anyone making a documentary film has to resign themselves to the fact that they are therefore attempting to reach a smaller audience than your average narrative film. Among the many reasons that's unfortunate is that films like The Imposter exist. They are documentaries, and they can provide the same degree of suspense and skillful storytelling that any narrative can provide, and as importantly, they are generally concerned with presenting a much more realistic perspective on things that do or have actually happened or existed in the real world. They aren't works of fantasy by their very nature.

To that end, if it weren't already relatively well publicized and easy to research, I don't think the majority of audiences would believe that The Imposter is actually a real story. It's too weird to be real, and too strange to be fiction, but it's true. There are points in the film that would be impossible to believe if it weren't being relayed by the people who are actually at the center of the story. All of the major players in the events the film is depicting are interviewed in the course of the revelation of the story. It not only gives the story credibility, it also adds to the sense of suspense and it adds to the power of the final destination on the journey the film is guiding the audience on.

The Imposter is the story of Frédéric Bourdin, a twenty three year old French citizen who impersonated a missing child from a small town in Texas, and the family who took him in under the auspices that he was their missing child. It's a compelling, shocking and brilliantly told tale about the nature of identity, trust, belief, desire, and perspective. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Mama (Andrés Muschietti, 2013)

Guillermo Del Toro has reached a place in his career that allows him to not only take on the full plate of projects he's attached to (and he's constantly attached to a large slate of upcoming films, whether they end up being made or not), but by attaching his name to a project as a producer, he can allow young directors their chance at making a full length feature. He's done this previously with The Orphanage, a stylish and spooky fright flick released in 2007 and directed by then novice film maker Juan Antonio Bayona. It was a film that bore a resemblance to Del Toro's The Devil's Backbone, not so much as imitation, but as spiritual kin in that they both drew from a long, rich history of traditional ghost stories and an old time era of horror films. Both films relied on suspense more than shock and imbued their stories with a healthy bit of the kind of tragedy that has been missing from horror films for a few decades.

Now comes Mama, director Andrés Muschietti's first feature. Having only previously directed a short film of the same name, Muschietti is very much an unknown quantity and without the weight of Del Toro's name would never have been able to secure either a budget of the size Mama obviously has (by no means a blockbuster budget, but still definitely of a larger variety than most any director with one short film under his belt would usually be able to secure), and even more importantly, a nationwide distribution deal.

Shocking both the horror community and Hollywood, Mama succeeded in burying the competition in it's opening weekend. Not insignificant among those ranks was Arnold Schwarzenegger's return to the world of action films, Last Stand. There's some question about whether or not that's due to the change in the landscape of cinema since Schwarzenegger's exit from cinema to take up politics or audiences just having lost interest in him, but regardless of all that, Mama was a surprise hit. Also, a mostly positive word of mouth didn't hurt the film in the least, and seeing the director of Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy at the top of the posters and advertisements certainly doesn't hurt. The question is, did Mama and it's director just settle under a lucky star or is the film good enough to have accomplished all this on it's own?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

John Dies At The End (Don Coscarelli, 2012)

Don Coscarelli has had a unique career. He came to be a prominent writer/director among horror fans in 1979 following the release of Phantasm. He also went on to direct it's many sequels and is the man who wrote and directed The Beastmaster series, which has it's whole own cult following. In case you aren't familiar, the Phantasm series follows a boy who upon discovering the local mortician is actual a being from another dimension doing rather dastardly things with the bodies, sets out to stop him. After making this discovery, the series of films follow this young man, and his friend Reggie the ice cream man, as they battle the forces from this other dimension that are attempting to take over earth. I understand how that sounds, but at the very least, the original Phantasm is worth seeing because it is mind bogglingly original. It matches some real scares with some deeply funny moments and shockingly surreal imagery.

The Beastmaster is something else altogether. It's also a piece of fantasy fiction, but it's extremely different than Phantasm. Much more along the lines of a sword and sorcery variety of fantasy, it follows a warrior who can communicate with animals on an epic adventure, the third film in the series also involving time travel. It is a joyfully silly, fun adventure film in the best traditions of sword and sorcery films.

Those are the films which put Don Coscarelli safely in the hearts of horror and fantasy film fans the world over. He had fallen off the radar for a number of years though. He didn't release a film between Phantasm IV: Oblivion which was released in 1998 and his next film which was released in 2002. That film, was a howling ball of weird hilarity mixed with a healthy dose of horror genre tropes. Bubba Ho-Tep announced Coscarelli's return in a way that made horror fans and fans of the surreal and absurd sit up and cheer like a pack of wild hyenas that have just broken into a slaughterhouse. Bruce Campbell (of Evil Dead fame) plays a man in a nursing home who may or may not actually be Elvis Presley. That's the easy part of the story. The rest is that there's a mummy roaming around that is killing the inhabitants of the nursing home, and when Elvis/Sebastian figures this out, he enlists the help of John F. Kennedy (played by Ozzy Davis). Yes, you read that right. Don't worry, if you actually see the film, which you should, you'll understand and it will make sense.

Needless to say, Don Coscarelli is making very different movies from 99% of the other film makers alive today, and when he's been gone from the landscape of cinema for ten years, many people notice the absence. To his credit, he's made all of these films, and a few others, with the absolute least amount of money he could possibly have at his disposal and is still creating incredibly fun and entertaining films. He is more consistently willing to take chances and try to be actually creative, in the sense of doing things we've never seen before, than most other writers and directors working today. What he isn't, is making movies with serious content even though he's serious about being creative. His films are one hundred and ten percent about being fun, entertaining and original. John Dies at the End is no different. Based on the book of the same name by David Wong (which is itself a pseudonym for a former editor of Vice magazine, Jason Pargin), John Dies at the End, fits into Coscarelli's filmography perfectly, and might just be the high point for his career to date. It's an insane film, barreling at the audience at 250 m.p.h, laughing maniacally, spewing guts and not bothering to slow down and ask whether or not you're keeping up or getting out of the way.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Zero Sum Controversy

2012 had it's fair share of controversy spilling out of the film press and into the more mainstream news. The Dark Knight Rises was lambasted as both a communist plot to indoctrinate youths and inspire them to overthrow the wealthy and as a propaganda tool of the 1% in an attempt to convince the pleebs that they actually have our best interests at heart. Both things could or could not be true. Overall, the film got sucked into a larger social/political discussion that I don't think it meant to include itself in. I think the fact that the script was finished almost two years prior to going into production supports that. Also, it's a movie about a guy running around at night dressed up like a bat and beating people to a pulp with his bare hands, another guy who sounded like Sean Connery if he'd had a few too many highballs and someone slipped him a tab of acid, and a woman dressed up like a cat caught between the two. No matter how I might feel about how well or poorly made the film might be on it's own merits, it's hard for me to take away any serious political content from it. I do take it as a good sign that virtually no one read their tea leaves to mean that the shooting that happened in Aurora Colorado during a midnight screening was somehow the fault of the film, the film makers or anyone else involved with the film. Take small miracles where you can get them when it comes to acts of maturity by our politically motivated brethren.

Now comes Zero Dark Thirty. The clashing of my worlds is happening yet again. I can't read the film press without some screed either defending or defiling the film based on whether or not the writer feels the film did or did not defend the use of torture. Let me be clear here, I have yet to see the film, and I honestly have no interest in weighing in on that debate in part for that reason and in part because I find the tenor of the entire discussion pretty ridiculous. I also can't turn from the film press to what is generally considered more "substantial news" and escape the ridiculousness of it either. Suddenly, the same discussion is popping up in places that normally couldn't care any less about film or what is happening on screens nation wide or world wide. Somehow, no matter which side a particular journalist comes down on, I want to bang my head on my desk or stick a pen in my ear.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Lovely Molly (Eduardo Sanchez, 2011)

Back in 1999, there was this little film that came along and added an entirely new dimension to cinema. It gave film makers a new tool with which to tell whatever story they chose, and it gave audiences a new cinematic touchstone. Eduardo Sanchez was one of the directors and primary creative minds behind what became the most profitable independent film of all time, The Blair Witch Project. For all of the hemming and hawing about the found footage genre in the film press, it can't be argued that the existence of the genre is due to The Blair Witch Project. It was behemoth, with a sly, fun and interesting viral and completely unusual marketing scheme that added to the experience of the film and helped build a buzz that made it a sign of things to come. If you were under 30 when it was released (or just a horror geek, no matter your age), it was the film you were talking about prior to and following it's release. Paranormal Activity learned everything it knew from The Blair Witch Project and then did what Blair Witch failed to do, provide sequels that were financially successful and added successfully added to the series mythology.

At the time, Sanchez and his co-creator/director Daniel Myrick were suddenly the hottest new names in horror. Unfortunately, neither of them have replicated anything like the success of that first feature, and they have more or less fallen off the cultural radar. Marketing departments still rely on the name The Blair Witch Project when either man releases a new film, but they just don't have the power they did previously. No one is clamoring to see the next film from either man, and really, The Blair Witch Project is almost considered a piece of kitsch from a bygone era.

Lovely Molly, the latest film from Sanchez, has helped to start bringing some of that prominence back for the writer/director. It was received relatively well on the festival circuit and the internet horror film press were certainly giving it plenty of copy preceding it's release, something Sanchez films since Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 haven't had the good fortune to receive. Lovely Molly unfortunately slid by with very little notice from the general movie going public, and that may be good or bad depending on your perspective. I was expecting a pretty standard haunted house/possession film, but what I got was completely different.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Compliance (Craig Zobel, 2012)

I spent my late teens and early twenties doing my best to sift through the pantheon of horror films that were both "must see" and "watch at your own risk." If it was something that was either considered one of the masterworks of the genre, a film that added a new dimension to it or changed the course the genre had been going, I was trying to see it. At the same time, if a film been deemed to have absolutely no social value, to be inexplicably offensive, to be an attack on everything a civil society should be, I was doing my best to get my hands on a copy, even if it was just borrowed. My VHS collection, when those were actually the preferred home viewing method, wasn't unimpressive to a well schooled horror fan. Like so many other budding cinephiles and horror geeks, I took pride in the fact that I could recite the years of release, directors, producers, stars and inane trivia related to many of the more obscure trash horror films released between 1953 to what was then the present. I didn't understand it as such at the time, but I was using film as a way to begin to gauge what the society I lived in found to be worthy of reverence and what it found to be unacceptable when it came to art and free speech.

I've seen some disturbing shit in movies. For a time, I thought there was some kind of psychological or emotional strength gained from sitting through a film that was little more than punishment. I might not have actually been wrong about that, but I still wasn't exactly right either. What it produced seems to be a pretty deep well of tolerance for what gets created, produced, screened, marketed and what have you when it comes to the creative arts. Especially with things that are actually created to shock or to produce revulsion or distress in the audience, I have never come to the point that I've said, "They shouldn't have been allowed to make that." I certainly feel there are films which have no business being made, but even those tend to be as related to the obviousness of their commercialism as it is for the outrageous and shocking aspects of another films content. I'd rather I Spit On Your Grave exist before Battleship any day. Hit the jump to find out why, and what relevance this has to Compliance.