Friday, September 23, 2016

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT - PART 2

This is the second part of a two part review of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT.

YOU GONNA WRITE US A HAPPY ENDING, HEATHER?  

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT has a discernible five act structure. If you're unfamiliar with how a five act film is structured, here's a quick primer.

The first act introduces characters, defines their needs or desires, and establishes the overall conflict within the narrative.

The second act features rising tensions, complications and character implications, pushing the narrative forward while distancing the characters from the attainment of the desires.

The third act is effectively a mini-climax where the film reaches maximum tension.

The fourth act is devoted to falling action with an emphasis on character. It is usually at this point that all hope is lost then the final hurdle is jumped, and the character proceeds towards the finale of the film. This is usually the shortest, most concise act of the film.

The fifth act is the proper climax where arcs are fulfilled and characters desires are attained, usually by defeating or besting the antagonist. 

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT fits this structure well. It tells its story over the course of eight days. The events are largely repeated with very little variation until the climax of the third act. The events of those eight days are as follows:

Day One – We are introduced to Heather, the director, Mike, the sound engineer, and Josh, the cameraman. We become acquainted with the two different types of media used to film the documentary, the silent, black and white 16mm film stock and the typical camcorder. The characters discuss the nature of the documentary they are filming. We learn of the urban legends in the area, specifically about Rustin Parr, a recluse who murdered seven children in the 1940s, that the Blair Witch supposedly haunts a cabin in the woods, that two people hiking in the woods “disappeared off the face of the Earth” and that many people have sighted the Blair Witch over the years. We learn this through on the street interviews with locals. At night, the team bonds over drinks.

Day Two – Heather, Mike and Josh set off into the woods. They film at Coffin Rock, an outcropping near a stream where the bodies of five men were once found, their mutilated bodies marked with “strange writing”. They camp in the woods.

Day Three – In the morning, Josh mentions hearing sounds during the night. They appear to be lost but Heather, flexing her dominance, insists they're not lost. They head in the direction of a cemetery in the woods, but cannot manage to get their bearings using their map. Mike expresses displeasure at Heather's constant filming. The trio comes across piles of rocks, clearly man-made, in a clearing. There are seven distinct rock piles. When they head back to film the rock formations at night, Josh accidentally disturbs one of them. They are later woken up by strange noises in the night which sound like clapping rocks or the breaking of heavy tree limbs.

Day Four – Tension rises sharply. Mike and Josh need to return their equipment. Discussing the noises, Josh suggests that someone might be following them. They recognize that they are well and truly lost at this point, even though Heather won't admit it. This leads to Mike having the first breakdown of the group. At night, they hear the same noises, but again cannot pinpoint a source or a cause.

Day Five – They awake to find three rock piles outside their tent. As Heather compulsively films, Josh and Mike scream at her, wanting to leave. As they hike, Heather discovers that their map is missing. After crossing a difficult stream, Mike admits to kicking the map into the water, claiming it was useless. This leads to the first physical altercations. By now, the tension among the group is at its peak. Later, they come upon a clearing in the woods. Hanging from trees are dozens, if not hundreds, of stick figures made of twine and twigs. Once again, Heather will not stop taping though she finally admits that they are lost. At night, they are awoken by the sounds of children laughing and babies crying. Something violently shakes their tent and they flee into the night.

Day Six – They return at sun-up to discover their campsite destroyed. We see that Heather had taken one of the stick figures from the clearing. Josh's belongings are smeared with some kind of slime. Once again, Heather will not stop filming. Josh has a breakdown. Near sunset, they discover that they have been walking in circles the entire day. Josh confronts Heather, causing her to break. During the night, the group reconciles over talk of food. Nothing happens while they sleep.

Day Seven – Mike and Heather wake up to find Josh gone. They spend a little time looking for him before resuming hiking. There's relatively little small talk as they walk. At night, they hear Josh screaming in pain.

Day Eight – Heather finds a small bundle made of twigs outside their tent. It's held together by pieces of Josh's shirt. Inside the bundle is a bloody mess of teeth. Mike finally breaks. At night, Heather films a tearful apology. Upon hearing Josh's cries for help, Heather and Mike set off to find him. They stumble upon an old, rotted house in the woods.

Days One and Two comprise the entirety of the films first act. They are the only two days of the film structured in a way similar to most documentary films, with heavily edited interview footage, world building and leading moments (ie. Josh asking Heather whether she believe the stories she is hearing). Though we don't get to hear the strange sounds Josh reports in the morning, the mention sets up what will become the cyclical action of the film. They will hike and argue during the day. At night, we'll all get the spooks.

Days Three and Four make up the second act. It's here when the characters really start to grate on one another. Heather's constant filming quickly becomes the cause of strife within the group, designating her as the films antagonist throughout this act. However, by the time Day Four wraps up, the main antagonist of the film becomes clear. It isn't Heather. It isn't even really the Witch. It's the woods.

Days Five, Six and the early events of Seven comprise the third act, the crucial act where the film reaches its peak tension. The events surrounding the group become physical. Rock piles show up outside their tent (up until this point, it's been nothing more than sounds in the distance), something terrible shakes their tent and Josh goes missing. The escalation of events from sounds in the dark to physical activity happens at the same time the group comes to blows over the map and Heather's constant filming, almost as if the escalation of their dissolution causes the escalation of activity.

The early moments of Day Seven and most of Day Eight make up the fourth act. Here, the characters are at their lowest. Hopelessly lost, starving and one member down, this is where the film slows to a crawl to show the sheer physical and emotional toll this experience has had on the characters. It's also the shortest act yet, lasting only half as long as the previous day.

The final act begins with Heather's tearful apology, essentially a suicide note no one would ever read, and ends with Mike and Heather finally rushing off to save Josh, only to meet their lonely fates in the basement of an abandoned house in the woods. It is the ultimate climax of the film, but one without closure.

As I said, the structure here is discernible but incidental and that is largely because THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT doesn't ever feel like a traditional film. Grandiose dramatic push isn't the goal, immersion is.The concept comes back into play. What we're watching is the found footage of a group of scared, lost college aged filmmakers. Their behavior is a constant see-saw of anger and hopelessness, peppered with a few moments of genuine empathy. Their days bleed together, just hiking and arguing, before the inevitable nighttime assault. While it might fit into a common structure, nothing else about the film feels common. Characters say the same things over and over, the same arguments happen over and over, their trek through the woods leads them back to where they began the day before. If we were weighing the sheer dramatic importance of the material contained within THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, we would barely have anything to lay on the scale.

There's a common idea in screenwriting that every scene needs to have a beginning, middle and end, no matter how small the scene in question is. If the dialogue or action isn't answering a question (what does X want? What does X need to do to get it? What do we learn about X in this scene?), it is useless to the narrative and should be excised. In terms of sheer screenwriting economy, you cut the pure character moments and keep that which drives the narrative forward. A quiet moment is a moment wasted.

But there's precious little past the first act in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT that serves the purpose of pushing the action forward. The fact that the group hikes all day only to end up back where they started is little more than a cruel joke. They begin and end each day the same as before. They are reduced to reactive characters by their environment, a forest they simply cannot leave. By the time Josh goes missing, all of their behaviors stop being meaningful and become simply routine. We know how the story ends. By the time the fourth act ends, they do too. 

STICKS AND STONES 

By any classical definition, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is far from dramatic. Despite all the screaming, it is a strikingly quiet film and that has a lot to do with the sound design. Simply put, there isn't any. Aside from normalizing sound levels and reducing the background noise as the film goes on, all sound captured is diegetic. There is no score playing during the scary moments, no low humming bass like in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY to clue us in on the supernatural events about to take place and no noticeable dubbing.

Because of the found footage angle, most filmmakers approach their films as designed products put together by editors. Romero's DIARY OF THE DEAD is a great example, a found footage film edited, scored and narrated by one of the characters within the film. This allows Romero the typical Hollywood indulgences of creepy scores, jump edits and audience manipulation. THE LAST BROADCAST is a mixture of produced material and found footage, a mockumentary style employed by shows like In Search Of.... What this handling of the footage does is make us aware of a creative presence behind the camera. They feel directed. 

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT doesn't feel directed, even if its obviously edited. The actors set up their shots, not Sanchez and Myrick. While they were given scenic locations to use on several days, most of the time the actors ended up filming whatever they needed to without any consideration of cinematic appeal. The framing of Heather's famous apology scene was a total accident. There are times when characters speak most of their dialogue off screen. In a “normal” film, this would be suicide, but here, the lack of directorial control just adds to the authenticity of it all. They're not making a film for public consumption. They're simply filming because there's nothing else to do.

The closest the film comes to feeling like a traditional film is when Josh fires up the 16mm camera for carefully composed shots. This happens only during the first half of the film. At that point, they still have hope of escaping the woods. They take their time at night, filming the sticks and the stones. but from that point on, the 16mm camera is used primarily as a light source. All attempts to carefully capture the events on 16mm are gone after Day 5.

The footage captured on the camcorder is haphazardly filmed, mostly because the camcorder is only there to capture incidental moments, not footage for the documentary. I feel like there was far more footage filmed with the 16mm camera than what is actually in the film, but it wasn't used by Sanchez and Myrick for one obvious reason. The camcorder is a staple of the household (or it was anyway back in 1999). The home video quality of the footage just creates one more link between the viewer and the material. The juxtaposition of the 16mm footage and the camcorder footage is an interesting idea. It offers up and then promptly removes the safeguard, that time honored chant of protection from cinematic terrors, “just repeat… it's only a movie”.

There's a damn good reason why so much effort is spent on filming those sticks and stones too and that's because the iconic stick men, the piles of rocks, the house in the woods… these are all designed elements. In a film predominantly filled with naturalistic elements like trees, streams, leaves and rain, the sudden appearance of things not normally found in nature, simple baubles like stick figures made of twigs and twine, take on a sinister appearance. These are not things created through the accidental blowing of the wind. They are created with teleological intent.

It's a testament to how smart the construction of the film is and how subtly it works under your skin. The sudden appearance of a pile of rocks in this film hits like the shower curtain being pulled back in PSYCHO. It's a rare feat, scaring people using stick figures and rocks, but it's a well worn psychological freak-out, like a voice whispering in an empty room. Those rocks are not supposed to be there. Their arrangement is clearly designed, carefully and with intent by someone or something. 

WE'RE HERE NOW, HUNGRY… COLD… AND HUNTED 

Now that the new BLAIR WITCH film has shat all over the mythology of the first film, it's going to be difficult for people to watch THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT without any new developments leaking in. I earlier compared THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT with HALLOWEEN. Both were low cost films that made millions. Both are simplistic, minimalistic films that succeed through style rather than through pure narrative momentum. But there's something else these films have in common now.

Watching the first HALLOWEEN film and looking at it for what it is can be difficult. We ascribe motivations to Michael Myers that simply do not exist within the film. The Shape in HALLOWEEN is not Laurie Strode's brother. He isn't the weapon of some secret cult. He's just a maniac, freshly escaped from a mental institution, fixated on a singular moment in his life. When Laurie drops that key off at the Myers' house, he doesn't recognize her as his sister, because in Carpenter's film, she isn't. She's just a girl and Myers, hellbent on filling the psychotic need to relive the memory of his first murder, strikes out again.

That is HALLOWEEN. That is all it is. But decades of sequels has mutated Carpenter's original film into something much more convoluted and weak. The plot developments in BLAIR WITCH have answered questions that were never meant to be answered. Whether or not those answers hurt or help the franchise is up for debate, but let's not pretend that the plot developments of BLAIR WITCH were ever intended to happen by the original creators.

Part of the appeal of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is the mystery of it all. While we can't deny the supernatural implications of the events in the film, there is still the possibility that the whole thing was set up by an all-too human antagonist, maybe even a group of them. How difficult would it be to arrange a few boom boxes in the distance, playing creepy noises at night? That's exactly what the filmmakers did. Is it really too much of a stretch to think that Josh didn't simply disappear, but was taken from the campsite while the others were asleep? There surely has to be a connection between the twig and twine stick figures, and the twig and twine gate outside Mary Brown's house, right?

It's an interesting angle to contemplate while watching the film, but there's too many inexplicable events going on for that angle to hold its shape. But that raises an even more interesting question: what exactly is assaulting these characters?

Only once during the film does a character actually see something. As the group runs from their tent, Heather briefly looks to her left, screaming “what the fuck is that?!” She clearly sees something, but even though she has her camera pointing in the direction of that mysterious something, we never see it. There is no edit from the 16mm camera in Josh's hands to the camcorder in Heather's. If there really was something to be seen, wouldn't the editors have shown it to us? Wouldn't that have been part of the film? Instead, we see nothing. There is no edit. So what exactly was chasing them through the woods that night? 

BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2, the failed, much maligned original sequel to this film, took the mythology of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT to a considerably different place. In the world of that film, the original was just a movie, though the urban legends were very much reality. Joe Berlinger's film comments more on mass hysteria and mass delusion, the kind which lit the fires of the witch-hunts of the early modern period. That film is as open ended as this film, with no clear evidence or conclusion that what befalls the characters is the actual outcome of witchcraft. 

In any other film, you could argue that what happens is just the product of group hysteria, but in this film we hear the noises. We see the sticks and stones. This is happening. The why is almost an afterthought. Whether it's man made or supernatural, these people are being pursued. They're being hunted. Whatever actually caused it might be unknown, but the fact remains that these three filmmakers met their maker in the woods of Burkittsville.

In fact, you could argue that the woods are the real antagonist in this film, that they act as a kind of Bermuda Triangle, a bizarre place that incites and captures madness and terror. The woods are not haunted by the Blair Witch. They contain her, just as they contain all the spirits of the children lost in the town, the same spirits that giggled outside the tent that night right before rapping their tiny hands against it in unison. Mike wasn't made to stand in that basement corner by the Witch, but by the spirit of Rustin Parr. BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2 sidestepped all of that. It wasn't the woods that made the characters go crazy, it was the suggestion, the powerful belief in supernatural madness. In BLAIR WITCH, this is all explained by turning Elly Kedward into a god-like entity capable of warping time and space. There's an elegance in thinking of the woods as little more than a gigantic haunted house, a dwelling place for multiple evil spirits, all of whom take their turn at driving our characters insane.

This is the beauty of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. No matter how many times you watch it or how closely you observe it, the truth will always lurk right outside the frame. It succeeds through the power of suggestion, rather than going the easy route of discovery and closure. We never see the monster because there isn't a monster. Not really. There's only what we imagine lurking beyond the frame. We have to fill in the blanks because the film refuses to do it for us. The answer to the mystery is elusive. It's PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK. It's Jack the Ripper. It's the name dancing on the tip of your tongue. 

IT'S LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE 

That's precisely what THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was. This was 1999. This was right in the middle of the teenage slasher boom where every mildly popular heartthrob suddenly found themselves in a SCREAM knock-off. This was the time of irony and quirk. This was the time of cheap scares and quick cash grabs. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT could not have been made in the Hollywood system. It had to be an indie. There's no other way this movie could have been made.

Studio productions are market research driven creations. They're fad machines driven by an exploitation mentality, mass produced products whose sole purpose is to soak up cash. There are no jump scares in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. There are no false climaxes, no special effects, no creepy soundtracks, no boogeymen to keep getting up after being put down, no glamour model actors, no alien-looking monstrosity moving through the trees, no ironic twist endings... All the telltale signs of Hollywood horror films in the late 90s are missing from this film. What we have instead is quiet and suggestion, character and conviction. The choice of lo-fi camera equipment and unknown actors signaled that this was not going to be just another horror film. This was something different.

The choice of found footage has kept this film from aging. Like any other documentary (fake or otherwise), the film feels fresh. The lack of effects means the film cannot look dated, even if the technology used to make it certainly is. You would think that the years and years of shoddy imitators, and tired "me too" horror films that came in its wake would have dented the reputation of this film. But they haven't. Because the type of tale this film tells and the manner in which it tells it... that doesn't age. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is classic horror literature. It's weird fiction. It's the creepy stories we still tell around campfires.

There's something undeniably classy about the grubby look of the thing. There's a uniqueness to just how much of a group effort this film was with actors creating alongside directors. Nothing else felt quite like this movie back in 1999 and honestly, there's nothing out there today that feels like it either. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT has become pop culture now. 17 years after its release, it has become as familiar as HALLOWEEN or PSYCHO, but just like those films, it still has an undeniable power to it, even if it isn't as effective to us now as it was the first time we saw it.

These days, when I watch THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, I am largely unmoved by its scares, but I have never once looked at this film and felt anything less than admiration for just how well it pulled this whole thing off. My appreciation has shifted. I wish I could still feel that hopelessness and terror, that feeling of pure dread, that exhausting finality when the credits began to roll, but that is all lost to time now. I do however remember how it made me feel as I watched it all those years ago. I don't think I can ever forget that night. Moreover, I remember how I felt after watching the film, sitting home alone in a quiet house, feeling that childlike horror as I thought about what might be lurking right out of my own frame of vision.

For a brief time back in 1999, millions and millions of people remembered what it felt like to be a child once again, trapped in the suffocating darkness, terrified of things that go bump in the night. For me, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT remains one of the most unique, perfectly executed and memorable horror films, even if modern advancements and cultural shift in horror has delegated it to relic status. But there is much we can still learn from it. We most certainly have yet to surpass it.

Friday, September 16, 2016

BLAIR WITCH

SPOILER WARNING!!!

I was going to wait to post this review until after I finished my long, meandering review of the original, but I just couldn't wait. So here we are. BLAIR WITCH. You've heard of this movie, right? It's the one Brad Miska, ever the upstanding critic, of Bloody Disgusting called “a game-changer” that will break “the mold of traditional horror” films. You know, “the next big thing”? 

Ladies and gentlemen, if this is the next big thing… if this is the bright and bold future of horror films… we are FUCKED. We are well and truly fucked.

This movie is horrible. There's no two ways about it. It is just an abysmal film, a total failure in every conceivable way. And not just as a sequel. As a film. As a separate entity. It is terrible, irredeemably so. When I left the cinema, I only had two thoughts in mind. The first was “god, I hope this movie tanks” and second, “I wonder if Brad still has the taste of Adam Wingard's dick in his mouth?” 

BLAIR WITCH plays the same game as STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS and JURASSIC WORLD. It's both a remake and a sequel, a “re-quel”, if you will. As such it has to indulge in the old before it can indulge in the new. It's a tough balancing act (just ask Rob Zombie) and Wingard (along with his co-conspirator in cinematic atrocities, Simon Barrett) doesn't pull it off at all. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT managed to consolidate all its world-building into about 10 minutes. Here, the entire first half of the film is devoted to retreading old ground (because this films target audience wasn't even sperm when the original came out). We learn about Rustin Parr again. We learn about the history of Blair again. We learn about Coffin Rock again. We learn about the Witch again. By the time the exposition train runs out of steam, we're halfway through the movie and that means the spooky stuff needs to happen fast. In the original, we had some time before sticks and stones showed up. Here, fuck it. Both at once with no build-up. Just BOOM! there ya go. 

And speaking of BOOM!, the film goes full-on PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. This is the kind of film where characters cannot show up in the frame without an explosion of noise on the soundtrack. Every time someone stops talking for 30 seconds BOOM! Every time someone turns around slowly BOOM! Someone says a word that begins with the letter g BOOM! Every single scare is telegraphed through redundant action. By the fifth time a character says “sshhh… quiet” only to have his friend BOOM! show up behind him, you're aware of how this shit will play out. Eventually, someone says “can we stop doing that?” after being jump scared by her friend for the 50 billionth time and we all think “yeah, can we?” But nope, that shit happens right up until the end of the film. Because that's all it has to offer. There's no suspense, no tension, no genuine frights. Just BOOM!

Oh fuck, I should describe the plot, shouldn't I? Fine.

Meet James. He's Heather's little brother. James is browsing YouTube one day when he stumbles across a video purportedly shot in the same house his big sister went missing in all those years ago. For one brief moment, the person filming the action stops by a dirty mirror. It's a woman. James sees this and through a great, huge leap of logic, he concludes that the woman in the video is Heather.

So James decides to head out into the woods to find her (he was four when she went missing, by the way). Along for ride are Peter, James' best friend, Peter's girlfriend, Ashley, and Lisa, James' kinda-sorta girlfriend. Lisa is a film student and this provides her with a great opportunity to make a student film. She wrangles up a couple thousand dollars worth of camera equipment, including GPS-enabled, high definition earbud cameras and a drone (which is used solely for a handful of aerial shots just so the idiot audience won't forget these people are lost in the fucking woods). The group meets up with the uploader of that YouTube video, Lane, and his girlfriend, Talia. They're true believers, kinda ditzy, but as Lane is the only one who knows where they're going, they get to join the group.

But that isn't really why Lane is in this film. See, Lane and Talia are not tour guides or fleshed out characters who serve a real narrative purpose. They're explanation machines. If any character has a question about the Blair Witch or the history of the town, we need someone there to answer that question. We can't actually have a sense of mystery here, people. I mean, what fucking year is it? 1999? Get outta here.

So Lane and Talia provide us with all the answers to all the questions. For example, did you know that the only way the Witch can kill you is if you look at her (unless you're black in which case, you're dead either way apparently)? Did you know that you're OK as long as you don't spend the night in the woods? Do you know why Rustin Parr killed those kids or why people go missing or why you could walk for days but end up in the same place? Lane and Talia know all that and more. The only time the film doesn't go out of its way to explain everything to you, the dumb fucking idiot, is when those characters disappear from the film, only to show up later to die pointless deaths.



As an aside, I have to wonder if Wingard and Barrett were sitting at home one night and Wingard was like “hey, Simon, did you ever play that game Slender? You know, the one about being lost in the woods while some creature stalks you? What do mean, "what creature?" You know, that creature in the woods, the one that fucks with your electrical equipment when you're near it and will only kill you if you look at it?”
Also, does Wingard think that the human ear is in the middle of the face? Because characters, all of whom have cameras attached to their ears, constantly talk directly to the camera. Like full-on, eye contact style talk to the camera. Are they just staring at each other's ears the entire movie?



Along the way, Ashley cuts her foot on a rock and is infected with some twig parasite thing, someone gets crushed by a tree while out looking for fire wood (in a dry forest, why would you need to go looking for fire wood?), the drone crashes, we learn that the iconic stick figures can double as voodoo dolls and the sun simply stops rising. By the time we reach the house in the woods, we've also learned that the Black Woods exists in some kind of time vacuum, leading to the realization that the woman on the YouTube video is actually Lisa (the time travel aspects of this film make so little sense they'd even cause Doctor Who's fucking head to explode in frustration). Then Lisa and James enter the house and the single stupidest scene in all of horror movie history plays out in front of us. Ever want to watch two people die in 15 seconds because they both make the same stupid mistake one right after the other? Well, here you go. Have fun.  

I sure didn't. 

BLAIR WITCH is the kind of movie in which a woman suffering from a massive life-threatening infection that leaves her all but bedridden stops running from the Witch to climb a tree to recover a lost drone that will do exactly fuck all to improve her chances of survival. 

BLAIR WITCH is the kind of movie where characters obviously under threat from a spectral entity that can snap trees in half still go out to collect firewood in the pitch blackness of night despite the fact that they have a fire already lit and it's doing just fucking fine. 

BLAIR WITCH is the kind of movie where the characters bring thousands and thousands of dollars of camera equipment with them, but clearly went to Dollar General for their flashlights (seriously, count how many times a flashlight conveniently stops working in this movie). 

BLAIR WITCH is the kind of movie where right in the middle of a Witch attack, the writer still has two fully grown characters mutter awkward teenage romantic bullshit that wouldn't feel out of place in some pre-teen anime. 

BLAIR WITCH is the kind of movie where a handful of idiots wander off into the woods to find someone missing for 17 years even though they all know what the fuck happened to her in the first place yet are still surprised when bad shit starts to go down. What exactly did they expect? We have characters here who know full fucking well that some bizarre shit went down in these woods yet still laugh whenever Lane and Talia suggest that bizarre shit sometimes goes down in these woods. There is no tonal consistency here nor is there any consistent form of internal logic.

And let's discuss the mess that is this films visuals. One of the underlying foundational concepts of the found footage movie is that what we are seeing is, surprise surprise, found footage. The original film did have some editing. It was, after all, a condensed version of the footage found at the “crime scene”. All found footage movies feature some sort of editing, but the level of editing going on in this movie is ridiculous. Scenes feature full-on shot reverse shot editing. The fact that there are now six cameras in total (four earbud cameras, one digital camera and one camcorder), plus the addition of the drone and a webcam, means that editing is a necessity. We have to cut constantly so we're not lost amid the chaos of too many characters in such a confined space. That ruins any kind of authenticity.

Worse, we feel the director behind each and every shot. Every single edit is precise. We're always looking in just the right direction. If something happens, we always see it. Everything is in our face, dead center in camera. This is a found footage movie that should not have been a found footage movie. Film it traditionally and the film is exactly the same. The gimmick adds nothing. BLAIR WITCH is perhaps the single greatest failure of a found footage movie. I would have expected Wingard, one of the grand modern purveyors of the format, to actually fucking understand how to make a movie like this. I guess not.

When you toss in actors that cannot adequately express fear, a Witch that looks like the bastard offspring of the Cloverfield monster and Tristana from [REC], a climax that goes on for far too long and a patronizing level of spoon-feeding from a writer that couldn't write his way out of a wet paper bag, you have a movie that insults your intelligence, your love for the original and your standards. Make no mistake, this movie is a colossal waste of time. Because no matter what Mr. Miska wants to tell you, this isn't a step forward. It's a step back. It's a safe, easy, bullshit alternative to trying something new. BLAIR WITCH is an old hat worn poorly, a mixed bag of everything wrong with the horror genre these days. It confuses loud for scary, confusing for interesting and shoddy for brilliant.

It's a clusterfuck, garbage through and through, and does not deserve your time to watch it, your money to purchase it or your bandwidth to pirate it. It is yet another example of idiots thinking that by reaching back, we're really reaching forward. This is not the bold new future of horror. This is just another “me too” film, the kind we've had for years and years. This isn't an evolutionary leap forward, it's wallowing in the past. It's been 17 years since THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. We've had 17 years to study the film, learn what it did well and improve on it. And instead, here we are with a shoddy knock-off from people that clearly haven't learned a single fucking thing.

Bold new future, my ass.

Friday, September 9, 2016

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT - PART 1




This is Part 1 of a two part review of The Blair Witch Project.  

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT IS BORING!!! 

Or so say an army of teens and early 20-somethings online these days. I don't blame them for thinking that. Hell, I can imagine for folks like them, yes, it is quite boring.

The style of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT has become the style of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. Both films feature characters trapped in some sort of haunted house story they cannot escape, spending their days dreading the nighttime assaults from forces beyond their comprehension. But PARANORMAL ACTIVITY only borrows from the artistic and stylistic platform devised by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick. It doesn't seek to emulate it perfectly. So instead of quiet, you get jump scares. Instead of characters actively trying to escape from their hell, you have characters all but wallowing in it. And instead of the beating heart of spontaneous film making, you have the cold and predictable hand of structure-minded screenwriters guiding the whole thing along.

Much like the films that came after HALLOWEEN, the films inspired by THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT seem to misunderstand just what it was that made the film so powerful. They get caught up in the apparent ease of replicating the films success. All you need is a man in a mask stalking teenagers, right? All you need are a bunch of fresh-faced actors with a camcorder, right? Well, no. You need more than that. Because the man in the mask or the kid with the camcorder… that's just a single element, not the whole. And truth be told, while the majesty of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is still largely intact, much of what made the film so powerful back in 1999 wasn't just the images on the celluloid.  

IT WAS THE “EXPERIENCE”. 

The internet was only four years into its commercialization. It was, by then, mainstream enough, but viral marketing was still a new and exciting way to promote all kinds of products. Sanchez and Myrick took full advantage of this new marketing scheme, creating a whole mythos behind their little low budget horror film. When I first heard of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, it was in a blurb in Premiere Magazine. The film had just played Sundance and was picked up for distribution by Artisan. Though there were no details given as to what the film was about, there was a website listed. Curious, I decided to check it out and man, oh man, did I love what I found.

Here was an entire back story, complete with snippets of urban legends, police reports, “crime scene” photos… You felt like you were stumbling upon some great mystery. I remember waiting 15 minutes (I do not miss dial-up internet) just to watch some embedded QuickTime video about the unsolved disappearance of three documentary filmmakers in the Maryland woods. It was a fresh and fascinating way to market a movie. Seeing the film on its opening night was like finally finding that missing piece of a puzzle, even if the finale brought with it suggestions of an even deeper mystery, one that would never be solved. I was terrified by the film. I was convinced by the film. But more than that, I was impressed with the film.

I have to wonder if anyone else in the theater had the same experience I did. Truth be told, seeing THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT without any knowledge of the fictional back story is to only see half the film. Artisan clearly knew this as a SciFi Channel special, The Curse of the Blair Witch, a more traditional re-telling of the information contained on the website, was aired shortly before release. All of this appealed to me greatly. Here it was, the first true combination of visual media, the traditional cinema presentation of a guerrilla-style film complimented by the new media of the internet.

Around the same time, another film was released called THE LAST BROADCAST. Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler's faux documentary about the deaths of a handful of amateur documentarians bears a striking surface resemblance to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Both are about college-age filmmakers exploring urban legends (in the case of THE LAST BROADCAST, the Jersey Devil), both were low budget efforts, both took advantage of new media. These days, the two films are linked together because of these coincidences, but they're completely different experiences in both construction and execution. THE LAST BROADCAST is every inch the mockumentary and is saddled with a fourth wall breaking ending that saps most of the strength out of the film.

It's a film about a mystery, rather than part of a mystery. It offers a concrete solution, rather than merely ending without comforting closure. It's a good film, but not nearly as great as its counterpart and I think the main reason for that comes down to that one crucial element that really made THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT so damn brilliant. 

THE FOUND FOOTAGE ANGLE. 

Believe it or not, this was considered fresh and new back in 1999. Far from the first movie to utilize it (CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and MAN BITES DOG both spring to mind), the presentation of the material struck a cord with moviegoers. Today, it seems so cheap and gimmicky, but when used correctly, the found footage format can add two incredibly important elements to a film: authenticity and immediacy. 

CLOVERFIELD is many things. Authentic is not one of them. Found footage was used solely to provide a sense of immediacy. I don't care how preoccupied you are, you WILL notice a couple tanks and four dozen soldiers coming up the street behind you. The characters in CLOVERFIELD do not, only reacting when a monster's foot plops down in front of them and the battalion behind them opens fire. Matt Reeves didn't care about authenticity (if he did, we wouldn't have a great film marred by a scene like Hud not noticing the gigantic monster standing behind him after the helicopter crash). He cared about immediacy.

Sanchez and Myrick cared very much about authenticity in their film. The entire production was built around aiding the creation of that authentic atmosphere. Actors were not given a script, only confidential notes dictating speaking points, a general attitude and one or two hidden motivations. The actors were guided from point A to point B via GPS instructions, were not allowed to break character if a camera was on and were required to improvise all dialogue. They really were toyed around with at night and to accentuate their performances, as the grueling eight day shoot went on, their provisions were reduced to little more than an apple, some water and a protein bar.

This is that beating heart of spontaneous film making I spoke about earlier. The characters here don't have arcs, they have breakdowns. As the film progresses, they switch from being antagonistic to pragmatic and then back again. They bicker and argue. For some people, the characters are the big turn-off here, largely because they're not really “movie characters”. Heather, Josh and Mike are not traditional audience surrogates. We too are annoyed by Mike's rashness, Josh's constant badgering and Heather's foolishness. If you find yourself getting annoyed by their endless bitching and walking in circles, congratulations. The film is working as intended.

The found footage angle works so well in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT precisely because it creates both a genuine sense of immediacy AND a genuine sense of authenticity. We're trapped with these people and their attitudes grate on us the same way they grate on one another. We want out of these woods. We share the frustration and the exhaustion. We fear the oncoming night as much as they do. We're not apart from the group. Rather, we're a part of the group. In a sense, the camera isn't just some object filming all this stuff. It's us. 

WE ARE THE CAMERA. 

Overcoming the underlying gimmick of the found footage movie is a tricky feat. “Why don't they just stop filming?" is a question that comes up time and time again with these movies, even though the internet shows us that people will NEVER stop filming, no matter how grim the circumstances. People walked through the streets on Bastille Day with their cell phones, stopping to document the wreckage of each human body they came across. People stood still and filmed as terrified victims jumped from the Twin Towers. We don't turn the cameras off when shit hits the fan. We turn them on.
  
Stan Brakhage once remarked that if it were not for his camera, he would have not been able to continue filming the autopsy footage that comprises the entirety of his documentary, THE ACT OF SEEING WITH ONE'S OWN EYES. The camera as an abstraction device is given weight throughout THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Josh refers to it as a “filtered reality” and concludes that by using the camera so heavily throughout their experience, Heather is seeking to somehow escape the hell of their circumstances. This is somewhat analogous to how war photographers often describe their experiences. They're not photographing dead bodies torn apart by shrapnel or bullets. They're just photographing collateral damage.

But we are not capable of abstraction. As viewers, the “filtered reality” of the characters is our actual reality. The central concept of the film, that what we are watching is the found footage of people who are missing, presumed dead, re-frames the experience from a simple horror film to something worse. We're standing in that morgue alongside Brakhage. What we're watching is an autopsy. 

Coming up soon: a complete (or close enough) deconstruction of the film.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

WE ARE STILL HERE


Paul and Anne Saccehtti are a middle aged couple still reeling from the accidental death of their son, Bobby. To aid in their coping, they've purchased a home in a quiet New England town, possibly in Massachusetts. Deeply spiritual, Anne believes she can feel the spirit of Bobby in their new home, but Paul, ever the skeptic, thinks she is just hanging on to her grief. After a quiet couple of weeks, they meet two of their neighbors, Dave and Cat McCabe, who fill them in on the disturbing history of the previous owners of their home. It once belonged to the Dagmar family, a reclusive bunch that were run out of town when rumors sprung up that the head of the family, Lassander, the local mortician, had been selling the corpses he was supposedly burying to some “university over in Essax County”.

In the days after the visit, things at the Dagmar house go from quiet to disquieting. The smell of smoke fills the basement and the repairman called in to service the old boiler is found in shock, his arm burned during an encounter with something evil lurking in the shadows. Anne invites her spiritualist friends, Jacob and Mary, to spend some relaxing time with them, but Mary feels an evil presence haunting the home. Before long, Anne and Paul are not only under siege from vengeful ghosts, but from a town full of people eager to keep a long-standing promise to something far more evil than what lurks in the basement of the Dagmar house.

Now, if you're at all a fan of Italian horror, you'll know exactly where this film is going just from reading that synopsis. WE ARE STILL HERE is a rather obvious love letter to Lucio Fulci's THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY. It even includes a few Lovecraft references (that “university over in Essax County” would be the Miskatonic), a whole subplot lifted from THE WICKER MAN, and a few nods to newer horror films, especially THE CABIN IN THE WOODS. And therein lies the problem. For all its Fulci references, explosive gore, and haunted house cliches like possession and seances, the real heart of the film is rooted in a human drama dealing with loss, grief and the need for emotional closure. Those two narrative threads, the human and the horror, clash constantly during the films running time.

There isn't a single moment in this film where the narrative feels comfortable with itself. There isn't a single moment when all these individual strands of story coalesce into something actually meaningful. It's a Frankenstein's Monster built of disparate elements that are given constantly shifting priority as the film goes on. That leads to some rather shockingly inept lapses in logic. There are moments when the film just stops making sense altogether, as if the writing was done on the spot, with whole scenes just sutured together in an attempt to fill some kind of arbitrary quota of stock horror and drama tropes. There is a complete lack of a through line here. As the film tumbled towards its bloody, gore-filled finale, I found myself wondering just how the hell we even got to this point. I was missing some sense of logical narrative progression.

Watching the film a second time only made the stone skipping nature of the narrative all the more evident. It felt that at one point, all of this was well thought out and worked as a whole, but instead of us seeing the big picture and getting all the information, we're just skipping along the surface of a narrative that made sense, stopping only long enough to jump a dozen or so pages ahead. I could fill the remaining space of this review just asking questions about the how and why of virtually every character's motivation or on-screen event and it would not be nitpicking. WE ARE STILL HERE has major, unmistakable problems. You don't need to look hard to spot them.

And honestly, the crashing down of this house of cards really bummed me out because there is so much great stuff going on in this film. I loved the look and feel of it. It's rare to find a haunted house film shot primarily in broad daylight. The bleak setting, just snow as far as the eye can see, adds this tangible feeling of isolation and hopelessness. The acting is above par, only let down by the stiff dialogue (it's amusing to watch one balding man in his 50s call another balding man in his 50s “old man”) and the sparse, moody soundtrack adds an immeasurable amount of dread to nearly every scene. The ghosts are creepy, CGI enhanced wonders to behold. Real, genuine nightmare fuel.

But then comes the splatter. Then comes the ridiculousness. Then comes the forced sentimentality and the tired possession scene, and all the good will and promise the film built up during its great first 20 minutes just goes right out the window. I wanted to love this film, but it just wouldn't stop tripping over its own two feet. This could have been better. It SHOULD have been better.

But it just isn't.

Friday, August 26, 2016

THE GIALLO PROJECT - THE MONSTER OF VENICE


There's a killer loose in Venice. In the dead of night, the killer dresses in a diving suit, plucking nubile young lasses off the streets, drowning them in the canals. This unknown killer takes the corpses back to his hideout, a ruined monastery deep beneath the water. Using a special embalming fluid, he preserves their bodies, keeping them in glass cases. Andrea, a reporter for a local paper, knows there is a serial murderer among the populace, but the police won't have any of it, believing Andrea's theory is a ploy to sell papers. As more and more young women go missing, Andrea decides to track down the killer himself.

On paper, this is one hell of a setup. In execution, however, it's more than a little botched. When Dino Tavella's giallo THE MONSTER OF VENICE (easily found on DVD under its American title, THE EMBALMER) decides to focus on this strand of the narrative, the film works exceptionally well, if a little corny. But Tavella's film seems to forget its underlying murder mystery with staggering ease, giving nearly two-thirds of the running time over to your typical travelogue extravagances and weak romance. About a third of the way into the film, Maureen arrives, a teacher from Rome chaperoning a gaggle of pretty girls on a trip to Venice. Andrea and Maureen fall madly in love and thus begins the dramatic shift from modern Gothic horror to treacly melodrama.

The film picks back up during its final twenty minutes, but by then the effectiveness of the murder mystery angle has been largely neutered, if only because the film has worn out its welcome. That's a damn shame too, as the final act is where the film shines brightest, a descent into and then a chase through dimly lit, rotting, crumbling catacombs, complete with a room full of robed, skeletal monks. The killer's outfit, a crusty robe and cheap skeleton Halloween mask, actually becomes one of the most haunting images the film offers up and Tavella goes to great lengths to pile on the dread. There's a wonderful scene of the killer sitting among the dead monks, anxiously waiting for Maureen to wander by so he can grab at her. It's nicely effective stuff, but again, the effect is all for naught as Tavella can come up with nothing better to do during the climax than to have Andrea and the killer engage in a poorly shot, poorly choreographed fist fight that shatters credibility before plummeting down into unintentional comedy.

The real saving grace of THE MONSTER OF VENICE is its setting. There's something beautifully terrifying about Venice. It is equal parts tragic, haunting, lovely and unsettling. A drowned city, teetering on collapse, but so beautiful, so wonderfully mysterious. Tavella understands both the beauty and the terror of the city, and the moments when all we're doing is touring the city by gondola or walking through the streets are packed with hypnotic glory. Like in Nicolas Roeg's excellent DON'T LOOK NOW, Venice is a genuine character here. I just wish the film was as in love with its story as it is with its setting. 

THE MONSTER OF VENICE
(Il mostro di Venezia, The Embalmer)

Director: Dino Tavella
Writer: Paolo Lombardo, Gian Battista Mussetto, Dino Tavella, Antonio Walter
Starring: Maureen Brown, Luigi Martocci, Alcide Gazzotto, Alba Brotto
Italy; Gondola Film
1965, 77 minutes

Narrative Variety: Amateur Detective
Murderer(s): 1 male
Murderer(s) Role: Friend
Murderer(s) Motive: Unexplained, presumably madness
Victims: 1 female (off-screen), 1 female (drowned), 1 female (drowned), 1 female (drowned), 1 female (off-screen), 1 male (stabbed), 1 female (drowned), 1 female (strangled)
Murderer(s) Death: Shot to death

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

THE RING


Where were you when Asian horror became the new big thing in genre film? 

I was working in a music store that just so happened to give its employees a nice 33% discount on DVDs. And thank Christ for that, too, as I anxiously gobbled up every single Asian horror film that came into the store. I remember reading about this new wave of video nasties not in the pages of Fangoria but in the pages of Premiere magazine, the slightly pretentious alternative to something like Entertainment Weekly. Alongside the wave of transgressive North American indie shockers like HAPPINESS and SERIES 7: THE CONTENDERS was talk of films like SUICIDE CLUB, BATTLE ROYALE and especially AUDITION, a reportedly grotesque film guaranteed to have me retching into my popcorn.

As wave after wave of Asian extremities came flooding into my DVD player, I began to grow a bit dissatisfied with the quality of many of the titles on offer. Where was BATTLE ROYALE in all of this? Where were these ANGEL GUTS movies that I heard so much about? You won't give me those, but you'll give me EVIL DEAD TRAP? Well, thanks for nothing. So I did what any insatiable genre fan would do.

I bought a shitload of poorly translated bootleg DVDs off of eBay. Suck on that, Tartan Films.

One movie I was desperate to track down was Hideo Nakata's RINGU, one of the films often mentioned as a catalyst for this new crop of Eastern atrocities. But supposedly this film was different from the usual splattery Asian genre films I was eating up at a frantic pace. This was apparently more calm, more sedate, more focused on the frights. I finally received my 60-fucking-dollar bootleg copy and sat down to watch it. What did I think? 

It was spooky as shit. By that point, I had seen more than my fair share of long-haired girls walking around dimply lit environments, but RINGU lacked any attempt at base manipulation. It's an exceedingly quiet film with nary a jump scare inserted into its 96 minute run time. A poor translation left me scratching my head more than a few times, but once I bounced online and downloaded a proper translation (which I had to read while watching the film), I appreciated it more and more. I began tracking down the sequels, the other unofficial adaptations made around the time like THE RING VIRUS and RINGU KANZENBAN, and when the novels started receiving English translations, I bought them too. 

I was, in other words, a fan.

So when it was announced that a Dreamworks remake of Nakata's original film was under way, I was actually rather excited. Because depending on what path you take with the franchise (read the books and ignore the movies, watch RINGU and RASEN only, watch the other adaptations only, etc.), your RINGU experience will differ dramatically. The books are a far cry from what the films were and vice versa. So I wasn't upset that someone in Hollywood was going to “butcher a film I love”. I was excited that I would have one more unique spectrum to view this wonderful story through.

At this point, a synopsis of THE RING or RINGU is unnecessary. We've all seen it in one form or another. It works so well because of its central idea, that of a truly viral video that spreads a kind of fatal supernatural curse to anyone who views it. In the books, this curse isn't merely supernatural. Rather, it's a strange mix of virology and mysticism, the result of a psychic child, skilled in nensha, carrying the taint of smallpox. This is Cronenbergian to its core, a viral mutation spread through a visual medium. There are no ghosts manifesting out of televisions in the novels. There is only viral infection spreading largely unchecked, ever mutating. The novels grow weirder and weirder too, eventually culminating in a science fiction orgy of alternate universes populated with clones of Sadako, the evil force at the center of these stories.

I knew none of that would ever carry over into the remake. I knew full well that this would be a remake of Nakata's film and nothing more. But I was surprised how much the film borrowed from RINGU 2, the “official” sequel put into development after the spectacular failure of the first sequel RASEN, and how much it referenced DARK WATER, Nakata's masterpiece about a single mother and her young child tormented by the lonely spirit of a young girl accidentally drowned in the water tower of a rundown apartment building. I was half expecting elements of RINGU 0, the final installment of the original trilogy of films, to creep into the remake but none ever did. When the credits rolled and I walked out of the theater, I was torn. Part of me loved that the remake kept so true to Nakata's film, but the rest of me felt like something was definitely lost in translation.

I still feel that way today. Watching the film again, I was struck by how… I don't want to use the phrase “dumbed down”… I don't even know what phrase to use exactly. How about I just explain it instead?

There's a mystery to be solved in RINGU and that mystery is tied to a countdown timer. Once Asakawa watches the cursed video tape, she has exactly seven days to save her life. Saving her life relies on her being able to solve the mystery behind the images on the tape. So the film has to move swiftly. It has to gain and maintain a kind of momentum so we can experience the same fear of impending death that Asakawa is experiencing. RINGU, for all its complications, moves along at a great pace. As Asakawa's days count down, the amount of narrative ground covered speeds up. The pacing of the film works in conjunction with its underlying narrative thrust, that ever-present deadline of seven days.

But the remake doesn't have that same sense of urgency. It takes its time and really goes to great lengths to explain absolutely everything. And that's why I was tempted to use the phrase “dumbed down”. Because some mysteries are not solved in RINGU and the ones that are, are solved with expediency. We don't need a complicated explanation when a simple but engaging explanation will do. A lot of it comes down to the actual cursed tape images. In Nakata's original, the cursed footage breezes by in about 50 seconds and contains nine edits. In the remake, the tape lasts about 80 seconds and contains 34 edits. And each one of those images (well, 95% of them anyway) is explained as a part of some larger mystery.

What that means is that the remake is a film comprised largely of exposition. Now, you could argue that nearly all mysteries in film are explained through exposition, but the effect of having this endless stream of “this explains the horses and the ladder and the nails and the...” is that something needs to be sacrificed in order to make time in the narrative, and what ends up being sacrificed is the human drama at the core of the story, the struggle of a mother to save her life and the life of her child.

It's almost an unwritten rule with horror movie remakes. "All things need explanation". Did we really need to know that Michael Myers had a shit childhood? Did we really need an explanation as to how Jason gets around so quickly in FRIDAY THE 13TH? No, we didn't. Mikey's broken home and Jason's excavation skills add nothing to the stories. They're just fluff so the filmmakers can say “see! We're adding something new!” when in reality what they're adding is just filler. And that is what most of THE RING is. Filler.

Also gone is the underlying supernatural tone of the original. In Nakata's film, we have Ryuji, Asakawa's psychic ex-husband. The tone of Nakata's film is one seeped in paranormal horror. That character is replaced in the remake by Noah, Rachel's ex-boyfriend who is a photographer / videographer. As a result, we lose scenes of people discussing malevolent psychic powers and gain discussions on tape tracking and time codes. It's a not-so-subtle, probably cultural, shift in tone that would only be noticeable (obviously) to people who have seen the original film. We also have changes to the character of Sadako, here called Samara. In Nakata's film, Sadako is a tragic character, just a little girl unable to control her powers, doomed to a fate worse than death and lashing out in righteous anger at the circumstances of her fate. In Gore Verbinski's remake, Samara is just another Evil Child. Again, unless you've seen both films, this comparison means nothing, but it simply worked better in the original.

But what works in the remake? It isn't all bad, right? Absolutely not. For starters, the film is actually quite frightening at times. I love the fact that the whole damn movie is blue. Rachel's eyes are blue, Katie's school picture at her funeral has a blue background, the walls of every building are painted shades of blue, just fucking everything is blue. Why do I like that? I just like the color blue, I guess, but when you contrast it with the rain and the countryside vistas and the sharp explosions of red… It really creates a singular kind of atmosphere, one you usually don't see in most horror remakes. The typical color scheme of a horror remake is baby shit brown and pea soup green. Because that's what constitutes “edgy” in Hollywood. In contrast, THE RING looks classy, mostly because it actually is.

It's also terrifically directed and wonderfully scored. I love the “Samara emerging from the TV” moment and the way her image is distorted both physically and visually, her size reflecting the enhanced image of the television projection, her body jerking with every break in the tape she just crawled out of. I loved the horrifying visages of the corpses, the way Verbinski carefully frames his characters in isolation, the perfectly timed editing that knows precisely how long to hold an image for maximum effect. THE RING is a remarkably well made film, narrative gripes aside. It just needed to dial its script back a bit, to trust its audience a bit more. It misunderstood just why RINGU worked as well as it did. It wasn't because it was crammed full of ideas. It was because it was simple and focused.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

BASKET CASE


At this point, I think we have enough “Twin Terror” films for “Twin Terror” films to be considered a proper sub-genre, instead of something I just made up to give this sentence some awesome alliterative action. They all play more or less the same game. Twins are locked in a cycle of codependency, utterly reliant on one another, until one of the two meets someone special and the relationship turns sour, usually poisonous, oftentimes murderous. These films all contain some variation on that idea, whether it's Cronenberg's DEAD RINGERS or De Palma's SISTERS, but as is usual in the case of like-minded films, the devil lies in the details. SISTERS is a far more wonky bit of work than DEAD RINGERS, a film very much about psychosexual dominance and fear of femininity, running the gamut from voyeuristic fantasy to politically tinged satire to out-and-out freak show with its late game inclusions of split personalities and hypnosis quackery. One story, two different looks.

But that's because David Cronenberg and Brian De Palma are two very different sides of the same coin. Both have filmographies full of darkly sexual thrillers with their fair share of bodily atrocities, but Cronenberg is the abyss you gaze into while De Palma is the abyss that gazes back. Frank Henenlotter is neither of those things. He's the goof, the prankster, the slightly creepy uncle that knows all the best dirty jokes and has a collection of questionable, pervy magazines stashed somewhere around the house. Henenlotter's films are exercises in pure, visually audacious grossness, best exemplified by BRAIN DAMAGE, a film in which a talking phallic parasite named Aylmer pulls a woman's brain out through her mouth.

The twins on display here are Duane and his brother Belial. After witnessing some middle aged man being mauled by something unseen, we find Duane walking down the mean streets of 1980s New York. He's carrying a large wicker basket and sporting a fine 80s mop of hair. Duane gets himself a room at a cheap hotel, briefly meets his prostitute neighbor and then heads inside for some sleep. As the film progresses, we learn that the wicker basket contains Belial, Duane's once-conjoined twin, who is basically just a lumpy head with arms. They're tracking down the doctors that separated them at the age of twelve, Duane keeping watch as Belial tears them apart with his freaky oversized hands. Because that isn't bizarre enough, Duane and Belial have a psychic connection. Duane can telepathically hear Belial talk and when something happens to one of them, the other can sense it clearly.

Things proceed according to plan until Duane meets Sharon, a front desk clerk for one of the doctors he has marked for death. The two hit it off, even sharing a kiss on their first date. Naturally, Belial flips his shit, trashing the hotel room before taking out the rest of his frustration on the busy body down the hall. Whether it's out of jealousy or just out of frustration at this little hiccup in their plans for revenge, Belial soon targets Sharon for destruction, leading to the inevitable tragic climax of the film.

Let's get the obvious out of the way first. This film is weird. It's also remarkably cheap, shot on 16mm with a limited amount of actual production quality, like complex lighting schemes or fluid camera work. The script moves between gags that don't work (two of the doctors are named Dr. Kutter and Dr. Needleman. Hardy har har) and sequences that, strangely enough, work remarkably well (as idiotic as the idea is, the separation scene and the flashbacks that follow are actually quite emotionally resonant), leading to an ever-shifting tone that keeps the film perpetually off balance. The effects work isn't great either, with basement quality stop motion and obvious puppetry. The list of problems is long.

BUT

I'll be goddamned if this film doesn't work. The closest film I can compare this to is Paul Bartel's PRIVATE PARTS. These films have absolutely nothing to do with one another either thematically or narratively, but they're both made up of bizarre occurrences, filled with performances that are uniquely nuanced and crafted with such a strange, almost intangible, weirdness that everything just comes together perfectly to create a kind of peculiar verisimilitude. The film feels genuine (mostly because it was created by a man with an obvious love for his material) even though it's patently absurd. Even the ridiculous Belial, a puppet that looks like it was created by melting Halloween props together with a blowtorch, feels like an actual entity here. There isn't much going on behind the scenes in terms of meaningful subtext, but the onscreen action has a definite, unavoidable gravity to it. As I watched the film again after nearly a decade, I found myself invested in it. That's not something I thought would happen.

Pinpointing exactly what it is about BASKET CASE that elevates it above your typical monster movie is difficult, mostly because it isn't any one thing. For as cheap as the film is, there's some brilliant low budget filmmaking going on here and the writing, while predictable, has an almost avant-garde feel to it, vacillating between dead pan comedy and moments of on-the-nose immediacy. There's something to be said about camp played straight and how that can heighten the aura of nonsense while also normalizing all the batshit craziness of it all. Some of the best horror films do this. They balance nonsense with straight faced seriousness so well that we completely buy the idea of a crispy-faced serial killer massacring teenagers in their sleep. We buy into the idea that a masked maniac can take two clips and several axes to the torso but still get right back up. The vast majority of horror films are, at the end of the day, dumb as fucking dirt, and when you play that material completely straight without any recognition of the bullshit of it all, you tend to end up with films that are about as fun as castration and as scary as puppy dogs.

But when films knowingly and willingly acknowledge their logical lapses and idiotic mechanics, deliberately working them into a kind of alternate extant reality, you can come away with a film that engages an audience rather than separates it from an audience. BASKET CASE is pulled off with such verve and such self-awareness that it transcends its meager, dumb origins and becomes something genuinely affective and effective. And again, that's not something I thought would happen. I don't even know if I explained it well. Truth be told, I'm probably just as confused as you are by it all.