Monday, July 19, 2010

[Film Review] The House of the Devil

Somewhere during the conception of The House of the Devil, Ti West must have decided that simply setting his mash note to the horror films of the late '70s or early '80s in the time period which saw their genesis wasn't enough. Such an approach wouldn't hew closely enough to his vision of the perfectly distilled apotheosis of those films, so he went a step further and created a film which looks like it might be a lost artifact from that era. Employing the film grain, title techniques and stilted dialogue structure which characterize those movies, all these techniques are thankfully employed for something other than raw nostalgia.

What's most incredible about this movie is that it blatantly tells us what it's going to do and then proceeds to do it, but we're still amazed when it happens. This is a movie with a very particular title, which opens with a title card explaining that what we're about to see is based on unexplained events surrounding Satanic cults. When Tom Noonan shows up, acting creepy and evasive, we already know what we're in for. The fascinating interplay between Noonan's intimidating physiology and almost absurdly gentle voice has been so often played to unsettling effect that we know as soon as he appears what his role in the proceedings is going to be. These obvious telegraphs are played out to their fullest extent to inculcate paranoia in the classic Ira Levin sense, in which we can't help but interpret even the most innocent gesture in anything other than the most damning light.

House's filmic vocabulary leans heavily on that of its "contemporaries," especially in its use of camera zoom rather than camera dolly. Its editing is also quite blunt, at least until the later stages of the film, when the protagonist enters the titular house. At that point, the film takes an utterly brilliant turn that follows its initially quiet departure from its forebears, signifying that what we're about to see is a much more delicate visual telling of the story whose beats are ingrained in its audience's marrow.

I don't want to scrutinize too closely here, since House definitely deserves a close reading analysis in the future, but the shift that happens so subtly is that the film moves from a strict focus on mise en scene to instead employ the most brilliant use of framing that I've yet seen in a horror film. That transformation perfectly mirrors the gradual change from the visual techniques that characterize those early slasher films, in which POV shots of the killer and unseen monsters behind the back of the characters were centered on screen, to the films of today, in which our anxiety is engaged by what's just offscreen instead of what we can actually see. The torture porn films that have been the mainstay of horror for the last decade or so rely heavily on this use of framing, but with little payoff, whereas House uses that framing as a way to create a psychological negative space that's much more effective than any number of jump scares.

House goes for a slow burn. It doesn't stop at refusing to have a very low body count, and instead goes so far as to eschew deploying almost any kind of overt scares whatsoever. That's the heart of the fantastic trick that it manages to accomplish: by playing directly into the fact that it knows its audience knows that something horrible is going to happen any second now, any second now, but refusing to give that tension any kind of release, it makes its audience do all the work in getting to the point where even the smallest deviation from the norm is terrifying. And then it doubles down on that audacious achievement by not giving us even that smallest deviation, instead keeping everything we see completely normal for a frankly amazing amount of time. For most of the movie, everything is fine, which we all know means that everything is secretly horrible, but there's no overt confirmation of that latter perception.

The score works to this end, being mostly comprised of a magnificently detuned piano which plonks out very short sequences of notes to emphasize just how little we're seeing happen onscreen. Occasionally, small string suites swell quietly in the background, but it's not until the frenetic climax of the film that the music really makes itself known. When it does so, it takes control of the film, switching its role from supporting the lack of action onscreen to driving it, a perfect switch that emphasizes just how drastically the tonal shift of the story has taken root.

House takes an almost entirely lifeless, worn-down narrative form and uses the very tiredness of its genre trappings to carve out a new exploration of why that narrative gained popularity in the first place, as well as using its tropes as the launching point to raise questions about themes that its progenitors never would have bothered to tackle. This is that very rarest breed of horror film, the kind that not only succeeds at creating a palpable atmosphere of dread, but then goes on to utilize that emotion to explore something greater than the sum of its parts. The closest parallel I can think of in terms of the sheer proficiency of its craft is Session 9, and anyone who's interested in horror film as something more than a simple series of onscreen bloodbaths would do very well to seek this movie out.

This review was written as a contribution to Stacie Ponder's Final Girl Film Club, a regular feature on the Final Girl horror film blog, an excellent blog which you should start reading if you're not already.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

[Film Review] Predators

Predators is smart about one thing: it doesn't bother to weigh most of its characters down with names, because it knows that we're not going to care. Instead of attaching signifiers that we're immediately going to forget in lieu of our mental tags of Tough Guy, Sniper Lady, Big Gun Dude and the like, it skips past the middleman and just starts calling them by those tags. I imagine that at some point in the process of drafting the script, the scene in which the two protagonists finally proclaim their names to each other was meant to be a triumphant revelation, a moment in which we finally see these dirty soldiers transcend their baser natures and become fully human for the first time since we were introduced to them. In its final form on screen, the exchange instead plays out as an afterthought, one of the many nods to Aliens which hasn't earned its own weight. Thankfully, the movie is also smart enough to not be bothered by that lack of heft, instead embracing its stupidity with cheerful aplomb.

This is a very dumb movie, but that doesn't mean it's not fun. That guy you used to go drinking with in college, the one who wasn't all that bright but knew better than to take himself seriously and was always a blast to hang out with as a result? Predators is that guy. It doesn't waste any time announcing its intentions in this regard, kickstarting with a sequence of some guy falling out of the sky and yelling a lot, blasting through his punishing landing, slamming the title card on screen briefly and then revving up the minigun. This is somewhere higher on the antiexposition-o-meter than standard in media res, brushing away all those details like setting and character as completely unnecessary. It acts as a kind of mission statement for the movie, which is curious in that Nimrod Antal's first film, Kontroll, also opens with a similarly upfront short scene in which the tone of the film to follow is introduced. I haven't seen Armored or Vacancy, the two other films Antal has directed, but now I wonder if they also feature tenor-setting mini-prologues of this kind.

There are a lot of unselfconscious throwbacks to the '80s Predator on display here, rather like the people creating this movie wanted to put all of that xenomorph-related nonsense behind them as if it had never happened. These callbacks don't play out the same way that they did in their earlier iteration; it's not spoiling anything to say that Schwarzenegger's beefcake-based endgame gambit from the original is no longer enough to defeat the alien menaces from another galaxy, for example. The score particularly stands out as merrily awful, heavy-handed enough to make sure that we can't help but know The Hero Has Arrived, You Should Be Wowed, and so on. It's been a while since I've seen the original, but the music here sure sounds like it pays heavy tribute to the music from the original film, if it wasn't lifted entirely from it.

Predators knows that it's got to hit all the items on the action/sci-fi checklist, but it also knows that it doesn't have to slavishly follow the playbook on how those scenes play out. So of course there's the inevitable ammo-counting scene, but here we skip past even the brilliant shortcut that Rodriguez came up with in Planet Terror ("How much ammo do we have left?" "Not enough.") to bypass the fetishistic pointlessness of this scene. Instead, here the scene acts as a reminder that guns fire bullets, a reminder that's actually kind of hilarious given that those same guns don't seem to need ammo throughout the rest of the movie. There's just enough of this twisting of the end of any given formula scene that the audience isn't ever quite sure whether Hollywood tradition will be followed or abandoned during a given sequence, which isn't quite the same thing as smart writing, but at least serves as a discount means of keeping attention focused on what would otherwise be a completely color-by-numbers plot.

There's less intra-group conflict here than is normal for the kind of movie in which a bunch of alpha-personality strangers are thrown into a high-stress situation and forced to work as a group in order to survive. Aside from a few squabbles, the humans here work together quite well and look after each other in times of danger, in spite of a general verbal agreement amongst themselves that they really don't care about one another. There are two excellent exchanges in which Convict Guy is played for humor, which are immediately followed up by disturbing disclosures of just how wrong it is to laugh along with him. Both of these are lampshaded by the obvious discomfort that the Hapless Doctor feels about the people he's found himself surrounded by, and the low-grade animosity these characters feel towards each other is reinforced by the growly complaints of the Tough Guy Leader as he finds himself reluctantly helping the people he supposedly doesn't care about.

The one overt exception to the ill-defined dislike that each character feels for the others is the only female character in the film, the Sniper Lady whom the film obviously wants to depict as tough and capable but who comes across as a confirmation of the stereotypes women normally portray in action films. She's the only character here with any real compassion, and while that trait is normally a positive one, it doesn't make much sense to ascribe that characteristic to a combat veteran whose specialty is killing individual targets in a manner that's mechanically intimate enough that it should trigger any feelings of empathy that she possesses. She also needs to be rescued almost as many times as the Hapless Doctor, which doesn't jibe well with her background as a battle-hardened warrior who's an expert at operating on her own. This portrayal is unfortunate, as action films could really use better representation of women, and Predators would have been a perfect vehicle for that, given that all of the characters except one could easily have been of either sex. Had there been another female character, these indications of weakness on the part of Sniper Lady could have been written off as being traits specific to her character rather than women in general, but since she's forced to shoulder the burden of representing her entire gender, it's difficult to avoid drawing some unpleasant conclusions about the film's attitudes towards women.

The highlight of the movie is definitely Laurence Fishburne's turn as a long-term survivor who's gone Colonel Kurtz in a big way. Fishburne obviously had a great time chewing the scenery in that utterly over the top mode that's only called for in action films which don't care at all about character, but which celebrate the barely-held-together looniness of that particular character type when he does appear. Fishburne's character represents an interesting alternative direction that the movie could have taken, one in which gunfire and stuntmen might have played a less prominent role, but I respect that Predators stays true to the brief that it set out to accomplish. By keeping its goals humble, it avoids stumbling over any potential pitfalls that might have marred its otherwise purist approach to action film methodology. It's not going to illuminate any hidden facets of the human condition which were heretofore uncharted, but it's a solid piece of mindless entertainment which throws just enough curveballs to keep even genre-savvy audiences alert for what unexpected turns might come next.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

[Film Review] High Noon

I'm prejudiced against old movies. Even the ones that are hugely influential and have seeped so far into the cultural unconscious that they seem familiar even upon a first viewing have to fight with my instinctive inclination to giggle at the silliness of the acting on display. A friend of mine has a theory that acting, at least in film, wasn't invented until the 1970s, and I tend to agree with her. I can't help but be distracted by wondering how much of the melodramatic vocal tonality and body language is due to the overly formalized acting style of the time and how much of it reflects how people actually acted. I assume that the former trumps the latter, but being continually drawn back to the film as an historical artifact rather than a living work of art is always draws me away from any other themes that a film might be exploring, with the end result that an older film needs to be very, very good for it to resonate with me.

High Noon was supposed to be one of those films. It's widely regarded as one of the best Westerns ever filmed, if not the best, though I'm not sure how anyone could seriously make that latter claim in the years since Unforgiven's release. It held up pretty well to my giggle resistance, largely due to the choice to keep the camera on Gary Cooper for most of the length of the running time, who manages to lend a fair bit of gravitas to a role that sorely needs it.

Cooper plays Marshall Will Kane, an old sheriff who's set to marry and then retire from the lawman business. Just after his wedding, he finds out that an outlaw whom he'd put in jail years before is returning to town, and that several of that outlaw's gang plan on meeting him to help him seek revenege against Kane. After briefly considering leaving town, Kane decides that he can't live with running away from his old duties and returns, assuming that he'll have the aid of the townsfolk whose peace and prosperity he was directly responsible for establishing. Upon his return, he finds that no one wants to help him, and that the residents of town have come to the conclusion that it's indirectly Kane's fault that the gang is coming to town at all. The arc of the narrative mainly consists of Kane attempting and failing to enlist the aid of men whom he had counted as friends, all of whom come up with excuses as to why they won't help him. Some of those excuses are better than others, but to the increasingly desperate Kane, the motivations behind why he's being abandoned become less and less important as the titular confrontation looms nearer.

Cooper does an excellent job with his role, though not all of the other actors in the film managed to create quite such a timeless performance. The amount of laugh-worthy anti-acting was pretty low, though much of that was concentrated in the character of Lloyd Bridges' deputy, who not only overacted in every scene he was in but was also unforutnate enough to be cast to portray an character much younger than he was. It took me a while to figure out that his character was supposed to be very young, and that the comments other characters made about him being brash and impulsive in his youth weren't some kind of weird insult but were instead attempts at conveying an informed attribute.

High Noon must have been exceptional at the time of its release for the realistic way that it protrays violence, particularly in the big shootout which is the climax of the story. In spite of all of the information we've been told about what an amazing sheriff Kane is, he doesn't shoot the guns out of his opponents' hands or draw on them so quickly that they don't have a chance to return fire. Instead, he runs away a lot, makes good use of cover, and relies on tactical awareness much more than a myth-sized ability to fire his pistol. The shootout here isn't anything out of a Bourne film, but grounding it somewhere nearer to reality than contemporary Westerns gives it a weight that intensifies the tension of the sequence and vindicates the anxiety that the film has been building towards.

The overall feel of the film is that it uses the trappings of a Western in order to tell a very different kind of story than most Westerns, that it's more of a morality play (albeit one updated for a post-religious culture) in Western drag than a tale of how the West was won. It deftly employs a standard Western trope, that of an imminent confrontation between law and the arrival of violent chaos, and then fragments that setup to explore what happens to the society which has established itself as civilized when it's suddenly threatened. Kane isn't quite the warrior who's too savage to exist peacefully once his war has been won, but he's close enough to an embodiment of that theme of barbarism versus civilization that the townsfolk are clearly uncomfortable with him when he refuses to leave them. Though Kane is undoubtedly the film's protagonist, he's as much a vehicle for us to see the varying reactions of the townsfolk to impending danger as he is a character for us to sympathize with. This is most clear in the centerpiece of the film, an extended town-wide debate which takes place in a church, in which a number of different responses to Kane's plea for help are trotted out by various social strata of the town, all of them revealing more about the person uttering them than their supposed attitude toward their former protector and the forces of lawlessness he's committed himself to battling.

Kane's final act, after the climax of the film, opened the door to the much less heroic Westerns which would follow High Noon, entire subgenres of work which used that last shot as a stepping board to examine more subtle gradations of human emotion. It's not at all surprising that John Wayne decreed this movie un-American, as it uses what should have been a very cut-and-dried narrative form to suckerpunch audiences into examining assumptions which had been hallowed by decades of traditional Western stories. For that alone, Westerns owe this film a huge debt of gratitude.