Friday, August 30, 2013

The 2013 Horror Digest, Part 1: I'd Sell My Soul for a Good Opening Weekend

I don't know if you guys have noticed, but 2013 has been pretty good to horror so far! At least to its box office - the quality of this year's offerings have been a mixed platter, typical of any studio slate, but the real revelation is the genre's renewed, almost instantaneous bankability. The Conjuring had one of the highest opening weekends for an R-rated film of all time; the only other R-rated horror film to make so much money so quickly was Paranormal Activity 3. The Purge multiplied its budget by thirty. Evil Dead nearly broke $100 million. And those are just the R-rated flicks alone - World War Z took in major bank overseas, for instance. Mama did well, Dark Skies did well, Warm Bodies did well even though it shouldn't have. Maybe my 2011/2012 prognostications about the future of adult horror were preemptive, or maybe there's been some kind of worldwide attitudinal shift that's gotten mainstream audiences so interested in all this depravity. Could it be a growing notion that our world is falling apart?

There's been a noticeable preoccupation with economic decay in many of the movies released this year, almost certainly a reflection of our nation's dire straits. This isn't a new trend to film, cropping up as early as Great Depression musicals in order to pair common audience anxieties with a gleeful, utopian worldview. To see these fears interlaced with the horror genre, however, is particularly exceptional. Three of the films below deal with financial crises, at least in passing, and the other two feature protagonists overcoming major drug addictions. The prevalence of such heavy subject matter in a genre with few escapist tendencies is strange, but as with any regularly employed cultural trend, its incorporation is livened or worsened by the skill of its creative team. The movies below, for the most part, depict these issues thoughtfully enough to merit their inclusion. Except for Evil Dead. Fuck that shit.

Antiviral [Netflix]

You would have to be a lunatic to desire fame in the 21st century. Paparazzi may seem intrusive enough as it is, but images of an otherwise average person going about her routine don't cut it anymore. Social technologies like Twitter have entitled millions of people to a feeling of constant connectivity to their idols; such an increased degree of exposure is a double-edged sword, because now any teenage shitheel can anonymously slander or threaten you whenever his shriveled heart desires. The Internet has left us all living in public, but to many, the life of a celebrity is hardly a life at all. Antiviral ups the ante on these already sad circumstances by depicting a near future where celebrity culture is the only kind of culture, a world in which the ultimate expression of adoration is paying hand-over-fist to be injected with the viruses of these beautiful people. These "celebrities" don't even sing or act, simply serving as proprietary pathogenic vessels for corporations to make money off the unwitting. Huckster Syd March (Caleb Landry-Jones of X-Men First Class, deliciously cold) peddles these germs for the omnipotent Lucas Clinic, but unsurprisingly the big guys aren't paying their workers too much in times like these, so occasionally he'll steal viruses and sell them on the black market. Unfortunately, Syd never accounted for this society's insidious idea of copyright protection, and so begins his great adventure. Brandon Cronenberg, inspired by an offhand remark in a Sarah Michelle Gellar interview, has created a world in the image of his father's work that is populated by obsessions entirely his own. This fame-forged dystopia is brimming with hardship, but its citizens are too doped up on entertainment to understand what a hard life entails except by relating to celebrity "Ordeals," manufactured traumas like having a camera zoom up your rectum (broadcast on the news as, of course, the Aria Noble Anus Ordeal). Beautifully shot and conceived, Antiviral nonetheless betrays its director's inexperienced hand, as the clever concepts and shifts in understanding are occasionally explained more closely than they need to be. Nonetheless, Cronenberg delivers a portrait of manic devotion that is not only contemporary (Miley, One Direction, Lady Gaga, et al.), but indicative of a society suffering a much greater structural disease than any one human might carry. B+

The Conjuring

Vera Farmiga has become one of my new favorite actresses, not only for her her rough-hewn expressive power and dextrous voice, but also because she's getting the juicy genre career that Jamie Lee Curtis deserved when she was this age. Her unpretentious commitment to every role, whether a mother with a questionable past in Orphan or a tragicomic lunatic in Bates Motel, pays off unfailingly, even when the script doesn't necessarily deserve her. This is the case in The Conjuring, a haunted house yarn that surprises by caulking over its corny dialogue with excellent craftsmanship and legitimate scares. Chad and Carey Hayes, who have been writing a lot of crap for a long time, maintain their own special brand of commitment with exchanges like these:

"Do you remember the thing you said on our wedding night?"
"Can we do it again?"
"No! The other thing, that God brought us together for a reason."

EHHHH. The thing? The one thing you said? No, not the thing about sex, the other thing about God. Not promising, I know, but director James Wan tempers this hokum with overall strong performances (standouts include Farmiga, Lili Taylor, and Joey King, giving one of the best portrayals of fear I've ever seen from a young actor) and a continued emphasis on set design and sound. Farmiga plays one half of husband-and-wife exorcism team The Warrens, tasked with expelling an especially malevolent spirit from a family's new home. The Conjuring is never stronger than when Wan prowls the halls of this house, all creaky basements and flickering lightbulbs and unexpected corridors. He has a solid command over pacing, allowing suspense to build naturally and avoiding cheap jump scares. Nothing on display in the film is particularly original, but its treatment of haunted house tropes is informed and proficient, arranged by his deft balance of a surprising number of narrative elements. This raises some concerns about the future of the film, as horror's graceful aging in the public conscious often relies on theme and character rather than technique. For now, though, The Conjuring is a well-made, scary, enjoyable movie, a success story that earns it. B 

Dark Skies

Thumbs way down for the genius who edited the Dark Skies trailer to include the above shot. I can't imagine how many tickets the inclusion of this scene, no less hilarious in context, cost the film. But in a way, its presence also suggests a certain honesty about what's in store for the viewer, a competent experience that can't always escape these silly images or a few dud lines. In an R-rated horror movie, your target demographic is likely to have a better understanding of how comedy and horror intersect and can shrug oddities like this off, or even embrace them. PG-13, however, bears the added burden of a primarily teenage audience, who probably walked out of the theater laughing at how goddamn stupid Josh Hamilton looked with his mouth hanging open. A shame, because as PG-13 horror comes, Dark Skies is some of the best you're going to get, an insightful hash of contemporary anxieties designed specifically to tap into what young audiences understand about themselves and are beginning to learn about their parents. Despite ostensibly being about Keri Russell, real estate agent on the edge, the focal point for the majority of the film's drama is her 13-year-old son Jesse (Dakota Goyo). His best friend is aggressive and oversexualized, he's got a crush and has no idea how to talk to her, his parents are struggling to make ends meet and fighting all the while, and there's no one to talk his younger brother through their marital spats but him. Also, aliens are fucking with them. The sci-fi horror elements, at least to someone who's a square decade older than Dark Skies' projected viewer, are sort of repetitive and not all that scary. There's only so many times Russell can wander around her gloomy house in a tank top and stumble upon something sinister before the affair starts to become predictable. The integration of alien hijinks into this grim facade of middle-class life is surprisingly natural, however, and eventually the movie tips its hand to invoke a potent ending about a young person's concept of the unknown. Good acting from Russell and Goyo, playing the two characters who really need it, gives this movie just the heft it needs to overcome its sporadic silliness. B-

The Lords of Salem

My experience with Rob Zombie is minimal, stopping short at his vile yet inexplicably loved The Devil's Rejects. Knowing that this purveyor of thoughtless, ugly violence got his hands on Halloween (and trashed it, by all accounts) left me never wanting to watch another of his movies again. But I'm easy, and The Lords of Salem had a cool poster and an intriguing premise, so I reneged on my vow immediately and gave it a shot. To give credit where credit is due, Zombie has improved significantly as a filmmaker; his use of color is superb, alternating overblown reds with foggy washed-out greens and shading the movie with skillfully employed frigid light. Some of the compositions on display here are truly vivid, a far cry from the blood-stained brown malaise of Rejects. He's even better with sound, creating a Salem that rumbles with subsonic unease and briefly punctuating it with snarling music or the shrieks of witches. As a writer, unfortunately, he still has a long way to go. Its ambition at least deserves note, as Zombie's ideas about horror as a local phenomenon that gets passed through the generations by blood and rumor grant the movie a strong start. The message is made doubly intriguing through his mass casting of horror icons such as Ken Foree, Dee Wallace, and Meg Foster, themselves the loci of their own grisly stories. This seed gradually loses more and more time to tedious exposition and a go-nowhere subplot about Sheri Moon Zombie's heroin addiction and, with the film's arbitrary ending, it becomes clear that Zombie had no conclusion to the point he built his narrative around. He gives a lot of deference to character development, which demonstrates a newfound understanding of how to create a sustainable horror piece, and Moon Zombie (!) is actually fairly effective as an oddball shock jock. Her limitations remain apparent, however, and despite support from shy coworker Jeff Daniel Phillips' impressively tender performance, any scene where she is asked to convey fear or desperation is something of a wash. The strengths of the film, combined with Zombie's maturing sensibilities as an artist, are ultimately unable to rescue The Lords of Salem from feeling like a noble failure. Recommended with hesitations; it could be a fun movie to blaze to, or simply to appreciate as a series of surreal images. C+

Evil Dead 

I was incredibly excited for Evil Dead, even after its lukewarm positive reviews, simply on the basis of its trailer alone. The music was insane, it featured a wealth of monstrous practical effects, and its outlandish gore left me with hope for a resurrection of Sam Raimi's gleeful splatterfest excess. Even the presence of Diablo Cody was a major plus for me, as she is one of the few writers working today who I feel could have adequately captured the morbid comedy of my beloved original. My first disappointment came as I started the movie, when I learned that she only doctored the script because the original writers knew little English. And, uh, she didn't do a very good job. The movie is absolutely senseless, propped up with a paper thin backstory and some of the dumbest characters I've seen in a long time. The issue isn't that Lou Taylor Pucci Had to Read the Latin, because invariably Someone Has to Read the Latin. It's that he Read the Latin despite the portentous yet oddly juvenile scribblings in the margins of the Necronomicon, despite the fact that the Necronomicon was wrapped in leather and barbed wire, despite the finding of the Necronomicon in a basement full of dead cats on hooks and witchcraft implements and demarcated by a conspicuous blood trail. Even though any person with half a brain in their skull would leave this hellhole right away, these bozos decide not only to stay, but to perform a forced rehabilitation on their friend Mia (Jane Levy) as she vows sobriety and throws the last of her heroin away. ("We're giving her the same treatment she'd get at a hospital!" says the nursefriend, thinking nothing of her complete lack of training or the two cars accessible to Mia at any time.) Cold sweats and tremors are the least of her problems as, in grand horror tradition, Satan comes knocking to ruin their fun. Evil Dead is logically defunct down to the very last minute, culminating in an orgy of blood and fire that nonetheless manages to completely lack scares, weight, or originality. And though I was able to sporadically lose myself in the gore and carnage, done with incredible skill by a team of gifted prosthetics and makeup artists, more often than not I found myself disappointed by the soullessness of the whole affair. It's loud and crude, peppered with profane utterances that would at worst have landed you a lunchtime detention in 8th grade, and its complete lack of personality leaves its over-the-top approach to the violence feeling awfully gratuitous. As a calculated crowd-pleaser, Evil Dead is capable, but it's a pretty reprehensible movie that completely betrays the spirit of its forefather. C-

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