Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The 2013 Horror Digest, Part 2: Beasties/Boys

Berberian Sound Studio

Since horror is so dependent on culturally recursive imagery, often scaring us with things that we know we'll be scared of, it proves itself a fertile ground for namechecking, parody, and homage. None of these intrigue me more than the giallo homage. Despite the fact that Italy's wackiest subgenre is characterized by arrhythmic narrative structure, unpredictable editing, and shot after non-sequitur shot, films attempting to pay their dues to such a singular cinematic phenomenon often employ these techniques too academically. Berberian Sound Studio, arriving three years after staid but enjoyable Amer or Dario Argento's God-awful Giallo, mostly manages to avoid this. Toby Jones plays a sensitive introvert who, having only designed sound for nature documentaries, finds that his new overseas gig producing gory sound effects for an Italian horror movie exacts a high emotional and mental toll. This movie has no aspirations toward true giallodom, instead borrowing giallo's delightfully squishy sound design (what do you think that produce is for?) and baroque low-key lighting to grant style to a mostly conventional narrative. Berberian Sound Studio is a far cry from generic shock horror, though, instead a sinister character piece as portrayed masterfully by Jones and facilitated through a series of increasingly oppressive interpersonal encounters. The problems set in during the final fifteen minutes, when the house of cards finally collapses and our protagonist finds himself in a set of alien circumstances that do little to illuminate what we've already seen of him. Far from the Berberian Sound Studio that wet its hands playing in the blood of giallos past, the ending swings wide and fails both in the typical and atypical realms the rest of the movie bounces between. It has its own intrigue if you're into random things (see also The Lords of Salem), but thrust like a knife into a carefully written screenplay, it makes sadly little sense.

Kiss of the Damned [Netflix]

And while we're on the topic of homage, let's hop on over to 70s vampire horror, long the province of House Hammer and Sir Christopher Lee and Count Dracula himself. Campy and a bit smutty, six of Hammer's eight takes on Dracula nonetheless retained the distinguished sheen of a Lee performance, giving them a character beyond the workmanlike cheese they usually feel like. This century's non-Twilight vampire movies have rarely achieved the same distinction or success, peaking with Shadow of the Vampire or Let the Right One In; 2013 was as good a year as any for writer/director Xan Cassavetes to breathe life into the floundering bloodsucker. But although she's definitely in the right place at the right time, Kiss of the Damned is blown by a bad lead performance and some shaky writing. Actresses Josephine de la Baume and Roxane Mesquida are exciting, in that it is exciting to watch savagely beautiful women act bitchy toward each other, but protagonist Milo Ventimiglia is blank from start to finish. He exudes zero allure through his striking physical beauty, locked into a flat voice and an inexpressive face no matter the circumstances. In nearly all of its depictions, and especially here, a vampire is a potent erotic and charismatic force, and although Cassavetes lands the eroticism ably neither Ventimiglia nor his more compelling costars have much interesting to say. This threesome flits through beautiful mansions and hobnobs with their vampire brethren, a cadre of elites with unique ideologies and desires, yet they themselves rarely find time for anything meaningful except fucking and fighting and occasionally murdering an innocent. Kiss of the Damned does manage a handful of intrigue with Mesquida's psychotic Mimi. She rails against the boring lives these upper-crust vampires have created for themselves, likening their cloistered blood chastity to "rehab," and kills and exsanguinates humans because that's what vamps were made to do. This deviance corrupts those around her in intriguing ways, and its impact on the main love story adds a bit of dimension to an otherwise uninteresting ending. Unfortunately, these ideas on deviance and forced normalcy are too thin to support a movie with weak dramatic energy, charged only by the intermittently successful yet constant use of overbearing music. Questionable style over disappointing, albeit sexy, substance. C

Warm Bodies

Quite like how Twilight had little to say except "vampires and werewolves are cute and both can be your boyfriends," Warm Bodies is similarly desperate for tweens to contract a case of the young-adult zombie swoons, except in a FUNNY way. This film applies a gloss of self-parody that is meant to justify the uncreative ways it unfurls its gimmick (the above picture, for instance, though partial credit is given for using someone kind of obvious like Fulci instead of someone totally obvious like Romero). Most of the jokes are stale, though, zombies and humans both uttering "bitches, man" and "fuck yeah" and whatever other conversation enders count as punchlines these days. The zombie stuff is even more dire, filled with poorly directed action sequences and ugly CGI. And in an age where undead brutality is a simple change of the channel away for many people, I can't imagine Warm Bodies' PG-13 blood splatters raising too many pulses. The rating spells disaster for a zombie movie, as zombies are monsters that must be presented as both analogue and anathema to humans in order to explore why they are so scary. The best way to do that is to strip them of their humanity and have them inflict grisly violence on their living, screaming counterparts, and this movie doesn't bother with either task. The zombies here, like the vampires and werewolves of Twilight, retain none of the characteristics that made this creature interesting or frightening or worth exploring in the first place. There's at least some acting talent here, though you wouldn't guess it from John Malkovich, who looks embarrassed to even be there and phones it in hard. The young players are earnest and believe wholeheartedly in their material: Nicholas Hoult is cute enough that I almost understand why Teresa Palmer wanted to fuck his shambling corpse, and I'm curiously into Analeigh Tipton (is it the America's Next Top Model association? it must be). I've championed the value of teen-oriented horror before, but Warm Bodies is so tame and so genuflected to YA market trends that it basically washes the whole movie out. If you're in the mood for a supernatural teen romance full of laughs, Twilight schadenfreude remains the place to go, as this horror comedy never manages to become scary or funny. D+

Black Rock

I'm sure that most of you are sick of reading about Kickstarter by now, but I think it's important to keep tabs on this first wave of crowd-sourced film productions, since these things are propped up on our livelihoods. Katie Aselton, she of humblecore mumblecore beginnings, put Black Rock together on 33000 public dollars, and though it isn't the gamechanger that publicly-funded cinema really needs, her training has obviously prepared her for the lean business of making an indie in 2013. You could write it off as an insubstantial thriller, but that isn't entirely fair, as the movie's got a pretty unique stance on female camaraderie. All-female horror tends to divide the base, most famously demonstrated in The Descent, which is an understandable consequence of a psychologically trying situation. Living in a culture that routinely pits women against one another rarely allows us the perspective on extreme adversity that Black Rock offers, though, and that in itself gives Aselton's script value. Plus, having three dishonorably discharged Iraqi War vets as rapin' killin' Deliverance-style antagonists pissed off the fine folks at Breitbart, who are unwilling to content themselves with any less-than-glowing representation of the military, so that's an A-OK in my book. As an actual thriller, this is marginally successful, which is a disappointment. The narrative is catalyzed by an attempted rape and its victim Abby's self-defense, but for whatever reason Abby never gets around to tell her assailant's friends that he, you know, tried to rape her. It may not have done much good, as these men are clearly unhinged; nonetheless, this is the kind of spare character piece where every line counts, and the escalation of the conflict becomes a little difficult to swallow. The dialogue and acting are generally solid, not too sensationalized and essayed through believable characters, but there's a chronic lack of directness to the movie's exposition that frustrates even at 80 minutes. Even the violent conflicts take their time. There are better ways to spend an hour and a half than Black Rock, sure, but it's not bad. It might be a worthy investment if you're curious about rising talents Aselton or Lake Bell (or if you've been wondering where the hell Kate Bosworth is these days, which is all zero of you). Recommended if woman-dominated island cat-and-mouse games appeal to you. C+


What's gotten into Guillermo? His directorial efforts trend toward quality, but as a producer he involves himself with projects that usually don't add up. I can't begrudge him his attempts at keeping horror alive and healthy in the mainstream; there aren't a lot of prominent creative figures in the genre's corner these days. Seeing his name in credits is starting to become a turnoff, though, as in the past five years he's presided over the self-serious The Orphanage, Vincenzo Natali's decent but clumsy Splice, and 2011's beautiful braindead Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. I am starting to wonder when I'll see him attached to something as powerful and complex as The Devil's Backbone again. Mama is simply another check written into the dark, a golden ticket for short film director Andres Muschetti, that never pays for much more than superficial handsomeness. It appears to me that del Toro is easily persuaded by potentially appealing visuals, the unifying thread in each of these horrors, and the first hour of Mama provides in full. There's one early scene in a long, shadowy hall that is exceptional, preying on our unformed knowledge of this lurking ghost and its motives. Between that and a quality performance from Jessica Chastain, the movie had me pretty absorbed and a little frightened for the first hour, but when Mama gets bored of surreptitious prowling and bursts out of the wardrobe with daughter-stealing abandon, I snapped right out of it. Mama looks lame as hell. The IMDB page for the film insists that she's not CGI, just a heavily made-up man with Marfan syndrome, but a) I'm not sure I buy it alongside the film's other egregious uses of CGI and b) computerized or not, a ghost that bends into a croquet-wicket arch and charges at you like an angry toddler is not scary. The friend I was watching with said it best: it's so much easier to induce fear when your audience doesn't know exactly what they're afraid of yet. Mama never recovers from the sham that is its eponymous demon, culminating in a melodramatic mountaintop showdown that is almost embarrassing to watch. I keep thinking of that episode of Doug where Doug runs out of a horror movie screaming before anything actually shows up, and when he finally knuckles down and tries to watch it again, the zipper on the monster's costume is visible. That night I became Doug, slowly wearying of Guillermo del Toro failing to hide the zipper one too many times. Perhaps we are all Doug. C+

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