Friday, October 20, 2006

Horrorfest 2006 report #2

A blind woman is given her sight back and begins to see things most people can’t. A mother is bent on revenge after spending 13-years in prison for a violent crime that was not all her doing. A doctor finds his humanity in an obsession with a carnival freak show star during the dawn of the industrial age. A policeman investigates a missing child case on a remote island where the inhabitants have unique ideas of spirituality. And a man named Rock hunts down mutagenic experiments at an off planet archeological dig. These are the highs and lows of the first full week of Horrorfest 2006.

The Chinese film “The Eye” was one of the early films of the J-horror genre to find some success in the US market along with the hit Japanese horror films “Ringu (The Ring)” and “Dark Water”. Although the “J” comes from Japan, the J-horror phenomenon can be found in all of Asia’s finest filmmaking countries.

The most distinctive feature of the J-horror subgenre are the ghosts. These films all seem to be ghost stories, as opposed to our American horror film obsession with monsters and devils. And their ghosts are not the wispy white Caspers which we imagine, but tend to be rather disturbing looking humans that have taken on features and characteristics of a more jarring nature. Black oily hair, blue-ish colored skin, and teeth that would frighten a piranha.

The heroine of “The Eye” is a blind woman who has surgery to have her sight restored. It is the typical body parts horror set up, where the person receiving the new body parts starts to experience what the donor of those body parts did in their life. And the recipient must then discover the meaning of these new abilities.

The first half of the film is stunningly creepy. Mostly taking place in a hospital, the heroine discovers she can see frightening things like people who turn out to be dead and these dark shadows that seem to be stealing people away. There is a particularly creepy sequence that takes place in an elevator.

But the movie falters at the point it tries to explain just what these images are all about. It seems to be made on a fairly meager budget, with what looks like digital photography, and when the special effects start to become more complicated, their poor quality negatively affects the feel of the action. It also seems that the solution of the mystery takes a way much of the horrific nature of the visions.

Another film failure in the early stages of this Horrorfest comes in the film adaptation of the popular video game “Doom”. While not really a surprise, it is a shame example of what has become of the sci-fi horror flick. A subgenre that had it peak with the release of “Alien” in 1979, it seems action has become the point rather than the payoff in these types of films.

“Doom” is a guilty pleasure of a video game, where you get to run around with different types of big guns -- even a chainsaw if you can find it -- and mutilate, mangle and destroy a series of ever bigger and uglier mutant monsters. “Doom” the movie isn’t really much more than that. The writers have come up with some sort of explanation for how these mutants came to terrorize a remote research facility located on Mars. It includes the standard set of action character prototypes: the loner hero, the intense leader, the untrustworthy scumbag and the psychotic; oh and somehow they still work in a damsel in distress.

In the sense that they replicate the mental level of the game itself, the film is a success. I did like The Rock’s commanding presence, and there were some nice nods to the game, including one sequence that recreates the point of view action of the game. Luckily they didn’t try to stretch that sequence any longer, it couldn’t have stood more than a brief treatment.

But the monsters are just monsters; and there is so little investment in the characters, that you might as well just watch someone play the video game. Missing is the sense that the human element is where the true evil comes from, and the filmmakers are in such a rush to get to the action that they forget that in order to feel scared for someone, you have to feel for them.

The desensitization of humanity, however, is one of the key themes in David Lynch’s early masterpiece “The Elephant Man”. Set during the dawn of the industrial age, “The Elephant Man” tells the true story of John Merrick (John Hurt), a circus show freak known as The Elephant Man. Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) discovers Merrick and his deformed body of medical anomalies and takes him in at the London Hospital to study him. He and Merrick discover more of their own humanity than they do of the incurable disfigurements that ail him.

Directed by Lynch in stark black and white, with an attention to capturing that calliope carnival feel to the way different classes of people treat and view Merrick as a side show freak. Lynch fills his film with images of the early mechanization of factory work and travel juxtaposed against a hospital staff that, despite a wary board of directors, opposes the typical institutional approach to medicine. They offer Merrick a home and family, and retain his and their humanity in the process.

There is nothing quite so humanizing as loss, especially the loss of a child. The Korean action thriller “Lady Vengeance” takes a deep look at the importance of family as a stabilizing factor in our humanity. In my recent review of the film I wrote of director Chan-wook Park’s visual journey for his heroine, but here I would like to look at how family, or the lack there of, directs the Kind-Hearted Geum-ja’s journey of revenge.

While falsely imprisoned for the crime of kidnapping and murdering a little boy, Geum-ja (Yeong-ae Lee) finds a family of sorts within the prison system. It is a family she utilizes when she is released from prison to enact her revenge on the man truly responsible for the little boy’s death, Mr. Baek (Min-sik Choi). Her prison sisters provide her with all the props she needs to carry out her revenge, including a direct access to Mr. Baek.

Geum-ja is a mother as well. Her infant daughter was taken from her when she went to prison and adopted by an Australian family. When she seeks out her daughter Jenny, Geum-ja finds her to be both angry and curious about this mother who disappeared from her life for 13 years. But Jenny’s desire to follow her mother is strong.

When Geum-ja finally has her chance of revenge on Mr. Baek, she finds her resolve fails her. But vengeance is served by the families of the victims Mr. Baek took while Geum-ja served her sentence.

Why doesn’t she join the victims’ parents in their revenge? Because this is not where Geum-ja’s family lies. She never really belongs to either of the surrogate families. She is not the criminal she was convicted to be, so she doesn’t really belong to her prison family; nor does she belong to the family of parents whose kids were murder by Mr. Baek, since her daughter still lives. But the cold irony is that Jenny is no longer hers either. She has grown up only knowing her white parents; and Geum-ja has lived in cold determination of revenge for so long, she can never provide the love she wants for her daughter or herself.

“The Wicker Man” may be one of the most unique horror films ever made. The story involves a police officer searching for a missing girl at an isolated island village. The villagers are standoff-ish toward the officer and change their story frequently on their knowledge of the little girl. They seem to have developed their own religion based on their yearly harvest. It is a religion that plays like a pagan cult and flies in the face of the policeman’s strict Christian background.

But it is really the story that makes this such a strange work of horror as its execution. It is more of an oddity exhibition than a scare fest. It has musical numbers. It takes place mostly during the daylight. It has a folk music soundtrack. The island’s patriarch is played like a David Koresh on acid by horror legend Christopher Lee. There are people making love in the streets and graveyards. And it has a naked Britt Eckland.

“The Wicker Man” is a scathing indictment on organized religion, attacking both the existing church with the policeman’s intolerance of the flower-power behavior that had become commonplace by 1973, when the film was produced; and the idea of organized religion as a whole in the way the citizens of the island adhere unquestioningly to their own religion, which is obviously based upon a lie to begin with.

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