Sunday, October 22, 2006

Horrorfest 2006 report #3

Film is an illusion. The filmmaker takes a reality and distorts it in such a way so another reality is created. Through editing, optical effects, framing, performance, lighting and sound the filmmaker shapes a specific story he wants to tell. If the audience gets a glimpse of a microphone hanging in the shot or an extra standing in the background staring at the camera, the illusion can be destroyed. The filmmaking process is all about perception. The perception the audience has of a false reality between the restricted confines of the screen frame.

Some of film’s greatest suspense stories involve a similar sort of false reality, where the characters within the false reality of the film are served a false reality due to their own misperception of events. One of the best recent horror films, “The Sixth Sense”, involved a false reality set up. As I have discovered with my most recent batch of horror and suspense thrillers, this is a tradition that has existed since the beginning of film and continues through today’s biggest remakes.

As my wife was flipping through channels the other night, we happened upon one of my favorite occurrences during my annual Horrorfest, the unplanned horror screening. Turner Classic Movies was having a vampire marathon of classic vampire films from the 30’s and 40’s. The one we caught was a Tod Browning directed gem from 1935 called “Mark of the Vampire”. Browning was one of the masterminds behind the onslaught of Universal classic horror monsters films; producing and directing some of the enduring classics of the age, from the Bela Lugosi starring “Dracula” to the cult classic “Freaks”.

“Mark of the Vampire” also places Lugosi into the role of the vampire, but employs a much larger cast of characters, including screen legend Lionel Barrymore, in a great mystery of a town that seems to be littered with the undead spawn. Along with Lugosi, Browning also recycled some of the set pieces from his own production of “Dracula”.

Of course the key to making a vampire picture work is creating the illusion that these creatures of the night are indeed real and are monsters. In those earlier days of films they had a fairly mild idea of what a monster was. The vampire was kind of like some sort of bloodthirsty aristocrat in a tux.

There is a great shot here of one vampire flaying into a room, that utilizes some early wire work with a live actor and a wonderful winged costume design, but the real treasure of this film is something I cannot reveal. It involves a secret that changes the audience’s perception of everything that has come before. When the secret is revealed, the film shifts gears entirely and becomes engrossingly interesting.

The movies “Hard Candy” and “Stay” are not precisely of the horror genre, but both involve horrors that are inflicted upon its characters through their own skewed perceptions of reality.

“Hard Candy” does to a pedophile what we would all like to see done to someone who prays on our children. It involves a 14-year-old girl who stalks an Internet chat room predator in an even more meticulous and ruthless way than he does her. Once he takes her to his home she sets into motion a plan that is so cruel that were he anything other than a pedophile, we would demand mercy. In fact, writer Brian Nelson and director David Slade do a good job of making the man’s guilt as a child predator questionable. For much of the film we a re left wondering whether the heroine has targeted the right man.

“Hard Candy” is an excellent psychological thriller that uses misrepresentation, the very tool of the sexual predator, as a structural element throughout the film in different ways. Both characters have distorted their own portrayal of who they are to each other. Both use lies and deceit to get what they want out of the other. Even when the man is merely a victim of the girl, there is little truth he is willing to reveal. And there is one scene where the girl has the man strapped down to a table that becomes one of the cruelest games of perception for the audience and the man that has been recorded on film recently.

“Stay” runs closer to the genre of horror than “Hard Candy”, although there are no monsters or serial killers. It is more like an extended episode of “The Outer Limits” or some sort of horror anthology series like that. Once again I cannot reveal just where this film ends up without ruining it for others, but the journey to get to that point is just like one long horrific acid trip.

Along for the ride is Ewan McGregor as a psychiatrist with an artist girlfriend (Naomi Watts), who has recovered from a suicide attempt, and a new patient (Ryan Gosling), who promises to commit suicide at midnight of the next Saturday. It becomes clear fairly early on that not everything experienced by the characters in this film is real. Even when the characters treat their reality as real, it seems to the audience as if there isn’t anyway all of it could be real; and the journey for the audience becomes about trying to figure out what is real and what isn’t.

Director Marc Forster (“Monster’s Ball”, “Finding Neverland”) utilizes a unique tool to tie the characters together as they navigate this strange reality separately and together. Each scene is tied together by some visual bridging element, like when the suicidal character visits the manatees at an aquarium and in the next scene the artist has a painting of manatees in her collection in the background.

There is another rather disturbing sequence where the psychiatrist goes to visit the suicide case’s “dead” mother. There is nothing in this sequence to convince the audience this meeting is real, but the doctor is convinced of it even after he is confronted by another character denying the possibility of it by saying he attended the mother’s funeral. And even during that confrontation we are shown elements to suggest the confrontation itself isn’t real.

The truth of what is really happening is suggested in snippets throughout the film and may even be guessed at by some, but as an audience we are so well trained to think there is some semblance of truth to what we are seeing on screen that our desire for the characters to be correct in their perception of their realities has us insisting on at least some foundation of truth in what they are perceiving. The irony is that film itself is all an illusion.

“The Omen” is not a trick played on the audience, we know from the very start that the child is the spawn of the devil, even the Anti-Christ, but the boy’s parents cannot believe this child in which they have invested their emotions could be such a monster.

Actually, it isn’t as hard for the parents to believe their child might be the devil as you would think in this remake of the 1976 horror classic. Julia Stiles and Liev Schreiber play those parents in two virtuoso performances. The parents’ journey is spot on here, while only the role of the child is miscalculated in this surprisingly unforced Hollywood remake.

The truly amazing thing about this film is that I actually jumped out of my seat three times. Quite a feat for someone who has seen as many horror films as I. One of those jumps came during one of three wonderful dream sequences in the film. The mother experiences two of these dreams, the father one.

In the second of the mother’s dreams we witness a scene we think we might recognize from the original film. (Don’t worry it will be just as effective if you haven’t seen the original.) This remake runs very true to the original. The production design for this particular sequence seems very stylized (because as we find out later it is a dream). After we have been set up to think it is going where we think it is something different and utterly unexpected happens and it all makes sense that it is revealed to be a dream. But like a good scare in a dream, that shock lingers in the system until the sequence we expected comes up and we think about the mom, “We know you remembered that dream. Why did you stay in the house?”

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