Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Horrorfest 2006 report #4: Women, pt. 1: The Mother

In my years of being a horror fan, it has not been hard to notice that for the most part horror films utilize a female protagonist. I think there is more than one reason for this, since there is more than one type of female hero to be found in the horror genre. One such protagonist often found in horror movies is The Mother.

This could be because the mother is the protector of the children. The barrier between the innocence of childhood and the difficulties of adult life. It could be because children themselves, in their unreigned, nature are closer to the chaos that feeds evil and the mother acts as a barrier in the other direction, protecting the world from the child. That’s a concept I will be talked to in the bed about. Or perhaps the mother as the bringer of life is the greatest weapon against that “undiscovered country” many of us fear so much.

I have watched four films involving mothers over the past two weeks of this year’s Horrorfest. Three involved a mother searching for a lost child. Ask a mother and they’ll tell you there is nothing in the world scarier. And one involved a child looking for her mother.

“Poltergeist” was the only one of these three that was successful. As part of my monthly film society screenings, I revisited this movie which I feel could be categorized as a forgotten classic. With a screenplay by Hollywood’s most popular director, Steven Spielberg, under the direction of the Spielberg picked Tobe Hooper, of the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” fame; “Poltergeist” anticipates the J-horror ghost story craze by twenty years.

The central relationship in the story is between the mother of a suburban family (JoBeth Williams) and the youngest daughter, who is first contacted by unknown forces through the television set and later is consumed by the house itself into a netherworld that occupies a parallel space. In one of the film’s most spectacular sequences the mother uses a rope to enter the netherworld so she can snatch her daughter and be pulled back out.

The production is a surprisingly effective blend of Spielberg’s flash and polishes and Hooper’s shocks and disgustipations. The two create many lasting horror images that people who saw it as children still remember vividly and answer many horror related questions, like why no kid should ever keep a toy clown in his room, why it is good that cable helped to do away with the airing of the National Anthem at the end of broadcasting each night, and why you should never eat chicken with the lights off. They also taught me how to tell whether a lightning storm was coming or going.

One big disappointment was the video game-based horror flick “Silent Hill”. This film also is filled with many disturbing horror moments, but there seems to be some sort of disconnect with those disturbing images and the real story at hand. I am not familiar with the video game, but from the film I suppose it involves searching for your lost daughter in the ghost town of Silent Hill, where the coal from under this mining town still burns from a massive fire that claimed most of its citizens (yet somehow left the buildings standing with only a few seared spots). It snows ash from the perpetually burning sublevels, and is infested with mutants from hell(?) that you must maneuver through to find your daughter.

Or maybe the daughter is even a construct of the screenplay. I don’t know, but it seems the setting is from a video game and the story is from a horror film. The story may be a little too much to go into in the limited space I have here, but the production design is impressive to say the least. Despite the disconnect created from the video game translation there are many memorable images, such as the burning ember children, and the cone head with the giant sword. The mood is beyond creepy from the moment the mother (Radha Mitchell) enters Silent Hill. I wasn’t entirely pleased with the ambivalent ending, however, which is not really justified by the action of the story.

“The Forgotten”, on the other hand, could have used a little of that ambivalence, because the explanation the filmmakers came up with for the action of its story is utterly ludicrous and stupid. Let me reiterate that last part. It was stupid. Stoopid. Stupid. I won’t ruin that explanation for any poor souls who might want to watch the movie; but trust me, it is stupid.

The story involves a mother (Julianne Moore), whose son died when the plane he and other children were taking to a summer camp went down. The action begins well after the tragedy, and the mother is in therapy to deal with the loss. Then one day all her memoirs of her boy disappear. She accuses her husband trying to force her to move on and he tells her the boy never lived, he was a miscarriage. Her therapist backs up her husband’s story. Soon even her husband doesn’t remember her. But this denial of her own memories by others only leads her to the conclusion that her son is not actually dead at all. Perhaps there was no plane crash.

Yes, it sounds absurd, but this is not the stupid part. All this is very well done. It is creepy. There are conspiracies involving the government. There seem to be some supernatural forces at work. And although it is hard to relate to the mother’s bond with her child because he was already gone before the story started, you want to know just where the truth really lies.

I don’t know if screenwriter Gerald Di Pego (“Phenomenon”) just wrote himself into a corner and couldn’t get out, or if he just started with the explanation, damn the fact that no story written around it could justify it. I can’t believe this story ever got green lit, let alone read without anybody slapping him in the face with contempt and firmly stating, “No! No! Bad!”

“Dark Water” on the other hand is a nice try to replicate the J-horror phenom with a Hollywood remake. It is a moody, dank, damp, dark ghost story about a recently divorced mother (Jennifer Connelly) who moves her daughter to Roosevelt Island (a small island located on the east side of Manhattan where the 59th Street Bridge crosses over into Queens) while in a custody battle with her ex-husband (Dougray Scott). I can’t imagine the real life residents of Roosevelt Island are too pleased with the depiction of their isolated mini-city in this film. It does not look like a great place to live.

There is a water issue in the apartment they move to which originates from the apartment above. Apparently there may be a little girl who still lives up there after both her parents left her. And the water seems to be constantly running.

There are some good performances by Connelly, Scott, Tim Roth, and John C. Reilly here, but the action is played more like a full on drama than a horror flick. It is good that the producers tried to avoid the typical Hollywood thrashing of this remake by hiring award winning Brazilian director Walter Salles (“Central Station”) and gathering a cast with some real acting chops, but the scares come too late in the film for the audience to care anymore. That is if any of them are still awake after the slow pace of the story.

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