Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Horrorfest ’08 Report #9: The Quiet Scream

There are many different forms of the quiet scream. Sometimes it is just a woosh of air exiting from a wide-open mouth. Other times there is the faintest of squeaks emitting from a petrified face. Sometimes it is a hand in the mouth to hold back the possibility of a loud outburst. And sometimes it is the gnashing of your teeth as your significant other digs her nails into the flesh on the back of your hand.

Like the many different reactions we can have to horror, horror movies themselves comes in many forms, shapes and sizes. Some are big scares. Some intellectual. Some get you talking with your companions afterward, while some leave you lying awake at night thinking, “only kids are supposed to be afraid of that dark shape in the closet.” And every Horrorfest there are some movies I watch that just don’t fall into easily categorized horror subgenres.

“Awake” is a particularly quiet movie based primarily around a quite scream. It imagines what would happen to someone if they were to find themselves within a sort of waking coma, while people they trusted plotted around them to pull the plug quite on purpose. The main character is a prominent business executive undergoing a procedure that will save his life when he discovers that although he is conscious of everything going on around him, everyone else thinks he’s under from his anesthesia.

The horror in this movie is psychological and quiet. Although Hayden Christensen often takes heavy criticism for his droll acting skills, they work in this film’s favor as the terror builds from his calm, unconscious exterior to suggest the terror that is going inside. It is the ultimate form of helplessness he must experience as a victim that cannot run or fight or even indicate to anyone he has any knowledge of what is happening to him.

One of the best elements of this story is that people who seem obviously to be acting outside of his best interests, aren’t. So often family members in a medical crisis are depicted as being hysterical and unable to make responsible decisions for loved ones. Such is not the case in life. It is nice to see a thriller in which family means something more than just a plot contrivance.

From a victim that can’t communicate anything, to a group of victims that won’t shut up. I suppose that is what detractors against Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” have so much trouble with in QT’s own unique take on the slasher flick. Originally a part of the ‘70’s exploitation homage double feature “Grindhouse”, people looking for more action in the extended DVD version of the movie will be disappointed to find only more talking.

But dialogue is what Tarantino does so well. Watching a Tarantino film is like participating in those long debates you would have with your friends in high school or college about who was a better early video game hero, Mario or Pitfall Harry. And if that’s not what you’re looking for in your exploitation/car chase/slasher films, you’re just not going to enjoy Tarantino’s take on it.

But Tarantino is also a great filmmaker on top of being a great dialogist, and if you are willing to sit through those seemingly pointless conversations you will also find some great car chase scenes, amazing stunts and one of the most original portrayals of a serial killer brought to you by Kurt Russell at the top of his game. As for the director’s cut of this movie, perhaps it is a little too talky at its extended length, but it still contains some of the most skilled filmmaking you will ever find in exploitation horror.

While perusing other genre enthusiast’s horror lists during last year’s Horrorfest, I stumbled across the movie “Scarecrows” as an overlooked classic and added it to my ’08 lineup. One of the reasons most people had sited it as a classic is the way the movie sets itself up as a heist picture before turning into paranormal horror territory. It follows a band of thieves during a getaway flight that goes wrong when one of the gang double-crosses the others by bailing out early with the dough. The gang lands the plane to chase down their Judas and find themselves on a farm where the scarecrows have come to life from to exact vengeance on anyone who steps foot on their farm.

While I found this movie on many a horror fanatic’s overlooked list, I fear its admirers suffer from what I call Red Dawn Syndrome. This is a malady that affects film enthusiasts by allowing their good memories of a film to positively alter their judgment of a film they have not seen in a long time to the point where they feel their ability to assess a film’s worth was just as good at the beginning of their love for movies as it is after years of experience. Hence you think back to a movie like “Red Dawn” and remember how psyched you were to see it and how kick-ass it seemed at the time because it would have been so cool if you had been Charlie Sheen tricking those commie Ruskies bastards into your traps; and you attribute those feeling to the film’s value as art. Of course, you become painfully aware of your illness when you rent the movie twenty years later to relive your glorious vicarious youth only to discover that “Red Dawn” really sucks. Well, “Scarecrows” is a little better than “Red Dawn”, but far from an overlooked classic. It was overlooked for a reason.

It certainly doesn’t suck as much as being stuck in the window of the car that hit you for an entire weekend, however. Now, I remember the news story in which a woman had hit a man while driving home one Friday and left him stuck in her car window in her garage over the weekend. The man was still alive. Certainly the stuff of horror, but who’ve thought you could make a feature-length film based on it? Director Stuart Gordon, the mastermind behind the cult classic “Re-Animator”, that’s who!

“Stuck” is an overlooked horror movie. It is devilishly entertaining and funny in ways you would never imagine this off-the-wall news story could be. Mena Suvari plays a nurse who hits a homeless man, played by Stephen Rea. Instead of just giving the audience the psychological dilemma of the victim, we also find ourselves exploring the dilemma of the perpetrator of this crime. Suvari has just been offered the chance at a major promotion at her workplace and is terrified of destroying her career prospects.

But Gordon is such a sly director, he allows us to see the humor behind these characters’ situations, while still treating them seriously. And what at first seems like a story that will only allow for a character study in one particular situation, ends up developing into a full-fledged horror movie with sudden unexpected violence and an envelope of deceit for the nurse that reaches out and pulls in victims with most of the world none the wiser.

Of course, the whole point of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is for the whole world to notice. Yet in the 1951 sci-fi classic, Director Robert Wise takes a much quieter approach than the new 2008 version promises. Like last year’s Horrorfest sci-fi classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” finds its inspiration in the Cold War. But Wise is more interested in the immediate threat of nuclear war, than the socio/political ones of “The Body Snatchers”.

In our age of terrorism and fear “The Day the Earth Stood Still” couldn’t be any more ripe for a remake, but the new version will no doubt lose much of the intellectualization of the original, which is much more talk driven than action oriented. When the alien Klaatu lands with his destroyer robot, there are no big chase sequences or explosions, at least until later in the film. Instead he appears to want to observe our society and befriends a young boy and his mother. Only later do we fully understand Klaatu’s sinister plot and finally experience Patricia Neil’s quiet scream and famous line “Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!”

Were there ever a day the Earth truly stood still, it wouldn’t be a day the people could say they didn’t see coming. It is the job of sci-fi and horror films to quietly warn us of our weakness and problems, all the while scaring us silly.


Secret Agent said...

mario vs. pitfall harry? are you serious? there is NO debate.

you mention QT in the last post. This doesn't fit in nicely with horrorfest, but what is the latest with Inglorious Bastards?

Andrew D. Wells said...

I just found some production stills on it today. It is currently filming. I don't believe a release date has been set for it. A summer release is planned, but it wouldn't surprise me if that changes. QT just isn't a summer release director. Those pics can be found here.

Secret Agent said...

thanks brother, i've heard there is an on set interview of brad pitt in the the latest rolling stone. haven't read it though. peace!