Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Horrorfest 09 Week 2: Where the Oddities Are

The second week of Horrorfest ’09 continued one of my most eclectic mixes of horror features yet. I had the opportunity to see two new releases in theaters and took in another four films in from the comfort of my own home, usually in the dark with headphones on to shield the rest of my family from the screams of terror coming out of the Blu-Ray player.

I kicked off the week with my first theatrical visit of the month. I was a week behind the curve, but “Zombieland” was a surprise hit with audiences. I caught the second wave of what was an enjoyable ride, if not particularly scary. Read my official full-length review here.

“Zombieland” is the offspring of a new subgenre of horror that has popped up in recent years—the horror comedy. The most influential of these recent horror comedy entries is probably the British film “Shaun of the Dead”. In fact, the director of “Zombieland” sited “Shaun of the Dead” as the major influence over his film. Certainly “Zombieland is a very American take on the material tackled by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg in that cult hit, which was featured in Horrorfest 2005. As is typical of Americans, there is no attempt to understand zombies in “Zombieland”. They are merely set decoration for the story about the humans and the things they want and their pining for how great life used to be. It’s really quite a statement on our society.

For some reason zombies seem to be the creature of choice for this new horror comedy movement. Most likely this is because the slow, mindless, lumbering, flesh eaters really call into question just why they should be scary by their very definition. They’re easy to kill. They’re predictable. And they’re stupid. They’re everything a high school clown could hope for in a laugh muse.

Here at Horrorfest we’ve looked at such great zombie-coms as “Fido”, about a retro American society that uses zombies as servants; “Black Sheep”, a genius New Zealand parody of the genre where sheep are the zombies terrorizing the farmlands; “Zombie Honeymoon”, a hilarious independent production that originally aired on Showtime about a groom who is infected as a zombie on his honeymoon and must resist eating his new bride; the middle section of the movie “The Signal” showed us how a zombie-type of victim might try to understand what has happened to him; the very dark British flick “Severance” showed us the ultimate British office worker’s nightmare (zombies need not apply). Next week we’ll watch another, the mockumentary that does what “Zombieland” didn’t, really look into the lives of zombies in “American Zombie”.

“P2” is a small but effective film. Flying in under the radar upon its release in the late fall of 2007, this two person thriller works by keeping everything very simple. Basically, a security guard, who has developed a surveillance crush, stalks a workaholic executive on Christmas Eve. The roles are effectively played by Rachel Nichols as the victim and a typically creepy Wes Bently as her severely warped stalker. The entire production takes place within a New York City parking garage and is ingenious in its plotting to keep the victim trapped there.

The movie comes from a script by French filmmaker Alexandre Aja, who is responsible for the wickedly clever “High Tension”, and the not so clever Hollywood remakes of “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Mirrors”. His previous films have thrived (and died) on their overblown direction. Perhaps this one succeeds through the more straightforward treatment by first time director Franck Kahlfoun. Whatever the difference, this thriller strikes the right notes and keeps the audience in tension throughout. What it lacks in complexity, it makes up for in intensity.

I’ve already written in some detail about my concerns over the cinema of brutality that is embraced by movies like “The Strangers”. Those thoughts can be read in my previous Horrorfest report here. What I didn’t mention in those passages was how good it is to see a modern horror movie embracing patience in its direction and plot development. Too often today horror films are edited like some sort of MTV video, like the director is trying to break some sort of edits per minute record. As if more cuts equals more thrills. But in horror it should be just the opposite, since so much good horror is psychological.

“The Strangers” is a perfect example of patience in horror filmmaking. The movie takes its time introducing the audience to its two victims, a couple coming home late at night from a wedding. Their evening did not end well, and both are uncomfortable with each other. This brings tension into the story before any of the horror elements are even introduced. Smart filmmaking.

Then when their tormentors in masks arrive to torture them first psychologically, then physically. The sound work in this movie is phenomenal. I think the scariest moments come before any of the assailants are seen. Although their entrance onto the stage is also a work of horror art, as one lone figure appears silently in the background of a shot. If not for the subtle lighting used to highlight the figure, the audience—like the victim—might just glance by the figure as if nothing were there. It’s one of the creepiest visual you’ll ever see in a film. “The Strangers” may cross some lines of voyeuristic taste, but it does so with artful and frightening filmmaking.

As a child I was terrified of Maurice Sendak’s book “Where the Wild Things Are”. I never got sent to my room without dinner, because I did not want to travel to the land where the wild things are. I didn’t care that they ended up being a fairly friendly family. The point of the book was well taken by me. I wanted to stay with my own family. But I could just imagine my bedroom turning into a jungle. I think that was the creepiest part.

Interestingly enough, Max’s bedroom never turns into the jungle where the wild things are in the movie adaptation. I suppose that is one of the many aspects of the movie with which many would-be fans are taking umbrage. But like many movie adaptations of books, especially very short children’s books, the film must stray from its source material. Heck in the book the wild things all look different but pretty much all act the same. No individual personalities stick out. This is an area of the story the movie greatly improves upon. You can read my full-length review of the movie here.

No, this is not a horror movie, but it deals with life issues that are scary for kids. This emphasis on the theme of the book rather than the action of its story is probably what has turned many viewers off to it. But that makes it a stronger story than in its original medium. And hey, a movie where a monster puts a little boy in her mouth but doesn’t eat him really belongs in Horrorfest.

Another non-horror horror movie to mark this year’s festival is “Wristcutters: A Love Story”. Get this… As you may have guessed from the title, this is a love story. It’s a love story that takes place in a sort of purgatory world where “everything is pretty much the same as in life, but just a little worse.” This is the place where suicides go after their success. Our hero killed himself after his girlfriend broke up with him. When he learns from a recent suicide that she may have killed herself in grief of him, he sets out to find her.

It is an odd, quirky and intriguing set up that has fun exploring this theoretical afterlife. Unfortunately, its love story is an all too typical pairing of people who don’t notice the obvious attraction they share toward each other except as the conveniences of the plot dictates them to.

Although again not technically horror, a movie about the afterlife of suicides not only deals with dead people, but it’s slightly disturbing. With a name like “Wristcutters”, it was begging to be on the Horrorfest schedule; and despite its shortcomings, it’s disturbing in a cute and funny way.

And that brings me to one of the more disappointing entries on this year’s Horrorfest lineup. Since when did storytellers forget what the vampire myth is all about? Haven’t these people read Bram Stoker? What saddens me most about “30 Days of Night” is not that it is a disappointing vampire movie, but that it was first an apparently inept vampire comic book? Can it be that even in the literature stage of this story’s life it was just as oblivious to vampire lore as it is in its film incarnation?

I’ve never read the comic book. I certainly hope the filmmakers stupidly chose to leave all of the sex out of their adaptation. Without any sex, this is simply a trapped monster movie. With it’s isolated location and limited cast count versus an army a vampires, this is just an inferior version of “Aliens”, without even the corporate corruptions commentary. Vampires are supposed to represent the sexual sins of man and our on going individual battle with our own morality. The vampire is supposed to be a monstrous incarnation of lust. Here they’re just monsters.

But forgetting all the abandoned allegorical issues of man’s blood and sex lust, is “30 Days of Night” at least a good scary monster movie? Not really. It starts out good, but once the vampires descend upon the snowbound arctic town of Barlow, there is little mystery and less bite than the filmmakers would like you to believe. It’s really just a slaughter of the few towns’ people that are there. That’s not scary. Now, one vampire, and nobody knows which one of them is the vampire or who he might’ve turned because it is always night, so nobody needs to hides from the sun for their survival, now that would be scary!

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