Friday, November 28, 2008

The Big World of Little Films

In the world of independent horror film there is a group of filmmakers, competent and imaginative, who work in a team akin to the Coppola, Lucas, and Spielbergs of yesterday and the Cuarón, Del Toro, Iñárritu, and Almodovars of today. Not that Cuarón and those guys aren’t in a sense independent, but they have the budget and mainstream precedents that will carry them as far as they’ll ever need (in fact Del Toro’s latest job, pinch-hitting for Peter Jackson on the Hobbit, should guarantee that they can all make whatever incendiary films they want until there as old as Alfonso Arau). This small collective of filmmakers can, together, do just about anything that needs to be done. Graham Reznick, Glenn McQuaid, Ti West, and Larry Fessenden (and David Gordon Green, kind of; he’s in there with them, but he doesn’t make horror films), together with regulars John Speredakos, Kevin Corrigan, and Ron Perlman have crafted many effective, moody, and creepy horror films made for next to no money through their production company Glass Eye Pix. Fessenden, being the senior of the group, obviously has something of an edge where quantity is concerned; his work extends back to the short films he started making in 1978 when he was only 15; I don't know about you, but I think it's pretty funny that his first film was called Jaws three years after Spielberg released his film. He started off the rash of no budget shockers with his film No Telling in the early 90s. His films spend a lot of time on character development, spend a bit of time establishing moody atmospheric scare scenes and then the creature arrives at the end. Incidentally, Fessendan really likes the Wendigo story, cause he's used it twice now in the films of his I've seen. The conclusion to Wendigo is one of the more inventive and spooky cheap film endings I've yet to see; it's worth the price of admission. Glenn McQuaid typically does visual effects for the other guys, but his film is the one I’m most looking forward to; it’s called I Sell The Dead and it looks like a blast; it looks like a continuation of a short film he made with Fessendan called The Resurrection Apprentice. Graham Reznick does sound design for these films and he has a feature-length thriller under his belt called I Can See You. Ti West, however, is the man we’ll be concerning ourselves with today. His most impressive entry into this delightfully amateurish crew’s oeuvre is called The Roost and its the one film that fits in with my mission statement. The Roost, is a sort of zombie film, and a great, unpretentious Evil Dead tribute that was a lot of damned fun.

The Roost
by Ti West
Ti West lets us know what sort of film this is right away in the framing story. We meet a TV host (Tom Noonan, the big creepy guy from Manhunter and a few other Michael Mann films and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, NY) who tells us we’re in for a sppoky story. There is no sound design to speak of, his dialogue is clearly being read off a cue card, is full of bad puns, and he wears a Dracula costume. Noonan does a laconic, 60-year-old Criswell impersonation for a few minutes before we enter the story proper. Four kids who clearly have some ties to each other that we don’t need to understand to enjoy the film are driving home when their car careens off the road and they’re forced to find a phone; as is common in horror films, cell phones are not an option. They go to the nearest house to ask to use their phone and surprise, surprise, no one answers. A quick inspection of the barn behind the house reveals no signs of life that they want any part of; where should I start? The bats or the zombies? Well, let’s go with the bats. The four twenty-something interchangeable protagonists will intermittently encounter a horde of almost convincing front-projection bats; The bats’ bite cause ordinary folk to turn into bloodthirsty zombie-type things that make our heroes’ stay at the barn all the more difficult. The sheriff arrives and does about as much good as the one in The Last House On The Left, Night Of The Living Dead, or Marcus Nispel’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. These kids are going to need a lot of luck to get out of this one alive. Meanwhile, back in the framing story, we’re treated to the identity of the ‘master’ that Noonan keeps referring us to.

Like a lot of the Glass Eye Pix stuff and other recent independent horror films (Soft For Digging, Ils, Cool Air) The Roost is set in a desolate location, has refreshingly believable protagonists, and gets major points for atmosphere. Unlike those films, The Roost spends most of its running time giving you Sam Raimi style jump scares heightened with extremely gory flourishes. Like its most obvious influence, The Evil Dead, The Roost has its major stylistic device down pat. Every time West lulls us into a quiet spot he and his undead boogie men burst out of nowhere and scare us stupid. Like other backwoods films (Raimi’s films or grimmer fare like Axe or Just Before Dawn) it spends its time with a tiny group of people and makes with the fright quickly and cheaply.

The cheapness of The Roost adds to its charm in a big, big way. We have Glenn McQuaid’s awesome visual effects (the bats are what they are, but at least they don’t dance on the end of a string). Whenever someone gets their face bit, we know it. West doesn’t flinch when its time to show what his make-up guys are capable of. The Roost has its moments where it achieves scares just as good as many of the ones Raimi got in his heyday. Ti West knows exactly what he’s trying to do and can carry out incredibly effective budget effects like no one I’ve seen in the last 20 years. The gore looks better than even George Romero’s latest efforts. It’s funny how much technology gets in the way of good story-telling. Take for example the switch from miniatures to computer generated effects in the sci-fi genre. With a movie like Aliens, for example, it’s nearly impossible to tell what sets are miniatures and which aren’t, and I for one think we should never have abandoned it. It’s a little like the black hole basement in Sweden or wherever; hey, we have this technology, let’s use it. Does no one think to ask why? We have computers that can simulate blood flowing out of someone’s head like they’ve been shot. Didn’t we just spend the better part of 70 years trying to get this right using real effects? Why would we abandon it when something more expensive comes along? I don’t know, but I do know that Ti West’s The Roost proves you don’t need money to scare people. In fact, the one point in which animation was used (those bats, again) is the one thing I have to complain about. The Roost is a great little film; it feels like a little film but it scares like a big one.

Glasseye Pix recently produced a film called Wendy & Lucy whose musicless trailer actually unsettled me more than most horror films released today. It just goes to show you that less is more in most cases. Sometimes, however, an imbalance in elements can make for a frustrating hour and a half. Which brings me to another independent near-zombie film made by a group of friends. This time, the personalities of each contributor is out in the open; you needn't look to their other work to see who brings what to the table.

The Signal
by Dan Bush, David Bruckner, and Jacob Gentry

The film's opening is deceptively disorienting. A woman screams alone in a concrete shack in the middle of the woods covered in blood as a retro title sequence plays out over her pained expressions. We'll never return to this, because it's a clip from one of Gentry's other films. Lame. Just when I thought I was being taken into a shockingly original and gory nightmare world that was both a throwback and unique, like The Roost, the story proper begins and its a dubious melodramatic affair. Chapter one, directed by Bruckner, is called Mad Love. Well, this just wouldn't be a revisionist zombie film without some doomed lovers, so lets bring them out. Meet Ben and Mya, a pair of homely lovers who meet in secret so as to avoid confronting Mya's abusive jagoff husband Lewis. Ben's convinced, as these types generally are, that they can make a go of an ordinary life away from Lewis. Mya, with visions of living of sin in her head, leaves the rendezvous and finds a Let Sleeping Corpses Lie-esque societal chaos waiting for her. People are violent, sick, and ill-mannered everywhere she looks. Why? It has something to do with the signal that's on every TV in town. The icing on the crazy cake comes when her husband, fueled by what at first appears to be jealousy, beats one of his two drinking buddies literally to death. Strangest of all though is the fact that Lewis doesn't show the slightest sign that he is at all phased by his own actions. Mya flees with Lewis' surviving friend Rod and just misses Ben as he storms her apartment building looking to make good on all his "let's leave this place" bravado. He finds more people turned insane by the signal that's all over town.
Chapter 2 starts when Mya leaves her apartment and crashes her car outside a condominium populated by recently crazed buffoons. There's Anna, whose new years party preparations got put on hold when she killed her husband, but doesn't realize she has. There's Clark, her landlord, whose only slightly more with it. There's Jim Parsons, their neighbor, who, with Kramer-like clumsiness walks into a death trap. This is the funny part, in case you were wondering. The second chapter is the most aimless of the three in that Jacob Gentry, who directs, tries to squeeze every last ounce of humour out of the idea that there's bad shit going on outside but no one inside knows it. It's funny at first, but...this isn't really a comedy last time I checked. The film then screws around for 45 minutes establishing what we already know: that Lewis is a jealous asshole who'd kill people to keep them away from his wife. Things end badly for everyone but Clark, who is saved by the last minute intervention of Ben.

Chapter three finds Ben trying to jog Clark's memory about Mya's whereabouts while Lewis tries to hunt them down. Clark decides that the best way for him to regain control of his thoughts is to take Rod's displaced head and attach electrodes to it a la The Brain That Wouldn't Die. Clark finally remembers that a certain blond mentioned going to a train station to leave town with her lover; the two men are off at once. They reach the train station and this segment's director Dan Bush confirms that we're in the psychological horror part of the evening. Instead of the sweaty, grimy, bloody climax we were promised in chapter one, we get 15 minutes of Lewis and Ben trying to out-think each other through voice over and flashes of the signal on a bunch of TVs nearby. Need I say who wins? In the end, however, I can't say I really have any clue what happens.

The Signal was fun while I was watching it, but, as soon as it ended I felt cheated. The performances are all great especially coming from relative nobodies and the editing, production design, and cinematography are extremely well executed. So what we have is a problem of direction and writing, the curse of the anthology movie. Where were all the zombies? Where did all that madness go? Now, my main issue with this movie stems from the fact that a review told me this was a zombie movie. It's not, and so I should just get over it, but that's not this films biggest failing. The first act sets up a perfectly serviceable plot with acceptably trite cliches in a new kind of situation and then acts two and three drop the ball pretty spectacularly. Bruckner put so much time in setting up a great, paranoid first act and his two collaborators were not the least bit interested in picking up where he left off. Here's what chapter one sets up; the signal, whatever it may be, is turning people into violent sociopaths who act on their every impulse. Where does the signal come from? How does Ben keep control of his thoughts? What about the music in Mya's headphones keeps her from going as crazy as everyone else? Why was Rod spared? What is the Signal actually doing to people's brains? What does the rest of the city, or the world look like? Well Gentry and Bush could care less and we'll never learn the answers to any of those questions, save one; Ben's immunity is explained pretty pretentiously by Bush. I wouldn't have found the last two thirds of the movie so disappointing if a much better conclusion wasn't demanded of the first act.

We basically move from [rec]-like intensity to black comedy with no answers to sub-Tarkovskian philosophy with no emotion or violence and vague answers. Bruckner had everything more or less in check, but that balance disappears when his segment ends. Where did the Signal come from? TV signals are exclusively man-made and thus must be controlled by human means or something more intelligent. With the production cost of both acts II and III, they could have explained the origin with a scene. Both Gentry and Bush ladled their styles so heavily onto their segments its like we're watching three different films, which shouldn't be the case. I'm not opposed to being left in the dark, but I'd like a little story with my mayhem and psycho-babble. The urgency is dropped; I for one would have liked to see Ben's bravado take the same form as Jim's in 28 Days Later.

Props must be given to David Wingo, sometime composer for David Gordon Green, whose cover of Joy Division's Atmosphere is the recurring musical theme in The Signal. It is a shimmering, pure, and beautiful piece of music that fittingly accompanies the few positive surviving human values in a world gone mad. Wingo is a wizard with layers, textures, and his soulful voice is fittingly haunting and fits his arrangement like a glove. A beautiful song and he was kind enough to give it to me when he discovered iTunes wasn't selling it as a single. Less is more.

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