Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 19: Death By Witchcraft

Ok, so I'm bending the rules a bit with this one, but I have to bring this thing to a close somehow, don't I? And if you think I'm going to go back to the lesser works of Jean Rollin, you've got another thing coming, my friend. Ok, so as I've illustrated, it isn't really all that difficult to take in the bulk of French horror films in a relatively short period of time (I did it over the course of 3 months but it took less actual time than that. I do have other things to do....even if it doesn't always seem like it). Anyway, one thing that is a neat recurrence is when themes show up across a country's genre films in altered forms. Today's films have a thematic kinship in their interest in the supernatural intersecting with the ordinary in highly fantastic ways. I have no reason to believe that Christophe Gans and Eric Valette borrowed from each other, so it remains a charming coincidence that their movies dip into the same inkwell. A word about my choice of Gans film: I considered doing his earlier Le Pacte Des Loupes or Brotherhood of the Wolf, but it's not a proper horror film. It is an action film at heart despite its very sinister and beautiful imagery and ostensible premise. Perhaps when I look at flamboyant werewolf movies (Neil Jordan's Company of Wolves and Mike Nichols' Wolf are at the top of that list) I'll dig out my copy of Brotherhood. It is a fun movie, despite its flaws, but I digress. Today we look at the effects of unexplainable forces on polite citizens and the failure of law enforcement to contain witchcraft.

by Eric Valette

In a prologue that introduces us not only to the film's content but its budget, we see a fellow in a prison in 1920s France. With several dead or injured people scattered about his cell, one man draws some symbols on the wall (in one of his cellmates' blood) while reciting an incantation of some sort. Just as some truly terrible looking CG fire erupts from the drawings, we are brought into the story proper. A fellow called Carrère tries to keep a smile on in front of his boy while his wife busts his balls. Not that she has a good reason; the man's in prison for fraud, after all. Regardless, Carrère remains optimistic and promises his son he'll be out of jail for his upcoming birthday. Let's meet his cellmates. There's Pâquerette, a man-child who likes bouncing about. We meet him as Marcus, a burly transvestite, cuts off the tips of his fingers so that the giggly boy can have some time in hospital. Marcus is the one in charge, even if Lassalle, the philosopher who murdered his wife in a brief fit of insanity, seems smarter and more calculating than his gormless cellmates. In fact they all seem to know a little more than each lets on, but for now, it's humdrum cell life for Carrère.

Carrère bugs the others with his optimism. He's convinced his wife will bail him out but Marcus seems to know that ain't gonna pan out. Just about the time that Pâquerette comes back from his stay in the hospital, which coincides with the newcomer getting a feeling for how his three cellmates spend their days, they find something in the wall next to Carrère's bed. It's an old book written in a number of different languages and featuring symbols that we recognize from the walls of the prologue. Carrère is more interested than either of the others and reads enough to get a narrative from some of the more lucid passages: the author's name was Charles Danvers and he was obsessed with eternal youth. He used to steal placenta and inject it into his veins to try and achieve his ends. These stories don't do much more than bug Marcus but when Pâquerette figures out that Danvers wrote spells in the book, he insists on a display of magic. Lasalle asks Carrère to humour the boy, so he recites a passage not realizing that the finger-shy idiot had drawn some symbols from the book on the floor with Marcus' lipstick. Upon reciting the words, the symbol bursts into flame. The book has everyone's attention now. Lasalle recites a spell while the others sleep that causes Pâquerette to get out of bed and grind his remaining fingers to nubs against the wall in his sleep. He'll later tell Marcus that the wall ate his hand, which he doesn't believe for a second. Carrère tries to get back in his good graces by showing him a spell in the back of the book that he thinks Danvers used to escape. This appeases him up until the moment that the spell fails. While Marcus flips out at both Carrère and Lasalle, Pâquerette eats some pages of the book, which turns out to be a big mistake. His body bends and twists itself in midair until he breaks in half; the guards blame Marcus as he's the only one in the cell physically capable of pulling off such a nightmarish feat. Around this time, Carrère's wife divorces him, takes his name off the books at his company and hides his son from him, giving him and Marcus equally good reasons to try and escape. Some last minute developments seem designed to make sure that they use the book to escape, even if it isn't quite the escape they dreamt of.

There is a lot to have to buy to get through Maléfique. The appearance of the book in their cell is the first coincidence but without it, no film so that's fine. It's pretty much every development surrounding it that needs a grain of salt to go down. The bit with the toy soldier that Carrère's son gives him, the fact that Lasalle happens to know everything there is to know about the book (a Hail Mary if ever there was one), the transportation through time and finally their replacement cellmate, Hippolyte Picus. Picus exists to forward the plot along and remind the other prisoners to fight against imprisonment to get what they most want. It's a stretch but I figure Valette's trying to put us in mind of Hippolytus, a figure in mythology wrongly accused of rape. He's a total deux ex machina and a cheat to get to the ending, but I forgive it because I had fun. In fact I forgive everything, the extraordinarily convenience of the scripts many twists and turns, the total lack of budget, the occasional bout of over-acting and the Twilight Zone riff of an ending because it was a lot of fun to watch. There's a lot of plot in a little time but it moves briskly and provides you with enough clues to make sure that nothing (except Picus) is totally out of left-field. It is to Eric Valette's credit that he could make so much bullshit work so splendidly. He must be commended for making an effective and exciting film that takes place pretty much entirely in a tiny room with four characters. The little things that I took issue with didn't hang around long enough to grate against the flow, so Maléfique is at its best a rather fun and pretty nasty little movie.

It goes by so quickly that you almost forget that Valette was trying to make a proper film in the confines of what would ordinarily be a straight-to-DVD release given it's budget (which it most certainly was in the States, anyway). Firstly there's all those Dickens references hanging about (Lasalle's talk of choosing his own fate, Picus as a ghost of things to come, the fact that the film takes place in a prison and the heroes want very much to get out of it. I thought at first Charles Danvers was another, as it sounds Dickensian, but it's taken from Rebecca) that Valette nicely tucks in to prove he's not just a B-director trying to make a buck. I think his conventional (despite it's grimness) ending is also to be sort of commended. First of all, his interpretation of Lasalle's quest for knowledge is a nice re-imagining of an idea that both John Boorman and Stephen Spielberg have botched pretty egregiously. Secondly, you don't quite know how Carrère's going to end up because Valette keeps the book's true nature a secret for long enough to blind you to the inevitability of the conclusion, which he had been slyly broadcasting for most of the film. It's not perfect by any means but it is a fun way to spend an hour twenty and then think about what you just saw and how things you thought were window-dressing actually meant something. And that's what's nice about Maléfique, what starts as a grim and conventional film (and ends also fairly conventionally) is actually a meditation on desire and about the things we hold onto when separated from what we love. Wouldn't be French if it had only one-dimension, I suppose.
Lastly, I think kudos are in order for Clovis Cornillac. Those of you who have seen Eden Log are in for a treat because that movie's mud-covered action hero is a body-building drag queen in Maléfique and I have to say I found him a lot more likable here than in that self-indulgent video game of a film. He's a real person with faults and neuroses yet he's also the most frightening thing in the movie and considering he has menace even in a wig and fake breasts, that's no small accomplishment. It's a nice way to skirt the fact that the movie has no women but for Carrère's little-seen wife. Conversely, before our next film was made, the producers were concerned about whether or not a movie like this could afford to not have a single male character. Revisions took place and a concerned father was added to the story, but really this is a woman's film about uniquely female problems, which is kinda funny because it was written and directed by a couple of old men.

Silent Hill
By Christophe Gans

Rose Da Silva has a problem. Her adopted daughter Sharon keeps having bouts of sleepwalking mixed with night terrors. We join her as she narrowly stops her poor daughter from falling into a ravine. Whenever Sharon gets woken from her dreams, she always screams the same two words at the top of her register: Silent Hill. Rose is no slouch when it comes to her daughter. She and her husband Christopher have gone to specialist after specilist and Rose herself has taken to researching Silent Hill, which turns out to be a town that was abandoned because of the long-burning coal fire raging below it's streets. Rose figures that the paucity of information regarding Sharon's pre-orphanage days probably means that something very bad happened in Silent Hill and her poor little girl is repressing those memories. Since no one knows just where Sharon came from, it's as safe a bet as any that she came from Silent Hill and simply doesn't remember it. Without telling Christopher, Rose takes Sharon and drives her towards Silent Hill hoping to jog some memories. This doesn't go well. A motorcycle cop tries to stop Rose but she's not about to let some chick with a badge get in the way of her impromptu therapy session. She speeds off and after crossing the bridge into town and smashing through a locked gate nearly crashes the car. When she wakes up the next morning Sharon has disappeared.

Rose can only get her husband on the phone for a couple of seconds before losing reception, so she runs off into downtown Silent Hill to try and find her little girl. A few words about Silent Hill, it's abandoned, it snows ash and at night the place turns into a fiery hellhole where industrial-looking demons roam about looking for people to cut to pieces. Rose survives her first night in town (which is signalled by an air-raid siren), but just barely. She chases a little girl who looks alarmingly like her daughter into a dank basement of some kind where she gets attacked by evil children right out of The Brood. Before any lasting damage is done she wakes up alone once again in an abandoned building. By this time, the cop (whose name we'll learn is Cybil Bennett) whom Rose gave the slip the other night has found her way into Silent Hill and is looking to make an arrest. She only succeeds in dragging her back to her car in handcuffs before something weird shows up to change their dynamic. A creeping, armless, man-shaped thing wanders out of the mist and refuses to cow to Officer Bennett's bullets. Rose and Cybil book it back to town and are almost killed by a marauding gang of burly people wearing sack-like hazmat suits and gas-masks and carrying pipes. Just when the two women escape the gang's clutches, the sun goes down, the sirens start and the real fun begins. This time Rose and Cybil have to tangle with a contortionist wrapped in barbed wire, a seven-foot tall Maplethorpe photo with a big, red pyramid for a head and a bunch of very big black bugs.

About this time, Christopher looks into just what the fuck happened to make Silent Hill the freakshow it is today (not that he's privy to its horrors). He gets a lot of run-around from an Officer Thomas Good of the Fuck You, Interloper PD, who is so clearly up to no good I don't know why he bothered covering it up. In a scene stolen from The Ring, Chris tries breaking into the hall of records (he finds a picture of a woman and her daughter, who looks exactly like Sharon, taken thirty years earlier) but Good's thought of that, too. Good comes clean enough to explains that everyone in town was involved in a series of rather horrifying misdoings but the past is past, fucker, so go the fuck home and take your big city wife-and-daughter hunt elsewhere. We learn what actually happens very slowly and it doesn't make a whole lot of sense but I think that we're meant to play by some rules that screenwriter Roger Avary simply forgot to outline for us. What it seems like to me is that the people of Silent Hill thought a little girl called Alessa (who is the spitting image of Sharon) was a witch so they convinced her mother to hand her over so they could purify her. But we who've been around the block a few times to all manner of ghost towns and witch burnings and satanic cult meetings all know what purify means burn the everloving fuck out of. But that didn't quite as planned because apparently Alessa was at least evil enough to make her ceremonial cage plummet from the ceiling and start a fire which burned down just about the whole town. Morale's been pretty low ever since. Guess you can imagine what the evil cult (led by an icy matriarch played by a scenery-chewing Alice Krige) living in a church on the edge of town is going to do if they get wind of an Alessa lookalike roaming the streets of their god-fearing town. If you said burn the fuck out of her, you are correct. Rose better speed up her search if she ever wants to see Sharon again.

I should probably mention that Silent Hill is based on a video game which is ordinarily the kiss of death for any movie that wants to be taken seriously (I'll direct you to Uwe Boll's filmography if you have any questions). Of course Christophe Gans has an advantage over anyone else stupid enough to make a movie based on a game, which let's not forget aren't really that well-known for their engrossing stories so much as they are for their repetitive, adrenaline-raising shooting the shit out of evil-doers. Though I know some whiners who would argue with me, to whom I say if you want a story read a fucking book or watch a movie (whoops), video games are not what I call the pinacle of story-telling, especially because the vast majority of them have to go through a rather numbing translation process. In the case of Silent Hill, it was a Japanese game set in America (which meant guessing about a lot of American culture, including coming up with the totally believable and common town name Silent Hill....which shares a post office with Raccoon City, if I'm not mistaken) which then had to be translated back into English from Japanese. The game was then played by French director Christophe Gans who told the story to his screenwriter, Roger Avary, who then set it again in the states using Centralia, PA's coal-fire problem as the basis for the film. That's some King James-style revision we're talking about so it's a minor miracle that Silent Hill makes any fucking sense at all. But for once the video game connection was not enough to destroy the film and I don't think I'm the only person who couldn't hate this as I did Mortal Kombat, Max Payne and Super Mario Bros.

For this we have the uber-passionate Gans to thank, which I shouldn't have been so surprised by considering how amazingly designed his very boyish Brotherhood of the Wolf was. Firstly it's gorgeous; though I imagine that the imagery is largely borrowed and improved upon by the game, Gans does a remarkable job with both the snowy daytime and the hellacious nighttime. The demons and such are nicely realized and Gans clearly put a lot of effort into the visuals (the fellow with the pyramid gets more screentime than most of the human cast, though he makes nothing like sense from a design standpoint but I suppose we can't really blame Gans for liking the game's ideas too much because if he didn't there'd be no film). Again credit must be given to Gans for finding himself in a position after Brotherhood of the Wolf (still the highest grossing French film in America) to basically do whatever he wanted to. Silent Hill was a dream project for him and his love shows through in a way it can't in other video game adaptations because those are transparently about box office receipts. Gans cared enough to hire real talent like Radha Mitchell, Sean Bean, Deborah Kara Unger and Jodelle Ferland and to at least attempt to play the film straight as both a dramatic and artistically satisfying work (it only half succeeds on either account, but that's more than anything else that lists Konami as a producer can claim).

I'll say this, Gans certainly has my number. He could have done worse than produce a beautiful, violent movie with both Radha Mitchell (who I've had a crush on since Pitch Black) and Jodelle Ferland (who had recently obtained her pass for life around the time she was in Silent Hill by appearing in Terry Gilliam's Tideland and carrying The Whole Movie!). Mitchell is always a little better than the underwhelming dramatic tosh she winds up in (Feast of Love, Henry Poole Is Here, Mozart and the Whale); funnily enough she does her best work in genre films because she tries just hard enough to make the film work and thus elevates it (instead of only bringing her A Game to movies that can in no way match her). Her turn in Rogue is marvelously understated and though she's a bit more hysterical here and in Pitch Black, she is still ultra-lovable; she's our Gwenyth Paltrow or Jennifer Aniston. I found it extraordinarily easy to root for her and I was willing to put up with any plot hole Avary threw in her way just to see her conquer it. Ferland is her usual professional self (quite a feat considering she isn't yet old enough to drive) but she doesn't get to do much more than look spooky for most of the film. Sean Bean and Kim Coates are good, though they have no business in Silent Hill. Christopher and his subplot feel very much like a producer's footnote and for the sake of the narrative probably shouldn't have existed even if I love watching Sean Bean do his character actor, husband-and-father thing. In fact, without them Gans may have achieved the sort of woman's worldview that I wager Neil Labute was hoping to tackle with his ridiculously overwrought remake of The Wicker Man (let’s just say the film made Nicholas Cage its hero and you can imagine how superbly Labute failed in every respect to make a good movie, let alone a feminist movie). This is a film where the most crucial point of view comes from the experience of motherhood. Rose's determination to get her daughter to Silent Hill then save her when she makes a big mess of things come from that place that only a mother could ever really know.

So then to have a bunch of superfluous men hanging about trying to explain away all the horrifying things the woman are going through is both distracting and a little patronizing. Kim Coates actually exacerbates the film's biggest plot hole (as well as existing in a subplot lifted piecemeal from Gore Verbinski's The Ring, rainy exteriors and all. And this film was already pushing it with the whole spooky girl motif), that of the whole thirty-year gap between Alessa's burning and Sharon's return to Silent Hill. Avary writes that the whole town was lost in the fire and that Officer Good showed up to pull Alessa from her cage, hence the burns on his face. But Kim Coates is maybe 40, he would have to have been 10 in the flashback, but he's literally the same age. Now I could understand if what Avary is trying to say is that everyone involved in the fire is a ghost of some sort, but Good interacts with people other than Christopher, everyone for miles a ghost? Or was it that they had just spent 50 million dollars making this movie and it was too late to do rewrites and the whole Officer Good subplot was needlessly tacked on? It's not enough to sink the film because I personally wasn't nearly as interested in narrative cohesion as I was in watching Radha Mitchell dodging demons in the burned ruins of a town that looks like a lot of places very near my hometown.

Of course the casting of Radha Mitchell almost didn't happen and I realize that what I liked about Silent Hill isn't really enough to justify it's budget but still and all we could have had it a lot worse. It could have been just as lousy as any other money-grubbing video game movie or it could have been even more self-indulgent. Gans made this film at a time when everyone was looking to slap him on the back and say what a great job he did on Brotherhood of the Wolf. After the success of that film, Christophe Gans was given the keys to the city, so is it his fault that the city he chose was Silent Hill? By and large critics loved Brotherhood of the Wolf (and I don't totally disagree with them) so when Silent Hill showed up, the first film where Gans' id and his comic book collection met in what I like to call the Tarantino Bedchamber, I don't see how they could have expected anything different. It's a beautiful monster charged by anime, video games and goth notebook scribbling and and no one (not even Gans' producers, who refused to show it to critics) gave it the chance they gave Brotherhood. Of course the film was fairly successful at the box office but I don't think it's the best idea in the world to make such a movie that showcases your hobbies and favorite comic books quite so nakedly (you can call me a disgrace to film students but I believe Quentin Tarantino's latest films are approximately the vomited contents of a closet full of collector's edition DVDs). I will say that I enjoyed this movie much more than the majority of the 'blockbusters' we see in the states I just think it could have been much better. In fact I'd say I enjoyed Silent Hill only slightly less than I enjoyed Maléfique. Considering that film was made for a fraction (a tenth, maybe?) of Silent Hill's 50 million dollar budget, I’d say that Eric Valette has a lot to be proud of and that Gans could do with the humbling that might come from watching Maléfique.

No comments: