Sunday, December 20, 2009

Haunted Households I Have Known: This Year In Chaos

As the years progress the idea of carrying off a convincing ghost story becomes an ever more daunting prospect. Korean, Chinese and Japanese directors have done great things with the genre but when filmmakers over here try it something often gets lost in translation (especially true of remakes and rip-offs). Americans have never been the best in the world at this kind of film. In fact it usually takes a foreign auteur to get results even in an American production a la The Others. But for whatever reason when English speakers take on ghost stories the magic simply vanishes; they just don't get atmosphere. Even at their best there's always something a little out of place. At their worst, my good god are they laughable. Today we look at two ghost stories, one popular, the other tiny, whose budgets and distribution deals should have been reversed. But then logic has never been on the side of those in charge.

100 Feet
by Eric Red
Marnie Watson is back home after seven years in prison. She's gotten the rest of her sentence converted to house arrest due to good behavior. Detective Shanks, her minder, couldn't be happier to be the one in charge of, I believe the legal term is ''getting up in her grill." You see the reason Marnie was sent to prison was because she killed her abusive husband who was also Shanks' partner, so not only did she kill a cop, she killed a cop who was this guy's best friend in the world. Really it's no wonder he's so pissed. Marnie is a little reluctant to return to the world but thanks to the ankle bracelet Shanks has installed she won't be rejoining anything. She better get used to the 100 feet of her apartment that she can reach because she's going to be stuck within them for a long time. That means no visits from old friends, no leaving the house, getting groceries delivered by a local horndog and nowhere to run when someone starts haunting her. Something ghastly makes more and more frequent appearances, scaring the bejesus out of Marnie until she's forced to take action. It only takes a few of these visits to figure out that it's her husband who's doing the haunting. It takes slightly longer to figure out what to do about his vengeful spirit without moving more than 100 feet.

An incredibly simple story paired with a low budget often brings out the greatest strengths of a team of filmmakers. It can show effective direction, strong performances, efficient writing, clever usage of effects; virtually anything is made more impressive in the constraints of a low-budget film. In this regard 100 Feet has a few people to thank for its success, Famke Janssen and Bobby Cannavale first and foremost. Janssen has long been one of the most underrated actresses and here she carries the film effortlessly. A bored New York housewife is a role that many women can't quite do without sinking happily into caricature. And not only does she carry out the New York housewife, but she's also got to communicate her stay in prison, the new mix of freedom and terror that serves as her welcome mat and her continuing search for peace. She does all of this with the same ease that Cannavale makes Shanks a lovable hard-ass. Famke Janssen is great but Cannavale might be more fun. He does nothing to earn your trust, respect or admiration, yet he's so good at what he does that it's impossible not to want him to keep making return visits. Their performances nicely compliment the claustrophobic nature of the story. Eric Red, directing his first film in twelve years, does a decent job but the action feels a bit forced at times. When Marnie gets ghost books from the library or refuses to believe that what she's seeing could be anything but her dead husband, it made me wish they had brought someone in to do rewrites. But then considering that clearly no money went into this film I was rather pleased at the unassuming little ghost story I got. It is decidedly modern and injects a healthily cynical worldview into an age old genre. The effects could have used a bit of that modernism, as they come off as watered-down versions of things we've seen before in say The Devil's Backbone. Though I'll give Red one thing, the first scare is wonderfully frightening. It just made me wish he could have kept up that kind of tension for the rest of the film.
Whatever can be made of the flaws in 100 Feet, I'll say I didn't notice the gaps in logic inherent in a premise with such a high concept. I doubt that the 100 feet she's said to have wouldn't reach her basement but then I was having such a fun time being scared when it got good that I was willing to let logic take a backseat to tension. You have to convince me that I should care before I shut my brain off and just have fun. This is advice that the Guard Brothers, Charles and Thomas, should have heeded before embarking on a 100% pointless remake of the wonderfully creepy and dream-like A Tale of Two Sisters, arbitrarily named after an old Ray Milland film. The only thing this movie offered to make me forget its troubles was a decent but thanklessly solid roll for David Strathairn. The rest of the film is one floundering stupidity after another.

The Uninvited
by The Guard Brothers
Already, with this whole Guard Brothers business they've fallen from my good graces. Calling yourself the 'anything Brothers', as I've said before, is another way of saying "we don't care if you like our film, we care more about style than substance and fuck you." Open on a girl describing her recurring dream to her psychiatrist in what we'll learn is a psych ward. Our narrator, Anna Ivers, is a sixteen or so year old girl and her dream goes thusly: she and her boyfriend Matt make out until he suggests they have sex. She stalks off into the woods and finds trash bags filled with body parts before deciding to go home. She walks in on her terminally ill mother ringing the service bell tied to her wrist (by her live-in nurse Rachel Summers). Then the guest house where her mother is staying explodes. What's it mean? Well according to Dr. You Fucking Think? she feels guilty about her mother dying. But he's got good news, too: she's being allowed to go home and sort out her personal problems. In an accidentally hilarious edit, she appears to run right from her session to the window to see her dad pulling up unannounced. The car ride home turns awkward when dad brings up Rachel. Ms. Summers quickly got promoted from live-in nurse to fiance while Anna's been away getting her head shrunk. She's not at all sure about Rachel; she's half her dad's age and appears to be hiding something beneath that perpetual smile. Anna's sister Alex agrees. When not telling off her younger sister for going away for help (yeah, how fucking dare she get clinically depressed following the death of their mother!) she agrees that Rachel is a most unwanted presence in their household.

That's when the ghosts start showing up. Anna is regularly visited by dead people who are trying to tell her something (you might say she has a sixth sense about this sort of thing. Or you might say that this film has no original bone in its body. Either way...). These dead people, sometimes young kids, sometimes her dead mother, are pointing her towards clues about the real nature of her mother's death. It might not have been the accidental gas leak we're assured it was by this movie's assurance team ("It was an accident, Anna! It was no one's fault" As a screenwriter, do you die a little when you find yourself writing that shit in this day and age?). What's more, Matthew, that loutish boyfriend from her dreams is Anna's real boyfriend and when she first sees him after coming back he says he saw 'the whole thing.' It's cryptic but Anna thinks she knows what he's got to say, that it was Rachel who killed their mother. Unfortunately, before he can meet her late one night and spill his guts, someone else spills them by pushing him over a cliff. With reliable witnesses disappearing and the truth dancing ever closer, it becomes a race to the answer to this mystery. The ending....may shock you.....

....Or it will simply invoke a serious bout of eye-rolling because you'll have known from literally the first scene how the movie was going to end. If someone's guilty about the death of a loved one and they then go to 'confront' their demons, 9 times out of 10 they did it. So, with the film's central mystery solved in the exposition, I had nothing to do but enjoy the scenery. This was made pretty hard by all involved. First of all, why do all big budget horror films take place in lavish fucking mansions? I don't give a shit about what haunts the rich. If I could, I would fucking haunt the rich. You're fighting an uphill battle making me care about the troubles of a spoiled, rich white girl and her asshole sister as they do battle with her attractive step-mother. So due to unnecessary circumstances not only did I know all this movie's secrets, they were of no consequence whatsoever. Nevermind that the effects are all borrowed and tame, the plotting achingly slow and obvious and the acting dreadful from everyone but David Strathairn. Elizabeth Banks is fine but she really is far too evil. Our leads Emily Browning, Arielle Kebbel and Jesse Moss are a couple of teenagers who would be more at home getting unceremoniously butchered by Jason Voorhes. They haven't quite mastered this whole acting thing yet but they're our protagonists; another losing battle. It also doesn't help that Emily Browning never closes her mouth and appears to be concentrating on a very difficult math problem the whole time. The whole film smacks of marketing and that it was carried out as an ostensible remake of such a great little film as Tale of Two Sisters is fucking embarrassing. The Guard Brothers, as they'll forever be known to their detriment and my chagrin, have turned an effective ghost story into an advertisement for rich white women and leftover special effects. There is nothing remarkable about this movie and I've already started forgetting the plot.
Ghosts are difficult to pull off. I know this, Eric Red knows it, and if they didn't before, The brothers Guard sure know it now. Clearly budget has nothing to do with the effectiveness of your storytelling because both A Tale of Two Sisters and 100 Feet were much more shocking, exciting and interesting than The Uninvited. Eric Red has been around long enough to know how to stretch the paltry few dollars he's been given and he knows when to let actors act. His actors and special effects are not squandered like they are in the comparably big budgeted Uninvited. 100 Feet is about a real person, a woman with a life story, who is thrown into a situation she doesn't understand. The Uninvited is horror for people who don't like horror films, it isn't frightening, tense or anything you haven't seen a hundred thousand times before. In fact the only thing I can think to say in The Uninvited's defense is that it isn't nearly as bad as The Haunting in Connecticut. Beyond that, it's on its own.

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