Sunday, December 20, 2009

Murderous Misfits I Have Known: This Year In Chaos

Following a semester at film school wherein I learned approximately nothing, I wanted a pallet cleanser. I had spent the semester trying to see good films and indeed saw some classics, aged and modern. I revisited old friends like John Carpenter's The Thing and Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr and made new ones like Ti West's The House of the Devil and John Hillcoat's The Road. All this prestige and craft to get the smell of pretension and blind academic observation into subjects I could care less about off of my clothes. Film school is a bit like admiring a craftsman not for his work but for the customers he serves. But I'm on a break, you see, and I knew from the moment I arrived at my recess that what I needed was something sleazy, something downright unforgivable. I had my pick of the year's sleaziest films of the last year on DVD but the key was finding something that didn't put the carriage before the horse. I knew I wanted the two Un-films from last spring The Uninvited and The Unborn, but I needed something else. There was Patrick Lussier's revamp of My Bloody Valentine or Marcus Nispel's pointless take on Friday the 13th, but I felt those existed just to ladle gore onto topless women and how sleazy can you get from there? There was the ultra-pointless 3-D The Final Destination but I wasn't in the mood to be treated like a child. No, I wanted something with balls to match it's guts, something so insidiously sleazy that I'd need to watch hours of classics to get over it. I needed Jaume Collett-Serra's Orphan. In order to metaphysically stick it to the people who'd filled my head with so much nothing for three months, I was going to indulge in a film I was promised was beyond wretched. But let's ease our way into this pool of filth shall we, and start at the shallow end. The really shallow end.

The Unborn
by David S. Goyer
Casey Beldon's been having nightmares that make Anna Ivers' seem like child's play. She's jogging and comes across a single mitten that would appear to belong to the creepy pale kid behind her. But before that becomes clear he's gone and she's walking through the woods. There she finds a jar filled with red fluid and a fetus, which promptly breaks. Luckily for us, she doesn't feel the need to narrate it to her dumbfuck psychiatrist as she doesn't have one. All she has are a few friends who are going to wish she was slightly less fun to be around. Casey's best friend Romy and boyfriend Mark tell her to forget the dream and she probably would were it not for Matty Newton. Matty is one of the kids Casey babysits and one night after her first dream he does something that makes her dreams feel a little more meaningful. She finds him waving a pocket mirror in front of his baby sister's face and saying something about some people being mirrors and others doors before turning to Casey, saying "Jumby wants to be born now" and breaking the mirror against her face. Looks like she might need more help than Romy or Mark can give her.

The symptoms continue to stack up in favor of something unexplainable. First she starts seeing potato bugs in her breakfast and on her hands during class. Then her eye starts to change colours, a reaction to her mirror-based trauma, no doubt. What isn't so easily answered is why she's had this particular kind of reaction; it's common among twins, but not so much only children like Casey. A visit to her absent father gives her the answer to that; she was a twin but poor little 'Jumby' died in utero. The plot thickens. She does some digging into her past and discovers that her mother went a little crazy after her twin's death and checked into a now-condemnded asylum. All the evidence of her mother's final days that remains intact are some old 8mm movies of a room in the asylum creepy enough for its own movie and notes that mention a woman called Sofi Kozma. Mrs. Kozma just so happens to live in an old-folks home across town but freaks out when Casey mentions the particulars of her case and demands that she and Romy get out. Casey turns up the heat on old Mrs. Kozma after a Lovecraftian hallucination involving bugs, tentacles ripping through walls and her dead mother hits her like a ton of bricks while out clubbing with Mark and Romy. Mrs. Kozma sees now that there is real danger afoot and agrees to help. Not only does she know what's troubling Casey she's also the poor girl's grandmother. Casey is being haunted by a dybbuk and not the benign kind known to open Coen Brothers movies. This Dybbuk has the force of both Mrs. Kozma's dead twin brother and the insane nazi doctor who killed him for the sake of genetic experimentation. If Casey's going to beat this thing, she's going to need the help of one Rabbi Sendak, the only man who can translate The Book of Mirrors where the exorcism rites are printed in hebrew and who also won't assume that Casey's off her tree. But they'd better hurry as the Dybbuk appears to be getting restless and has begun picking off people close to Casey.
It's not every day you see a routine teen thriller morph into a Jewish Exorcist rip-off. This film's credentials are quite extraordinary and it's kind of amazing to think that a film that features old men spider-walking around nursing homes and little kids stabbing people to death also features Gary Oldman, Idris Elba and Jane Alexander. Jane Alexander will apparently do anything these days, though, or that's what whoever told her about Terminator: Salvation must think. Anyway, it's funny to see the mix of high and lowbrow duking it out over the girl from Cloverfield's womb. Gary Oldman's mild-mannered rabbi and Idris Elba's basketball coaching priest are apparently not in the same movie as the holocaust ghosts because they don't seem to take any of it seriously. They're just a couple of men of the cloth, just getting through the day, always ready with a joke or some sports advice. In fact no one really brings any kind of gravity to their roles, which can be a huge detriment to the severity to the rest of the film. Writer David S. Goyer wants you to believe that this angry spirit has come from the worst torments of the holocaust to place a curse on a girl who has done nothing to deserve it, whereas director David S. Goyer thinks everyone but Casey is kinda ok with the hand she's been dealt. I mean it is a testament to how firm a grip both Elba and Oldman have on their characters that neither is all that shaken by the murderous dybbuk, but when you're counterpoint is Jane Alexander uttering the accidentally tasteless bit of dialogue "It's time to finish the job started at Auschwitz" bookended by a lot of Odette Yustman's ass and dogs with their heads turned upside down, it can get a bit jarring.

From content to tone, Goyer mishandles just about everything he touches. It isn't that the effects aren't good, in fact at times, like that nightmarish scene in the bathroom they're quite excellent. The trouble is he doesn't seem to have informed his actors how frightening they are. In trying to replicate the tension between the fright and the normality in The Exorcist, Goyer moves from vacant interiors and blank faces to batshit craziness. The vacant quality of every scene is totally at odds with the effort put into making the movie scary. The frame is always filled with empty space and every room they enter is way too clean (with the exception of the asylum during the climax, but even that is pretty neat as abandoned asylums go). It doesn't help matters that everyone in this film is too wealthy for their own good. A horror film like this is also indebted to a myriad of better movies whose influence it never gets around to shedding. This is nakedly an Exorcist rip-off but with the new kind of reverence found in modern religious horror films, which makes the fright a lot less fun or easy to enjoy. It's tough to laugh because the writer isn't in on the joke.
So in conclusion: Good? No. Sleazy? Sure, but not sleazy enough. Kids and the holocaust? That's tasteless to be sure, especially considering how flagrantly they're used as a springboard for spider-walking old men and floods of creepy insects gargling out of a toilet, but the rest of the film lies down on the job. What I wanted after months of being told the 'right' answer to shit was a film whose sleaziness was written into its every scene. In short, I wanted Orphan. Not only is this a film with a grotesque character the likes of which used to only sneak into movies like Andrea Bianchi's Burial Grounds or the worst of Umberto Lenzi, its very conceit is about the most despicable thing I've ever encountered. In other words, I loved every depraved second of it.

Orphan
by Jaume Collett-Serra

In what is either a coincidence or a bit of sly mockery, John & Kate Coleman are parents looking to adopt another child following Kate's miscarriage. They already have two kids; one, Danny is a spoiled little asshole who plays guitar hero and shoots shit with a paintball gun; the other, Max, is deaf and is by far the superior child. I know that sounds mean, but seriously, you know right off the bat who you want to be spared when the shit goes down. Anyway, the miscarriage has understandably bummed everyone out but Kate feels that she needs to give the love she had saved up for her dead little girl to another kid. John and Max are on board so the parents head to Saint Mariana's Home For Girls to adopt someone. Though each of the girls has their charms, John is particularly taken with a young Russian girl called Esther. After charming Kate equally hard, Esther's place in the Coleman's house seems assured.

Esther falls in with Max easily enough but Danny isn't won over by the quaintly dressed little émigré. He sees his new sister as a threat to the attention his father used to lavish on him. His furor only increases when she goes to school dressed in one of the old fashioned dresses she brought home with her. The other kids view her with the same contempt reserved for plague rats and pedophiles. Brenda, one particularly mean girl, really lets her have it whenever Danny isn't knocking Esther's books over to impress the other kids. Of course, we know something Brenda and the others don't. We know what's behind that icy glare. We know that all the lurking she does around the house isn't just to kill time....it's evil! The first sign of danger comes when Danny shoots a bird with his paintball gun but doesn't have the heart to finish it off so Esther mercykills it with a rock, spattering its guts all over her clothes. After that she spies John and Kate screwing in the kitchen. The exchange between mother and daughter the following day is a riot. Kate wants to explain it away but Esther seems to already have a handle on it. "When grownups love each other very, very much they want to each other that love; they want to express it..." "I know. They fuck." Sweet jesus!
Kate's worry grows by the day as it appears that Esther isn't any ordinary young girl. Esther really kicks it up a notch one day after spying John talking with a pretty female neighbor at the playground. She hears all she needs to later tell Kate about his flirtation then wanders off and pushes Brenda off a slide, breaking her leg. Esther plays innocent and so does the only eye-witness, Max. Max is always there everytime Esther does something wrong but won't tell on her. She's taken a shine to Esther because her new sister has learned sign-language and she's done a supremely good job manipulating her into believing she knows what's best for the family. Almost as good a job she did turning John against Kate. Kate, for her part, suspects that Esther is bad news but how exactly do you convince everyone that it's a nine year old girl who's causing problems and not a former alcoholic and depressive woman nearing middle age? When Danny falls prey to Esther's traceless scheming, Kate finally snaps and decides to play just as dirty as her adopted daughter.

Let's get something out of the way: this is not a good movie. In fact it's quite terrible and obvious and the little things that prevent it from being a good film go a long way toward making it a great piece of sleaze. Clearly both Jaume Collett-Serra and writer David Johnson know that you know what's going down. The only real surprises are what is actually the deal with our enfant terrible and how far she'll go before the credits roll. And so long as you know that this is a terribly scuzzy movie, you're in for one hell of an evening. A creepy girl with a thick russian accent planning the deaths of everyone around her? Come on! It's just too much fun! Everytime she gets that look on her face and you know that something terrifying is coming down the pike, oh you just hold your breath and your eyebrows go up in anticipation and then the questions start involuntarily coming out of your mouth. "Oh she's not gonna kill that nun with a hammer, is she? She can't just throw her deaf sister into traffic, can she?" Yeah, it's fucking madness alright. And what's more because Collett-Serra won't let his modern day Rhoda Penmark really do anything like as much damage as she could you don't even have to feel bad about loving the hell out of Orphan.

A lot of people have said just how impressive Jodie Foster was as a young actress. Look at her in The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane or Taxi Driver, when she was 14 and 15 respectively, and you can see an unprecedented talent coming into her own. She was great, no doubt, but I would now like to draw everyone's attention to Isabelle Fuhrman. At the time she auditioned for the role of Esther she was maybe 12. She so impressed everyone that they decided to forego the physical description of Esther from the script and make the movie about the little girl who'd killed at her audition and really it's no wonder. She's a little girl from Washington D.C. who has to pretend to be a psychotic Russian girl who learns sign language, kills people with hammers, threatens them at knifepoint, swears candidly and tries to seduce a man four times her own age and does it perfectly. I've seen a lot of Bad Seed knock-offs but I've never seen anyone do what Furhman does here. And what's more she's not the only mightily impressive little kid in the cast. Aryana Engineer, who plays Max, is really deaf and easily the most sympathetic character in the film. The things she communicates with just her eyes are extraordinary. It's a total fluke to find talent like this in a movie so committed to being the grimiest filmgoing experience all year, but Fuhrman and Engineer are easily two of the most talented actresses alive. Though that sounds hyperbolic, I dare you to watch their scenes together and not be completely blown away. They have chemistry and when it starts to scrape, like when Esther tells Max that she'll shoot her mother if she tells her what she knows, its mesmerizing.
It's not often that a film so low on the food-chain as Orphan manages to kick up real controversy. Apparently foster care services and parents of adopted children were struck by the film's grisly view of orphaned children and demanded they change the trailer, as it purportedly gave kids a bad name. See this is the kind of shit that used to happen in the late 70s and early 80s. This is the kind of film that, though harmless thanks to its outrageous execution, got people all up in arms about something fake. And thanks to its truly insane twist ending, it really does work to earn your mistrust. I don't know that I've seen a movie so committed to being objectionable made this decade that actually succeeds on some level. I mean, the premise is utterly preposterous despite it being based on a not-nearly-as-bad true story. Yet it's still chillingly effective even when it shows you its hand early on. This movie parts company with other 'legendary' modern day horror films like August Underground or The Devil's Rejects or Hostel by being not just grim and nasty but by putting kids at the center of the film and then just ratcheting up the lunacy from there. It's one thing to just show teenagers having their genitals cut off after fucking, it's quite another to grab your tolerance by the balls and drag it through an industrial park. Everytime you think you've hit the last piece of broken glass or radioactive rusty metal there's another bump a few feet away. This is our Axe, our Mark of the Devil, our Revenge of the Living Dead Girls. It's exactly the kind of thing that a good many kids and professors at film school will tell you can't be done. It's everything I wanted and more. So if you've got no morals and are looking for a good time then come on in, the water's fine...

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