Saturday, December 12, 2009

Suburban Satanists & Goofy Graverobbers I Have Known: This Year In Chaos

In a year filled with great throwbacks (and I use the term affectionately) fewer people had a better understanding of what makes for solidly entertainment pastiche than the folks over at Glass Eye Pix. Between them Ti West, Graham Reznick, Larry Fessenden and Glenn McQuaid have made an art of making films 'like they used to.' Unfortunately for them, despite the fact that that's all anyone can complain about their being a dearth of, people don't line up for an old fashioned horror film 'like they used to'. What do they want? Saw, apparently, who knows? That the Glass Eye films haven't received a wider release is just fucking stupid because they are brilliant. Their latest successes, McQuaid's I Sell The Dead and West's The House of the Devil play their premises to the hilt and make up charmingly for their small budgets. On top of operating like an old production house, their films come out feeling like the product of (or at the very least in the spirit of) another age of filmmaking.

I Sell The Dead
by Glenn McQuaid
In an unnamed past, we see a resurrection man by the name of Willie Grimes put to the guillotine. In a prison cell, waiting his turn is his partner Arthur Blake. Just hours before he's due to meet the executioner Blake is visited by Father Duffy, a gruff and enormous priest. Or he claims to be a priest; he's played by Ron Perlman and he kicks a homeless man so I'm thinking there's more going on than what we're told. Anyway Father Duffy is offering Blake absolution (though not acquittal) in exchange for a full record of the crimes he committed while working with Grimes. The idea is that they'll have his story down so they can scare off young people tempted to consider a life of crime. Blake's not going anywhere and so long as Duffy's willing to share that bottle of whiskey he brought with him, he could spin him a yarn or too. Blake started robbing graves when he was just a child. His mother had sent him out to find work and Grimes was going to just kill the boy but something prevented him from whacking him on the head with a shovel on their first job. And so began their life of crime together. Grimes and Blake made quite a go of their little trade, selling corpses to the highest bidder which was more often than not a doctor called Vernon Quint. Quint worked them to the bones and though he didn't always pay as high as the next man, his constantly threatening to call the police was incentive enough. This all changed when one night the two men were hard-pressed to find a body and had to go to accursed ground. Quint stopped bugging them after they brought him the body of a napping vampire with a stake waiting to be pulled from its chest.

At this point in his story Blake mentions The House of Murphy, a gang of resurrection men known for their monstrous cruelty. Duffy seems particularly interested in the particulars of Blake's many encounters with them, specifically their public face Cornelius. Everyone knew that the real head of the gang was his father, but Cornelius did all the leg-work along with Bulger, his dog-toothed henchman and Valentine, the woman with scarring so bad to look on her face means certain death. As Blake explains the many times he tangoed with The House of Murphy including a climactic stand-off over a zombie on Langol's Island, Duffy begins to show his hand. I think there's more to his curiousity than a simple public service, but there also might be more to everything else we've seen so far. And though you'll figure out all of the film's secrets before they arrive, that's ok because McQuaid planned it that way. You know what else he planned? For you to have a fucking blast, which you almost certainly will.
I spent most of I Sell The Dead issuing torrents of surprised laughter at each new (and oft familiar) genre subversion that McQuaid had to offer, culminating in it's final trick: the words "A Good Cast Is Worth Repeating" as it ended. I said "Fuckin'...YES!" aloud to no one because he had gotten everything right. Here is a tribute to all those films he and I both grew up loving that misses all their faults because it shares none of their ambition. There are nods towards Universal monster films, Val Lewton's RKO movies, Hammer Horror and finally the horror comedies of the 1980s and on through to today. His script is a loving and thorough catalog of genre references given a new and winning attitude. And instead of trying to balance the more extreme elements of today's horror films with a too-broad sense of humour as often happens, he aims for your heart, not your guts. He brings out a number of cliches and turns them into mischievous set-pieces as in the encounter with the vampire and the alien, which were both hysterical. And when he isn't wringing humour out of the expected, he's playing the period details for laughs as well. I know it's rather silly but I laughed at just about everything including the sandwich gag. Something about McQuaid's presentation of his material just made all his bits work; every macabre throw-away gag works just as well as the straight-up humour. In this way it's like the straight man to John McNaughton’s Haeckel’s Tale (in the same way that Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher played straight man to Jacques Tourneur’s Comedy of Terrors, incidentally, both directors did their best work for Val Lewton).

So while it isn't scary and the low-budget could cause those unwilling to play along to be turned off by its occasionally creaky execution (not since The Evil Dead has such an obviously fake moon been employed over the real thing), I Sell The Dead asks us to laugh with the movies we loved as kids. His point seems to be that nostalgia is a good thing, but we mustn't take it too seriously. Too often does a love of how bad something is get transformed into a love for something that doesn't acknowledge its context or that the reason it's so endearing: because it's terrible. McQuaid announces that he isn't in to slavish devotion with his winks at the audience like the graphic-novel-esque freeze frame cutaways he designed whenever the story changes timeframes. It's silly and breaks the fourth wall to let us know that he's in on the joke. His casting of Ron Perlman and Angus Scrimm, both pillars of the genre, helps, too. Perlman can't quite carry off the Irish accent but he and Dominic Monaghan are fun to watch and Willie Grimes is the part Larry Fessenden was born to play; McQuaid makes full use of the man's less-than-ordinary appearance with the same roguish eye he applies to his production design.
But it wasn't all non-stop laughs at Glass Eye this year. For those of you who like to laugh but who also like to be so terrified they don't quite know what to do with themselves, might I suggest our next film, Ti West's latest and best film. In fact, not only is it Ti West's greatest film, it is also one of the greatest and scariest films of the last year. It's certainly the best executed bit of homage the game has seen in quite some time.

The House of the Devil
by Ti West

It's 1980 in a small Connecticut town and Samantha has just made a verbal agreement with her landlord about the apartment she plans to move into. There's only one problem, she doesn't have the first months rent she agreed to pay by Monday. It's Wednesday now and unless this unemployed college sophomore can find a job and quick she'll have to kiss the new place goodbye. This is, of course, the last thing she wants to do; her roommate is a flaky stoner who keeps her bed stocked with random guys and apparently insists on keeping the shades drawn. Not exactly ideal studying conditions, I think you'll agree. As luck would have it Samantha spies a flier for a couple in need of a babysitter. She calls from a payphone but gets an answering machine. She leaves a message and hangs up but as she walks away the payphone starts ringing. A nervous sounding man called Mr. Ulman is on the line and other than stating how much he needs a babysitter gives almost nothing about himself or the job away. Without saying when he says he'll pick her up at the admission's office. An hour or so later he hasn't shown so she opts to go for Pizza with her friend Megan to commiserate. When she gets back to her dorm Mr. Ulman has called and left a message. He's sorry about earlier and is willing to pay her a hundred dollars for one night's work. Megan has to drive her to the job as it's way the hell out in the middle of nowhere and Samantha doesn't have a car. Megan, for her part, thinks it's a terrible idea; after hearing about how he treated Samantha she went around stealing all the other fliers just so no one else would call him back. This doesn't mean much but it does help us feel that Samantha is going some place where no one can help her.

If you and Megan thought this much sounded sketchy, just wait until you get inside. Mr. Ulman is aging and frail and walks with a decorative cane and has something else to tell his potential babysitter. He and his wife don't actually have a kid, Mr. Ulman needs Samantha to look after his mother who he promises will be no trouble at all. She's old and he just feels bad leaving her alone while he and his wife go out to do something involving the eclipse that everyone in town's been buzzing about. Ulman looked in vain for months for someone to look after mom but couldn't find reasonably priced help so he thought asking for a babysitter might bring results. Samantha has no experience with elder care and is reluctant until she's able to drive up the price to $400 for the night. Megan thinks she's barking mad to stay at the Ulman's creepy old house but how can Samantha say no to a few months rent for a few hours sitting around? She tells her to come back at 12:30 and that she'll be just fine; famous last words if ever there were any. In fact no sooner has Megan driven off before she runs afoul of a stranger who comes out of nowhere when she stops her car to light a cigarette. Looks like that pick-up might be a bit late...

Now there's nothing particularly worrying about the place at first. Mrs. Ulman is quite a private woman, indeed; she doesn't make a sound for at least the first hour. Samantha explores a few rooms in the house including a room clearly meant for a little boy, orders pizza, plays pool, dances around the house with her walkman, watches a few minutes of TV and then starts hearing things. She hears running water somewhere in the house but all she finds in the upstairs bathroom is a lot of black hair in the tub. Then something starts moving in the attic. Before she can go up to explore it, the doorbell rings and it's the pizza boy. Or is it? With her pizza eaten, there's nothing stopping her from checking out the attic. By now it's not curiousity that drags her up those stairs, it's necessity; either way she's going to wish she hadn't.

Now I've left out good deal of what happens inside the Ulman's house because some of the film's best moments happen before the climactic attic exploration, the little things which ultimately become clues as to what exactly Samantha has gotten herself into. And each one is more delicious than the next; in fact I was almost sad to get to the heart of the mystery because I was enjoying the foreplay so much. Ti West's forte is a kind of dramatic irony wherein we, the audience, know that this is a horror film and that something is most definitely under the bed and we also know that the kid sleeping in it doesn't know. We flinch everytime he goes to check but we also want to know what it looks like. West is a master at what I'd call The Cinema of Expectation. His acerbic post-modernism is three-fold and works best if you're a die-hard, but you needn't be to get scared. First of all, we know we're in a horror film and we know what happens in horror films (we might also say that we know Ti West, but I can't say for certain that everyone who will see House of the Devil will have also seen The Roost and Trigger Man which work on your expectations in much the same way). We know the film is called House of the Devil and we see all the hints left all over the place by West like an over-eager kid who's designed the world's easiest scavenger hunt. But at the same time we only know that something is going to happen, not what specifically. Secondly, the production design, editing, music, costuming, make-up and everything else aesthetic is a flawless imitation of that found in the horror films of the early 1980s. This is not only a blast to watch (the opening credits had me howling with appreciative laughter) but it also sets up the third bit of post-modernism. Not only is the production a perfect imitation, it alerts us to the fact that the film will operate on logic garnered from the films whose style House of the Devil mirrors. So while you can chide Samantha for going into the house, for going into the room, for doing everything she does, that is what the heroine in a 1980s horror film would do, so do it she must.

With The House of the Devil Ti West has finally done what filmmakers have been trying to do for decades. He has crafted a film that both pays tribute to a specific kind of horror film, in fact looks and acts just like one and transcends it by being both great and terrifying. So while it looks like Prom Night, Absurd, Humongous, Pieces or The House By The Cemetery and it often knowingly repeats many of their mistakes, it is still a better film than all of them combined. Everything, the ultra-dark, grainy camera, Greta Gerwig's Farrah Fawcett-haircut and fuck-you attitude, the freeze-frame laden opening set to Jeff Grace's approximation of a Goblin song, Jocelyn Donehue's plaid shirt tucked into her too-high jeans, the suddenness of the violence, the production values of the news show, the reliance on one creepy, antiquated set, even the dubbing over the sound effects of an existing horror film shown on TV is a throw-back to that great period of "they're coming to get you!" Because I so enjoyed the lovingly recreated details I was in a constant state of hysteria and near-laughter because I was at first thrilled by the attention to detail and then so jolted by the shocks which, while generally understated, come fast and furious; Graham Reznick's sound design, which aside from Drag Me To Hell, is the best I've encountered all year, helps a good deal in this department. The house is all creaking and shifting and whispering, which compliments the terrifying imagery rather well. And the imagery is top notch: the reveal behind mother's door, the recurring face flashes (a touch of The Exorcist), and the last image before the climactic reveal are all bone-chilling. Who knew that the same film could provoke both edgy hysteria and abject fright and not lose an ounce of dignity along the way? My laughter at being scared by the appearance of the stranger turns to a kind of hysterical fright as he kills someone out of the blue which then turns to a stunned silence which then becomes laughter as Samantha watches the hilariously-endless news program. The only thing West relishes more than the period details is in wringing every possible ounce of emotion from his carefully directed set-pieces. Unlike Joe D'Amato or Paul Lynch he doesn't let the film's logic and its frightening aspects become two different things. Having seen the same 80s films he harkens back to, we know why agreeing to babysit is a bad idea, but it becomes fun to root for her to make her next silly move. We know that the ending must be terrifying (which it really and truly is) so we want to enjoy the ride there. Hence why Tom Noonan's performance is just amazing because we know that every word he utters has two meanings, in fact everything in the movie has more than one meaning, which is its genius. Watching Samantha dance around the house is not only a perfectly dated interlude and tension reliever, it's also not out of place in an 80s slasher film and it gets her to break the vase, which brings us to the next set-piece. Flawlessly written, wonderfully directed, beautifully acted, expertly constructed and scary as hell. This might be one of the best horror films of all time.
Since seeing Trigger Man I've come to expect a certain thing when I see in plain, yellow font "Written, Directed and Edited by Ti West." I've loved seeing him get better at what he does and The House of the Devil is most assuredly something to be proud of. Will this get him a bigger budget next time around. Part of me hopes not, if only to keep him and his crew on their toes while they try and mask their tiny budgets with panache. So while I think that I Sell The Dead could have benefited from a larger budget, I so love what Glenn McQuaid made from nothing enough that I don't particularly mind all the corner-cutting. It's like a magic act and every Glass Eye success has a charming air of 'how did they do that?' I Sell The Dead is as funny as The House of the Devil is frightening but they're equally as winsome. So the next time you're looking for a knowing horror film that speaks the language, something to laugh with or scream at, I suggest you go looking for something bearing the name Glass Eye Pix.

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