Tuesday, November 17, 2009

B-Movie Suburbs I Have Known: This Year In Chaos

Ok, so I was all set to talk about this year’s underdog horror film, Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2 then I realized I’d never covered Rob Zombie’s first Halloween (nor for that matter John Carpenter’s original or anything else by Zombie) so before we dive in, let’s go back two years to Rob Zombie’s major label debut, if you will. The odds were stacked against Rob Zombie and I can’t say that I was really expecting anything from his update of John Carpenter’s overrated groundbreaker, because I don’t really care for Halloween nor for that matter did I like either of Zombie’s previous films. Having seen Halloween and Halloween 2 I’m prepared to say that the biggest thing stimying Rob Zombie director is Rob Zombie screenwriter. He’s his own worst enemy and nothing illustrates this more than Halloween 2, but first, let’s, as Zombie himself does, go back to the beginning.

by Rob Zombie
Halloween begins by putting it’s unstoppable killer in context…sort of. Instead of seeing Michael Meyers killing his sister and her boyfriend for no discernable reason beyond their coupling when they should be watching him, Meyers gets something akin to A Christmas Carol type backstory (Future: Malcolm McDowell, Past: himself as a child, present: Sherri Moon or himself currently...or something...Ok, I was goin' out on the limb with that one, but any reference to A Christmas Carol can't possibly approach the corpse raping Dickens recieved in the form of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Robert Zemeckis's 3-D version....and I hasten to remind you that these were in the same year). But in reality it can be summed up by saying that he had a shitty homelife. His mom (Sherri Moon Zombie, the director’s spouse) is married to a loutish prick who splits his time tormenting young Michael and hitting on Michael’s sister Judith. It isn’t exactly a surprise when he stabs his stepdad and sister to death, we’ve seen him beat the shit out of a classmate and murder a bird a few scenes ago (shorthand for “serial killer childhood” in the pictures, don't you know), but what is surprising is that the scenes of Michael’s childhood don’t really do a much better job explaining why Michael snapped than do the opening scenes of Carpenter’s film. Seriously, who here didn't think "shitty childhood" when he pulls his mask off at the beginning of that movie? I had a fine childhood and I still consider stabbin' people and blaming it on my upbringing. We could have guessed "shitty childhood," really, but in the long run it doesn’t particularly matter other than to set up two things: Michael’s childhood was in a town called Haddonfield, Illinois and when his mother killed herself she left a baby girl behind to be shuffled into foster care.

Jump ahead a few years. Michael’s turned into Tyler Mane from X-Men, which is never a good thing. His psychiatrist, Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) has spent the better part of fifteen years trying to figure out what the fuck is wrong with Michael, but has made no progress other than to see that he has no humanity. Again, I could have told you that. He’s completed a book on seeing to Michael all these years, which I can’t really imagine is all that long: he had a shitty childhood, stabbed some people to death, repressed it, now he’s 7 foot 2 and doesn’t talk. Sounds a page-turner. On the eve of the book’s release and Loomis’ tour to support Michael decides he has his own tour to embark on and breaks free from the asylum, killing a bunch of people along the way. On his way back to Haddonfield Michael stops at a truck stop and kills a guy (Ken Foree from Dawn of the Dead) for his clothes and buck-knife. So, who’s due to be wrapped in plastic and priced by the pound? Practically everybody, but specifically Laurie Strode and everyone close to her. Who’s Laurie Strode you ask, other than the twenty-first century version of the Jamie Lee Curtis character from the ’79 film? Well Zombie gave her an extra layer missing from the original which does sort of explain Michael’s rampage but I’ll leave that secret aside for now on the off chance you haven’t seen it or care. But then I have to explain it in part 2 of this review, so…whatever. Anyway Laurie is Haddonfield’s most reputable babysitter and despite being weirdly inappropriate seems to be a good daughter and student. She’s certainly a model child in comparison to her friends Annie Brackett and Lynda, who seem to get off on shedding the oppressively boring and buttoned-down standards of Haddonfield. To get some idea of the difference between each girl, let’s compare their plans for Halloween night. Lynda’s going to Michael Meyer’s abandoned house with her nerdy boyfriend to have sex and drink beer all night whereas Laurie will be babysitting Tommy Doyle, the little boy down the block, while simultaneously covering for Annie, who is going to spending the night with her boyfriend as well. That means being saddled with two kids instead of just Tommy when the killings go down.
The one thing that can be said about Rob Zombie’s Halloween is that it’s a much more savage and cruel film than its namesake. Despite wanting to really understand both Meyers and his victim and presenting us with a number of genuinely likable people in the form of Laurie, her parents, McDowell (at least at first), Sheriff Brackett, Danny Trejo’s asylum guard, even Ken Foree who lives long enough to shit in a truck stop bathroom seems like a fairly likable guy. So while it’s to Zombie’s credit that he got realistic and watchable performances from almost everyone (William Forsythe kinda pushes it as Michael’s too-sadistic step-dad), most of whom happen to be Zombie repertory players or old character actors who did this stuff the first time around or both. For example all those fossils he unearthed for Devil’s Rejects are all here, except that they prove themselves in fairly straight rolls. Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Tom Towles, Leslie Easterbrook, Foree, Trejo, Tyler Mane and Sherri Moon are all back alongside newcomers with old faces McDowell, Udo Kier, Dee Wallace Stone, Brad Dourif and Clint Howard, all in pretty amazingly ordinary roles. I’d say if he didn’t wind up killing most of these people that Zombie was trying to give happy endings to some of exploitation cinema’s forgotten heroes. To see Brad Dourif and Danny Trejo play not only sane but likable characters is quite a pleasant surprise indeed. In fact it got me thinking that I’d like to see Rob Zombie take on a dramatic film if only to see the likes of David Hess and Marilyn Chambers playing retired spouses shopping for gifts from antiques dealer Angus Scrimm and jeweler John Saxon for their daughter Linda Blair, recently remarried to English professor Giovanni Lombardi Radice. To see the moments that Dee Wallace gets as a parent are really quite heartwarming and at once a trifle sad because we never got to see her acquit herself in a dramatic role. She killed it as a new mother in Cujo and The Hills Have Eyes, but who doesn’t want to see their favorite character actors playing house? And furthermore, Zombie proves that many of them are actually quite good at it. I don’t know about you but I’d love to buy a summerhouse in Zombie’s vision of Haddonfield with frequent visits from Ken Foree, a friendly nod from sheriff Brad Dourif, a smile from gravedigger Sid Haig and the occasional lunch with Dee Wallace. I guess perhaps the point is that Hollywood can’t accept these people as anything other than the victims of a gigantic knife-wielding killer.

Halloween has problems but it also does enough right for me to brush those problems aside. The early scenes of a young Michael Meyers are well directed but don’t add up to enough to make themselves necessary beyond setting up the third act reveal. But he did do more with the ideas presented in the original Halloween than your average maker of remakes. Take the misleading Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning as a counterpoint. Do we go to the beginning? Sure, kinda. Do we learn anything. No, not really, other than that everyone at the Hewitt household is insane which we already knew. That’s not really exposition so much as it is what the rest of the world thinks of the American south. So, I give it to Rob Zombie for trying to get us to view a crazed killer as someone with a past and a family, even if ultimately we can’t side with him cause, well, he’s a crazed killer. Technically, though the film is quite well made and the performances are mostly great, especially those of the children at the film’s core. I rather like Doug Faersch as the young Michael Meyers, who does the steely gaze of the murderer quite well. I also really liked Scout Taylor-Compton as Laurie. Now people have complained that she’s too irritating but guess what? So are a lot of teenagers and I liked rooting for someone I feel like I knew rather than the clichés that usually fill these sorts of films. Laurie and her friends remind me of girls I knew in High School who would embarrass each other as Lynda does when they first spy Michael on the streets. Laurie actually sort of looks and acts like an old girlfriend (who was also a babysitter, coincidentally) and if that doesn’t say something about her acting or Zombie’s direction I don’t know what does. Don’t tell me you don’t know someone who acts like this and who would behave this way in a crisis. So I guess if Zombie’s goal was to humanize the story and its characters in a way that Carpenter’s original and most other remakes didn’t, then he's succeeded. My problems are really that the things I like, the humanity of the performances, the capable direction, the sympathy in the characters and so forth are all mired in a film about an inexplicably indestructible guy who murders people with a big fucking knife. There is really only so much to a film like this, despite Zombie’s best efforts to fill it with likable characters, three-dimensional heroes and villains and his best subtle stylistic flares.
I think what everyone wanted after the combined effects of Halloween and The Devil’s Rejects was for their director to make a film completely outside the Rob Zombie universe. So I don’t think I was the only one who was a little miffed when I heard he’d be making a sequel to his overdressed and undercooked Halloween. Keith Phipps at The AV Club suggested that Rob Zombie is the greatest director who’s never made a great movie. I’m going to take that one step further and suggest that Halloween 2 is a great movie but it just happens to be full of and about very ungreat things. The composition and the pacing and the editing and the care and the whole feel of the movie is not at all unlike that of a really excellent movie. Indeed the whole time I was watching Halloween 2 I couldn’t help feeling that I was watching a really quite excellent, lovingly crafted, spooky horror movie with lots of arresting and dream-like imagery even as every line of dialogue, plot point and character made me simply furious at how ill-conceived they all were. It was a confusing night, but my point is this, despite the fact that Halloween 2 really won’t make you reconsider your opinion of Rob Zombie or remakes/sequels it is really well-done. It’s just that it feels like at the very last minute someone traded a good script for a bad one, so a good movie got made, but….not…

Halloween II
by Rob Zombie
Ok, so Halloween 2 does what mid-series Friday the 13th movies used to do, which is to pick-up from where the last one left off, no matter how improbable that may be. Jason’s stapled to the ground with a big metal pole? No problem. Lightning strikes the pole, zaps him to life and he’s on the prowl again. Well, Zombie apparently thinks more highly of us than most Friday the 13th sequel makers because rather than give us a reason, Michael Meyers, whom we last saw dead at the end of Halloween (spoiler...? I guess not...), simply gets up off his gurney, punches his way out of the truck to the morgue and then starts killin’ fokes again. He has a stint in the wilderness first, living off dogs and rabbits, growing a beard and shit, seeing his dead mother and a white horse in his dreams. But he’s not the only one with nightmares. Laurie Strode, livin at Brad Dourif and his bitchy daughter’s house across town, is having all manner of night terrors, what with seeing her friends and parents get killed by Michael Meyers and nearly dying herself two Halloweens ago. She’s got her coping mechanisms; she likes metal music, sees the mom from The Amityville Horror for psychiatric help, works with Daphne from Heroes at a coffee shop run by Howard Hesseman and also likes doing risky shit. Oh, and Malcolm McDowell’s back and he’s playing a whole new character; an edgy, Hollywood type who’s on posters and shit. He’s a new bestselling author which means going on On Demand Talk Shows alongside other relevant celebrities like Weird Al. Can anyone tell me where this came from? Since when do authors who aren’t already famous people sharing the credit with the guy they dictated their memoirs to get to go around being famous and plugging their books on anything but the Daily Show? Seriously, anyone ever see Stephen King or Rajiv Chandrasekaran on Letterman or even the Jimmy Kimmel show? That’s what I thought. Anyway, Halloween rolls around and Laurie finds out via McDowell’s book that she’s actually Michael Meyer’s sister who was put up for adoption which makes her run away from Brad Dourif’s house, get drunk with Daphne and then go back home to apologize but instead watches all her friends get killed…again. Will Brad Dourif save her in time? Will Malcolm McDowell come to his senses and stop being a fucking tool? And what about that topless carnival in the middle of the movie? Seriously, the fuck? Topless carnivals just roll into Haddonfield on Halloween? I've lived in college towns and I know that topless carnivals do not just appear on major holidays. I have some friends who would know about this sort of thing and believe me we’d have gone to the topless carnival if there was one to go to.

So as you may have gathered from my tone, I’m not really wild about what goes on in Halloween 2. This is a major bummer because Rob Zombie’s direction is really, really good. His use of location and composition are pretty excellent. The cinematography and editing are both superb (granted he didn’t actually do either of those, but still). The performances…well, I’ll get to them, but the whole pace, look and feel of Halloween 2 are quite excellent. I believe what this means is that it’s time for Rob Zombie to do a real movie. The script is problematic, to say the least, but the studio wanted a sequel, so what could he do? The ideas feel half-cocked and the performances mostly suffer for it. Let’s look at Malcolm McDowell’s character for a minute. In the first Halloween, he was kind of a nut, trying to get rich but still trying to do good. Here the urge to do good is buried under a terrible, overwrought stab at the ‘Hollywood’ type. He wears sunglasses, he talks about himself in the third person, he’s a completely different character than in the last film. I will say that McDowell appears to be having a ball, so I'll look the other way. In fact, the whole movie was perfunctory so once again I let it all go. Look at it this way, we nearly didn’t have this film, so why not just enjoy the good stuff. People attacked this movie from all sides and I don’t get it. Did you guys forget that in the mid 80s you were lucky to find something as good as My Bloody Valentine? Or how about fucking today? You’re better off with straight-to-DVD movies like Naked Fear than you are with any of those fucking torture porn movies. So why the tough love? I don’t know, I feel like the internet can be a big goddamned bandwagon sometimes and if someone says a film sucks, so does everyone else. Literally the nicest thing I read about the film was that quote from the AV Club. I just don’t see why Halloween 2 deserves all this hatred. It is in fact about people getting stabbed to death, many of them more than worthy candidates for a stabbing, but how many slasher filmmakers put so much care into the little things. The scene in the strip club is much more harrowing than anything in a Saw film. The dream sequences I thought were really well realized. And I’d like to point out that the scene in the coffee shop at the very beginning is actually as close to the real thing as it gets in a film with this much money behind it. Again, I know girls who act and talk exactly like Laurie and her friends and that Zombie either directed those performances out of the girls or simply let them drive the scene without interfering is really impressive.
On the whole I just think it could have been ten million times worse. While I was watching stuff like the scene where Annie Bracket is being chased through her house, I kept thinking “man, if something I cared about was happening, this would be awesome!” And I don’t mean to be facetious, I mean I truly enjoyed Zombie’s eye for things, the angles, the colours, the sound design, everything except what was actually happening on screen. And though that sounds frustrating I was able to enjoy the potential energy being built; this was a studio project, after all, and not something Zombie put all of himself into, yet it's his most technically and artistically proficient and satisfying work to date. I’m usually wrong about this kind of thing but I’ll say that I’m excited for whatever he does next because he has the ability to make whatever it is both scary and gorgeous. If his next film is terrible I’ll be the guy being ejected from bars and arthouses in Cambridge yelling “He was gonna make it! He was this close! I bet everything I had on that motherfucking Rob Zombie!” to passing cars. But in the meantime I’d like to make a request of you, Mr. Zombie, assuming you ever find this (you won’t, but that’s ok): so long as you’re unearthing unjustly overlooked character actors, I don’t guess you could find room for Michael Biehn in your next film? He’s due for a comeback and if Planet Terror was any indication, he’s rarin’ to go.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Obnoxious White People I Have Known: This Year In Chaos

One of the pitfalls of a rash of good films (or even one solid film) is that the ripoffs and remakes come fast and furious. Often we can simply avoid them because they go direct to DVD or the SyFy (née Sci-Fi) channel. As is most often the case with remakes, all you really need is a quarter of the budget and maybe a sixteenth of the subtlety but zombies are a special case because for so long they were the domain of thrift store auteurs and no one else. We didn’t have anything resembling a studio zombie film until 2003 and coincidentally or not when the budgets started increasing for the prestige zombie films, the budgets started disappearing from the low-rent ones. Weirdly, in the last few years budgetary lines were drawn where there weren’t any before. The difference between the money spent on relatively good zombie films like Shivers, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie or Orgy of the Dead and shitty ones like Zombie Lake, Demons or The Snake People wasn’t much. However, today it’s hard to find a truly good really low budget zombie film. Look at the difference between Fido and say Zombiez, Feeding the Masses or Dead Summer; staggering, no? Granted there are exceptions: Pontypool looks as though the most expensive thing in the budget was the film stock yet it’s quite exceptional and I Sell The Dead made up charmingly for its lack of funds. Two films that couldn’t quite get past their budgetary restrictions are today’s movies Carriers and Dead Air. Of course their problems stem from the fact that they are shameless cash-ins on the successes of 28 Days Later and Pontypool, which I'll review in the coming weeks, respectively. I find the latter strange because Pontypool wasn’t even a year old when Corbin Bernsen turned in the rather tactless Dead Air. I guess the spirit of the Italians is still alive and well because you don’t even need a rousing success in order to start producing ripoffs; the only thing that’s changed is the odds you’ll have fun watching any of today’s ripoffs.

by Àlex Pastor & David Pastor
Danny, Brian, Kate and Bobby are four privileged white kids who have survived an epidemic that appears to have claimed the lives of most other people in at least the Western United States. They are on a desert highway and have a set of rules that they use to survive (I’d say this was an echo of Zombieland but I doubt very much one could have influenced the other what with their completion dates being nearly simultaneous. Also, it has almost nothing to do with the plot so you'd do just as well to forget it) but they seem to be running low on a few things. The first is morale; this is due in large part to the fact that Brian (Chris Pine who probably made this before Star Trek, but who could say?) is a total douche bag. Danny (Lou Taylor Pucci) is his younger brother and Bobby (Piper Perabo) is his girlfriend so they tolerate him. He has a bit of a messiah complex because he appears to be immune to the disease. Kate is the odd man out, as she seems to have brought along because Danny had a crush on her before people started dropping. Brian clearly doesn’t want her around, but forget that for a minute. The other problem is that they’re out of is gas and it would appear that the minivan that they come across driven by an anxious suburban dad called Frank is the answer to their prayers but there’s a problem with that. Frank’s daughter Jodie has the infection and he won’t let them take his van without agreeing to take him to a little town where there’s supposed to be a cure. Yeah, it sounds pretty stupid to Brian and the others too but they need the gas so they sequester Frank and Jodie in the trunk and take the van to town for vaccinations. What they find isn’t encouraging. The last doctor in town lives inside a clean tent inside the school gym and offers to kill Jodie if Frank doesn’t have the guts to do it; there’s no cure after all. While Kate, Brian and Danny check the place out, Bobby looks after Jodie but stupidly takes down the plastic barrier between them when the young girl succumbs to a coughing fit and stops moving. She gets it up in time to fool the others but we know what it means, just like we know what it means when the others leave Frank and Jodie behind and hit the road again.

The rest of the film consists of the group making pit stops as Bobby shows worsening signs of infection. The film should be a tautly constructed series of ethical dilemmas told through the framework of a horror/sci-fi road movie. But it’s not, for a few reasons. First of all, I don’t care about any of the characters. Brian is the most interesting of all of them and Chris Pine is easily the most capable of anyone else in the cast except Christopher Meloni but you stop caring about him after the incident at the gas station and then you have the two least interesting cast members left to root for. And seeing as you never actually get to know one of them, you really have one character and one cipher, which makes for a totally emotionless ending, not helped by the fact that the action of the film stops well before the credits roll. Having a film filled consciously with "soon to be big" stars is almost always a bad idea because your film feels like an investment more than a creative idea. The last real conflict is supposed to be generated by the bonds of family but I don’t buy Lou Taylor Pucci and Chris Pine as siblings for a minute. A film like this, no budget, limited effects, high-concept (The Crazies goes to California), needs to be driven by the performances and in theory it is, it’s just that as with Cloverfield they put the fate of humanity in the hands of a couple of vacuous dipshits who I personally would have liked to see get it worse than they did. Furthermore we don’t really know specifically what the disease is and yes I get that we aren’t supposed to and it’s more mysterious and haunting that way and that the disease is actually lack of trust in other people but I don’t see something hitting humanity this hard and the department of health being totally unprepared for it. We’ve avoided mad cow, swine and bird flu, SARS and everything else, I just think that the Pastors (and if I've said it once I've said it a thousand times, don't call yourselves the 'anything brothers' unless it starts with Coen) needed a few more symptoms for me to buy this as a global pandemic; Zombies I can buy because that’s my job. This appears to have plague-like symptoms and I just…can’t get worked up over that because we don’t get enough evidence about it’s destructive nature or what it does to the body. I don’t know I guess what I’m saying is that I wasn’t scared by it, which is ultimately the kiss of death for a film like this. Also whenever I see Christopher Meloni I can’t help but laugh and if you’ve seen that thing where he does Law & Order: SVU as a talk show then you’ll know why.

Finally, the reason I said this was a 28 Days Later cash-in is the look. The grainy over-and-underexposure is a perfect mimic of Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography for Danny Boyle’s film and Enrique Chediak’s for Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s sequel. The scenes in the dark school house look exactly like the scenes in the dark truck stop, the scene at the campfire are exactly like the scene at the stone lean-to, the scenes of the men arriving with guns exactly like any of the scenes of the soldiers in either film, and both Carriers and the 28 Days films share an affinity for plastic sheets flapping in the wind. Anything that tries to repeat the success of 28 Days Later is going to compare unfavourably (even the sequel, which had a good reason to look exactly like the original, cannot compare) and if the real change between this and the film it’s so inspired by is to tone the action down, amp up the bitching and moaning and pretty much eliminate the tension, guess what effect that has? You have a fairly boring slog through a fairly ordinary plot with a plagiarized look and characters you don’t care about. Granted they do try a bit more than your average cash-in but ambition isn’t everything. In fact sometimes it gets you into trouble.

Dead Air
by Corbin Bernsen

Say for example you saw Pontypool and wanted to make it bigger and have more carnage and swearing and you wanted to reunite two cast members from Night of the Living Dead, the remake. That sounds pretty ambitious, right? Well put it in the hands of Corbin Bernsen and Dead Air is what you get. I like Corbin Bernsen just fine as an actor though I don’t think I need to tell him he ought to pick his projects a touch more discerningly. Never mind that, though, his acting isn’t on trial. David Moscow’s is and so is Bill Moseley’s, but more importantly Corbin Bernsen’s direction is what really sank this movie. Ok, so some terrorists plant a chemical weapon at a basketball game and soon the streets are overrun with zombies. When I say soon I mean like half the fucking movie later. Before that can come we have to spend the evening with a shock jock called Logan (Moseley, who really should have known better) who is at worst totally wrong for the part of dickhead radio personality and at best a pale imitation of Stephen McHattie in Pontypool. He’s just annoying, he doesn’t sell any of the characteristics someone like that is supposed to have; his arrogance is put on, his meanness paper-thin, his diction absolutely wrong, nevermind that DJs like this get put on in the fucking morning whereas this guy’s shift starts in the evening and goes until the early morning. So we have enough cause to turn off the film as it is before the crisis proper starts. Then writer Kenny Yakkel wants us to believe that once zombies start trolling the streets that people are going to tune in to this fucking idiot instead of listening to the emergency broadcast system. Then, as if that weren't enough, he goes even further and suggests that some people would not only tune in but willingly risk dying just to call in and report what they’re seeing. I get the whole 15 minutes of fame thing but seriously? When the zombies are pulling people out of their cars it’s time to hang the fuck up and run. I don’t think people are that stupid....I hope they're not that stupid.

Here’s a sometimes helpful hint about the quality of a film; granted it doesn’t always work but anyway go to the IMDB and see how many people get credited in the cast on just the first screen before you have to click ‘more’. That’s a lot of fucking people. Coleman Francis used to do the same thing in his movies, he would credit every soul who makes an appearance because as the guys at MST3K observed he most likely didn’t have anything to pay them with. “Well, I can’t pay you but your name'll be in the credits!” was the logic that seemed to account for the staggering number of people who get credited. This has the look of a bunch of people doing Corbin Bernsen or the producers a favor, a quality that pervades the whole production. It’s terrible, it has no moral worthy of the name, no performance worth writing home about (though some are memorable in their wretchedness), it looks like shit, smells of cost-cutting in every department, doesn’t generate an ounce of tension, has no surprises, no fresh take on anything and can’t even convincingly pull of its simplest conceit. As strictly a Pontypool ripoff, we have the shock jock and his female producer who are supposed to generate sexual tension (they do no such thing) while things go awry outside. They fail at this entirely when they leave the studio and subtlety gets the ax. Nevermind that they blame the attacks on terrorists in the name of talking about hatred. I know you’re not supposed to hate people, let alone because of their race or religion, I’m not a motherfucking eight year old. The script feels like a senior thesis paper turned into a lazy, ninth rate Zombie film and is at times even dumber than that. I’ve spent a fair amount of time listening to shithead morning DJs, my sister used to listen to them on the twenty minute drive to school each morning whenever I forgot to bring cds to listen to. I know their vein and rude and ought to be castrated; I also know they aren’t so painfully stiff and forced-sounding as Bill Moseley’s Logan and David Moscow’s Gil are. Patricia Tallman, who played Barbara in Tom Savini’s Night of the Living Dead remake, is ok but again not written as a real person, more like someone’s older sister from when they were teenagers who happens to talk about divorce instead of breaking up with her boyfriend.

Dead Air’s greatest crime is that it simply isn’t scary. At no point do we fear for any particular character (they’re in talk radio in LOS ANGELES for fuck’s sake, they deserve everything they get) or wonder what’s going to happen next. It looks like a made-for-tv movie and does nothing to rise above it’s shittiness. So as you can see it isn’t enough to add swear words, violence, nudity (in arguably the film’s most pointlessly vile scene), terrorism, racism, religion, TV news and whatever the fuck else they packed into the films already languorous hour and a half. If you’re going to try and make the same movie that someone else already has, you’d better improve the message if you don’t have the budget to at least make yours look better. The only thing I can say in Dead Air’s defense is it made me realize just how great Pontypool is. I knew it was good but to think that the same premis and probably the same budget in someone else’s hands produced this and I get that Bruce McDonald really did something special. So did Danny Boyle and even Juan Carlos Fresnadillo for that matter. Money isn’t everything, but I guess it helps. In fact I’d wager that 28 Weeks Later cost more than 28 Days Later (I could be 100% wrong, for the record) but doesn’t match it’s tension, realism (...) or character development. It’s still a lot of fun and very dark and very harrowing and quite frightening at times but really you need to mind every aspect of your production. The few things that ran unchecked in 28 Weeks Later do stick out because the film is quite good otherwise. When a film is all unchecked shoddiness, however, it’s time to look elsewhere.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Smarmy Pin-Ups I Have Known: This Year In Chaos

One of my favorite things concerning directors with instantly recognizable style is the hope that they may one day take on genre films. Some of the most reputable horror films of our time were made by dramatic directors with names made for themselves in drama. The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, The Shining and Hour of the Wolf were all made by directors who had either already become some of the biggest names in the prestige/blockbuster game or were about to. On the other hand, so were The Doctor's Horrible Experiment, The Exorcist II: The Heretic, Twilight and today's film Jennifer's Body. I've long been looking forward to Jennifer's Body because I've been looking forward to sparring with writer/Ragged-Dick-stripper-It girl Diablo Cody on my home turf: The Horror Genre. And now that I've seen both her film and the litany of negative reviews that went with it, allow me to be the first (ok, at this point I'm very nearly the last) person to say I fucking told you so everyone on Planet Earth! For those who don't know, Diablo Cody wrote the screenplay for the Rushmore knock-off Juno and has since been all anyone can talk about. There's apparently been a backlash since Juno's universal seduction of the movie-going world, I thought I was the only one who despised the film's thrift store pretentiousness and close-minded view of humanity, but I guess I'm not alone. Yes, as it turns out, the only person still in love with Diablo Cody's writing is Cody herself, whose self-indulgent screenplay for Jennifer's Body actually stops the plot dead on several occasions to get a word in. Not often do you get to see a movie that actually stops and looks at itself in the mirror and invites you to do the same.

Jennifer's Body
by Karyn Kusama
We get introduced first to Needy Lesnicky (one of many Cody non-names), who in voice over explains away the dramatic high points of the film. We know that because she's in asylum, with a framed picture of her boyfriend nearby and because she's covered in scars, she's already defeated her opponent at the expense of her teenage companion. I'm not ruining anything, this is how it's set up. Not fifteen minutes in and we know how it ends. Anyway, Needy then explains how she ended up an orderly-kicking bad girl. She used to be best friends with best-friend-from-childhood Jennifer Check; Needy grew into a nerd, sort of, and Jennifer grew into Megan Fox from Transformers. I'll get to why that doesn't work in a minute. Jennifer steals Needy one night to go see a band called Low Shoulder, presumably because there's an absolutely meaningless sight-gag at the end of the film having to do with their name. Jennifer runs down the list of every guy in the bar she's fucked to naive Needy and then introduces herself to lead singer Nikolai Wolf. When Jennifer goes to buy her and the band a drink ("I'll just play Hello Titty with the bartender" explains Jennifer when asked how she'll skirt the issue of her being underaged), Needy overhears Nikolai and his bass player discussing whether or not the drooling fangirl is a virgin or not. Needy thinks they just want to get her into their rape van and do the obvious but when the venue burns down and they get her into the van, the circumstances seem much more sinister. Needy goes home, having just witnessed a bunch of people burned to death, and encounters Jennifer, who growls at her and eats most of a rotisserie chicken on the kitchen floor before vomiting black bile (in a classic bit of Ed Wood, Jr.-esque unfaithful narration, Needy will describe the liquid as a mixture of 'Roadkill and nails' to her boyfriend the next day).

Everyone's in shock over the death of their classmates at the bar, except Jennifer, who handles her grief by promising to fuck a football player who just lost his best friend, only to rip his guts out in the woods. People are sad, or so Needy tells us in voice over. To be honest it doesn't matter in the slightest. For some reason, a month goes by, and then a goth kid asks Jennifer out in front of Needy. Sensing that Needy likes the boy, Jennifer accepts his offer and gives him her address. He follows her directions and they lead him to a house under construction on a street with no lights on it whatsoever. Just guess what happens to him? Yeah, that's right. Anyway, Needy tells us that no one cares at school about the dead goth kid. Why that's important is anyone's guess. The formal dance is coming up, so to prepare, Needy goes to the school libraries occult section and learns about demons. I think maybe that's a joke but even so, it's not funny. If it's not a joke, let me just clear the air: there is never and will never be a book with specifics on demons waiting to be found at the library. That shit is in paperback and costs thirty dollars at the least, ok? They didn't start printing those exposition-pedias until after that cliche had found its way into every two-bit ghost story movie in some form or other. The answers are never just "at the library" so knock it off already. Anyway, Needy never says it, but she thinks Jennifer is a succubus; Low Shoulder thought she was a virgin, so when they sacrificed her to Satan the night of the fire in exchange for fame, she became something demonic. Needy's boyfriend, Chip (...?), doesn't believe her, and responds with equal dismay when she tells him to stay home from the formal so he won't be eaten alive. So you know he's going out and you know Jennifer's gonna find him and eat him. The only solution? Well, The World Book entry on Demons or whatever the hell told her to stab Jennifer in the heart, so why not give that a try?

Poor Karyn Kusama. You had everything going for you, and now here you are directing a vehicle for Diablo Cody's mouth and Megan Fox's tits. And I know that the latter was the bigger selling point to audiences because I was in a Multiplex in Boston on opening night (I didn't pay, but I was there all the same). The audience was 90% male and most couldn't keep from cat-calling and shouting lewd comments whenever Megan Fox appeared in anything other than full dress, often not even then. They were not there for the snappy, nonsensical dialogue; indeed most repeated it quizzically like it was another language. Hipsters and critics may have fallen in love with all the made-up slang (if I hear anyone use the word 'homeskillet' one more time....), but the rest of the world doesn't give a goddamn. So much for that screenwriting Oscar, eh? I find this gross for a number of reasons, but mostly because Kusama directed a great little film called Girlfight years ago with another Hollywood prisoner Michelle Rodriguez, whose best roles since have involved Paul W.S. Anderson and holographic little girls and her worst involve partying coeds and werewolves. Girlfight was a terrific, unassuming little movie with nothing to prove; Kusama could have done anything afterwards and knocked it out of the park, but Hollywood doesn't exactly roll out the red carpet for indie directors these days. Quite frankly she was lucky to find a project with such a high profile considering how easily she could have been relegated to forgettable thrillers or sex comedies (E. Elias Merhige, Roland Joffe and Nimrod Antal feel your pain...or anyway, they should). To say that the only reasons anyone is going to pay this film any mind is because Diablo Cody wrote it and Megan Fox almost gets naked in it should come as a relief to Kusama because soon, people will forget she had anything to do with it and she can make something as good as Girlfight again. She tries to breathe life into the script, but she's not a horror director and either can't or won't revel in violence, which the script is lousy with.

Before I run off into hyperbole, let me first say that I don't want to make a mountain of this. I hate this movie, to be sure, but it's no better or worse than Mega Shark Vs. Giant Octopus, which was released the same week as Jennifer's Body. There were bad films before Diablo Cody and there'll be plenty afterwards. I don't want to assign her with some legendary quality. She's simply a blogger moonlighting as a scriptwriter who happens to think everyone on earth talks like Kenneth the Page from 30 Rock, and whose dialogue isn't nearly as clever as it thinks it is. I don't really like Stephen King's writing either nor do I think he's done the field any harm by encouraging people to read shitty books. As long as they're reading, right? Juno I actually disliked more because everyone loved it so much; it wrapped up a pro-life message in cuteness to distract people from its spinelessness. I hated that film because it refused to play by its own snarky rules, and allowed a vicious piece of shit to not learn a thing and still come out on top (incidentally, the same could be said of the film's writer). It favored jarring style over substance, to the point that director Jason Reitman just threw out garish effects to see what would stick. The music borrowed so heavily from the Wes Anderson/Garden State model I could swear they were simply playing those films' respective soundtrack albums. The one original tack it had to offer was the screenplay, which I found infuriatingly inconsistent. In short, it's no shock at all that I disliked Jennifer's Body to the degree that I do.

The story makes little to no sense on a scene-by-scene basis; things happen because that’s what goes on in horror films…though largely that defense doesn’t even work. Cody is so intent on not playing by the rules, in fact she’s such a renegade that she doesn’t even play by her own rules. Here’s a smattering of questions I have for our auteur author: Why does Needy not have her glasses in the asylum? Why does Jennifer howl and vomit when she sees Needy for the first time after her sacrifice, when she clearly trusted her meek friend enough to go back to her house? Why does she never make that noise again? Why do Jennifer and Needy make out? Why isn't that explored in their back story? Why doesn't Needy's insecurity about her feelings for Jennifer come out in full? Is she a closeted lesbian or was this purely a marketing decision? Why is no mention of the incident made later? Why doesn't Jennifer, who is supposed to be the popular girl at school, not have any other friends but Needy? Where all the other cheerleaders she would actually be friends with in the real world? Why does Colin the goth kid ask Jennifer out? If he liked her, why didn't he mention it to Needy in their first dialogue together? No way in hell would he risk his goth friends finding out. Why does Jennifer only attack boys close to Needy? Why, if Needy understands Jennifer's plan, does she tell Chip to stay home from the formal? Wouldn't he be better protected under her watchful eye rather than at home, alone? Where is Jennifer's mother while she's off murdering boys in the middle of the night? Why does Jennifer wait a month between killing the football player and the goth kid? Why does Chip, who is one of Jennifer's strongest opponents, believe every word of Jennifer's lies later in the film if he's so in love with Needy? Why does Jennifer decide to float when she does? If she can float, surely she can do other demonic things that would render Needy harmless, right? What does the BFF necklace that both girls wear take away Jennifer's ability to fly? Why, if she is going to the formal dance simply to look out for Jennifer, does Needy dress up beforehand? How does Needy explain the broken windshield of her mother's car to her mother after Jennifer smashes it? Is there anyone on the planet who still refers to whatever major metropolitan area is nearest as 'the City'? Why, when her boyfriend is dying from an open neckwound, does Needy find it necessary to confront Jennifer with a couple of bitchy insults? Does she think a demon is going to respond to insults aimed at the girl whose body it happens to be inhabiting (this is the scene I was talking about in the introduction. Cody flat out stops the action so that the two girls can trade insults for up to a minute. Cody's message seems to be that whatever dramatic thing is going on can wait so she can make sure we know how many ridiculous synonyms for 'bitch' she came up with)? Why does Jennifer (who was just FLOATING a couple of goddamn seconds ago) not simply turn her to Demonic pudding instead of answering back with empty threats? Why for that matter does a demon insist on speaking like a pantomime of the vacuous teenager whose body it inhabits? Why does demon Jennifer outline the attack to a human who she'll later try and kill? Does she have a sex drive anymore? She doesn't actually have sex with anyone, she just eats people, so why the bait-and-switch seduction scenes? On what planet is (as Jennifer puts it) 'fucking a recruit' the same as 'having the police in your back pocket'? Who thought Amanda Seyfried and Megan Fox could pass for high school students? Johnny Simmons, who plays Chip looks like he's 13, whereas Fox and Seyfried look conspicuously like a couple of twenty-five year old actresses. This is most jarring when Seyfriend and Simmons have to have sex midway through the movie. It's borderline creepy. Also, I know too many girls who start stories with 'we used to be friends before she decided to be popular' for me to believe for a second that Needy and Jennifer would still be friends, let alone best friends. They might pass each other and smile occasionally, but there's no way, especially considering that the two girl have nothing in common, that they'd remain best friends while Jennifer is being gangbanged by mouthbreathing horndogs and Needy is studying and trying to spend quality time with her nerdy boyfriend. I went to high school, I know how these things work. Cody wants us to both accept that this is high school, so things are different, but also forget we ever went to high school and understand how shit actually works. Even Rob Zombie gets how to write convincing foul-mouthed teenage girls yet Cody remains oblivious.

The final point I want to bring up is the film's message, if it can be said to have one. Kusama and Cody both draw attention to the surface differences between Seyfried and Jennifer. In the script, Needy is apparently written as someone ugly and introverted. That doesn't work, because she also has more friends than Jennifer, not to mention a boyfriend. So while Cody's characterization backs itself into a corner, Kusama's choice to play Seyfried against Fox is similarly damning. Jennifer's Body is one of a long line of movies whose idea of ugly stems from having glasses and a look that might courteously be described as frumpy. Seyfried is no less attractive than Olivia Thirlby's sidekick in Juno and is given the exact same kind of look except that her glasses are just slightly rounder. So Kusama is basically asking everyone to accept that because Megan Fox is her counterpoint, anyone could be in the Needy role and still pale in comparison. That doesn't work for me because I find Megan Fox pretty profoundly unattractive. I'm not every guy on the planet but the horror of the story derives from the notion that men will do anything for a hot person; Jennifer falls for the lead singer of Low Shoulder, guys fall for Jennifer. I'm amazed that that still qualifies as enough to base a movie around. Here's why that doesn't work: all the girls I know who act like Megan Fox and who also look like her…no one likes them. They get bad-mouthed at parties and date surrogate fathers, and even that characterization, I recognize, is far too broad to be true. You can no longer get away with making movies about the pitfalls of attractive people because there's no such thing as a blanketly (un)attractive person. I'll use myself as an example. I'm not particularly good-looking; on a good day I look like Wilbur Whately the Goatman from H.P. Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror, what with my enormous head and patchy facial hair. As I walk the streets my visage sends peasants running for the sanctity of holy places where they beg for absolution. Whenever I arrive somewhere new, rumours of the goatman who haunts Cambridge cinematheques have preceded me and I have to wear a cloak in polite company, like when I purchase fatback and the lesser works of Krzysztof Kieslowki at the larder, so as to avoid a scene. Yet, I've had girlfriends, one of the only aspects of my life I ever feel good bragging about. If I was stupid and a massive cunt, like Jennifer, I wouldn't have friends at all, let alone good friends. And, predictably, just like Juno, Jennifer never changes, she just gets PG-13 naked and violent (the film is nothing like as violent or excessive as it should be, yet is still reprehensible and vulgar). People are not defined by their looks anymore, and while half of the film seems to get that, the half that gives Needy an understanding if horny boyfriend, the other half, the one that obeys genre conventions and stops the film midstream to elaborately call its villain a whore, something the audience already knows, doesn't. The mystery quickly shifts from wondering what's happened to Jennifer to why we should care about her in the first place.

So, I hate this movie because it tells us to obey playground rules just like it does. Did I hate everything? No. I like Amy Sedaris and J.K. Simmons, but they're wasted in bit parts. But what I really like is Adam Brody as Nikolai, the band leader, a Ray Lovelock character he embodies with effortless greasy charisma. Brody has a great, leering charm and delivers lines "I wanna go someplace familiar - my van" with a slick confidence, both free and full of knowing irony, that I haven't heard in a while. It's also nice to see someone from a beloved staple of mainstream teenage culture (The O.C.) stabbing people to death and snorting coke in a hotel room. The only thing in this movie with the guts to be as sleazy as it should, Brody's a spot-on transplant from 70s exploitation films, which makes the wretchedness of everything around him all the more apparent.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Talking Foxes I Have Known: This Year In Chaos

Punishment is a tricky thing in filmmaking. Often times, especially since the late 70s when films started being consciously ‘about’ things rather than simply featuring them, filmmakers will construct their movies so as to be consciously hard to enjoy. Pier Paolo Pasolini, Michael Haneke and Gaspar Noe are all perpetuators of this form of artistic thought and believe in the un-immersion of an audience in a story to make them aware just how foolish they are in sitting down and taking it in. Needless to say film critics (to say nothing of audiences) don’t always go for it. The man who has, more than anyone else in his field, made sure you cannot sit through his films idly is Lars Von Trier. From his sweltering reference-laden debut The Element of Crime on through his trilogy about the subjugation of women to a role as a fool or sacrificial lamb (Breaking The Waves, The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark) and finally to his theatrical ‘fuck you’ to America (Dogville, Manderlay, and the as-yet unmade Wasington), Lars Von Trier has made sure you do not have an easy couple of hours at the cinema. The Idiots has the distinction of being one of the most offensive and difficult movies I’ve ever sat through. So when I heard he’d be making another horror film oh how I wondered. What on earth could Lars do in a horror film that he hadn’t already done in his dramatic pieces? He had in fact already made a “horror” movie called Epidemic, though it was about the horror genre more than it was about anything actually horrible. The first thing to understand is that Antichrist is not exactly a horror film; critics and distributors needed a signifier and horror is as close to anything else as this gets but it’s no scarier (though I admit one of its scenes rivals even the Italian master’s most eccentric mutilations) than anything Dario Argento ever did (and I do not use this comparison randomly). As in Epidemic, which I’ll touch on briefly, it is in the minds of the protagonists that the horror exists and little by little it becomes real. I should warn you, I’m going to take my time talking about this one.

by Lars Von Trier
Crucial in understanding Antichrist is understanding Epidemic. Epidemic’s plot is about as threadbare as they get. A writer and director (played by Lars Von Trier and his screenwriter Niels Vørsel) lose the contents of a floppy disk (ah, the 80s....) which held the final copy of a script they were due to hand over to an executive in a number of days. So they decide instead to write a horror film; they concoct an obligatory formula about where to inject the drama and so forth while they occasionally traipse around the city looking for inspiration and meeting people like Udo Kier (who incidentally gives the most human and personal performance of his career). We occasionally get to see snippets of the film they’re writing about a doctor (also played by Von Trier) who thumbs his nose at his superiors and decides to go combat a plague that has been ravaging the world. He leaves the confines of a walled-off city and goes to fight the disease where it’s doing the most damage. And that’s it really. The plot, as such, is most unimportant. Like the two films that surround this in Von Trier’s “Europa” or Genre Trilogy, it is about the way these kinds of stories are told. Like (500) Days of Summer with open sores, it seeks to replicate the tropes of a kind of story (which it does occasionally in the flashes of drama) rather than to actually tell such a story. Largely we’re with Von Trier and Vørsel as they bullshit their way through a script, which they don’t actually end up finishing; instead they hand a 12-page outline (a similar episode takes place in The Idiots involving a pun on the Danish word for “baby food”). As proof of Von Trier’s irreverent treatment of horror films and filmmaking in general (not that I think he doesn't love the hell out of his job; he clearly does), the word “Epidemic®” (imagine the 'r' is an 'e' if you will) is visible in the upper left hand corner of the screen whenever the segments concerning the writing of the film are shown.

As a comment on horror films, its point is well-taken. The scenes of Von Trier’s Dr. Mesmer are largely pretty funny in their stylized slog through ludicrous dialogue and overwrought premises; the image of Von Trier sailing through a marsh on a red cross flag while Wagner blasts heroically is pretty great but it’s one I associate more with the idea of melodrama and medical television shows than with horror. The dramatic segments are the best part of the film and they are few and far between. For much of the running time it’s the two writers, writing, eating, walking, asking their friends questions and then finally meeting with their agent. The film’s sense of irony is two-fold, first in that as the two men write about a plague with their high-falutin ideas about writing and such, an actual plague is unfolding and makes an appearance in the finale; it’s mirrored in the climax of the fake story when Dr. Mesmer discovers he’s been carrying the plague. So, as you can see, it isn’t a proper horror film, it’s about making horror films and why so many of the genre fall flat. That doesn’t make for particularly exciting viewing and considering that Epidemic is sandwiched between The Element of Crime and Europa, I was mighty disappointed by its utter refusal to do anything or look exciting. The story goes that Lars made Epidemic on a bet, that he could make a film for a million kronor, so its slackerish execution and insolent premise aren’t just the plot, they’re the point. They're what got the film started in the first place. So really Epidemic was the story of two men trying to write a film about two men trying to write a film, both trying to prove they needed only to play with the conventions of genre filmmaking to succeed; they only half succeed. Like their cinematic counterparts Von Trier and Vørsel fail to come up with anything compelling and Epidemic feels like Von Trier playing a prank on his benefactor (which it was). Not enough happens for this to be a truly effective satire or horror film.
So you see the respect Von Trier has for conventional filmmaking and especially genre filmmaking. It begins to make sense that Antichrist, far from fitting into a horror film mould, simply dances around the conventions of it, simultaneously hitting a number of quite chilling chords that place it squarely inside the genre.

by Lars Von Trier
In an opening sequence that proves Anthony Dod Mantle deserves his Oscar, two unnamed people make love. They are played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg and they are married with a child. While they make what would probably be raucous love if we could hear it, their son Nic drops out of a window to his death. The action proper begins with Willem Dafoe’s therapist husband trying to explain to his wife that all that grieving she’s doing is natural and cannot, as her doctor has suggested, be suppressed by drugs if she hopes to get over Nic’s death. We chart the course of their relationship over a number of days, how her guilt turns to anger at his seeming indifference. We see his clinical approach to their marriage anger her, rightly, but we also see the caring man beneath his icy theory every now and again. One night he suggests an exercise where she tells him what she’s most afraid of so they can confront it. After much deliberation and side-stepping the question she comes up with Eden, the name of their cabin in the woods. It was the last place she and Nic spent time alone and where she went to work on her thesis. It holds a good deal of significance for both of them and he believes it might hold the key to her happiness returning.

On the train ride to Eden, he asks her to envision the forest and for the first time we get the sense that the natural world terrifies her. When they actually arrive, she runs headlong through the woods not stopping or slowing despite the massive amount of luggage she carries. His first bit of treatment involves trying to conquer this fear. He asks her to walk from one rock to another on the grass, maybe a length of ten feet and she behaves like as if he were leading to the gas chamber. They perform a few exercises and then gets several glimpses into his wife’s psyche both before and after the accident. The most worrying discovery is the collection of notes and pictures she kept in the attic about her thesis “Gynocide”. But of course, this is only the start. His exercises do seem to get places in her psyche, but the tricky thing about their relationship is that he’s not really respectful of the notion that he’s both her husband and her therapist. He wants to wield all the power but every gesture she makes will effect him two-fold. She’s understandably upset because when she wants to drown out her pain by having sex with him, which she does quite frequently, his clinical answer may just sound cold and unfeeling. So while he may think he’s doing the right thing, to her he’s doing the wrong thing. Before long she loses her patience with him, which coincides with her sanity giving way to the thoughts and suspicions she’s harbored for a long while. She essentially has bought into the things she was researching about the ways in which women were treated in ancient times and comes to believe that womankind is the most evil thing of all, second or perhaps equal to the natural world that surrounds them. After she confessing this to him he wanders off to think, the biggest mistake he’s ever made. She accuses him of running off and when he refuses to have sex with her, she crushes his genitals with a bit of firewood, drills a hole in his leg and screws in a stone tablet used for sharpening tools. He wakes up alone realizing that his wife and the woman who has done this to him are no longer the same person and he flees, but how far can one get with a giant stone on their leg? She’s got to find him eventually after all who knows the place better than she does? If she does what punishment awaits him?

I’ve been waiting for Von Trier to make a horror film because he has the distinction of being one of my favorite directors who has never made anything I could ever see watching twice. I’ve seen everything he’s done, including both seasons of his Twin Peaks-esque television series Kingdom (pointlessly remade as Kingdom Hospital by Stephen King a few years ago) and as with most of his movies it’s not without reservations that I enjoyed Antichrist. With the exception of The Element of Crime and its stylistic follow up Europa, I’ve never been able to see past the inherent darkness and violence of his stories and characters to revel in the craft and subtext in quite the way many of critics have – I enjoy the distance I keep from Von Trier’s work but still love thinking about the films years after I’ve watched them (with the exception of The Idiots, which I almost wish I had never seen). He’s revolutionized cinema more than once and he’s incredibly important even if I don’t always enjoy the films he’s most famous for. If you know him, it’s probably for Bjork’s be-swanned performance of one of the songs from his Dancer in the Dark (his neo-realist musical) at the 2002 Academy Awards or you may know him for the aforementioned cinematic play Dogville starring Nicole Kidman. I really didn’t enjoy what happens in either film and had extraordinarily difficult times with both, yet those are the two that inspire the most debate (outside of strictly critical circles). Von Trier, like Alejandro Jodorowski, Pasolini and Derek Jarman before him, is a punk, a masochist who relishes in the hyperbole thrown on him like gasoline by critics just aching to set him on fire. The more he prods his critics by presenting with increasingly difficult material the more they rally against him and the more fun he seems to have planning his next move. He’s notorious for issuing statements about himself and his films and has managed to remain in the press for nearly thirty years without ever having done anything remotely commercial. Of his 11 feature films, 10 have debuted at the Cannes Film Festival (a record if I’m not mistaken) and despite his claims to the contrary I don’t think he has any intention of ceasing because it seems as though he’s having too much fun.

I was excited for a proper Von Trier horror film because his view of humanity is so dark and so cruel and this promised a most ghastly punishment for his favorite prey. His style is something I really do love and to be fair, much of it has to due with whichever cinematographer he’s employed. What I love and remember most about his films is the look; he pioneered the shaky hand-held camera to get a more intimate look at a couple, he loves colours and lights (Element of Crime was shot entirely in a sickly amber hue with bright flashes of blue every so often), often changes the colour of a landscape as we gaze upon it and can be said to love the capabilities of his cameraman. The opening is a testament to this; in slow-motion, absolutely flawless black and white, even the sight of the genitalia of the body doubles thrusting rudely is hard not to admire. Von Trier treats the death of the child and the wild fornication with the same beauty, both set to a piece of classical music (that I think is by Hayden but I’m not 100% on this). Death and sex are a part of life (here, they're inextricable), it is only when we think about them or use them that they become unnatural. He uses his role as a therapist and the effect of their son’s death in order to manipulate his wife, no matter how altruistic he maintains his position is; She uses sex as a way to deal with their son’s death which is an improper and selfish way to treat her husband and ignore her grief. Neither is innocent. It’s not hard to link her use of sex and constant attempts at roughly overpowering him in a place called Eden to the biblical point that woman is the downfall of man. Von Trier has had a troublesome relationship with women in films, inciting more charges of misogyny than even David Lynch. Charlotte Gainsbourg is thus the embodiment of a woman pushed by thousands of years of male thought regarding the ‘place’ of women. Her grief becomes a deeper wound and she misplaces her guilt into a sense that because she was Nic’s mother and birthed him, she is even more evil. It makes sense that she fixates on genitalia in the wake of the tragedy, as that was how the problem’s originated both in the birthing of their son and in the sex act that distracted them from his death. She castrates both of them when she can no longer find solace in sex and she drains his ruined penis of blood and semen showing both the destructive and life-giving power of the organ. It’s hard to think about and even harder to watch.
Amidst the male female relationship, there are other forces at work as well namely religion and nature. Aside from the obvious biblical context of the setting and relationship dymanic, there is the cryptic nature of her research. She offers hints, like “Nature is Satan’s church” and switches between natural and supernatural explanations for simple things. In essence, all of her hysteria about nature is no different than Bill Paxton slaughtering people because an angel told him to in Frailty. She goes on and on about the Three Beggars, a fox, a deer and a crow, each of whom make an appearance (in the film’s eye-rollingest moment, the fox says “Chaos Reigns”, the subheading of Chapter 2, in a low drawn-out voice). In a stylistic device Von Trier has evidently gotten used to the film is told in chapters but it adds nothing to the film, so I won’t elaborate. When he realizes that she believes in the nonsense about the three beggars and that they are not, as her research asserts, a constellation, he gets a look of the utmost horror on his face and this is after she’s put a bolt and grinding wheel through his leg. He realizes that she’s been taken in and that her naïve belief in otherworldly forces now takes precedence over their relationship and her humanity. Though interestingly the beggars only ever appear or mean anything to Dafoe; her paranoia manifests itself in front of his eyes and he has to confront it. I think what I like most about the film (genius cinematography aside) is that Von Trier posits that the most terrifying thing in the world is looking at your spouse and seeing a stranger. He gives us the whole film to think about it because their most beautiful act is to make love in the beginning of the film. Following Nic’s death, nothing of that passion remains, sex is impersonal, a tool, and his love is rationed like the medicine he refuses her. They no longer see each other, they see an enemy, thus the final act can be seen as either buying or rejecting religion, but their love is no longer in evidence.

Von Trier dedicated the film to Andrei Tarkovsky, which I can see, what with its grey-green landscape, bickering protagonists’ fixation on the past even as they careen toward the future and of course its biblical punishment. Tarkovsky never made a horror film, but he used many genres to examine human nature including the sci-fi epic, which brings us to really the most important point to be made in examining a horror film: how well does it do its job? How frightening is it? It is quite frightening, even if the biggest scare is one you consider after the film has ended. The torment Charlotte Gainsbourg inflicts on Willem Dafoe is just as abrasive as anything Eli Roth or Takashi Miike ever dreamt up, except it doesn’t look away when others might (well I guess Miike wouldn't, would he? Has he ever shown a penis before?). The sound design is wonderful and the music exquisitely evocative and frightening. Von Trier plays with, but doesn’t lampoon, the conventions of the genre in a nicely underhanded way, like by setting the film in the ubiquitous cabin in the woods. When Dafoe’s character discovers the notes up in the attic, it carries the same weight as the typewriter in The Shining or the stomach writing in The Exorcist, two films that Antichrist owes a significant debt to. Willem Dafoe’s growing fear of the woman he shares a bed with rings true and the paranoia that envelops her mirrors the distrust he tries to keep hidden. Their performances are equally tremendous. My biggest grievance is that so much of the film is spent in conversation and that the examination of their marriage is fairly ordinary (the performances help this not ever get truly boring). The atmosphere takes a bit too long to build and the castration cuts the subtlety in twain anyway. The ending carries little dramatic weight as we’ve considered it for the past thirty minutes. The imagery gets amazing (the press still of the tree with hands is really quite stunning, as is anything shot in slow-motion. Dod Mantle is really and truly a gifted cinematographer and if I don’t stop praising him soon I’ll have to ask him to marry me). The problems arise because this isn’t a proper horror film, it’s an outside job.

I rather think that Von Trier should have dedicated his film to another Scandinavian auteur, Ingmar Bergman. Bergman’s conflicts are much in line thematically with both Tarkovsky and Von Trier but unlike the late Russian trailblazer, Bergman did try his hand at a horror film. The result, Hour of the Wolf, is incredibly like Antichrist. Both feature striking and unique imagery, both feature at their core a marriage fallen to ruins with one spouse trying to understand the descent into insanity the other has taken, both build a looming sense of dread that becomes inescapable, both deal with the others manifestations of their tortured psyche (in both cases in the form of animals and people) and both spend much more time on the marriage than their ostensible horror. I think Antichrist is a lot easier to understand and is more engaging than Hour of the Wolf, but they are remarkably similar films that tread similar paths that it’s nearly impossible not to place them side by side and see that their failings and successes are identical. Hour of the Wolf and Antichrist simply got attention in fields and areas that horror films don’t ordinarily get, so of course they jar with expectations and forge their own path even as they fall on the tried and true. Just as when William Friedkin and Stanley Kubrick, two directors who made dramatic pictures almost exclusively, made their genre masterpieces they had their own ideas about adapting and conventions, they just happened to allot more time to the frightening than Von Trier or Bergman. When a film calls itself Antichrist, I expect a bit more fright than I got here, even if his point is that people are the most evil things in the world. His point is, once again, well taken, however, and his movie quite well made.
It’s certainly ambitious a film where your villain is everyone on earth given the physical presence of two people; the onslaught of harmless women marching up a hill in the epilogue filling in half of the missing pieces. But in an age where Torture Porn is not just shorthand but an established genre with people trying to fit into it, I’m willing to play the game of any film with ideas. Von Trier does not coddle his audience and he does not sink to the level that genital mutilation might imply. He has made a film to be watched and judged by adults and students with a growing appreciation for technique. It is not for the faint of heart nor for the critic who has grown tired of Von Trier’s tricksy persona and sleight-of-hand. I don’t think it’s perfect nor do I think, as one angry journalist for Cinema Scope opined following its Cannes premiere, that it’s stupid. It’s difficult and full of anger and violence but Von Trier, whatever else may be said of him, clearly cared and threw himself into crafting the film and I can’t help but admire him and Antichrist both, even as I relive its worst moments. As horror films go it is unnerving and unique and gorgeous and hideous and it makes perfect sense in the context of Lars Von Trier’s filmography and ideas. I rather hope he does this again sometime.