Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Kids Are Alright

One thing that a culture of impulse remakes and quickly-eaten genre conventions fosters is the over-exploration of simple premises. In the 70s when not every idea in the world had been taken, producers and directors would put a spin on anything if only to see if they could get money with as little creativity as possible. Plug in a new element/twist into a simple formula and you had a cheap way to make more money off a blood-and-guts-hungry public. So considering that everything in creation has been remade it was only a matter of time before today's filmmakers would try and make cheaply the weirder subgenres that showed up towards the end of the golden age of the exploitation era; in this case I mean the Killer Child movie, and at least to a point, the Zombie Children movie. With Orphan leading the new breed of killer child movies, the competition can't really help but pale in comparison but I do find it both encouraging and more than a little lazy that today's films seem note-for-note replays of earlier films on the same subject. Lazy because even a well thought-out, uncredited remake is still a remake. Encouraging because the films that these most resemble are little-appreciated and could stand to be remade and for the new guys bring enough style and gravitas to their versions that no one rests on their laurels. It never crossed my mind that anyone with influence had even seen The Children and Devil Times Five, let alone copied their formula.

The Plague
by Hal Masonberg
Ten years ago, every kid on earth under the age of nine went inexplicably catatonic, started foaming at the mouth and seizing. After that, they all went into a coma only broken by fits everyday at noon and midnight. All new children are born comatose and so governments have been trying to stop anyone having more kids. The world fell into panic and disarray and people have been preparing to watch everyone around them die. Though this is a worldwide phenomenon we only ever see its effects on the small Midwestern United States town of Keenan. Resident David Russell has his no 16 or 17-year-old son Eric quarantined in his childhood bedroom. David keeps Eric in restraints because of the seizures he experiences every day, one of many things that David's brother Tom needs explained to him. Tom was in jail for many years for killing a guy in a barfight and his post-release job search came to naught so he's hoping David won't mind taking him in, seeing as how it's the end of the world and that. David is pretty numb to everything these days so what's one more body in his house? Less willing to accept Tom's presence is his ex-wife Jean who is still sore about him killing that guy and then not coming home. And then there's Tom's parole officer, the sheriff, who looks like he almost misses proper crime. Currently the closest thing he has to trouble is two kids, Kip and Claire, who keep breaking into graveyards. All in all this is one dismal fucking bunch so maybe it's not such a terrible thing that the night that at midnight at Tom's first day in town the kids wake up.

A bunch of kids who haven't walked, read or spoken in a decade wouldn't be much of a threat but as David has observed the kids have been maintaining themselves so that it looks like at a moment's notice they could just pick up where they left off. Which is precisely what they do. The only difference between their old selves and new is that the only thing the kids have on their mind is killing everyone old enough to buy beer. In little time at all the residents of Keenan look to have been reduced to just Tom, Jean, her brother Sam, the sheriff, his deputy and wife, Claire and Kip. The only thing that keeps them alive is their willingness to kill the kids that everyone in town was either surprised by or too soft to kill. That and Claire and Kip's resemblance to the recently awakened killer teens. Their only hope now lies in a military base some 40 miles out of town that the sheriff heard a dispatch from, but they have to act fast because the kids seem to know all their next moves.

The number of ways in which The Plague goes awry is equal to the number of things it does right. The three best things about The Plague are its morose atmosphere, cavalier attitude towards its subject matter and curious leading man. Dread and hopelessness permeate every scene of the movie to the point that you wonder how anyone makes it through a day. Like Children of Men, a much better (and costlier) film on the same subject, you can feel that everyone is just getting through the day knowing that tomorrow isn't guaranteed and they may never see their loved ones wake up. It's never openly stated but I feel like the reason Tom felt ok throwing his marriage away was that they couldn't have expect to be able to have a child. I also suspect that that's why he feels less guilty about murdering children. At about the half-hour mark the film is about a power balance between adults and kids, with murder the only way to stay on top. Most films with such a limited audience, your average direct-to-DVD thriller, won't match this movie's grimness with its savagery. Hal Masonberg isn't exactly what you'd call an auteur so the film doesn't linger on the acts of violence (or anything for that matter) but there is more challenging material in The Plague than anything that the SyFy channel would ever bankroll. Though the casting of James Van Der Beek in the lead role is certainly not outside SyFy's MO. Van Der Beek spent his early career as the heartthrob lead character in Dawson's Creek. It's not even that he had trouble crossing over into movies after the series ended in 2003, he never really bothered to. He's averaged a film a year roughly since then and none has gone anywhere. Mostly he makes a living in bit parts on TV series. Seeing him here, looking like Bruce Campbell's younger brother, is really very strange. To go from every teen girl's wet dream to appearing sweaty, unshaven and powerless in a movie only ever seen by chance or out of boredom must be surreal, but that's show business. His dropped stature definitely helped me believe his character's desperation.
Of course nobody said Van Der Beek was much of an actor. He's fine but he looks tired the whole movie and I don't buy his devotion to his ex-wife for a second, nor that he's been through jail, a marriage, and the start of the end of the world. The performances are largely uninspired and I'm gonna put that on the director. The Plague looks and acts like a TV movie of the week and has all the visual flare on an infomercial. If he couldn't be bothered to light a room properly, what are the chances he was really taxing his actor's abilities? And the reason I know it's his fault is because I've seen Dee Wallace carry movies just as dire as this and save them. Here she is just as bad as everyone around her. And between Masonberg's script and his lifeless direction I couldn't really get worked up about anyone's fate, the kiss of death in a movie that promises to show you the end of the world. The key I think would have been going all out. Though it is clearly not meant to be seen as one The Plague strikes me as a modernized version of Max Kalmanowicz's The Children. Modern life is blamed for turning kids into killing machines in small town American and there's no way to tell the good ones from the bad ones. Now The Children was a far sillier film with much less ambition but the quality of the direction is the same, as is the exploitative nature of the story. But The Children commits to its heinous premise with a goofy execution that The Plague lacks. Thankfully there are killer child movies being made that really dig into their grotesquery. Films that happen to share titles with the aforementioned killer child film. This is about to get confusing.

The Children
by Tom Shankland
Two families are gathering at their collective vacation home in the English countryside. Robbie and Chloe are free spirited and laidback, Elaine and Jonah are uptight and nebbishy even though they're the sort of people who shop at Whole Foods. Their kids are thankfully too young to have benefited from anything other than their wealth despite their collective missteps as parents. Well, all but one. Casey is Elaine's daughter from her first marriage and let's just say she hasn't taken to life with her new dad. Jonah can barely stand to be in the same room with her parents feeling resentment towards her mother for not having given her any attention as a child; she was also nearly aborted because of the straights her mother was in at the time of her conception, a tidbit of information that Casey has been so effected by that she had a fetus tattooed on her stomach without her parents knowledge. Casey hates her new dad because their new daughter has sucked up all Elaine's attention and affection and Jonah has no time for his badgirl step-daughter who he views as nothing more than his wife's unavoidable baggage. And as if things weren't tense enough, Casey has decided that she's going to stave off boredom by hitting on Robbie in front of his wife and kids. He isn't entirely unreceptive. Though compared to what's in store for everyone tomorrow, their dysfunction is going to seem like a walk in the park.

The night of their arrival one of the kids falls sick and vomits something thick and green, but she seems to be healthy enough soon after. By the early afternoon the next day all the kids except Miranda, Elaine and Robbie's daughter, have puked up the mysterious bile. But just what does it mean? While playing in the snow the kids place their toys in just right the place so that when they come sledding down the hill, they crash into Robbie's knees and he cuts his throat when he hits the ground and then every one of the kids promptly disappears into the woods. Chaos erupts. Chloe is in hysterics not knowing whether to stay with her dying husband or go look for her kids who she has no reason to suspect did anything malicious. Jonah is useless in a crisis and mostly just isolates himself and Miranda suspecting Casey's behind it all. Elaine tries to remain calm but when shit gets weird, she doesn't know what to do. The only one who seems to know the score is Casey but the last thing a parent wants to hear is the truth about their children, especially from a teenage girl in a low-cut tank top.

The first thing that struck me about The Children was just how grizzly it is. Tom Shankland is no stranger to violence but I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly he establishes that no one is safe. Necessarily in a film about killer kids you have to be willing to break a few taboos. Turning kids into bloodthirsty killers is old hat by now but focusing exclusively on kids turning on their parents is bold. Shankland grants you zero distance from the violence, emotional and physical. His super-tight direction and Tim Murrell's furious editing keeps you on edge from start to finish. The ways in which all the murders and maimings are filmed makes sure that you see it coming and really feel the impact. He wants you to see how doomed everyone is and gives very little time to get over what you're seeing once the action really picks up. Not to mention the few close-ups we get of the violent acts (all very realistic) are pretty nasty. Glass in the neck is bad whether you're a kid or an adult. His control of the proceedings is helped greatly by the naturalistic performances. Though they occasionally veer close to stereotype, no one spirals more out of control than anyone else and in the end everyone's believable. Shankland makes great use of his single location and manages to make the crisis feel much bigger than just two families in a sizable house. When at the end it's implied that perhaps these aren't the only kids with problems the scope increases subtly in a way that it never does in The Plague, despite Masonberg's insistence that the problem is bigger than just a few streets and buildings in Keenan. Shankland doesn't need to expand the problem because it's already so psychologically troubling and he has no problem manipulating you into maximum discomfort. There are cheap shots in The Children but in the absence of a budget, name actors or the promise of distribution, sometimes you have to play dirty. Though it doesn't get quite as gleefully sadistic as Orphan, I was just as pleased at how sleazy The Children is.
The one aspect of the film that left me endlessly intrigued was the possibility that Shankland was paying tribute to one of my favorite forgotten exploitation films, Devil Times Five. That film was about the appearance of five kids (one played by a pre-stardom Leif Garrett) dressed for playtime at a wealthy American's house. They charm the guests but never stop communicating to each other and then one by one pick off their hosts. The winter setting not to mention the unchanged demeanor of the killer kids left me thinking that Shankland knew about the earlier film, even given its relative obscurity. But really all it shows is that there's nothing new under the sun, even if there is something more violent. This next film proves that you can do a lot right with an established formula but still fall short of your mark if you don't take us out of familiar territory. The Children and Devil Times Five have a lot in common but tonally they're night and day. The biggest problem our next killer kid movie has is that it's virtually interchangeable with every film it bears a passing resemblance to.

Wicked Little Things
by J.S. Cardone
In an opening that would have been just about the most articulately realized scenes in any zombie movie were it not for the opening titles constantly interrupting it we see a mining accident that could have been prevented with the result that a bunch of kids are trapped inside when an explosion caves it in. They're never seen or heard from again except in the urban legend of the town the mine borders. The accident was in 1913 and we join the story proper in 2006ish. Karen Tunny and her two daughters Sarah and Emma are visiting the area (Addytown, PA for those keeping score) because they've inherited the late Mr. Tunny's ancestral home. Karen's still distraught over her husband's death, Sarah would rather die than spend another second in the decrepit cabin or the one-horse town it sits in, and Emma's a little too in-the-clouds to be bothered by either problem, being no more than 6 or 7 years old. The house has no electricity or running water but the real problem lies in the woods.

Within a day Emma has run off and made friends with a girl called Mary that no one else can see. This worries Karen and not just because she runs off into the woods without telling her. Karen does a little investigating in the house and finds headlines from the time of the accident. Eerily, she can't shake the feeling that she recognizes one of the girls who was lost in the accident. While Karen restores the house Sarah does her best to forget where she is, and that includes making the acquaintance of Time, Lisa and Sean, the only other teenagers in town with access to a car. She ingratiates herself as quickly as Emma does with her imaginary friends in the woods. And as for them, they may just be behind all the disappearances that keep happening around the old Tunny place. After the electrician doesn't make it home, Karen goes looking for answers and finds Aaron Hanks, a superstitious old coot, who's been painting blood on the doors of all the houses in the woods. He has his reasons, not that anyone believes him. He seems to think that the children lost in the mining accident roam the woods killing all who don't protect themselves adequately, or who aren't blood relatives. And after a run-in with some pickax-wielding tykes, Sarah and Karen come around to his way of thinking.

J.S. Cardone has been doing this a long time, long enough to have made a movie, The Slayer, banned by the BBFC during the Video Nasties scare. He's been around long enough to know how to properly light a movie, create a sense of foreboding, and a few excellent images. It also means that because he's paying close attention to those things and hasn't been met with the acclaim or study of better-known filmmakers, he's lost his touch with actors. Wicked Little Things has an edge on all other low-budget zombie films in that it looks great and has a few brilliant set-ups. Cardone creates a lot of memorable spaces with light and shadow, that look like something Val Lewton would have come up with if tasked with making an 80s slasher film. The shots of the kids in the forest are almost always arresting, if not exactly scary. One trope of low-budget horror that Wicked Little Things unfortunately sticks to is never having our protagonists in the frame with the villain; you just never get scared unless you see how close to the monster you are. Anyway, the imagery is memorable but the story's been told a hundred times before and the visuals alone don't save it from being just another haunted woods/supernatural, grudge-holding ghouls movie. The version of the movie I saw was given it's international title Zombies. A move that bold deserves a film just as bold and Wicked Little Things is regrettably not that film.

I can tell that Cardone lost whatever flair he may have had with actors because even the best performances are saddled with awkward placement and vacant space. Take for example the quality of the three leads. Cardone scored a major coup as far as hindsight canon scouring is concerned by getting not only a pre-Halloween Scout Taylor-Compton but a pre-Kick Ass and Let The Right One In remake Chloe Moretz. Moretz is a good actress, even if she doesn't do anything for me and Taylor-Compton reminds once again that there is a right way to play an annoying teenage girl. But you really get a sense of how good each girl is whenever they have to share the screen with the woman playing their mother. Lori Heuring may well be just as good as her onscreen children but Cardone does her a serious disservice here. For the first fifteen minutes she's a likable and believable single mother. For the middle half-hour she's an affordable ringer for Naomi Watts in The Ring. For the last twenty minutes she's just no good and looks worse next to Scout Taylor-Compton, who's made a living making sense of roles that call for nothing less than screaming panic. One scene in particular raises this movie above mediocrity. In times of crisis in horror films, people rarely ask "why?" and instead leap to "how do we stop it?" Sarah frantically asks her mom how something as ridiculous as zombie children could be real? Scout Taylor-Compton sells it and for a second I really thought this would be the moment when Wicked Little Things rose way above it's station and had an honest moment between a mother and daughter completely overpowered by something unexplainable. Unfortnately Heuring and Cardone weren't willing to make it so and all becomes hysteria once more. Heuring's efforts to keep her head above water become all the clearer next to Geoffrey Lewis and Ben Cross, who could do this in their sleep. Cross might remember Chariots of Fire like death-bed addicts remember their first good trip but he's still a pretty good actor and even as a grizzled lunatic he's watchable. If only the rest of the cast were as good. The lack of a strong central character makes the ending irrelevant, which sucks the power out of Cardone's imagery.
To make something like this stick you need a good sense of the visual but you need to balance it with an equally strong command of your actors and of the conventions of your story so you know how to break away from them. Our final scary kid film comes courtesy of Belgium's favourite son Fabrice Du Welz. Welz makes for an interesting counterpoint to Cardone because if anything he tones down the visual excitement of his fright scenes and instead works on the texture of the film as a whole. Cardone brings out his sense of light and shadow for the parts when we're meant to be afraid and to a certain extent Welz does too, but he's more about jacking up your sensory experience and overwhelming you rather than picking a spot to spook you. Welz's film is almost all tension but he makes it count in a way uncommon to most young horror directors. Granted Vinyan isn't exactly straight-up horror, but having seen his two movies I trust his instincts and extraordinary eye.

by Fabrice Du Welz
Jeanne and Paul Bellmer lost their son Joshua during a typhoon in Bangkok a little while ago and have really only gotten to the stage of the healing process where they can start socializing again. At a party thrown by some millionaire friend of theirs to raise awareness for victims of the same disaster Jeanne notices something disconcerting among the photos of displaced children: Joshua. Or anyway it looks enough like him that she goes a little nuts trying to find someone to commit to taking them up river to the Thai Burmese border to where their friend Kim's photographer snapped the boy's picture. Paul is more than a little concerned. As much as the idea of reuniting with his son tempts him, he's also just gotten used to the idea that he's dead and thought Jeanne had too. He sees her Herculean dedication to finding him as not only regressive and unhealthy but as a threat to the balance of their relationship. Searching for Paul means just indulging her unhealthy psyche and letting her grieve longer than he did. He'll take her as far as she wants to go at great personal risk to himself but he'll resent her the entire trip.

After getting up river thanks to a connection that could charitably be called shady, they meet up with Kim, who clearly knows more than she let on at the house party. Her contacts kill Paul and Jeanne's guide who was evidently out to fleece them and she gives them a new one. The night they spend in Kim's village puts Jeanne in contact with some mystics who tell her about spirits that roam around aimlessly when the bodies they once possessed were killed horribly, called Vinyan. If Jeanne wasn't destined to keep going up river before she is now. The new guides are about as helpful as the first one and days after they've left the village, Jeanne and Paul have been abandoned in the jungle and have to keep walking for fear of something getting them if they slow down. Just what it is they don't know but all roads lead to a mammoth temple in the middle of the jungle where they meet more than just the vinyan they're searching for.

Nearly every review of Vinyan I've encountered has started by saying that fans of conventional horror will be dismayed. While I'm more than inclined to agree with that statement I'd like to state for the record: fuck those people. Horror films have always been, for better or worse, the metal music of cinema and I for one am sick of their reputation as the lunkheaded stepchild. Welz is one of a select few horror directors who frankly doesn't give a good goddamn what movies are supposed to do. He's a cinephile to be sure and he freely admits Vinyan's debt to Who Can Kill A Child? but his style is unique; one of brooding intensity. Though visually his movies are more sumptuous, Welz's style isn't unlike Asian directors like Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tsai Ming-liang. Weerasethakul especially has a penchant for letting situations unfold in the same way and I like to think that if he had a touch more of a painterly sense his movies might come out looking as nice as Vinyan. But if you compare the scene in Weeresethakul's Tropical Malady where his protagonist rides his motorcycle alone at night to the scene where Paul chases Jeanne through the streets of Bangkok the kinship becomes clear. I'm not saying Welz necessarily studied indigenous cinema before making a film set in Thailand but his language and style (which I'd sum up as surreal/hyper-real naturalism, if pressed) are universal as opposed to say that of Eli Roth or Alexandre Aja whose visuals are only ever means to an end. When you grow up with slasher films, you tend to put stock in their method of storytelling, which were largely gore delivery systems. I'd go so far as to call Welz an artist for whom every second is important, so his priorities are different (read: intelligent). And that his film doesn't resemble other modern horror fare visually says to me he's doing something right. After all, who wants their film to look like Hostel? And isn't every third horror film contractually obligated to look like Saw?

Because Welz is a naturalist Vinyan, like his debut Calvaire, does want for action in its midsection. The evening spent with Kim in the beachside village gives Welz a chance to work minor miracles with his lighting but not enough happens to justify the length of their stay. I stopped minding the sluggish pace when the boat docks for the last time and the horror starts. One of the advantages of setting your movie in Burma is that the place is terrifying enough without vengeful ghosts and Welz makes his pirates a thoroughly menacing presence. Putting them on equal footing with Jeanne and Paul for a night is the perfect way to illustrate just how much trouble they're in because until now no one has been impervious to harm but the pirates at the very least we're in total control. I had thought Welz would skirt the issue and have them abandon the parents there, but he seemed content to at least show us what they're up against. What's most interesting about Vinyan's few adherences to conventional structure is that once we see Jeanne's reaction to the picture, it isn't that the movie is about suspense between set-pieces, the whole movie is one tense build-up to the last scenes. Vinyan unfolds like Georges Sluizer's The Vanishing but with one dimension missing, that of the killer. In the end we are given a glimpse into what happened to the character who's been missing throughout, but Welz is too concerned with turning the environment into a breathing, intimidating villain that he can't afford to show us its point of view. Like The Vanishing the mid-section could have used some punching up, it's told in naturalistic style and is dripping with psychological unease. Knowing this I don't mind saying that I wanted something slightly more spectacular from the conclusion. It is a great ending and it retroactively fixed all my problems with the movie because of how well executed and psychologically dreadful it is (someday they'll call that the Welz touch) but I wanted it to be bigger, more colorful, more horrific. On the whole I was satisfied but I know a little more could have been done.
Seeing as how they're in every scene, Welz could have done a lot worse than casting Rufus Sewell and Emmanuelle Béart as Paul and Jeanne. Sewell almost never gets roles in non-terrible American movies so it was a blast to see him acting as well as he does on British TV and getting to keep his accent. Béart has dreaminess written on her face and it infects her manner and body language and makes her ideal for this role. The steely, lost look she wears on the journey make Sewell's increasingly desperate attempts to reach out to her incredibly worrying and sad. In the end, you're not sure who you feel sorry for, which is just the kind of ambiguity that is needed in modern horror. Anyone can cut up a blonde, which is why horror is momentarily stuck with its reputation as the hard-charging grimy headbanger of cinema. If Horror films are metal music then Vinyan, and Welz by extension, is Sunn 0)), and while yes it does take its time building atmosphere, I greatly prefer the craft of such an experience over the likes of Three Inches of Blood or Dimmu Borgir. Which you could call Cabin Fever and…let’s say Beast Within....Or better yet Underworld. Craft goes so far in horror films and seeing as how quickly genre films are cranked out today and given the full weight of studios, I’ll take it where I can get it. To see a movie so committed to its own rules is not just refreshing it’s vital. The economy the world over is in the toilet and people won’t spend money on a gamble anymore. Moneymen: Fabrice Du Welz has an hour and a half of feedback for you to listen to. Maybe it’ll clear your heads and show you how to make proper films.

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