Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Tragedy of the Splat Pack: Alexandre Aja in America Town

When the MPAA attacked Darren Lynn Bousman for making Saw III too dark, he asked Rob Zombie for advice. His advice was actually fairly brilliant: talk like a filmmaker (something I can more than understand Bousman having trouble with). Explain why the darkness and the violence are needed to tell this story. Now Zombie explaining this to Bousman is like one fratboy telling another to take the high road to score chicks; I should say I think Zombie is far and away the smarter of the two and a much better filmmaker of late, but by that time neither had made anything worth a goddamn. Sure The Devil's Rejects was well made but did anyone care how it ended? Does anyone by this point in time care how Saw II or Saw III effects the events of Saw 3D? No, you wanted to see people get their shit wrecked in putrid green-scale or artfully composed washed out tobacco colored lens filters. Me personally, I didn't and still don't. The best films Zombie's done are only good because of his gift with characterization (or letting actors act) and dreamy imagery but even those have yet to converge in a totally successful fashion. The problem is that Bousman and Zombie are endemic, part of a problem called the Splat Pack by Alan Jones; the nickname has since taken on a new life (Wyrd has already finished a documentary cementing the connection between all the names mentioned in Jones' original article). I want to look at this phenomenon because as any young Frenchmen who picked up a camera in 1960 can attest, a label may be totally misleading or wrong but it gets people talking. It brings legitimacy where there was none. It's not just a bunch of disparate shit, it's a movement, so get on board or fuck off! I find the Splat Pack term misguided because the difference in craft and intelligence from director to director is staggering. I find it especially annoying because it forces geniuses like Greg Mclean on one knee so that fuck-ups like Eli Roth and James Wan can seem taller. Today we're going to look at one of these guys (the group, for those who don't have the spare time I do, is Aja, Wan and sometimes partner Leigh Whannell, Mclean, Zombie, Bousman, Mclean, Roth, and the hit-or-miss Neil Marshall) who's been running on fumes for a few years and who is looking more and more like his dumber peers. Alexandre Aja didn't used to be the kind of director who had to explain himself to censors but his getting mired in a complete misunderstanding of American culture and a reliance on neon-colored sleaziness. But with each successive film, he's become less like the man who made High Tension and more like the guy who has to be told to think like a filmmaker.

by Alexandre Aja
After maybe the most clumsy and gimmicky opening in film history, we meet Ben Carson. Carson is a cop who shot someone in the line of duty and turned to drink instead of the love of his family. Everyone but his sister Amy has abandoned him now and he's forced to take low-wage security work to stay afloat. His assignment is to guard the Mayflower, a department store that burned down. Carson takes it but the more he learns about the guy he replaced, the less he can tell fantasy and reality apart. THe problems he faces have to do with the giant mirrors all over the store. Thanks to a helpful and gruesome prologue we know that the mirrors can compel people to kill themselves, or more accurately, their mirror images do the job for them. So what does this mean for Ben? Well, if he fails to do what the mirrors want him to, it could be bad news for his family. After spending a few traumatic nights watching the mirrors play tricks on him, they take their first casualty, Amy. Her reflection stays behind at the mirror one night and pulls her jaw off and Ben's the only guy the police suspect who could have done it. Yet, suspicion immediately falls off of him in what is the first of many gigantic logical loopholes in the film's real-world plot. Anyway, right after the mirrors kill his sister, they scratch a name on the glass for Carson to find: Esseker

So Ben uses his insanely helpful connections at the NYPD, including his estranged coroner wife Amy, to start digging. He unearths a conspiracy going back several years to when the Mayflower was a psychiatric hospital (like they'd put one of those in the heart of fucking manhattan). One patient, Anna Esseker was a particular problem. Her family got tired of dealing with what they assumed was demonic possession and dumped her off at the hospital where one Dr. Kane ran the show. Kane's patients all killed themselves one night and Esseker disappeared, believed dead by the authorities, but this is a conspiracy heavy horror movie isn't it? So, she's still alive someplace, and that place....Pennsylvania!!!! Before he can go to that godforsaken shithole and look for her, he has his family to deal with. More than once Ben's gone home while Amy wasn't home and incurred her wrath upon finding him there. The last straw is when he comes home and starts painting over every reflective surface in the house and then as if to clear himself of his insanity charge, fires three rounds into a mirror in the middle of their suburban street. After that makes him frustrated he runs off in search of Anna Esseker's childhood home. But before he gets far though some shit happens that makes Amy believe all of Ben's bullshit about magic mirrors. So after he finishes painting all the mirrors he takes off to find Anna Esseker and make her fess up before the rest of his family falls prey to invisible ghouls.
Alexandre Aja has a strange relationship with America. The Hills Have Eyes was a kind of warts-and-all depiction of American politics that misread its history amusingly, though after years and years of movies like Eurotrip I'd say we've earned a little finger-pointing. I liked The Hills Have Eyes because it's claustrophobic and brutish and has just the right amount of gore and its misanthropy was mostly inherited. Aja's style was nothing revolutionary but it sure made everything look nicer. But that was easy: he was working from a template introduced by one of the strangest and most loved American independent horror films of the last fifty years. What happens when it's just him and an unknown korean film with a PG rating? Mirrors ain't much of a remake and unsurprisingly ain't much of a stand-alone movie either. The mythos in the original Mirrors wasn't exactly mathematically sound but next to the drunken ramblings this film calls a screenplay it's like something by Raymond Chandler. The hauntings have no continuity and do whatever's most convenient for Aja; whenever he needs a scare, he invents something that the mirrors are capable of. By the end of the movie the rules have changed completely and we're looking at a half-dozen recently introduced special effects that wind up seeming desperate rather than clever. Who still thinks that guys behind cloth thing from Nightmare on Elm Street is scary in any other context? Anyone? The mirrors are also alternately able to control reflections, make objects move, possess people, cause hallucinations and send messages. So why not use those things in a more sensible way? If the whole point of their murder spree was to find Anna Esseker, why not possess a police officer with access to her case file right away? Because clearly they aren't limited to just the mirrors at the Mayflower. Why not scour every mirror in the world until they find her? And if picture frames or puddles count as mirrors, why not use that to their advantage and just let everyone know that they want Anna Esseker until the masses are forced to find her. They can fucking kill whoever they want so why play by any rules at all?

But Aja and Grégory Levasseur's script's biggest problem isn't the killer surface at the film's core but Ben Carson. Neglecting that Keifer Sutherland's screaming bouts don't exactly make him a believable father, lover or husband and forgetting cliches that rule his personal life (his first visit home is like a checklist of dysfunctional movie marriages, only slightly less stupid than the same scenes in The Haunting In Connecticut) there's still the problem that Carson has no redeeming qualities yet everyone he knows practically climbs over each other trying to help him. His wife can't decide whether she thinks he's dangerous or insane or both yet lets him look at a corpse she's just finished examining (in point of fact Amy does not one logical thing the whole movie; she's the kind of person who sports a cleavage-revealing white T-shirt when her children are under attack so that when it gets wet the teenaged boys in the audience will care what's happening). His friend, detective Larry Byrne (a wasted Jason Flemyng), gives him every file within reach that has anything to do with the cases he's curious about regardless of paper work or the ethics of giving a murder suspect evidence. Finally where the fuck are the cops when Carson shoots up the mirrors on his front lawn? Or kidnaps a nun at gunpoint? This kind of total naivete is almost charming (indeed it's a fucking hoot at times) but comes across mostly as the point of view of someone who's never lived in New York City, read about it, watched a cop show in his life, or been outside before. Aja's American films can almost be seen as the reverse of what Eli Roth did for all of Europe in his Hostel films, except Roth didn't take money from any of the countries he summarily dismissed. Aja doesn't know anything about America but neither does Roth know anything about Europe. Which is maybe why Aja and Levasseur view Pennsylvania as some kind of tiny backwoods hamlet populated by sunburnt yokels who can barely talk and a secret order of nuns (oh and nuns don't live in monasteries, they live in nunneries, it's right there in the name, Alex). Also, I don't know what the fuck part of Pennsylvania Ben Carson goes to visit but I'm gonna put money on it not housing both superstitious hillbillies and an order of nuns living in pristine facilities with manicured lawns. Having made the journey from PA to NY a hundred and twelve times I'm something of an expert and though there are most assuredly hillbillies they aren't the nearly feral creatures shown here. In fact I'd like to point out that is Ben Carson had kept driving another hour or so, he'd have wound up in North Philadelphia which is if anything more dangerous than wherever his beat would have been. Mirrors' sheltered geographical judgment is almost as egregious as M. Night Shyamalan's depiction of Bucks County in Signs. Have filmmakers ever bothered leaving Philadelphia? Until you feel like driving a few hours why don't you go looking for inbred psychopaths someplace else.
And finally, and this is really the smallest of my complaints because by the time it comes up we've already seen Carson battle a gymnastic, possessed nun and his family undergo Mouse Hunt-style hauntings from the mirror demons, logic be damned. Anyway, my issue is with the conclusion of the film, so if you don't want it ruined I guess you can just skip down to where my Piranha review starts and come back after you've had a good chuckle. Ok, so if Ben Carson is dead or just lost in the mirror world, how can he see all that he does? If the point of being on the other side is that you only communicate through mirrors, shouldn't you only be allowed to show up in things reflected? Yet he walks around basements with no light to reflect him in any surface. It may be a minor quibble considering how gleefully stupid Mirrors gets, but seriously, get your story straight. Mirrors is fun in spite of itself and is decently put together, when it's not being misanthropic and vile for the sake of it but it's only as fun watching a big angry guy thrash around a kitchen with a blindfold on; eventually he runs out of stuff to break and things get tedious. And this from the guy who made this decade's Daughters of Darkness. But Aja wasn't nearly done making audiences forget he made High Tension. OH-HO NO! He had one more ace up his sleeve that was going to make you forget he wasn't a VHS-loving American teenage boy instead of a once-promising French art-house/horror maestro. He'd need the sideburns of Eli Roth to do it but damned if he didn't pull it off.

Piranha 3D
by Alexandre Aja
Matthew Boyd is out fishing on Lake Victoria, the spot his Arizona hometown is named after, when a seismic disturbance opens a hole in the lakebed. The hole leads to an underground lake where prehistoric piranhas have been living off of each other for two thousand years. Boyd's boat is caught in a whirlpool and he's thrown into the drink where the very hungry fish find and skin him alive. Boyd is incidentally played by Richard Dreyfuss, the closest this movie was going to come to prestige, so it's fitting that the first thing we see is the movie's only link to Jaws (and class) eaten in the first five minutes. It's a good way to let you know that what's going to follow is some of the trashiest shit you've ever laid eyes on. As anyone could have told you before you knew anything other than that this was a movie about killer sea-dwelling anything, it's spring break and the town needs money from visiting dipshits to stay afloat (ahem). So when Sheriff Julie Forester finds Boyd's body (...get it...?) and decides it's time to think about closing the lake...well, if this film followed through on its sleaziness and gave us an evil capitalist, I'm sure they'd object, but the closest we get is Derrick Jones, the proprietor of Wild Wild Girls, a reality porn site. I guess you could count Eli Roth as the shit-eating DJ at the wet T-Shirt contest but he's only around for five minutes. Anyway Jones recruits local teen (and sheriff's son) Jake Forester to help show him around the lake so he can find spots to film his naked models. Except of course that means leaving his kid brother and sister home alone and accidentally bringing his high school crush Kelly Driscoll on the boat with him. And as if you didn't care enough about these assholes, there's also a sick attempt to force the weirdness of Jones hitting on the underage Kelly and the two naked women hitting on Jake into the service of the romantic subplot. It's enough to make you vomit. IN 3D!!!

Back on the Jaws front some divers come in to see about the big rift opening up below the lake and find the evidence needed to support their underwater lake theory. This also gets two of three of them chewed alive when lead diver Novak Radzinsky surfaces with one of their bodies, he brings one of the prehistoric monster fish with him so he and the sheriff have something to show the guy who runs the petshop, played by a never-hammier Christopher Lloyd (and by christ is that saying something!). He tells them that this species of fish hasn't been seen in two thousand years, yadda-yadda-yadda, better close the goddamned lake! But wouldn't you know it, the kids just want to have a splashy good time, man! Fuck your conformist not-getting-eaten-by-big-fish bullshit! And then once every Jersey Shore reject has had their face pulled off, we head over to climax bay where every minor character in the film is in danger of being eaten by still more fish! The sheriff better hurry before more than just the skanks and coke-fiends get chewed up.
The big problem with making Piranha a no-holds-barred, trashy, gory fuck-a-thon is that fish aren't sexy like serial killers are, nor are they scary like sharks or alligators. They have nothing of people in them, they're almost like insects, so a lot of patience is required to find them anything other than irksome; the unending chomping sounds don't help. Look at the poster at the bottom of the page. See how frightening that image is, and how spooky and hopeless it looks. I'd have liked some of that to show through in the movie. The poster should not be scarier than the movie! So while yes it's technically pretty nasty when the fish tear into a bunch of dumb twenty-somethings, Aja's film has in no way earned the massacre and you can't sympathize with either the killer fish or the dumbasses who get their asses bitten off. Wet T-Shirt contests and Girls Gone Wild aren't incitement enough to kill people and being stupid can't be a victim's sole karmic crime anymore. Every third person in the world is as dumb as the people on Lake Victoria; that's not special. In order for us to enjoy their being torn limb from limb by piranhas and in some cases each other, they needed to have spent the movie killing orphans or burning down abortion clinics. Aja simply thinks that being an American coed is crime enough that you need to be punished. Don't get me wrong I hate everyone in this movie (except Ving Rhames and Adam Scott) but that isn't enough anymore. Piranha winds up acting like its big-breasted shot-fillers, a lot of bright colors and every reason to watch even when you know you're going straight to hell for doing so. But like a woman with fake breasts or Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino, there's nothing behind Piranha's inexplicably orange skintone. The film has nothing to offer but tits and gore and it only gets around to being fun and campy in several second bursts. This is especially aggravating when you look at what it's aping. The original Piranha was scary, smart and funny. Piranha 3D is more a Jaws clone than a remake of its namesake and is neither smart, funny nor scary. It is nasty from end to end and as much as Adam Scott believes in it, even he was phoning it in during the last half-hour (and for those of you who haven't seen it, that's when everyone gets cut to pieces). Piranha is all shameless nudity that tries and fails to have its cake and eat it too, punctuated by misanthropic set pieces. It's a film with a moral compass that after an hour of nude swimming and human margaritas doesn't mean anything. In other words this was not the kind of movie Alexandre Aja should have made; he doesn't get American movie cliches and he doesn't have a sense of humour to speak of.

The difference between Mirrors and Piranha 3D is that my girlfriend and I can safely watch Mirrors and have two hours of fun at its expense. I don't want her, or anyone else for that matter, to see Piranha 3D. It's too nasty to be fun and I don't want to show her some poor girls' face being pulled off at the hair because that's fucking horrible. And if a film with what Nathan Rabin calls Underwater Skank Ballet can't make me set aside my reservations and simply enjoy its stupidity, then someone's done fucked up. Aja's style is long gone, dulled by blinding colors, Greg Nicotero's gore effects and topless women; Piranha could have been made by anyone. In fact if someone dumber and meaner had been put in charge it might have overcome its dull first hour, forgotten its inane plot trappings and just been the trashy, orphan-kicking masterpiece it could have been. If Eli Roth or Darren Lynn Bousman had been in charge, I could have gotten into how badly everyone deserved to die, including the directors! Instead I spent the whole movie thinking that this couldn't have been the guy who made High Tension. When we were walking out my Dad made an excellent point, which is that there's no way in hell Aja would have made this movie in France. Which really brings us to the whole problem of the Splat Pack. Now that gore movies in the Eli Roth mold have become not just a sustainable industry but a self-sustaining genre, Aja doesn't need to do anything to win his audience anymore. Whether or not we like it (and I sure as shit don't) we as a culture have said yes to six fucking Saw movies, two Hostel movies, and remakes of every also-ran slasher movie of the early 80s (blessedly they've left Humongous alone, for now). So that means Aja, who was at one time going to be something, can hand in a shitty 3D movie that smells like beer and sex and no one's going to bat an eye. In fact, its mediocre box office performance has already got him talking about a sequel. Yeah, cause there were so many unanswered questions. And because they've got that label attached to them, Eli Roth and probably Aja now believe they're doing something culturally important. They're not. They're making films whose message is, in all seriousness, don't leave the safety of the place where you masturbate and don't even think about sleeping with anyone more worldly than you.
I won't lie and say I didn't enjoy some of Piranha 3D but it's part of a larger problem that really bugs me and it's such a colossal waste of talent that all I can feel now is anger. Aja had the increasingly rare Elisabeth Shue, Adam Scott and Ving Fucking Rhames and not one of them gets a memorable scene or line of dialogue. Rhames has only three scenes in the whole movie, which is a crime unto itself. He should have been the hero of a film like this and he should have that boat motor from the get go. I still liked this better than Dead Alive, another idiotic gore movie, but ultimately Piranha is too dumb and lazy for its own good. The fish effects are terrible and Aja seemed to know it, but that doesn't stop them from stopping the movie in its tracks so I can wonder why the shit they didn't do a better job. The 3D is distractingly awful, like the worst I've ever seen, worse than that corpse-raping Michael Jackson tribute at the Grammys. Whenever there's a perspective shot, it's like someone's holding up two different pieces of construction paper to illustrate depth. 3D glasses always give me a headache, but usually they earn it with their more or less seamless incorporation. Coraline, for instance, went way out of its way to earn its third dimension. The 3D in this, like the plot, felt mostly obligatory and worsened my headache. The 3D is actually kind of symptomatic of the direction: they couldn't be bothered to do this one stupid gimmicky thing right (indeed the only thing the filmmakers seemed committed to was the climactic orgy of dismemberment at the wet T-Shirt contest) then they sure as hell weren't going to stop to check the script for cliches or whether they had a single sympathetic character left by the time the credits roll. They couldn't even get right what they were supposed to get wrong. If you're going to be shameless, then really go for broke. I want to see cops one day away from retirement, I want to worry about whether the dog will survive, I want a family pulled apart by devotion to duty that can only be saved in the climax, I want to smile audibly whenever someone grabs a shotgun or a boat engine because a holy ass-whooping is about to go down, I want the filmmakers to have a sense of humour that extends beyond severed dick jokes™. I want more than the bare minimum of extremes, if that makes sense, I want to be aware that the director and I are on exactly the same page and he isn't just cutting up porn stars for the sake of it. Alexandre Aja, you're boring. Good day, sir. I SAID GOOD DAY!


Genipher said...

I googled "Splat Pack" and ended up here. I'm so glad that I did! I love your film reviews! Please keep them coming!

Scøut said...

You are far too kind! Thanks terribly!