Monday, April 30, 2012

It turns out that flowers can be scary: The Ruins (2008)

The plot of The Ruins (2008) is charmingly simple. We meet a group of young American tourists at a Mexican resort. We spend some time with them, getting a vague idea of their personalities, and then we follow them on an "adventure" to an ancient Mayan ruin they've heard about that, of course, is not on the maps. Traveling with them are a German tourist looking for his brother, and a Greek tourist looking for a good time. They arrive at the temple, and are immediately surrounded by natives who speak neither Spanish or English. These natives will not allow the young people to leave the ruins, though nobody can figure out why. When their Greek traveling companion tries to confront their captors, he is shot in the face.

And so they are trapped on top of this vine covered ruin. In the novel, this is a problem in itself. They don't have much food or water, and they are out in the hot sun. But the movie glosses over this and moves right along to the weird stuff. The vines. We see the faintest hints of the vines moving in these first scenes of them exploring the ruins. We see slight shifts in shadow, and at the edges of the screen. It's subtle in a way that I wasn't expecting. It's also an effective way to build tension. We're watching them explore, knowing that they aren't seeing everything.

But when the tension is broken, it's not because of the strange moving vines. The group is lowering the German into the ruins in the hopes that he can find his brother's satellite phone. They've heard it ringing several times now, and it is their only real hope of getting help. The rope snaps, though, and the German becomes paralyzed from the fall. When one of the girls goes down to rescue him, she falls too, badly gouging her knee. This specific detail becomes important later. Eventually they find a way to get everyone out of the hole. This involves a lot of visceral broken back sounds, and is a pretty good argument for not moving someone with a spinal injury.

The next morning when the girl with the gouged knee wakes up, a vine has snaked around her leg and into the open wound. It has worked its way deep into the flesh of her leg, and it does not come out easily. Outside the tent, the paralyzed German starts screaming about something being wrong. His legs are wrapped in the vines too, though they've been doing much more damage there. The bones are visible beneath the exposed red flesh and the green twisting vegetation.

I was waiting for the vines to attack someone, to lunge out and grab one of them and pull them away like a monster. But this was so much more effective. The plants attacking gradually through the night, being drawn to blood. It feels so much more plausible, not so different from a venus fly trap.

So, they're trapped on a ruin in the burning sun, surrounded by armed Mayans and flesh eating vines. It suddenly starts to seem worth the risk to go back down into that hole to find the satellite phone that keeps ringing. They go down into the dark, following the sound deeper into the ruins. It stops as they enter a large chamber, and they discover a body wrapped in vines, clutching a cell phone. 

But on closer examination, the cell phone is broken. And, while one character is pointing this out, the ringing starts up again. The other girl lifts her torch to look closer at the wall where the sound is coming from, and she sees the small red flowers of the vine. The ringing comes again, and the realization that the flowers are imitating the sound is amazing. So creepy. Such a perfect and simple lure, imitating animal sounds.

Unfortunately, the movie goes on to have the vines be more and more sentient, imitating certain sounds in order to play with their minds? How do plants know about jealousy? And now they really are lunging out to attack them. Suddenly they are like any other B-movie grade monster. 

Still, even though the plant itself becomes less plausible, the film still uses it sparingly, instead focusing on the characters and their failed attempts to cope with this insane situation. Most of the horrific scenes in this movie come from watching things the characters do to themselves out of panic. The girl with vines in her body goes bonkers and tries to cut them out with a hunting knife. It is gory and awful and so completely understandable. I would not be able to handle having something moving under my skin like that. "I can feel it down by the bone," she says. Ugh!

The things that The Ruins does really well are surprising and intelligent, while the things it gets wrong are common enough to easily ignore. Inconsistent characters, hand-waving explanations of plot holes, these are things well worth sitting through to see a movie that genuinely makes plants scary. It's not a perfect movie, but it is imaginative and fun, which I like better than perfection anyway.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

That's not a feminist... THIS is a feminist: The Stepford Wives

When I first sat down to watch the 1975 version of The Stepford Wives, I hadn't read the book. It's hard to come to that film completely fresh, though, as "Stepford Wives" is very much a part of our cultural dialect in North America. I knew it was a movie about creepily perfect wives, but not much else. I may even have been conflating it with The Midwich Cuckoos in my head. What I'm saying is, I was not expecting to have my mind blown.

The film follows a young wife and photographer named Joanna, as she moves to the small gated community of Stepford with her husband and children. She finds herself suddenly surrounded by wives with perfect TV hair, who talk like the women in appliance commercials. They only seem interested in cooking and cleaning and staying busy, busy, busy. Joanna finds it first shocking, and then disgusting, the way these women cater to their every whim and need of their husbands. More frustratingly, her own husband doesn't seem to find it troubling at all, and he joins with the local men's club. 

She finally makes friends with a couple other women who seem normal, by which I mean flawed. Lazy, selfish, sloppy, and interested in the world around them, these are women that Joanna can relate to. A lot of the film is dedicated to building these characters, and letting us get to know them before suddenly taking them away. And when one of Joanna's new friends suddenly has perfect hair and a perfect smile, suddenly wants to talk only about being a good wife, it DOES feel like they have been taken away.

This was a measured and very effectively uneasy film, and I liked it right up until the ending. The ending changed things for me, it took a creepy film and made it downright chilling. Joanna figures out very late in the game that her friends, and all the women of Stepford, have been replaced by robots. The husbands have been duplicating their wives physically, but replacing them with robots that feature more "agreeable" personalities. Joanna stumbles upon her own robot, not quite finished, and the robot strangles her to death. In the end, we see Joanna once more, hair perfect, smiling a greeting as she passes another wife in the grocery store.

It was an uncompromisingly bleak and sarcastic ending, making it clear that recognizing a power imbalance and being morally in the right aren't enough to change things. It is still one of the most effective feminist films I've seen. 

Joanna discovers that the wives are being brainwashed (also, confusingly, she seems to find evidence that the wives are being replaced  by robots?) and then begins a whole mess of confusing twists. Joanna's husband pretends to go along with brainwashing his wife, but has secretly been convinced by her argument not to? Oh, and the head of the men's club is a robot that was created by his wife because she was frustrated with her earlier career woman life (!?) which drove her actual husband to have an affair?! It is a nightmare of meaningless surprises. And the film ends with the husbands of Stepford dressed like perfect husbands, smiling at one another in the aisles of the grocery store.

It was like the people remaking the film did not understand the original at all. "Oh, let's change the ending so that the women win! Ha ha and they'll make the MEN into Stepford Husbands! That will be MUCH more feminist!"

They were wrong. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

My mom is an insane badass: Alien: Resurrection

Alien: Resurrection is a wild departure from the tone of the previous films. Where the dirty run-down Blade Runner aesthetic of the previous films got progressively more bleak, the visuals in Resurrection seem to delight in the idea of the future. Everything is falling apart and old, sure, but it's brightly lit and colourful. This is very different from the future of run down and spartan ship designs in the earlier movies, and yet still distinct from the pristine 2001 visuals that Alien felt like an argument against. Partly this can be explained because it takes place hundreds of years after the events of Alien 3, but mostly this is just the very particular vision of the director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

The Alien quadrilogy of films is unique in that each one is handle by a talented director. Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, and now Jean-Pierre Jeunet. And I think each of the films is also in a different genre. Alien was a horror movie. Aliens was a Vietnam war movie in space. Alien 3 was a prison movie. And Alien: Resurrection was a crazy French dark imaginative joyride.

Who hires the director of Amelie and Delicatessen to take the reins of an Alien movie?! And then they hire Joss Whedon to write it? Such an insane choice, but one that I'm glad they made. Because what we get is a very interesting exploration of a theme that has become pretty central to the Alien movies: Motherhood.

In Alien 3, Ripley becomes a mother, of a sort. Motherhood in Alien 3 is tied up in ideas of sexual violence and self-sacrifice in a strangely superficial way, but at least here Ripley is not defined by her motherhood. In James Cameron's Aliens, Ripley's strength and survival instinct are recontextualized as a maternal desire to protect Newt. Every awesome and badass thing she does is suddenly because she's got someone to protect. The movie has seen a fair amount of criticism for this depiction, and I tend to agree. It is frustrating that we can't have Ripley be the strong and extremely competent woman she was in the first film without explaining away how a woman could be so strong. She becomes like the mother who can lift a car when her child is trapped underneath it. An amazing feat, but one directly explained by motherhood and protecting future generations.

On the other hand, why can't we have a strong mother character without it being an attack on female autonomy? Motherhood is a part of the human experience, and is just as valid a theme for exploration in a horror movie as any other. Unfortunately, this isn't a way to further explore Ellen Ripley's character. Often in Aliens the character seems completely eclipsed and replaced with trite expressions of motherhood. Aliens is also notable for introducing the alien queen.

Alien: Resurrection plays out like Joss Whedon heard the criticisms of motherhood in Aliens and then laughed to himself and dialed it up to 11. Ripley has been cloned, and the alien queen that was growing inside of her when she killed herself has been saved. But now the two mothers are almost one and the same. Their genetics have become confused. Ripley is now more alien, stronger, more animalistic, less caring. And the alien queen has changed too, developing a human style womb rather than laying eggs.

Whedon has gone on record saying he hated the final movie. He doesn't like the way that Jeunet and the actors interpreted his words and ideas, and it is very clear when watching Resurrection that this is not how Joss Whedon would have done the movie. In this case, I think that's a good thing. Joss Whedon likes ideas, and he likes cleverness and layers of meaning and they serve this movie well. His re-imagining of the android type as young and idealistic is refreshing. And you can even find a group of smugglers that read like early character sketches for his TV show Firefly. But Whedon's style is also very straightforward, and Jeunet's strange and almost impressionistic visual obsession with biology and the body make this film so much more fun to watch. There's even a scene where Ripley stumbles upon a room full of early failed attempts at clones of herself, suspended in glass tanks. And, in a scene later echoed in Baldur's Gate 2, one living creature begging for death.

Alien: Resurrection is not even remotely scary, and to its credit it never tries to be. This is a deeply weird and crazy film, and well worth another viewing now that some time has passed and nobody is expecting another Aliens. This is not another Aliens, but I also think its unlikely we'll ever see another Alien Resurrection.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

To be honest, I would go into the basement too: The Innkeepers (2011)

I sometimes come out of the theatre angry, thinking, "Why couldn't they just take a bit more time to make us care about the characters before they murder them to death?" It seems so obvious that things will be scarier if you care about and empathize with the characters who are threatened. But, like all obvious things, it isn't quite that simple.

Building character takes time and subtlety, two things that cost just as much as special effects. If you are working with limited resources, which most horror movies are, then you're faced with the question of whether to focus more on character and story, or on scares. And paying audiences love scares.

And so when a movie like The Innkeepers comes along, with its almost bloody-minded focus on character, it feels fresh and surprising, because the director doesn't seem interested in scares at all until the last half hour. We are here to spend time with the two main characters, a couple of listless minimum wage employees working the final weekend at an old hotel. There are no archetypes here - no final girl, no jock or geeky loser. It is set now, in the modern world, where those "classic" horror movie character types don't make any sense. Both of our characters are geeky losers, and both of them are also the cool kids.

Claire and Luke work behind the front desk at the Yankee Peddler Inn. Their days are spent fetching towels and being treated like garbage by the guests. But like all seasoned customer service employees, they keep their spirits up by sharing their frustrations through in-jokes and by never being foolish enough to take any of it too seriously.

There's a scene early in the film, where Claire wonders why everyone is so hung up on what they are going to do with their life. Why does everyone seem to think planning out the future around their career is important? This isn't the fake-rebellious question of a dumb college kid, it's the question of somebody starting to realize that they don't have the same values that everyone told them they would have.

Claire and Luke aren't defined by sitting behind that front desk. Their personalities emerge when they are breaking the rules of their job, when their break comes, or when they sneak up and scare one another. These scenes take their time, letting us see the characters just hanging out and being themselves, showing us how they amuse themselves, how they deal with boredom.

The Innkeepers is the first horror movie in a long time where I felt like I was watching people I knew. These are characters that could actually live in the real world as I know it, could work just down the street at a boring call center job, could pass me at the bus stop wearing their headphones. They were cute and awkward and stupid and a bit self absorbed, but they were people.

So, the characterization is great, but where does the horror come in? This is where the movie surprised me again, and went from good to great. I expected that we would get to know the characters, and then horrific things would start happening. This was what happened with the director's previous film, House of the Devil. But The Innkeepers never stops exploring the characters. At night, they wander the dark halls alone, with homemade ghost hunting equipment. The Yankee Peddler is supposedly haunted, and this is the last weekend before it closes down. It's the last chance to find proof that the ghosts are real. It's a way for them to kill the long hours of the night, but it's also interesting how we see Claire come more alive and engaged. Jobs and careers aren't important questions, but this is. Horrific things don't just start happening to them - they go looking.

Luke and Claire want to be scared. This is something I really related to, that a lot of horror fans must relate to. I was the kind of kid who watched scary movies even though they terrified me, who played Bloody Mary (and then later, Candyman) in the dark bathroom mirror. There's something really satisfying about that desire to terrorize yourself, because it also feels like it will be worth it if those bloody fingers come through the mirror and wrap around your throat. The world will be so much more magical and interesting, and so you kind of hope that it does work. It's a much more interesting search for meaning than asking what your five year career plan is.

But this is all a really delicate balance. We have a satisfyingly slow boil of anticipation, as we grow to know the characters better. Even the charming funny scenes are in the shadow of what is coming. We know this is a horror movie, and we know bad things are going to happen. If those scares don't ever show up, then all this subtlety becomes a trick, loses its meaning. All this tension would become a broken promise. So it is a relief when, in the end, the movie goes completely insane. We get the scares that the whole movie has been promising, and leave the theatre satisfied.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Nature VS Nurture ha ha ha: The Bad Seed (1956)

(Note: I will be discussing the ending in detail, if that is the sort of thing you try to avoid.)

I always expect old black and white movies to be sort of tame and bland in some ways, even though I've seen plenty of black and white movies which have blown my mind. (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? kills me every time.) I suspect I have this prejudice because most of my experience with old movies when I was growing up came from boring middle-of-the-road "classics" on network TV. But The Bad Seed is nowhere near the middle of the road. This is one of the strangest, and most subversive movies I've seen in a long time.

This is the story of a mother and a daughter in the 50s. There are other characters, including a mostly absent father, but the mother and daughter are the heart of this film. The mother is a very traditional and unassuming seeming 50s mom, and the daughter seems angelic and sweet. The premise of the movie is that the daughter is not what she seems. She is a cold blooded killer. But neither, it turns out, is the mother. She starts off very stereotypical and timid, but as her suspicions mount about her daughter, she begins to ask difficult questions about what is going on but also about what it means. What it means about her as a mother, to have raised this murderer. There is a surprising amount of nature-vs-nurture debate in this movie, with men (and it is always men, which is interesting) very authoritatively informing her that criminals are only ever a product of their environment. The idea of people being born bad is just ludicrous, they tell her.

There is very little traditional horror-suspense in this movie. We know, almost immediately, that the daughter is a killer. And we never see any actual murders, we only learn about them from other characters, or hear the details from the television. The tension comes almost entirely from watching the mother fight against something that is simultaneously obvious and impossible to believe - that her perfect daughter is empty inside.

And what does she do, once she learns the truth? The movie doesn't try to get away with any easy answers, here. Even as she accepts the facts of the murders, she still tries to understand why her daughter did it, as though there might be some rational explanation. As though there might be some way her daughter could reassure her. And one of the creepiest exchanges in the movie happens when the daughter tries to do just that. She smiles and laughs, and bats her eyelashes and scuffs her shoes in the same adorable way she did when we first met her. Her mother is pushing for details about a boy she murdered, and the only way the daughter can think to change the subject is to wrap her arms around her mother and repeat one of their cute mother-daughter jokes, "What would you give me for a basket of kisses?"

This movie has one of the harshest scenes I've ever seen in a movie. There's not a drop of blood, but there is a scene late in the movie where we essentially watch a murder take place over the course of a few minutes, and I couldn't believe they'd gone there. The mother has decided that she can't let her daughter keep killing, but she can't let the authorities punish her, or lock her up for observation like some kind of lab rat. So she fills a vitamin bottle with sleeping pills, and then that night she offers a handful to her daughter.

"Why so many?" Her daughter asks.

"It's a new kind of vitamin," the mother says. "Don't worry, I'm having some too." And then we sit and watch as the daughter does what a perfect daughter does. She takes the pills a couple at a time, gulping them down with juice and smiling before reaching out for more. She takes pill after pill while the mother sits with her hand out offering them, staring off into the distance. Then she reads a bedtime story to her daughter, who drifts off a little too abruptly for it to be natural.

I couldn't believe what I was watching. It was so heartbreaking and so harsh, which I would never expect under that slightly phoney veneer that movies from the 50s all share. This was a ten minute scene where we watch a desperate and broken mother murder her own daughter. And then carry her limp body off to the bedroom. Oh, I wish the movie had ended there. What a perfectly devastating note to end on.

But the film doesn't end there. The mother goes and shoots herself (despite that haunting promise that she was taking the vitamins too). Then we see her in the hospital, where the doctors are working on her. And of course, the gunshot attracted the neighbours, and the daughter was saved.

And in the original play this is how things ended I think. The daughter lives on and the mother dies. But the Hays Code wouldn't allow movies at that time to show crime paying, which I guess is the same as the bad guy winning. So, the mother begins to recover, and the daughter... well, the daughter dresses up in a rain slicker and heads out into the night. At first we think she is going to finish the mother off, but it turns out she is headed to the pier where she killed the boy. She wants his spelling bee medal.

So she walks down the pier in the pouring rain, while the clouds thunder overhead, and then she is struck by lightning. The end.

I laughed out loud. It was so ridiculous. I couldn't believe how ridiculous that ending was. But I loved it. It has a bizzarre sort of brilliance, really. After two hours of fisticuffs between nature and nurture, it was nature who got the last word.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Is horror comedy still horror? The Cabin in the Woods.

A lot of the reviews for The Cabin in the Woods say that the movie plays better if you know almost nothing about it, but I think the exact opposite is true. This is a movie that delivers more with every viewing. And those reviews give the impression that this is a twist movie. The "twist" is obvious and clear right from the start. The movie doesn't even treat it like a twist, it treats it as the premise.

From the very opening shot, we know this isn't an old school American horror movie with teens in the woods. The first characters we're introduced to are a group of technicians behind the scenes. Their dialogue lets us know what's up. These teens are to be an offering. A sacrifice. Right from the opening scene we know this is the premise. Nothing relies on twists and turns. The execution of this premise alone is what provides the pleasure.

I'm tempted to say that The Cabin in the Woods is not a horror movie. It is for horror movie fans, and certainly it is packed full of horror movie references, but it doesn't play like a horror movie. We spend at least half the time with the technicians as they work out every humdrum detail of the horror (with a truly charming gallows humour, like you might find as a tech company approaches a project launch.) It is not a spoof of horror movies, either.

Maybe it is a love letter to horror movies, but that doesn't do the film justice either. This was clearly made by people who have an understanding and love of horror movies, and they fill every inch of the movie with references and inside jokes. But these references and inside jokes are the setting. They're the background. The story is something else entirely.

This is a science fiction/fantasy movie about an office environment on a very stressful day. They just happen to be in the business of creating horror. If this were a haunted house, it would be The Haunted Mansion at Disney, but on a day when the ride was closed for maintenance. The wallpaper is all horror, but this is a movie about the interior decorators putting the wallpaper up. We see gruesome murders and horrific monsters, but there's no genuine scares. Because we saw the man pull the lever to open the monster's cage. We hear his muttered joke to cut the tension.

In fact, on my first viewing, the only moments in this movie that felt like missteps were the early deaths. They were played so seriously. The characters being murdered seemed to be so genuinely scared and hurt that it was jarring against the rest of the film. But, having watched the movie a second time, maybe these weren't missteps at all. Certainly they were genuinely upsetting, and they did provide an even stronger contrast to the behaviour of the technicians. The genuine-seeming suffering provided context for when the technicians occasionally broke from gallows humour into quiet serious moments, and the odd faraway look of regret.

I've seen this movie twice now, and enjoyed it even more the second time. It isn't a horror movie the way the trailers implied. This isn't The Evil Dead meets the Truman Show. I guess it is more like Evil Dead 2 meets the Truman Show?

I have difficulty defining the lines of horror sometimes, especially with horror comedy. The Evil Dead is horror. No question. It is funny, sure, but often unintentionally, and it has some genuinely chilling moments. Sam Raimi was making a horror movie, with The Evil Dead. That was his intention. But was he making one with Evil Dead 2? That's a more difficult question. There are fewer genuine scares in Evil Dead 2, and I'm not sure they were going for scares. It's a comedy. A ghoulish and gore-soaked comedy, to be sure, but is that a horror movie?

At the end of the day, I have to say yes. Evil Dead 2 is a horror movie. I would never put it on any shelf except the horror shelf. How much of that is because it identifies itself that way, because it dresses itself up like a horror movie?

I said earlier that maybe The Cabin in the Woods isn't a horror movie, but I think I was wrong. It is dressed like a horror movie, and when people ask what it does for a living, it tells them, "I'm a horror movie." And I think that self-identification in these cases is probably the strongest argument. Because genres are so vague. Are they meant to describe what a movie is like? Do horror movies have scares? If that's the definition, then Cabin falls short. But so does The Devil's Backbone. So do the later instalments of the Nightmare on Elm Street films.

But if horror movies are movies that people who like horror movies will like, then Cabin in the Woods goes on the shelf right beside Evil Dead 2.