Monday, January 23, 2017

I dare you. (The Alchemist Cookbook, 2016)

The Alchemist Cookbook (2016) is structured around long, largely wordless sections. That wordlessness becomes almost electric, wrapped in the sound of machinery operating, the sawing and clink of science apparatus, and dark, funny music from Detroit's underground music scene. That feeling of "when are they gonna talk?" impatience never develops. Words aren't missing from the scenes, they were never meant to be there.

So much of this feeling is sustained by the film's complete confidence in Ty Hickson's now-careful and now-unhinged performance as Sean, our back-woods science/dark-magic obsessive. We watch him saw the copper-top off a battery, dripping its innards into a test tube. We see burners, smoke, an old tape-deck, chemical reactions. From the film's title we suspect he's trying to make gold out here in a cramped trailer deep in the woods. We hear the promises he makes his cat about a mansion they'll share, full of doritos. We hear the threats he hollers at something in the lake, standing in the boat and dropping heavy stones to deliver his words down into the water.

There's something exciting and rare about a movie that trusts its audience, trusts its actors, trusts itself. Nothing is is outright explained, but everything is there to be understood. We piece it together.

As the film progresses, the experiments escalate, veering further from science and dangerously close to dark-magic. A tense failed ritual is interrupted by a visit from Sean's cousin who regularly brings our main character supplies, who teases him for being quite obviously around the bend. Teases him gently, though, and who is there because taking care of your family is what you do.

Sean goes over the grocery list, item by item, anxious and angry, demanding to know where each missing thing is, dismissing the items he does find. ("dude?" he holds up a microscope. "This a toy?" His cousin nods, pleased. "Mh hmm! Mh hmm! Dollar store always got that cute shit!") When they get to the cat food, Sean blows up. His cousin has brought the wrong cat food.

"I specifically put CURRY brand." Sean says. "In capital letters."

His cousin gets up, very casually, and takes a look at the offered can. Confident. "Look at this. White tuna in this bitch, dog, are you trippin?" his cousin says, "This is the shit man if Cas don't like this shit I'll eat it."

And with zero hesitation, Sean responds, "Really?"

"Hell yeah, this shit is gourmet!"

"Go on ahead and eat it," Sean says then. His list and grocery bags are forgotten. There is a brief pause and then, "I dare you." Arms crossed. Face deadly serious.

"you dare me?" his cousin is incredulous.

"I fucking dare you." Sean says. He nods at the cat food. "Eat it."

Instead of a gross out scene, something played for broad laughs, what follows is restrained and understated. Sean's cousin builds up the courage to eat the cat food, big talk and bravado the whole time, while Sean refuses to let him back down. It is a very real and very sweet moment of friendship, right smack in the middle of a movie about losing your soul.

Watching this movie, I had absolutely no idea where it would go next. It was surprising, sweet, dark, and deeply fucking strange. It might not be for everyone, but if you take it on its own terms, I think you will find something special. A lot of big horror movies have been released in the past few years, with huge budgets and great special effects, but The Alchemist Cookbook, made by a bunch of very talented weirdos out in the woods, is the movie that won my heart.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Needs More Slenderman. - Blair Witch (2016)

The Blair Witch Project (1999) was an easy movie to dislike. A nauseating mess of shaky cam and screaming, it was also hugely influential on a whole generation of movies that helped make "found footage" the derogatory term it is today. But it stuck with me. For all its flaws, The Blair Witch Project is a movie with some genuinely unsettling visual moments. Images that were original then, and which are iconic now. The girl talking in barely more than a whisper, face lit by flashlight, snot and tears dripping. Fingers wrapped up in rags. Or the guy standing, face first in the corner of a basement room in that inexplicable final shot.

I love that final shot. It still gives me the creeps, thinking about it. Not understanding what it meant. There's something scary about not understanding. That final shot left you with no answers, but it also left you feeling certain that there WERE answers and that those answers were probably SUPER FUCKED.

Blair Witch (2016) is a good faith attempt to make a new Blair Witch Project. And in a lot of ways, it does exactly that. There are jump scares. Lots of shaky cam. People screaming at one another while they run through the darkness. At times it is too faithful maybe, recreating those iconic and unsettling images from the first movie with these new characters rather than doing anything new. But at its best it is a nice homage, even if it does just remind me how much more I liked the original.

At its worst, though, the movie brings those iconic images back and tries to provide explanations which cheapen them with fairtytale nonsense and bad horror cliches.

You don't need any explanation at all. You certainly don't need a character to come on and literally say, "Remember that shot of the guy standing in the corner. We figured out why he was doing that!" And then you can't come up with a better answer than  "because if you can't see it, it can't see you?"

Also, sure, let's have the witch be another Mama [Rec] Conjuring 2 slenderman thing. Sometimes I wish even MORE movies had this exact same monster. Think how scary that would be.