Thursday, February 15, 2007
The Horror. The Horror?
Republished from my old blog, circa February 2006
WARNING: MANY SPOILERS FOR THE FOLLOWING FILMS HERE: When A Stranger Calls (Simon West, 06), House of Wax (Jaume Collet-Serra, 05), Final Destination 3 (James Wong, 05), Hostel (Eli Roth, 06)
Ever since I snuck out of my bedroom one night when I was around the age of seven and witnessed my first scene of horror from the movie my dad was watching on the family's Betamax player, where an arrow going into an unsuspected teenager's eye from Friday the 13th part 3 (which admittedly would look a lot cooler with the 3-D technology the film had in its theatrical release) I have had an affair with the horror genre. Its been rocky. Sometimes we go months without consummating our love, often times I am left with a feeling that I am the only one putting any effort in our staying together, and in the last couple of years, the horror film is trying to attract me by dressing up in kinky costumes ("ooh look at me, I am Dawn of the Dead tonight, love me." "I only dressed like Texas Chainsaw Massacre because you said you liked the way she looks!")
Simon West's remake of the 1979 Carol Kane vehicle, When A Stranger Calls, is one of those PG-13 horror films. The original film's drawing point was that it was a live action version of the urban legend where a baby-sitter receives several calls asking her if she's checked on the kids and long story short, since you no doubt know it very well, the calls are coming from within the house, the kids have been murdered, the babysitter must escape. Two things about the original film: a.) the 1973 Bob Clark film Black Christmas did this "calls coming from within the house" scenario first and way more compellingly and b.) that part with the phone calls, was only about fifteen minutes of the actual film, the film went to follow Kane's life post-babysitting and the killer's life post baby killing and their next encounter. The only positive thing I can say about the 2006 remake is that it at least kept the "baby-sitter receiving threats" as the main storyline. But other than that, West's movie is basically a horror movie with its balls cut off. West has proven to be a director whose films utterly lack any visual sense, oh they might look pretty on occasion, but they are convoluted messes that are edited together like two pieces of shit wrapped in scotch tape (The General's Daughter & Tomb Raider are two of West's most notable pieces). An example from Stranger, in the prologue, after the phone calling attacker kills a victim (off screen), we follow a detective as he inspects the crime scene. We learn this detective guy is a hard ass that's been doing this for years, he's even growing a beard. When this detective asks what the murder weapon was, the response he is given is "there is no murder weapon", now allow me a tangent, if these people were murdered, doesn't there kind of have to be a murder weapon? Unless this guy kills him with his mind. But if he can do that, why does he bother stalking baby-sitters, why not show up somewhere and just use his mind killing powers. Anyway, this grizzled bearded detective walks in, we don't see the actual crime scene, just his reaction, one of shock, this dude has seen something fucking crushing. Now I guess that would be a good tease of a beginning, if it had any fucking pay-off. When he gets around to finally going after the main girl, he comes off as incompetent. He kills the main girl's friend and the maid, both off-screen, but the dude can't even kill two children, who are asleep, and have colds. Yes, you read that right, in the remake of the movie about the baby-sitter who gets phone calls asking her to check up on the kids, and finds out the killer is in the house and already has murdered the children, the children survive. The opening is never referenced again, and appears to actually have been from another movie and just added here to pad the short running time. West is more interested in jerking off to the state-of-the-art house that serves as the set of this non-horror film then he is in telling a simple yet time tested effective thriller story, and while its the least of the films problems, the horrid dialogue and paper thin personality of all the teenagers in the film, found me wondering if screenwriter Jake Wall not only has spent any time with actual teenagers recently, but whether or not he had ever been one.
The fact is that I am no longer a teenager. And the horror film is primarily made for teens. Within the last few years studios have discovered that they can eek some dough off pre-teens as well, and with that came the advent of the PG-13 horror film. The results has had its successes (The Ring and uh, um...okay only The Ring) but mainly has lead to the chicken shitting of the horror genre. I am sorry but murder and death is not rated PG-13. Its very much R, and probably most often NC-17.
The remake of House of Wax will be most remembered for the major acting debut of famous-for-nepotism-only tabloid cover-girl Paris Hilton (she has several straight to video credits to her name), but it surprisingly has a lot more bite than I was expecting, and for the record, Ms. Hilton gives only the second worst performance in the film, the worst belonging to Mr. Chad Michael Murray, who gives the least convincing "I am a complicated rebel" performance since Vanilla Ice's Cool As Ice. Sharing pretty much nothing in common with its namesake, the 1953 Andre de Toth directed, Vincent Price starring original, other than the fact that uh, there is a house with wax people who are actually dead people underneath the wax, the remake takes way too long establishing the characters, and making continuous reference to the Paris Hilton sex scandal. We get it, she's a good sport, she's willing to laugh at, but come on, like seven references? After our teenagers finally get to the town of wax, things pick up nicely. The film is actually rather brutal. Our heroine gets her fingers cut off, her boyfriend's face is cut off. Most surprisingly of all, Paris Hilton's offing has an extra tinge of sadism and is undercut with sadness, she appears the most hopeless, director Jaume Collet-Serra is well aware of our schadenfreude desires to see Hilton get it, and he serves up her death so viciously that we begin to feel sorry for her and maybe further investigate our own desire for blood. The film spends way too much time with its non-interesting characters (something I will muse about further in the Hostel discussion), and the killers motifs are rather dull, but Collet-Serra makes death seem real (something that is diminished in the PG-13 horror film) and creates decent atmosphere.
The Final Destination franchise is a bit like the baseball player Dave Roberts. If you need a stolen base, you insert Mr. Roberts, likewise if you are looking for fun, inventive, over-the-top Rube Goldberg inspired death sequences, go to Final Destination. If you are looking for the cinematic equivalent of an Alex Rodriguez or Albert Pujols, a film with interesting story arcs, top quality cinematography and good acting, look elsewhere. I remember being somewhat surprised about my enjoyment of the first installment, but being amazed by the David R. Ellis' directed sequel. Watching it, I was struck with a mouth opened, "is this really happening?" grin on my face. Nobody was spared, not even a pre-teen, from death's grip. And death just didn't make you trip down a stair or anything, it had a really long winded set up where things like a misplaced straw would ultimately attribute to your end. FD3 brings back the original's director, former X-Files scribe James Wong, but it pretty much follows the outline that part 2 perfected, elaborate sets up that lead to over-the-top grizzly deaths. Seriously, you'd be surprised how a Slurpee could ultimately lead to your termination. FD3 is also the most cynical of the franchise. It basically kills off every single character (even the apparent heroine and her beau and sister) and lead me to ponder the question, would it have just been better for the character who saw the vision of the rollercoaster beforehand to have just died then and there. She would have saved herself a few weeks of trauma, practically every victim dies in front of her eyes, and ultimately she dies in a horrible crash anyway. You can't escape death after all. As is the case in most part threes of series, the stench of familiarity suffocates the film. While the second part took the death sequences to the next level, this one merely sustains status quo. And hey, I don't mind you guys not really developing your characters (see above Dave Roberts metaphor) but you could do a little better job putting across the idea that your lead character is a control freak other than having her and everybody else repeatedly tell us that very fact. Like the first two in the series, there are a lot of Joe Dante-esque in-humor. Characters with the last names McKinley and Lincoln are "assassinated" and in the final subway collision, the two last stops are Booth and Oswald streets. Another appreciated gem, though hardly subtle, two soon to be killed characters listening to the disco classic "Love Rollercoaster" after surviving the initial rollercoaster disaster.
Eli Roth's Hostel declares itself a respite from the PG-13 pussification of the horror genre, much like Rob Zombie's The Devil's Reject did last summer. Where The Devil's Rejects was a symposium of 70s independent horror, Hostel's influence is with Asian horror, specifically the works of Takashi Miike who has a cameo in the film. The Zombie and Roth films also share one other thing in common, I found them grueling tedious and uninteresting. Confession, I am not the biggest Miike fan either. I find himself frequently dabbling in the tedium side of things as well. Yes, I get he's pushing buttons, but his films are so over-the-top and cultish by measure, what else is he doing other than preaching to the converted? Hostel continues a recent trend that I noticed in the superior Wolf Creek and the House of Wax remake, the trend of spending way too long with the characters before any of the macabre mayhem begins. Wolf Creek is somewhat forgivable, its characters are well rounded and human, and if Miramax didn't hype the movie as "the scariest thing ever made, ever" and went with a more mysterious ad campaign, the shift in the story would have been far more effective. But like the cardboard cut-outs in House of Wax, the Hostel travelers are a bore. Three frat boy tourist. I wanted them dead within five minutes. Basically their dicks are the reason they end up being killed and/or mutilated. Fans of the film say that Roth is making a commentary about "stupid Americans" coming to Europe to get cheap weed and fuck hot chicks, but it never feels like less than a celebration of those traits, hell, the director himself even has a cameo egging the characters on. When the "killing" finally does start (which felt like a fucking hour into the film), Roth than goes over the top with gore. I will admit to feeling the appropriate queasiness at that point, but it was too little too late by that point. After the shit hits the fan, the lazy mood of the film finally picks up, but ultimately we are left with a wasted premise. With fifteen minutes left, we realize that the people torturing and amputating our victims are actually paying for the service. Hello, why did you not make a film from the perspective of someone who is paying, not from these boring ass frat jerkwads? Damn you Eli, you took the least interesting aspect of the story and made it your focus. When our survivor begins to find and kill the people who set him up, I get that Roth is trying to make some comments about vengeance a la Chan-Wook Park, but his point is ruined by the complete randomness of the encounters. Hello, if you really wanted to make any commentary at the nature of vengeance, instead of having the survivor randomly come upon EVERY SINGLE PERSON WHO WRONGED HIM in the film, maybe he actively seeks them out and tries to mutilate him like they did to himself and his friends. Roth, the writer, clearly is just aping his idols and not paying attention to subtext. I was not a fan of Roth's debut film, Cabin Fever either, but the guy has enthusiasm, and there are a few sequences that he directs with sufficient tension. Maybe he ought not write his own screenplays from here on out. I am sure his buddy Tarantino has a horror screenplay kicking around somewhere for him to direct.
So is it time to (pardon the upcoming pun) bury the horror genre? Of course not. I don't think there ever has been a time where a cheaply produced horror film was not a sure fire money maker. And while its frustrating, the PG-13 horror film will be around as long as teenagers want to take their dates to get scared. I think what the genre needs is some fresh talent. Despite some claims on internet sites, Eli Roth has not shown the chops to be anywhere close to being the poster boy for millennium horror. What do the following A-List directors have in common? Roman Polanski, Richard Donner, Stanley Kubrick, Jonathan Demme. They have all directed well received horror films. Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman have been discussing a collaboration on a new horror film for a few years now. That film needs to be made, someone has to show the suits that a horror film with intellect has way more crossover appeal than the next Saw film. Meanwhile, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, George Romero and Wes Craven are seeing films from their prime years being remade while their personal directorial presence dwindles year after year as they get further away from their salad days. And it appears that no horror specialist look prime to replace them. And one last comment, this time on remakes. I understand why they are so prevalent, they already have a name association, and their presence presents the studios with twice the marketing capability, make money off the new film and then on the DVD release of the older one. Its sad how many films we are seeing remade and begs the question: are younger horror fans just too lazy to go to a video store or Netflix and do their own research like I did when I was their age? The silver lining is that I can only really envision this remake mania lasting another two or three years, from lack of titles worthy of remaking alone. Sure we will enter the next phase, the sequel or prequel to a remake, which will kick off this year with the prequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. And try as I might, I will still go on seeing them, hoping for a fresh voice or at the very least, that thrilling feeling I felt first when I sneaked into my kitchen after my bed time to see Jason off a teenager.