Sunday, October 30, 2016

30 Days of Nightmares #30: CRIMSON PEAK (2015)

The Story: Virginal heroine Edith (Mia Wasikowska; Alice from from Tim Burton's ALICE IN WONDERLAND) marries the wrong man (Tom Hiddleston; Loki from THE AVENGERS) and ends up living in a haunted mansion in some mythic corner of England where the soil is blood red.

Expectations: At the end of my last horror movie marathon, I found myself yearning for a classic monster movie to offset the inundation of “modern horror.”  This year, I picked CRIMSON PEAK as the final film because it sounded like a Universal monster movie crossed with Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA or maybe a touch of Val Lewton’s Jane Eyre (I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE).  So what does "classic horror" look like in the 21st century?

Reaction: There’s no question that Guillermo del Toro has a style all his own.  (Check out LACMA’s recent exhibit.)  Watching his films--especially the mythic horror films THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, PAN’S LABYRINTH, and MAMA--it's clear that you’re surfing through a brilliant visual storyteller's imagination.  Del Toro's work is as distinctive as Tim Burton’s, and the two are comparable in my mind not only because of their mutual interest in dark fairy tales but also because they both seem to  trapped in their own imaginations.

Many critics have suggested that Burton’s newer films are derivative of his older films… which is no surprise, given that his older films were so boldly original.  At some point, the Tim Burton “style” became a brand, and I'd wager that the filmmaker feels a certain amount of pressure to deliver what audiences now consider “a Tim Burton movie.”  CRIMSON PEAK makes me wonder if Del Toro is struggling with the same beast of burden.  Is it possible for a visionary filmmaker to maintain their originality once their vision has been popularly branded?

CRIMSON PEAK is a crowd-pleasing Guillermo Del Toro movie, frequently brilliant in the way that Del Toro's other films are brilliant.  Visually, it’s a marvel—like a variation on THE HAUNTING made by Mario Bava, filled with bold, rich colors and wildly elaborate sets and costumes.  It has an operatic quality that is rare for horror films—especially 21st century horror films.  Every frame screams “classic monster movie," as the film tells a classical ghost story.

This is where things get tricky.  The ghosts in the film are alternately wispy and organic, alternately human and mythic--because CRIMSON PEAK wants to be both intimate and spectacular.  It achieves both, in isolated moments.  But as a whole, it never quite gels for me.  Maybe it’s because the Victorian ghost story feels too simple and straightforward for such a lush, ornate production.   Maybe it’s because Guillermo del Toro’s brand of horror is too hauntingly familiar at this point.  Whatever the case, I found myself wishing for a narrative that was as rich as the visuals.   

But, hey, let's not end on a sour note.  CRIMSON PEAK was still a welcome change from so many of the modern horror films I've been watching this month.  I believe that the horror genre thrives because it allows for so many subgenres and so many variations on a theme.  Del Toro’s vision only strengthens my affection for the genre.  

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: The final ten minutes or so get dicey in a way I had not anticipated, but probably should have.  CRIMSON PEAK pointedly echoes Mario Bava—who was, in addition to being something of a classicist, also the father of giallo.  Beauty and brutality go hand in hand. 

Saturday, October 29, 2016

30 Days of Nightmares #29: HOUSEBOUND (2014)

The Story: A felon is sentenced to house arrest in her childhood home… which, unfortunately for her, is haunted. 

Expectations: This one has been on my watch list since the beginning of the month, but I’ve been avoiding it because Netflix lists it as a horror-comedy.  I’ve already written about my misgivings with horror-comedies, in my review of COOTIES, but I'm feeling like maybe I was too dismissive.  After all, I’ve seen some pretty good horror-comedies in recent years: TUCKER & DALE VS.EVIL, BLACK SHEEP and RUBBER come to mind.  So....

Reaction: A few years ago, I worked on a haunted house "reality" show.  Every episode was basically the same story: Each show starts with a family moving into a new house, and ends with the family confronting exorcising their literal and figurative demons.  What almost never happened was what I assume I’d do if I moved into a haunted house: I'd move out.  As producers, we constantly had to explain to viewers (and to ourselves) why all these people chose to stay in their homes, if they really believed they were being haunted by angry ghosts and/or unholy demons.

I loved the fact that HOUSEBOUND deals with this problem right up front.  If our heroine leaves the house, she will get arrested.  So when she gets her first inclination that the house might be haunted, she starts unraveling a big tangled web of mysteries…. while the filmmakers introduce us to the ghosts of horror movies past.  Right away, there’s a hilarious homage to CHILD’S PLAY, followed by a lot of love for Sir Alfred Hitchcock.  About halfway through, HOUSEBOUND resembles nothing so much as a supernatural version of REAR WINDOW.   And I'm generally a sucker for REAR WINDOW homages.

But this brings me to one of my biggest misgivings about recent horror movies in general.   Most of them seem to be built on the assumption that audiences need constant twists and turns.  The way most modern horror films deliver these twists and turns is by mimicking the twists and turns of older horror movies.  A lot of older horror movies.  Anyone who has been watching horror movies for a few decades is bound to regard most 21st century American horror films as a patchwork of old, familiar stories... which makes it hard to point to these newer films as “classics.”

I don’t mean to be pointedly critical of HOUSEBOUND, because it's a smart film with a great sense of humor.  To the writer/director Gerard Johnston'es credit, it's a horror-comedy in the best possible way: it anticipates the unintentional humor of all genre clich├ęs recycled here, and plays them for intentional humor.  And, from my perspective, it’s actually funny because it's not too over the top.  Johnston’s affection for the genre allows him to cleverly ape Hitchcock… and giallo-era Dario Argento… and Wes Craven's PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS... and SCANNERS.   For all those reasons, I loved it…. Maybe as much as a cranky old horror geek can love anything “new.” 

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: The face in the wall. 

Friday, October 28, 2016

30 Days of Nightmares #28: THE SHALLOWS (2016)

The Story: A young woman goes surfing on a remote beach in Mexico, and encounters a killer shark.

Expectations: Every few years, we get a new JAWS movie.  In 2003, it was OPEN WATER.  In  2010, it was THE REEF.  And then there are variations like BACKCOUNTRY, which substitutes a bear for the shark.  So how has JAWS managed to spawn its own subgenre?  Because it’s not so much a movie as a modern myth.  Like most myths, it is simple and primal—and thus seems easy to replicate.  All you need is a hero and a shark, right?  This is basic stuff: Man vs. Nature.

But actually, JAWS isn't that simple.  It’s really more of a character piece, and the shark is really a catalyst for the characters.  For Quint, the shark is the focal point of obsession.  For Hooper, the shark isvocation.  For Brody, it’s a challenge, forcing him to confront his fears.  The shark’s motives are simpler.  As Hooper says, “All it does is swim, eat, and make baby sharks.”  Until the sequels, anyway.

Reaction: Like the shark in the sequels, the shark in THE SHALLOWS is angry.  For a while, I thought it was just stalking Blake Lively because it had become trapped in the cove during low tide and had nothing else to do.  But as the movie progressed, it became clear that this shark was very, very angry.   Even on a full stomach, the shark is ruthlessly determined to eat her, regardless of every deterrent she throws at him.  She shoots the shark in the face with a flare gun and still it comes back.  Why?  Because it is angry.  This is not JAWS.  This is JAWS: THE REVENGE.

Also, the shark is mostly digital.  Which makes sense because real sharks don’t get angry.  But, hey, we live in an age where digital sharks are pretty common, so I’ll move on to other problems.

Blake Lively plays a med student who decides to quit school and go on walkabout after her mother dies of cancer.   Her angst is melodramatically summed up with a few quick text messages and iphone photos, followed by a short Skype call with her dad who implores her “not to give up.”  His words are obviously fortuitous.

Blake Lively is no Roy Scheider, but I didn’t mind watching her for 90 minutes.  I didn’t even mind the fact that this movie builds from painfully obvious melodrama to total contempt for situational logic.  In the middle, it still managed enough to craft enough suspense to keep me entertained.  

Oh, and there was a seagull named, get this, Steven Seagull.  He's like Wilson to Blake Lively’s Tom Hanks.  Blake Lively is no Tom Hanks either, but Steven Seagull can act circles around Wilson.  That's got to be worth something.

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: At one point, the heroine stitches up a shark bite wound with her earrings.  It's pretty gnarly.