Friday, October 23, 2009

Jennifer's Body

Dir: Karyn Kusama (2009, 102 min.)

Be warned that this review is coming from a cranky, mildly deranged place, because I read a bunch of reviews before going to see this movie and almost skipped it, they were that bad and dismissive, and now I’ve seen it and LOVE IT and do not get what everyone’s problem is.  I’m so misunderstood!  That must be why I was able to identify with the teenagers of Devil’s Kettle when those lame grownups at, like, the New York Times totally missed the point.

ANYWAY.  The movie’s plot treads a well-worn horror path: occult mumbo-jumbo turns hot lady into monster, no one believes the warnings of the one person who’s on to her, mayhem ensues and it’s up to our horrified and plucky protagonist to put a stop to the smirking demon who was once a friend.  A thousand yawns have been born of the same premise.  Thankfully, scriptwriter Diablo Cody and director Karyn Kusama have taken this rusty genre staple and used it as the framework for a funny, note-perfect adolescent horror comedy.

Megan Fox is the hot monster in question here.  Her vapid and insecure high school alpha-bitch becomes a vapid, insecure and bloodthirsty…demon…thing…of some sort.  (Her first post-transformation appearance is one of the movie’s few earnestly creepy moments; the unimportance/ total absurdity of the details is deftly mocked in a deadpan flashback to a satanic ritual performed by smirky wannabe rockstars.)  Her uneven friendship with adorable, mousy Needy (Amanda Seyfried) is the movie’s center, allowing it to satirize the conflicts of identity that crop up in real-world as well as horror-movie adolescent life, notably outgrowing childhood friendships, and navigating the treacherous waters of “Hot or Not?” as a teenage girl.

The movie never belabors these themes.  It keeps things broad and breezy in order to pull off a neater trick than wrestling a demon in high heels and a Homecoming dress: to appeal to core horror fans and feminists*, teens and adults, boys and girls alike, and to be funny, sweet, sad, gory, scary (if admittedly just a little scary), and consistently entertaining throughout.

Enjoyment of Jennifer’s Body requires a high tolerance for horror and teen-movie tropes, including but not limited to: the near-nonexistence of any adults, the occult research montage, and the randomly-appearing spooky setting.  However, the presentation is smart enough that you can trust these are homages, not mistakes.  The plot is undeniably formulaic, but the filmmakers have struck a nice balance between lovingly mocking the formula, and respecting their movie’s big moments enough to let them have some emotional impact, making the climactic best-friend battle and the final scene as satisfying as they are predictable.

I have no idea if Fox can act – her previous outings as wooden eye candy have sure not given her a chance to showcase any talent – but her dead-eyed delivery of cool-girl banter is either genius or a genius utilization by the filmmakers.  The fact that an empty-headed high school girl stays empty-headed post-possession – that her priorities (being the hottest, maintaining alpha-bitch status in her friendship with Needy) remain the same, plus or minus a little murder and organ-eating – is pretty funny and a little unnerving. 

Seyfried is vulnerable and appealing, and when it’s called for, crazed and desperate, and engaging throughout.  Needy’s reactions (fear, shock, betrayal, anger and eventual rebellion against her habitual submission to Jennifer) work whether you think you’re watching a monster movie or a satire of high school social politics.

Jennifer’s Body makes it look easy to blend comedy and horror, genuine feeling and sendup, cool pastiche and social commentary.  Maybe they made it look too easy, and that’s why this movie seemed easy for most critics to dismiss.  I, for one, just hope I’m cool enough to be its BFF.

Rating: 5 out of 5, and yay for having fun, being competent and actually seeming to like what you're doing and the audiences you're doing it for!


*I could go on and on like Donkey Kong about my Issues with this alleged dichotomy, but let’s save that for later, shall we?

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Hostel

Dir. Eli Roth (2006, 95 min.)

What is the point of this movie? From the ads, you'd think it was a sick, depraved, balls-out gorefest. From any given fifteen minutes of the running time, you could think it was, variously: a mildly creepy critique of the Ugly American, a dark comedy, a tourism sexploitation flick, a ripoff of The Most Dangerous Game, or a stubbornly non-introspective action/revenge movie. From a hilariously self-important interview in Salon, director Eli Roth seems to think it's a reflection on the State of the World – actual, honest-to-God quote: "What's worse, my movie or Dick Cheney? Nobody actually died in my movie. People actually die because of Dick Cheney, and he doesn't allow you to see it."

Confused? That’s okay; so is Hostel. Roth, of Cabin Fever fame, seems to be trying for a kind of postmodern genre pastiche but instead lurches alarmingly between themes that have little relation to each other and even less chance of resolution. In stark contrast to executive producer Quentin Tarantino's best work, which nimbly draws on the least-respected bits of cinema's past to create works greater and more fun than the sum of their parts, Roth's two-movie oeuvre has the disjointed effect of a drunk rambling through all the scenes from movies he thinks are "really, just, completely fucked-up and cool, dude."

The movie can be divided into roughly three parts: Act 1 features our protagonists, Frat Boy Paxton (the cocky one), Frat Boy Josh (the sensitive one), and Icelandic Oli (the wacky foreign one), trolling Amsterdam for tail. Josh needs to get laid, see, because he broke up recently and is feeling sad and conflicted about it, and is thus in danger of turning into a pussy. Paxton needs to get laid because otherwise he might start thinking. Oli needs to get laid because he is in a near-constant state of waking wet dream. After getting kicked out of first a club and then their hostel (our Frat Boys don't seem to learn that loudly demanding their "rights" and calling people faggots is not the way to win friends), the three learn of a mythical hostel in Slovakia where the girls are theirs for the asking. The trio hie themselves hence, only to discover, in Act 2, that they are destined for a fate far grimmer and more terrible than even...celibacy!

In the Salon interview, Roth refers to his movie as "slow-burn horror," and I suppose he's referring to the fact that it takes 45 minutes to get through the setup in the above (six-sentence) paragraph. Alas, those 45 minutes lack tension or character development, so there's not much horror, or smoldering, or increasing dread, or anything else going on. Without internal lives, the characters just bounce emptily from one plot convenience to the next – they're looking for pussy, starting fights, or revealing shamefully obvious bits of personal history that Will Be Important Later, all of it so ham-fisted that I spent a good half-hour convinced that this was actually a misunderstood comedy.

But that's okay, right? This is a splatter flick, right? We can forgive the weak plot, the unlikeable half-characters, and the lack of suspense because we're a bunch of sickos, here to see sick things, and this movie is supposed to deliver the goods with scenes of torture and brutality that would make a strong man cry – right?

Well, um. The main attraction – the grisly death of one of our main characters while his friend lies unconscious in a grotty bathroom – is indeed hard to watch; even if we don't like these people it's no fun watching them scream in pain or vomit from terror. But the movie, despite its winking promises, shows a surprising lack of imagination when it comes to the depths of human depravity, and a disappointing reluctance to actually get down and dirty – for a movie that claims to have sent preview audiences to the hospital, I saw a hell of a lot of "show metal implement approaching tender flesh, then cut away to atmospheric dirty floor with soundtrack of screams and squishy noises" action. Granted, I'm not in the torture-murder business, but if that were my thing I think I'd keep my victims alive for longer than five minutes and a little bit of power-tool work. When it comes down (finally) to it, Hostel pussies out, showing us things that are unpleasant, but pretty lame and tame compared to gore classics like Cannibal Holocaust or the unrelenting psychological torment bestowed on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre's Sally.

What we have here is a grossout movie with no grossout at its center. I'm not a huge fan of the gore-for-gore's-sake genre, but if that's your purpose, and you seem to have thrown out all the other elements of a movie in its honor – suspense, character development, a fully embodied villain, a decent soundtrack, or a plot, to name a few – then dammit, do it right. Put me off my dinner. Make me wonder what is wrong with me that I needed to see that. Help a girl out!

As if to cement our dislike and alienation, the movie's final act takes another unbelievable, unrelatable turn, as it morphs into a sort of comedy-action-gore flick, with one last dash of extreme violence thrown in at the end. The final scene could be trying to tell us something about the effects of viewing violence – or it could be another disharmonious note in a movie that is composed of them. As I watched non-characters do unlikely things for unapparent reasons, I reflected that a great director sends a message you aren't even consciously aware of receiving. A good director sends a message clearly and entertainingly. A bad director fails to send a message at all. And Eli Roth, a whole new breed, leaves you confused as to whether there ever was a message to begin with, or whether the director just wanted to try out all the cool things he could think of before audiences and investors catch on and stop funding his projects.

Rating: 1 star. Back to film school with you, mister.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

White Noise

Directed by Geoffrey Sax (2005, 101 min.)

I tried SO HARD to just sit back and enjoy this movie as the slim collection of boogedy-boogedy scares I knew it was going to be, you have no idea. Because, really, what greater waste of time is there than overanalyzing a Hollywood treatment of ghostly sounds from the ether, packaged for maximum profit and sliced down to a PG-13 rating for the kiddies? Not much, but what can you do? A leopard can't change his spots, and I can't silence the little voice inside that screams, with ever-increasing volume, "But this makes no SEEEEENNNNSSE!"

White Noise begins promisingly enough, with Michael Keaton playing Jonathan, the anguished husband of a famous author who dies in a mysterious car accident/drowning. Borrowing heavily from the washed-out, somber atmosphere of the American remake of The Ring, it treats us to a series of gently tingly moments as Jonathan meets up with Raymond Price, a self-proclaimed expert in EVP, or Electric Voice Phenomena – messages from the dead, transmitted through radio static and other electronic white noise. Keaton, who I think is an underrated serious actor, does a great job of playing a man who's skeptical at first, but becomes convinced in his grief that his dead wife is really contacting him.

Things go awry when three menacing figures show up amidst all the dead-people chatter emanating from Price's electronics hoard, and begin, it seems, to wreak real-world havoc. Unfortunately, this is where things start to go awry for the viewer, as well: suddenly we have Jonathan believing he can save the world using his own homemade Dial-A-Deceased-Spouse, wee ghosties causing car crashes and suicides for unknown reasons, kidnappings, psychics, and serial killers, oh me oh my. The movie takes on way more possibilities than it can handle, and, in a desperate bid to get the hell off the screen before we figure that out, pulls one of those "oh I am totally being ambiguous ON PURPOSE" endings that are so annoying. I mean, I like a finale that leaves me wondering what the future implications are, but not one that has me checking whether the DVD player just stopped working, or jumping over to the director commentary while exclaiming, aloud, "You people have some 'splaining to do." (they didn't do any, in case you were wondering. I suspect that's because there's very little to explain here, other than a poorly conceived final act and boogeymen whose natures and motives were a little too mysterious even to the filmmakers.)

My rating: 2 out of 5 – nicely packaged and with a few spooky moments, but too much of a mishmash to really be worth your while.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Halloween Spectacular!

To celebrate my favorite holiday, I'm taking part in a Halloween movie-review collaboration. My charming and worthy co-reviewers' pieces can be found here:

Freshmaker
Nora Charles

The deal: we agreed upon five "best of all time" movies, which we each wrote a short review of. Then, each of us picked a "dark horse," a movie that maybe didn't quite deserve Top 5 status but which we find irresistible for one reason or another, as a basis for a longer essay. Some of us (ahem) could not resist the urge to review the other participants' dark horses, because we just can't think of a better way to spend Halloween weekend than watching lots of horror movies.

So, the reviews:

THE TOP FIVE

The Haunting
Today's curiously unsatisfying gorefests could take a lesson or two from this 1963 chiller, which will keep you up at night without a drop of blood or a single evisceration in sight. Shy, lonely Eleanor, in a bid to gain independence from her domineering mother, agrees to take part in the paranormal investigation of Hill House led by one Dr. Markway. Unfortunately, Eleanor's problems are just beginning. The house proves to be a hotbed of increasingly threatening supernatural activity. Is whatever inhabits Hill House singling Eleanor out? Or are her psychological problems undergoing a disturbing and dangerous escalation?

The Haunting is a beautifully scary film. Its subtlety and restraint create an atmosphere of slowly increasing dread, as tiny clues to the house's history are revealed one by one, leaving the viewer mostly to the mercy of his or her own imagination. This is one movie that knows the scariest thing is often what isn’t shown -- I defy you to watch Eleanor and Theodora's terrifying night together, or the deliciously creepy revelation afterward, without shuddering, even though nary a CGI monster can be found.


The Exorcist
I've been told that, as a heathen, I can't possibly understand how scary The Exorcist really is. If that's true? I think I'm glad. I'm not sure I could take it. If you ask me, though, the nice thing about the movie is that you don’t have to have a big personal fear of demonic possession to find it utterly terrifying -- what the movie does, brilliantly, is to ask: What if the very worst, the dark side of everything you believe in -- what if that all turns out to be true?

Beginning with, ahem, devilish innocence (a weird Ouija board experience here, a little pee on the floor there), The Exorcist wastes no time ratcheting up the grotesquerie with the scenes you're familiar with: spinning heads, pea soup, and so on. But what makes the movie so much more effective than your average splatterfest is the underlying feeling of despair and darkness, as the main characters come to believe that they're facing real evil -- that all is most certainly not right with the world, and that they alone have to face something much bigger, meaner and scarier than they are prepared to accept. That isolation and the desperate, fate-of-the-world odds give the movie weight that outlasts even the Guignol theatrics that made it famous.


Night of the Living Dead
"Yeah, they’re dead. They’re…all messed up." The first twenty minutes of George Romero's genre-making zombie flick play like a 50s B-movie throwback, with busted radios, clunky exposition, and damsels losing their shoes right and left. But once the hapless Barbara enters the house that seems, at first, to offer safety, it becomes clear that Romero plans to take the atomic-monster movie and run with it like a marathon champ. As a small group of survivors fight to stay alive, the movie's drive-in trappings fall away to reveal its real personality: pessimistic, unrelenting and almost unbearably dark.

Although I have a soft spot for Romero's most recent zombie epic, Land of the Dead, the original is still depressingly relevant in its outlook on human fear, and how it can be our undoing. From the weaselly Mr. Cooper, who clings to the imaginary safety of the house at all costs, to the hero who commits an act of brutality in one fraught moment, to the flippant, ignorant enforcers who gleefully go after the bad guys, never knowing that they've nailed a few good guys along the way, every character in the film faces his or her own fear and, in the end, comes up short. The fact that Romero is able to pack this moral into a movie that's still scary and entertaining is no mean feat, as ranks of lightweight ripoffs and dour, message-laden snore-fests since can attest.


The Shining
The Shining is, of course, a gloriously scary film, with a fantastic performance by Jack Nicholson, by turns menacing, bewildered, terrified and monstrous as he gives in to the ghostly influence of the evil Overlook Hotel. It's also one of the few films to succeed in being scary and damn funny at the same time. Upon repeated viewings, a subtle thread of dark humor emerges, aided of course by Nicholson's crazed "do you believe this shit?" leer. Like Psycho (possibly the only other movie I'd put on the really scary AND really funny list), The Shining manages to remind you constantly that it's just doing this to freak you out, and...still freak you out, somehow. I can't believe that the hilariously overwrought "Tuesday" title card was just an accident, or that Kubrick didn't see the comic potential of Shelley Duvall's numerous snivelly breakdowns. Instead of detracting from the horror, this detached, sardonic viewpoint adds to the sense of depravity and perversion, as if we are viewing the events not just through Jack, Wendy, and Danny, but through the eyes of the Overlook itself, ancient, jaded, and very very evil.


Halloween
27 years ago, Halloween rampaged through theaters and kicked off a horror Golden Age in the United States. Since then, we've seen seven sequels and numberless ripoffs. Michael Meyers has become an A-lister, a sort of American Godzilla who may have started out as a monster, but is now the one, let's face it, we’re rooting for.

It's too easy to forget why the movie is so famous. I’ve watched it a million times before, of course, but a couple of years ago I had a chance to see it properly, in a darkened theater, and damned if it didn't have me as jumpy as any virginal Final Girl. I realized that what’s great about Halloween is not the sex and gore that the slasher film is famous for, but the relentless suspense which, if you give it half a chance, will have you on the edge of your seat during Halloween's agonizing final minutes.

In his first outing, Michael Meyers is a perfectly terrifying figure of evil. Later sequels, which started the tradition of the slasher franchise with extensive backstory, sell him short: it’s far more disturbing that this blank-faced killing machine…just is, for no particular reason. That's way scarier than even the most horrific origin tale, because there's no moral, no lesson to be learned, except maybe that "the Boogeyman is real."


THE DARK HORSES

Suspiria (Nora Charles' pick)
Dario Argento is deservedly beloved for serving up some of the most beautiful, grotesque nightmares around, and if he sacrifices the odd plot nitpick here and there in service of his Vision, well, a great vision it is, and we can forgive him. In Suspiria, however, he nails the details. Pretty Suzy Bannion travels overseas to a funny little German ballet academy and finds herself starring in a morbid fairy tale, as students start disappearing, the headmistress seems to be taking an odd interest in her nutrition plan, and maggots make an unforgettable appearance in the student sleeping quarters.

You kind of have to take Argento movies as they are -- his characters are always stylized, and even at his most focused he's more into atmosphere than plot complexities. But if you approach Suspiria more as an amusement-park ride than as realism, you're in for a treat.


Versus (Freshmaker's pick)
The age-old storytelling themes of reincarnation, honor and the nature of good and evil are...well, not all that important to your enjoyment of this movie, really, although they do lend a fantastic backdrop to this, simply the rootinest, tootinest, samurai/zombie/western/prison-break/yakuza movie ever filmed.

We are introduced to a place called the Forest of Resurrection via ancient samurai-vs.-multiple zombie throwdown. Back in the present day, two escaped prisoners get into a tiff with some gangsters, ending in slickly-choreographed gunplay. Unfortunately, the yakuza lose a little composure, and a lot of limbs, when they discover that the area they’ve been using to dump bodies is, of course, the aforementioned Forest. Suddenly, vanquished enemies are not so vanquished, very dead, and extremely cranky. Too bad the gangsters already got on the bad side of Prisoner KSC2-303, who, equipped with a bitchin’ leather coat, turns out to be quite the zombie-killer. In fact, the whole killing zombies thing seems oddly familiar somehow…

Versus is relentlessly violent, gross, creepy, and silly, an exuberant, beautifully eccentric reinterpretation of the zombie movie that is always willing to mock itself when the genre cliches start to pile a little high, so you know it’s all in fun. And great fun it is.


Dementia 13 (my pick)
Like Night of the Living Dead, Francis Ford Coppola's first movie is all too easy to dismiss because it shares so many elements with its lesser cousins. Unlike Romero, however, Coppola plays with genre conventions not for the noble purpose of political commentary, but just to see how very good a bad movie can be.

Instead of atomic-age monsters, Coppola takes the Gothic mystery for his experimental subject here. Brittle, scheming blond Louise, desperate to get her hands on her husband's family fortune, is rather inconvenienced by his untimely demise during an eerie moonlight boat ride. This doesn't slow her down for long, however, as she plots to cover up his death long enough to ingratiate herself with his strange family, which includes sensitive younger brother Billy, unstable sculptor Robert, and the acid-tongued, superstitious matriarch Lady Haloran, who is obsessed with the sister, Kathleen, who died tragically several years ago. As events at the castle take a murderous turn, the movie embarks on a rather standard "cast suspicion upon every available character and also the supernatural" path, but in a most enjoyable way.

Setting aside minor details (such as why the Family Haloran, despite apparently being Irish gentry of long standing, all have American accents), Coppola is incredibly skillful at using B-movie trappings to their best effect, creating a truly creepy feeling of morbidity and obsession. Poor little Kathleen, whether or not she is a real ghost, certainly has plenty to be vengeful about, as her mother's clingy expectations for her during life, and her brothers' jealousy and resentment even after it's ended, are revealed. Though the body count is low, you'll have to look far and wide to find a more twisted or sleazily atmospheric little flick.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Cry_Wolf

Dir. Jeff Wadlow (2005)

Are you getting sick of reading reviews in which I snark on movies from the genre I claim to love? Me too, which is why it's a shame that I got to go to a free sneak preview of Cry_Wolf last night.

In a sort of preadolescent Diabolique, eight bored teenagers at a posh private school in Somewhereville, USA get more than they bargained for when they spread a rumor that the real-life murder of a local teenager was committed by a serial killer who plans to strike their campus on Halloween night. It seems that someone doesn't like their yarn-spinning; our hapless main character, transfer student Owen, starts getting text messages from a menacing figure named Wolf, who threatens to make their tall tales a reality, with the kids as the starring victims. As increasingly violent incidents occur, is the real killer about to go on a rampage? Or is the whole thing a series of cruel pranks perpetrated by one or more of Owen's new, occasionally (and conveniently) mysterious friends? Or perhaps Jon Bon Jovi, in a thankless turn as a hep journalism teacher, is somehow involved? Or the creepy, staring janitor is...okay, I give up. You get the idea.

I won't get into the wildly unrealistic presentation here of life at a tony boarding school; since the movie is rated PG-13, the filmmakers can be forgiven for creating a fantasy world for an audience that has probably largely not started ninth grade yet anyway. Plus, I wouldn't want to endanger my prodigious street cred by admitting to having attended one of these institutions myself.

What I can't overlook is that Cry_Wolf features a depressing number of those embarrassingly stupid maneuvers that put the heroes in harm's way in every hackneyed slasher ever made. I was surprised to find, at this late date, that cannon fodder still makes such errors as promising to "be right back," and going off by themselves to rescue the girl, and running up the stairs and into the inescapable room, and so on. You would think the poor things would evolve! Perhaps their life spans are so short that they are unable to pass on knowledge to the next generation of one-note victims. Only this could explain why seemingly intelligent people, trapped on campus with a masked killer and armed with functioning cell phones, computers and other means of communication, can't figure out how to get help. I mean, if worse comes to worst, you people keep talking about townies - surely, then, there is a town you could walk to, right? This and other awkward ploys to keep the characters alone and in danger really distract from the suspense. It's hard to fear for someone's life when you want to shake them and scream "Haven't you ever seen even one horror movie? Or, failing that, Stranger Danger? I mean come on!" It's also difficult to get invested in the scary killer, when the movie goes to such pains to remind us every five minutes that maybe it is all just a joke, and never misses an opportunity to show us that any high school student of any stature can put on an orange hunting mask and immediately attain the physique of a 6'5" adult man, the better to impersonate the murderer.

On the plus side, the movie remains earnestly committed to its purpose. Unlike a sad number of movies I see these days, Cry_Wolf never cheapens itself by adding out-of-place elements in order to seem cleverer than it is. Even the...and you have no idea how much I've grown to hate these words...twist ending is honestly earned; the movie is build solidly along "gruesome whodunit" lines, and therefore a surprise revelation is a given from the start. Also refreshing is seeing a guy take on the "final girl" role for once; as Owen, Julian Morris is to be commended for panicking, cringeing and sniveling with gusto when the script calls for it; and if his acting during the rest of the film is nothing to write home about, well, at least he fits in with his peers.

This largely gore-free chiller will probably entertain an audience whose mom hasn't let them watch any real horror movies yet; it's relatively harmless, if a bit ridiculous, and at least doesn't drag much as it careens towards its inevitable climax. More seasoned fans won't find much here, unless snorting with derision is really fulfilling to them. My rating: 2 out of 5.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Saw

Dir. James Wan (2004, 100 min.)

Saw is the tragic tale of a promisingly diabolical concept that almost became a real movie. If only it hadn't gotten so distracted by all those subgenres and striking-but-unconnected images along the way, it might have grown up into something meaty and formidable. Alas, our little movie drifted, fell in with a bad crowd, and generally failed to live up to its potential.

Borrowing liberally from Se7en, The Usual Suspects, Lifeboat, and Jack London survival horror, just to name a few, Saw attempts to terrify with the story of the Jigsaw Killer, who sets up elaborate scenarios in which his drugged and kidnapped victims end up killing themselves, or each other, as they try to escape his traps. Unfortunately, what with all this "inspiration," the movie never really finds an identity of its own.

Our main focus is on a doctor (Cary Elwes, playing the role with overblown, Captain Kirk excess that's downright embarrassing) and a down-on-his-luck photographer (Leigh Whannell, who also co-wrote and therefore loses a lot of the sympathy I have for his trying to play against Elwes), who wake up chained in a grotty bathroom with nothing to keep them company but a tape player, a dead body, and some hacksaws, which, it soon becomes clear, are not to be used to cut through the chains, but their own legs. But this rivetingly gruesome idea loses its tension as we leave them, first for an entertaining expositional flashback, and then for increasingly distracting and unnecessary real-time subplots involving the doctor's family and the obsessed detective on the killer's trail.

Nowhere is this lack of a center more painful than during a climactic fight scene, which should have been presented from the doctor's perspective as he listens, helplessly, to his family fighting for their lives, eventually losing all hold on rationality in his desperation to get to them. Instead, the viewer is faced with a confusing and alienating mishmash which alternates haphazardly between four points of view, a poorly choreographed gun battle, and a breakdown which Elwes, after that setup and all the scenery-chewing which has gone before, doesn't have a chance in hell of selling us on.

After all that, the twist ending which is apparently required by law in all horror films these days actually comes as something of a relief: it's remarkably unapologetic and focused in comparison, and the movie's final image is truly the stuff of nightmares. Too bad the preceeding ninety-eight minutes couldn't have been so brutally streamlined.

Saw throws a lot of audacious what-if at the screen, and though little of it sticks, I have guarded hopes that Saw 2, due out this year, might show that the filmmakers have settled down a bit and are prepared to take on a real plot, as opposed to a cool concept.

My rating: 3 points for the idea, minus one point for just letting it flop around helplessly like that for so long. You are supposed to take care of your offspring better than that. Final rating: 2 points.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Sleepy Hollow High

Dir. Chis Arth and Kevin Summerfield (2000, 81 min.)

I took a video production class at Queens Public Access Television back in the day, a requirement in order to use their editing equipment. One of my peers, let's call him Rick, was a helluva nice guy with boundless enthusiasm and not a jaded or humble bone in his body. He was confident that it was only a matter of time before he became a combination rock star/film producer/high-level corporate banker. One day, Rick confided that he intended to make a scary movie for his next project. "A real scary movie," he said, gazing thoughtfully into space. "No one knows how to make those anymore."

The next class found Rick, perhaps a bit sheepish but no less energetic, presenting a ten-minute series of murky shots of someone walking around a suburban backyard with a bag over his head, while a synthesizer warbled in the background and Rick's girlfriend tried really hard not to giggle during each closeup of her peering out the window pretending to be menaced. "It turned out to be a little harder than I thought," said Rick, "but I think it works really well as a comedy."

Sleepy Hollow High sports production values that are slightly higher than Rick's, and presents itself without a hint of post-production irony, but I couldn't help but see a shade of his earnest ambitions here. The boilerplate slasher plot begins as five carefully diverse delinquents are faced with a choice: do community service cleaning up the Sleepy Hollow woods, or face expulsion. The kids pick Door #1, and, accompanied by guidance counselor Mr. E (get it? GET IT???), head off to meet their fate. In this case, fate is a big guy in strategically ripped pants, wearing a pumpkin mask, riding a hilariously docile horse, and wielding an ornamental sword whose real owner no doubt implored the crew to clean it before it was returned to the rack in his living room, right above the plastic mace.

I really don't need to say more, if you've ever seen even one slasher. The filmmakers draw on pretty much every trope they can: suspicion cast upon every available bit player, lots of subjective woods-stalking shots, some really painful machinations to get characters alone, and so on. There are no surprises except, perhaps, the ending, which betrays the whole movie with a copout twist and a wholly improbable teaser. (What is it with movies these days? Can't anything just unapologetically exist anymore?)

What is notable here is the utter conviction with which the cast perform their increasingly ridiculous and poorly-lit tasks. Not talent, and certainly not excellent writing – I knew from the first scream of "please don't let me die!" in bored, slightly annoyed tones better suited to a broken nail that this was no gem in the rough. But the unwinking spirit with which everyone throws themselves into the dialogue, the chase scenes, and the soap opera revelations that everyone keeps taking time out from getting chased through the woods to announce - it engenders a let's-all-root-for-the-drama-club feeling that I couldn't resist.

The sheer determination to see this thing through despite its limitations results in a kind of artistry of badness; just when you think that things couldn't possibly get more incompetent, they find a way to add that awkward line, that incomprehensible camera angle, that puts it over the top. Or under the bottom, I suppose. Though I can't even put this movie in the so-bad-it's-good category for fear of being hunted down by all three of my readers, I have to admit that I was pretty riveted, not by the story, but by the awesome depths to which this movie sank, solemn and earnest to the very last.

My rating: Ah, hell, those kids worked so hard! I don't have the heart to give this movie the 1 it deserves, so I'll award a special slasher-fans-only rating of 3 out of 5, based on how much I laughed.