Thursday, January 28, 2021 13:14

Archive for April, 2012

The Veneer (!) of Modernity

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

I’ll start this post with a mea culpa: I can be easily-distracted by minor details when I’m watching a film, be they details of dress, or mannerism, or verbal tic – anything along those lines is anathema to my concentration. Once I’ve honed in on this sort of thing, that’s it, that’s all I can see or hear, and I find it very difficult to stop fixating on it  - but in recent years, something has started to take over in film which is not just noticeable to someone like me who gets hung up on a lisp or mad hair or the fact that there’s actually someone in the film who goes by the real-life name of Mimsy Farmer. No, this is a Real Thing. Something weird is going on…

This isn’t a matter which solely affects horror, by the way, but as I watch horror the most, it’s in horror that I inevitably notice it the most, whenever I’m trying to immerse myself in tension, or atmosphere, or period detail – whatever happens to be going on in the fictional universe of film which interests me at that particular time. What am I talking about, I hear you cry? Well, perhaps I can best answer that with an example.

Hobo with a Shotgun: not a realist piece of cinema, to be sure, but would you seriously expect a Gentleman of the Road to have a set of gnashers like that, after potentially years of riding the railroad, drinking fortified wine and eating out of skips? They bothered to get everything believable about Rutger Hauer’s appearance – right down to the dirt under his nails (unless he came in like that), but all I could see were those pearly whites. All I could see. A beaming grin, getting in the way of the character and set-up. The Hollywood smile - it is everywhere.

Yep, look where we may, actors and actresses universally look as though some lunatic has shoved a kids’ toy piano into their heads. Dental veneers, man. They freak me out. And even if you could make allowances that, maybe, the girl being chased through the woods by a masked killer might belong to the type of family where she could go and get her teeth ‘done’, i.e. have a dentist expensively insert huge, uniformly-sized and shaped blocks into her until you don’t know whether to shake her hand or play Chopsticks on her face, can you really believe it of Hobo with a Shotgun? Historical epics? Burke and fucking Hare? Victorian prostitutes who lived in a world of gin and domestic violence, with ne’er a tooth astray? If you saw Season of the Witch, then you probably noticed Nicolas Cage’s wig; it was a hell of a wig, to be sure. But I posit that they only put the wig on him to draw the eye away from the fact that we’re supposed to believe a 14th Century mercenary had such impressive bridgework. Ron Perlman, as well, who looks as though he wasn’t born but hewn out of granite – he had one of those flawless grins too. I repeat: two guys who had braved the Crusades and all of the violence and malnutrition which that entailed came out the other end looking like Larry fucking Hagman.

The OptiSmile has taken over all time periods, situations and characters being filmed, and by the seems of it no filmmaker or make-up artist can bring themselves to do anything to the OptiSmile which would in any way tarnish it or alter it, even though this is the only way in which it could be made to look at all believable. It really gets in the way of character acting, and it’s another trend which makes all those on our screens looks the bloody same. As if it’s not bad enough that all the women have the same figures and all the men are oddly hairless with those weird defined abdominals which make them look like genuine human centipedes. I can’t empathise with these people! Speaking of human centipedes,  everyone involved with casting seems to be oblivious to the fact that these anodyne horsey grins are distracting no matter how outrageous the action on screen gets. I watched The Human Centipede; I reviewed it for this blog in fact, and I quite liked the film. However, I was as much absorbed by the own-light-source smiles of the two lead actresses as I was by the fact that those dazzlers were about to be torn out.

I’m not saying that I think the world of film would be better with more decay on display, but a bit of variety – you know, like we have in the world – wouldn’t go amiss, and no one is going to get hurt if they have to observe a mouthful of regular teeth. It’s fine. Honestly. And it comes to something when you’re breathing a sigh of relief because a cast member looks like a believable person, just because they lack that fashionable, moneyed, toothy look.

I’m told that actors and actresses essentially have to get their teeth fixed to stand a serious chance of being cast these days, and that’s one of the silliest cases of the Emperor’s New Clothes that we’ve had of late, because deliberately fostering disbelief on the part of the audience (or fascination with all the wrong things) isn’t going to help a film! It also dates and types a film quite clearly – in years to come, that might make it laughable, and with horror, that isn’t (usually) what you’re after. Pack it in, all of you filmmakers. If it’s good enough for Terry Thomas then it’s good enough for all of us.

Cassadaga (2011)

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

Thanks to some of their recent releases, After Dark Films have made great strides in rectifying the rather variable reputation they had built up. Films such as Prowl and Husk might not have been genre-defying, but they were certainly genre-aware, savvy pieces of filmmaking with much to recommend them. A good film doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel – it’s nice if that happens sometimes, we don’t expect it all the time – but it has to show it can do something decent and pacy with familiar plot developments, and decent script and performance are a must, unless the filmmaker is deliberately courting the ‘so bad, it’s good’ camp. And, as an aside, I wish they wouldn’t do that. Anyway, back to After Dark: continuing in their largely positive vein, they are now about to release Cassadaga (2011), a film with two quite separate but concurrent plot threads, each recognisable to fans of modern horror, and nicely played-out here.

After the tragic loss of her younger sister Michelle, of whom she was also guardian thanks to the earlier bereavement of their parents, art teacher Lily (Kelen Coleman) seeks and is granted residence at a spiritualist community at the edge of town – the Cassadaga of the title, where she hopes to come to terms with her grief. The temptation of consulting a medium gets the better of Lily, though: she attends a séance, and does make contact with Michelle, to her relief, but Michelle’s presence is soon superceded by one much larger and more aggressive. The medium explains to a frightened Lily that a ghost has attached itself to her. To rid herself of it, she has to find out happened to the person at the end of their life; this begins a chain of events by which Lily encounters tell of a murderer on the loose known as ‘Geppetto’ – for his predilection for making human marionettes out of his victims…

As you might gather by that short introduction, Cassadaga incorporates two different types of horror film in one. The first is the idea of the ‘vengeful spirit’, which has been with us since before the days of cinema, features particularly frequently in Far East Asian horror, and formed the backbone of the plot of The Woman in Black (2012), a very lucrative release for the recently-resurrected Hammer Studios. The second is the type of ordeal cinema which people will keep on referring to as ‘torture porn’ – cinema which focuses on grisly, prolonged torment. How Cassadaga avoids feeling patchy is by limiting the amount of screen-time it gives to the cruelty which we know is at the core of the Geppetto plotline. Whilst we know it is there, and is to be taken seriously (with one sequence which is truly ingenious and horrible) we do not have our viewing experience crammed with gore; suggestion is much more important here. The focus goes to the character of Lily herself, and the detective-work she has to do to end what is happening to her, whilst the supernatural elements of the film are usually low-key – a few jump-cuts aside – and the ghost becomes slowly more ‘characterised’ as Lily is able to uncover details of their life, though without ever ceasing to be alarming on-screen. Aiming to incorporate a good deal, perhaps, but Cassadaga does manage to maintain the sum of its parts, and can be tense and humane in equal shares.

Visually, and perhaps as a sign of our times, this movie looks as though it has all been refracted through Instagram – it looks filtered, with high colour/high contrast, which may or may not appeal to you, but you can say that it has a distinctive appearance which certainly does no harm to the overall effect of the film. The locations are superb, and the cinematography makes the most of them – moving from intense claustrophobia to wide-open spaces, with our lead character, Lily, giving a strong performance which underpins the changes in scene nicely. As a Deaf protagonist, she plays the part well, and not once in my opinion does this film descend into tokenism on that account. It’s actually used very touchingly: through Lily’s perspective, we are given an idea of how silent her world is, and how gently proactive she has to be with the children she teaches in order to remind them that she has to see their lips in order to undertand them. When you contrast that with her excitement when she can actually hear her sister during the séance, and how quickly that descends into fright when she can hear…something else, I think that adds a great deal to the film overall. Ultimately, Lily’s deafness allows for an interesting consideration of what a haunting might ‘feel’ like for someone without hearing. If you are used to hearing absolutely nothing, then surely even mundane sounds could be alarming, if they returned suddenly?

My only major gripes with this movie are perhaps petty, brought into sharper relief by the sensitive handling of something like the main character’s deafness: surely, having constructed that so believably, writers Bruce Wood & Scott Poiley could have thought again about the professional boundaries which a teacher would be expected to respect? I had a similar issue with Lucky McKee’s recent film The Woman (2011) on a similar level, and perhaps this is a US vs. UK discrepancy, but would a teacher wear such revealing clothes, or indeed start a sexual relationship with a current pupil’s father? I understand, films sell better with beautiful women in hotpants, but wear something like that to your job in a school in the UK and certainly get involved with a parent and you would in all likelihood get fired – an odd complaint, perhaps, in a review of a film which contains both a crazed killer and a crazed spectre, but sometimes thin excuses for nudity and sex really feel thin, which is a shame, because in other ways the relationship between Lily and Mike (Kevin Alejandro) is intriguing; he doesn’t turn out to be a knight in shining armour who inevitably puts Lily first, for instance.

However, gripes aside, this was a nicely-paced and very watchable modern horror which never felt boring to me. Good ghostly horror is still often overlooked in favour of more gory cinema, so it was good to see a film which strove to integrate supernatural scares with something altogether much more earthly.