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Tuesday, Oct 27, 2009

Gather around neophyte fright fans, it’s time for a long overdue lesson in what is truly scary. Somewhere along the way, you’ve been misguided, believing that being startled equals a feeling of dread or a shorthand for suspense. For the record, both emotional responses are completely and utterly different. Shock is a sudden sensation, one that comes from the unexpected or the unanticipated. A car pulls out in front of you as you precede through an intersection; the cat jumps on your computer while you are cluelessly chatting with your Facebook pals; a door slams or a vehicle backfires while you weren’t paying attention - each one of these situations produces a considered response, one that can have a deleterious effect on your psyche. You’re jumpy. You’re afraid. But unlike being truly scared, such a feeling is merely temporary, a momentary lapse before rediscovering your fairly consistent everyday comfort zone.

No, fear is literally spine tingling and chilling. It seems under your skin and raises the fuzz on the nape of your neck. It brings about sleepless nights, eyes open as the darkness descends on your already anxious thoughts. Being scared is being constantly reminded of the reason for your fright, of being unsettled for no obvious reason except for the subject of said terror. A loud bang might bring about a couple of minutes (or hours) of unease, but the sensation soon goes away. Terror should be something that sticks to you like a leech, sucking away your resolve until you can no longer stand the stress. Being startled therefore is not the same thing, and as a result, any movie that functions as a series of jolts is nothing more than the cinematic version of a defibrillator. It may be startling, but it’s not also scary.

Last weekend, Paranormal Activity was the Number One film in the nation, raking in almost $22 million at the box office. Declared by some limited perspective websites as “the scariest movie of all time”, this $15K clunker is really nothing more than 90 minutes of meandering followed by five minutes of predictable “BOO!”. No attempt is made to deliver suspense, to take the viewer through a collection of connected scenes leading to an unholy feeling of trepidation. No, like those YouTube video where people tell you to look closely at the screen before a photoshopped version of Regan MacNeil’s devil face pops up and causes you to jump, director Oren Peli realizes he can’t get you with style or storytelling. So he sets up a video camera, cranks up the stillness, and then systematically showers the viewer with nothing more than anticipatory, formulaic surprise. Again, it’s startling, but it’s not scary.

A couple of years ago, another unlikely hit, The Strangers, followed a similar format. Though we did have the notion of blood and gore as a byproduct of the shocks, the entire movie was made up of two people responding to door knocks, window crashes, footfalls, and the sudden appearance of masked mugs. Again, there was no attempt to get the audience to identify with the plight of the people involved (not the failed relationship aspect - the being surrounded by psychos part) and after the initial jolt, director Bryan Bertino went right back to boring us to death. Indeed, the false scare has been a scary movie mandate since the beginning of the artform. Before complicated elements and psychological chills became part of the fright flick landscape, the carnival dark ride ideal was the main creative ploy used by artists and hacks alike.

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to define scary. Being startled is almost universal. You have to be incredibly laid back or uber-cynical not to flinch when something comes unexpected flying at you (as in Paranormal Activity‘s finale). But fear is a lot more ambiguous. It’s like phobias - some people can’t stand heights, while others would hang out at the top of a tall skyscraper if they could. Others hate bugs or certain types of animals while others embrace these subjective fear factors. Going back to something said previously, being scared is about being disturbed, about worry that won’t go away, about dreading the next image or idea coming up on the screen (or into your brain). True, some can mistake the adrenaline rush of a probable shock as something akin to the scary experience, but true terror comes not only from what is seen - it’s the unknown element or concept that is waiting around the narrative corner, claws sharp and fangs caked with grue.

As mentioned before, The Exorcist is an example of one of the scariest movies of all time. It’s definitely shocking and highly upsetting, but there is more to it than crucifix masturbation and a Satan influenced potty-mouthed adolescent. William Friedkin used the unusual setting to discuss the growing generation gap between ‘70s youth and supposedly tuned-in parents, exploring divorce, separation, and selective parenting along the way. Author William Peter Blatty tapped directly into the lingering superstitions surrounding religion and its rituals while referencing a supposedly real life case of possession. The combination created a kind of perfect supernatural storm, the constant bombardment of evil and everyday explanations setting the stage for a finale so horrific it remains a genre classic.

Similarly, Dario Argento brought a Mediterranean view of macabre to his brilliant horror crime thriller Deep Red (Profondo Rosso). Using a standard whodunit set up (a famous psychic is killed, and a jazz musician tries to find out who…and why), the famed filmmaker takes us through a wicked whirlwind of childhood trauma, familial secrets, and one of the creepiest abandoned manors ever. All the while, blood sprays, gloved killers conspire, and a horrific atmosphere is manufacture out of pure visual wonder. Like The Exorcist, Argento’s movies (including Suspiria and Inferno) function as psychological stumbling blocks. They do not let you rest. You cannot easily forget them. And when the time comes to turn off the lights, to try and settle in for a little sleep, the visions created in both efforts lie right along with you, replaying in your tired, troubled mind over and over again.

Unless a tree limb falls on your roof overnight, memories of Paranormal Activity are not going to disturb your slumber. It’s like a rollercoaster or other amusement park thrill ride - a few moments of empty edge of the seat thrills followed by a slow fade into memory. Indeed, the embracing of this idea as scary seems indicative of the contemporary tread toward better-than-instant gratification. We want our pulse quickened and we want it now! No time for character development or careful plotting. Shock us, startle us, and then let us get back to our cellphones. If that’s all you want in a horror film, there are perfectly perfunctory examples of same currently showing. Once you’ve been jolted and jostled, why not give some real fear a try. Then you will hopefully know what truly is “the scariest of all time.”

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Monday, Oct 12, 2009

With its fourth place finish at the box office this weekend, $7 million-plus haul, and continuing buzz about its scary movie status (or lack thereof), Paranormal Activity has once again spiked renewed interest in the oddball combo category known as Found Footage/Mock Documentary horror. Used sporadically since the inception of post-modern era, this experiment in attempted authenticity has been rather hit or miss. For every proposed blockbuster, there are an equal number of mere busts. In fact, with the advances in technology, more independent filmmakers are trying their hand at such a stunt-oriented style. More times than not, it doesn’t work (see the crappy Chronicles of an Exorcism for further proof).

In light of all the hype surrounding Oren Peli’s limp haunted house saga, SE&L has decided to recommend 10 films it feels does a much better job with the cinematically sticky format. Not all of these movies succeed - in fact, more than a couple are just as underwhelming as Paranormal‘s dull demon attack. But when given over to proclamations and unnecessary superlatives, it’s nice to get little added perspective on what you’re celebrating. If the movies mentioned here are any indication, the current cause celeb will have a long way to go before it matches the menace generated by its commercial cousins. Let’s begin with one of the original attempts at combining fact with fiction:

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Tuesday, Sep 1, 2009

It seems to get harder every year. As Tinseltown continues to micromanage the box office down to a dollars and cents science, turning out more product that pure cinematic wonder, coming up with a list of five or - god forbid - ten favorites becomes a Herculean chore. Frankly, we’d rather clean out a few stables or slay some Stymphalian birds than rack our brain making a decision. And 2009 made the situation even more of a struggle. It seemed like the entire season was either front or back loaded, greatness coming at the start or toward the end with very few offerings plodding around somewhere in the middle. Indeed, it seemed like the titles from May to August were either great, or groan-inducing - very few in between.

Still, we sorted through the nearly 50 films we tackled over the last 16 weeks and came up with something like a consensus. Certainly, we didn’t see everything (sorry Moon, Paper Heart, Big Fan, Taking Woodstock, etc.) and there were definitely movies that remained enigmas, needing another viewing (or two) before their lasting value could be calculated. As a result, the lists below feel a bit incomplete. Yes, we got to Final Destination 3D and Halloween II. No, they wouldn’t be making an appearance anywhere today (much to many readers chagrin, surely). Indeed, as with any collection of favorites, it’s all a matter of opinion. Instead of getting snippy about it, why not offer up your own choices. Perhaps your picks are just as debatable.

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Thursday, Jul 16, 2009

It’s a film criticism cliché - remakes suck. Sure, there are exceptions, but for the most part, taking an already established film and “updating”/“reimagining” it, for whatever reason, routinely turns up junk. In recent years, it was Asian horror films that received some unnecessary Westernization. One Missed Call my Eye! Now, Tinsel Town is casting an even wider international net. With the announcement that Cloverfield‘s Matt Reeves is taking on the English version of the Swedish masterpiece Let the Right One In, perhaps we should go back to last October and see how successful Sony’s remake of [REC] was. Wait, you never heard of [REC] ? Really? Well, that’s not surprising. For some reason (read: clear commercial competition), the studio sat on the brilliant Spanish production, giving it a lukewarm festival like release schedule before hiding it away. Clearly they were waiting until Quarantine, their take on the material, had its day in the cinematic sun.

With the release this week of [REC] on Region 1 DVD - again, held up for some unknown ($$$) reason - we can do a little compare and contrast. But first, a couple of caveats. To be on the up and up, this critic liked both films. Actually, that’s not right. He ADORED [REC] , finding it one of the creepiest films of the last few years. Oddly enough, he appreciated what Quarantine tried to do with the material. While not always successful, it definitely stands on its own. Secondly, this discussion will be inundated with spoilers. Spoilers, Spoilers, SPOILERS!!! So if you want to experience one or either of these films without knowing the many plot contrivances and twists, go check out [REC] and Quarantine first and then come back to this piece. Only then will you fully appreciate the specifics we will be dissecting, beginning with:

The Story

First, both [REC] and Quarantine make the wise decision to not “pretty up” their storylines with unnecessary subtext or pointless subplots. Each movie gives us the same set up (reporter tagging along on a routine fire call) and takes it to its logical, logistical ends. Certainly, the effectiveness of how it manages this straightforward narrative device is one of the crucial differences between the two.  While it plays like a virtual shot-for-shot recreation of [REC] , Quarantine does contain elements that try (some successfully, some not so) to expand on the original idea. One of the Spanish spook shows many delights were its menacing inferences, from the standard zombie machinations to the horrific demonic possession material at the end. Quarantine goes for (SPOILER ALERT), “mutant rabies strain”. Similarly, the remake discharges all of the original’s religious overtones to expand on the whole “animal” angle. Quarantine also adds a couple of unique kills - one featuring a video camera, another involving an infected dog. All in all, however, it’s the same basic movie. 

The Characters

The biggest difference between [REC] and Quarantine is how each film handles its cast. For directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, there was a drive toward anonymity. There was a real desire on their part to use the (mostly) unknown quality of their performers to sell the reality of what was going on. As a result, they picked individuals like Manuela Velasco - some notoriety, but not enough to stick out in her native land. Naturally, when Hollywood cranks up its remake machine, they have to pepper the personalities with recognizable (or at least quasi-recognizable) actors. That’s why our lead is played by Jennifer Carpenter from Dexter, or why the fireman she follows are Jay Hernandez (of Hostel fame) and Johnathon Schaech (perhaps best known for That Thing You Do). While they attempt to override their celebrity with some halfway decent turns, the production clearly mandates more screen time for all of them. That’s why we get elongated sequences inside the firehouse, and the budding (if quickly tossed aside) sexual advances. [REC] views its characters as fright fodder. Quarantine is looking to pad some up and comers slight resumes.

The Actors

Oddly enough, the application of real thespians into this found footage conceit does Quarantine a grand disservice. While Hernandez actually helps in the heroics department (giving us a viable victim to root for), Ms. Carpenter is so over the top and fake that we wonder how anyone would ever take her seriously. As with most horror heroines, her character substitutes fear for common sense, leading to actions that would probably get her killed within the first five minutes. Unlike Angela Vidal, her Hispanic counterpart, she falls apart almost immediately, forgetting the story and her position as a member of the press. Similarly, the residents of the American apartment complex are all vying for screen time, preening and preparing when they should just be reacting. The best part of [REC] is how authentic the obviously fake situation feels. This is because the Spanish cast was kept in the dark, limited in how much they were told about what was going to happen. Such an approach makes the original play as real, something Quarantine has to work hard at - and that’s never a good thing. 

The Direction

For John Erick Dowdle, who along with his brother Drew came up with the so-so found footage film The Poughkeepsie Tapes a few years back, Quarantine represented a substantial step up. They were helming a Hollywood film for the first time, and recreating a favored foreign fright film at that. One would expect a few novice jitters, but for the most part, Dowdle does a great job. He doesn’t abuse the hand held element, going gonzo with shaky cam chaos. He even gives his shooter some onscreen time, making the “manual” aspect to the filming that much more important. For Balagueró and Plaza, there is no such need for added affectations. Instead, they want to treat this material as up front and formal as possible. When Angela screams about securing the camera, it’s because it is there to record the truth, not add some kind of cinematic “style” to the experience. As a result, [REC] feels like a newscast gone horribly wrong. While equally effective, Quarantine does have just the slightest twinge of cinematic self-indulgence.

The Gimmick

This is where [REC] runs roughshod over its Tinsel Town twin. Even though it’s obvious that both films are trying to copy real life, only the original succeeds as a shocker. The set-ups work better, the over the shoulder reveals and diminished peripheral vision functioning better than say, random shocks and sudden looks in the lens. In fact, almost every set-piece sequence (the falling fireman, the textile factory attack, the little girl transformation, the last ditch escape to the penthouse, the discovery of what’s inside) is handled better by [REC] than in Quarantine. Most would chalk this up to the work of cinematographer Pablo Rosso who really did handle the duties as Angela Vidal’s cameraman. He understands both the overall big picture of what Balagueró and Plaza want to accomplish while seamlessly fusing into the film’s premise. Never once do we see “Pablo”, nor is he a player in this particular drama. He is merely a member of the media, doing his job and hoping not to get killed in the process. His efforts make the found footage of [REC] look flawless. Quarantine, on the other hand, suffers from being too fussy and flashy.

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Tuesday, Jul 7, 2009

It’s been a hectic week here at SE&L, and before we climb the mountain of theatrical reviews coming this week (with Bruno, I Love You Beth Cooper, and The Hurt Locker coming, among others), we are going to take a few days off and regroup. In the meantime, may we suggest revisiting the dozen or so titles we tackled over the last seven days or so. You will probably find something you missed, or might not have known about until now. Look for our return Thursday with a take on Kathryn Bigelow’s magnificent Iraq War thriller. Until then, enjoy!


Hungry Years (2009)


Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XV
Cinemad Almanac 2009 (Short Film Collection)
12 Rounds - Extreme Cut (2009): Blu-ray
Giuseppe Andrews’ Long Row to Hoe
Zabriskie Point (1970)
The Unborn: Unrated (2009)
10,000 AD: Legend of the Black Pearl (2008)
The Midnight Blue Collection: Volumes 6 & 7 - Porn Stars of the ‘80s/‘90s
Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (2009)
Dragon Hunters (2008)
Pot Zombies (2005)

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