Monday, February 19, 2007

The Descent, Silent Hill, The Wicker Man (2006)

I was the only person, it seems, who was underwhelmed by Neil Marshall's Dog Soldiers. Yes, it was a pretty nifty werewolf flick considering the low-budget, but in terms of characters, story, etc., it came across as boilerplate as the Aliens-but-with-werewolves descriptor made it sound. (It was no Ginger Snaps. Hell, it wasn't even Ginger Snaps 2.) So despite the hype that preceded The Descent (2006, Neil Marshall) [50], I was skeptical.

And for about 80% of its running time, I was pleasantly surprised. The beginning is a little trying, going through the motions of lead character Sara's backstory trauma that's both shorthand and laborious. (Here's an idea, filmmakers: if, five minutes into your film we jump ahead "one year later", how about starting the actual movie one year later?) But then Marshall introduces his other female characters, and for awhile, it works -- a horror film with plausible (if movie-ish) women at its center, not teenagers or bimbos. Not even a nude scene! (Joe Bob Briggs must be apoplectic.) So, even as our quintet of spelunkers find themselves trapped in an uncharted cave due to the hubris of their leader, even as they find themselves stalked by carnivorous ghost-white mole men, Marshall keeps it low-key, never turning the women into invulnerable action heroes nor panicky headcases. And Marshall demonstrates an increasingly firm grip on suspense and action tropes. The monsters are probably unnecessary, but I was impressed by how genuinely scary Marshall makes them, with nothing more than make-up and camera tricks -- no small feat in our jaded, all-CGI-all-the-time age. Yet, while most have commented on the first reveal of the creatures (and it is well done), for me, the moment when one of the women attempts to bridge a chasm with ropes while hanging from the rocky ceiling by her fingers was the white knuckle scene du jour.

But then, in the last fifteen minutes or so, Marshall manages to lose me, not once, not twice, but thrice. (NOTE: Although anyone who reads my shit knows I'm pretty loose with the spoilers, I'm giving the warning here anyway, cuz these are big ones.) The first time is the resolution of a subplot between Sara and expedition leader Juno. In the beginning of the film, there's a quick shot of Juno and Sara's husband that clearly communicates that, yes, these two are having an affair. Amazingly, this is the only time that Marshall reveals this information, other than a throwaway line of dialogue later on from Juno, where she states that she "lost just as much" in Sara's car accident as Sara.

But then these moments of audience goodwill and respect are overwhelmed by that oft-used lazy bit of screenwriting, the accidental killing. While fighting off the creatures, Juno is surprised by Sara's friend Beth, and Juno accidentally slits Beth's throat. I really hate this bit of storytelling; I'm not sure I've ever seen it used where it felt natural and not like the writer dicking around with the audience. But that's not what lost me. What lost me was the film's insistence on making this killing which was clearly unintentional, some kind of moral referendum on Juno. Yes, she lies about it to the others, but one would think that, with monsters on their heels, it's forgivable. But no, there's a whole tortured sequence of events to bring Sara up to speed on Beth's demise, and Juno is increasingly painted, not as a adventuresome woman who made a mistake, but a villain.

And so what does Sara do when it's just the two of them left, trapped in the dark cave with a horde of monsters coming after them? Why, she slices Juno's leg and leaves her to die, of course. (Because saving it for when they make it out alive through teamwork would be too easy.) Any sympathy for Sara, any admiration for her strength gets tossed right out the window. I really have no conception of what Marshall was thinking with this. It simply isn't supported by anything in the movie, and comes across as audience-pandering bloodlust -- the seducer, the adventuress, the independent woman must die.

Then, to add insult to Juno's unnecessary leg wound, we are treated to Sara's escape from the cave and return to the car... which is a fucking "it was all a dream" fake-out. She's actually still in the cave, and hallucinates that she's with her dead daughter as the mole men howl from the darkness, minutes from their prey. So not only is our female protagonist consumed with jealous, homicidal rage, she's also so mentally weak, so fragile in a stereotypically "feminine" way that she suffers a psychotic break at the moment when the chips are down. Can you imagine an action movie where Schwarzenegger suffers a similar mental breakdown at the moment when he's about to save the girl and kill the villain? So what at first appears to be a action-horror movie with somewhat progressive elements turns out to be the same old shit. Fuck that.

I was also wary about Silent Hill (2006, Christophe Gans) [62], and rightfully so. Horror film? Check. Video game adapatation? Check. Radha Mitchell? Check. (I have no problem with the lovely Ms. Mitchell, but damn, she shows up in a lot of crap.) But for once, the conventional wisdom is wrong. The movie pretty much had me in its opening scene, a search for a sleepwalking little girl that's set in a series of locations that, when taken individually, seem natural enough, but when put together create a wonderful imaginary landscape: an overpass over a tiny creek that's just yards away from a yawning abyss. In other words, danger and madness lie just beyond the safety of the quotidian.

A few minutes later, Mitchell's Rose and her sleepwalking daughter Sharon have a picnic, an awkward scene that feels like it was written in a foreign language and then translated into English. By the time it ended with them falling asleep and then waking up again -- blatantly signifying that what we're about to see is, if not literally a dream, then something with the logic of one -- it dawned on me that, even before the gore arrived, I was watching a big budget, art-directed-within-an-inch-of-its-life Lucio Fulci movie.

So in other words, what follows is only for those with a taste for nonsensical oneiro-horror, like mid-period Argento or the first Phantasm. There's a reason why the town of Silent Hill is stuck in some kind of hellish other dimension, why Rose and Sharon are drawn there, why there's a child named Alessa who looks identical to Sharon, but really, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. And as Dread Pirate Steven Carlson points out, when we learn the solution to the central mystery, we belatedly realize that, logically, there's no good reason why Rose should be threatened with bodily harm, which seriously undercuts the horror of the premise.

Yet, while logic flies out the window, I bought into it emotionally, which is the only real requirement for oneiro-horror. (This is what separates your House by the Cemeteries, with its silly scares, from your Phantasms, where the fear of abandonment fuels every moment.) Regardless of the ill-concieved scenes (why is there a secret room behind a painting in a hotel?), the characters, however two-dimensional, are always on-point emotionally. Steve's point doesn't bother me because, while Alessa, the wronged child at the center of Silent Hill (both the movie and the place) needs Rose to exorcize her from her living nightmare, she's also an embodiment of unthinking rage, and she's going to strike at anyone who isn't safe within the church, regardless of their intentions. It's the characters' emotions that shape this world, not any fealty to notions of "correct" screenwriting.

I'll admit that part of my emotional involvement comes from the look of the thing. It's beautiful and evocative, even when showing a bent in half man crawling through a lavatory on his hands, leaving some kind of spreading rust disease in his wake. I particularly liked the shots of Rose driving through the wooded hills, which offer both a storybook quality and the sense of looking at America through a non-native's eyes. And then there's the town itself: shrouded in a fog of ash, cut off at all ends like the cabin in Evil Dead, full of crazy buildings and spaces, way too big for a small town, yet deserted, looking for all the world like a war zone.

(This last bit can't be coincidence. There's some Bush-whacking subtext at work in the film -- Silent Hill's downfall comes about because of a group of puritanical zealots, led by a woman named Christabella, commit a wrongful act -- and bafflingly, even as the town is destroyed, even as they huddle in the comfort of the church as the darkness they've unleashed surges around them, they steadfastly hold onto the belief that they were just and correct. It's doesn't map to Iraq perfectly by any means, but Avary knows exactly what he's doing.)

What's really striking is that the only important characters are female, and this isn't apparent until well into the film. (The two prominent male characters are given a useless, expositionary subplot; supposedly, Konami, the video game's publisher, on upon reading Avary's first draft, asked, "Where are the men?"). Whereas The Descent uses an all-female cast to give the illusion of something progressive only to indulge in the usual, stereotypical notions of femininity, Avary makes the main characters women in order to bust taboos about motherhood. Motherhood touches all of the main characters: Rose can't have children, so she's adopted Sharon; Dahlia gave birth, out of wedlock, to Alessa; Cybil, the cop that accompanies Rose into Silent Hill, is haunted by a kidnapping case that ended tragically. All of them are willing to go whatever length is necessary to protect their kids. At first blush, this looks like standard-issue sentimentality, especially coupled with the twice-repeated maxim, "to a child, a mother is God", intended to offer something "positive" and "human" in the face of flesh-eating bugs and skin-ripping, pyramid-headed monster men. By the end, however, it's clear that it's this very (reactionary) sentiment that has caused all the horror in the first place, from Rose's monomaniacal urge to help her daughter in any way possible, to Cybil's desire to make sure history doesn't repeat itself, to Christabella's outrage at Dahlia's pregnancy, which, by its very existence, spits in the face of her values. Only Dahlia seems aware of all this, aware of Christabella's blindness and hypocrisy, and aware that she could end the nightmare, but doing so would be to submit to the very value system that she's rejected. Rose takes her place, madly rushing to get Sharon back, never realizing that (with an ending that's a kissing cousin to the ones in Fulci's The Beyond and The House By The Cemetery) motherhood is tantamount to being a prisoner.

A few quick notes about The Wicker Man (2006, Neil LaBute) [36]: 1. This is either a nice bit of snark or the best stealth advertising campaign of 2007. Worked on me, regardless. 2. I'd love to report that LaBute's film has been misunderstood, and that it's a penetrating look at male privilege and gender power relations, but no, it's a misogynist load. I don't know what LaBute is trying to work through, but he aint there yet. 3. I never saw In The Company of Men, nor have I seen any of his theater work, so I don't have this perception of LaBute as a promising talent that's been steadily slipping. My first exposure was Nurse Betty, so he's always been a competent, borderline-hack director. That in mind: Theo Sez it's "almost unwatchable", but the problem is that it's compulsively watchable -- beautiful to look at (good job, location scout!), crisply edited, and, the uneven Cage aside, pretty well-acted, given the material. 4. But, oh, the material. Like Feast, it's a premise that's stuck in a ninety-or-so minute holding pattern, waiting for clearance to land. (Seriously -- I don't get why this story should be any longer than five minutes.) One character is written so poorly that any reasonable human being has to conclude that she is either in on the whole thing or stupid beyond belief. I don't know if it's to LaBute's credit that, with the depth of his loathing, I wasn't sure which was true. 5. Strangely, the YouTube clip above neglects one great laugh-out-loud moment. I won't totally spoil it, but it spins the overused character-suddenly-hit-by-a-vehicle gag into something so absurd, one could drop it into a Scary Movie with no alterations whatsoever.


Paul C. said...

Hey dude. Just saw your new piece on Screengrab. Welcome to the team!

Kza said...

Thanks man, and back atcha. Hopefully this will be the first of many posts!

Paul C. said...

I hope so too. I'm trying to come up with as many excuses to send in posts as possible. Those Hamiltons aren't going to earn themselves, after all.

Cami said...

Your synopsis on "The Descent" was really fucking hilarious.

So uhm.. tell me... did she actually slit the girls leg and leave her to die? How did she get so far, then pass out? Why was she not eaten during her dream sequence?

The last post was over two years ago... I'm not holding my breath.