Setbacks of “The Witch”

Critics lauded it. Audiences seemed bored by it. Disconnects happen, but this case has a few scapegoats. Trailers have been selling us non-existent films with their dirty lies for years. Here, they may have sold audiences an exciting horror film with mass appeal instead of the niche film it truly was.  Between its critical acclaim, audience assumptions, and a trailer that could be seen as deceptive, there was no real way for this film to win everyone over.

Editing alone can make or break a film or turn one film into another. Editing turned a deliberate, slow moving film into a fast paced, jump scare horror film thanks to the trailers. Combine that with the positive critical reception heaped on this film and audiences went in with high expectations for a film that they were never going to see. Disappointed horror fans left the theater feeling cheated and rightfully so.

Categorization of this film is another hurdle. Although this was marketed as pure horror, “The Witch” is more complex than that. It is horror, but equal parts period drama, character study and psychological horror. That alone might not make it niche, but the language of the film alone does.

When a person walks into a theater to see a foreign horror film, they go in with expectation that not only will they have to read subtitles, but they may need to see it more than once to get the full effect. The mere prospect of subtitles weeds out certain film-goers that may find it too tedious. I don’t feel this way, but I can understand why an individual would not want to read while they’re trying to be scared. This film would have benefited from subtitles as it is spoken in 17th century English instead of contemporary English. It’s not a language we hear on a daily basis, let alone understand well. When people speak, they don’t always enunciate which is a serious detriment when the language you’re hearing is unfamiliar. Details are lost and vital information about the narrative or the characters goes unrecognized.

Pacing is the last issue. “The Witch” is a slow burn horror film. That alone places it in a subcategory that would leave audiences expecting an exciting film disappointed and bored. People prefer either “Alien” or “Aliens”. Both are acknowledged as incredible films but the different approaches to pacing appeal to different people. Even that comparison isn’t quite accurate as this film never reaches the frenetic energy of “Alien’s” second half. Instead, Approach “The Witch” as you would an art installation instead of a roller coaster. Do not expect the tension to reach a true fever pitch as one would expect in the genre. Like everything in this film, it’s climax is subtle and subdued.

This film has so much going for it including beautiful cinematography, an arresting story, top notch performances from both the veteran and child actors tapped for it. The best thing is how carefully director Robert Eggers has crafted the atmosphere of dread and paranoia. The fact remains that this is fundamentally a niche film within the genre. Although I highly recommend this film, I do so with stipulations. Be prepared for what kind of film this is and above all else, watch it with subtitles. Perhaps this will be another case of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and this film will get more respect from audiences and become a cult classic later.

 

Sequels: “The Conjuring,” “Sinister” and “Insidious”

It’s an unspoken rule that successful horror films must be followed by sequels, particularly when the budgets are low. Such sequels tend to be rushed affairs that find themselves relegated to the “subpar” categories. Sequels have been announced to three horror films I either count among my favorites or hold in high esteem. Each reaction started with, “Sure I guess, but…” We all know where this is going.

“…I trust them.”
The Conjuring 2: The Enfield Poltergeist promises to bring the gang back including Vera Farmiga as Lorraine Warren,  Patrick Wilson as her husband Ed Warren and director James Wan. That information alone has me sold as they’ve proven a more than trustworthy team both on the last film and on Insidious (Wan and Wilson) which we’ll get to in a bit. The exception to the dream team is the notable absence of original writers. Wikipedia notes the script has been rewritten by David Leslie Johnson (Orphan 2009, Red Riding Hood 2011 & The Walking Dead season 2) and Eric Heisserer (Final Destination 5 2011, The Thing 2011, Hours 2013). Hopefully, the ill conceived Annabelle is the subpar sequel in this franchise and this is a worthy followup.

“…eh.”
Sinister was a 2012 film I didn’t expect much from as I was scrolling through the Netflix suggestions and was pleasantly surprised by. The title and premise didn’t sound particularly familiar and even YouTubing the trailers didn’t jog my memory. Ethan Hawke was convincing as a true crime author who moves his unsuspecting family into a house where a family was murdered. Father of the Year. Upon a visit to the attic, he comes across a number of family snuff films which are about as heinous as they sound. The film itself begins with grainy footage of one of these films which sets the tone for the entire film. That opening sequence was particularly jarring and the sound design for the film juggled EDM distortions and real world Super 8 film sounds surprisingly well to make this universe sound real.

Although the mythology behind the story and the ending left it open ended and ripe for sequels, based on the trailer, I’m not optimistic. A good trailer can give you hope for a film, but a lackluster trailer just makes you ask, “Why?” But, if they can coax back the sound design department from the original film and opt to develop the characters they’ll already be going in strong. Sinister has already provided the setup so the exposition will probably focus more on the new family we’re to see obliterated by its children in what will surely be the most creatively, barbaric of methods. The thing is, according to writer C.Robert Cargill, the idea for this sprouted from a nightmare. It doesn’t get much scarier than that. Here’s to hoping they can catch lightning in a bottle again.

“…do we have to?”
Look, I enjoyed Insidious as much as everyone else did, but that does not excuse Insidious 2 nor justify Insidious 3. Insidious creeped me out more than it had any right to considering the campy special effects of the last act. Insidious 2 had a handful of creepy scenes (“Grandma, there’s someone standing behind you”), but ultimately more campy than anything. There’s a market for those, but it was a little underwhelming after the potent first film. Hauntings and astro projection are decent plot devices, but this film is more of a prequel to the original film detailing some original incident involving secondary character, Elise. A previous interaction with her and Patrick Wilson’s character Josh Lambert when he was a child is detailed in Insidious 2 and implied in Insidious so, do we really need a story about Elise’s career outside of the Lambert Family? That being said, it would be nice to see Leigh Whannell’s directorial debut.

James Wan and Leigh Whannell have had me as a fan since Saw. The stories they present do make good franchises, but Saw went on far longer than it should have for a full seven films. I’d rather not see Insidious and The Conjuring be treated the same way. If someone pays for my ticket to Insidious 3, I’ll go to the movies to see it. Otherwise, I may wait for Netflix. As far as Sinister goes, when it comes on premium cable or HBO, I’ll be at my mom’s house or on HBONow immediately to see it. The Conjuring 2: The Enfield Poltergeist is the only one of this round of sequels I will freely donate ticket money to seeing. Horror films are always a gamble, but sequels are like playing Roulette with a “system.” There’s just no real way to tell what will happen.

Hamlet at the Wilma Theater

They say you never forget your first time. Mine was at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, the setting Denmark and the prince portrayed by a Black woman. Shakespeare, although beautiful on the page, is only truly understood when spoken from the human mouth. Although the words may be the same, unconventional casting and set design can provide accessibility to a story has been told for 400 years.  As someone who does not look for herself reflected in film or literature as the exercise has proven futile, it was heartening to see someone that looked like me portraying that most famous of Danish princes.

Directed by Blanka Zizka, this production sought to present Hamlet within a non-specific time. On its own, the set seems out of place with graffiti covering the walls, with a multi-lever platform as the primary set piece and wood chips for the lowest level of the set’s flooring. The strange choice of flooring was utilized not merely as a floor, but as a prop utilized as a means of scene transition by sprinkling particles from above, swords were planted in it, it was used by the actors as a weapon and even shoveled by the gravedigger. Handguns are utilized in conjunction with swords and rapiers. The costumes are paramilitary, minimalist pieces of no specific period in extreme colors of either creamy whites and gray or somber black and navy. They display old fashioned references with modern cuts, yet as individual pieces, they could be seen on a hipster in Fishtown right now.

At the heart of the unconventional setup is the title character, Hamlet, here portrayed by English actress Zainab Jah. As a petite, black woman endowed with a slightly raspy voice and sporting a TWA, Jah presents the antithesis of the white male image for which this character is usually portrayed. There was a conscious effort to enhance her androgyny instead of attempting to create a man. Being much shorter in stature than her cast mates could support the interpretation that this Hamlet is closer to sixteen during the course of the play and not the older man of thirty to thirty-five as is generally portrayed. With high riding boots, fitted pants and a loose shirt with strategically placed zippers along the top of the sleeve (to lend a disheveled appearance when necessary), Jah’s Hamlet appears a neutral, but still melancholy vessel. Her race is almost explained away with the ghost played by a Black actor, yet not entirely as her uncle is portrayed by a white actor. It is as unimportant to the story as her “true” sex is.

The one real criticism I came away with was Ophelia’s choreography. Elaborate dance moves accompanied her monologues perhaps to emphasize her already tenuous grasp on reality and display her gradual decent into depression and madness before meeting a tragic fate.  Although a great deal of artistic license was taken with this production already, dance moves along with her speeches seemed unnecessary and gratuitous.

Since my own personal history with Shakespeare involves the texts, the films (and yes CliffNotes because after all, it was high school), my pallet is rather limited. Given what I have seen and been introduced to, this modern imagining does have a specific vision. One not so 1990s specific as Romeo + Juliet, yet not nearly as lush as Kenneth Branagh’s 19th century set pieces in Hamlet, but still a specific vision. Film is a wonderful medium for Shakespeare, but does not hold a candle to a live human voice speaking it in front of you, particularly when you can finally see someone that looks like you on the stage.

featured image: author’s own

“I Saw the Devil” (2010)

Let’s be clear. This film is a not a detective story, but a character study about what seeking revenge can do to you. The audience will meet the villain fairly quickly and will be forced to spend an inordinate amount of time with him and his bloody proclivities. The murderer you may recognize as Min-Sik Choi from the disappointing Lucy (2014) & the universally lauded Oldboy (2003) and our protagonist as Byung Hun Lee of Red 2 (2003), G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) and was cast as the T-1000 in Terminator Genisys (why are we making another one) set to be released sometime this year. Both deliver particularly compelling performances as the serial killer and the special agent tracking him down. Although the Netflix description warns us that this is a film in which a secret service agent’s fiancé is murdered propelling him on a quest for vengeance, it still doesn’t prepare for how emotionally exhausting the experience will be.

The opening scene is a sublime honey trap.  It’s perfectly set up to make the audience fall in love with this sweet unassuming couple. Soo-hyun (Lee) even hides in the bathroom to sing to her on the phone while his fiancé waits for a tow truck. Amidst all this cute boolovin and falling snow, the predator appears all I could do what scream at the screen. They had gotten me. Two minutes in, I supported their love and was looking through their wedding registries.  Although I knew a frightful death was coming, it didn’t take the sting off when the brutality began.

They were registered at Nordstrom if you must know.

Here, our hero takes the kind of revenge every onscreen victim’s family only dreams of whereas ordinarily, they’re relegated to a blubbering footnote while we are shown the gory details of the investigation.  Soo-huyn seeks to inflict all the pain and terror that Kyung-Chul inflicted on his victims, but it slowly takes its toll. It’s understood what pain and misery this decision will bring to Soo-huyn and his family, but he’s dealing with a truly hideous villain: a serial rapist/murderer who also dismembers the young girls and women he abducts. Now despite Dr. Lecter’s propensity for cannibalism, he’s a villain whose elegant and genteel ways ensure that if you met him at a dinner party, you’d understand why people liked him. Choi’s Kyung-chul on the other hand, is as distasteful as it gets. There is nothing personable or remotely human about him that can convince the viewer that a person would want to speak to him, let alone get into a car with him.  Every time the character appeared, I immediately felt as though I needed a bath.

Spring cleaning?

Each scene is shot and lit, beautifully. Even now, it seems distasteful to apply this word to a film with such disturbing subject matter, but it is true. Despite gory displays of viscera, torture and dismemberment, your eyes want to linger on the shots that are clearly set up with such care and precision. Hell, it would be rude not to. Despite a -really- rather long film at 2 hours 21 minutes, it doesn’t precisely feel long. One particularly disturbing scene involves a continuous 360 degree shot  complete with arterial spray and lots of stabbing.

Action, psychological thriller, torture porn and pure horror sound like too many genres to play well within the context of one film. It’s a slippery slope, but with the help of careful editing, compelling performances and beautiful direction by Ji-woon Kim, “I Saw the Devil” works.  I highly recommend watching this film, but mentally prepare yourself before doing so.  This film is a relentless, exhausting odyssey into one tormented mind and a mentally ill one.  With so many body parts removed and a particularly disturbing performance from Min-Sik Choi, you may want to turn off the TV afterward and try something more wholesome like playing with a puppy or calling your mom.

featured image via: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Saw_the_Devil

M. Night is trying it again with “The Visit”

Apparently, M. Night Shaymalan wants to fuck up your memories of Nana and Pop-Pop’s house now too.  I just don’t know if I trust him to do it.  “Signs” (2002) was fantastic and “The Sixth Sense” (1999) emotionally destroyed me in a way that only a truly good film can.  However,subsequent post-Sixth-Sense releases (with the exception of Unbreakable which I still haven’t seen for some reason) have left me wanting for good reason but part of that could be my fault.

Suspense is where Shyamalan excels and thus, what I expect to see from him.  Even releases like “The Happening” (2008) and “The Village” (2004) started off strong and really lost steam in the second halves.  “The Village” in particular didn’t really lose me until the last 15 minutes or so.  However, no one can excuse his endeavors into full fledged action like “After Earth” (2013) and “The Last Airbender”.  For the record, I’ve tried to watch both and turned them off.  Some movies are so bad they’re enjoyable, but these couldn’t even be that.

But after “The Sixth Sense” delivered in every aspect, perhaps it’s unfair to hold him to that level of expectation for the rest of his career which is precisely what I’m doing.  “The Sixth Sense” is considered a horror film classic despite only being 16 years old now.  For Shayamalan’s third time directing, the film still appears ageless and takes you from frightening to heartfelt and back again.  It’s mythology akin to Australia’s “The Babadook” (2014) in although we know where we are, the story itself could be transplanted to virtually any time and place with limited changes and still be relevant. Three years later, “Signs” attempted to replicate that mythological formula and succeeded in universal acclaim, despite being not nearly as pristine as its successor.  Twice, he brought suspense and horror back to the masses, but perhaps it’s time to take it to a smaller, niche market instead of aiming for global box-office draws.

There’s a chance that smaller budgets and straightforward suspense/horror setups could bring regular, renewed success.  This film could be fun and well directed, but the words “found footage” and IMDb’s currently listing it as a “horror/comedy” worry me.  There are legitimately funny moments in his films, but it could skew too much comedy and not enough horror. The thing is I feel like he could do it. With the focus on story and pacing, if anybody could make it effective, I feel he could.  M. Night Shyamalan succeeds in producing stories with enough bite to get me to watch them, so I’ll commit.  But he’s already going in with the specter of “The Happening” hanging over him and the ghosts of “The Sixth Sense” behind him. Nah, it’s cool.  I’ll see it in theaters. I’ll go if someone else buys my ticket. I will watch it…when it’s released on Netflix.

featured image courtesy of IMBb & Wikipedia

The Babadook (Caution. Spoilers.)

The Babadook isn’t as much a horror film as it is a myth. In a quiet bedroom on a neighborhood block similar to yours, in the dark where the only light is from the street and telling the difference between a coat and a monster’s arm is almost impossible are where nightmares begin. If it weren’t for the Australian accents, this little family in their nondescript house and hooptie could be anywhere. But by the end of the film, the question is not whether or not the boogie man is real, but who exactly created him. Was it mom’s grief or a child’s coping mechanism? What came first: the chicken or the egg?

The film unfolds as a drama for the first twenty minutes or so and really forces you to live the real nightmare of loss within the dynamic of a mother and the son she doesn’t like. We’ve all seen this woman on the train or in the grocery store. She looks as though she hasn’t slept in a year and dutifully drifts through aisles with a shrieking child at her heels. The Babadook brings you into the nightmare of her real life before introducing the “monster”. Although Sam (Noah Wiseman) is a little hellion and Amelia (Essie Davis) visibly resents him, they’re less hateful than they are painfully vulnerable.  Amelia may be at the end of her tether but she is trying her hardest to cope, even if she is failing. Although Sam screams at the frequency children master at birth that rattles adults’ skulls in that specific maddening place, the arsenal he has built in preparation for the as yet unseen monster that would make Dutch from Predator proud. Neither protagonist is without their assets.

Then via an unassuming red children’s book, we meet Mister Babadook. This is by no means a “creature feature” film, but director Jennifer Kent firmly commits to practical effects and instead of CGI which makes the monster feel tangible. Shadows are constant players in genre films such as this, but here they serve to create that specific view seen from bed at 3 am with only street light to illuminate the room. Is that the arm of your coat in that corner, or Mister Babadook preparing to deliver a Mortal Kombat style fatality?

That you Mr. Babadook or just a poorly placed coat rack?

The real and the surreal bleed into one another despite how relatable and straight-forward the setting and characters are. As the scenes alternate between dreams and reality, the characters themselves are not trustworthy narrators and what they saw or experienced may not always be real. Coupled with the odd visuals is a specific and unobtrusive sound design. There is little in overbearing audio clues to herald a moment of madness or the arrival of Mister Babadook. Instead, even when there are swells, they’re cut off suddenly leaving you thrown off as though you’ve just awoken from a daydream with the ambient scene sounds to bring you back to reality. In fact, it’s only after the moment has passed that you truly realize your hands were clenched and your shoulders had hunched.

Of course motherhood is no picnic. It’s common knowledge that children are as terrible, selfish little creatures as they are vulnerable. As awful as they are,  even the most terrifying horror flick cannot compare to the nightmares of the kid next door. After seeing firsthand their trials and practically living with these two vulnerable characters, the arrival of that red storybook strikes real fear into the heart of the viewer. We feel for these characters and yet, all we can do is watch and hope for the best. The Babadook is not merely a psychological thriller, but a nuanced narrative of the horror show of parenthood and the destructive nature of grief. Kent reminds us that like Mister Babadook in the basement, the grief monster can be tamed and adjusted to, this does not mean it is forgotten. Every now and again, it must be acknowledged and its appetite sated before you can lock it back up and live one day at a time even if that does mean being brave enough to face it.

photo: Wikipedia

“Audition” film

“Audition” is the type of film that makes me never want to date again and reaffirms my belief that strangers are dangerous. Its 1999 release fell right before that of torture and gore porn films like “Saw” and “Hostel” yet, I find it more unsettling than those.  It sets itself apart by prolonging the evisceration until the very end with a disquieting pieces of story scattered throughout the narrative.  It begins as a character study on a man and coping with loss, then the story gets a bit slow interspersed with creepy happenings which appear mostly from the protagonists own mind only to peak in a comparatively short torture scene.  If torture porn films like “The Human Centipede” and “Hostel” make it clear from the beginning that you are here to see people gutted and maimed in various ways, “Audition,” makes no such promises until about half way through.

The torture scene itself is the grand culmination of a film that almost lulls you to sleep. Just when you’re about to close your eyes for a catnap before the credits roll, there’s an all out assault on the main character which will do nothing less than make your skin crawl. It’s not just the gleeful way the monster attacks her victim. It is not merely the delicate and precise weapons of torture she utilizes. It is the combination of these along with the sound effects. The sounds alone are plenty to make even the most seasoned horror fans among us at lease grit their teeth to keep it together.

During the boring first hour you spend with the main character, he becomes a friend. He is that poor lonely friend that you want good things for but are fairly certain will be taken advantage of severely. The villain herself is off, but there are no outside cues to go off of except for what the film gives you. You have no intrusive score from “The Omen” to warn you or theme music from “Jaws” to indicate danger is present.

In short, if you’re interested in “Audition,” be sure of a few things before you watch. Make sure you haven’t must recently started dating anyone you consider “perfect” and be prepared to be slightly bored for an hour. Finally, if you watch with someone else, be sure they aren’t prone to taking embarrassing videos of your reaction or bringing up said reaction in front of company. Fair warning.