Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Director Report Card: Lucky McKee (2006-2008)

3. The Woods
When “The Woods” first came out, I was disappointed. I found the story to be overly vague. I found it lacking in the intense visual style of “May” and generally paling in comparison to that film. Perhaps I was predestined to have a low opinion after such a great debut. That the movie sat on a shelf for over a year certainly didn’t help any preconceived notions.

Re-watching it now a few years removed from my initial anticipation, my view is more positive. “The Woods” still isn’t a great picture but it does manage to bring the creepy several times throughout its runtime. It has often been compared to “Suspiria.” That’s apt. We all ready know Lucky is an Argento fan and the witches/isolated girls school combo is a deliberate reference. More then anything else, it’s the sound design that recalls Dario’s often touted classic. There aren’t any swirling Goblin synth but creepy, whispered voices (provided by none other then Angela Bettis) fill out the background sounds. “Witch!” is even shouted once. The music, with its female crooning, also helps the feel. (Who knew Lesley Gore could be spooky?)

To say that Lucky has lost his style by transferring to a bigger studio was wrong. It’s his style that provides the movie with the atmosphere it has. The shadows of the woods and the school’s hallways give off an unsettling vibe. The music hall, in particular, is awfully moody. The big finale, which also recalls “Suspiria,” proves to be the spookiest bit in the movie as the past, present and some gross gore come at us in quick succession. One of my preliminary issues was the story seemed to have a lot of mysterious things planned but left most of these threads unexplained. Reevaluating now, I find a lot more is explained then I’d realized. All the puzzle pieces are presented and it’s up to the audience to put it together.
When the movie is focusing on creepy shadows and paranoid conspiracies, it’s relatively successful. When the CGI tree monsters start to attack, that’s not so successful. The attack that leads to the climax almost works but the other two tree sequences, in particular the one involving the cop, fall laughably flat.

The cast is solid enough. Agnes Bruckner is a likable lead, Patricia Clarkson underplays a little bit but has a few moments, Lauren Birkell and Rachel Nichols do well in their respective parts of best friend and queen bitch. And Bruce Campbell, god bless him, actually acts this time, expanding pass his Ash persona to play a worried, pushover Daddy, before picking up an axe again at story’s end. It’s one of his best performances.

Ultimately, my biggest problem with “The Woods” remains. Against “May,” a layered, powerful, personal horror picture, “The Woods” seems thin in comparison. It’s an atmospheric dark fairy tale without much more to say beyond a few fun lesbian undertones. (It’s a McKee film, after all.) Good to watch but never a big favorite.
[Grade: B]

4. Red (with Trygve Allister Diesen)
“Red” was a very troubled production. Lucky McKee, obviously a big fan of author Jack Ketchum after producing the adaptation of “The Lost,” has been wanting to make the movie for years. Things eventually came together with a great cast and everything seemed to be going well. And then, after more then half of the movie was shot, Lucky was fired. Nobody involved with the decision seems interested in saying why he was let go. Either way, about a year later an unknown Swedish director named Trygve Diesen was brought on to finish up the movie. In the end, both directors were given credit. Nobody has seen anything Diesen has done before this, but he seems confident. You certainly can’t tell that this is the product of two different directors.

I’m a fan of Ketchum and “Red,” despite being a fairly simplistic morality play, is probably my favorite writing of his, out of what I’ve read. The old adage of the movie never being as good as the book proves true but it seems silly to criticize the differences in media. The movie is very faithful, only cutting out a few characters and removing an unnecessary romantic subplot.

The biggest coup here is Brian Cox in the lead. Mr. Cox is a great character actor and too rarely given a lead role. He’s perfectly cast as Avery Ludlow, an old man who has lost a lot in his life and is only asking for those who have cause his pain to own up to it. Cox is quiet and his blue eyes convey a lot of sorrow. Halfway through the movie, Cox delivers a deeply affecting monologue. Instead of cutting to a flashback, the movie wisely decides to focuses in on his face as he tells his sad tale. None of the other characters are as developed as Ludlow but there is still some talent in the cast. Kyle Gallner is the best of the supporting turns, while Tom Sizemore plays his typical asshole part and Robert Englund and Amanda Plummer stop by for cameos. Kim Dickens is good enough but I would have preferred to have seen what Angela Bettis, who was originally cast in the part, could have done with the role.
The direction is low key, lacking some of the stylistic flourish of McKee’s past films, but it goes with the quiet tone. Dogs are a reoccurring symbol here, representing kindness and unconditional love in comparison to the senseless cruelty and ignorance of mankind. I also like the fades to red that are used a few times.

The finale probably should have been more suspenseful. I do love the resolution, which nicely shows how hope springs eternal. “Red” is a quiet and thoughtful production, more of a drama then a thriller, with a great lead performance and some resonating concepts at its center.
[Grade: B]

So, what's Lucky been up to recently? Well, he made a short for X-Box Live along with a bunch of other neat directors. I haven't seen it because I don't have a fucking X-Box 360. Beyond that, it's kinda' quiet. He's been linked to both a remake of "Fiend Without a Face" and an adaptation of Brian Harper's novel "Shiver," but nothing's come of those yet. He is supposedly writing something for Chris Sivertson called "Hippy" that was starring Lindsay Lohan at one point. I'm not sure if that's actually getting made. Whatever he does next, I'm probably going to support and watch it. You should too!