Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Director's Report Card: Alexandre Aja (1999-2003)

When Alexandre Aja first busted onto the horror scene in 2003, it seemed a blessing. "Haute Tension" was a fanboy friendly homage to slasherdom of yore and opened the floodgates for similarly visceral French horror. His mastery of color, mood, and artful, intense gore set pieces set him up as the heir to Dario Argento. Similarly, his remake of "The Hills Have Eyes" launched him into the mainstream, was easily the best of the still on-going wave of remakes of '70s classics, and positioned him as the most skilled of the so-called "Splat Pack" directors. And then he got stuck doing a bunch of shitty remakes. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to the beginning.

1. Furia
Let’s face it, Orwellian, dystopian sci-fi has become a bad cliché. Like the religious zealot or corrupt politician, it’s a concept that seems really daring when you’re thirteen but, after you’ve seen it used to cheap effect over and over again through the years, becomes considerably less so. “Furia” doesn’t rise above these central problems. Its plot of two lovers torn apart by the state is right out of “1984.”

But let’s give credit where it’s due. It would certainly develop over the next film but the roots of Aja’s style are evident here. The color palette here is intentionally drab which makes the occasional burst of color even stronger. And you’ll notice Aja has always included acrobatic blood spill in his stories. I’m not sure where “Furia” was filmed but it’s dilapidated, desert location adds a great deal to the film’s effect. It’s definitely a convincing dystopian future, if nothing else. The actors are capable with Marion Cotillard being appropriately enchanting.

The story is hardly anything new. The oppressive state is drawn in broad terms and never made particularly threatening, even in the middle of torture scenes that stink of been-there, done-that. The love story is pulled off convincing, mostly thanks to the strong acting, but falls away to the background after the first half-hour. All the interesting ideas are pretty much used up by then making the remaining 69 minutes increasingly tiresome. Characters fade away (literally) far too often and the finale is a little overdone.

The music is a big problem. The score is from Brian May (Yes, the guitarist from Queen, not the veteran Australian composers with the same name.) and, with its electronic chirping and raging guitar solos, more then a little melodramatic. Ultimately, the music needs up robbing many scenes of any potential power. A chase comes off especially badly. This could have been easily improved with a more subtle score.

The biggest problem with the movie is that, despite the talent of everyone involved, nobody can bring much of anything new to this often told tale. It was a determined feature debut but maybe the filmmaker should have waited for his skill to catch up with his ambitions. Ultimately, “Furia” is a stylish but unimpressive production. [Grade: C+]

2. High Tension
“High Tension” is ultimately an exercise in style. The film’s plotting, especially the final revelation, gets criticized a lot. That’s not what’s important. Aja and his team were creating a homage to splatter flicks of old but with a decidedly European slant.

Visually, the film is gorgeous. Blues, greens, and especially reds fill out the rich color palate. Despite the intense violence of what happens onscreen, the French countryside is still beautiful and incredibly inviting. The music further enhances the moody atmosphere create by the visual style.

Alexandre Aja’s direction is very impressive. He reminds me a great deal of a young Argento in several ways. First off, both directors treat every act of violence like a grand operatic set-piece. It’s not just the amount of blood sprayed, it’s how it's sprayed. Viscera is their canvas. They understand the anticipation of violence and spread things out accordingly. Another similarity is the incredible way the audience is drawn into each attack, how they are made to feel at the center of things, which leads to a hugely intense effect.

The cast is small and the acting is really limited to just two roles. Cecile DeFrance manages to bring a great deal of emotion to a primarily physical role. She carries the whole movie and does it with ease. It’s a star-making role. Philipee Nonan plays the Killer and is an expert in sleazy bastard roles like these by now. His role is largely physical too and Nonan’s looming frame is well suited to the part.

The tension spoken off in the title is maintained throughout almost the whole run time. The early home invasion scene is a terrifying set piece and the game of running and hiding between the protagonist and antagonist that follows builds upon those feelings.

Things go quite well up until the infamous twist late into the third act. In retrospect, things make sense, once the viewer realizes the whole thing isn’t meant to be a literal telling of this tale but from the prospective of lead character, Marie. On first viewing, the twist is asinine and breaks up the elegant simplicity that made everything before work so well. Still, if you can ignore this one oversight, “High Tension” is a grand horror picture and well on its way to becoming a modern fright classic. [Grade: A-]

No comments: