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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 9

It Comes at Night (2017)

For the last couple years, an indie horror film has emerged and become the new genre favorite of the year. Last year, it was “The Witch.” The year before, “It Follows.” In 2014, it was “The Babadook.” Earlier this year, it seemed like “It Comes at Night” was destined to fill this slot. It was a small film given a big advertising push. The trailers were terrifying. Yet when “It Comes at Night” came to theaters, the advertising campaign was accused of being misleading and the film's reaction was divisive. Now, several months after its release, “It Comes at Night” has slipped from the discourse, being unable to hold onto its title of most talked about horror movie of the year.

Some sort of pandemic has brought society to its knees. The disease is highly contagious, signaled by itching blisters on the skin and vomiting blood. Death follows soon afterwards. In this outbreak, people are doing what they can to survive. Paul, his wife Sarah, and his teenage son Travis are living in a house in the woods. There's only one entrance into the building and its kept locked at almost all times. One night, the family is awoken by someone breaking into the house. The intruder calls himself Will and claims he means no one harm. After holding him captive for a day, Paul chooses to believe him. Will's family – his wife, Kim, and Andrew, their toddler son – are allowed to move into the house. However, paranoia and fear of the plague are never far from anyone's mind.

First off, it must be said that “It Comes at Night” isn't really a horror movie. It's a post-apocalyptic thriller/drama, with some very light horror elements, which the trailers emphasized over anything else. The film is, in truth, one of those naturalistic indie dramas light on plot. Not a lot happens over the ninety-one minute run time. The focus is primarily on the day-to-day actions needed to survive and the growing tension within the house. It's a pretty quiet movie, featuring little dialogue and only the occasional burst of action. Writer/director Trey Edward Shults does a good job of establishing his location and the particular mood he's clearly striving for.

There's a big problem, though. I didn't care about any of these characters. The cast's personality is intentionally kept vague. They are defined more by terse glares than their words or actions. What glimpses we do get at their personalities are unappealing. Paul is a gruff, paranoid, and violent man. Yet the audience can't help but agree with him that there is something slightly shifty about Will. Sarah is given even less development. The only characters that really make an impression are Travis and Kim. The two have a cute conversation in the middle of the night, discussing what foods they miss from before the apocalypse. Even this moment represents the majority of Kim's inner life. The cast is uniformly strong. Kelvin Harrison Jr., as Travis, is especially good. Yet the characters are such thin, hoarse sketches, that it's hard to relate to any of them.

Since there's little in the way of story and few characters to relate too, “It Comes at Night” instead becomes about its tone. A looming sense of dread floats over the entire film. The audience quickly relates to Paul's paranoia, feeling the threat of death and destruction that must be constant in a plague-ridden world. Travis is haunted by the fear of being infected. This manifests as a series of terrifying nightmares. (These are the scenes the trailers largely drew from.) Probably the most haunting scene has him awakening from a dream, thinking he sees the tumors his arms before blinking a few times. I think we've all had moments like that: Where the wall between dreaming and waking are a little too thin. After what feels like a long time, this threatening atmosphere eventually boils over into a senseless act of violence.

And, after that violence, the movie more-or-less ends. “It Comes at Night” keeps its commitment to being vague and atmospheric up through its conclusion. There's an explosion of sudden, disturbing violence. Afterwards, the film ends suddenly on a series of quiet, barely explained images. It went by so quickly that I actually had to read the Wikipedia summary to understand what exactly had just happened. The ending is so blunt that I was kind of pissed off. I felt a bit like the entire film had been a waste of time.

CinemaScore is garbage but it's easy to see why many audiences were alienated by “It Comes at Night.” The film goes out of its way to confound expectations, to frustrate viewers by explaining little and keeping things understated. Some scenes, like the family dog disappearing among the trees, are left entirely unexplained. As a mood place, “It Comes at Night” is mildly successful. As an actual movie, it struck me as a bit on the ponderous side. I respect the filmmakers' ambition but largely found the film unsatisfying. And, yes, it doesn't help that the trailers were so wildly misleading. [6/10]

Bedlam (1946)

Val Lewton's series of horror movies was clearly a profitable enterprise for RKO. They wouldn't have let him make nine of them if they weren't. Yet, by the time “Bedlam” came out in 1946, it appeared that the steam in this machine had run out. Supposedly, “Bedlam” lost 40,000 dollars for RKO, which probably explains why this was the last horror picture Lewton made for the studio. Maybe the public's appetite for this sort of thing was satisfied. This was, after all, Lewton's third film in a row that starred Boris Karloff in a period setting. It was his second based on the somewhat unusual source material of a painting. Whatever the reason, the quote-unquote series would conclude here.

The year is 1761, which some call the Age of Enlightenment. The inmates at St. Mary's of Bethleham Asylum, known far and wide as Bedlam, aren't aware of this. They live in squalor, tormented by the cruel apothecary general, George Sims. When a poet dies while attempting to escape the hospital, local aristocrat Lord Mortimer is appalled. Not by the hospital's conditions but because the poet was a friend. Sims soon charms Mortimer, inviting him to a performance by the inmates at the asylum. Mortimer's moll though, Nell, is disgusted by Sims and how he treats his patients. She begins a slow campaign to reform Bedlam. In retaliation, Sims has her declared insane and locked up in the hospital.

More than any of Lewton's films, “Bedlam” is deeply concerned with issues of classic division. Nell is a commoner until she catches Mortimer's eye. As soon as she displeases him, the girl is thrown back out on the street. Nell's friends – former actors – have difficulty finding work. Mostly, these themes are expressed through the insane asylum setting. The mentally ill are treated cruelly, tortured and left to fend for themselves. Sims gleefully admits to abusing them. As in reality, the rich frequently visit the hospital to gape at the inmates, seeing them as less than human. Sometimes, the people admitted into this snake pits aren't even insane but are simply politically undesirable. When confronted with these ghastly conditions, most of the idle rich simply laugh. Others use it to argue about politics but do nothing to actually improve anything. The themes are self evident. The rich do not care about poor people, never have and never will.

In fact, caring about the “loonies” – what Bedlam's inmates are usually called in the film – is seen as so unfashionable that Nell has to deny that she cares about them at all. Throughout the film, she claims that she's horrified by Bedlam because it's an “ugly thing in a pretty world.” Her desire to reform the place is described as simply a whim. Yet her humanistic side is clear and, as the film goes on, she becomes more open about expressing her feelings. Anna Lee also plays Nell as someone willful and strong, refusing to kowtow to the people around her. This makes her a good foil to Boris Karloff's George Sims. Sims revels in his own cruelty. He's obviously attracted to Nell and, when she rebukes him, he gets her locked up. As sadistic as Sims is, Karloff still finds a sympathetic edge to the character. Everyone refers to him as ugly. It seems Sims has decided to return the world's cruelty. He's a monster but one with understandable motivations.

Perhaps Val Lewton's entire goal with his series of horror films was to class up the usually disreputable genre. Like “the Body Snatcher” and “Isle of the Dead,” “Bedlam” is a classy period piece. In fact, the film is more costume drama than horror picture. Aside from the insane asylum setting and an ending that references Poe, there's little overtly horrific content. For a Lewton movie, “Bedlam” is even low on ominous shadows. However, director Mark Robson makes the few shadowy scenes count for a lot. The shot of hands reaching through cell bars, or the faces of the mad staring from the darkness, certainly make an impression.

Having watched all of Val Lewton's horror films now, I find my earlier opinion validated. I respect what Lewton did. His movies are ambitious and visually impressive. Many of them are brilliant, with “Curse of the Cat People” being a full-blown masterpiece. I think my overall enjoyment of the series perked up some once Boris Karloff came on-board, even though “Bedlam” is still a lesser effort. However, these are still movies I respect more than I enjoy. I guess I like my classic horror to be heavier on the monsters and not as focused on psychological angst. Still, it has been an entertaining ride. [7/10]

Fear Itself: New Year's Day

When it was announced that Darren Lynn Bousman would direct an episode of “Fear Itself,” officially being inducted into the Masters of Horror club, I wasn't surprised. Disappointed, because his movies are usually terrible, but not surprised, because he was prolific at the time. But let's talk about “New Year's Day” first. Helen awakens on January 1st, in the early morning hours. Hung over, she slowly recalls making a fool of herself at a party earlier in the night. She begins a track across the city to the apartment of James, the man she confessed her love to. There's just one problem. Following an explosion at a chemical plant, a zombie plague is sweeping through the city.

Being a prime time television series, the “Fear Itself” directors usually squeezed their cinematic styles into a TV shaped box. Darren Lynn Bousman, however, brings every single one of his obnoxious quirks to the show. Bousman's tricks are incredibly annoying. When a character is stressed out, he'll intersperse jerky sequences of them screaming or freaking out. These rock video style inserts make up much of “New Year's Day.” When a zombie attacks, the camera goes crazy, shaking wildly. This is the kind of bullshit that made Bousman's “Saw” sequels unwatchable. Likewise, “New Year's Day” is a deeply abrasive viewing experience.

“New Year's Day” is not just visually obnoxious. Its story is weak as piss too. Helen's journey across the unnamed city is an uneventful one, the woman running into random bullshit like a dead girl in an elevator, a suicidal elderly couple, or a cop getting eaten. The only through-line here is the zombified version of her friend, who had a crush on her while alive, pursuing her. The flashbacks to the New Year's Eve party are also lame. It's subpar soap opera style nonsense, revolving around sudden declarations of love and people stupidly making out in a public place. If that wasn't bad enough, “New Year's Day” leads towards a totally predictable and utterly brain-dead twist ending. From the opening, lingering shot on an undead tarantula, it's immediately apparent that Helen is not exactly what she appears to be.

The final nail in “New Year's Day's” casket is an awful cast. Briana Evigan, a regular of Bousman's movies, plays Helen. Evigan's performance here is terrible. Early on, she flatly explains that her character has a recently deceased little brother. Throughout most of the episode, she huffs, puffs, and shrieks in an unconvincing manner. She's not even believable as a shambling zombie, as she stretches her jaw in a goofy looking manner. So there's simply nothing appealing about this one. The direction is atrocious, the script is crappy, and the lead performance is terrible. Add it all up and you get the worst episode of a deeply mediocre anthology series.  [2/10]

Wolf Creek: Rome

In the penultimate episode of the first season, “Wolf Creek” finally starts to put the pieces together. “Rome” picks up a few months after the previous episode, Eve having found work in the titular town as a waitress in a sleazy bar. She's even acquired a roommate, an enthusiastic young woman who is planning for a wedding. While at work, none other than Mick Taylor enters the bar. After grabbing his license plate number, communicating with Officer Sullivan, and talking with a survivor of Mick's torture, she sets herself up for a final showdown with the man who murdered her family. However, the group of bikers – Johnny's friends – find her first.

I know I've been bitching about the countless subplots pretty much from the moment I started watching this show. However, I will admit that seeing the divergent story lines come together is satisfying. At first, I figured the subplots would continue to wander around. The escaped convict Eve met back in episode three reappears, amputating his own hand in an especially grisly sequence. However, he shows up just in time later on, rescuing Eve from the bikers. That's another subplot that finally pays off, Mick using Johnny's family as a way to wear his pray down. It leads to a pretty wild shoot-out, set in an abandoned outback cemetery. I'm still not sure it was necessary to throw all these divergent stories into the show, just so they could come together at a later point. But at least “Wolf Creek” won't have to deal with them anymore.

More importantly, “Rome” shows Eve and Mick's cat-and-mouse game heating up. The girl coming face to face with the killer in the bar, Mick not recognizing her, is an impressively intense sequence. It certainly feels like the audience has been anticipating – and dreading – this moment nearly as long as she has. What follows is another tense scene where she trails Mick's truck, the two nearly seeing each other. Naturally, Taylor claims more than a few victims. Detective Sullivan, one of the more likable supporting characters, has a heartfelt meeting with Eve before Mick catches up with him. That's a sequence that's really well done actually, the attack being backlit by the headlines from Mick's truck.

In a nice touch of continuity, “Rome” also has Eve meeting up with Ben Mitchell. That's the one victim that escaped Mick in the original movie. (Though played by a different actor, with Fletcher Humphrys stepping in for Nathan Phillips.) He's clearly still traumatized by the encounter. Due to Mick crucifying him, Ben's acquired the nickname of “Jesus.” Finally, the episode's ending seems to set up Eve and Mick finally facing off, the encounter the entire season's been building towards. Since the show has regained some of its juice, hopefully that bodes well for the conclusion. [7/10]

1 comment:

Monty Park said...

Thank you! I was excited to see It Comes at Night, despite not seeing any of the advertising, so when people complained about it being misleading, I'd been there before and was totally prepared to defend it once I had seen it.

Then I saw it, and ended up agreeing with the audience. It doesn't just not explain anything, it keeps bringing up new details in the expectation that it'll pay off, and then deliberately follows up on NONE of it. The director's smug attitude about it, like not adhering to storytelling convention is itself an act of artistic genius, doesn't help.