Sunday, September 02, 2012

'The Last House on the Left' remake: Well! Not so bad, except when it was

It only took three years but I finally got around to the "Last House on the Left" remake from 2009. I saw a preview for it at some theatrical feature or other and remember bellowing "Oh my God! Mari survives this time! It's a whole new game!" I can't remember if this got me ejected from the theater but I do remember being fascinated by the idea of letting poor Mari live through her ordeal. The agony of guilt! The hell she could wreak on her tormenters! She'd be like a slasher Lara Croft!

At that point, to be honest, I hadn't seen the 1972 original, only (this is so pretentious) "The Virgin Spring," the 1960 Bergman film on which it was based. But I loved the idea of a black-and-white Bergman film being remade as a slasher film, and  the original film's mores make perfect sense for a slasher movie: first the film revels in the young victim's sweetness and vanity and youthful innocence, then it goes to town tearing her apart, then it lets her parents wreak revenge on her killers. It's got so many interesting moral vectors. Perfect for the ethos of slasherland!

Wes Craven's movie goes though to a more savage place. There's no ethos at work in "Last House" 1972, just sadism and then revenge. Watching it is like watching the raw material from which slashers are made. The killers have no purpose beyond sheer nastiness -- they kill Mari and her friend Phyllis like schoolyard kids pulling the legs off insects. Mari's parents torment them almost in reflexive shock, like kicking a person who's kicked you, without the religious redemption offered by "Virgin Spring."

And then in 2009 we have this interesting remake! This time around Mari's dad is an ER physician, and she and her parents are mourning the death of her older brother. Their house in the woods is only their summer lake cottage. ("How many houses do you have?" killer Sadie asks in the third act, and you feel an early blister from the recession.) As soon as they arrive, Mari bugs off to hang out with her friend Page (a more '90s name than Phyllis, I guess), and soon they are once again making bad choices by trying to buy pot from the wrong guy!

One thing I really dug about this remake was the parallel between Mari and her annoyed parents ("You said you would call an hour ago!") with the aggrieved killer Krug and his son Justin, the aforementioned pot-selling wrong guy. There's a lovely interlude as Mari, Page and Justin lie around smoking up in a sleazy motel, and Justin is such a sweet mumblecore innocent that he kind of digs it when the girls start teasing him about his hair and playing around with his wardrobe like he's a Barbie doll. Mari and Page are adorable in their tiny shorts and training bras! The three of them could be in just about any movie! But then Krug walks in, radiating adult male heat, and you join the kids in thinking "uh-oh." Krug's as furious with Justin for letting these girls into his motel room as Mari's parents are for her taking the car out too long. From this point on, the adults are in charge.

The next act goes about like the original, except that Page gets stabbed instead of disemboweled and Mari's rape scene goes on for what feels like half an hour. Then she pops off to the lake and swims to safety, in spite of the bullet that whams into her shoulder and appears to finish her off. The villains end up at Mari's house, where her dad sets Krug's brother's broken nose and her mom fixes hot chocolate for Justin, who's acquired the hard stare and the lantern jaw of a young H.P. Lovecraft.

Then Mari comes home, which -- is almost irrelevant since the young HPL has already slipped her necklace to her parents, so they know this gang has done something nasty to their daughter. Mom and Dad creep into the guesthouse with a fireplace poker and the rest is just inevitable! Except, except, except. Well, the vectors are different.

Wes Craven's original makes clear that the killers are sadists who are just getting their kicks. "Piss your pants," his Krug tells Mari, just for fun. The remake gives them a motive: Krug's gang is helping him escape from a trip to prison, and their story has already made the local news. Their torture springs from desperation rather than sheer nastiness, and this is unfortunately a great deal less horrifying. Meanwhile, in the remake Mari's parents are scrambling to find their boat keys so they can transport her across the lake to a hospital. This may be the recession talking again, but it's just hard to sympathize with people as they struggle to find their boat keys. When they go homicidal on her attackers, they're just trying to hold them off till the keys turn up. It's a different vibe.

I figured this movie still had a scorpion's tail waiting to strike, and I thought we were getting close during a scene where Krug flees the guesthouse and starts creeping about the main house, where we last saw Mari lying on the couch alone. "Here comes the acid bath!" I thought. But -- turns out Mari's safely stashed away elsewhere, and Krug is done down by more predictable forces. The stinger that is here feels grafted on, a "shocker" ending that can't shock anyone who's seen a film with Tom Savini effects, and that feels untrue to the characters. It would work if Mari's parents (as in Wes Craven's original) had gone completely round the twist and had nothing left to survive for, but this film has bent over backward to let you know they're still looking to be good parents. They even adopt Justin, apparently. The escape to the hospital at the end is like watching the end of "Annie."

Still, it's got some grit and it's got some interest. I worried that it'd be excessively sanitized, like the godawful "Friday the 13th" remake, and it does start out looking like an Abercrombie & Fitch commercial but it does end up feeling dirty and wrong enough to satisfy even me. And it's cool that unlike for her predecessors, Mari doesn't end up automatically being killed after being raped. I know it's not realistic for survivors to leap up and kick ass after being brutalized, but still I'd like her survival to have affected the moral equation somehow. Maybe that'll be for the next generation to decide.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

'Cabin in the Woods': Joss Whedon is a smartass and I'm docking his allowance

"All I ask," exulted the usher at the Arclight, "is that you sit back, relax and prepare to have your faces rocked off." There is no better way to predispose me against a movie!

But yeah, it was Friday night and I was at a midnight show. I wanted to see what the fuss was about too. I've been driving for weeks past the "Cabin in the Woods" billboards, with their Krazy-Mixed-Up Cabin! design and the slogan "You think you know the story," and just clenching my teeth. I love cabins in the woods. I love creepy stuff on the walls and in the basement. I love the twig snapping outside. I grew up right next to the woods -- I always knew there was something lurking out there. That stuff resonates with me, dammit. I don't need to see it reinvented! But here we are. Spoilers ahead.

I tried to get into it, I did. The bold editing is quite admirable. The dialogue, of course, is excellent and makes the characters -- stock figures, all of them -- into human beings. For a while, it does an OK job of being a movie within a movie: there's a framing device of professionals in a lab, watching the kids go into the cabin, and both those scenarios are watchable and interesting in their own ways. But I kept thinking, "What is the point? Why do this?"

Then the plot takes a twist or two, and you realize you're watching a much larger-scale horror scenario than you thought. That's fun for a little while, and the payoff is a tremendous 20-minute comedy sequence that's just a blast to watch. I'm sure some critic or other has already roared, "Horror fans will want to sit through this movie again and again just to get all the references!" and maybe they will -- the references are fun! If only that were enough to carry an entire movie. It is not.

This movie's being compared to "Scream" because it picks apart horror cliches: the cabin is scary, the redneck locals know something you don't, the teenagers who enjoy sex will die. But it builds itself on an even bigger cliche: that people who watch horror movies do it because they're brutal and savage and awful. By building itself as a meta-movie, "Cabin in the Woods" primly positions itself above this sort of thing. You end up feeling good about yourself because the movie eventually makes you root against the characters who set up the sadistic cabin scenario. But dammit, you idiot, you still paid money to see a gory horror movie! Joss Whedon has no resolution for you; the best he can offer is a couple of pot-smoking survivors, surveying the carnage and snarking, "Sorry about the end of the world." That's not a movie; that's a flipoff.

I know, it's 2012 and lots of movies are sarcastic about the fact that they're movies. But why bother making a movie, then? Why not just stay home and smoke pot? (Cut to Joss Whedon, counting his "Avengers" money and smoking a giant blunt: "Yep, that's my plan," he smirks. Aaaargh!)

Here's another thing. Why zero in on cabin-in-the-woods movies? How many of those are there? When was the last one made? You're really just picking on "Evil Dead." I don't like that. That's not picking on a giant, corny studio release - that's picking on a bunch of scrappy film students who put together something that turned out to be hugely influential. Go pick on Pepsi or something.

The timing of this movie just feels off to me, and I guess that's fitting since it's been on the shelf for a while. It doesn't seem to have been inspired by any horror zeitgeist. It's just randomly here.

I can't believe I haven't blogged in a year and a half and this is what brought me back. See, everything about this movie is enraging!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Have a very scary solstice!

Originally uploaded by Trillium grandiflorum
I'm a little late (and have been reprehensibly quiet recently; more frequent posts will return in 2011 as I re-embrace the joy of watching movies for their own sake) but wanted to wish everyone a very happy winter holiday. We can't do much for this goldfinch here, but the outlook for the rest of us is, I hope, a great deal brighter for the coming year. Stay warm on these dark nights, and pray for daylight....

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Downtown gothiness

Neither a man-eating plant nor a scary movie. I am just happy with this photo! The carvings are outside the Million Dollar Theater on Broadway, a beautiful place to visit. I am fond of the Million Dollar Pharmacy on the corner of Broadway and Third. Across the street is the Bradbury Building, which was the only sight in LA I really wanted to see on my first visit. When it turned out to be three blocks from the office that was interviewing me, I was pretty thrilled.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

"Left Bank" (2008): Yes! Belgian horror!

I cannot highly enough recommend "Left Bank," which came to my attention via the always-reliable Arbogast. He was comparing it favorably to "House of the Devil," and while I would agree that it is far superior to Ti West's snoozefest I'm not sure I'd compare the two. Both involve creepy buildings and a lone girl in peril, but "Left Bank" is unquestionably modern. Which is weird, because it ends up involving some crazy medieval hoorah, but still.

Heroine Marie (Elina Kuppens) is a scrappy, independent-minded young woman living with her divorced mom and spending most of her spare time running: she's training for an international event in Portugal, and her proud coach thinks she has it in the bag. When she gets sick and Portugal becomes out of the question, she's devastated. With a sudden amount of unwanted free time on her hands, she takes up with cute archer Bobby (Matthias Schoenaerts), and after a night of hot sex, she pulls away from her mom and coach and decides to go recuperate at Bobby's. He's got a sweet apartment on Antwerp's Left Bank, apparently a hip transitional neighborhood, in a huge old building run by his grandmother.

But almost immediately things start to get weird for Marie. Instead of getting better, she suffers headaches, nausea and insomnia; when she tries to go running, she hurts her knee, and it spends the rest of the movie getting darker and purplier and grosser. Her flaky mom comes to visit and starts fussing about weird vibrations and dangerous ley lines. A neighbor tells Marie that the previous tenant of Bobby's apartment was a woman who vanished. Then a package comes for the missing woman; when Marie opens it, she starts learning more about the building than she ever wanted to know.

There are definitely shades of "Rosemary's Baby" here, but unlike fragile Rosemary, Marie stays totally independent and together. I adored her character. She clashes with her parents and coach, but she keeps her head on straight; she asks direct questions, she never starts at shadows, and when things start getting berserk she does the sensible thing and moves the heck back out. She doesn't go creeping timorously down hallways, and you never want to yell "Don't go in there!" You're right along with her the whole way. She's fab.

Marie is also a very physical character -- she's young, her body's always been her ally, she loves running and she enjoys sex -- and I love how this is really key to the ensuing awfulness. Her problems begin when her body turns against her: she's been pushing herself so hard that she's quit menstruating, among other problems. You really feel how much it kills her not to be able to rely on herself anymore. She wants so much to get better, and she can't. And as her hurt knee gets darker and weirder -- eventually sprouting hideous stiff hairs that she tries, sobbing, to yank out -- it all starts to feel like a metaphor for puberty or old age. Transformation turns out to be key to what's happening. I won't give it away, but: brr. See this film!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Casting a shadow

I do love this spider. Every day when I go out to visit my plants, it's hanging around on the pitchers, usually on top of a Sarracenia rubra. Sometimes it crawls, picks itself up a bug and crawls back out. The sunlight caught it just right the other day for this photo.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Final Girl Film Club: 'House of the Devil'

Writing about this movie is going to be difficult because I kept falling asleep. Each time it happened I would jolt awake a few minutes later, see unfamiliar stuff happening onscreen, sigh with irritation and rewind the movie to the last thing I remembered. This was a tedious exercise but, I imagine, not quite as bad as watching "House of the Devil" straight through without interruption. I'm grateful not to have seen it in a theater, where I would have had to sit upright. This movie is a snooze and I'm afraid director Ti West is a frightful bore.

This is the first film I have watched for the Final Girl Film Club that I have energetically disliked. It will be very interesting to see what the other Film Club Coolies have to say! My friend Jason adored it. I read a bajillion favorable reviews when it came out. But -- I have nothing good to say about "House of the Devil." It is without redeeming qualities.

Everyone's favorite thing about this movie seems to be that it's set in the 1980s and made in the style of the era's brilliant horror movies. And how could you not love that idea? A babysitter, a synthesizer score, a friend with a crazy flip hairdo -- these are great accessories for a horror movie. But they're accessories. You need something real at the core. The movie needs a scary idea, and "House of the Devil" hasn't got one.

Heroine Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) lives in a college dorm and really wants to rent an off-campus apartment from landlady Dee Wallace (tribute! tribute!). To help pay her first month's rent, she accepts a babysitting job from weirdo Tom Noonan ("Manhunter," "Monster Squad") and his weirdo wife, Mary Woronov (the friendly scientist from "Night of the Comet" -- and OK, I did get excited about that). But the house is dark and it's creepy! It might even be the house of the devil! Whatever will Samantha do?

Well, she plays some pool. She listens to her Walkman. She orders a pizza. She watches some TV. She walks around the house. I woke up and skipped the DVD back and she obligingly did it all again.

The problem with this movie is not so much that it's slow -- it's really not that slow -- but it gives your brain absolutely nothing to latch on to. The characters are impossible to understand. How come Samantha needs this apartment SO badly? So she gets sexiled by her roommate. Who hasn't been through that? How come the couple is so weird about pretending they have a kid, and then pretending instead they have an elderly mother who needs looking after? How come they don't even show her the upstairs of the house before leaving her alone? How come she puts her Walkman on? What if the "elderly mother" called out for her? Who's after whom? What's going on? I just sat there getting irritated, and after a while I just quit caring and let my eyes close.

Unfortunately, West's "The Roost" had exactly the same effect on me, which is really a shame because I love farm horror and I love bats and I love zombies. But "The Roost" never quite coheres -- it creates an atmosphere, but it isn't intelligent enough to create a mood. "House of the Devil" is the same. A scene doesn't automatically become interesting because the heroine is using a rotary phone instead of a cell phone. The fact that this is all West has got -- I find it kind of insulting. Come back when you have something to say, dude.

But Mary Woronov! That's pretty sweet. God, do I love "Night of the Comet."