Friday, October 4, 2013

Halloween Week 1: (Clever Subtitles To Follow)

Well, it's that wonderful time of year again. Monster decorations everywhere, enough candy to put Wilford Brimley in the grave and ensure he stays dead, and, the part that's of the most relevance here at the Third Row - horror movies. Lots and lots of horror movies.

It's time for ye old yearly (OK, this is only our third year, traditions gotta start somewhere!) Halloween festivities. 31 days, 31 movies, 31 short writeups. This year's selection completely and lovingly picked and sorted at random from a pool of close to 180 movies, the rest are in reserve for future years with more to be added. Gives a nice dash of chance to the game.

So, without further ado, let's start having a look at this year's winners.

Where's this "Don't let her in" nonsense coming from?
She looks perfectly OK to me.

10/1 - Pontypool

I'll start by saying, the marketing on this film is somewhat disingenuous. Not bad, but disingenuous. Like 2003's 28 Days Later, this isn't actually a zombie movie. Rather, this is actually a creative take on a virus outbreak - both in terms of how the movie frames the event and the nature of the virus in question. In a move that's great in its simplicity, the bulk of this movie takes place in a small radio station in the Canadian town of Pontypool. I stress the fact it takes place there - with the exception of an intro in a car and a few shots outside the station, almost everything is centered within the building, where former shock jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) and his two associates (Lisa Houle and Georgina Reilly) find themselves on the listening end of a mysterious outbreak of a kind humanity has never seen before. I won't say too much for the nature of the disease, since part of the draw of this film is the initial mystery of just what is happening, but I will say, as horror goes, it's a fascinating idea - science fiction has explored it before, but this marks the first time I've ever seen it invoked in a horror film (if someone can think of another example, I'm always up for more to look for!) The choice in location only further adds to the mystery - for much of the first part of the movie, we only learn of the damages through news reports and phone calls in to the station. It does a great job for letting the imagination do the work on what is fast becoming a situation beyond normal comprehension. The other big element that helps this storyline move along is the core cast members involved - in particular, McHattie, who has proven himself not infrequently as a character actor, makes a great center for this storyline, going from casually joking about the news to slowly taking it more seriously, and eventually finding the voice of reason he's been trying for as a DJ the entire time. Likewise, his staff, going first from irritated with him to being drawn into the carnage alongside him give us a good range of reactions. In all, it's a pretty unique experiment for a horror film - taking an approach akin to Orson Welles's famous War of the Worlds radio show (a connection the filmmakers acknowledge was deliberate) they've spun an fresh, minimalist take on horror of an apocalyptic sort. The directors have expressed interest in following up on this narrative with two more films exploring the event (which is itself based on the screenwriter Tony Burgess's novel Pontypool Changes Everything.) I have to say, with this as a starting point, I'd be interested in seeing where they can take this idea from here.

Not surprisingly Gynecology's Greatest Bloopers and Outtakes did NOT sell well. 

10/2 - Teeth

Between this and tomorrow's entry, I initially thought the randomizer was trying to mess with me. Then I thought 'It's gonna take a LOT of restraint to not make this week's subtitle a joke about genital mutilation.' ...which was promptly followed by 'God, why did I even consider that?'
ANYWAY...this was a curious film to finally take on. I'd had it suggested last year and this year finally opted to put it into the running. Prior to this, all I really knew about the film was that it dealt with the concept of vagina dentata (in layman's terms - when the proverbial hoo-hah has a set of choppers attached.) That was the big thing about it - and prior to this, something I'd only ever seen addressed in one other movie. Further, to be fair, in Wicked City, it was not a large part of the plot.
So I went into this without any idea what to expect of the concept. I have to say, the surprise was worth it. The strangest thing about this was realizing that, with a concept like this, the film actually plays itself with a bit of a lighter, more comedic edge. Now, this was a bit awkward at first, particular in the first half-hour or so when we're introduced to protagonist Dawn (Jess Weixler,) who's part of one of the overtly Christian promise groups. This part, as joking goes, feels a bit heavy-handed (though given the subject matter here, a bit to be expected.) Once the film finally tips its hand--or fangs, if you prefer--however, it starts to get on more sure footing. Like Dawn, the movie slowly comes to gain more of a sense of confidence as it gains more of a sense of what it is and what it wants to do with what it has. The result is a twisted but memorable take on the coming of age story for a woman - going from being ashamed of who she is (quite literally, one of the messages the film starts with is shame, both on a personal level, and culturally, of the vagina - to the point where the biology textbooks have been censored) to embracing what she is and what she's capable of. In particular the latter piece becomes a strong part of her character in the later half of the film. After reading up on the phenomenon in mythology, and the idea that it must be 'overpowered' by a hero, the movie begins to view Dawn's extra parts as a sort of power. As a result, the quiet, easily pushed over girl of the first half soon begins using her abilities to take back control for herself - quite literally in several cases, leaving those who would use her whimpering messes with their...advantage, left on the floor.
Admittedly, writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein isn't particularly subtle with the metaphor here, but at the same time, it's not like he's forcing it via preaching or hammering the audience to death with it. For what it is and what it's trying to say, it does the job well enough. The end result makes for an interesting balancing act - not quite fully on board with either the comedy or the horror, it instead becomes an unorthodox coming of age story with a very macabre sense of humor.

It was around this point that the studio heads at Disney decided to cancel their contract with Lars von Trier.

10/3 - Antichrist

And here's where I'm starting to suspect the randomizer knows EXACTLY what it's doing.
Following up on Lichtenstein's dark, but still fairly comic (and all in all, positively oriented) tale of a girl taking back her sexuality in a world where it's ultimately stigmatized, we come to Lars von Trier's VERY dark take on similar subject matter. Anyone who's been here long enough (and to those of you who have, I sincerely apologize) will remember when I discussed this as part of my top 5 picks of 2009 at the time. In particular the controversy the movie was subject to at the time from people reading it as misogynistic, most infamously at the Cannes Film Festival where it received an anti-award. Upon rewatching it, and in light of Teeth, I did find myself wondering on that question on this viewing. With a fresh view, I maintain a similar sentiment to where I was before - contrary to what some may think, I honestly don't see the film as misogynistic. Quite the opposite, the film actually hinges its evil as stemming from the culture of misogyny and gynocide that Charlotte Gainsbourg's character (neither she nor costar Willem Dafoe are ever named) made the subject of her thesis. Actually, on that note, and after watching Teeth, I actually started making notes comparing how the two films address the theme. Though if I go into that more, that could risk hijacking and becoming an entry in and of itself (this might be like when I did I Spit On Your Grave two years back and this will become a separate feature here. Cause honestly, there's a lot to compare.)

Beyond the misogyny debate, this still remains a rather interesting take on horror from a director who hadn't really done anything with the genre before. Von Trier reportedly didn't think he necessarily succeeded at making a horror film, but I'd be inclined to disagree with him. It's certainly a different take on the genre, to be sure, but at its core, it still has all the basis of a psychological thriller. In trying to truly get to the bottom of his wife's grief, Dafoe's therapist, in classic arrogant horror character fashion, decides to push on into an area neither he nor his wife are prepared to properly explore. What unfolds is a disturbing cycle through various aspects of grief, blame, and sexuality, not always in that order and sometimes multiple at once, that sees both of its leads pushed to their limits. Incidentally, I will still hold the Academy responsible for the fact Gainsbourg never got a nomination for her work on this movie - yeah, it's certainly not Academy-friendly work, but she puts herself through an emotional wringer, and even as the film starts to put her in an antagonistic light, she still retains a sort of sympathy. We see just what she's done to herself and feel bad for her, while at the same time fearing just what all this has turned her into. A fear that is only further added to by Von Trier's direction in the film's 3 and 4th chapters ('Despair' and 'The Three Beggars.') These parts contain the scenes where the film's infamy is solidified. Without giving spoilers away, we see the couple subjected to scenes of personal bodily harm that are INCREDIBLY visceral to watch. I mean, to my surprise, I got through Teeth fairly unphased by the violence. By comparison, even having seen Antichrist before, some of the scenes in this STILL make me squirm, simply thanks to just the way they're directed. They genuinely look painful to watch, and that's also thanks in no small part to the two leads who have to simulate these experiences.
It's certainly not a film for everyone, and if you really aren't sure you're up for some parts of this, I can't say I blame you for passing on it. If you're game to give it a shot though, it's certainly a well-made, and at times quite disturbing segue into the darker sides of both the individual mind  and parts of our culture.

"Getting really sick of the HP fans still giving me grief over their favorite characters getting offed..."

10/4 - The Woman In Black

I do find it kind of a shame this movie only got mixed reviews when it came out. The first time I saw this, I was already pretty stoked by the fact this marked a revival for legendary British production company Hammer - famed for their horror productions of the 60s and 70s. The result, while nothing game changing, also still showed they haven't lost their edge even 40 years later.
Adapted from a novel by Susan Hill, this is interesting in that in a lot of ways, it is a classic ghost story. We have the outside protagonist (Daniel Radcliffe, who, based on this film, is safely going to survive life after Harry Potter,), a town with a secret past, and a curse that he will soon find himself having to confront, both to solve the mystery and save himself. There are certainly familiar trappings involved, and  thankfully, the film doesn't take it on itself to try and reinvent the wheel. Not to discourage said reinvention, mind you. At the same time and in a genre that seems to have been stuck in a state of constantly trying to reinvent itself for the past 10 year, sometimes it's actually nice to see a film that has no real pretense beyond just telling a good scary story. With that goal in mind, this movie accomplishes the goal with a seasoned air. Like any good ghost story, director James Watkins and screenwriter Jane Goldman are both very aware the best scares of the genre come not from the payoff, but the build-up. The payoffs ARE certainly jolting, but it's the ramping up getting to them that is where the film really shows its strength. One of the strongest sections of this movie is actually the middle section where it's just Radcliffe's Arthur Kipp alone in the cursed home of the titular Woman in Black. Much of it is a sort of dark game of hide and seek as Arthur chases the phantoms roaming the grounds. Even the ghosts themselves are presented in such a way as to not feel overdone - in many scenes, the Woman is unsettling simply by standing there - a scene involving a house fire being a good example of this (that's all I'll say to avoid spoilers.) The film rarely goes for the outright 'grab you and shake you' scare, preferring to leave you waiting and enjoying watching you squirm as you wait for it.
Alongside the direction, the cast, as I started to say above, suit the material well - in a departure from his now famous role, Radcliffe actually tries for a different direction with this role, playing a grieving widower who soon finds what is left of his family may be in danger from his involvement with this curse. The other standout, as Arthur's sole friend in town, is CiarĂ¡n Hinds as Samuel Daily, who, despite his skepticism, becomes one of the only people willing to unearth the Woman's secrets alongside Arthur.
Word is, a sequel has been confirmed. While I'm admittedly skeptical, this story on its own is quite well done and self-contained, I will remain hopeful. If the people behind it can keep to the same 'nothing wrong with just a straight forward ghost story' approach this movie so embraced, they may make this one of the sequels that works.

All in all, not a bad start to this year - something novel, a few thought provoking moments, and a nice touch of the old-fashioned to round things out.

I've got a good feeling for this year's spread and looking forward to where things go from here.

Keep an eye out!

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