Sunday, June 10, 2012
Yeah, I had to dismember that guy with a trowel. What have you been up to?
The night before I saw The Cabin in the Woods, I went to a double feature of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives at the Brattle. While The Final Chapter has always been my favorite (largely thanks to Tom Savini's makeup work and Crispin Glover's dancing), I was surprised by how much fun I had with Jason Lives. I'd always found its attempt at self-parody lame and overly amused with itself; this was compounded by the way every bonus feature on the DVD underlined the brilliance of the movie's American Express gag, which always struck me as kind of a non sequitur. But seeing Jason Lives with an appreciative audience, especially after the unironic pleasures of The Final Chapter, I realized that the laughs are good natured - the audience's relationship with the slasher formula was knowing but not condescending, and I realized writer/director Tom McLoughlin's jokier version of Jason was basically affectionate. It's a movie about characters that have seen a lot of horror movies but don't know they're in one; as with the characters in Scream, their media literacy makes them no less doomed. Jason Lives isn't the most sophisticated attempt to subvert the genre, but its broadness is part of its charm; I can see now why it seemed like a breath of fresh air in 1986.
I bring up Jason Lives as a roundabout way of saying that metatextuality has long been a part of the horror genre, going back as least as far as Bride of Frankenstein; in recent years, the Scream ripoffs, torture porn and found footage horror have all commented on their own artifice even as they try to sell their "Inspired by Actual Events" faux-verisimilitude to gullible teen audiences. It's in the nature of horror to examine itself; just about every successful scary movie, in one way or another, needs to override our rational resistance to boogeymen in order to work (movies about real-life monsters, serial killers and killer animals and such, are obviously their own thing). So if anyone tells you that The Cabin in the Woods is revolutionary or redefines the genre in any way, don't listen to them. It's not groundbreaking, nor does it have to be; what it is is a very smart, unpredictable and affectionate take on the genre and its many possibilities.
While The Cabin in the Woods mostly avoids the self-congratulatory cuteness that plagues Whedon's other (admittedly quite clever) work, it does feel a bit like the work of two very smart kids who just took apart their parents' phone to look inside and can't quite put it back together. The undead monsters lurking outside the cabin are framed as one of many interchangable possible threats to the leads; we're never invested in them on more than a conceptual level, and so The Cabin in the Woods is enormously entertaining without ever being truly scary. Goddard and Whedon try to tie the main characters together late in the film in a sweeping statement about the nature of the genre that ignores the many, many horror stories that don't fit the formula it proposes as absolute. And their know-it-all attitude makes the movie's occasional lapses in logic more egregious than they would be in an unironic slasher, particularly the plot device of a big red button that absolutely should and would not exist in the world of this film. It's forgivable, though, especially since what happens when a character pushes said button leads to a climax that is sure to leave any horror fan feeling giddy - I can't wait for the Blu-ray so I can pause specific moments and fully appreciate the level of mayhem on display. The Cabin in the Woods is ultimately the movie many young horror geeks with hyperactive imaginations dreamed up at one point or another, magnificently brought to life. The only question is, who or what is Kevin?
If The Cabin in the Woods tinkers with horror formulas, John Dies at the End blows them to smithereens. I saw Don Coscarelli's adaptation of David Wong's book at the Boston Underground Film Festival (also at the Brattle), where Coscarelli introduced it as "a movie about drugs." That's true, but it's not even the half of it - while John Dies at the End often plays like Ghostbusters as imagined by Hunter S. Thompson, it possesses the same boundless, wildly unpredictable nightmare logic as Coscarelli's Phantasm series, coupled with the straightfaced absurdist humor of his adaptation of Joe Lansdale's Bubba Ho-Tep. Twenty-something slacker David Wong (Chase Williamson) tells journalist Arnie (Paul Giamatti) how an accidental injection of a mind-bending drug known as "soy sauce" set him off on a journey involving ghosts, Lovecraftian monsters, alternate realities and all kinds of weirdness. As David and his best friend John (Rob Mayes) battle meat monsters and attempt to bring peace to a parallel dimension, the movie constantly threatens to turn into an incoherent drug-and-horror mashup, and yet miraculously, it all works wonderfully, managing to say a few insightful things about why people take drugs along the way.
That the movie works is largely thanks to its performances - newcomers Williamson and Mayes are believable as directionless best friends thrown into a bizarre story, and the strong supporting cast includes Clancy Brown as a celebrity paranormal expert and Glynn Turman as a detective who delivers the priceless line "You're wondering why I'm out here today committing felonies." And it's also due to Coscarelli, an unsung auteur who finds in Wong's book a perfect match for his morbid preoccupation. At one point David is trying to make Arnie see one of the film's many creepy creatures; telling him to concentrate, he prompts him to focus on the fact that someday he'll die and either become nothing or cross over to the unknown. With his mind focused on this fact, Arnie is able to see the creature. It's a deeply resonant scene, and it grounds an often very outlandish film. When I asked Coscarelli if the question of what happens (if anything) after death, which is at the center of most of his films, was something he was consciously exploring, he told me that he'd realized after looking back on his filmography that it was a question he was and is always asking before adding, "Hey, aren't we all?" John Dies at the End is still in search of a distributor, but be sure to check it out when it gets a proper release - it's well worth your time.
And then there's Ti West, who is busy proving that there's still a lot of life left in classical horror narratives. West's previous film, 2009's The House of the Devil, transformed a simple concept (Satanists threatening a college-age babysitter in a creepy old house) into a loving homage to '80s horror movies that captured not just the style but the soul of classics from that period. At the same time, West proved that he was capable of sustaining tension to an unbearable degree, displaying the same kind of potential that Roman Polanski showed in his early films. West's latest film, The Innkeepers, is an elegant slow burn, a ghost story made special by its patient, assured direction. Based on the spooky experiences of The House of the Devil's cast and crew when they stayed at the supposedly haunted Yankee Pedlar Inn (where The Innkeepers was shot), the film follows co-workers and amateur ghost hunters Claire and Luke (Sara Paxton and Pat Healy) on the last weekend before the mostly vacant inn closes for good as they try to find proof of a haunting. West takes his time letting us get to know Claire and Luke - they're both endearingly geeky, socially awkward and a little withdrawn, and it's easy to imagine them living happily ever after in a different movie.
It's hard not to love Claire in particular, and when she's embarassed by one of the few guests, an actress and clairvoyant (Kelly McGillis), for her lack of direction in life, we feel for her. West quietly underlines the connection between Claire and Luke's sad situation - about to lose the jobs they're overqualified for, facing an uncertain future, both unable to express their loneliness - and the tragic nature of the inn's permanent inhabitants. It's amazing how we become so invested in the characters that the ghost story creeps up on us; West and cinematographer Eliot Rocket get the most out of the Yankee Pedlar, the inn's empty hallways and dark corners teasing our expectations. West chooses the film's supernatural reveals carefully, but they're delivered with a prankish attitude towards revealing terrifying details in the background or a reverse shot that is worthy of John Carpenter. And the film's most effective sequence, as Claire and Luke explore the inn's basement, creates an overwhelming feeling of dread from a close-up of Claire's face as she describes what she's seeing offscreen. Some horror fans have complained that the payoff is week compared to the setup, but while I'm not opposed to gore or creature effects, it's heartening to know there's at least one horror filmmaker who hasn't forgotten about the power of suggestion. The Innkeepers scared the hell out of me; I can't wait to see what West does next.