Friday, July 3, 2015

Some Thoughts on Recent Horror Films

Poster images from IMDB and Wikipedia.

I've considered starting a blog for my musings on movies, music, and other media goodness for over a year now, but something always stops me. I think it's the fact that movies feel intrinsically harder to review than, say, a lipstick formula, and those reviewing communities don't seem to be quite as large or easy-to-get-in-to as the beauty community. That being said, BOGL's header does warn readers that the blog is "10% miscellaneous garbage." Hence, I feel relatively safe posting a rare non-beauty musing post on this space.

Please note that this post will contain major spoilers for all of the films above, including descriptions of major plot points and endings, as well as some creepy imagery.

The first bit of babbling I want to get off of my chest regards As Above, So Below. There was a decent amount of internet buzz surrounding this one; that, combined with a few rave recommendations from friends, left my partner and I frothing at the mouth. It wasn't available on Netflix or Hulu, and Amazon didn't have a rental option, so my partner just bought the thing. Alas, I think he wasted that money.

The film follows Scarlett, an academic on a quest to find the philosopher's stone, a stone that can supposedly turn worthless materials in to gold and grant people eternal life. After almost defacing several priceless artifacts and roping a few random individuals in to the quest with her, the group sets off to explore the Parisian Catacombs, supposedly the halfway point between Earth and Hell. They eventually find the grave of Nicholas Flamel (the founder of the stone) and the stone itself, but quickly become lost and encounter a host of horrors.

Screenshot from WeGotThisCovered.com.

What most reviewers seem to love about this film is how it treats the Catacombs. And that's definitely worthy of praise: parts of the film were, in fact, filmed in the actual Catacombs, and the tight corridors and walls of bones are appropriately creepy. I'm not claustrophobic, and neither is my partner, but there were a few moments in which characters were squished between a rock and a hard pile of femurs that made us cringe.

But the actual horrors and the plot are...so-so. There are some cool effects, including a character who gets sucked in to a fiery car that morphs in to a stone floor, and the idea of traveling to the Gates of Hell is a good one. Unfortunately, the film never seems to follow through. Instead of capitalizing on the real-life creepiness of the Catacombs, there are jump scares a-plenty, obnoxious tropes like a Mary Sue main character and Intimate Healing, and a storyline without much interest or mystery. There are numerous plot holes; for example, the group finds a man who supposedly disappeared in to the Catacombs two years ago, but it's never explained how he survived or why he's there. The solution to the characters' problems is apparently to "find themselves" and reconcile with their pasts, but it feels like an afterthought.

Screenshot from Variety.

Most of the movie feels like an excuse to link up quotes from different mythologies and toss in all kinds of riddles that allow the main character to show off how smarted and learned she is. But instead of feeling cool and fleshed-out, it just feels...annoying. My partner and I actually joked that it seems like a movie designed to mock academics: "You think you know everything because you read a lot of books, but you're really just a pain in everybody's ass."

I think my biggest disappointment with As Above, So Below is that there isn't much of a menace. When I teach literature and go over horror, I always drive home the necessity of a truly terrifying menace. It doesn't have to be a physical ghost or person or demon or whatnot, but there must be something that threatens the main character and perturbs the reader/viewer as well. There are things that kill the characters in As Above, So Below, but they feel haphazardly thrown together, and they certainly didn't scare me on a personal level. My immediate and permanent reaction to the film was incredulity. "Why is this popular?!"

Screenshot from The Guardian.

This contrasts mightily with The Babadook, which did creep me out at points and got to me on a personal level...but it took me a few hours to get there. Like As Above, So Below, The Babadook spends a lot of time on its scenery and atmosphere. The improvement here is that, despite the fact that Australian homes are not inherently spooky, this film revels in and maintains an unsettling atmosphere. It lets everything look and feel creepy without being overtly scary a la bone-filled Catacombs, leaving your mind to fill in the gaps. And in my experience, that's what truly great horror films do: force you to freak yourself out.

In The Babadook, a widow named Amelia is still emotionally devastated by the tragic death of her husband. To make matters worse, Amelia never sleeps: her troubled son, Samuel, wakes her up every night to deal with the monsters in his room. Despite her exhaustion, she checks his room every night, reads him a story, and puts him to bed. One night, Amelia lets Samuel choose a book from his shelf. He produces a pop-up book she's never seen before called "Mr. Babadook." The story starts out with a cute description of The Babadook, but it quickly turns sinister. Amelia tries to dispose of the book, but Samuel becomes obsessed with the idea that the Babadook is stalking them...and when the book keeps appearing on her doorstep with more pages added to the story, Amelia starts to believe him. "The more you deny me," the book warns, "the stronger I'll get."


Screenshot from Bloody Disgusting.

The Babadook has a few jump scares, but for the most part, it relies on that aforementioned creepy atmosphere. Interestingly, the Babadook himself has very little screen time and only shows his face on a few occasions. He spends half of the run time feeling like an omnipresent, well-hidden menace, and the other half of the film possessing Amelia and forcing her to do terrible things. Part of what made this movie so great, in fact, is that the possession never felt overdone or awkward. As a whole, the acting was terrific--and that's saying a lot when you consider how shitty most child actors are.

What threw me (and, apparently, many other viewers) off at first was the ending. Amelia eventually exorcises the Babadook from her body. She comes to terms with her husband's tragic death, has a birthday party with Samuel, and...goes to the basement, where they apparently have the Babadook imprisoned, to feed him a bowl of worms. I'm not entirely opposed to films having happy endings, but keeping a weird monster as a pet? What?

It took me a moment to realize that it's all quite psychological. For most of the film, Amelia tortures herself with memories of her husband's death. She attacks anyone who tries to talk to her about it, and she refuses to admit that her son is also damaged and in need of help. Instead, she wallows in her cold, grey existence. This is the Babadook: that psychological pain that only dominates you if you let it fester. Amelia will never be able to get rid of the pain of losing her husband, nor can she instantly fix her disturbed child...but she can accept reality and move on.

In a sentence: The Babadook was creepy and it stuck with me, but it moved me instead of scaring me, and I think I'm okay with that.

Screenshot from Daily Motion.

The Den is the opposite of The Babadook. There's nothing supernatural here and there's no heart-warming ending: it's a straight-up serial killer horror film. And you would think that this would be one of the scariest things I've ever watched, considering I am way more frightened of "real world" terrors (serial killers, massacres, natural disasters, etc.) than I am of "supernatural" terrors (ghosts, demonic possessions, etc.). The Den does frighten me, but not for the reasons you'd think.

First, a quick comparison to Unfriended, which I watched with my friends shortly after it came out. Both films take place entirely on a computer screen, feature the gory death of every character, and are full of generally boring people we feel no emotional attachment to. The difference is that the menace in Unfriended is a vengeful ghost who is focused on a specific group of people. The menace in The Den is a collective of mortal masked killers who seemingly kill at random, making them far more frightening to me personally.

Let's back up a minute and cover the plot. The heroine of The Den, Elizabeth, has received a grant for a sociological study. She intends to record her life and interact with as many strangers as possible on a website called The Den, ie, a blatant duplicate of Chat Roulette. One night, she stumbles across a video of a woman being murdered by a masked man...and when she tries to investigate, she becomes the masked mens' next victim. Eventually, she ends up in a terrible torture warehouse and almost escapes, only to be recaptured, hanged until she's almost dead, and shot in the head.

Screenshot from ZoboWithAShotgun.com.

If that last sentence sounds a little crazy, well, it should. While the climax gets your adrenaline going, it feels a bit over-the-top, especially since most of the movie is decent, but relatively hum-drum and a little too reliant on predictable jump scares. But what really gets me about this film is the actual ending. We switch to a scene of a man in a clean, sunny office. He's browsing the internet when he's suddenly interrupted by his son. No big deal, right?

Except he's browsing an interactive torture website that charges viewers big bucks for access to real torture and murders, including "Elizabeth's narrative." And that's the truly scary part: the idea that somewhere, some stranger could be delighting in the torture of innocent people. Scarier still, websites like that probably already exist.

The Den asks us to question how much of our lives we put on the internet. Think about it: we're growing up in an age where our every move is selfie worthy, where we put our most personal information on websites like Reddit and hope that an internet handle will keep us safe, where revenge porn and leaked execution videos are considered unfortunate, but accepted, parts of middle class American life. So much of our world is run by computers now: job applications, taxes, shopping, directions, dictionaries, you name it, it's all gone net-based. We also know that anything you want can be found on the internet if you look in the right place...and that's downright terrifying.

Screenshot from ZombieApocalypse.net.

The film that impressed my partner and I the most over this past week of horror film binge watching (because yes, we're those people) was Final Prayer, also known as Borderlands. This is a bit odd, considering it contains a lot of the stuff that normally turns me off: found footage, demons, and a gory (albeit novel) ending. But we loved it!

For starters, Final Prayer is a found footage film with a new-to-me plot. A miracle has apparently happened in a small country church. The Vatican sends two church experts, Deacon and Mark, and a technician, Gray, to investigate the validity of this miracle. Deacon and Mark believe that the miracle can easily be proven a fake, but Gray is not as convinced, especially when unusual things start happening around the church.

My favorite thing about Final Prayer is the careful use of sound. When I think about the things that truly make a horror movie horrifying to me, "what the fuck was that sound" is always at the top of my list. There are some of the usual found footage fare, like crying babies and weird scratching, combined with less common but equally freaky stuff, like the sound of a sheep that's been set on fire. There are also some unusual rumbling noises that take on a new meaning when you find out what, exactly, the church is sitting on, and I appreciated that. I like a movie that doesn't explain things right away, but rather leads you to a conclusion that makes you say, "Oh, shit, so THAT'S what that was."

Few of these sounds were particularly loud, though. And there are many creepy images that you can miss if you blink or look at the wrong part of the screen. That made Final Prayer even better for my partner and I: instead of bracing ourselves for jump scares and gory ghouls, we scanned the screen for things that were out of place and strained our ears for quiet noises. Interestingly, most of the spooky imagery isn't particularly new (disregarding the aforementioned ending), but it is done well.

Screenshot from ReflectionsOnFilmAndTelevision.blogspot.com.

It helps that Deacon and Gray are likable characters. Some reviewers have referred to them as archetypes, and they sort of are. Deacon is the drunken, doubting holy man, Mark wears a priest's collar and is therefore super serious, and Gray is an agnostic lout who makes fun of almost everything. But they're also fun to be around and they don't feel as 2-dimensional as the folks in As Above, So Below. I felt for those guys when they met their awful demise.

I also loved that this movie didn't treat us like total idiots. It's not too terribly difficult to figure out the plot by piecing together clues, so there's only one moment where a character sits viewers down and says, "Okay, so here's what's happening right now." Compare that to Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, which--like most PA movies--expects its viewers to be morons and treats them that way from start to finish. I don't even feel the need to really describe that movie, except to say that it's yet another meh "oh look a coven of witches!" snoozefest that didn't scare or impress. It's too busy holding your hand as it tumbles you through the cliche plot to attempt a scare.

2 comments:

  1. Great review snippets!!! Horror movies scare me shitless, so I won't be watching any of these, but I REALLY REALLY want to know the plot of final prayer and I can't find anything on Google!!!

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    Replies
    1. That means you have to watch it! MWAHAHAHA!

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