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Saturday
Oct272012

Fun Size (2012)

Minor Accomplishments

Being a parent is hard, especially if you're a film critic. Here's a good example that I'm sure everyone in the first world will not only relate to, but empathize with on the level that inspires relief funds.

Yesterday, after a full morning of pre-pre-Christmas shopping in a city that is not my own, I realized it was too close to noon to make it back from the mall with my brood and then return to the same mall for the early-bird matinee. I suggested that my wife drop me off at the theatre instead, which she did. I kissed her and my son goodbye, and headed right for the ticket booth.

"One for Cloud Atlas, please," I asked.

"Sorry," said the kid behind the glass, "the noon one's been canceled."

"Canceled?"

"Yeah, projector's broken. Should be up for the four o'clock."

My brain short-circuited, realizing that I was effectively stranded for at least two hours, but probably three (for reasons more boring than the anecdote you're scrolling past right now). I stepped aside and frantically looked for anything else starting at or around 12pm.

While hilarious, I'm sure, Tyler Perry's Alex Cross came out last week--meaning it wasn't current enough to count as a new weekend review. There was no way in hell I'd give Chasing Mavericks a dime or my time.* That left only one choice:

"Um, one for Fun Size, please," I mumbled, looking everywhere but in the ticket master's eyes.

He started to type something into his console, and paused for a fraction of a second to eyeball me. It wasn't so much an "Are you sure?" look, or an "Are you serious?" look, as it was, "Hey, man, there's gonna be kids in there. Do I need to call the cops?"

In an instant, he registered the defeat on my face and printed out a ticket.

Twenty minutes later, after having survived the trailers for Twilight: Part Four: Part Two and the Red Dawn remake, the feature started. Unfortunately, the feature started with a full-length Carly Rae Jepsen music video--which is, I guess, the ear-stabbing, tween-flick equivalent of a Pixar short.

Sorry, I'm just now getting around to writing about the movie itself. The trouble is, Fun Size is such a product of the films that inspired it that there's very little to consider. Victoria Justice plays Wren, the kind of super-hot, super-nerdy high school girl who only exists in movies. She and her best friend April (Jane Levy) want nothing more than to get invited to super-cute Aaron Riley's (Thomas McDonnell) Halloween party--much to the dismay of Roosevelt (Thomas Mann), Wren's dorky soulmate who can't hardly wait to express his love for her.

Sadly, Wren's mom (Chelsea Handler) has a hot date with her young-stud boyfriend and has saddled her daughter with watching her younger brother, Albert (Jackson Nicoll). While trick-or-treating at a haunted house, Albert turns up missing. Wren, figuring she'd be better off dead than to return home without her mute, mischievous sibling, embarks on several adventures in babysitting. She teams up with April, Roosevelt, and Roosevelt's Reserved-But-Secretly-Freaky Asian Sidekick, Peng (Osric Chau) to find Albert, foil a pair of 'roided-up bullies, and, hopefully, return Roosevelt's moms' car, which he stole with barely a license to drive. All of this plays to an infinite playlist of soulful, emo, indie-ness, available now on iTunes.

(Not for sale, I hope, is Wren's impromptu street rap, which gave me the kind of uncomfortable flashbacks to Teen Witch that make the passivity of sitting in a movie theatre feel like complicity in a murder--never a good way to spend Friday afternoon.)

In order, I'm sure, to avoid lawsuits and/or industry-wide derision, screenwriter Max Werner and director Josh Schwartz drop a couple of "B" stories into the mix, including Albert's odd relationship with a lovelorn convenience store clerk (Thomas Middleditch, the best thing in the movie, next to Levy's leopard-print bra**) and Wren's mom's struggle to get over her husband's mysterious death. Neither add up to more than the kind of loud, colorful, and occasionally smirk-worthy distractions that Yo! Gabba Gabba became famous for.

Having said all that, I can't tell whether or not Fun Size is a bad movie. It may be the perfect coming-of-age film for kids who've yet to either come of age or watch coming-of-age films. I'm so far removed from my pubescent self that I'm not qualified to declare Victoria Justice a second-rate Molly Ringwald. She may be a first-rate Molly Ringwald for kids who grew up thinking the QWERTY keyboard is just a puzzle from which emoticons are formed. Most of her big-screen vehicle was familiar to me, but not offensively, boringly so. The cast treats the material as if it were revolutionary (even Johnny Knoxville, who appears to be on his ninetieth farewell tour of pop culture), and the dialogue is just edgy enough to make me feel uncomfortable as a parent because the word "bitch" is so brazenly used by children.

It's untrue to say that the film did nothing for me. Towards the end, when Wren takes Albert to their father's grave on the way home from their wild night out, I got a bit misty-eyed. Yeah, I gave in to a movie that wears its heart on its too-borrowed sleeve. Fun Size isn't original, but it's a solid tribute to the earnest high school movies of years past, made for a generation of teens who might see The Breakfast Club as people my age saw Leave it to Beaver. In a perfect world, filmmakers and studios would serve up more to mainstream audiences than decades-old storylines, but it's unfair to make this movie a target. I could say the same about romantic comedies, slasher movies, and most of what still passes for big-screen science fiction.

For now, I'm happy to have seen and written about Fun Size, a movie that's not nearly as interesting as razor blades in a candied apple or as troubling as candy corn. It's a small, easily digested treat that, come November first, will be completely out of my system.

*For the record, this does not violate my "I'll Watch Anything" rule. I simply have priorities--and all the patience of a hundreds-deep Netflix queue.

**It's okay, guys. She's totally legal.

Wednesday
Oct242012

Paranormal Activity 4 (2012)

Kinect Four

The latest pit stop in mankind's race towards the singularity, Paranormal Activity 4 asks the question, "How far can a studio push video-game product placement in a feature film before the lines between the two media completely disappear?" For years, movies have adapted video game storylines, and video games have been adapted from films, but the fourth entry in the bizarrely popular hand-held-horror franchise takes both ideas a step further: the X-Box Kinect is such a key part of PA4's forward momentum and scares that I was surprised the audience wasn't handed controllers and required to stand up halfway through the screening.

The danger, of course, is that the movie is so goddamned boring I suspect anyone compelled to move would just head for the nearest available exit.

A week ago, I called myself a fan of this series. The original bothered me for a week after seeing it;* the second was utter garbage until the last five minutes; and the third pulled off a bona fide miracle by not only being a solid prequel, but also the capper to a horror trilogy that didn't completely suck. Up to that point, I thought pretty highly of the Paranormal Activity franchise. They weren't the greatest movies ever, but there were more than enough surprises and rolling secrets to keep me coming back for more.

That's all behind me now, as screenwriter Christopher Landon and co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have announced to the world that they are firmly in the Franchise Business. The quality drop-off from the last film to the latest one is so severe in every respect that PA4 feels either like a direct-to-video sequel or a first film that can only be improved upon by sequels.

Unlike the previous movies, this one focuses on teenagers. And, yes, that is a knock on teenagers. Unless you're making a dead-teenager movie (like Friday the 13th), which exists solely to watch obnoxious kids get creatively murdered, it's a really bad idea to place them front and center. This is especially true of modern teens, whose self-obsessed, inconsequential OMG-speak is only tolerable for seconds at a time (PA4's protagonist actually says, "TTYL"** to her kinda-boyfriend at one point). In this case, the offenses are especially egregious because the movie is ninety minutes of idiots talking into Web cams and yelling at their parents. I'd be inclined to ignore my daughter, too, if she scream-whined about ghosts every time I walked in the door.

The studio and filmmakers are obviously pandering to their key demo now--I suspect because the adults who once took these movies seriously have learned their lesson from the Saw pictures and resolved to Redbox the rest. This means catering to a group of unformed people who have no problem paying seven or ten dollars to sit in a theatre and talk, text, yell at the screen, or do anything but follow complex storylines. This is why the sinister mythology of the first three movies is rehashed and carelessly jumbled here, rather than expounded upon.

If you care about such things, beware of massive spoilers ahead.

At the end of the second film, Katie (Angela Featherston) murders her sister and brother-in-law and kidnaps their infant son, Hunter (William Juan Pietro). Possessed by the demon that plagued her and her fiancé in part one, she walks off with the little boy to fulfill a curse placed on her family by a centuries-old coven of witches.

Make sense? Nope? Strap in...

Part four opens with Katie and her "son" Robbie (Brady Allen) moving into a new neighborhood five years later. Katie is mysteriously hospitalized, and Robbie goes to live with a family across the street. He befriends Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp) and creeps out Wyatt's older sister, Alex (Kathryn Newton). Not long after the strange little boy shows up, creepy things start happening, and Alex calls upon her would-be boyfriend/Shia LaBeouf stand-in, Ben (Matt Shively), to rig every laptop in the house to record all the..paranormal activity.***

Ben even sets the X-Box Kinect to display thousands of motion-tracking dots, resulting in a neat visual gag that is used repeatedly to show that (Gasp!) the characters are never alone--even when they're ostensibly by themselves.

The trouble is that neither teen makes an effort to show their parents the truly creepy things happening in the house. Sure, they share footage of weird shadows crossing the screen early on. But when the butcher knife darts into the air during dinner prep and Wyatt's tricycle drives itself around the kitchen, our fresh-faced, dimwitted heroes stay mum. By the time they decide to have a look at what's going on, the invisible demon Toby has already begun his murderous rampage.

Let's talk about Toby. Introduced by name in, I believe, part two, he is the unseen, malevolent force that pulls sheets off of sleeping victims, stomps angrily up stairs, and tosses bodies around like rag dolls during each film's climax. Based on the fact that everyone he encounters looks up at him, we're led to believe he's a giant. Which begs the question: what's with the wiry little alien dude who shows up in the Kinect sequences? In a couple of scenes, Wyatt goes down to the living room and talks to Toby in a field of green lights. Pay close attention, and you can see the form of what looks like one of Whitley Strieber's gray creatures sneaking up behind him.

What is that?

For that matter, what is Toby? Is he a monster? A pet of the witch's coven? A body-jumping possessor of people? Sadly, the answer appears to be "All of the Above". The Paranormal Activity franchise had successfully maintained its villain's mystery, but with the appearance of this new form in part four, the filmmakers lay bare their spaghetti-against-the-wall approach to myth-building.

For more proof, look no further than the mid-film twist, where where we learn that Robbie is not, in fact Hunter--Wyatt is. Huh? This implies that Katie abducted her nephew; gave him up for adoption (or lost him somehow); took in another little boy; and then used him to lure Hunter back into her clutches after five years. The moment where Toby reveals Wyatt's true identity is creepy, interesting, and completely undone two seconds later because it makes zero sense.

It's about time to wrap this up, which, unfortunately, means talking about those teens again. These movies are known for their slow burns and intense endings, and part four has all that in spades--except this time, the "burn" is more like a yawn, and the ending is literally a combination of the previous three films' climaxes: hapless idiots' necks are snapped; a child is kidnapped; Katie turns into a demon-faced harpy and charges the camera; and the lone survivor stumbles upon a coven of witches in the middle of a late-night ritual (the key difference is that the number of women is cartoonishly large--I'm talking Sgt. Pepper's-album-cover large).

The ending's only surprise is the way in which we're led to it: the laptop camera in Alex's bedroom captures Toby dragging her violently into the hallway. In the next moment, we see the front lawn from the point of view of Alex's hand-held camera, which she apparently thought to grab after having somehow escaped the heretofore inescapable demon. She frantically runs across the street to save Wyatt and her father (don't ask), and manages to record everything that happens with the unwavering stance and professionalism of a Cops cameraman--instead of, say, someone who's on a rescue mission.

Thanks to Paranormal Activity 4, the series can be officially diagnosed with "Reverse Star Trek Syndrome"--meaning that the odd-numbered films are pretty good, but the even ones are beyond awful. It's sad, too, because this movie is very well made. I have no problem with the acting, editing, camerawork, or creepy atmospherics. But the script is generic, confused, and obsessed with annoying characters, making the whole experience impossible to Kinect with (sorry). The cash-grabbing is so cynical at this point that I have no faith in the just-greenlit fifth installment's ability to even be watchable.

Yes, stick around for PA4's post-credits stinger (which I did not), and you'll witness the setup for the also-just-greenlit Hispanic version of Paranormal Activity. You see, in addition to teenagers (who looove video games), those wizardly Hollywood demographers have discovered that the franchise's next largest target audience is Latinos. Don't worry, though, I'm sure the studio will settle for nothing less than the best possible story to wow those opening-weekend screenings. Though, much like Toby, I doubt you'll see me there.

*Though that probably has a lot to do with my having not seen it in a theatre packed with shrieking idiots.

**That stands for "talk to you later"--which really does need abbreviating, if you think about it.

***This place has more laptops than family members.

Saturday
Oct202012

Argo (2012)

Capturing Perfection

There's no such thing as a perfect movie. Objectively, there can't be--right?

Well, if someone can please help me find a flaw in Argo (a real one; not a nit picky complaint about butterfly collars or something), I'd be very grateful. Until then, it will remain not only my top film of the year so far, but as close to an unparalleled masterpiece as I've seen.

How 'bout that hyperbole, eh?

Let's back up. Of course, a movie can't be all things to all people, and to enjoy Argo to the degree I did, you must follow three very important rules (kinda like raising a Mogwai):

1. Don't do your homework. Going into the film, I had a passing familiarity with the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, in which a mob of Ayatollah loyalists stormed the American embassy. Argo tells the story of six office workers who escaped just before the raid and sought refuge in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). I didn't know how their story ended--which went a long way in maintaining tension during a movie whose conclusion is only a Google search away.

2. Leave your Affleck prejudice at the box office. Less than ten years ago, it was not only hip to make fun of Ben Affleck, it was practically a requirement for U.S. citizenship. Sure, he made an inordinate amount of terrible films during his first fifteen minutes of fame, and the bizarre, plastic version of himself that Jennifer Lopez paraded around "the block" during their time together was creepier than those twins from The Shining. But the actor has reinvented himself as a capable enough director to make even a so-so heist picture like The Town at least visually pleasing.

With Argo, Affleck announces to the world that he's ready for Oscar. His performance as "exfiltration expert" Tony Mendez is brilliantly understated without being flat. His character's job is to blend in to crowds, gain and instill confidence in dangerous men, and pull the wool over the eyes of large groups of people. Affleck plays Mendez as cool but ultimately lost between his various identities. Somewhere along the way, his patriotism smothered his ability to be a family man, and when even his skills as a spy are challenged by one of the six office workers, we see him struggle to find meaning in anything he does.

I'll get into the particulars of his stunning filmmaking soon. But if you or your significant other are avoiding Argo because it's "that new Ben Affleck movie", prepare to be surprised and amazed.

3. Imagination's rising tide lifts all BOATS. As you may know, I have a real problem with movies that are "Based on a True Story"; they tend to be sappy and predictable, with plot developments that feel formulated rather than ripped from reality. Argo is based on a story that was classified until 1997, when the truth of Mendez's CIA adventure finally came out.

Whether or not you're a student of history, Argo builds a compelling universe whose logic and events serve its story well. It's unclear how much liberty Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio (working from a Wired article by Joshuah Bearman) took with the actual events (or how much of the truth was available to them in the first place*), but the movie doesn't feel like generic, Awards Season product. The filmmakers ask a lot of big questions whose answers might only be found through research and introspection after the fact. In short, it doesn't matter how true Argo's story is because very little in it rings false.

Even if you completely ignore these rules (and, really, why shouldn't you?), it's likely you'll have a great time watching Argo. The dynamite trio of Affleck, director of photography Rodrigo Prieto, and editor William Goldenberg serve up a series of tensely claustrophobic scenes that place the audience squarely in the company of their characters. The first ten minutes are as thrilling and nerve-killing as the opening chase in Casino Royale or the beginning of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek. Like all great thrillers, Argo uses its adrenaline jolts sparingly, keeping us on our toes after demonstrating what it's capable of.

Oh, did I mention that the movie is also hilarious? Here's a rare case of a politically charged, high-stakes drama that deftly lobs joke bombs into the middle of very serious scenes. Part of this stems, I'd bet, from the fact that Mendez's mission is so impossible that it requires a ridiculous, out-of-the-box solution: he poses as a representative of an American movie studio who's on his way to Iran for a location scout. He claims he's due to meet with a Canadian film crew who are wrapping up business before heading back home. The crew, of course, is to be comprised of the office workers, and Mendez meets with them in the ambassador's house to distribute new, government-issue IDs and drill richly detailed cover stories into each of their heads. 

Assisting him in this mission is Academy Award-winning makeup effects artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and an old producer named Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Using CIA funding, they establish a production company, hire a storyboard artist, and get the Hollywood trades to talk about their hot, new, sci-fi adventure, Argo--an ostensible cash-in on the still-pubescent Star Wars phenomenon. This leaves the door wide open for plenty of entertainment-industry jokes, and an excuse for Affleck and Goldenberg to inject comic relief when matters get a bit too heavy on the other side of the world. In one scene, the two sensibilities meet beautifully during a cross-cut montage of the fake movie's table read and the embassy hostage-takers' preparations for executing their captives.

And that's probably what I love the most about Argo. In combining Hollywood satire with one of the blackest periods in our nation's history, Affleck and Terrio not only make the big questions I alluded to earlier more palatable, they also make a statement about the universal power of fantasy. There's a terrific moment during the climax, when one of the office workers acts out a series of storyboards for a check point guard that underscores the human race's unifying desire to make believe; for just a moment, the reality that seven people could be publicly executed for trying to escape Iran using fake credentials disappears, and is replaced by a hearkening back to the innocence of children pretending--children who know nothing of race, religious tension, or national boundaries.

As you may have guessed, America isn't painted in the best light here, and that's perfectly fine. The film opens with a brief history lesson of the United States' tensions with Iran, beginning with the CIA-backed, 1953 overthrow of its democratically elected president, Mossadegh and ending with the oppressive dictator who replaced him seeking asylum from President Carter in '79. Though Mendez and his cohorts do the best they can to save the office workers, the elephant in the room is the fact that they're simply dealing with the repercussions of their employers' actions. Affleck does a great job of showing the animosity and backwards-thinking of both factions, while also recognizing their infrequent moments of heroism.

There's nothing about this movie that I don't love. From the uniformly terrific acting (even the single-line parts are played by great character actors); to the period-authentic production design; to action that's guaranteed to get your blood up, even when the people involved are simply standing in line--Argo delivers the kind of passionate, big-idea, high-quality filmmaking that stimulates the mind as well as the nerves.

*I'm reminded of a recent Lionel podcast in which my favorite conspiracy analyst (next to Gore Vidal) questioned the logic behind the CIA releasing press statements. Why should anyone believe anything--especially a "declassified" story--coming from an agency whose guiding principle is disinformation? Try watching Argo a second time with that in mind and have fun putting your brain back together.

Tuesday
Oct162012

Sinister (2012)

Up to Snuff

It feels like I've proclaimed one genre or another dead at least once a month this year. Well, if there's such a thing as a three-quarter-mark resolution, here's mine for the remainder of 2012: I will not write about how surprised I was to find quality, mainstream filmmaking at the multiplex. There has been a ton of great stuff at the movies lately, and I suspect the people who say otherwise are either not actually going out, or they're not paying attention.

From the found-footage revolution happening in pictures like Chronicle and Project X; to Dredd's bold assertion that 3D filmmaking can not only be exciting and artistically interesting but also absolutely worth paying for; to The Possession's imperfect attempt to make a creepy-kid movie that's more for adults than teenagers, there's a fine crop of creators out there who won't let horror in the early twenty-teens go the way of horror in the mid-nineties.

Count Sinister among the year's very best mind-changing films, an authentically disturbing new horror mythology that leap-frogs over most of the pitfalls that films like it are known for. The premise is a mash-up of The Shining and The Ring: a once-successful true-crime writer named Ellison Oswald (Ethan Hawke) moves his family into the home of a mysterious quadruple homicide. He doesn't tell them, of course--nor does he mention the box of film canisters and the old projector he finds sitting in the otherwise bare attic. Upon playing the movies, he realizes that someone stalked the family he's now investigating and filmed them being hung from the backyard tree.

The other movies in the box show similar murders, and reveal a disfigured, hooded man hiding in the shadows and reflections of various frames. Ellison believes he's stumbled upon the work of a serial killer, and he confides in a local fan/sheriff's deputy (James Ransone) to help gather information on the victims. The murders' timeline spans decades and states, and each killing is more inventive and gruesome than the last: one family is set on fire while bound in a chained-up car; another is strapped to deck chairs and dragged into their swimming pool; and on and on. As the investigation deepens, Ellison realizes that one child was apparently spared from each massacre, only to turn up missing.

Sinister has three big pluses working in its favor. The first is the way Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill treat Ellison's mystery. Because we in the audience have seen the film's trailer, we know there's a malevolent, supernatural force behind the killings. But our protagonist is a man of facts and logic, and is convinced that there's a concrete explanation for all the weirdness. Much of the movie unfolds like a TV police procedural (complete with appearances by Fred Thompson and Vincent D'Onofrio as different kinds of investigators), with Ellison jotting notes and piecing together clues. In the classic obsessed-cop tradition, he ignores his family's unhappiness while convincing himself that he's doing right by them; this book, he thinks, will put them on easy street for good.

Ellison and his family seem to have a real, complicated life and a deep history that play out as undertones in the present. Dad is a slightly more hinged Jack Torrance who doesn't so much lose his mind to the creeping influence of evil spirits as to the desperation that comes with wanting so badly to fulfill his life's dream of fame. As an Internet writer, I can fully relate to his starry eyed dreams of "making it" and the wistful look in his spouse's eyes as she remembers a time when her husband wasn't so busy all the time. The Oswald family was in trouble long before the monster showed up.

That monster is the film's second selling point--more accurately, the score that announces him is. By watching the attic movies, Ellison has unleashed Baghuul (Nicholas King), an ancient, mouthless deity who feasts on the souls of children. Each snuff film plays like a found-footage horror vignette, and has its own haunting, unique theme. Watching the movie, I was unsettled and intrigued in a way that I hadn't been since Hellraiser--which makes sense, because composer Christopher Young scored both films. We don't see a lot of Beghuul, but the expertly subdued, creepy music and sound design that act as his signature are far more effective than a cackling, bogeyman could ever be.

Lastly, I'd like to congratulate Sinister for having balls. Unlike most movies of its kind, wherein a family faces down the forces of darkness and everything turns out okay at the end (except for the requisite, pre-end-credits "sequel stinger"), Cargill and Derrickson take their story in the darkest, cruellest direction imaginable. I won't spoil it for you, but I left the theatre as profoundly depressed as if the Nazis had popped up at the end of Schindler's List and mowed down all the survivors. This depression made me strangely elated. Sadly, that's the best mix of emotions one can hope for with modern horror movies.

I seriously doubt this is the case, but Sinister feels like a response to last year's silly horror blockbuster, Insidious. Where that movie slapped a glossy coat of cheap scares and carnival-ghost makeup on a Poltergeist-lite skeleton, Sinister mines the cerebral and emotional core of its inspirations, and then lightly sprinkles some crazy supernatural imagery on top. But you don't need a PhD to have fun here; the film is also fun on a purely visceral level. One scene made me jump in my seat, and another gave me rolling goosebumps,** which I don't believe has ever happened before.

In a recent interview, Cargill mentioned that the filmmakers submitted Sinister to the MPAA with the intent of garnering a PG-13 rating (yes, they deliberately shot it as PG-13). To their confusion and eventual delight, the board slapped their picture with an "R", for "disturbing violent images and some terror". This implies that the graphic content is tame, but the themes and imagery are too scary for children; it also goes to show that R-rated horror movies don't have to overflow with boobs and blood to be for adults.

Though its story is wide open for a sequel,*** I sincerely hope that Derrickson and Cargill work on another, stand-alone horror movie in the future. They do fine, Tarantino-original work together, and this is a definite step up from Derrickson's previous film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose--which also aimed for an adult bent, but quickly devolved into nonsense. Powered by a great cast, a chilling score that I love but refuse to have in my house, and a relentless, black, beating heart, Sinister is a movie for people who claim they hate these kinds of movies.

*Like 'em or not, they found new ways to stimulate the lifeless body of the shaky-cam fad.

**During a skillful pan across a room, I was treated to a very unsettling image that made my skin crawl; the camera kept moving to reveal something even creepier, and I've been checking the corners of every room in my house ever since. True story.

***Sinister's very last shot is a cheap gag and the only indication of the film's intended rating. I'd love to see it excised on a director's cut.

Saturday
Oct132012

The Life of Death (2012)

Succumb, All Ye Faithful!

When I was invited to check out WildClaw Theatre's The Life of Death, part of me expected to see a gothic, bloody nightmare full of sex and philosophy-spouting monsters. The play is adapted from a Clive Barker story, after all. A few minutes in, though, I remembered that there are two Clive Barkers in popular culture: one who gave us Hellraiser's pierced, immortal perverts and one who prefers the Lovecraftian slow burn of average people grappling with enormous, ancient, cosmic forces. The Life of Death is mostly the latter, with a smattering (splattering?) of gore to sate those whose favorite holiday is Halloween.

The story opens on Elaine (Casey Cunningham), a young London professional who's in the early stages of recovery from a premature hysterectomy. She's severely depressed by not being able to give her boyfriend Mitch (Adam Soule) a child someday, and bizarre dreams of chanting, shadowy figures make sleep problematic. She skulks about her apartment, her office, and the streets in between, unable to relate to the Christmas cheer filling the air.

Elaine is so consumed by her own problems that she barely notices three major events affecting the community: a centuries-old church is in the process of being demolished, though excavation crews have been unable to pierce what experts believe is a crypt located under its stone floor; a serial killer has been terrorizing the area for weeks--strangling and disposing of bodies, and leaving no clues for the police; and the news has become fascinated with an Australian boater (Ira Amyx) who was rescued after spending an ungodly amount of time stranded at sea (his survival isn't half as interesting as his claims of seeing a man expectantly pacing the top of the boat during his most desperate moments).

Into Elaine's life strolls Kavanagh (Steve Herson), an older gentleman who's fascinated by the church demolition, and who takes a liking to the troubled girl he meets while paying a final visit. He's warm and a bit awkward, and is drawn to the deep loneliness that seems to mirror his own. They begin a friendship that, like all the others in Elaine's life, is put to the test when she is compelled by a dream to break into the crypt late one night. What she discovers beneath the sanctuary brings every recent event--foreground and background--into terrible, revelatory focus.

I won't go further into the plot, as The Life of Death demands a great deal innocence on the part of the viewer. If you're familiar with horror stories from the stage or the screen, it will come as no surprise that Kavanagh is not who he seems to be. But adaptor Charley Sherman and director Carolyn Klein do a tremendous job of keeping the narrative misdirection popping. Engaged audience members tend to treat these kinds of off-beat whodunits like two-hour brain teasers, and the people behind this production manage to stay several steps ahead until almost the very end.

They achieve this through brilliant multimedia distractions that transform the DCASE Storefront Theatre into more than just a stage play venue. The Australian's tale is told via news reports and interview footage played on a gigantic monitor hanging to the right of the stone church vestibule. It towers above a mini-set of Elaine's apartment that's centered around her big, comfy chair. Diagonal to that is an oft-illuminated catwalk that serves as the backdrop for cut-aways to people that Elaine speaks to on the phone. The effect of this crisscrossed arrangement is akin to reading comic book panels, allowing the viewer to zero in on key actions in various places without having to mentally block out the omnipresent church set.

This play is an immersive feat of black magic, thanks largley to the perfect marriage of sound (Christopher Kriz), lighting (Brandon Wardell), and scenery (John Wilson). The creators are in full command of where and how the audience focuses its attention--particularly in the crypt sequence, which caught me completely off guard in a genuine, jaw-dropping moment or terror. It's not so much that Elaine's grisly discovery is so shocking (thanks for the nightmares, Dave Skvarla!) as it is the way in which my eyes were led to it. I didn't think it possible for a live performance to perfectly recreate the editing techniques and camera movements of a great horror movie, but these folks have done so in spades.

Speaking of movies, I'd like to point out a couple of scenes that I still can't stop marveling over. One takes place in Elaine's office, and involves an eerily convincing eight-hour time lapse; the other is set in a dance club where the revellers snap from hard-driving techno grinding to a perfect slow-motion ballet and back again. In both cases, Movement Designer Karen Tarjan and the cast create a puzzling illusion that took me right out of the play--in a good way. I literally couldn't understand how I was seeing what I was seeing. Perhaps this is a function of my newness to these kinds of live performances (I'm mostly a film critic, after all), but I've been searching for this level of innovation and talent at cineplexes for years.

The special effects and staging would be impressive even without a terrific cast; luckily, The Life of Death is a complete entertainment package. Cunningham and Herson make a captivating duo, a sort of gender-reversed Harold and Maude who both harbor damage and dark secrets. The supporting cast are authentically annoying, precisely in the way they were designed to be. A big theme in Barker's work is the soul-dead mediocrity of the people surrounding his protagonists. Here, everyone from Elaine's smarmy ex to her obnoxious best friend Hermione (played with deceptive nuance by Michaela Petro) to her cheery boss (Bryson Engelen) and his ditzy secretary (Mallory Nees) draw a horrifyingly upbeat contrast to our heroine's inner turmoil. Like Mark Renton's detox montage in Trainspotting, we feel Elaine's isolation deeply, especially when she's surrounded by friends.

My one problem with the play comes towards the very end, and is a simple matter of timing. There are perhaps ten minutes between two back-to-back scenes that feel like unnecessary hand-holding. Elaine delivers an extended monologue that is meant to convey her thoughts, but which strays into "Why is she talking to herself so much?" territory. In the next scene, there's a bit of a dance between her and Kavanagh that would have been more suspenseful had the big twist not shown up ahead of schedule. As my friend Graham noted, it's not good when the audience gets ahead of the narrative, and I'd say this is the one instance in which Barker (or perhaps Barker and Sherman) fall behind.

Despite that bump in the road, I highly recommend The Life of Death. It's a good story carried by great themes, greater performances, and a refreshingly imaginative way of engaging an audience. This is Halloween-season entertainment for adults who don't mind a little blood-'n-guts with their gut-wrenching existentialism.

Details: The Life of Death runs Thursdays through Sundays until November 4th at Chicago's DCASE Storefront Theater (66 E. Randolph, Chicago, 60601). Tickets range from $15 to $25, and can be purchased through Brown Paper Tickets.

Note: It wasn't until the morning after I saw The Life of Death that I was able to dislodge a nagging mental splinter: I knew I'd seen Herson in something before, and that I'd really enjoyed that performance, too. It turns out he had a small but very memorable role in one of my favorite films this year, Dead Weight.