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Sunday
Oct302011

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Cult of a Lifetime

I can't remember the last time I was so emotionally invested in such a bad movie. Martha Marcy May Marlene is the feature debut of star Elizabeth Olsen and writer/director Sean Durkin, and while it is, in parts, one hell of a coming-out party, the film as a whole suffers from the disturbing narrative trend of leaving lots of really important story elements up to the audience to figure out.

I've actually heard defenders express their excitement for pictures that abandon the "tired three-act structure"; if that's your cup of tea, then Martha should prove to be a piping hot cup of Earl Grey. If, however, you prefer movies to be more than pretty, two-hour-long cock-teases, then you'd be better served looking elsewhere.

The best thing about cock-teases--pardon the vulgarity, but it's really the most effective metaphor for what I'm getting at--is that the recipient doesn't know that there won't be a payoff. As presented by Durkin and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, the film seduces easily. We meet Martha (Olsen) as she escapes an upstate New York sex cult presided over by a sinewy sleazebag named Patrick (John Hawkes). She stays with her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and her new husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), at their summer home in Connecticut. Lucy struggles to get Martha to open up about where she'd disappeared to for two years, following the death of their mother--but all she gets are vague comments about a "boyfriend" and lots of weird behavior that suggests she's completely forgotten how to act like a civilized human being.

As Martha recovers in her expansive, lake-view-enhanced new digs, we flash back and forth in time, witnessing her induction into Patrick's twisted family. Moments shift seamlessly between realities; for example, in a scene where we see Martha laying down, it takes a few seconds to determine whether or not she's in a guest bedroom in her sister's house, or on the cult's ceremonial floor, waking from a drug stupor into the shock-state of being raped by her faux patriarch.

As we see more and more of Martha's life on the commune, the sense of dread builds. We know that Patrick and/or his male hit crew of horny, dim-witted subordinates will come looking for their prodigal daughter. And it is a testament to Durkin's skills as a student of horror (official or not) that the movie's dreamier, more languid scenes are punctuated by bursts of really effective, heart-pounding suspense.

Two problems with that: One, the languid scenes are really languid. After the first hour, Martha begins to feel less like a mystery and more like a Lifetime TV movie from the 90s about the dangers of running away with strange men. Indeed, Hawkes is one pair of oversized glasses away from being a parody of David Koresh, and the greater his manipulations, the more I had to wonder if Martha--in her previous life--had ever watched an episode of Maury?

Cuteness aside, one of the film's biggest failings is that it goes against what the audience should expect out of a character who is ostensibly an adult, living in New York, who comes across as sassy--if not worldly--before deciding to live in a farmhouse with people who make the characters on Big Love seem like Real World cast members (maybe Martha and Lucy grew up without cable?). I didn't buy Martha's naivete for a second, especially because she's introduced as being anything but. Sure, her confidence could have been an act, but her personality is never filled in enough to make that assessment.

The second big problem--and I can't scream "Spoiler" loud enough here--is that the violence promises and builds to a climax that never comes. Not an ending--a climax. After weeks of putting up with Martha's weird behavior--such as sneaking into Lucy and Ted's room and lying next to them as they have sex, and laughing at Ted's quaint notions about finding a means of providing for herself (all of which is accompanied by a steadfast refusal to talk about what happened between she and her "boyfriend")--Lucy decides to take Martha to a treatment facility. The morning of their trip into the city, Martha sees Patrick staring at her from across the lake. He follows the family down the road as Martha looks on, panicked. Cut to credits.

I'm sorry, but that Sopranos nonsense doesn't cut it anymore. This upsetting penchant on the part of filmmakers to leave their story resolutions dangling wide open has got to be the lamest gimmick since the return of 3D. Films like Another Earth, The Tree of Life, and even, to an extent, The Rum Diary, cross the line between ambiguity and laziness. Some will say that we don't need to know what happens, that it's so "Hollywood" to insist on stories that make sense in which characters are allowed to complete their arcs. To these clowns, I offer the following piece of advice: never, ever, under any circumstances, complain about plot holes in Michael Bay films.

Yes, I can come up with my own theories as to whether or not Patrick was actually at the lake that day, or if he was a figment of Martha's paranoid mind. I might even imagine an ending where he runs Martha, Lucy, and Ted off the road and puts a bullet through their foreheads. But I didn't buy a ticket to a "Choose Your Own Adventure" movie, just as I don't expect to share a screenwriting nomination with Durkin during awards season. I don't appreciate the kind of ambiguous non-resolution that, based on the evidence presented, is less likely the product of a mad, just-discovered genius than it is the cop-out of a really lucky kid who painted himself into a narrative corner and convinced Fox Searchlight that they had a Sundance darling on their hands.

Don't get me wrong: Martha Marcy May Marlene looks gorgeous and features some strong performances (Olsen proves that she can play everything from bored to screaming-mad-crazy, which is good for her Oscar chances, I suppose, but not for audience empathy), but the movie falls apart in the middle and doesn't even bother crossing the finish line. It's like a cherry '66 Mustang with a wet pizza box where the engine should be: one look under the hood will convince you it's not that great of a car.

Note: Durkin didn't do himself any favors by casting Paulson and Olsen as sisters. We never learn how old they're supposed to be, but in real life, there's a nearly twenty-year gap. I don't know if he'd meant to skew Paulson as younger or Olsen as older, but neither scenario helps explain why their characters are so developmentally arrested.

Saturday
Oct292011

The Rum Diary (2011)

Paradise at a Steal

There are three types of people* who will go see The Rum Diary this weekend:

1. Fans of Hunter S. Thompson, on whose second novel the movie is based

2. Fans of Johnny Depp, hungry for another over-the-top performance by the actor-turned-zany-somnambulist

3. Fans of cult director Bruce Robinson, whose last major motion picture was released nineteen years ago.

I can't speak for the Robinson crowd, but fans of Depp and Thompson may be disappointed--not that The Rum Diary is bad; it's just so fantastically different from anything its core audience is expecting that they may not appreciate the fact that this is the truest distillation of Thompson's spirit ever captured on film.

Notice, I said "spirit" and not "character". There's a huge difference between what the author stood for and how he was perceived in pop culture. The cartoon version of Thompson immortalized in Gary Trudeau's "Uncle Duke" character, or the clipped-speech, wide-eyed id of Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (also starring Depp in the lead) are projections of what their creators perceived as the essence of Thompson, based on his books and occasional public run-ins with the law.

They paint a fun and charming portrait of--to borrow a friend's phrase--"Hunter on Drugs". But the disillusioned crusader from books like Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 and the stories of The Great Shark Hunt (not to mention the essential volumes collecting Thompson's letters) has rarely made it to the big screen. Bill Murray came close in the rare, non-ridiculous moments of 1980's Where the Buffalo Roam, presenting Thompson as a not-quite-resigned writer looking back on a more optimistic time.

Which brings us, at last, to The Rum Diary. Set in 1960, the film tells the story of Paul Kemp, a stand-in for Thompson in this semi-autobiographical account of the young writer's trip to Puerto Rico. Kemp takes a job as a reporter for the failing San Juan Star and finds himself in the middle of what looks like paradise but feels like a hotbed of revolution and the last refuge of failed dreamers. His co-workers include the paper's perpetually drunk and/or stoned Culture and Religion correspondent, Moburg (Gionvanni Ribisi), and its slovenly, carefree staff photographer, Sala (Michael Rispoli).

He also encounters Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a former employee who's made it big as a shady land developer. It's easy to tell from his white suits, fat cigars, and luxury cars that he's up to no good. Much of The Rum Diary centers on his attempts to lure Kemp into being a covert propagandist for a consortium of bankers and military personnel who seek to buy up much of the island and convert it into a resort community that would have little use for dirty, backwards locals.

I use the word "plot" lightly. In fact, Robinson's screenplay is the first introduction of forward momentum that Thompson's story has enjoyed. Like the book, the movie is a collection of misadventures and pseudo-intrigue that paint a picture of a young man looking for a dream that he has been promised but not clearly defined. Whether engaging in car chases with hoodlums, hitting on Sanderson's May/December eye-candy, Chenault (Amber Heard), or entering a prize bird in cockfights to raise money to put out one last edition of the paper, Kemp goes on a cultural odyssey similar to that of his Fear and Loating in Las Vegas counterpart, Raoul Duke (with a good deal of crossover when it comes to attitudes about fat, obnoxious, American tourists).

Robinson also extrapolates the themes from Thompson's later, more mature work and retrofits them into The Rum Diary. The novel version of Kemp was a lost thirty-year-old, whereas Depp--clearly pushing fifty--comes off as a bit world-weary and fed up that society has not yet recognized his genius. Robinson uses the development angle to give form to Kemp's notion that there's something wrong with post-World War II America, a crack in the veneer of progress that hints at greedy, industrialist swine writhing underneath. It is through his dealings with Sanderson that Kemp finds the motivation and courage to be a crusader against those who would destroy culture in order to preserve it.

In this way, the film speaks not just to the coming racial tensions and anti-establishment ethos of the 1960s, but also to modern American woes. One need look no further than the nationwide "Occupy" movements to see the physical manifestation of our collective unconscious rising up to slam on the brakes. While watching a Nixon/Kennedy debate, Kemp bristles at "Tricky Dick's" reptilian demeanor, remarking that someday, someone will come along and make him look like a flaming liberal. Given the increasingly publicized consolidation of power at the very top in recent years, it's just as easy to take this as a knock on Barack Obama as George W. Bush.

Further, Kemp arrives in Puerto Rico to find a landscape marked by an anxious and largely out-of-work lower class, a middle-class that is disappearing due in part to automation, and a cadre of elites ready to swoop in and erect an escape destination for the few who can afford it. Everyone around Kemp has given up on reporting anything for fear of losing their already limited corporate sponsorship, spending most of their time in alcoholic stupors or screaming through impotent rage. When the writer finally announces his cause, it is the first time in a long time that anyone around him has even considered standing up against the forces of corruption--many of them have no idea how to do it.

If I have a complaint about this wonderful, important film, it's that, like the novel, it wrestles with the identity of its protagonist. When we first meet Kemp, he has awakened in a trashed hotel room to have an awkward conversation with a room service attendant. His behavior is more like the ultra-high Duke, rather than the introspective drinker given to wild notions in the book. On top of that, this is the last we see of this Kemp in the film. He becomes a practically buttoned-down observer of a gaggle of weirdos, absorbing the chaos of his environment before taking it on. It took some getting used to--especially the idea that Depp is too old, physically and idealistically, to play this part--but after the first twenty minutes, I was pretty much on-board.

Last nitpick: there's a big disparity between Kemp's internal monologue, which sounds like later-career Thompson, and the sometimes-timid, sometimes abrasive fluctuations of his interpersonal delivery. This is where, I think, Thompson's fans will be the most challenged: accepting Depp as a semi-innocent, a quasi-gonzo hero with a half-formed identity.

These issues are, as I said, in keeping with the spottiness of the source material. But what the main character lacks in coherence, the rest of the movie makes up for in a marvelous supporting cast, superb art direction, and Robinson's direction--a style that trashes up beauty and makes trash beautiful. I love Rispoli's version of the classic Thompson sidekick. Sala is a wounded idealist whose only goal in life is to get along with as little effort as possible and enjoy what he can of life before everything is turned into plastic. The Dr. Gonzo archetype is typically a wild attorney who gets Thompson into trouble. But unlike those other versions, Sala is both tour guide and mischievous conscience; his call for cosmic justice is passive, unlike the deranged cartoon character played by Benicio Del Toro in Fear and Loathing.

Heard is sexy and vulnerable, but mostly unnecessary. The Rum Diary could just as well have been a bromance between Kemp, Sala, and Moburg who, as played by Ribisi, is like the profane, way-far-gone, Doonesbury version of Duke.

If you have any interest in seeing The Rum Diary, please catch it in the theatre. Robinson's collaboration with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and art director Dawn Swiderski has produced a stunning, enveloping period piece. The trailer clip of Kemp and Chenault speeding towards the end of a dock in Sanderson's red sports car is exciting and sexy, but what happens when Kemp stops short of the ocean may just have you gasping for breath. Everything in the movie appears to be sweating through a fine layer of salt; the filmmakers capture the queasy postcard-left-out-in-the-sun feeling of the screenplay, and I love that each of the story's pseudo-vignettes has a slightly different look that distinguishes it from the rest (also like a postcard, the movie's non-existent ending--very reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable--had me thinking, "Wish you were here!").

I don't know if it's blasphemy to say that the film version of The Rum Diary is better than the book because it's not exactly Thompson's best-known or most highly regarded work. Robinson brings a much-needed sense of perspective--both of the world and of the late author's whole career--to the screen in a way that I dare say would have made him proud. The highest compliment I can give Robinson, and the immensely talented folks he brought together for this project, is that, watching the movie, I felt as though I were discovering Thompson--and his spirit of hope, fearlessness, and belief that words can change the world--for the very first time.

*Four, if you count the disturbing number of people who show up at the multiplex and pick a movie at random, using the same mental coin-toss that decides between a Big Mac and a Quarter-pounder.

Friday
Oct282011

Hostel (2005)

Step into My (Massage) Parlor

[The] Supreme Court says pornography is anything without artistic merit that causes sexual thoughts. Hmmm . . . sounds like every commercial on television doesn't it?

--Bill Hicks, Arizona Bay

Here's the review where I defend Hostel. Look, I know some of you are getting concerned. By now, you're either convinced that I've gone completely around the bend, or that I'm in the back pocket of the celebrities with whom I'll be having dinner in eight days. While I can't say one way or the other if the former is true (real maniacs, after all, don't know that they're maniacs), I can assure you that my praise of widely panned and controversial films of late has everything to do with watching them with a fresh set of eyes, and nothing to do with my fear of Sid Haig.

Hostel became the poster-child of the last decade's "torture porn" craze--unfairly so, I think. I understand that knee-jerk label (because I'm guilty of having applied it myself), but writing off the movie as trash aimed at providing masturbation material to deranged audience members is a mistake. There's a lot more going on here than severed tendons and magnificent Czech breasts.

The film stars Jay Hernandez and Derek Richardson as Paxton and Josh--two college grads backpacking across Europe to let off steam before beginning their respective slogs through law school and Masters candidacy. Along with an Icelandic partier named Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson), they scour clubs in several countries, scouting loose women, drugs, and wild times. They meet a young pimp named Alex (Lubomir Bukovy), who advises them to check out the hostels in Slovakia--which contain the planet's hottest, most willing sexpots.

Cut to our heroes chatting giddily on a train. A Dutch businessman (Jan Vlasak) joins them and assures them that they're in for a great time. He takes his enthusiasm one step too far by placing his hand on Josh's leg--leading to a homophobic reaction that is hilariously, datedly overzealous.

They arrive in a picturesque little village where everything is stone bridges and babbling brooks. Their hostel looks like a resort for hot twenty-somethings, replete with comely desk clerks and complimentary steam rooms and massages. Two local girls, Natalya (Barbara Nedeljakova) and Svetlana (Jana Kaderabkova), invite the boys out for drinks and dancing. Josh and Paxton pair off with them, while Oli disappears with a receptionist--never to be heard from again.

It turns out that people have a tendency to turn up missing at this hostel, and we soon learn that the whole operation is a giant trap, the first stage of a cash-for-torture business called Elite Hunting. Paxton and Josh realize too late that people all over the world will pay good money to be locked in a room with bound and helpless American tourists and an arsenal of weapons with which to experiment.

Okay, so we've got the torture and the (soft-core) porn. How is this not torture porn? Well, thanks to Mr. Hicks' reminder that pornography must contain "no artistic merit", I'd like to point out that Hostel is both full of beautiful imagery and an underlying social message that is as discomforting as its rampant displays of gore. Writer/director Eli Roth has created a deceptively complex horror movie that says a lot not only about the extremes to which capitalism will go--particularly in hard-hit, post-Cold-War countries, but also the danger in the American-exceptionalist attitude.

One of the biggest knocks on the film is that the characters are so annoying that it's impossible to care about them. I disagree. Sure, Paxton and Josh are hard to stomach, especially on first viewing, but their authenticity can't be denied. They're smart kids who act irresponsibly because they see the European party scene as the ultimate haven of anonymity. After their vacation, they think, they'll return to the boring, corporate safety of their homeland. They shrug off bar fights and treat everyone they meet as either a whore or an idiot--because, for them, all of Europe is a giant, adult amusement park.

Roth brilliantly rips that curtain away after Josh disappears. Left to his own devices, Paxton begins to take his situation seriously and actually pay attention to his surroundings. Instead of being an Eastern-Bloc Aspen, the town is overrun with gangs of feral children, gangsters, and steely eyed prostitutes who play on the naivete of their prey to make loads of cash. It is a perfect metaphor for that flaw in the American character that assumes danger, poverty, and desperation are things only other people in far away places have to worry about.

Nedeljakova plays a fetching devil, a temptress who gives the boys ample opportunity to pack their bags and leave safely. But their eagerness to score and inability to pick up on bold clues leaves them vulnerable when she finally sells them out to Elite Hunting. Her counterpart is the Dutch businessman, played with at first sympathy and then perversity by Vlasak. He's another mile marker on the boys' dark journey, warning them about the evils of a culture that perpetually seeks to remove emotion and sensation from everyday experience.

You may think this is high-falutin' talk for a movie about people paying to cut other people to ribbons. But that's my point: Hostel isn't an exploitation piece. It's a serious movie with a serious message that has the courage to follow through on its themes. Not once is the audience invited to revel in the sickness of the Elite torturers. Unlike the Saw franchise, which is steeped in its own "live every day to the fullest" morality, Roth makes no judgments about those caught in the web; good people and bad people alike are fair game.

Ultimately, artists can't be held responsible for the actions of their audience. A person who fantasizes--or worse--about dismembering helpless women does so out of pre-existing psychological issues; not because they watched Hostel. Even if there's an argument to be made about the cumulative effect of watching such movies, there's no just solution to the problem outside of subjecting everyone to a nanny state. Maybe the problem is that the violence in Hostel is so realistic (thanks to makeup effects gurus Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero). But since when is it acceptable for the creative community to be punished for doing its job too well?

And where to we draw these mythical lines of appropriateness, culturally? McRib commercials are probably just as offensive to animal lovers as the latest teen bloodbath is to the PTA. Hell, you could go further and have cable-TV providers block The Disney Channel on any household owned by a single man over the age of thirty--that is, if you want to eliminate the possibility that someone might get an inappropriate stirring from something they view as entertainment.

Whatever the case, I think Hostel gets a bad rap from people who either haven't seen it or who don't know how to watch it (look at me, with my grandiose proclamations!). This film is worth a look; it won't change anyone's lives, but it might change a few minds.

Thursday
Oct272011

House of 1000 Corpses (2003)

Alice in Redneck Land

It's easy to write off Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses as "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the MTV generation". Hell, I've done it myself. But the film has a lot more going for it than flashy, tweaked homages and ultra-violence.

Admittedly, it's hard to separate the fact that the movie is a Rorschach Test for genre fans and pop junkies, to just evaluate it as a horror movie. If you've never seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you may find it terrifying, trippy, and original. If you are familiar with Tobe Hooper's definitive slasher masterpiece, you'll either yawn or cheer at what Zombie has done with the kids-run-into-a-family-of-insane-cannibals formula. On another level, one might simply appreciate seeing The Office's Rainn Wilson in an early role, alongside a pre-Nerdist, pre-caring-about-his-health Chris Hardwick or a pre-Shield, pre-Justified Walton Goggins. Further still, there's a lot of fun to be had watching Zombie and Sid Haig create a bona fide horror icon in the filthy, irreverent roadside jokester, Captain Spaulding.

House of 1000 Corpses is not notable for its story. In the late-70s, two friends, Jerry (Hardwick) and Bill (Wilson), travel cross-country with their girlfriends, Mary (Jennifer Jostyn) and Denise (Erin Daniels), to research a book on weird local attractions. They pull into a Ruggsville, Texas gas station where they meet Captain Spaulding, the clown-faced proprietor of a local macabre museum/haunted thrill ride. He tells the guys about the legend of Dr. Satan (Walter Phelan), a madman whose cruel experiments on the mentally ill got him lynched by a town mob. On their way to the famous hanging tree, the gang picks up a sexy, young hitchhiker named Baby (Sheri Moon), who, through a series of manipulations, draws them up to her house.

As you can probably guess from the title, there are a lot of dead people in that house. But they're not nearly as scary as the living residents. Baby's shell-shocked-revolutionary brother, Otis (Bill Moseley), taunts a squad of kidnapped cheerleaders in his upstairs bedroom, while disfigured giant, Tiny (Matthew McGrory), shuffles around his basement confines, waiting to be summoned for menial chores. We also meet Mother Firefly (Karen Black), and a couple other family members whose main role is to be disgusting and insane, and to help procure and/or dispose of fresh bodies.

With numerous Texas Massacre sequels and countless imitators already flooding the market, all Zombie could do, really, was put an aesthetic stamp on this material--which he does with sufficient flair and attitude. House of 1000 Corpses, like any carnival ride, is rarely scary, but it's got just enough of a unique identity to offer the audience something interesting to look at while they're being grabbed at from the darkness. The film "switches channels" frequently, bouncing from the main story to snippets of classic Universal monster movies and local television commercials and news reports. The dramatic use of reds, blues, and greens instantly recalls the comic-book sensibilities of George Romero's Creepshow, while the goofy tone--bordering on camp--is sometimes reminiscent of the Joel Schumacher Batman pictures; oddly enough, I don't mean that as a criticism.

The fact that this was Zombie's first feature really shows. When I first saw House of 1000 Corpses in 2003, I found it to be amateurishly executed and uninspired. It had too much of a spaghetti-against-the-wall feeling. Today, I see things differently. Maybe that's because I've seen the more mature sequel, The Devil's Rejects; maybe it's because I get more of the references the writer/director has thrown into his bubblegum bouillabaisse; whatever the reason, I have a deeper appreciation and respect for his ability to execute a singular vision built on well-tread ground--even when that vision goes off the rails in the last twenty minutes.

Yes, like Texas Massacre, House of 1000 Corpses features a survivor girl (Denise) who must fight her way to freedom. She goes insane in the process, and the film blurs the line between reality and fever-dream. Zombie underscores this by having Baby outfit Denise in an Alice in Wonderland dress and then lower her and a semiconscious Jerry into a "rabbit hole"--really, an underground cavern in back of the house. Once inside the twisty, dank cave system, Denise discovers a society of scummy, mentally ill men who chase her to the doorstep of Dr. Satan's subterranean lab (or, practice, I guess). The worm's-eye-view of her arrival, standing before a red-lit entryway decorated with bones, stones, and old televisions is a stunning image, the natural evolution of what Hooper tried and failed to accomplish with his underground junk kingdom in his own Texas Massacre follow-up.

From the moment Denise enters the caves, the film's narrative becomes unreliable. Does she really encounter a withered, old mutant with robotic arms, operating on Jerry? Is her pursuit by a fang-faced, goggles-wearing butcher the elaborate hoax of a snapped mind? How much of her daylight stumble into safety is true, and how much is it wishful thinking on the part of a doomed, insane person? None of these answers really matters because the end result is pretty much self-evident. But the movie sure makes it fun to speculate.

Crazy editing and creative cinematography aside, the film's real selling point is its characters' personalities. Most of the actors bring a grounded authenticity to their roles, even those playing lunatics. The Goodfellas-esque moment between Captain Spaulding and Bill, in which the sheltered bookworm mistakenly crosses the no-nonsense good-old-boy, is some of the most genuine tension you're likely to see; it looks almost as though Zombie caught an awkward off-camera moment between Haig and Wilson. I also love how Hardwick's geeky, clueless enthusiasm gives way to fear and a bit of an attitude when things turn sour. And in their brief roles as local police, Goggins and Tom Towles turn in fine, understated performances that I'm sure looked cookie-cutter-tough on the page, but which come off as sadly tender and unmistakably human.

My one gripe is with Moon. I buy her as a coquettish nutcase, but her insane laughter comes across as a series of really forced giggles. Again, I'm able to look past a lot of that, based on her development--acting-wise and character-wise--in the sequel. But this first go-round is a bit rough.

This review is awfully full of qualifiers, but that's because I'm writing it as a House of 1000 Corpses convert. I used to really not like this movie; in recent years, after a handful of subsequent viewings, it's grown on me for different reasons. Every time I revisit it, I tend to find one detail that bugs me, one that doesn't bug me as much as it did initially, and at least two that I'd never noticed before--which I love. I no longer see this film as a Devil's Rejects rough-sketch. Rather, I consider it a tonally distinct revamping of a classic horror movie--backed by a personality that has the nostalgic loyalty of a fanboy and the uncompromising vision of a forward-thinking creator.

Tuesday
Oct252011

Horror Business (2005)

Die-hards, Drive-Ins and Knives

When a motion picture is made that excludes the audience from the mix, it's an ego piece, not entertainment.

This line from Herschell Gordon Lewis appears early in Christopher P. Garetano's documentary about independent horror filmmakers, Horror Business, and would have made an excellent thesis statement. A dapper, elderly man whom one wouldn't automatically associate with splatterific masterpieces like Blood Feast and The Wizard of Gore, Lewis delivers a passionate diatribe about the need for talent and populist vision in the indie scene. Watching him speak, I elatedly thought I was about to watch a movie full of struggling, undiscovered visionaries.

I didn't expect his statement to be a warning to the audience regarding the clowns Garetano was about to profile.

Okay, maybe "clowns" is a bit harsh. There are a couple of interesting directors featured here but, for the most part, Horror Business is a fascinating time capsule set in the middle of the "torture porn" era of mainstream horror, which spotlights a handful of angry, underground men raging against a machine that no one can quite define. Much like his subjects, Garetano has trouble figuring out what his own film is all about.

Is it, for instance, an ode to the horror genre itself? Many of the filmmakers interviewed here harken back to the movies of their youth, namely the golden age of 1970s and 80s slashers and Italian zombie pictures. Their work is mostly low-budget, tits-and-gore depravity inspired by raw classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Evil Dead--the key difference being, from what I could tell by watching the clips in the documentary, a distinct lack of purpose beyond shocking the audience. Whereas Tobe Hooper and Sam Raimi told inherently violent stories, filmmakers Ron Atkins and Brian Singleton appear to be acting out their personal aggressions on film and--maybe--slipping a story into the background.

Atkins admits that making horror movies is an outlet for his uncontrollable rage, as evidenced by the way he treats everyone from his wife/producer, Jennifer, to the cashier at a Burger King drive-thru ("How's about a better motherfucking attitude?"). What is less evident is that he has the talent to back up such behavior. Like most of the artists featured in Horror Business, Atkins seems to believe that his tortured, misunderstood genius is on par with greats like Stanely Kubrick (who Atkins sites as a direct influence) or Orson Welles, and thusly affords him plenty of leeway with his end of the social contract. He swears a lot, throws tantrums, and constantly brags about not caring about what anyone thinks--exactly as, I'm sure, the eight-year-old version of himself did when first discovering horror movies.

Is Horror Business, on the other hand, about making independent horror films? We meet David Gebroe and Mark Borchardt, two indie auteurs who take us behind the scenes of their latest productions. We meet Gebroe as he films Zombie Honeymoon on location, in a house that is currently occupied. His crew talks excitedly about the thrill and rigors of mostly unpaid, eighteen-hour days, all in the service of a film they hope will, if not launch their careers, then at least afford them another passion project. Actress Tracy Coogan, seemingly one of the few people involved who was hired and not just recruited from among Gebroe's friends, speaks well of her role and enthusiasm for the project--until one of the candid closing scenes, where she complains that she and her co-star were treated "like animals".

Borchardt is the documentary's bona fide celebrity, having also been the subject of 1999s wildly successful American Movie. That film followed the Wisconsin filmmaker on his years-long journey to make a horror film called Coven (pronounced, "Coe-ven"). We meet him again in 2003, as he preps his first movie in six years, Scare Me, a slice-of-life tale about writing, alcoholism, and vampires. The director is still the stone-cold-serious weirdo who loves to talk about the creative process in the same mystical, mixed-metaphor terms of a high school sophomore writing extra-credit poetry. And he still enlists the help of a motley crew of locals to help with everything from lighting to acting to camerawork (he picks a random guy out of a living-room lineup to be his DP on the first day of shooting). The only major difference is that he's married now, and values his wife as the emotional punching bag that permits him to vent frustrations with the production while being outwardly pleasant towards his team (his assessment, not mine).

Horror Business's bright spot comes about halfway through, when New York filmmaker David Stagnari takes us on a tour of old drive-in movie theatres--some lay vacant, while another has been converted into a Babies 'R Us. Stagnari's personal tales of growing up with the movies, beginning with seeing his dad's 8mm records of his birth and leading to a fascination with drive-in horror triple features, are touching and interesting, and would make a great documentary on their own.

Sadly, we move on to more sad tales of wannabe artists who spend much of their largely unemployed, parents'-basement-dwelling lives (again, a fact, not a judgment) making movies that, if they're lucky, will be just profitable enough to throw together another grisly, uninspired production. It's bold criticism, especially coming from someone who hasn't watched the movies individually. But most of the filmmakers' attitudes are so repellent that I had to wonder if there was any love to be poured into the work they claim to live for. There's only so much talk about how awful all Hollywood movies are and how the majority of the population are just too scared to handle the "extreme" subject matter of these unrecognized masters before you start to wonder if maybe the protesters protest too much.

It doesn't help that Garetano refuses to take a side. His cutesy, interstitial movies and annoying sound-effect transitions suggest that he's on board with his DIY subjects. He, in fact, appears to be in league with them, creating a documentary that poorly copies elements from successful documentarians (i.e. Michael Moore), while not understanding that polemics should be entertaining and targeted. However, by including interjections from industry professionals such as Lewis, Sid Haig, and Joe Bob Briggs--all of whom tout the virtues of solid ideas, skillful and artful direction, and originality--Garetano seems to say, "You know these guys we've been following for the last hour? Yeah, they don't have what it takes to make it."

But I guess "making it" is subjective. And it's not my place to say what does or does not signify success for an independent horror filmmaker. For Atkins, it's being able to distribute his movies worldwide. For Borchardt, it's the ability to keep making movies (or should I say, "movie"--nine years on, Save Me is still in production). While for Stagnari, making horror movies is about the cathartic experience of seeing something through, from start to finish. His story alone, even in this fragmented form, makes Horror Business worth checking out. Just cover your eyes during the rest of it.

Note: I would love to see Garetano--or someone else--follow up his documentary with a look at how the independent horror scene has changed since he started rolling in 2003. Based on some of the stuff I've seen recently, I'd be surprised to see the same attitudes and lack of sophistication, as the Internet has opened up not only competition but also the frequency and resources with which young filmmakers are able to realize their dreams.