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Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Ultimate Trip

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

During Beyond the Black Rainbow, I found myself more than once thinking of The Tree of Life. It could be that both are incredibly non-linear tours de forces. Or it could be that Beyond the Black Rainbow features a segment that one could say recalls Terence Malick’s creation scenes more than just a little. However, instead of what is essentially an epic revamp of Fantasia‘s The Rite of Spring passage, here we get a total mind melt sci-fi acid trip that provokes an unholy nightmarish wonder. This much I am certain of: Both are films sprung from the minds of fiercely unique and uncommon talents.

Beyond the Black Rainbow is not a film for those who seek a plot that progresses logically, scenes that sensibly lead from point A to point B or any type of concise conclusion. A cute, mute and psychically inclined young woman named Elena (Eva Allan) is kept imprisoned in a retro futuristic institution. Once a day Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers), drops by under the guise of what appears to be a counseling session but actually seems much more like some endurance test in which they both have an equal stake. Everything is very sterile Kubrick, very THX 1138 and Cronenberg dire, very Argento lighted. And lest I forget, there’s a huge pulsating white triangle. Is it a metaphor? Is it something physically at the institution? Is it something that exists only in the mind of one of the characters or is it something that is used for mind control and manipulates the characters? What does it mean? Don’t ask me. More than anything, even passing similarities to The Tree of Life, I was reminded of a bad dream I had as a child while under anesthesia. The film is not dialogue heavy. What is spoken is not especially important: “You’re looking more and more like your mother every day”; “If you’re hungry there is some brown rice and steamed asparagus in the refrigerator”; “I looked into the eye of God” (well, OK, maybe that one is a little significant). The director, Panos Cosmatos, has said that as a child he was never allowed to watch horror films (incidentally, his father directed Rambo: First Blood Part II, Leviathan and Of Unknown Origin) but was fascinated by their VHS covers at the video store. Denied the opportunity to partake of such delicacies and inspired by the cassette sleeve artwork, he dreamt up his own stories, some of which come into play here. You can definitely see how the seeds of this tale could be planted and germinate in such a scenario and it is a great service to the film (and a great favor to the audience) if you watch the movie with that bit of background information in mind.

This film is fascinating. It will definitely reward multiple viewings. Each scene builds upon the next, each feeling like a delicious portent, each an essential piece to the puzzle. That the film was able to spread such tension over the course of the entire runtime and that the unrelenting unease never flags is a remarkable achievement – especially considering this is the director’s first film. You can feel the difference between a director (or writer) who doesn’t have anything significant to say and tries to mask that absence by obscurification and a director (or writer) who has a sure voice but doles out only certain details and deliberately denies us in aid of furthering a mystery and fulfilling his own vision. Cosmatos seems to be quite firmly in the later category. Always you feel you are in the hands of a master craftsman. And what wonders he surely has in store to dazzle us with. When his narrative muscles are as mature as his eye for visual detail and his ear for sonic delight – well, that is something I eagerly look forward to. (If Dimension Films had any sense they would immediately hire Cosmatos to direct the long gestating Hellraiser remake project.)

For what really makes the film are the hypnotic, hallucinogenic images and the out of this world score by Jeremy Schmidt (though Cosmatos demonstrates he knows how to use silence to equally disquieting effect). The compositions are lush, beautifully framed and exceptionally shot with colors that ooze off the screen. The soundtrack is a force unto itself, a moody synth score that has been rightfully compared to the work of John Carpenter. It is the music, perhaps more than anything, that is the beating heart of the film and supplies it with soul – a sinister, part robotic, drug degraded soul.

The performances are all top-notch. Michael Rogers is exemplary. Sinister and pathetic, often at the same time, he never tips over into caricature, which is important in a film where notions of good and evil, right and wrong, human and non, are so mercurial. We are never quite certain of his alliances or motivations, even as he is clasping a blade christened “the devil’s teardrop” and closing in on a very exposed and vulnerable Elena. I was unable to hate his character, which is a major testament to Roger’s ability.

Eva Allan should also be commended for her subtlety and depth, especially when you consider her character utters only one line. Allan humanizes a role that could have easily been a reductive cipher. She allows a range of life and experience, heartbreak and bravery to illuminate her face and ignite her eyes.

I really don’t think there is anything else out there like Beyond the Black Rainbow, even if, despite all that has led up to it, the ending does prove to be a bit structurally conventional and some of the concluding scenes bear more than a few similarities to Rob Zombie’s oeuvre. The final image that closes out the film and the implications it leaves us with are haunting. I can’t stop thinking about this film and I can’t wait to see it again. Now I got to get that soundtrack. B+


“The paper holds their folded faces to the floor, and every day the paper boy brings more.”

Rosewood Lane (2011)

Rosewood Lane is creatively bankrupt. There’s potential here for an absorbing dark side of suburbia tale, but director Victor Salva isn’t capable of any sort of Blue Velvet depth or even the shallow insight of American Beauty. This film feels very Lifetime movie, and has a flat and uninspired look that meshes perfectly with the flat and uninspired script and directing. Released straight to DVD, it is all too evident why this was never given a theatrical release.

The setup is intriguing but mostly too ludicrous to be taken sincerely. Rose McGowan plays Dr. Sonny Blake, a psychiatrist with a call-in show on the radio – think Frasier Crane or Laura Schlessinger, but not as pompous as the former or as crazily conservative as the latter. After her father dies, Sonny decides to move back to her small hometown of Stillwater, into the very house where daddy was found at the bottom of the basement stairs. And this means facing demons she thought she’d left behind… and a psychotic paperboy who seems not to be entirely human… and may have had a hand in her father’s death… and may make her his next victim.

The incorporation of past trauma being revisited is not just tired, it is exhausted. And elements of abuse and alcoholism seem to have been added for no real reason other than half-ass attempts at “realism” and probably to help pad out the flimsy premise.

None of the elements introduced ever tie together into one unifying theme, nor do they resonant or make any impact. Nothing that happens in the story is surprising. Of course the cops don’t believe Sonny’s story. Of course the neighbor’s won’t talk about the paperboy (who, by the way, can leap from lawn to roof in a single bound). Of course Sonny’s love life is complicated and she has a tell-it-like-it-is best friend.

As it is, the film only gets the most minimal of mileage out of the psycho demonic paperboy angle and even when McGowan’s plight seems to have dead-ended and become absolutely hopeless, it never feels like anything is at stake – Sonny is never really that boxed in or that at the end of her rope and we never doubt for a minute that she will come out on top.

When the paperboy offers McGowan a special introductory rate, bemoans the amount of Americans who still read and later warns her that her offer is about to expire, it is so spot on creepy exactly for being so ordinary and playing up the vague yet undeniable underlying threat. If the film didn’t take itself so seriously and had really been about a devilish paperboy who won’t take no for an answer and is murderously disappointed that no one reads anymore, it could have been quite enjoyable. Instead we get McGowan Nancy Drew-ing and setting out to bring the little twerp to justice.

I have been a fan of McGowan since I first noticed her in Scream. Even though most of the rough edges that she so fascinatingly exhibited in her earlier days have been buffed away and even though she barely resembles the actress she was at the beginning of her career, her work is something I always try to keep up with and make an effort to see.

She ably carries this film, and considering what a unintentional joke the whole endeavor is, that is quite an achievement. She is obviously giving her best here, which is more than most actresses would have done, but the lousy script hobbles her.

Lesley-Anne Down shows up briefly as Sonny’s own doctor and brings to the proceedings an effortless gravity that temporarily elevates the film – it plummets from that height as soon as she is off-screen. Her two scenes are the best in the film.

The usually reliable Lin Shaye also makes an appearance, but her part is unbelievably trivial and she is totally wasted.

It is made very clear that the paperboy is underage, but the actor portraying him, Daniel Ross, is obviously not. This most likely owes to Salva’s history with minors, which would prevent him from casting an actor who was age appropriate. But I’m reviewing a film, not passing moral judgments so I have nothing more to add about that.

There is, however, one more thing I do want to mention and that is the continued use of children’s rhymes and lullabies as creepy and sinister singsong slogans. This has become incredibly overdone in the horror genre and was never particularly frightening in the first place. At this point we’re down to “Hickory Dickory Dock”  being utilized as a menacing form of intimidation. C-

Everyone’s entitled to one good scare.

How cool is this? I came across it on Tumblr and have watched it about five times now. It is a snippet of audience reaction audio that was recorded during a screening of Halloween in 1979 and edited together with the corresponding film footage. It is a little out of sync but that hardly detracts from how enjoyable it is. Now, normally, I hate when people talking during movies, but had I been part of this group, I think I just might have loved it.

Enjoy the SILENCE

Silent House (2012)

Last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene (which it could be argued is very much a horror film itself) introduced us to the immensely talented youngest Olsen sister, Elizabeth. A marvelous actress of beauty, depth and subtlety, she was remarkable in the role of a cult member on the lam and unfairly neglected when the Oscar nominations were announced. Here she proves that performance was no fluke.

This is the second feature from Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, their follow up to very good Open Water. Open Water was released roughly around the same time as 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, an abysmal remake I had the misfortune of seeing on opening weekend. When I later had the opportunity to view Open Water, I remember thinking how much better the Texas Chainsaw reboot would have been if filmmakers of Kentis and Lau’s caliber had been involved.

The story in Silent House is simple, but the scariest usually are, aren’t they? Once upon a time… there was a young girl in the dark woods… Sarah (Olsen) is helping her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) renovate the family summer home after squatters have trashed the place – because of the damage that has been caused all of the windows are boarded up and the doors are always kept locked. Adding further inconvenience, rats have chewed through the electrical wires so that even when the sun is shining outside, lanterns are required to navigate the interior of the house. As should come as no surprise, cellphones don’t work here.

After a disagreement with Sarah’s father when a wall is punched through and toxic mold is discovered, Sarah’s uncle steps out. Almost immediately Sarah hears a noise upstairs and to assuage her worries, her father goes to investigate. Finding nothing amiss, he instructs Sarah to get to work packing up her old childhood bedroom. But this is a horror film, not Hoarders, and it isn’t long before Sarah’s father is mysteriously attacked and Sarah is left frantically trying to escape an escalating nightmare.

A classic setup, distilled to the essentials. But there is a twist – Silent House is filmed and assembled to appear as if one continuous shot occurring in real time with no obvious cuts. Previously, Alfred Hitchcock used this technique with Rope and an episode of The X-Files entitled “Triangle” was also done in the same manner. Although there have been quite a few directors who employ long takes, it is usually only for an interlude and not the entire length of a feature. Silent House is a remake of a 2010 Uruguayan film, The Silent House, which was similarly filmed. There are drawbacks and benefits to this method, especially for a horror film. This approach works to make the proceedings feel fresh and inventive, and even though the plot is assembled from entirely familiar horror elements, it helps to give the impression that we are seeing something new that feels very in the moment. Also, because the camera is constantly on Sarah (following her from an opening crane shot all the way until the end) it forces an immediate and intimate bond with the character, which Olsen’s nuanced and masterful performance only further reinforces. Yet this also strips the directors of quite a lot of artistic opportunities – the raw product they film is the raw product they put on screen, and they are not able to rely on edits to reshape a scene and do not have numerous alternate takes to fall back on and pick and choose from. The fact that they are able to create two distinctive jump scares working this way really impressed me – and I usually detest jump scares. They more often than not are the sign of a filmmaker who does not understand what is really frightening and is not capable of creating moments that are startling without loud musical cues and characters entering suddenly from out of frame. It’s a lazy ploy that distracts more than delights or disturbs, but here they are played almost sarcastically and subvert expectations – as with the rest of the film this is an example of the directors taking a worked over horror cliche and utilising it in a way that is completely different from what anyone else is doing with it. We need more filmmakers like these two in horror.

Their nimble touch transforms the very story itself. I did see the original Silent House – for a film that was shot in such a formidible way it is remarkably stale and slight. Kentis and Lau are able to wrestle the thornier, awkward issues of that film’s climax into a more lucid and aware conclusion. And so we come to… the ending…

Audiences seem to unanimously hate the ending, although this kind of “twist” is hardly unprecedented and has been done so many times now it can hardly even be classified as a twist any longer. Indeed it is the only film I’ve ever attended where there was (unenthusiastic) booing as the end credits rolled. I had no problem with the ending myself. Keep in mind that I did have some reasonable expectations of how it was going to go down having seen the original film. The bottom line is that the ending works, it makes sense, it is sharp and shrewd – it just simply isn’t the ending audiences wanted nor is it what you could classify as a satisfying resolution – but it doesn’t cheat us. Most likely the reason it has met with such aversion is because of the character of Sarah herself and how much we sympathize with her and become invested in her plight – which is just more testament to Olsen’s acting and the talent of the filmmakers. It is during the final denouncement that Olsen is really given a chance to shine and shine she does. Without her multifaceted portrayal there is no way of knowing how effective this film would be. Watching a terrified young woman run around a mostly empty house for nearly an hour and a half can be incredibly dull (see the original if you don’t believe me) but Olsen is continually stepping up her performance and exhibits an exquisite range of fear. She is deserving of every bit of praise she receives.

This is not a horror film for when you’re in the mood for fun, cheap scares. This is one of those films that burrows into your system and you will find yourself thinking about for days afterwards, whether you liked it or not. It gestates within you. From the very beginning there is a strong, troubling undercurrent that cannot be attributed simply to the genre. The directors are working at something deeper and altogether more disturbing here, but even when their endgame is revealed it never feels sleazy or exploitative.

There were so many scenes I enjoyed, with an almost unbearable sequence in the basement as Sarah hides from something that looks to be not entirely human and a later bit involving her use of a Polaroid camera to illuminate and navigate a pitch black room, being highlights. I also relished the portion of the film after Sarah has managed to escape and encounters her uncle – their dialogue outside and when they return to the house is especially entertaining. There is a moment in which Sarah hides under a table as her pursuer circles, in which Olsen lets out a soundless scream – it is brief and inconsequential to the story but I found it brilliant, and wondered if it was a choice the actress made or something the filmmakers instructed her to do.

Silent House is not without its flaws, but the filmmakers really did their homework and have created a slippery, scary final product that is a major improvement over the original – don’t be surprised if it goes on to eventually be considered a minor classic. B

I couldn’t love this more.

Can’t You Take a Joke by Damian Loeb