Archive for the ‘Brain Squeezings’ Category

Help! It’s the Blair Heir Bunch! Part IV: Lovely Molly (2011)

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Concluding our series on the modern follow-ons from The Blair Witch Project. This one has the strongest connection of any of them…

ICONIC TALISMAN: Yes, though only glimpsed for a moment.

For years the standard response to the success of The Blair Witch Project was limited. There were parodies, of course, but the wave of found-footage movies that followed weren’t much more than superficial parodies themselves. Reality television seemed to get into the phenomenon a little bit deeper, but the lesson they took away from Blair Witch went awry: they saw…

  1. that with enough footage, you could tell any story you wanted, and tell it very convincingly;
  2. that POV video could make you a lot of money from a very small investment;
  3. that overmarketing will kill a brand, but it’ll also make the producers rich… so who cares?
  4. and that while people no longer believe that “pictures don’t lie”, they are much more likely to suspend their disbelief if a movie camera is hand-held.

These are all interesting lessons, but they’re not really enough. So while there’s a line to be traced directly from Blair Witch to Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, the really interesting developments that should have followed Myrick and Sánchez’s work took almost a decade to appear. I guess it’s only fitting that one of the best of the current crop of movies that bear an obvious relationship to Blair Witch should come from none other than Eduardo Sánchez himself.

Lovely Molly starts with a knowing reference to the most famous moment from the 1999 movie: the heroine sits in front of a camera, sobbing in despair, apologizing for the horrible things that have just happened. Yes, says Sánchez, I made The Blair Witch Project; let’s just get this out of the way, shall we? The first second or two of this introductory scene feels like a quick wink from the director. But enjoy the moment: a split-second later, things get very unpleasant indeed. The movie doesn’t wink again. It maintains a steady, ice-cold stare and doesn’t look away for a moment.

Molly and Tim have been married for about a year, and life for them is not easy. They’re both blue-collar folks — hats off to Sánchez for making a horror movie that remembers most ordinary people, even haunted ones, have jobs and responsibilities! Tim is a truck driver whose job requires him to be off on the road for long stretches. Molly is a janitor at a mall. They’re just about the least glamorous and most compellingly realistic couple ever to inhabit a horror flick.

Money is tight for the couple, so they are relieved that Molly’s family’s old house is available for them to live in for the first few years. It’s actually a very nice old farmhouse, far bigger than anything they could hope to afford… but it’s an old house, and subject to all sorts of inconveniences. It’s also the place where Molly’s father met a messy end when she was just a child. Molly herself has had issues related to her father’s death: she’d become addicted to drugs as an adolescent, and had spent some time in an institution… apparently for more than just detox. There are definitely bad memories hanging about the place. But in Molly and Tim’s position, the troubled past must make way for the troubled present.

Almost as soon as the movie’s been set up for us, the couple experience a terrifying midnight break-in at the old farmhouse. When the police arrive, they don’t find anybody on the premises, but Tim and Molly know they heard someone moving around in the pitch-dark house. It’s never made clear if the break-in has anything to do with the sinister events that play out through the rest of the film, but that doesn’t matter. The break-in puts us immediately in sympathy with Tim and Molly — reminds us of their vulnerability by putting them in a realistic situation with which we can identify very easily.

Shortly thereafter, Tim has to leave on an unexpected job. It’s good he’s getting work, since the couple needs the money. Unfortunately, this means he’ll be out of town for Molly’s birthday. Molly’s hurt by this at first. Eventually she makes peace with Tim (over her cellphone), but she’s still pensive when her vivacious older sister Hannah comes to celebrate with her.

Things start to go bad when Hannah unthinkingly shares a joint with her sister over slices of birthday cake. Hannah immediately regrets her action, remembering Molly’s substance abuse problems. Molly simply brushes off her sister’s concern. But that night — coincidentally or not — the disturbances begin for Molly as she tries to sleep, alone, in her father’s old house.

It certainly feels as though there’s someone in the house with her… particularly in her father’s old study, with its peculiar wall-full of horse pictures. Is that really a voice that she hears whispering fiercely to her? Are those the sounds of footsteps coming from downstairs? Or is she just imagining things in a house full of bad memories and bad floorboards?

After a few troubling incidents, Molly casually approaches her sister at work and asks her of she could, maybe, score her a little weed to help her relax. This sets off all sorts of alarm bells with Hannah — as well it ought. In the meantime, Molly continues to lose sleep as the strange events continue at the house. The light in the bedroom she shared with her sister growing up seems to turn itself on every night. Molly’s even awakened by the sound of a child sobbing from that room. The strange occurrences are accompanied by a high-pitched ringing sound, like the buzzing you get in your ears sometimes (for example, before you faint).

And all the while, the narrative flow is interrupted by brief cuts to hand-held video camera footage taken by Molly herself. Why is she singing to herself in that eerie, girlish voice? Why does she seem drawn to her neighbor’s house, to look through her windows… to spy on her children? What is the meaning of the curious horse-headed talisman Molly takes from its hiding place in the cellar?

All through my first viewing of Lovely Molly, I found myself deeply impressed. Here, I thought, was a Bad House movie where it was clear — unambiguously clear — that the haunting was entirely in the heroine’s troubled mind. Molly is deeply disturbed; by the time she climbs into the attic and digs out the secret stash of heroin she’d hidden before they took her away as a teen, we see that she’s never really recovered from her early traumas. With an addict’s cunning, she’s convinced herself as much as everyone else that she’s outgrown her issues; but it’s not true. Her stash suggests she’d never fully intended to break free of the drugs — not in the deepest part of her. And her use of the drugs suggests that she’s never been free for a moment from the demons of her childhood.

Of course, the main demon of her childhood was her own father. The sobbing that she thinks she hears coming from the closet in her old childhood room? That’s the ghostly echo of her own sobbing, a long time ago, as she hid in the darkness while her father did unmentionable things to Hannah (and later, to her). And the Thing that eventually comes clomping up the stairs at night, chanting Molly’s name over the clatter of approaching hooves, is her father’s evil spirit.

Is it real, this uncanny horse-demon? Is it truly banging on the door to be let in? Has it really knocked the key out of the keyhole and demanded entrance? Molly’s POV video camera says yes: it is, and it has…

…but can we trust the video? Later on, when Molly’s employer shows her surveillance camera footage that seems to show her having a seizure, we discover that what Molly sees in the same footage is herself being raped by a dark stranger. When the boss blames Molly for what he sees on-screen, not realizing Molly sees it so differently, it drives the already-distraught girl into pure raving hysteria. Clearly we cannot trust what we think we’re seeing through Molly’s eyes… or even through Molly’s video camera.

Gretchen Lodge, as Molly, does a fantastic job of portraying a woman gradually succumbing to mental illness. The central tragedy, the core of Molly’s deterioration, is that she has been corrupted by her father. She has a horrible affinity for his abusive nature — whether through some hereditary illness, or just as a result of the perversion of the natural bond between father and daughter, she is becoming like him… and the strain is destroying her. It’s a brave performance in what appears to be a brave film… a film that doesn’t shrink from showing us a truly damaged psyche… a film that keeps us sympathizing with Molly, even after her collapse has made her a monster; a film that doesn’t bother to suggest the haunting is real, but shows us instead how irrationality leads to stories of ghosts and demons.

At least, that’s what I thought I was watching.

But then… after I’d watched the brutal, uncompromising story of a woman destroyed by the demons of her own mind… I saw the movie’s brief coda. And then I watched the DVD Special Features. And then I went on-line to see what others, including Eduardo Sánchez himself, had said about the film. And boy, was I ever surprised.

Because it turns out this superbly unambiguous study of Haunting as Mental Illness was actually supposed to be a genuine Demon Possesion film.


Tell me, if you like, that Citizen Kane is a film about sledding. Tell me that Titanic was an educational film about boating safety. Tell me anything. But please! By Azazel, by Samael, by Jor-el and Kal-el… by Baphomet, by Calumet, by Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen, don’t try to tell me that Lovely Molly‘s about genuine demon possession. I mean, they’d done so well, up until the coda! It’s as though they watched Uruguay’s La Casa Muda and thought, “Yes, very interesting — but that’s not the way mental illness really works; we can do this better.” Sánchez & Co. gave us a sensitive portrayal of Molly as young woman with deep psychological problems… problems that just happened to manifest themselves as some kind of supernatural visitation. They showed us how trauma and substance abuse lead to Molly’s break with the real world, into a terrifyingly real-seeming hallucination that eventually destroys her life (and the lives of those around her). They showed us a harrowing illustration of the cycle of abuse. There was absolutely no need to drag the Devil into it.

And in fact, dragging the Devil into it cheapens the whole story. I’ve already had enough of Pat Robertson and his ilk on my TV screen, blaming the latest natural disaster on gay marriage and unwed mothers — some evangelical yob insisted the hurricane that tore through my town and my state in 2012 was God’s warning, because the evil liberal northeast was too soft on the sodomites. With this foolishness still ringing in my ears, the very last thing I want is another movie suggesting that some serious, tragic problem — like mental illness — is actually demonic possession. Are you kidding? Demonic possession is almost cosy compared to the alternative.

Now, if you want to think of Lovely Molly as such a conventional horror film, you can. There’s enough leeway in the telling of the story to support either conclusion, if you absolutely must have some ambiguity about the supernatural. Until the coda. The coda ruins everything by tacking on a hackneyed “it isn’t over” epilog — actually, now that I stop to think about it, it isn’t even the coda in its entirety so much as it is one gesture: one spoon-fed piece of information left out for us (and for one of the surviving characters) in an obvious place, to let us know the whole story’s been stage managed by Ol’ Scratch.

Turn off the movie just before the epilog, and you’ll be left with a near-masterpiece. You’ll see a convincing portrayal of evil as an inside force: something that results from poor choices and poisoned opportunities, something that’s passed down across generations like a disease. Something that forces us to hallucinate demons and ghosts to externalize the horrible pressures within. Something tragically human.

Watch it to the very end, though, and all you’ll see is another average horror movie.

This is not to say that there aren’t other problems with Lovely Molly, too — principally its male characters. The preacher-man, Pastor Bobby, is way too easy a target — I say this aware that I might be accused of contradicting myself in my outlook on religion in this film. But seriously: Pastor Bobby is much too much the cliché of the venal priest. Furthermore, Tim — who is in every other way the picture of a loving and long-suffering husband — does something thoughtless and stupid in the course of the story. Not only is what he does out of character for the man we’ve seen so far, it’s also brought into the story so abruptly, with such inadequate preparation, that a common reaction in viewers is to look back and question whether it was really Tim in those scenes. Worse, it feels as though the only reason this lapse was written in was to give Molly some sort of twisted justification for what she does to him. I’d like to think we’ve reached a stage where we can allow strong female characters to stand on their own — even as monsters. There’s no reason to weaken the male characters just to build some sort of misguided sympathy for a strong woman.

Help! It’s the Blair Heir Bunch! Part III: Silent House (2011)

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Continuing our series on the heritage of The Blair Witch Project: not just found-footage movies, but movies whose technique is inextricably bound up with their content.

ICONIC TALISMAN: Does a toilet count?
MOMENT OF SNIVEL: Not really, though closer than the original.

Silent House is a remake of the Uruguyan film La Casa Muda from 2010, and while it follows the outline of La Casa Muda fairly closely, there are some very important differences. Since any discussion of the film and its inspiration requires me to reveal their darkest secrets, this little review assumes you’ve either seen one or both films, or that you don’t care about Spoilers.

The first thing you realize about Silent House, if you watch it and the Uruguayan original back-to-back, is that Silent House looks much more like A Movie than La Casa Muda did.

La Casa Muda was shot on a still camera (!), and it has a cinema vérité feel to it; while it’s true that the oppressive darkness of the film makes it difficult to see what’s going on much of the time, the overall effect is to give the movie a sense of immediacy and realism. The original didn’t rely on standard camera tricks to heighten the story, and the result was a film that felt like a Blair Witch-style POV experience… even though it wasn’t. Sure, the Uruguayan film was also cleverly blocked and shot, but the camera work was subtle… so that the audience came to take the camera for granted.

Silent House has a totally different aesthetic. Its very first shot is a dramatic overhead look at Sarah, the heroine, sitting alone on a rocky shore. The image announces itself as a Composed Shot — you could take a still from the opening scene and frame it, or make a calendar out of it. The camera then descends gently to ground level, to join the girl as she walks to The House. We’re aware of the camera, impressed by the images it captures and the smoothness of its movements.

The divergences continue: La Casa Muda revealed its hints quietly, so quietly that many of them weren’t obvious until you saw the movie a second time. For example, the heroine Laura’s reaction on first catching sight of the House is to catch her breath and stop, just for a moment. That moment goes by so quickly it’s easy to dismiss it, but it’s still important. In Silent House, on the other hand, Sarah has already been at the house, working on the cleanup, for some time before the movie starts. We have no opportunity to gauge her first reaction to the House. Furthermore, Sarah’s House belongs to her family — and rather than being asked to come help a friend, Sarah and her father are working alongside Sarah’s uncle.

Barely 5 minutes into the film, the writers of Silent House attempt to cram so much obvious foreshadowing into the dialogue that it’s a wonder anybody was surprised by the twist that comes later in the film. Sarah’s uncle discovers that there’s mold in the walls of The House — it’s possible (wink, wink) that the whole structure is rotten with corruption. “If you cover it up, we’ll never know!” says Sarah. Ah, of course.

But let’s just be brutally frank for a moment: the underlying concern of this movie, its Prime Motivator, is… child rape. You need to be extremely careful when you’re dealing with a topic like that, because it doesn’t lend itself to simple exploitation. If you were making a movie with such a sensitive issue at its heart, would you want one of the opening images of your film — in a scene laden with symbolic significance — to be… Daddy widening a hole with his sledgehammer? Really? Was anybody thinking about this?

“Just looking at it is making me sick,” says the uncle. I agree.

When the infamous Polaroid camera makes its first appearance, Silent House again distances itself from La Casa Muda by falling back into Movie Mode. The camera zooms in slowly on Sarah’s face, gradually excluding the action in the foreground. A bewildered look appears on her face. An ominous pedal point on the soundtrack tells us that This Means Something. And then, shortly afterwards, the hints start coming that all is not well in this apparently tight-knit family.

The ghostly little girl in La Casa Muda — who might be a symbol of Laura herself, or the ghost of an aborted fetus, or something entireley different — has been replaced in Silent House by two different figures. One is a fully-grown young woman of Sarah’s own age. This Sophia is an independent character, who interacts with Sarah as a long-lost friend that Sarah seems to have forgotten about. I’m not sure that’s an improvement… especially considering that Sophia is introduced outside the house. If nothing else, that brief interlude spoils the growing sense of claustrophobia, which was handled so well in the original. The second mysteriously-appearing figure is, surprise! a ghostly little girl, but in this case she’s obviously (too obviously) a symbol of Laura herself as a child.

Nearly all the ambiguity is missing from the remake. In Silent House, there’s a moment at which you can pinpoint the shift in reality — it’s when Sarah finds the red box (perhaps she rented Silent House from the Red Box, and fast-forwarded to the end? Hmmm…). Everything before that can be considered to have unfolded in a linear and comprehensible manner. La Casa Muda may have been intended to work in the same way, but I came away from it feeling as though there was no clear line between what was to be taken literally and what was pure hallucination. It’s possible to see the first two-thirds of the Uruguyan movie as entirely metaphorical. And certainly there were no wall-mounted bleeding toilets in La Casa Muda — followed by the all-too-blatant return of the sledgehammer — to make the situation plain. The difference between the two movies is this: one is a competent horror movie with a squirm-inducing twist… and the other, the original, forces the attentive viewer to think very carefully about how we process the information we see on the screens that fill our daily lives.

Both movies were shot with a gimmick: they both appear to have been shot in one continuous take. They weren’t, really, but that’s beside the point… both films are technically extraordinary. Again, though, their aesthetics are completely different: in the original, both the technique and the story are urging you — coercing you, really — to take what you’re seeing at face value, only to betray you in the end. The original used very little obvious trick camera work, and when it did — for instance, when Laura is out in the woods, disoriented, and the camera spins to find her in unexpected places — it came as something of a shock. In the American film, as I mentioned in discussing the opening, the single-take gimmick is just an overlay: otherwise it relies on the standard cinematic vocabulary of camera movements and setups. When it does get all hand-heldy and Blair Witch-y, that comes as something of a shock.

Still, considered purely on its own terms, Silent House is mostly an effective thriller. The cast is very good — though it might be a little disturbing to see an Olsen sister (even though it isn’t one of The Twins) in a movie about child abuse, Elizabeth Olsen delivers a fine performance in a role that keeps her on-screen for the entire duration of the movie. All the Olsen sisters have a sort of neotenic cast to their features — it’s part of what kept Mary Kate and Ashley a viable franchise for so long, and is clearly evident in the promotional image of Elizabeth used for the poster and DVD cover. This makes Elizabeth a wise choice for this particular role — she has a certain child-like vulnerability built into her very appearance. It might have been better had the camera not developed an inappropriate interest in her cleavage, which (considering the ending) makes us in the audience feel a tad queasy.

What really makes me uncomfortable, though, is Silent House‘s decision to change the underlying reason for all the horror.

La Casa Muda‘s back-story concerned the sexual abuse of an adolescent girl — a girl just old enough to fall prey to older men while believing she was making decisions for herself (it’s strongly suggested that Laura was under the age of consent, though that’s not made explicit… the age difference alone between Laura and the men, to say nothing of the incestuous aspect, makes it ugly enough). This abuse resulted — apparently, since everything is open to question in La Casa Muda — in a pregnancy and in the loss of the child, either to an abortion or something even more drastic. If the Polaroids we see are to be believed, La Casa Muda‘s Laura was tricked (with the help of alcohol) into believing she was a participant on equal footing with the adults who abused her… which she, as a girl on the cusp of sexual maturity, might well have been anxious to believe. Laura is driven to madness and murder not just by the abuse (though that would have been enough), but even more by Nestor’s subsequent abandonment and betrayal — that is, by her internal struggle, and her own feelings of guilt for having gone along with him and her father. Laura’s madness is personified by the phantom of a little girl, who might represent her lost child, or possibly her own ruined childhood. But the fact that this ghostly little girl shows up in the Polaroids, when she’s clearly a hallucination, makes us wonder if the Polaroids themselves are to be trusted.

By contrast, Silent House‘s Sarah was violated when she was very, very young. It’s all clear-cut: there’s no pregnancy, no doubt about her status as a minor, no troubling questions in her own mind about whether she was capable of giving consent, no terrible conflict between longing and loathing. Sarah’s phantom isn’t a mute little girl: she’s a full-grown young woman her own age — with a name — who actually explains things to Sarah at the dénoument. And certainly there’s no possible ambiguity as to what’s real and what’s not after Sarah looks in the mirror.

Far from making us doubt our deepest instincts, and question if anything we’ve seen has been literally true, Silent House goes out of its way to tell us what’s happened, and how we ought to feel about what’s going on… The movie even cuts away coyly from Sarah’s actual murder of her father and its aftermath, in an attempt to keep our sympathy. Contrast this with the way La Casa Muda‘s camera suddenly assumes the point of view of the dying Nestor at the end of the main part of the story — putting us in the position of the rapist. Silent House‘s conclusion seems to undercut the point of the original, which left us too uncomfortable to sympathize with anybody in the story. Even Laura. Especially Laura.

Considering its subject matter and the potentially-infuriating nature of its twist, I suppose it’s remarkable that the American film got made at all. Bearing in mind how many changes and (over-)simplifications American horror movies often go through before they are released to a mainstream audience, Silent House is a pretty typical effort. If you didn’t like it, I’d suggest giving the Uruguyan original a try. If you did like it, then I think you should watch the original, too: you may be surprised at what La Casa Muda could achieve with such limited resources. But if you hated the Uruguyan film, you’ll probably find little to please you in the remake. At least in the original, there were no tasteless double-entendres about sledgehammers, and no bleeding toilets.

Help! It’s the Blair Heir Bunch! Part II: La Casa Muda (2010)

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Continuing our examination of recent horror movies that make a serious attempt at extending the subgenre made famous by The Blair Witch Project more than a decade ago…

ICONIC TALISMAN: Yes, sort of: a rag doll and a Polaroid camera.

A surprising number of people took the whole “found footage” aspect of The Blair Witch Project seriously — just ask the beleaguered residents of Burkittsville, MD. Today we’re going to look at a gimmick movie of a very similar kind: not a “found footage” flick, but a movie that hid its real import behind a technically innovative surface; a movie that extended the ideas presented in Blair Witch, and forced us to think carefully about how much we trust the camera to tell the truth. It’s not just the distance in time that makes La Casa Muda so interesting: it’s also the distance in geography. For it wasn’t Hollywood that came up with such an interesting follow-up. It was Uruguay.

Not that Uruguay hasn’t been producing cine fantàstico for years now: Ricardo Islas may be working in the US these days, but he got his start with microbudget horror films in his native country. Then there’s Maximilian Contenti’s very bizarre horror-comedy Muñco Viviente V (“Living Doll V”, 2008 — though there are no parts I through IV), in which the Killer Doll’s motivation really must be seen to be believed. And perhaps you’ve heard of Fede Álvarez, who directed the 2013 Evil Dead remake? He’s from Uruguay… and his magnificent short Ataque de Pánico! (2009), which he made for $300, manages in its 5 minute span to outdo the whole Jerry Bruckheimer Transformers series with its Giant Robot mayhem.

But 2011’s La Casa Muda is the first Uruguayan horror film to get widespread attention in the United States, if only because it was picked up for a remake by an American producer. It may seem like a dubious honor, to have your work remade for an American audience… as though you hadn’t done it right the first time; but that’s often the only way for the original version of a movie to get attention in the US marketplace. It’s a curious paradox, but in La Casa Muda‘s case a paradox is very appropriate.

The film was advertised as being shot in one continuous take. It’s not the first film to be structured like this, but it’s still a remarkable technical feat. However, almost immediately, critics began to complain that this couldn’t be true. La Casa Muda was shot using a reasonably-priced still camera (manufactured by Canon) which also had the capability of capturing high-quality video… but it could only shoot 12 minutes’ worth of footage at a time. To shoot the entire film in one unbroken take, the nay-sayers pointed out, would be physically impossible. In fact, there are places where the darkness of the image allows for takes to be edited together seamlessly (and that seems to be what the film-makers did). But the film had its defenders, too: they pointed out that it would actually be possible to attach a hard drive to the camera to enable it to shoot longer takes. And what’s more, they pointed out, even if the film was put together from several takes, it still seems to play in one continuous shot, so the technical achievement is still impressive.

Besides, since when is it a bad thing to make it look like you’ve done the impossible?

But as interesting as the single-shot technique may be, the really interesting thing about La Casa Muda — and the aspect of the film that leaves audiences either impressed & thoughtful or totally infuriated — is its approach to its narrative. And it’s here that the movie invites comparison and contrast with Blair Witch and its successors.

The basic setup for the story is this: a young woman named Laura is taken by her father to an abandoned house somewhere in the Uruguayan countryside. The house belongs to her father’s friend Nestor, but he plans on selling it. Before the house can be sold, though, it needs to be cleaned up — and that’s where Laura and her father come in. Nobody’s lived in the house for several years; Nestor warns them that the upper floor is falling to pieces and is too dangerous to be worked on. He leaves the keys with Laura’s father and says goodnight. Laura’s father locks them in for the evening and settles down to get some sleep. He advises Laura to do the same, since they want to get an early start on the cleanup in the morning.

But Laura is not comfortable in the house. From the very first time she caught a glimpse of it, she seems to have been taken aback. She peers around the dark old house and its dismal, unkempt grounds, but in her explorations she acts more like someone stepping back into a bad dream than someone naturally curious. Unable to sleep, she thumbs through an old photo album in the gathering dark. Something about the album disturbs her — or rather, something not in the album, since the thought seems to strike her when the photos stop. She looks up from the album at her sleeping father, then back at the album. What could it be?

And suddenly, there is a crash from upstairs.

Distressed, Laura wakes her father, who tells her it was nothing and that she should go back to sleep. But then the sound comes again: deliberate, purposeful, not in the least furtive. Eventually she’s able to convince her father that something’s really going on upstairs. He promises to go check, as long as she promises that she’ll be properly asleep by the time he gets back. The old man goes grumpily up the steps…

There is a brief pause. Then, a short, sharp scream, followed by a thud. And then the dragging noises begin.

What follows is a long, harrowing game of cat-and-mouse between Laura and whomever (or whatever) is in the house with her. It’s a game in which the bound & bloodied corpse of her father keeps popping up in impossible places. The other playing-pieces in the game seem to be an old rag doll and a Polaroid camera, which also have a habit of disappearing and reappearing. And then there are the keys — Laura’s father had the keys of the house in his pocket when he went upstairs, but even when Laura is able to find his body (it’s not always where she thinks it is), the keys stay lost. The game’s also played in near-darkness — Laura must often turn out her feeble lantern, as it’s an even bigger giveaway to her position than her ragged, panicky breath. The Intruder is seen only as a pair of feet or an out-of-focus shadow, but his (its?) presence is palpable even when we can’t see him clearly.

Laura does eventually manage to break out of the house, but even outside strange things continue to happen. Something seems to be following her — something she can’t quite get a look at — and when she finally sees the eerily-illuminated figure of a little girl standing in the road, she’s almost run down by Nestor’s car.

Naturally, Nestor is a little concerned to see Laura, covered with blood, standing in the road a good distance from the old house. Poor Laura stammers her explanation, but Nestor can’t believe it. He insists on going back to the house to look for Laura’s father. Laura begs him not to go back, but he insists. Leaving the girl sobbing in his truck, he dashes off into the house… only to re-emerge a few minutes later and practically drag her back inside. There is nothing, and no one in the house — living or dead.

That’s a summary of the first half of the movie. If you haven’t seen it, and haven’t read about its secrets, you might think you have a pretty good idea where it’s going from that point on. You’re wrong. In discussing the rest of the movie, I’m afraid Spoilers of the worst and most revealing kind are inevitable. Go see the movie, or the American remake, and then read the rest.

We’ve been trained to trust what we see on-screen. Even in an age in which photo and video editing tools are common in everyday households, we still half-believe the old saying that pictures don’t lie. Movies may emulate the literary technique of the Unreliable Narrator, but the camera isn’t usually considered an accomplice. In movies with a twist, like The Sixth Sense, the camera may elide the story a bit, or may drop out a few necessary bits of context. But it doesn’t usually lie to us. When we go back to watch the movie again, we can fill in the context we didn’t know before, and see what we missed — and usually it’s there for us to see, like the clues in a Golden Age detective story. If it’s not, we’re likely to feel we’ve been cheated.

Why? Why must it be so?

We know better in Real Life. We know that those Photoshopped pictures of 100-pound cats in their owners’ arms are clever fakes. We can see when a “photojournalist” has copied and pasted explosions from one place in his cityscape to several others. We may not know exactly who that grinning airbrushed corpse on the magazine cover might be, but we know it can’t really be Paula Deen. Why, then, are we so inclined to trust what we see on video — especially if it’s shot with a hand held camera? Heck, it doesn’t even need to be a Point-Of-View camera… as long as it’s slightly shaky and has the feel of having been shot on somebody’s phone, we’re already half-inclined to believe what we’re seeing.

And this is especially true of a movie that lulls us further into its spell by playing out in real-time. What do we even mean by “real-time”? The word “real” in that respect is misleading… and the fact that people got mad at the movie for not having been shot in a single take shows they didn’t appreciate the subtle misdirection that the advertising implied.

La Casa Muda calls us on our complacency. It turns out that pretty much everything we see for the first two-thirds of the movie is hallucination. In fact, the whole setup of the movie is revealed to be so unreliable that even the last third can not be trusted. The film forces us to think about the presentation of reality in the movies. We are manipulated ruthlessly in the beginning of the film; then we’re pulled equally far in a totally different direction as the movie concludes.

So kudos to the film-makers for coming up with a movie whose story subverts is technique (and its marketing). Or maybe I meant that the other way around… it’s a little confusing. But as interesting as the experiment may be, there are some real problems with the movie as a finished product.

The main problem is the seriousness of the subject matter that’s suddenly introduced, without preparation or explanation, as the movie draws to a close. There are some things you don’t use as plot conveniences, unless you’re prepared to deal with the implications. Sexual abuse is pretty close to the top of that list. In the case of La Casa Muda, we’re never given enough of a clear insight into what’s happened to make sense of it. The only thing of which we can be certain is that Laura has been raped at some point, and that her father was somehow complicit in the act. The twist in the story comes as a considerable shock, but let’s face it: this is the sort of thing that should never be used purely for its shock value.

The movie’s other problem is structural, and is a consequence of the risks it takes by breaking all the narrative rules. The twist in the plot leaves us with no frame of reference. The only way the second part of the story can be taken at face value is… if the entire first part of the story is considered pure metaphor.

That’s a little much to ask of your audience, and it’s the aspect of the movie that’s left most people angry and bewildered. Viewers try to find the point at which Laura’s hallucination begins (and they usually identify it as the moment when she looks up from the photo album, as the noises begin upstairs). But if you take any of the opening literally, the whole movie falls apart. It’s impossible to believe that Nestor would leave evidence of a heinous crime lying around on the second floor of a house he’d abandoned a long time ago. It’s ludicrous to think that Laura’s father would bring her back to the scene of that crime (in which she’d been involved), and expect her not to remember it. But if we take the images at the end of the film as the key to the deciphering the movie, the “ruined house” is more than just the scene of the crime. It’s also a symbol of what Nestor and Laura’s father have been involved in… a situation that has fallen apart, and must now be “cleaned up”.

The house is also an obvious symbol of Laura herself. It’s not just that the dusty and abandoned rooms represent the closed-off parts of her mind, where she’s hidden her bad memories, and where dangerous figures lurk. There’s another, nastier side to the symbolism: it’s Laura who needs to be “cleaned up” by Nestor and her father. Apparently she had become pregnant with Nestor’s child (or possibly her father’s; the photographs we see hint at this, but Laura may not be able to admit it to herself), and the two men have conspired to make the “evidence” go away. Laura thinks her child has been murdered: this probably means they coerced her into aborting the baby, though there’s also the faint possibility that the men have killed the child after it was born. The baby may also be purely symbolic, in spite of what Laura says. The ghostly child may represent Laura’s own ruined childhood, rather than an actual child. There’s really no way to tell for certain: the mysterious and terrible events in the house are very likely all part of Laura’s nightmares, after she’s rebelled and killed the men who abused her. The Intruder, the doll and the Polaroid camera may all be fragments of her psyche.

But the house is also The House: a real place, where Laura killed two men. If Nestor’s dying words are to be believed, the real reason Laura was brought back to the house was for some kind of rapprôchement, or to assume the worst, a continuation of the old activities (and this may have been enough to tip Laura over the edge of madness). But Nestor’s words should not be believed — or at least they should be viewed with suspicion. According to Nestor, the Polaroids Laura found don’t exist. Then again, the text at the beginning of the (first set of) credits state that “disturbing photographs” were found at the scene, even though we see Laura burning them before she walks off into the wilderness. The “disturbing photographs” may not be the pictures we see of Nestor with Laura… they may only be the Polaroids Laura has taken of the butchered men. And the ghostly little girl, who (we know) doesn’t really exist, actually shows up, semi-transparent, in one of the Polaroids we do see. It is completely impossible to untangle what’s actually happening — what’s real and tangible — and what’s in Laura’s imagination.

And for this same reason, we shouldn’t trust Laura either. All the way through the movie, we’ve been goaded into taking Laura’s point of view on the story. Our deepest instincts compel us to believe her, since she is clearly the original victim and has clearly been driven insane. But as far as the action on screen is concerned, we’ve been manipulated: first through the conventions of scary movies, then by bringing up abortion and rape and murder — issues which it’s virtually impossible to remain neutral about. Even when the camera glances into a mirror, and reality (as we believed it to be) shatters like silvered glass, we’re still inclined to believe Laura’s literal point of view. But it’s useless to try to sort it all out, because the literal truth is not there to be found. We cannot trust what we see.

So what’s real? Well… the bodies of the two dead men, and a handful of photos — exactly what the movie’s press materials say was found in a real country house in the mid-1940’s, in the event that inspired the film itself. Only the house is witness to what else may be true… and la casa muda isn’t giving up its secrets.

Help! It’s the Blair Heir Bunch! Part I: Atrocious (2010)

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Examining some of the most interesting horror movies of recent years that owe an obvious debt to The Blair Witch Project, over a decade later… starting with this misunderstood gem from Spain.


Like many people, I have a habit of saying and doing incredibly stupid things. I’ve even made some of my stupidity public — enormously, permanently public — by posting it here on-line. One of the very dumbest things I’ve ever said was in the introduction to a review several years ago, where (for some reason I cannot begin to fathom) I came right out and stated that very few movies had ever attempted to follow up on The Blair Witch Project.

(I’ve kept the original review unchanged and unedited, because I don’t believe in trying to make myself look better in hindsight. However, if you think I’m going to link to it directly, you’re out of your mind. Go find it yourself!).

That statement was demonstrably untrue at the time I made it, and is even more foolish-sounding now. What I think I’d been trying to say was this: since the startling, innovative aspect of Blair Witch was technical rather than narrative, very few exploitation-movie makers understood it well enough to make a genuine follow-on. Sure, every big cinematic success has been a combination of technical achievement and narrative appeal; but it’s generally the narrative and not the technique that gets ripped off.

Intelligent film-makers looked at Jaws and studied Spielberg’s technique: for instance, his method of building tension, and then releasing it in ways that made the audience think they’d just seen something far worse than it was. Mere imitators looked at Jaws and thought about re-doing the story with a bear, or an octopus. But with Blair Witch, at least for the first few years after its release, it seemed as though the best the exploitation film-makers could come up with was (to continue the comparison) Jaws with a slightly different shark. They didn’t really contribute anything meaningful to what had already been done: they could only duplicate, by sending a group of kids into a dangerous situation with camcorders. At least, that was my thesis… it wasn’t the brightest idea I’ve ever come up with, and my lame attempts to defend it haven’t made it seem any more intelligent.

I stand by this point, though: the real lessons of Blair Witch had little to do with the overt setup of the film. One lesson — a superficial one — was that given enough footage and some skilled editors, you could tell practically any story you wanted, and tell it magnificently. It was a lesson that the makers of reality television learned well before actual film-makers did. One of the most interesting points of the 2007-8 Writers’ Strike in the U.S. was the demand of the editors of reality shows to be allowed to join the Writers’ Guild. By cutting up and re-arranging hours upon hours of raw footage, they were creating — out of “reality” — new characters and story arcs that didn’t exist until the edits were made.

A deeper lesson to be gained from Blair Witch is that modern viewers should be very, very careful believing anything they see… no matter how convincing it may seem; no matter how professional-looking the associated web site may be. It’s taken a while, but in recent years horror film-makers have really started to internalize this lesson and build on it. The result has been some amazingly thoughtful films that use the entire phenomenon of The Blair Witch Project, and the familiarity of Reality TV, to question the presentation of “reality” on-screen.

Atrocious is one of these films. Dismissed by many as a late-to-the-party Spanish Blair Witch rip-off, it is in fact a subversion of the earlier film. And the twist at its end is, in a way, brutally funny.

Atrocious immediately acknowledges how much the camera has invaded our lives in the years since Blair Witch was made. Remember how many people complained that the characters in the 1999 film kept their cameras rolling long after it seemed prudent to stop? Well, welcome to the new millennium, where there’s nothing in our lives too trivial that we won’t try to capture it and share it on YouTube or Facebook (oh — and nothing too momentous that we won’t try to reduce it to 140 characters for Twitter. We are slaves to our cellphones — but we don’t much care about reliable telephone service any longer, as long as our phones take good pictures and video, and allow us to access our social media… but I digress).

In the case of Atrocious, our young protagonists — Crisitan and July, brother and sister — have a video blog, on which they research and document spooky urban legends. In spite of the fact that they are still very (very) young, they’re seriously committed to the blog, and have invested a good deal of time and energy into it. That’s why they’re a little miffed that their mother and father are taking them (and their little brother, who’s still too young to go ghost hunting with them) off to the country for the summer.

Fortunately, the kids have a back-up plan. Their vacation home is near the site of a spooky rural legend: when someone gets lost in the woods of Garraf, the spirit known as Melinda — a ghostly little girl in a red dress — will appear and guide them to safety. As long as the kids are stuck in the boondocks, they might as well investigate that. Their little brother José can always just stay behind and play with the family dog.

(Yes, I’m sorry to say there’s a family dog; and yes, you have every right to be deeply concerned about its safety.)

The first clue we have that Atrocious is not going to be as straightforward as it seems comes from its epigram: “The mind is like a labyrinth, where anyone can become lost.” Hmmm. Our second hint comes from the location of the family’s vacation home… its creepy old vacation home. It’s in Sitges, which (as if you didn’t know) is home to a very famous Fantastic Film Festival — sort-of the Cannes of horror films. Hmmm.

The third clue comes when the kids are exploring the house. In the basement they find a stack of VHS tapes. One of the tapes in that collection turns out to be very important at the tail-end of the film; but what the kids themselves find is a copy of Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, which they pop into the deck and watch for a few minutes.

Finding an Argento film in conjunction with… that other tape that plays at the movie’s end… is just plain silly — and I think that was the point. It’s a joke that Atrocious‘s intended audience will pick up on quickly. Then, too, we need to consider the movie’s opening statement. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is notorious for the inadequacy of its “psychology”: as Maitland MacDonough points out in “Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds”, when the TV shrink is trying to explain the killer’s motivation at the end of Argento’s film, his interviewer falls asleep… thus revealing Argento’s contempt for the reasonable explanation. Clinical accuracy was not the point in Bird…, and that’s something the makers of Atrocious want us to remember.

Thinking of memories: it turns out the children haven’t been to the house in Sitges in so long that their recollections of it are very dim. Certainly they never heard the legend of Melinda while they were there. Their father’s friend Carlos fills them in on the story as he’d heard it: they say that Melinda had disappeared in the woods, or possible had fallen down a well… her body was never found, but she still roams the woods at night, looking for her mother. Those who have encountered her ghost in the forest say they never forget the terrifying sound of her whispers as they creep up behind you.

Is Melinda an evil spirit? Carlos doesn’t think so, but the stories are too numerous and varied to be sure. Nevertheless, Carlos promised his own father many years ago that he would never go into the woods of Garraf at night. And he never has, even as an adult. Carlos’s seriousness makes a big impression on the kids. Later, Cristian wakes up in the middle of the night, convinced that he hears strange noises coming from the woods around the house. Could this just be just the influence of Carlos’s story on an impressionable young boy? Or is something stirring?

Cristian and July begin their investigation the next day, on the first of April ( HMMM! ). Normally they’d have to sneak around to do their research; but today, conveniently enough, their Dad has been called back to work in Madrid. That’s great news for the kids — their Dad doesn’t approve of the video blog (“Do you think that’s normal?” he asks, in the tradition of Dads everywhere), and has threatened to punish them if they continue with it. Now that the old man is out of the way, Cristian and July feel safe exploring the house and grounds with their camera.

Their first stop is the basement, where they find an assortment of peculiar junk: their old toys, an anatomical model of a human foot, dolls left over from their mother’s childhood in the same house… and a trunk full of mirrors. Odd. There’s some sort of journal, too; but that’s obviously boring, and they put it aside unread when they discover the box of videotapes. Cool! Bruce Lee! And Dario Argento!

All three kids are immersed in a horror film when they’re distracted by a sound from upstairs. Someone’s dropped a glass in the kitchen above… When the kids rush upstairs, they discover that someone’s also been rummaging through the cabinets. But who could it be? Dad’s gone, and Mom’s upstairs asleep. Perhaps the paranormal has come to find them already?

Cristian tells José to go play with the dog or something, and he and July go to investigate the abandoned hedge maze that adjoins their property. The gate to the maze is padlocked, but the resourceful July has already found the key. Cristian marks the way as they go, so they won’t get lost. Eventually Cristian notices a hidden trail that branches off from the maze proper. When the kids go to follow it, they find a dried-out well hidden in the undergrowth. Could this be Melinda’s well? Cristian decides to find out: he leans over the edge and calls, “Melinda! Melinda! Melinda!” He almost loses his glasses as he does it…

…but though he doesn’t lose his glasses, or (worse yet) fall in, Cristian may not have got off quite as easily as he thinks. There may be other consequences of what he’s done.

For as the kids pick their way out of the maze, Cristian thinks he sees someone else in the maze with them. Just visible through the hedges is a light-colored shape that could be a pillar… or could be a statue… but could also be another human being. Cristian wonders if it might possibly be their Mother, but July is certain it isn’t. Looking at the videotape later with José, they’re unable to decide if it’s really a person or not. It could be someone huddled in the hedgerow, or it could be nothing at all.

That night, Cristian attaches the camcorder to his laptop and points it out the window at the gate to the labyrinth. If there’s really something in the maze — maybe the same thing that made the mysterious noises the night before? — the camcorder will capture it.

And something does happen during the night… though it’s not the camcorder that gets a good look at it.

If there’s one thing in life that really brings me joy — one thing that makes everything else worthwhile — it’s dog noses. I love dog noses, preferably the big, wuffly-snuffly kind that come up and shovel you for attention. I like them mostly because they’re attached to an actual dog, but I also appreciate them for the precision instruments they are. The sense of smell is the most important way dogs get information about the world around them. Their noses are so sensitive, I’m told, that some dogs can get scent cues from as much as a hundred miles away. And did you know that some dogs can sense when their humans are about to have an epileptic seizure? It’s true: the neurological condition brings about changes in human body chemistry, which the ultra-sensitive doggy snoot can detect. Thus the animals can be trained to alert their companions before a seizure happens, so they can prepare themselves and keep themselves from harm.

You’ll have guessed I’m stalling.

You see, it’s the dog who senses activity in the maze overnight. He’s not frightened of it: he’s fascinated. It’s almost as though something hidden in the maze were talking to him, urging him to come in. And eventually he does… and he never comes out again.

In the morning, July and Cristian go looking for the dog. Little José is particularly upset over the dog’s disappearance — and who wouldn’t be? July suggests searching the maze, but the kids’ long-suffering mother doesn’t want them going in there. It’s overgrown and dangerous: it was easy enough to get lost in the maze when it was still in good repair, but now? Who knows what’s in it — even if it’s not a ghost?

If it had been their father telling them, perhaps they’d have listened; but since their mother is preoccupied with their distraught little brother, the older kids decide to go into the maze anyway. At first there seems to be no sign of the dog. But then they find a smear of fresh blood on the ground… and then a collar. Can you guess where the fly-blown trail of blood leads? To the well, of course. And down the well…


The dog has been mutilated. Clearly it wasn’t a wild animal that killed him and dragged him off into the well. And as if the dog’s death wasn’t bad enough, they have something worse to look forward to when they get home: keeping a brave face for José, and not letting him guess what they’ve found.

My readers know how I feel about the inclusion of animals in movies like this. They’re usually thrown in just to be brutalized… just to be the first to die, to shock the viewers before bad things start happening to the “actual characters”. Fortunately, these days we’re less likely to see horror movies in which the animals are really killed. But I don’t object to animals-as-characters suffering the same kinds of fates as the humans, provided they are taken seriously. And here the dog’s death is taken seriously. It’s not just a meaningless shock-moment: it’s a loss that’s felt very deeply by July and Cristian, all the more because they need to keep it from the heartbroken José. The killing of the dog is a moment that draws us into a deeper involvement in the story, rather than simply giving us a cheap thrill. In a sense, when you consider the end of the film, this involvement turns out to be a trick… but I still think in this case, the dog is not sacrificed in vain.

Unlike domestic animals, children are not usually put in any real jeopardy in horror films… particularly Hollywood horror films. In a sense, that’s a good thing: violence against children in movies is a very strong gesture, and it needs to be approached with care. That said, though, it’s become something of a cliché for children to come out unscathed from scary movies. So it’s a little refreshing to see that Atrocious is courageous enough, first, to earn the earn the right to put its young characters in real danger, and then to actually follow through with the threat. We’re told from the very beginning that terrible things are going to happen to the whole family. And terrible things do happen: rarely in horror history have kids been so thoroughly butchered as they are here.

For it turns out that this was not a good time for Cristian and July to be curious about dead children in Sitges. Something has been awakened by their curiosity… something that has been asleep for a long time; something that knows the woods and the maze intimately, and wants to draw the children into it. Something that will cause one of them to run a long way through the trees with the camera set to night-vision, à la Blair Witch… while seeing nothing. Something that will also leave one of the kids alone, terrified and burbling into the camera in a very familiar way.

In fact, the connections to (and quotations from) The Blair Witch Project are so obvious that it’s easy to see why some viewers have written the movie off as a pale imitation. But then, there’s the ending. Just at the crucial moment, when it seems like everything’s about to be revealed, the movie comes to sudden halt. We’re then given some news footage of the aftermath of the “atrocious” events we’ve been seeing. It turns out to be even worse, and even bloodier, than we’d expected… but that’s not the only surprise in store for us. No sooner have we been given a glimpse of the aftermath, when we suddenly find ourselves rewinding — actually, literally rewinding the tape: we’re back at the story’s real conclusion, the revelation of what horrible force-from-beyond has risen from the labyrinth to slaughter the family.

And it’s then that we realize we have not been watching the movie we thought we were watching.

The film-makers have learned the lessons of The Blair Witch Project very well. They’ve figured out how to use the POV camera to build atmosphere — how to stretch out a sequence just long enough without becoming intolerable, and how to suggest just enough without showing us anything. And they’ve also factored in our awareness of the existence of The Blair Witch Project, as well as its progeny. As a result, they’re able to pull of a nice piece of misdirection.

Some reviewers complain the twist isn’t fair. Really, it is: if you go back and watch the movie again after you know its secret, you’ll see how you’ve been tricked… but the movie’s played fair with you all the way along. Others complain that the resolution of the story isn’t the way things work in real life… to which both I and the movie offer no argument. I think that’s why the movie goes out of its way to bring up The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. On a certain level, Atrocious is a horror film about horror films: it sets up the conventions we expect and then pulls them all away just when we’ve come to rely on them. What’s more, by showing us glimpses of the end at the beginning and putting the epilog before the dénoument, it teases us mercilessly.

This is something the Spanish seem particularly good at: not just giving us a twist ending, but thinking deeply and dispassionately about the mechanics of film, and coming up with something that forces us in the audience to consider our responses to it. This was what Jaume Balagueró did with Darkness: he dared to set up a very conventional horror film for the first half of his movie, taking the risk that his audience would lose interest… but when he got to explaining the motivations of his monsters, he managed to subvert the very conventions he seemed to be repeating. Atrocious, too, takes one hell of a risk, by seeming to be slightly above-average Blair Witch rip-off for most of its running time.

Kaalo (2010): In India, Sand Witch Eat You!

Saturday, March 23rd, 2013

Once upon a time, between the 11th and 18th centuries, witches roamed the earth. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, animists of all stripes… all good believers responded to this plague of evil by rounding up the suspected witches and putting them to death. Whether they were hanged, burnt, beheaded, etc., this constituted a perfectly reasonable response to a perfectly real and in no respect exaggerated supernatural menace. At least, that’s the story our movie gives us. So for the moment we’re going to have to put aside any reservations we might have about what the survival (or, more likely, revival) of pre-Axial Age religious practice during that period really meant, and just — y’know — go with it.

Among the worst and most powerful of these enemies of all faiths was a child-eating witch named Kaalo, who stalked the desert of Rajasthan in northern India. Eventually she was stoned to death and buried by the outraged people of Kulbhata village. But powers of darkness released her from her underground crypt, and allowed her to travel through the sandy earth as an undead fiend. The residents of Kulbhata fled, leaving their town to be reclaimed by the desert as the centuries passed. From that time on, nobody ever followed the ancient road through Kulbhata… at least nobody who lived to tell about it.

Fast-forward to the present day. A crew of workers looking to widen and modernize the long-unused road are attacked by their own power tools and killed. Next, a party of four travelers, waiting at the roadside nearby for a bus, are possessed by the evil spirit and send wandering into the arid wilderness. And then comes the bus… a bus that just happens to be named Kismat (“Destiny”)

Aboard the bus is a standard crew of horror movie victims. In addition to the driver and the conductor, there’s the wise old Pandit and his wife. There’s the newlywed couple. There’s the wannabe-Hollywood photographer Hasmukh (who insists on only speaking English), and his beautiful model. There are four young men on their way to a wedding — Raghu, the leader; Chandan, his sidekick; Guddu, who’s always stoned; and Chhotu, who’s usually the butt of his friends’ jokes. There’s Shona, a little girl on her way to her grandmother’s house (though it’s much too hot in the desert for a Riding Hood). And rounding out the list is a tight-lipped, square-jawed, two-fisted tough guy named Sameer. Sameer is headed home after being estranged from his father for years. He wants to demonstrate his worthiness to return home by building a well for his village… and to do that, he’s travelling with a load of explosives hidden in his backpack.

Now, Sameer himself resembles a load of explosives in a rumpled backpack, and when he finds little Shona is sitting in his seat he’s not exactly pleased. But Sameer is no match for the sassy little girl, who isn’t intimidated by him in the least. A grudging friendship begins to build between them, one in which it’s clear little Shona has the upper hand.

When the bus reaches the point where its four last passengers were to be picked up, all that’s waiting by the roadside are four abandoned suitcases. Though the conductor and the passengers look all around for the missing travelers, the four are nowhere to be found. Not that any of them are particularly good at searching… they all manage to overlook the fact that the road ahead has been swallowed up by an enormous sinkhole… one that appears to lead directly to hell. It’s only when Shona almost falls into the sinkhole that anybody notices it’s there.

Well, says the bus driver, that means they’re going to have to continue by the other road. The Pandit turns pale when he hears this… the other road leads through the abandoned ruins of Kulbhata. Nobody who passes through Kulbhata ever makes it to the other side! The others think this is ridiculous; but the Pandit reaches into his bag and starts building a charm from chili peppers, a lemon and a knife. As the others watch in disbelief, he hangs the charm at the front of the bus. He demonstrates with his lighter that the charm cannot be burnt… proof that the goddess Kuldevi is now protecting them. As long as the charm stays intact, evil cannot reach them inside the bus.

Neither we nor the Pandit are terribly surprised when the bus had a flat tire right in the middle of the ruins of Kulbhata.

The Pandit and his wife stay in the safety of the bus, while the others explore the ruins. The photographer Hasmukh leads his model through several inexplicable changes of wardrobe, before complaining that the area has a kind of “M. Night Shyamalan” atmosphere to it (shudder). Shona and Sameer go off to skip rocks into a puddle. Guddu rolls an enormous joint. Meanwhile, the newlyweds go off to do what you’d expect newlyweds to go off and do, and ne’er-do-well Chhotu decides to go off on his own and spy on them.

Unfortunately for Chhotu, something else is watching him. He’s grabbed by something that emerges from underground, and is dragged off screaming. The others go to look for him; Guddu, stoned out of his mind, actually sits on the lip of the hole his friend was dragged into, without realizing where he is.

They eventually find Chhotu’s broken body thrust back up out of the earth, like a particularly ugly desert shrub. Nobody knows just what to do with him: they can’t just leave him, but on the other hand they can’t bring him back on the bus. Finally they wrap Chhodu in a shawl and tie him to the roof of the bus. Guddu is particularly hard-hit by his friend’s death, but everybody’s reeling in shock: no one can explain how he got killed, or how he ended up where he did… and in that condition. The conductor muses sadly that he had no idea what he was getting into when he painted the name Kismat on the bus…

…and then he is dragged away by an enormous flying creature — something traveling so fast the others barely register it as a blur.

It’s not long after that Kaalo the witch makes her first full attack on the bus. The Pandit’s charm may keep her from entering, but that’s a mere inconvenience: it doesn’t stop her from using her enormous iron pike to break the bus’s windows and go spear-fishing through the roof. Once she catches sight of Shota, she pauses her attack to leer hungrily through one of the few remaining windows. Her long, sticky pink tongue lolls out of her mouth and runs slavering up the glass. Twice. Kaalo has found her dinner!


When the others realize Kaalo has chosen the little girl as her victim, they immediately decide to try to save themselves by tossing her out of the bus. Sameer won’t let them: he promises to kill the first person who tries. The Pandit hurriedly informs the panic-stricken passengers that it doesn’t matter: anybody Kaalo sees is marked for death. And now she’s seen them all.

There are a number of good things about Kaalo that deserve special mention. At the top of the list is the monster Kaalo herself. She’s the CG-enhanced cousin of the wonderful rubber-masked creatures from the 1980’s movies of Mohan Bhakri and Vinod Talwar. When she slobbers over the bus window, or drools heavily with the anticipation of sinking her teeth into little Shona, or when she spreads her enormous CG wings and swoops down on her victims, she’s a joy to behold.



It’s not as though she’s strikingly original. Her obvious inspiration is the creature from Jeepers Creepers, right down to her bus-bound victims; and her one claim to originality as “the first ever day horror” is also bogus, as I’m sure a little research would have turned up some other hideous sun demon somewhere in motion picture history. But she’s a good old-school monster when she’s menacing her prey in full view; and when she’s speeding through underground tunnels with the point of her pike tearing through the earth above — like an iron shark fin — she still manages to come off as a palpable menace.

The pairing of Sameer and Shona is also one of the movie’s strong points. The Tough Guy and the Smart Kid can be cloying, but Aditya Srivastava (Sameer) and Swini Khara (Shona) manage to make the cliché bearable. Part of the reason is that the very young Khara is already an experienced actress: she made her debut as a very young girl in Vikram Bhatt’s glossy action flick Elaan (2005), and has worked regularly since. Cinema is in her bones. As for Sameer, he has his own incredibly cool theme music (a variation of the movie’s one-and-only song): whenever he has a surge of adrenaline, just before he charges into battle (usually to no effect), men’s voices in close harmony start singing a song in praise of Lord Hanuman. It’s awe-inspiring, and by the third time it happens all we need is a single chord to tell us the action is about to begin.

The rest of the cast is made up of one-dimensional characters; but then again, they’re supposed to be one-dimensional characters, so I guess it’s ludicrous of us to expect much more of them. Still, there are a few well-realized moments involving the others: for example, the way Chhotu’s napping in the sun on top of the bus is mirrored later by his corpse being strapped to the roof. Even pot-addled Guddu is given a humanizing moment, as he climbs blearily up to Chhotu’s body to keep him company. But these well-handled moments are the exception. The rest of the movie is filled with nonsense like Hashmuk’s fatal search for his lost hat. Even the Pandit’s big moment — which would have felt a little over-extended if it had been limited to about 15 seconds — is stretched out to a full minute through slow-mo, flashbacks, and reaction shots, and the result verges on parody. Perhaps it is parody. There’s such a thing as poor parody.

Even granting that some of the silliness of Kaalo was intentional, there are some things about it that really don’t work. First off — and this may be a deal-breaker for some people, which I would understand completely — it seems as though a poor Uromastyx lizard gets run over by the bus during the movie. We don’t actually see the squish, but the lizard has been lined up right in the path of the oncoming vehicle. The bus looks like it’s traveling much too fast to avoid it. Admittedly, most of the movie is dominated by special effects and visual trickery, so this may be a composite that was put together in the editing room; I just don’t know.

Aside from this, the movie’s main problem is the director’s preoccupation with style — what he thinks is style, at any rate. There’s barely a frame of Kaalo that hasn’t been processed and altered: there are jump-cuts, freeze-frames, missing frames, slow-motion sequences, fast-motion sequences, colored filters, distorting lenses, split-screens… for no particular reason other than the director knows how to do these things, and is insistent on showing us all his tricks. This sort of thing is common in today’s Bollywood, but even by contemporary Indian standards these techniques are applied with a heavy hand. Sometimes the extra effects make sense, as when Guddu (still high) starts seeing himself outside his body… but more often they interfere with the story & the action.

Here’s an example of how this obsession with technique stands in the way of the storytelling: at one point early on, Raghu is walking alone along a dusty path. The camera watches him at ground-level as he walks away. Then, suddenly, the camera rises and begins to follow him shakily. Anyone who’s ever seen The Evil Dead knows what this suggests: something has risen from the earth and is following him. The POV camera (for that’s what we assume it is) speeds closer to him… then appears to be following his feet… then suddenly jumps ahead of him (!), before falling back a bit. Then we get a view of what’s been stalking him: a tumbleweed, which approaches — not from behind him — but from his right flank. Aside from the fact that tumbleweeds don’t have a POV, the use of the traveling camera tells us nothing, and means nothing, which makes it an irritating distraction.

Another example: I can certainly understand why a film-maker might want to re-use the occasional special effects shot. SFX are expensive, so why not get the most out of them? But it’s not a good idea to repeat anything that’s extremely recognizable, or you’ll throw the audience out of the moment. It’s hard to suspend your disbelief when you realize the director is cutting corners. In Kaalo, though, a certain computer-animated sequence is shown once at about 4 minutes in, and again at about 42 minutes in… and it’s the shot with the movie’s title in it. Oops! It’s not very likely we’d forget where we’d seen that before.

Another of the film’s liabilities is the deserted city of Kulbhata… the abandoned, cursed, terrifyingly lonely city of Kulbhata, from which nobody ever returns. Oh, sure, in most shots the ruin is eerie and atmospheric, a desolate pile of brick and stone under the merciless desert sun. But our first sense that Kulbhata may not be as deserted as we’ve been led to believe comes when we see the hole into which Chhotu is dragged… it’s disguised with a rubber truck tire. When Guddu comes and sits on the tire, he sees in front of him a tire swing. Who builds a tire swing in a town that’s been deserted — and haunted by a bloodthirsty witch — for over 200 years? Did the witch need some play time? She’s got enormous leathery wings, for crying out loud… I can’t see how much entertainment she’d get out of a tire swing.

Then there’s this shot:

Spooky evil warehouses?

And shortly thereafter, we see this shot:

Spooky evil wind farm?

So it seems there’s a modern settlement right across the way, and a wind farm — a wind farm! — right in the witch’s back yard. These were easy shots to avoid, so there must have been a conscious decision by someone at some point to include them. What were they thinking?

Oh, but what the hell. Once you get past Kaalo‘s irritating visual style (and a possibly flattened Uromastyx), what remains is a fun contemporary update of the classic Indian monster movie… with far fewer songs.

Morituris (2011): Don’t Even Bother Reading This Review.

Saturday, March 16th, 2013

Quid hac re fieri inpudentius, quid stultius potest?

Seneca, Ep. 120: 17

The closing credits of Morituris (Latin, meaning “for those who must die”) include a dedication: “In Memory of Humanity”. OK, OK, I get it: horror films at their most serious are uniquely positioned to reveal uncomfortable truths about the way we live, and the emptiness of the values to which we pretend to adhere. They should occasionally deal with genuinely horrific images, instead of the typical monster-movie nonsense: there’s room in the genre for both Michael Hanneke and Michael Myers. But in the case of Morituris — whose credits go on to thank both Pier Paolo Pasolini and Uwe Boll — I don’t buy the moral argument. This is a thoroughly reprehensible movie that’s trying to hide behind a veneer of high-minded social commentary. I call Bullshit.

Morituris makes two strong claims in its advertising: it says it’s a return to the Old School of gory Italian horror, and it takes pride in basing its story on a genuine and bloody part of Italy’s ancient history. Of course, when you mention Old School Italian gore and archaeology in the same breath, the first thing that comes to my mind is Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground. In Burial Ground, the zombies were Etruscans — revenents from that death-haunted pre-Roman civilization. Bianchi’s film was cheap, badly scripted and shoddily produced; it even ripped off scenes from Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, which had been a huge hit the year before. The highlight of the movie was man-child Peter Bark chewing off his “mother”‘s breast. Sick shit, in other words… but relatively harmless. Burial Ground is the poster child for everything that was gloriously wrong with Italian exploitation horror in the 80’s, and the fact that it’s now available in Hi-Definition on Blu-Ray fills me with a perverted sort of joy.

When I first heard of Morituris, I was actually hoping for something like a Burial Ground for the 21st century. After all, it was Bianchi’s Etruscans who invented gladiatorial combat. But Burial Ground, sleazy and grotesque though it is, is good clean fun compared to Morituris, and if Morituris is remembered as fondly in 30 years as Bianchi’s appalling little film is, I hope I’m safely dead by then.

After a brief introductory credit (about which more, later) we’re given a prologue: a family consisting of a man, a woman, their two children (a boy and a very young girl) and the kids’ uncle are going for a picnic in the woods. The scene looks like it was shot on an old Super-8 home movie camera, though it’s immediately clear that no one could possibly be filming these scenes in real life.

As the mother, father and son get settled for their picnic, the uncle — a fat, greasy fellow who couldn’t look shiftier if he had the words SEXUAL PREDATOR tattooed on his forehead — surreptitiously leads the daughter off into the woods. When he thinks the two of them are alone, he circles her, whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King” (because all child molesters model themselves after Peter Lorre in M… didn’t you know that? Believe it or not, Edvard Grieg actually gets a music credit for this).

Just as Uncle Creepy is reaching for his zipper, something comes up behind him.

We don’t see who or what it could be, but our relief at the interruption is short-lived: the next thing we see, after a brief cut-away of the parents wondering where the little girl has gone, is uncle and niece lying side by side in pools of their own blood. The rest of the family ends up slaughtered in the same way. All we see of the killer (or killers) is a glimpse of a brawny arm. The camera pans across some overgrown Roman ruins, until it comes to rest on an inscription carved into a stone plaque: HIC SUNT LEONES (“here are lions”).

It isn’t often that a prologue is followed by yet another prologue, but that’s what happens next: the title credits take us back an extra 2,000 years by way of partially-animated comics illustrations. It seems there were five gladiators… prisoners of the Roman colonies who were forced into the arena against their will. Rather than fight for the amusement of their captors, these gladiators broke their chains and escaped. Pledging themselves to Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and patroness of gladiators, the five men immediately began raping and slaughtering the ordinary citizens of Rome… impaling children, sodomizing women, generally behaving like the barbarians the Romans considered them to be. Eventually the soldiers caught up with them under a statue of Nemesis and killed them all. The five bodies were hurled into a pit, and over them was placed the stone bearing the words HIC SUNT LEONES… which I’m guessing was intended ironically: the Romans had nothing but contempt for gladiators who violated the rules of the arena. No matter how well the five may have fought, their actions would not have earned them any respect.

Fast-forward to the present-day. Two Eastern European girls have been picked up hitch-hiking by a trio of Italian men. The girls and the boys have hit it off, and are enjoying a leisurely car trip across country to a rave the Italians say they’re going to. Though the girls don’t speak Italian very well, they feel very safe and relaxed around the men; noticeable sparks seem to be flying between two of them in particular. For about a half-hour of screen time, we might almost believe we’re watching a movie about young people having a good time…

… except for the fact that we already know what the men are planning. The whole situation is being stage-managed via cellphone by a man known as “Jacques” back in Rome. Jacques and his acolytes consider themselves the heirs to the decadent Roman nobles. Being young and strong, and coming from wealthy and powerful families, they think the world exists for their amusement. And nothing amuses them more than to abduct, torture and kill young women.

Since we know this, the innocent banter in the car makes us profoundly uncomfortable. The slow pace of the car ride grates on our nerves, as we wait for the inevitable. We cringe as we see one of the girls growing ever more interested in the young mam sitting next to her.

When we get to the site of the supposed rave — which, of course, doesn’t exist and never did — we can only marvel and the smoothness of the boys’ plans. They manage a clever ruse that gets them possession of the girls’ only cell phone. Then they manage to get them drunk, and high… and separated just far enough from each other that neither realizes what’s happening until it’s too late.

And then the brutality starts.

What follows is very difficult to watch. Remember the girl who was flirting so sweetly with the boy beside her? After a tender moment, the young man bludgeons her to the ground, irrumates her, and then kicks her until she vomits up his semen. The other girl is held down and raped with a pair of scissors. And that’s just the beginning. I will say this for the film: what is shown in very convincing and ghastly, and what is not shown is even worse. The two actresses in particular are very good at conveying their agony, not only during the attack but for the remainder of the film. How they managed to maintain this intensity without damaging their psyches, I don’t know (the men are utterly believable, too; but somehow I think they had a much easier time of it).

Now, me? I do not find sexual violence entertaining. Even so, I might have kept the tiniest amount of respect for the film as a misguided and failed experiment — provided it had stayed with the course it had plotted for itself through scenes like this, and followed through with them. It doesn’t. Because just at the moment when the girls manage to effect a miraculous escape from certain death, the movie remembers it’s supposed to be a flick about undead gladiators.

From this point on, Morituris becomes a typical stalk-and-slash.

The gladiators themselves (once they show up) aren’t terribly interesting. There’s a Thraex — a “Thracian”, armed in the style of one of Rome’s many enemies (early on in the history of gladiatorial combat, these fighters probably were Thracian prisoners of war); a Murmillo, also known as a “Gaul”, traditional ring-rival of the Thraex; a Retiarius, who fought mostly without armor using a spear and a net; a Secutor, a heavily-armored sword-fighter; and, umm… umm… a fat guy with a hammer whose type I’ve never heard of. They’re imposing enough, I suppose: they’re played by very large actors, and their skin and armor are all painted a dead, dusty grey that blends them in eerily with the darkness of the forest. But it’s obvious that they’re just guys in makeup. Even the crappily-applied, wildly uneven makeup of Burial Ground was more ambitious than this. OK, sure, they have spooky teeth… but is that enough for walking corpses who’ve been dead for two centuries? When we finally get a look under their helmets, and we see that they’re just normal men, the effect is dispiriting.

But at least the gladiators are given their own listings in the credits. They may only be types, but their types are duly noted. That’s more than can be said of the living characters. Both the rapists and their victims are mixed up and credited as Moriturus 1 through Moriturus 5… as though there were no need to differentiate between them, or to dignify the women with names (and maybe it’s just my lousy Latin, but… masculine nouns for the women? Really?).

Effects master Sergio Stivaletti does a much better job with realistic bodily damage than with the makeup for his gladiators. But in spite of the cringe-inducing gore effects, the last part of the film is a tremendous disappointment. The gladiators fall into the usual Supernatural Menace clichés: they teleport; they get distracted at odd moments, just to pad out the chase… after the horrific scenes we’ve just witnessed, this empty-headed slasher film conclusion is completely unacceptable. And that’s particularly galling, considering Morituris was marketed as a movie about undead gladiators.

The opening credits of Morituris — as opposed to the title credits; this is a film with a lot of credits — begin with a quotation from the Roman philosopher Seneca, from his Moral Letters to Lucilius:

Nihil satis est morituris, immo morientibus; cotidie enim propius ab ultimo stamus, et illo unde nobiscadendum est hora nos omnis inpellit.

Seneca, Ep. 120: 17

That is, loosely translated: “Nothing is enough for those who know they must die — indeed, who are dying even now; every day we stand closer to the edge, and our every hour urges us on to our downfall.” It’s certainly possible to see how this quote, taken out of context, might apply to a horror movie in which the bloodthirsty living come up against the bloodthirsty dead. But it seems as though the makers of Morituris failed to read the rest of the epistle, because the real meaning of Seneca’s words comes as a stinging indictment of the movie they actually made.

In his very opening sentences, Seneca gets to his point: “…nihil nobis videri bonum quo quis et male uti potest” (we can regard nothing as “good” which can be put to bad use); then, later, he says, “Maximum indicium est malae mentis fluctuatio et inter simulationem virtutum amoremque vitiorum adsidua iactatio.” (the strongest indication of an evil mind is the fluctuation and conflict between feigned virtue and a love of vice). That’s really what we have here: a movie that tries to disguise its delight over sexual brutality with a moralistic wag of the finger.

I have the same sort of problem with Wes Craven’s original Last House on the Left, to which Morituris is heavily indebted. As repellent as I find Last House…‘s middle section — the humiliation, rape and murder of the two girls — I would understand it, and even admire it for its unflinching view of real horror — if I thought that the last section of the movie fit what came before. Instead, I’ve always felt that the end of the movie was scripted and shot without a true understanding of how powerful that middle section was. Some of it rings solid and true — for example, the father’s growing realization that he must become a murderer, and the inept first steps he takes to assuming that role. But (for example) the fellatio-castration scene, grotesque and memorable though it might be, seems jarringly out-of-place to me. In particular, the final freeze-frame and closing-credits song seem to suggest the movie still has a grudging, thoroughly-misplaced respect for Krug, the rapist/murderer, as a free-spirited anti-hero.

Yet I’m willing to concede that Last House on the Left is mostly successful, and still defensible. I have no such feeling about Morituris. There was no need for yet another quasi-remake Last House… There was certainly no need to use it as a template for a pseudo-zombie flick, especially one that skimps on the “zombie” part.

“In Memory Of Humanity”? The film-makers are invited to re-examine their own. To put it in terms our undead gladiators might understand: Thumbs down.

You Can’t Go Home Again

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

The word “nostalgia” literally means “home-sickness”, pain caused by a longing for one’s home. And make no mistake, nostalgia is a sickness: desire for the past means dissatisfaction with the present, and if I’m dissatisfied with the present I have nobody to blame but myself. Fortunately, I don’t think my true home is in the past. It’s true, the Me of a quarter century ago would have been horrified by the paths my life has taken, but then again the Me of a quarter century ago was kind-of a jerk. I am where I belong.

But there are times when the past is brought back to me so vividly that for a moment I am reconnected with it. Suddenly the weird, twisted path between Me-Then and Me-Now seems surprisingly clear and straightforward. In the spirit of Auld Lang Syne, it’s happened again just in time for New Year’s… and this time it’s “home-sickness” in the truest sense of the word. It was my home, and what’s happened to it makes me sick.

For several years when I was at University, I lived with my dear friends Chris, Michael and William in a four-story building over a bakery. The address and even the city are not important. It was a kind of ramshackle place, a little oddly laid-out, but a fun place for a group of college-age guys to live and hang out.

The entrance to the bakery was in the front, on the busy main street, but the entrance to our lodgings was located on the side street. A flight of steep stairs led up to the main floor of our residence; my room was here, facing the main street, while at the head of the stairs was the living room. The stairs continued in an L-shape up the side of the building to the second floor, where there was a second bedroom just over mine; Michael lived there for a while, while Chris made his home on the spacious (but not exactly climate-controlled) landing. A further flight of stairs led to the attic, which was William’s room.

There was a terrible galley kitchen over the stairwell on the main floor — it had apparently been added as an afterthought somewhere in the building’s long history; there was a step up from the living room into the kitchen, and a step back down again as you went into the one-time dining room that led to the apartment’s only bathroom. That kitchen was a horror. When we’d first moved in, the tiny refrigerator had a freezer-full of accumulated ice. You could barely fit a shoe into the remaining space, which we called The Maw because it resembled the frosty fang-ridden mouth of some hideous monster. Since we lived over a bakery, the kitchen had frequent visits from roaches and mice… we got used to a little extra nutrition in our corn flakes every morning.

While we lived there, we had a wonderful one-eyed cat — my very first cat! Yay! — but he was a little cranky about his mousing duties. One night, we had a particularly bold little critter foraging through our leftovers… while we sat there in the living room, not three feet away. We went and got the cat, and put him down on the counter only a few inches from the mouse. The cat gave us a sour look, as though to say, “What do you expect me to do?” Needless to say, the mouse kept on eating without missing a beat. Of course, the next morning it was a Lucio Fulci movie in the dining room, with mouse bits everywhere… as I discovered as I walked barefoot to the bathroom.

Thinking of furry visitors: we had a poltergeist of a squirrel, too, who lived in the walls and roof. We called him the Ceiling Badger, because he regularly kept us awake at night scuttling around overhead. Once he got out into William’s closet and made a nest out of his down parka… William went to open the closet door one day and — FOOMF! Feathers everywhere.

In other words, it was exactly the sort of place you’d hope to live in during your adventurous early adulthood.

I suppose everybody has stories of their chaotic college digs, but in our case, with four such insanely creative people under a single roof, the chaos was much more structured and purposeful than it might have been otherwise. We were partly a weird little family, and partly members of a performance art troupe in which the house itself was an enthusiastic participant. There was always some improvised music or improvised comedy going on, a remarkable amount of which escaped from the house and into our outside creative lives: for example, our brief fascination with Hanna-Barbera cartoons led Michael to write a piece for brass ensemble, and one of William’s extempore surrealist poems became the inspiration for a composition of mine for oboe and piano. Even now, 25 years later, I still find that bits of music and conversation from those days often resurface into my day-to-day life.The house and its environment were the primordial soup from which my adult personality emerged.

What’s probably both the high point and the low point of my participation in the Art Installation which was our house came on one chill fall evening. Everybody else was out doing stuff, but I was in a bleak mood, so I’d decided to stay home and sulk. To cheer myself up, I thought I’d play a little joke on the others: I had a very realistic prop skull from one of our various skits, so I constructed a scarecrow body for it out of some of my clothes. I placed Chris’s stiff leather motorcycle gloves into its sleeves for hands, put a pair of my shoes at the base of its trouser legs, and propped it up on a broomstick at the dimly-lit top of the second-floor stairs. It was a very convincing ghost. I thought everybody would come home, pause at the first-floor landing to take off their coats, glance up the stairwell… and get a brief, harmless shock. We’d all have a laugh, and that would be that.

But when everybody came back late that night, they paused in the stairwell… and didn’t look up. Instead, they all came into the living room, where we sat up talking for over an hour. I kept a perfectly straight face the whole time. Finally, unexpectedly, Chris decided to go up to bed by himself. Again, I thought he’d get to the foot of the stairs, look up, see the ghostly figure — BOO! — and that would be that. So I still said nothing. Imagine my surprise when I heard his footsteps mount the stairs and keep going — he still hadn’t noticed the ghastly skeleton. It wasn’t until he got to the very top of the stairs that he looked up and saw it… at which point it was standing right in front of him, with arms outstretched, eyeless sockets staring.

Yes, this was the night in which I very nearly killed my best friend by causing him to fall halfway down the stairs in terror. But in my defense, it was pretty funny.

(I did tell you I was a jerk, didn’t I?)

So. Fast-forward a very long time. A little while before New Year’s this year, Michael sent us all a link to a certain real estate listing on YouTube. Our old house was for rent. Only it wasn’t recognizable as our house any more. Where once the building had been one big home, now it was broken up into self-contained units. There’s probably a metaphor in there somewhere, but I haven’t the heart to look for it. The unit that’s being advertised is the first floor, where my room was. It’s been… “renovated”. And by “renovated”, I mean cheaply done over, neutered and rendered inert.

The ground-floor entrance, where the bakery used to be, is now the entrance to this unit, while the remaining rooms upstairs are serviced by the old side-street entrance. I have no idea what’s in the ground floor these days, or how anyone would get to it. The brief glimpses the video provides of my old bedroom show a room that’s been updated on the cheap. The living room — this made us all deeply suspicious — is not shown at all.

The appalling kitchen has been torn out, and (believe it or not) it looks like a worse one has been put in. Instead of taking up the passage between the living room and the dining room, the kitchen looks like it’s been moved to the far wall of the dining room… right next to the bathroom. Would you want your stove about six feet from your toilet? Separated only by a door which opens inward into the bathroom from the stove itself, creating a nice ramp for aerosolized droplets of toilet water after every flush? Hmmm?

That’s even assuming you want your kitchen in the outer corner of your dining room.

Also, as you can see by these pictures, not only has the kitchen been redone with the cheapest off-the-shelf components available… it also has no sink fixtures:

Sure, they may have added fixtures since the photo was taken… but remember: this is the impression of the place they put in their advertising!

There’s something heartbreaking about seeing the old place rendered charmless like this. It’s like seeing your old college girlfriend show up as a drug-raddled harridan on TV’s “Intervention” or “Hoarders”.

It isn’t so much that I wish it were still 1986 or ’87, and that I were still there with my friends: everything important from that era is still with me, after all, and I’ll carry it with me for the rest of my life. But I suppose I’d always hoped the place would still be there, giving a similar kind of home to succeeding generations of students like us. I’d half-imagined some shade of myself — of the best part of myself — still haunting that old house, like a ghost at the top of the stairs.

And the part that really rankles is this: I might never have realized I thought & felt that way, if this crappy video hadn’t shown me the sad reality.

2012: A Bad Year for Calicos, Part 2

Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

I wrote earlier of losing our ancient calico cat, Nikita, in June this year. Sadly, we’ve now lost a second ancient calico cat.

We’re not sure how old Nala was. Lisa found her at a shelter-cum-clinic nearby, where she took foster cats to be spayed or neutered before being adopted. Nala — that’s the name she’d been surrendered under — was scheduled to be put down… because she was considered too old to be adopted. According to the shelter, she was eleven years old, and nobody wanted a cat that old.

(That was seven years ago! And frankly, we think the shelter’s records were off by a year or two. She could very well have been older.)

There was no way Lisa could allow this cat to be killed simply for being eleven years old. We had a very good track record at placing older cats in good homes, so Lisa filled out the paperwork and had her transferred into our care. Not long afterwards, we found a home for her with a woman who seemed perfectly sane and stable. We figured that was that.

A few months later, we got a call from the local Animal Control office. A cat had been abandoned in a carrier at the side of the road. It was Nala. When we got her back, she was all skin and bones: we thought at first that she’d been starved before being abandoned, but we soon found out what had really happened. Nala had developed a thyroid condition, and had started losing weight in a frightening manner. Her owner had panicked, but had been afraid to contact us or the local shelter. She’d left the cat on the roadside about a quarter-mile from the shelter, hoping that someone would come along and find it.

Once we got her back, we were determined that nobody would ever abandon her again. We held onto her; we got her treatment… which meant for almost a year she was living in quarantine in our bathroom. I donned rubber gloves twice a day and gave her medicine that would have seriously screwed with my metabolism if I’d ever got it on my bare skin. Eventually we contributed over a thousand dollars to getting her the radiation therapy that would stabilize her condition. And cranky though she always was, and though she would continue to have health issues for the rest of her long, long life, she became our cat de facto.

Nala started going downhill late in 2010. We thought she was about to die in November of that year, but she bounced back miraculously. For two years, she wobbled back and forth from death’s door — you know how cats are about doors: you can imagine her standing on the threshold, rubbing up against the jamb, while the Grim Reaper shouts, “Are you coming in, or aren’t you?!”

Each time she fell ill, it looked as though she couldn’t possibly recover. But then she’d spring back to life in vibrant, kitteny health, and stay well for quite a while. And with each passing year, she got sweeter and sweeter. She’d always been a good kitty in her way: demanding, yes, and irritable — it used to take a whole shift of staff at the vet’s to draw blood from her — but you expect that sort of thing with a calico. She mellowed as she aged, and seemed really to be enjoying her last years (during the times when she wasn’t actually ill).

But recently the troughs had been deeper, and the peaks of her recovery less pronounced. Her bad periods were coming more frequently, and it would take a longer for her medication to bring her out of them. The vet had warned us her body would not last much longer: her poor kidneys had shrunk to the size of raisins, and it was frankly a miracle that she’d made it as long as she had. Who even knew exactly how old she was? She was at least 17, but then again Nikita, our other ancient calico, had been 17 when she died… and up until the end she’d looked far more robust than Nala. From the look of her eyes, the vet guessed Nala could have been as old as 20 (though for my part, I suspect that when she was a kitten, dinosaurs ruled the earth).

And then we realized the end had come. Even with a cat who’d come back from the edge of doom so many times, the moment arrives when you know there will be no recovery. For Nala, that moment came abruptly. First she refused food; then she refused even water. Soon she lost the ability to stand, or even support herself. After that, nothing helped — not antibiotics, not subcutaneous fluids, not syringe-feeding; and about three days later, it was time.

And now she is gone.

I thought it might be easier to grieve when you’ve had a little practice. After all, we’ve expected Nala to die so many times that I suppose our first reaction’s been shock that it actually happened. Here’s one thing, though, that complicates matters: her special care and feeding had become a huge part of our daily routine. Now that that’s gone, everything’s changed. Habit is waiting to remind us of her, for a long time to come. A month from now, I’ll still get up early to grind a can of food with water — soft mush for the aging cat who’s gone now. I’ll realize with a shock I’m using one of her special bowls for something else. I’ll expect her to curl up with me in the night, or come to visit me while I work, as she often did, and I’ll reach out to give her her expected scratches… and it will be somebody else, and suddenly I’ll remember.

And the other thing? Old as she was, decrepit as she became, you could always see the kitten behind her eyes… up until the moment she died. It seems impossible that she should be gone. And we will miss her terribly.


2012: A Bad Year for Calicos, Part 1

Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

Nearly 17 years ago, my wife Lisa took in a little kitten. It was a tiny pale-calico cat — “stone-washed,” she called her — abandoned in a collar that was too tight for her. She was a hissing, spitting little ball of resentment. Nobody was ever going to adopt this cat, Lisa thought. Nobody was going to want this semi-feral creature; she’d languish in the shelter for a couple of weeks, perhaps, and then be euthanized with the other unadoptables. And that just didn’t seem right. The kitten was way too young to be subjected to that kind of fate.

So she took the little creature home… figuring that even if the kitten never got over her dislike of humans — even if she stayed a little monster for the rest of her life — at least she’d have a safe place to live, and regular meals, and someone to take care of her. At least she’d still be alive. It wasn’t her fault that, in her month or two of existence, she’d learned that human beings were cruel and unreliable creatures.

But a funny thing happened when Lisa brought the kitten home. As soon as she arrived, the kitty calmed down. And from that moment on, she became the cat she’d be for the rest of her life: a calm, even-tempered, patient and loving animal. She turned into Nikita… named after the main character in the movie La Femme Nikita, who was taken off death row and given a second chance as an assassin. The name seemed appropriate, somehow.

Of course, Lisa wasn’t my wife then. In fact, we hadn’t even met. We ran into each other a month or so later. By that time, one of her criteria for figuring out if I was good boyfriend potential was… whether or not Nikita liked me. She did. What I thought of Nikita wasn’t quite as important, but for what it’s worth, I liked her, too… in spite of her flat Massachusetts accent — Myaaahh! — and the fact her meow sounded a little like a foghorn.

At the time, Lisa was living with her brother, who had a big hundred-pound Labrador retriever. Little Nikita had that dog terrified. It’s not that she’d do anything to hurt him — in all the years we had her, we never saw her be mean to anyone or anything. No: once the dog got a gentle swipe of Nikita’s paw, all she needed to do was look at him, and the dog immediately knew he’d been outmatched. Much later, when we had dogs of our own — a 110-pound lab mix and a 70-pound Vizsla — they, too, instinctively understood that Nikita was Head Dog, and was not to be challenged (even at the end of her life, when she would go to sleep on the stairs with barely the energy to climb all the way up or down, our surviving dog would sit at the bottom of the stairs and woof for our help getting past her).

Eventually, Lisa moved down from Massachusetts to New Jersey, where I lived. In the middle of the night, we drove with two cats down I-95 (Lisa’s older cat Zeus got out of his carrier and spent about half of the drive walking around on the back of our seats). What we didn’t realize at the time was that we weren’t just bringing two cats. Nikita was pregnant.

At the time, there was a great deal more controversy about when a kitten could be spayed or neutered. Since then, early-age spay/neuter has become much more common, and the research on its long-term effects has been much more conclusive. But we were woefully ignorant of the whole issue, and by the time we’d even thought of getting Nikita altered, the decision was taken out of our hands. We had no desire to abort her kittens. We figured we’d try to keep them if we could.

One day in early August we came home from work, and Nikita wasn’t there at the door to welcome us. We cast knowing glances at one another: this could only mean one thing…

A quick search revealed Nikita curled up in our bedroom closet, with four tiny creatures nursing from her: one orange boy, a calico girl, and two grey-and-white females. Lisa was particularly happy to see the orange kitten, since she’d lost an orange cat the year before and missed him terribly.

The orange kitten was the first to die.

We were horrified. Being terribly inexperienced at that point, we’d had no idea about how to care for a kitten; but we weren’t completely stupid. We knew Nikita was producing milk; we’d even had them all to the vet only the day before, and he’d given them a clean bill of health. The little calico girl died the day after her brother. It was agony, not knowing what to do, or what we might have done to prevent their deaths; so we determined that from then on, we would learn all we could about cat care.

Nikita’s two remaining kittens, Sage and Mircalla, lived, and grew to be beautiful long-haired cats. They inherited their mother’s sweet temperament, as well as her foghorn voice. It was because of them that we first got involved in animal rescue: we started volunteering for cat and ferret rescues, and we learned as much as we could about basic home veterinary care and responsible pet ownership.

In the years since then, several hundred foster animals have passed through our care. Some of them have been in urgent need of medical help; some of them have frankly needed psychiatric help. We’ve learned enough to have achieved some very dramatic results. We’ve brought seriously ill cats, many of whom had been written off by the vets, back from the brink of death. We’ve found good homes for animals slated for euthanasia in other shelters, because they were considered too old, or too cranky, or too difficult to treat. We’ve arranged and hosted low-cost spay/neuter clinics, the first of their kind in our area.

And all because of Nikita.

Unfortunately — as we might have expected — her kittens Sage and Mircalla had congenital health problems. Sage died of lymphoma three days before her seventh birthday. Mircalla died of the same thing when she was 11. Immediately after Sage died, something happened to her mother and sister: Mircalla started going to the end of our driveway and sitting, waiting, as though she were expecting her sister to return. And both cats’ voices changed. It was very noticeable: their meows, so gruff and deep, changed octaves. The change lasted for almost a year. I have never realized that cats could mourn — their natures seem to suggest otherwise — but Nikita’s and Mircalla’s behavior after Sage’s death suggested they might.

After Mircalla died, Nikita “adopted” a foster cat we were looking after. She was a wild cat who’d been found living on the beach nearby (though she took very well to living in a house, and even taught herself to use the human toilet!). Nikita seemed to sense she needed a surrogate mommy, so even though the wild cat was full-grown, she let her curl up with her; she’d even groom her, the way a mother cat takes care of her own kitten. Eventually the wild cat decided she was secure enough that she didn’t need to depend on Nikita, though the two stayed close as long as we had her.

Nikita started to fade in mid-2011. Treatment worked for a while, but as time went on it became clear that Nikita wasn’t going to last much longer. When she began her final deterioration, it came fast. One Thursday afternoon, she collapsed while trying to use the litterbox. We kept a vigil over her as she lapsed in and out of consciousness. Just when we thought she was finally slipping away, she’d shake her head, stagger to her feet, and make her unsteady way toward the litterbox to pee. She didn’t always make it, though we did our best to help her along. But even semi-conscious, she remained conscientious, and she would not compromise her dignity by losing control of her bladder. There’s nothing particularly funny about watching someone or something you love go into a final decline — but trust vivid, unsentimental Nikita to find the closest possible thing.

She died at 8:50 on a Sunday morning in early June, 2012. We were with her. She was home, where she belonged, just over the room where her kittens were born, in almost the same spot where her daughter Sage passed away some 9 years ago. I still see her out of the corner of my eye, and I still expect to hear her foghorn meow demanding that her water bowl be refilled. Because of her, hundreds of cats that might not have lived had a chance to thrive. Because of her, thousands of unwanted kittens were never born. It’s not a bad legacy.

But 17 years are just not enough.


The Creature from the Blah Lagoon

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

First, let me warn you: this movie shows us 36 hours in the life (and death) of a family on vacation… ice fishing.

The point of ice fishing is not necessarily to catch fish. In fact, it’s hard to describe ice fishing as a goal-oriented activity… to call it an “activity” at all is a bit of an exaggeration. When you ice fish, you reduce the world around you to a Zen-like minimum: the cold limits your sense of touch; there’s really nothing to see but a featureless expanse of ice, with occasional driftlets of snow appearing and dispersing around you; your ears become attuned to soft, small sounds, but loud distractions are few. Your entire existence is reduced to life’s essentials: yourself… a few carefully-selected friends and family members… beer… and, almost as an afterthought, a hole in the ice, through which fish eventually may or may not be pulled.

So prepare yourself. If you approach a movie that revolves around ice fishing expecting non-stop slam-bang action, you’re going to be disappointed. You’d be better off going in expecting nothing to happen at all.


There are a few good things about Hypothermia, and they’re few enough that we can get them out of the way immediately.

First of all there’s its brevity: the movie’s about 70 minutes long. As the old-time movie makers knew, 70 minutes is an ideal length for a cheap horror picture… it’s not long enough to overstay its welcome. Of course, bear in mind that a lot of Hypothermia consists of lingering shots of snow blowing across ice, or lonely birds taking off on the horizon; so unless you’re a Tarkovsky fan, you may still find those 70 minutes interminable.

Next, Hyperthermia is far more focused on the people in its story than on the monster, or on the ways the monster tears its victims to bits. This too, though, is a bit of a mixed blessing. It’s generally a good thing when a horror movie emphasizes character over mayhem, but when the characters are limned in broad crayon strokes, well… frankly, you start wishing for some gore. The six people that make up the human cast of the movie have the outlines of interesting characters. But the details are lacking, and it’s really only the skill of the actors themselves that lets us keep our interest in them.

Best of the bunch, unsurprisingly, is Michael Rooker. What might be surprising is that the actor so memorable for his terrifying performances in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and The Walking Dead here plays a warm, compassionate, even-tempered family man. He does it so effortlessly that it’s almost possible to forget how effortlessly he’s played all those murderous psychotics. Almost.

Moving on to the movie’s problems… oy, does it have some problems.

Let’s start with the title. Nobody in the movie really ends up with hypothermia. This is in spite of the fact that four people over the course of the film take a plunge into the icy waters of a frozen lake… three of them at night. All of them bob right back up again, through the tiny hole in the ice down which they fell. None of them die instantly of shock, and none of them are much the worse for wear after a hot shower… monster bites are a bit of a different story, but nobody seems much put-out by their dunkings.

Rooker’s character is the first to go into the water, and his is the most harrowing and significant experience. He falls through the ice just as the sun is speeding into its descent: it’s still twilight when he falls through, but by the time he’s managed to crawl back out of the ice a few moments later, it’s already full dark. His limbs numb, his strength already exhausted, he’s barely able to hoist himself out of the water… but one he’s done it, and is lying helpless and freezing on the ice, nobody can see him in the darkness. It’s pure luck that his son, searching with a flashlight, is able to find him in time to prevent him dying of exposure, since nobody was around when he fell in.

The tension in the scene is undercut a little by the knowledge that the movie can’t afford to kill Rooker that early. If his character dies within the first ten minutes of the movie, most of the production’s star power is spent and wasted. Still, even though we know Rooker’s character (the Walking Dad?) is going to be rescued, it’s a little unsettling to see him bounce back quite as quickly and easily as he seems to. And it’s even more unsettling to see three other people plunge in and out of the ice as the story wears on, considering that the entire rest of the movie takes place out on the frozen lake… with only a small heated trailer as shelter. Sure, Rooker’s son’s girlfriend is a med student, but even so — there are limits to what you can do on the spur of the moment when somebody’s battling hypothermia and lacerations from monster fangs.

Next problem? It’s those characters again, damn it. We get just enough of a glimpse at the son to make us wonder if he’s a genuinely idealistic young man, or an insufferable poseur. We learn just enough about him and his girlfriend to realize that either he or she will have to die tragically before the end of the movie — the setup is just too on-the-nose for things to go otherwise.

But then, we’re introduced the movie’s prime motivator: the odious Steve Cote (played by Don Wood, a regular in James Felix McKenney’s off-beat horror movies). Cote (pronounced “Cody”) is that stock figure from the 70’s ecological horror films: the evil big city businessman, who’s brought the attitude of the boardroom out into the wild with him. He doesn’t just want to ice fish… he wants to catch every fucking fish in the whole motherfucking lake, goddamn it all to fuck; and if he has to lob a few sticks of dynamite down the fishing hole to blow himself as well as all the fish to fuckin’ kingdom come, then damn it, that’s the way it’s gonna BE, motherfucker! Also: fuck, fuck and again fuck. Cote appears out of nowhere with his son, naturally blasting Heavy Metal music across the lake at top volume. He’s got a big yellow trailer with state-of-the-art fish finding technology, a pair of snowmobiles, and an attitude the size of all New Jersey (which is funny, because he’s from Maine).

Cote is a Monster Movie stereotype — the kind of hyper-aggressive Type A Personality who goes ice fishing with firearms, and who refuses to take his injured son to the hospital after he’s dragged under the ice by a fish monster. He’s a real-estate developer, too, which means he’s made disrespect of the environment part of his whole career… not just his relaxation. He’s the heir of Leslie Nielsen in Day of the Animals, or Joan Collins in Empire of the Ants, and efforts to give him a little touch of humanity toward the end of his time on-screen really don’t amount to much.

But, see… we need him: it’s Cote’s high-power equipment that draws the fish monster out of the lake with its vibrations. Technically, all the carnage turns out to be his fault. Sure, the beast had already eaten all the fish in the lake — being an underwater biped, it was naturally better equipped for survival and predation than any mere fish. So the monster probably would have emerged at some point, anyway. But it’s made clear that it’s the combination of vibrations from Cote’s machinery, and the sheer, overwhelming odor of good ol’ mammalian testosterone that results from any encounter with Cote, that drive the creature to look for human prey.

And that brings us to my final point, for better or for worse… the movie’s high or low point, depending on your point of view: the Monster.

Writer/director James McKenney, a protégé of the legendary independent film-maker Larry Fessenden, has made a handful of idiosyncratic genre films, including CanniBallistic, The Off Season and the weird 50’s sci-fi homage Automatons. The influence of old-school low-budget horror is everywhere in his movies. The goofy tin-can robots of Automatons were clearly designed to be tongue-in-cheek throwbacks to movies like Target Earth or Gog… but what are we to make of the creature in Hypothermia? It’s a guy in a modified wetsuit, with a mask on top. It’s the spiritual kin of the Moon Beast… or Rana, the Legend of Shadow Lake (though unlike Rana, alas, it doesn’t regurgitate frogs). Like those two 70’s monsters, it looks halfway decent in stills; but when you see it in motion, it’s oh-so-clearly just a stuntman in a wetsuit.

(Did I mention the critter has wings? It has wings. Well, webbing, at any rate; webbing between its torso and its arms, like a flying squirrel.)

The monster sees everything in a curious yellow-red blur. In fact, the opening moments of the movie are shots under the ice, seen from the creature’s point of view — though it’s not immediately apparent that that’s what the effect is supposed to represent; I thought at first we were seeing everything through a glass of beer. I guess that makes the monster one of the few animals in nature equipped with a permanent set of beer goggles. That’s kind-of unfortunate, since Hypothermia features quite a bit of Product Placement for Geary’s, a fine Maine brewery (to make the connection even more unfortunate, it’s the awful Cote who brings the various packs of Geary’s products, even though his actions mark him as a “Schlitz Lite Ice” type of guy). Later, when I realized what the yellowish tint was supposed to suggest, I started thinking of the effect as “Serrano-vision”, after the artist who became (in)famous for photographing sacred objects immersed in his own urine. None of this helps me suspend my disbelief over the creature. I don’t imagine it’s given Geary’s much of a boost, either.

Serrano-vision also apparently gives the beast the astounding ability to remember scenes it wasn’t a witness to. The monster also understands English, I guess, because our survivors’ last-ditch effort to keep it from killing them involves asking it not to. It’s tempting to look at this all as a parody, but the movie as a whole is played so straight-faced that doing so is virtually impossible.

If you like terrible old-school monster suits, and think there’s a place for them in today’s horror cinema, then chances are you’ll have a soft spot for Hypothermia. Now, me? I do like unconvincing monster suits. I also like movies that are slowly-paced and atmospheric, so I’m an ideal target for this kind of film-making. And I, the ideal target, thought it was… well… okay. Just okay. Unfortunately, the flick left me lukewarm; and that’s probably not a good thing for a movie called “Hypothermia”.

I’m tempted to point out that in Really Bad Hypothermia, the patient stops shivering and becomes apathetic. But maybe that’s a little too harsh. I’ll probably be watching the movie again, in part to enjoy Michael Rooker in a sympathetic role… but mostly as an excuse to sit down & enjoy some beer from Maine. I don’t seem to have any Geary’s on hand at the moment, but I recently stocked up on some excellent stuff from Atlantic and Bar Harbor breweries. Maybe if I drink until I, too, have Serrano-vision, I’ll be able to enjoy the bug-eyed monster a little bit more.