Thursday, October 27, 2011

HALLOWEEN COUNTDOWN: Horror on a minimum wage

Directed by Ti West
Starring Sara Paxton, Pat Healy and Kelly McGillis

If you had told me that the next movie from the guy behind House of the Devil was also going to be a throwback to an earlier style of horror, I certainly wouldn't have been surprised. But if you'd told me that he was making a slow-burn ghost story with very little gore, along the lines of the original The Haunting or Les Diaboliques, then I'd probably say you were crazy.

But that is, in fact, what writer/director/editor Ti West has given us, and it's pretty darn good.

The story concerns itself with the last weekend of business for an old inn called the Yankee Pedlar, in a declining town in the New England. It's clear that the owner is only interested in keeping the place from burning down, so the entire staff for the weekend is two young people working the front desk, trading off 12 hour shifts. Claire (Sara Paxton), the younger of the two, is an imaginative, sweet, and naive college drop-out still trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life. Luke (Pat Healy), several years older, is a burned-out cynic, unwilling to do even the minimum amount of work the inn's paltry two guests request. (One of the subtler running jokes is Luke's refusal to put towels in any of the rooms no matter how many times a guest asks).

Perhaps the only thing interesting about Luke (and the main topic of conversation between him and Claire) is that he is an amateur ghost-hunter, with a website (albeit one that makes old Geocities sites look professional) devoted to the hauntings at the inn. There's a rather generic legend about the place and a young woman who supposedly killed herself after being stood up at the altar, and Luke has convinced Claire that the young woman, named Madeleine O'Malley, still haunts the place These two working stiffs have decided that they're going to make the most of this long weekend by actually recording some manner of supernatural phenomenon.

At first, they have about the success you would expect from two amateur ghost-hunters, but when Claire is recording audio phenomenon alone, she records something that might be supernatural. And when she consults with one of their guests (as much out of loneliness and fear as for any credible reason), the guest (Kelly McGillis) turns out to be a faith healer, who makes contact with a ghost who may be Madeleine and warns her to stay out of the basement...

I know up above I compared this to a slow-burn horror movie like Les Diaboliques or The Haunting, but in the early parts, The Innkeepers plays like a low-key, quirky character study of two listless young people (a la Tiny Furniture or Ghost World or a Swanberg pic), with some laughs and the occasional jump-scares. In a slasher film, Luke would be the prank-happy annoying nerd who gets killed off quickly, but this is a film about three people and the body-count is actually very low.

If the idea of Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham makes a brief cameo as an over-sharing barista) and The Haunting swapping DNA sounds to you like the worst thing ever, you aren't being fair to the film. The amount of time we spend getting to know the characters means that when they are threatened by the supernatural, we're genuinely concerned. And by then, we also know the tics and quirks that will cause them to react a certain way.

West and his cast deserve a lot of credit for the careful and credible way they build the relationship between Claire and Luke. It's clear that they've mainly become friends because they spend so much time with just each other for company. And while Claire is definitely the most sympathetic of the two, Luke rings very true. If you've ever worked a minimum-wage job, you've probably known a burn-out like Luke, not really as great as he thinks he is, but with one or two characteristics that, to a callow youth, make him seem cool. For Claire, it's Luke's ghost-hunting site. For me, it was that a co-worker's rock band.

But Claire is the protagonist , and she's a refreshingly complex female character. She's a little jumpy and nervous, but she also shows the most courage of any of the characters we encounter. Even though the thought of trash juice dripping on her as she throws garbage in the dumpster grosses her out, she's willing to risk life and limb to save the soul of a restless ghost. And Sara Paxton plays it all with a lack of self-consciousness that's very lived-in.

And the other nice thing about the slow build is that, by the time the spooky stuff starts, we know the inn very well. It's almost as much a character as Claire and Luke, and, despite being a real, functioning inn, is definitely a triumph of production design. It's picturesque and creepy, but never feels like a soundstage creation.

The other element I have to give West kudos for is the balance he strikes between what we know and what is left (often rather horrifyingly) unsaid. [Possible Spoilers] Our characters assume the ghost haunting the Inn is Madeleine O'Malley, but a lot of the other evidence and the words of McGillis' character suggests there are at least three ghosts haunting the inn, and it's never proven that O'Malley is one of the three. (There is an angry ghost bride, but I would suggest the events that unfold in the Honeymoon suite suggest there's an more than one possibility for that ghost). And yet, there's an internal coherence to the way the hauntings happen and the way they interact with the cast that suggests a logic and a backstory to what's happening, only our protagonists misunderstand it.

Much like the original The Haunting or the early parts of Hell House, what's so creepy and tragic about the events that unfold is that we don't even know why the ghosts selected the victim they did, or for what purpose.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Halloween countdown: He served a dark and a stupid god

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall

I know quite a few people I like and whose opinions I respect won't agree with what I'm about to write. Not just friends, but apparently even Mister Stephen Sondheim himself. But Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd just isn't good.

In all fairness, it's not bad, either. But that's the disappointment. Because what Burton turns in is the sort of cowardly pseudo-musical and pseudo-horror film that Hollywood churns out for respectable people these days. And that really is what disappoints from Burton, of all people, who, in the first half of his career, often put out off-kilter movies with only the slightest concessions to present popular culture. A parody of 50's alien invasion films cross-pollinated with '70s disaster films? An ode to a cult film-maker notorious for being awful, shot in black-and-white? A horror comedy about a ghost that exorcises living people and wants to abduct a teenage girl as his bride?

But the grotesque and strange taste that made these films wonderful has congealed into something more "bubblegum goth", giving us a movie afraid to fully leap into the campy and also terrifying.  Burton is willing to give us a lot of blood and gore, but he's afraid to give us the sexual insanity of the Beggar Woman, Toby's final transformation into something as twisted as Sweeney, or Joanna murdering the insane asylum director. And of course, Mrs. Lovett has to feel bad about what she's doing, to some extent (missing the entire point of the character, but whatever). Our heroes have to be sympathetic, goshdarnit! And we have to have clear delineation between good and bad!

Heaven knows what Christopher Bond, the playwright whose work gave Sondheim the basis for Sweeney Todd by marrying the revenge motive to a more vicious Marxist reading of the story. After all, Bond rewrote King Lear to be less romantic and hopeful!

But this is really Burton giving into the most trite and cliche of his excesses: almost everything production designed to a somehow charming goth version of urban blight, cleavage-baring outfits for Helena Bonham Carter (regardless of appropriateness), and generic,ugly CGI that makes 18th Century London look like a video-game cutscene.

Burton really doesn't seem comfortable with the fact he's directing a musical, stripping the movie of almost every group chorus, shoving several songs off into dream sequences or fantasies, as if the audience will be hard-pressed to believe that people could just burst into song.  It doesn't help that Carter's voice is a slight and mediocre one, and that Johnny Depp sounds like he's trying to channel either Anthony Newley or David Bowie.

There are some moments that hint at the better job Burton could have done. Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall, though underused, are both living embodiments of nightmares of authority figures, and Sacha Baron Cohen as the barber/mountebank Pirelli is an unnerving mix of oily charm and barely-restrained rage.

Even Depp, in a few moments, hits the mark, such as when he rushes about London in his mind, brandishing a razor at every person he meets.

But for every moment that works, there's a song chopped to bits, or another godawful bit with Helena Bonham Carter, and it just becomes a junk food film again, every bit as much a mish-mash as Mrs. Lovett's pies.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Quick Link Love...

I already have a bit of an intellectual crush on Jess Nevins for his series of pulp posts at io9, his annotations of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Top 10, and his tumblr blog.

But now he has to go write an awesome and inspirational article about Asian history in the 18th and 19th century and Asian pulp literature for sci-fi publishers Tor.

RTWT, but my favorite part (and best idea for a story ever) is this:
 "From the mid-17th century through the 1920s Chinese novels translated into Mongolian were in huge demand in Mongolia, and there was a flourishing trade in them. But the problem for the Mongolian bookbuyers and booksellers was not only the bidding wars which would break out with Russian, Mongolian, and Chinese buyers, but that getting the manuscripts back to Mongolia to sell was difficult because of the very real chance that those transporting the books would be attacked on the way back by bandits wanting to get the manuscripts and sell them for themselves. This resulted in decades of adventurous Mongolian book traders as skilled with sword and gun as they were at selling books." [Emphasis mine].

A network of swashbuckling mercenary booksellers in Mongolia that had to fight off bandits who wanted to steal their wares! That would be a great trope to replace the archaeologist/explorer that usually pops up in adventure narratives.

Updated to add: P.S. Had to share this, which I posted on Twitter. NY Times review of HUUUUUGE Spanish history book mentioned Phillip II of Spain planning an invasion of China in 1580. What the what what? How has that not been written by some spec-fic/fantasy genius yet?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Halloween Countdown: I love Lucky McKee...

I love Lucky McKee. I've only seen two of his three and a half films (the half is his episode of Masters of Horror: Sick Girl), but I've loved both May and The Woods for the way they played around with the conventions of horror, while still finding the monster/villains sympathetic.

And the way he switched from the low-key "indie" style in May to a very lush '60's feel in The Woods showed he had a greater range than some horror film-makers.

So tonight I'm checking out a preview of his new film, The Woman, based on a Jack Ketchum novel, that is to be followed by a Q&A with the director himself. I hope to have a post up about the experience this weekend.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

"I knew I'd never take him alive... I didn't try too hard neither."

Yet another half-written blog post I've discovered from a couple of months ago. Figured I might as well post it, because, though it isn't a full review, you should at least consider it a recommendation.

d. John Milius
Starring Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton, Michelle Phillips, Richard Dreyfuss and Cloris Leachman

John Dillinger (Warren Oates) is a famous bankrobber, working the Midwest, who has formed a super-gang with "Pretty-Boy" Floyd (Steve Kanaly) and "Baby-face" Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss). Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson) is the FBI agent tasked with taking them all down. Cue bloody shootouts.

... Whoah. This and the Don Siegel-directed Babyface Nelson are my must-see gangster films, so you can imagine my delight when Netflix Streaming added this to the queue. Unfortunately, it was a pan-and-scan version with occasionally poor picture quality. To be fair, for all I know, the DVD might be pan-and-scan. Not a lot of care is taken with AIP re-releases, and I'm sure we might wait in vain for Blu-ray versions of these films.

But even pan-and-scan couldn't sap this film of it's pungent hard-boiled flavor. And the visuals still retain their power. The opening of the film, viewed through a bank-teller's window, where we endure a fussy matron withdrawing her money, only to immediately have Warren Oates introducing himself as John Dillinger and then yelling at the viewer not to try anything foolish, packs a punch. The wit of Oates breaking the fourth wall to kick off the film just adds to the outlaw feel of this film. It's a daring start to a film that wants to prove it can match The Wild Bunch, Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands blow-for-blow.

Dillinger doesn't quite hit that heady goal, but it certainly comes close.