Wednesday, October 31, 2007

day 4: four days with three scary movies each

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

To be fair, I went into The Blair Witch Project making fun of it. I remember seeing it in the theatre and sort of being bored.... there was a lot of marketing hype around it (this being the first film to utilize the internet as a means of major underground marketing) and it felt silly and self-indulgent to me. In retrospect, I think this is part of the movie's genius. The concept is that we're seeing found footage from three amateur filmmakers who set out to learn about the "Blair Witch", a local scary story, in the woods of rural Maryland. The whole time already knowing that the movie wasn't exactly real found footage, I wanted to be jaded about it and started looking for flaws. But isn't this the point? We're watching the unedited clips from amateur documentarians who, in a way, are making fun of themselves as they go about interviewing town residents and set off into the woods themselves to find the Blair Witch. It is, of course, once they get in the woods that things starts getting spooky.... they get lost or seem to travel in circles. They hear screaming in the night. Their tent gets rustled around in the dark. They find creepy handcrafted symbols hanging in the trees. I guess this all seemed silly to me too.... until they get to the Blair Witch's house, a crumbling old piece of construction with children's handprints peppered across the walls. The last ten minutes or so of this movie are truly terrifying, and I mean that in every sense of the word. The brilliance of how this movie is filmed, as seen from the claustrophobic view of the handheld video camera, is in part what makes it so scary. We are denied seeing what's just outside the realm of the camera, even though we're following the characters as they film.... it's a first-person viewing experience and thereby we are locked into seeing only what the camera wishes to see. The movie's got balls and it sticks to its premise.... it ramps up at the end to a high-pitch freakout and then cuts to black; nothing more, no explanation. Because, you see, it's only found footage, and we can't fill in the blanks of that which hasn't been filmed.

Misery (1990)

Kathy Bates didn't really stand out much as an actress before this film (in this same year she had a two-line part as a court reporter in the wonderful Dick Tracy), and I'm curious to see what she would've been like as a younger actress, because she is truly one of the greatest of our time. The Oscars and their nominations are often not kind to movies outside the drama category, and Misery, for which Bates won a fully-deserved Best Actress oscar, was a surprise to turn up in one of the Big 5 categories because it's an out-and-out thriller. Bates, as psycho fangirl Annie Wilkes, really is that good. Haven't seen the film? I dare you to tell me that she doesn't freak you the hell out. This movie takes fan-based obsession to the next level; based on Stephen Kings' novel (of which movie adaptations of his work are really hit or miss), James Caan plays a writer who's trying to escape the rut of a continuing series of his books. Just so happens after he wrecks his car and goes missing, one of his biggest fans saves him and nurses him back to health.... and then traps him in her home so that she can "tend" to him and dictate how she'd like his next book to go. Kathy Bates really invests in the part, you can see that, and her psychotic calm gets under your skin quite quickly. Some of the most tense scenes in the movie are where Caan's character makes attempts at escape.... but he fails to notice that his wheelchair bumped around some very meticulously arranged figurines in the living room, and Annie connects the dots on his escapade out of his room and goes ape-shit on him. I still can't watch the scene where she manages to keep him wheelchair-bound for quite awhile longer by taking a sledgehammer to his ankles (to the tune of Beethoven piano music).... I mean it, I curl into a ball and cover my face.... I can't watch that shit, it scares the crap out of me. In any case, when the AFI did their "100 Years, 100 Heroes & Villains" TV special, they interviewed Kathy Bates about playing Annie Wilkes (#17 on the villains list).... and she refused to say anything negative about the character. This, I think, is a great testament to Bates' acting prowess; she had to justify and fully believe in what Annie was doing in order to pull off the role.... and she's got her very own Oscar to polish for it.

The Descent (2006)

I saw this movie for the first time in January of this year and it blew me away, in the best possible way; I've found that my favorite movies of all time are the ones that take me completely by surprise, and The Descent is so one of my favorite movies of all time. This is the horror movie that people who appreciate film have been waiting for. It's too bad, though, that in the United States (the film is British, with a British director and mostly British actors) it was marketed similarly to a lot of the throw-away torture-porn horror movie junk of recent years and likely didn't register on the radar of many movie-goers. But this is not that kind of movie.... this is a horror movie with a sense of purpose and art, with an eye for characterization and storytelling, and is beautifully directed by Neil Marshall, who is able to pay homage all throughout to (likely) some of his favorite classic horror films. (It's hard, really, to try and list them all, but among some of my favorites are undeniable winks to Deliverance, The Blair Witch Project, Night of the Living Dead, and Carrie.) Marshall proves himself to have a skillful eye; where most of the movie takes place in tight and closed spaces, he films the outside world with such space that it really dovetails into a beautiful contrast when you recognize it. It would be negligent of me not to note that I probably also like this film because it has hot chicks that kick ass.... what can I say, I'm a fan of that in movies too. Shauna MacDonald and Natalie Mendoza (a pair of strikingly beautiful women, if I do say so myself) give some visceral and fearless performances here, and once they pick up their ice axes to start fighting, I dare you not to feel a tingle of giddy glee. The basic premise here: five daredevil women go cave diving somewhere in the mountains of rural North Carolina, and they stumble across things in the dark that they weren't planning on stumbling across. In so, the film treads through a bit of sci-fi territory.... the villains here aren't psychotic killers or zombies, but rather vicious humanoid monsters who've adapted to living in the dark. The first shot where you see one of these monsters (they're filmed so well that they're terrifying to look at whenever they're on screen) is the one that lingers longest with me, a kind of "wait, is that a man down there?" shot from far away that immediately puts you on edge. One of my favorite aspects of the film is that it eases you into the horror; there's plenty of blood and guts, but you wouldn't think so as the film opens or at least during the first forty-five minutes (the way the opening sequence ends, though, definitely grabs you for the ride). Another is the concept of "the descent", not just a literal reading of the ladies' trip down into the caves, but even on a more metaphorical level as in descending to a more primal state of being.... by having to fight these hungry beasts, MacDonald's and Mendoza's characters become primordial animal killers to protect themselves and their compadres. Apparently the ending was edited for the American theatrical release (which I didn't see), but I know that it's a somewhat "happier" ending than that on the DVD (and original British) release.... the original ending I prefer far and away much more; it adds a kind of bleakness that I think is necessary to the film, and it also visually ties the bow on a recurring motif of flashback to MacDonald's character's daughter. This bleakness, after all, is what sticks with you days and weeks after you've watched the film. So, in closing, I still scream out loud in parts when watching this, even when I know what's coming. One thing is for sure, this movie will turn you against ever wanting to go cave exploring.

Now go watch some scary movies.... Happy Halloween.


Writeprocrastinator said...

I completely agree with you about the marketing of "The Descent," with the women in the poster forming a skull. They completely dropped the ball on a movie that deserved a much wider audience. The only reason why I even bothered was because a blogger correctly pointed out what a great film it was and I certainly wouldn't have gotten around to seeing it otherwise.

J.J. said...

See, I think the women forming the skull was inspired symbology (and had plenty to do with the actual film).

Anyway, I first saw Blair Witch in theaters and I think I went into denial halfway through because it was so scary. My mind simply shut off my senses and wasn't registering the fear in order to protect itself. When I watched it for the second time on DVD two years ago, I had to turn it off. I couldn't finish watching it.

Dollar-for-punch, it's the most economical film ever made.

(And thanks for mentioning The Innocents earlier. I love it.)

Dale said...

I skipped reading about The Descent because I haven't seen it although I hope to soon. Kathy Bates was truly awesome in Misery though.

Canadian Stage Company has a production of Misery this season which I'll be going to. I'm curious to see what sort of intensity they'll be able to pull off on stage.

j said...

I've loved your posts about scary movies. I have to confess that of all the ones listed, I've only seen scream and first contact. Scream because someone made me and first contact because, obviously. Since I don't really watch scary movies, I didn't get all the jokes and was just terrified the whole time. The borg also scare the crap out of me. Although it was kinda nice for data to get some action for a change.

Christina said...

I don't watch many scary movies, but I did see Misery and loved it!