Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing right now. I have an interview in 7 hours and another full day of SXSW to hit tomorrow and thanks to the goddamned fucking bastard daylight savings time I also lose an hour.
If I were sane and/or treated my body with any sort of respect I’d be sleeping right now, but I saw two films tonight that I had to report on.
Let me start off by saying just how bizarre today was. I was up early to moderate the Source Code panel and got to chat with the cast, including the gobsmackingly gorgeous Michelle Monaghan, and introduce Jake Gyllenhaal by saying “he’s been in many films, but you’ll probably know him best for what some describe as his career defining turn as Billy Crystal’s son in City Slickers… Mr. Jake Gyllenhaal!”
Then I saw Being Elmo, complete with a Q&A with Kevin Clash who brought out Elmo to answer some questions. I’ll have a full review of that one, but the easy version is it’s great. Then I moved to the Paramount theater where Pee-Wee Herman was throwing out free Ice Cream. I snagged this shot:
And then I saw two movies in a row that were awesome. Before I allow myself to sleep, I have to comment on them.
Let’s start with Attack the Block, a movie produced by Edgar Wright and directed by first time feature director Joe Cornish, long-time Wright collaborator.
When Cornish took the stage to introduce the film he described it as “Super 8 Mile” and shockingly that’s a very apt description. It’s about pissed off aliens that land in gang-ridden South London and the teen thugs that stand up to them.
Before the film rolled Cornish rattled off his influences, mostly supernatural American films of the ‘80s, including ET, Predator and Critters. Of those Critters is the closest to the tone of this movie… and I mean that in the best way possible.
What’s truly impressive about this film is that this gang of 15-19 year old hoodlums don’t start out as likeable by any stretch of the imagination. They rob a poor woman walking home alone and are interrupted by a meteor crashing into a nearby car. This event kickstarts a journey of discovering personal responsibility… all while being hunted down by dozens upon dozens of David-werewolf sized shaggy monstrocities with no eyes and glowing teeth.
Critters’ tone is very close to this one. That first Critters movie is played for laughs many times, but when shit gets serious, shit gets serious. Here there’s a very solid and very real dramatic arc subtly happening as our lead character, a tough teen gangbanger named Moses (played by newcomer John Boyega) discovers the hard way that his carefree fuck-everyone attitude has consequences, consequences he has to make amends for.
While that dynamic is running, we also have a fun kids-defending-their-home action-horror flick. Thanks to the great guys at Spectral Motion and Cornish’s obvious nostalgia for movie monsters of my heyday the threat is very real.
In a nice twist on the formula these creatures have glowing teeth (instead of the usual glowing monster eyes), which gives us the ability to see these black-furred hulks as they creep up in the dark.
Oh, and the great Nick Frost shows up as a Weed Dealer to essentially give us a known face and personality to really settle into this crazy world.
A lot of credit has to go to Cornish for bravely casting real teens from this neighborhood, which adds an air of authenticity to a ridiculous genre-comedy that sets this film apart from the rest. In particular John Boyega is a real find as is every one of his crew, all young non-actors that don’t feel like it.
The effects vary from CG, practical and a combination of the two so that you never can really spot the effect… which was good for me as that it kept me involved with the survival horror aspect and the character relationships.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Attack the Block marks the debut of a filmmaker we’ll becoming more and more desperate to see new material from. He has the geeky enthusiasm of an Edgar Wright, but with a uniquely bizarre amalgam of influences that all mesh into one exciting vision.
Next up, before I collapse, is a little look at Ti West’s The Innkeepers. You’ll recognize the above totally rad poster from the debut a week or so ago and I’m happy to report that the movie is good, so if you wanted that poster on your wall you can go ahead and find yourself one.
In many ways this is the movie I was told Insidious was. It’s low budget, it’s a slow burn, but to me this film succeeds in all the ways Insidious failed.
The Innkeepers takes place in an old hotel that is notoriously haunted, but not in a hidden Stephen King kinda way, but in the way that most medium-sized towns have that old hotel with a history.
Austin’s is The Driskill, which is supposedly haunted by suicide brides and, from different accounts, a little girl ghost. I’ve talked with people who have stayed there and reported things moved in the room while they were there and I’ve even spoken with employees that to the person have heard the pattering of feet in the dead of night where no living soul would be.
What makes The Innkeepers work is that for a good deal of the film it doesn’t play like a horror movie. In fact, it’s almost a light romantic comedy as we get to know the final two amateur ghost-hunting employees at this small, old hotel.
Sara Paxton plays Claire, a perky, adorable, excited young woman and Pat Healy plays her co-worker that obviously has a massive crush on her despite his aggressively cynical smart-ass exterior.
There’s a real feeling of history with these two, a friendship that feels authentic and not forced and that spark keeps the film alive as it inches closer and closer to the horror movie we’re all expecting.
In typical Ti West fashion the flick is a slow burn, filmed classically and with a great amount of respect to the audience in that he trusts us to stick with it, trusts that we don’t need Avid-fart editing and shaky-cam shit every 4 seconds.
The first third of the film plays more like Clerks than The Shining. We see these two flirt, joke, invent little games to pass the time in their dull job sitting at reception in the lobby of a hotel that has, at most, 2 rooms occupied at a time. One of their distractions is a little ghost hunting website they set up and as the hotel moves closer and closer to its closing Paxton becomes more and more desperate to get some hard evidence of the their famous ghost, Molly O’Malley.
It’s not until the last third that the horror really begins and West uses every tool in the horror filmmaker’s toolbox. We have auditory horror as Paxton and Healy use headphones and a recorder to try to pick up spectral voices, we have implied horror where the characters see something we don’t (my favorite piece of the movie, actually) and then there’s the regular horror movie imagery… ghosts, blood and creepy things moving about on the screen.
But West shows a clear understanding of filmmaking not just in how he juggles the different kinds of suspense, but in how he casts two great people in roles that are written so well that I’m genuinely invested in these characters by the time they’re in harm’s way.
Especially Sara Paxton. Adorable is an understatement. This is the kind of girl every geek guy wants… cute, into geek shit, but real… not necessarily a tomboy, but filled with wide-eyed excitement.
So, West gives us a relationship we like, that we start pulling for, spends so much time building them up that when the curiosity passes the point of no return and things start getting dangerous that we don’t want to see either of these two put in harm’s way. That’s not easy to do and I commend him for drawing me in so skillfully.
If I have any nitpicks it’s with the last few moments of the movie. The finale itself is fine, but the last scene feels a little to stereotypically horror that it stands out in a film that is otherwise so fresh and atypical of the genre.
I also want to make a point to single out Jeff Grace’s score. It’s fantastic and unlike Insidious’ score it doesn’t dictate the scares… in fact, it drops out a few times to really make the creepiness fill the theater. However it’s fun when the film is fun, light when the film is light. In these moments it reminded me of Ghostbusters. Top notch work.
So, that’s what I got. Now, if I’m lucky I can get 4 hours of sleep before another full day… Back with more SXSW coverage soon!