THE MONSTER, dir. Bryan Bertino.
This is the kind of minimalist indie horror that is intentionally stripped down and hyperstraightforward, with only a handful of speaking roles and one primary location. Horror films like this come out all the time, usually passing off as passionate declarations by their directors of their talent, potential, and ability with a camera. The typical idea is to establish several protagonists, put them in a terrifying situation, and watch them squirm and get out of it while the underlying drama plays on in the background, right?. LIGHTS OUT and DON’T BREATHE did this pretty well recently, and the same way LIGHTS OUT dealt with domestic abuse and DON’T BREATHE tackled poverty-level desperation, this one revolves around “the monster” of addiction. But the way those films, and BEYOND THE WALLS (which played earlier at Beyond Fest), were able to create a sense of synergy between what the characters were going through internally and externally, this one feels like two films stacked on top of each other, with one emphasizing the drama and one designed to scare you. As a result, neither ends up truly working as well as it could, and the movie quite manages to turn itself into that thing that Ebert once described cinema as, a “machine for empathy.”
From a story perspective, there’s a semblance of potential; the movie starts out showing us the relationship between Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and her daughter, Lizzy (Ella Ballentine). Kathy’s a single mom and thoroughbred fuckup, with her booze, drug, and sex-filled lifestyle spilling out into all aspects of their lives. Lizzy, calm and wise beyond her years, serves as more of the mother figure, trying to keep Kathy somewhat healthy and functional despite her struggle with addiction, but has gotten fed up and plans to leave to live with her father for good. As Kathy drives Lizzy to her father’s, possibly for the last time, they get in an accident while trying to avoid a wolf in the road, and are stranded in their car in the middle of the woods during a rainstorm, no less. Secluded, immobile, and with limited cell-phone service (of course), the two hunker down and wait for help, but hints start to add up that something is lurking in the shadows, ready to devour them both.
There’s something interesting in the dynamic between Kathy and Lizzy as writer/director Bertino establishes their tumultuous relationship in the best of times before making things even worse and more desperate. There have been horror movies about addiction before, including the EVIL DEAD remake, but there’s something real and harsh in seeing the real-time effects of living alone with a drug-addled parent. It’s one thing for the brutal anarchy of existence to hit you as an adult, but poor, young Lizzy is forced to build up her psyche in a anarchic, merciless living situation, and we are very much seeing the effects Kathy’s choices are making on the innocent, resilient girl.
There is an entirely different film called, “The Monster,” where the title refers directly to Kathy’s personal demons, which is totally focused on the pair repairing their relationship. However, once the literal monster enters into the situation, the film obviously shifts gears pretty hard, and a lot of the potential of the early section gets squandered by an attempt to draw out the tension as the two shudder, mutter, and occasionally exit the car while trying to survive. The dynamic between the two is instantly altered, as little Lizzy immediately devolves into a scared, defenseless little girl, while Kathy begins to act like a responsible Mama Bear for once in her life. Even if it weren’t such an obvious arc, it would still feel like a betrayal to the interesting, atypical interplay between the two in the intro and the occasional momentum-killing flashbacks littered throughout. Eventually, Lizzie is completely ignoring and contradicting Kathy’s desperate attempts at getting them to safety, and you’re wondering what happened to the girl mature enough to tenderly hold her mother despite her being passed out drunk in the bathroom.
Maybe the film would’ve benefited from an even longer intro, a more engaging mid-section, or perhaps a structure where the flashbacks came at the outset, because there’s a huge stake plunging slowly into the heart of this thing as it goes on; you really don’t give a shit. With minimalism, the goal is to strip something down to the bare essentials necessary to make it work, and there simply isn’t enough here to give a shit about whether Kathy and Lizzy end up as some creature’s late night snack. Normally, I like things like simple, straightforward plots, minimal dialogue, and limited locations, but there has to be enough there to engage emotionally. Think about how much you cared about the fate of Ryan Reynolds’ character in BURIED, and he’s just laying in a damned coffin the whole time. Instead, you have these long, quiet shots of our rain-soaked characters, jaws agape and eyes widened, as they kill time until their inevitable last stand against the creature.
The creature itself was designed by the guys at studioADI, and the legendary former Stan Winston collaborators who’ve worked on stuff like TREMORS and the latter four ALIEN pictures (not counting PROMETHEUS…side note, they mentioned that they were set to work on Blomkamp’s ALIEN picture, but that it’s quite dead asofnow) have concocted a slimy, nasty looking creature that looks like a mix between a xenomorph and, as someone mentioned in the Q&A, the Creeper from JEEPERS CREEPERS. The design’s a little bit bland, pure evil and somewhat rubbery looking when it finally comes under light, certainly nothing worth getting excited about. It was a shame when the founders of studioADI mentioned that Bertino had originally envisioned a few things that would make the monster more sympathetic and distinctive, such as thin, translucent skin, bones that creaked loudly as he walked, and a persistent wail to imply the creature’s constant pain. These elements are nowhere to be found, and the creature guys themselves thought the reveal of their creation was overblown and anticlimactic, so what you have is a somewhat boring monster creeping up on equally boring characters for an hour and a half.
You never know how these things end up the way they are, particularly when low budgets are concerned, and there’s evidence in Bertino’s correspondence with studioADI that he originally aimed for something a little more ambitious and inventive, but the final result is a pretty lackluster horror film. The characters played by Kazan and Ballentine are quickly reduced to simpering victims once the threat is established, leaving the two actresses struggling to recapture the engaging interplay that comprises their domestic scenes back in civilization. This is a good reminder that while the notion of keeping your film simple and minimal is appealing both financially and creatively, you always run the risk of neglecting to include a reason for the audience to actively give a shit about what is indeed on the screen.
THE BAD BATCH (2016), dir. Ana Lily Amirpour
Ana Lily Amirpour’s first film, the American-made, Farsi-language indie vampire romance A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, was a slice of stylish awesomeness, helped by Elijah Wood’s Spectrevision to earn a spot in the increasingly rarefied sphere of being “cool.” The film was such an extension of Amirpour’s own personality and sensibilities that a lot of eyes were fixed on what she would do for her follow-up, and she’s gone post-apocalyptic with a bigger budget, bigger named stars, and a more pronounced love story at its center. Some of these things are utilized perfectly, while others…aren’t.
It’s the future, but we don’t see what’s become of humanity, only the “Bad Batch” that have been exiled into the western deserts; this is an ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK that takes place only in New York, populated only by the freaks that run this particular freak kingdom. Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is recently-declared Bad Batch, and is only in the desert a short while before being kidnapped by cannibals, dubbed “Bridge People.” They slice off an arm and a leg (with none other than Ace Of Base blaring in the background), but the girl manages to escape, and finds herself in the drugged-out commune of “Comfort.” Run by The Dream (a creepy, mustachioed Keanu Reeves), Comfort offers luxuries like toilets, homes, and food not derived by humans, but the whole place lives for a steady stream of pharmaceuticals and nightly, psychedelic raves. Venturing out one day, she happens upon two Bridge People, a mother and her daughter, and ends up taking the daughter with her back to Comfort. The girl’s bulked-up Tree Person father (Jason Momoa), sets out to find the girl, who has been taken in by The Dream, using the help of the acid-headed girl he bumps into out in the wasteland: you guessed it, Arlen.
I’ll start out by talking about what didn’t work for me, which, I hate to say, is the core narrative of the piece. Once Momoa’s imposing barbarian crosses paths with Arlen, the movie pivots away from the respective lifestyles of the two communities and becomes something of a begrudging love story between the two characters. I’m not saying there’s no potential in a love story between a ruthless psychopath and one of his former victims (even if Momoa didn’t slice the girl up himself), nor that there isn’t something intriguingly perverse and sick in the idea of a handicapped person being attracted someone big, strong, and physically capable even with a very real reason to despise him. But the icky sexual politics AND what we’ve seen him do onscreen AND the minimalism of the dialogue AND the vague, unimpressive performances by Momoa (who sports a weird accent and that permanent scowl) and Waterhouse (whose warddrobe speaks far more about the character than she does) lead to a central romance that doesn’t hit emotionally the way the rest of the film hits intellectually. In concept, I’m sure it sounded like something of substance, but in execution, it’s a far, far cry from the nervous relationship between Arash and the vampire in GIRL WALKS HOME, and lets down the elements of the film that Amirpour has pulled off so nicely.
So if the relationship that the film is built around doesn’t work, how is this still worth seeing? In two words, it’s the world. Amirpour has spent her increased budget in creating a post-apocalyptic universe unlike any we’ve seen, at least since the ‘70s trip-outs like A BOY AND HIS DOG. The desertscapes are shot wide and epic, the communities with long, detailed tracking shots, and the occasional interiors with a striking and haunting glow. There are impressive, original set elements, like a giant boombox-on-wheels that The Dream speaks from and the airplane graveyard that consists of the Bridge People’s home. The film was shot in “Slab City,” a large, “off-the-grid community” in the desert, and the environments look believably lived in and weathered, with many of the real life Slab City residents bouncing around the background as extras. Other than Momoa and Reeves (who earns his place in the movie with not one, but two perfectly Keanu-y monologues), Amirpour was able to score actors like Diego Luna, Giovanni Ribisi, and, most surprisingly, a silent, heavily made-up Jim Carrey, all of whom probably signed on to, as Ana said, “Get freaky.” Carrey, in particular, shocks in an incredibly unglamorous role, shirtless, flabby, and filthy, and still manages to get the biggest laughs in the picture. It’s the kind of stuff you always hope these visionary directors will do when they get a blank check (or at least one with more zeros on it), and shows that she’s totally capable of responding to and complying with the public image of a celebrity while challenging it at the same time, in the same vein as Tarantino (not to suggest any further comparisons).
While Amirpour claims the built the idea around a central image of Arlen crawling her way to safety in the desert, it’s the macro aspects of the script that stuck with me the hardest. The idea of “The Bad Batch”, who are thrown behind a wall by a country that sees them as extraneous and unwanted, is more relevant than my previous ESFNY comparison would suggest, and the little we see of the people who permeate this landscape implies a very specific racist and socio-economic based selection system. There’s a surprising level of social commentary in the relationship between the two societies; the Bridge People are presented as creatures of necessity, who’ve succumbed to the socially frowned-upon practice of cannibalism as a last measure to feed themselves and their kin (though this is disappointingly under-explored), while the Comfort people live in drugged-out squalor while enjoying the illusion of luxury while The Dream lives an absurdly luxurious, egotistical lifestyle in his mansion. It’s not the most subtle stuff in the world, but it’s presented in such an offhand, original way that it feels organic and real, not like the trumped-up New Yorker fiction it could’ve been.
It’s near-impossible for any artist to follow-up a widely celebrated piece of work successfully, for the genesis is almost inevitably coming less from a, “You know what would be really cool?” perspective and more of a, “What would the person who made that thing make next?” Ana has, thankfully, avoided the pitfall of blowing her sophomore film; this is the same kind of distinctive, ambitious audio/visual experience that GIRL WALKS HOME was, and is a near-ideal vehicle for Amirpour to show what she can do with the big money guys behind her (or, in this case, Megan Ellison). There are more genre explorations/deconstructions to look forward to from this lady, and though she sometimes seems to be at odds with the increased level of attention going her way, her confidence in her artistic instincts seem to be even stronger than ever. However, the heart, pain, and pathos that permeated her first film, and the tentative romance that was so charming there, are missing here, and I hope that for her third film, Ms. Amirpour will be able to match her eye for sprawl and spectacle with the low-key humanity of this scene from GIRL:
THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE (2016), dir. André Øvredal
Brian Cox is one of the two leads of this movie.
That was honestly all I needed to hear to get me interested in this movie, and if his name has the same effect on you, then assuredly you should read no further.
But sure enough, in the days leading up to its screening at Beyond Fest here in L.A., it had received a ton of acclaim out of Fantastic Fest, including winning the award for Best Horror Picture, to the point where the programmers rescheduled it to play on the massive 50’ main screen at the Egyptian instead of the smaller “Shudder Theater.” They’d been talking it up the whole fest, saying it was, front-to-back, one of the scariest features in a long while, so I was very curious to see if the film would live up to the hype.
Brian Cox plays Austin, a coroner training his son, Tommy (Emile Hirsch), in the family business. One night, they receive an unidentified corpse found at the scene of a multiple murder, the titular “Jane Doe.” The cops are clueless as to what went actually went down, and the sheriff, knowing the media shitstorm that will inevitably surround such a scene, gives the father-son pair until the morning to a. establish cause of death and b. possibly reconstruct what the hell happened. They are barely into their examination when the weird stuff starts happening. Their cat is inexplicably mauled in the vents. The power begin to flicker on and off, and eventually goes out. And, of course, they find that a storm has isolated them, cut off the phone lines, and obstructed the only door leading to the outside. Trapped in their lab with the body, they conclude that it’s The Autopsy that’s triggering these phenomena, and that figuring out who Jane Doe is and how she ended up there is their only hope at escape.
I won’t compare this too heavily against THE MONSTER, only to say that it’s also a two-hander that traps its characters in one location in the middle of a heavy rainstorm. I will say that it is, indeed, one of the more creepily engaging horror movies I’ve seen in a long while. The decision to frame the movie as a detective story is ingenious, and is a wonderfully distinctive, strong move other than to simply watch our characters lurk around and wait to die as they do in so many of these flicks. There’s a lot of gory, technical detail, and the film is structured around the four stages of the autopsy, the superficial examination, the heart and lungs, the digestive tract, and finally, the brain. We hang on every word coming out of Tommy and Austin’s mouths, deriving our own conclusions, and watching these educated, intuitive people try and reverse engineer something that was obviously horrific and very likely supernatural. The conclusion they reach, and the outcome it produces, feel earned and logical, and we feel rewarded like we’ve been investigating Jane Doe’s body right alongside the two characters
The two leads are obviously vets, and lend a great deal of humanity to their father-son duo. Cox, as yet another warm patriarch, is even more of an unconventional horror lead than he was in TRICK R’ TREAT, with his short, thick frame and unglamorous looks giving the impression less of a 45-year working actor and more like a guy who spends his time staring into the cavernous eyes of cadavers and sucking formaldehyde fumes all day. When the fit hits the shan, the old man acquiesces to reality fairly quickly, and Cox gets thrown around and visibly strained with full believability. The relationship between he and Hirsch, as his son, feels real and endearing, with that paternal mix of encouraging affection and high expectations lingering over all their interactions. Regarding Hirsch, I normally have an easy time separating the art from the artist, but the knowledge of his incident at Sundance some years back kept me somewhat at odds with the young-looking actor’s work. Nevertheless, he does strong, uncondescending work, and is convincing in his character’s attempts to live up to his father’s expectations. Also deserving of mention is Olwen Kelly as the haunting, beautiful Jane Doe herself; forced to lay on a slab with dead-face makeup, cloudy contacts, and heinously detailed gore appliances for the entirety of the picture, she’s an enigmatic figure worthy of the intense examination, and she constantly pulls our attention to her eyes as we bite our nails waiting for some sort of flutter or movement.
I wasn’t as taken with Ovredal’s first solo film, TROLL HUNTER, as many (though I’m tickled to see it listed on IMDB as an actual documentary), but in the absence of the tonal and pacing problems that bothered me there, I found myself very impressed by the director’s sense of space, speed, and style. The action frequently moves around the location, keeping the setting varied without compromising the claustrophobia. When violence occurs, it’s often more clipped and confusing than exploitative or graphic, and breaks the heart instead of making you stand up and cheer. The portrayal of the actual autopsy is explicitly detailed in frank honesty and doesn’t try to gross you out or induce laughter, which helps to immerse you in the narrative. The ending doesn’t quite go where you expect, with a bait-and-switch that genuinely gave me chills and satisfied me while inspiring a bunch of questions as the same time, a rare feat. As the credits rolled, the wave that hits an audience after a horror film swept over us, and I had to remind myself that while the film was going, it played as much as a whodunit (or, more accurately, howdunit) than it did as a creepfest.
It’s tough to tiptoe around the things that work about the film’s three-act structure, the use of its supporting characters, and the implications of the final conclusions, but I will simply re-emphasize that this is one eerie, meticulous little film that treats you like an adult and is successful in its seldomly-achieved attempt of actually making you relate and empathize with the people at its center.
And, once more, Brian Cox is one of the two leads of this film, and is in nearly every scene. So you can’t say I didn’t tell you.