ekm’s 31 NIGHTS OF HORROR: EVENING 29 – THE DESOLATE AUGHTS
It was a dark time. The gritty realism of 70s Horror had yielded to the Saturday morning cartoon Slashers of the 80s; SCREAM resuscitated the excessive lunacy after a brief respite, only now with terrible TV stars. By the time the century had turned, so had many of us. Our favorite genre was no longer recognizable.
Now, keep in mind: I love shitty horror films. This is the one genre where a “bad” movie can be just as entertaining as a “good” one. These are films that are often cheesy, derivative, and, in many cases, poorly-made. In that respect, there’s a certain level of entertainment to be derived from watching film makers unintentionally display their absolute ineptitude in a public forum. It’s much like watching the AMERICAN IDOL contestants audition for the show: if they’re willing to embarrass themselves, then what’s the harm in me laughing at them…?
I’m good at pissing people off, both in real life as well as on the internet. A friend recently pointed out that I have a tendency to hate ninety percent of the movies that roll off the assembly line, and that my subsequent written assessments are utterly ruthless. It’s fair, but it’s also missing the point. See, folks, I want to love the films I watch, think over, and then write lengthy essays about. I want to tell you to rush out to your local theater and lay down your hard-earned money on a movie that’s going to entertain you, and perhaps even make you think a little in the process. And there’s plenty of that out there! But let’s be fair: bad movies are more fun to talk about than good ones, because it allows a critical mind to dream up better, more effective ways of accomplishing the mission statement. We should be grateful for terrible films, and the gift of inspiration they offer.
That said, this decade was the pits, because almost every Horror film fell into this category. Take the HOUSE OF WAX remake, a film I had absolutely zero expectations for. After all, it has Paris Hilton in a starring role, so – at the time of release – I thought I’d have a laugh at the movie’s expense, and then come home to pound out an overdue review (which I assumed would probably be negative). That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t at least be fun, right? However, I should have expected that HOUSE OF WAX would be less like a Twinkie and more like a McFish sandwich that had been under the heat lamp since eleven o’clock this morning, because that was the norm. Everything was an old McFish.
Let’s pick on this one some more, because it deserves it, innocuous though it may be (or seem). For starters, the title is completely misleading. When you go to see a movie called HOUSE OF WAX, one would typically presume that you’re going to see a story about a house or building, one that’s either made of or containing wax (or wax creations). Sounds sensible, right? In fact, let’s try a few short exercises to reinforce my point. See if you can match the film title to the synopsis given.
- A captive prisoner must save his family from a homicidal murderer, but has to cut off his foot with a hacksaw to do it.
- A man obsessed with the supernatural thinks he can hear the voices of the dead in his home recordings.
- A village is besieged by mysterious creatures.
- WHITE NOISE
- THE VILLAGE
See? You too can use common sense! The makers of House of Wax, sadly, can’t be given the same credit. Had they been honest and dropped the pretense that this was a remake of the 1953 Vincent Price film, then they might have gone for a more accurate title, like, say, ANOTHER HORROR FILM WHERE THE CAR BREAKS DOWN AND THE TEENAGERS ARE STALKED BY REDNECKS WITH BAD TEETH WHO CAN BE SHOT THROUGH THE HEART WITH AN ARROW BUT STILL BE PERFECTLY FINE. Or maybe, better yet, CONCLUSIVE PROOF THAT PARIS HILTON IS SIMPLY A LIFE SUPPORT SYSTEM FOR A VAGINA. Either of these titles would be appropriate, and far more honest.
The titular HOUSE OF WAX doesn’t appear until close to an hour into the film, and then only for a few minutes before taking a twenty-minute smoke break. The rest of the time, we’re following the adventures of Carly (Elisha Cuthbert), Paige (Paris Hilton), and a bunch of other actors you’ve never heard of and will probably never see again, as they end up in an abandoned town where a pair of homicidal twins (Brian Van Holt) turn their captured victims into wax dummies. A lot of idiotic things happen to a nu-Metal soundtrack, all of which builds to a blue screen-happy ending in which the HOUSE OF WAX melts.*
HOUSE OF WAX is the sort of movie where characters have a finger sliced off with a pair of clippers, and after an initial bout of heavy bleeding, are capable of turning doorknobs, fighting with baseball bats, and digging through melted wax (without ever losing the make-shift bandage, of course). It’s the sort of movie where a character — trapped in a melting house — decides to run upstairs despite the fact that the floor is collapsing. It’s the sort of movie where make-up effects are bypassed in favor of unconvincing CG. It’s the sort of movie that takes itself too seriously to be deemed “mindless entertainment,” particularly given the talent footing the bill (Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis).**
It’s also the sort of movie plagued by chronic focus problems, either because 1) nobody noticed, or 2) nobody cared. If you’re looking for a drinking game, take a shot every time the actors go fuzzy. Of course, that means that half an hour into the film, everything will look fuzzy, so you’ll end up forgetting about the bad cinematography anyway. Everyone wins!
And what about Paris Hilton, you’re probably wondering? Just how bad is she? Well, if you’re thinking that the film might be worth watching simply to see her die, then you’re very, very wrong. Yes, she dies, but it isn’t terribly satisfying given the fact that — technically — she dies the first time she opens her mouth and allows her stupid fucking soul to seep out like a vile, gaseous emission. She’s even shameless enough to take part in reflexive jokes that reference her infamous porn video (which is slightly less entertaining but slightly better shot than HOUSE OF WAX), and attempts to further play up her reputation as a sex object by performing a striptease that looks like her thirteen year-old male body double did most of the work. To put a nice bow on it, Paris Hilton performs as though she has approximately three brain cells, one of which clearly died due to the mental exertions required of her role. In all likelihood, the other two cells are currently fighting over who gets to eat the dead one.
But hey: it’s easy to pick on Paris Hilton and identify her as the biggest problem with HOUSE OF WAX, and no one has time for low-hanging fruit that’s so close to the ground that you throw out your back bending over to pick. There were equally-problematic flicks during this era that had far better casting, and were nonetheless a series of Boo! moments wrapped around a paper-thin premise. The trailers looked good, but that’s the problem: once you got past the initial idea, you weren’t left with a hell of a lot. A film like BOOGEYMAN had a great trailer, featuring 7TH HEAVEN’s Barry Watson as a disturbed young man who returns home to confront the terrors of his childhood. However, once you have to flesh that story out and make it last for ninety minutes, all the crap starts showing up. The grating love interest. The false scares. The convoluted plot twists and “surprise” ending. Most horror stories work better as campfire stories that can be told in a matter of sentences. Once you try to pad them out, the inherent weaknesses begin to stand out.
WHITE NOISE takes the concept of electronic voice phenomenon (which is pronounced “electronic voice phenomenom” during the film) and attempts to write a story around it, which is the first problem with this type of movie. EVP is the process of recording the voices of the dead, which can only be heard on playback due to the isolation of particular frequencies. Investigators have allegedly yielded some pretty creepy results, but while it’s an intriguing concept for a Discovery Channel special, EVP doesn’t exactly lend itself to the dramatic structure.
The plot — if you can call it that — staggers along at a drunken pace until it finally pitches over and vomits all over itself, passing out and leaving us confused as to what the hell just happened. While this might sound like “critic talk” (lowbrow “critic talk,” at that), I can’t stress this enough: the story makes no sense. No matter how hard you try, nothing in the film adds up. Michael Keaton (sporting a ginger dye-job that only accentuates his slipping cheeks) plays Jonathan Rivers, some guy who works some job who happens to be married to bestselling novelist Anna Rivers (Chandra West). When Anna disappears in a MYSTERIOUS ACCIDENT ON A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT, all sorts of clichéd things begin to happen: clocks stop, phones ring from disconnected sources, and my friends begin falling asleep in the seat next to me (literally). Soon, Jonathan is approached by Raymond Price (a bulbous Ian McNeice, helpfully playing the obligatory Stranger Who Knows A Dark Secret), who reveals the dark secrets of EVP to the grieving widower. At that point, things go from boring to incoherent.
It seems Price has been recording all sorts of video as well as the audio, except none of it is anything less than convincing. Based on the sounds and images he’s collected (hundreds of hours, we learn), it seems inconceivable that EVP wouldn’t be considered a more legitimate area of study. E ven the best results from the best investigators have yielded evidence that’s inconclusive, but hey: this is Hollywood. This shit doesn’t have to make sense.***
Eventually, all the hokum about “doorways for evil spirits” and “meddling in things too big for you” starts getting bandied about. Things begin to happen…it’s just that there’s no reason why they’re happening. I’ve included a brief point-by-point breakdown, and if anyone who has seen the film can explain what I missed, feel free to do so here.
- Anna’s voice begins appearing on recordings, warning Jonathon about the three “men in the room.”
- Price dies mysteriously in one of those deaths that’s “better left unsolved.”
- Jonathon begins kinda-dating-but-kinda-not some dour chick played by Deborah Kara Unger, who has obviously never considered a stage name.
- Jonathon begins making his own recordings of ghosts who (inexplicably) tell the future.
- He becomes a super hero and saves babies from car accidents.
- Dour Girlfriend jumps off a roof and lands on a car, but miraculously survives without any permanent injuries.
- Surprise! The janitor is a psychopath!
- Jonathon fights a villain who looks vaguely like a moist bowel movement in a swimming pool.
- Surprise! Let’s set up a sequel in the most obvious way possible!
At this point, I still don’t know who the “men in the room” were, what they wanted, or how EVP figured into anything. I don’t understand why the ghost recordings gave clues regarding events that hadn’t yet happened, or why Anna was abducted by ghosts (which may seem like a spoiler, folks, but I promise I haven’t spoiled anything for you). I don’t know who the janitor was, why the Dour Girlfriend jumped off the building (unless she was trying to get out of the movie), nor do I have any clue what the fuck happened in the last ten minutes of what felt like a nine hour movie.
What I do know is that WHITE NOISE was trying hard to be THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES (another illogical film, albeit a far more stylish one), but for all its cryptic messages and insinuations, it’s a film that was compelling audience members to sleep, talk, or get up to leave. It’s not just a bad movie: it’s also a boring one, which is a far greater crime.
No one can accuse SAW of being dull, in either sense of the word. In fact, I’d hesitate to even call it “bad.” It just isn’t very good. The worst part is that the film has plenty to praise, but it’s so uneven that it’s hard to like. Every time you’ve made up your mind that you buy into the film, something — ranging from clichéd to ridiculous — happens in the story, making it that much harder to get back into the groove. SAW presents itself in much the same way that OPEN WATER did: as a gruesome character study of two people trapped in a claustrophobic, life-threatening environment from which escape is seemingly impossible. In this case, we have Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), who is locked in an underground bathroom with a stranger named Adam (screenwriter Leigh Whannell), both of whom can only escape their shackles by amputating their own feet with pre-supplied hacksaws. It’s an undeniably intriguing premise; but once we get past that and into the story itself, the film begins treading very familiar water.
Basically, SAW is a rehash of SEVEN, with a villain — here placing his victims in scenarios that involve forced murder and self-mutilation as punishment for their perceived crimes — who is virtually identical in motive to Kevin Spacey’s “Deadly Sins” killer. We meet Jigsaw, a creepy animatronic clown puppet, who takes hypochondriacs, drug addicts and other individuals who abuse their lives and bodies, and puts them in controlled environments that — if survived — will teach the value of life. In one case, a failed suicide has to climb through a tunnel of barbed wire; and in another, a man has to use a candle to search for clues to his escape while covered head-to-foot in a highly flammable substance. And the girl wearing the reverse-Bear Trap on her face…? Don’t ask.
These moments, which are depicted via flashbacks, are blood-chilling in execution. You will squirm; and if you see SAW with someone else, you will curl up into a little ball in your seat and hang onto their arm/shoulder/shirt/hair for dear life. These sequences — to say nothing of other Boo! Moments that occur later on—will make you jump, will make you shudder, and may even make you cry out, something that happened several times throughout my original theatrical screening. Hell, the movie even made one of my friends get up and leave the theatre to wait for the Bear Trap on the Face sequence to finish. So, in that sense, SAW is very much a success. It succeeds in grossing you out, making you want to vomit, while rendering you powerless to walk away until it’s all over. It’s definitely entertaining, if your idea of fun is watching horrible acts of brutality. I guess I qualify for this (to a point), so yeah: I enjoyed the film on that level. It messed with my mind, which is all I asked of it when I paid my money at the counter.
But if SAW’s strength is its stylish execution of unsettling material, its weakness comes from the fact that it wants to be more than that. The non-linear storyline weaves in and out of flashback after flashback, throwing out clues as to Jigsaw’s identity; and around the time that Danny Glover shows up as The Obsessed Cop Still Trying To Track Down The Serial Killer Even Though He’s Been Dismissed By The Police Force, the movie begins breaking wind in your face. At first, we’re dealing with a few S.B.D.s; but pretty soon, SAW becomes an uncontrollably flatulent entity that seems almost powerless to stop its explosive fits of stuttering Ass Quacking.
If you asked me, I don’t think I could even pin down what it was the bothered me so much. Maybe it was the all-too-familiar cop storyline. Maybe it was the subplot with the doctor’s wife and daughter (Shawnee Smith and Mackenzie Vega) being held hostage by the killer (Will they escape…?). Maybe it was the way SAW was trying so hard to be clever with a hundred and fifty different plot twists (a hundred of which could be seen coming a mile away, with the remaining fifty being kind of clever). Hey, maybe it was the fact that Gordon’s character was so well-written while Adam — an equally important character — barely registered at all. There were just so many things to make this a lousy movie that I don’t know where to begin; but there was so much to make it good that it’s hard to simply dismiss SAW as crap.
And the ending…? Well, if you’re expecting a BIG TWIST, you’ll get one; but it’s a twist that, when examined, is both unsatisfying and — upon reflection — doesn’t make much sense based on the premise of the film.
All this fence-sitting is making my balls hurt. Suffice it to say, SAW is a highly entertaining film that begins to lose its charm during the second half; and with every misstep it becomes harder and harder to take seriously. It’s a stylishly executed film filled with wonderfully manic performances, but on the whole it’s held back by a pedestrian storyline. I’m not sure how to rank it, as my opinion keeps flip-flopping back and forth; but as of this particular moment in time, I’ll have to call it satisfactory at best, which is itself an achievement given its arrival during a most unsatisfactory time for Horror.
*Did I just spoil the ending for you? Good! Now you don’t have to see it.
**I did learn something while watching HOUSE OF WAX, one that will definitely prove to be important throughout the course of my life. I discovered that — when eating Peanut M&Ms — it’s better to bite off half the chocolate shell, and then allow the second bite to be peanut-dominated with just a hint of candy. I call this “Peanut Emphasis,” and I’d like to sincerely thank HOUSE OF WAX for allowing me to discover it.
***You know the credibility of the film is stretched thin once you begin seeing the equipment Price is using: for all his flat-screen monitors and fancy talk, the recording programs look slightly less realistic than MTV’s Music Generator for the original Playstation. There aren’t any settings for bass and treble, but hey; the graphic they use for that volume knob sure looks great!
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)