Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Friday, May 07, 2010

Lords of Fliestown (Cute Kids and Canadian Corpses): THE CHILDREN, SURVIVING CROOKED LAKE, PLAIN DIRTY

  THE CHILDREN
(2009) Dir. Tom Shankland
***

British horror auteur Tom Shankland closes in on Neal Marshall for the title of British John Carpenter with this sweet tale of a tadpole egg-related infectious disease that turns children into coughing, smiling, wan, matricidal maniacs in an isolated English estate on Xmas holiday. 
 
What's really good here--aside from the awesome music--is the film's knowing critique of our fucked up social order in the wake of 1980s conservative "Spielbergism," through which 'cute' children are allowed to literally get away with murder while sulky teens are ostracized for beginning to remind parents too much of themselves. As an eldest child attention-seeker who's had to face being upstaged by cuter little tykes (and with no children of my own), I relish scenes where blind adherence to child-worship  results in bloody death. The seminal archetypal moment in this is perhaps the daughter in the basement rising up to grab a trowel in 1968's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (right). Advancing towards her mom while all mom can do is plead, so crippled by maternal compassion she can't even ward off a single stabbing blow. 

If that's one of your favorite scenes in movies, then you will love THE CHILDREN, wherein moms conveniently forget that their sweet children were trying to stab them just minutes ago, preferring to blame the savvy teenage girl in the group, rather than be forced to re-adjust their sense of the cuteness hierarchy. It's a terrifying thing when your parents won't believe you for no other reason than your little sister is more angelic and less openly rebellious, so you wind up punished for her murders. Shankland creates a great sense of mood, pace and real time amidst the dead winter English countryside, and it's heartening that in Britain you can still show parents drinking and smoking in front of their kids, as they did in my day. I'm sure there's American audience members who think that if you smoke and drink in front of your child you should be arrested for reckless endangerment, and I'd just love to stick these sanctimonious reactionaries in this movie, so they could cry "Won't someone think of the children?!" as they gently wipe their own blood off said children's mouths and knife edges. Oh yeah. Believe it, for the jealous older sibling in each of us, These CHILDREN got mad corn.


SURVIVING CROOKED LAKE
(2009) - Starring Stephanie Richardson
*1/2

Or "Anti-Antigone" as this Canadian film (made by three University of Toronto film students) starts off ready for riveting with the story of girls learning to shake the veneer of civilization to survive in the wilderness, but instead it winds up being about a girl's irrational refusal to bury the decomposing corpse of her brother. You don't need a hostile Greek king to pronounce her sentence, she'll do it herself --that's feminism! Rather than fight bears, tigers or hillbilly mutant cannibal rapists,  Steph (Stephannie Richardson) and her three cute blonde friends have to contend with Steph's obsessively self-righteous "no corpse left behind" policy. 

Up until about half-way through the film it's a pretty good bucolic fantasia. Our three student directors keep the shots artsy and the shorts short, with sun-dappled dreamy close-up dissolves from one blonde-haired, nearly-mature beauty to the next. There's a nice film school idyll at work, like the cinematographer really studied PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1973) and maybe even MEAN CREEK (2005). But then the film bogs down into an argument about whether to drag the heavy, rotting corpse of their accidentally dead guide --he is also Steph's dead brother--FITZCARRALDO-style over hill and dale towards what they hope will be the highway. 

As Steph is the insane one who wont bury her brother or leave him, it becomes very hard to not judge her as the villain for her selfish, reckless endangerment of her friends, just so she can save her sibling's rotting corpse from being re-absorbed into nature. When some friendly wolves offer to take the corpse off her hands, Steph shoos them away and you don't know whether the filmmakers want you to cheer her bravery or wish she'd just get eaten, too. In other words, are these filmmakers weirdos who think archaic funeral rites make us human or are they recovering from some past trauma of being forced to attend an open casket funeral as a child? 

Either way, like, ick. 

Whereas THE CHILDREN seems a veiled critique of modern over-parenting and child worship, SURVIVING CROOKED LAKE becomes an open attack on girls who can't let go of their "inability to let go," even with slow death by starvation (anorexia) and constant vomiting from the stench of a decomposing brother (bulimia) staring them in the face. Are Canadians obsessed with dragging corpses around or did the screenwriter get flummoxed at the first narrative hurtle? Is this a national problem the way child obsession is in the states and UK? Something that needs to be addressed? It's certainly far enough outside my own realm of experience it seems made for some weird necrophiliacs-trying-to-get-straight rehab lounge. I hope it's not that someone somewhere secretly gets off on seeing girls regularly vomit from the stench of what was days ago their mutual object of teenage lust! Praise Jesus and King Edward, it ain't me babe.

 PS - If you want to check out another quiet strange "personal" Canadian exploitation film along the lines of CROOKED LAKE, may I recommend instead PUNCH?  Allegedly about the world of female topless boxing, it's actually the story of a widower trying to ween his daughter off her incestuous desires for him so she'll stop socking his new girlfriend, a timid photo booth worker with a topless boxing sister who may just have to come to the rescue. The director's actual daughter plays the girl and admits in the essential commentary track that the story is based on their true relationship!! In other words, he got funding to make a sleazy late night Cinemax cat fight flick but highjacked it to tell his own perverse confession, ala Ed Wood with GLEN OR GLENDA! Icky but fascinating... read my review here. 

 
 PLAIN DIRTY 
(2003) Dir. Zev Berman
***1/2

And if you want a good swampy jail-bait exploitation fairy tale that's way off the radar and which the writer/director subverted to his own motive--this time to a loose reading of MACBETH--check out the under-appreciated PLAIN DIRTY (2003, above). It's almost Val Lewton-esque in that it shows you can make art instead of obsessive confessions and still hide it all under a functionally exploitative backwoods sleaze rubric. It does what HOUNDOG could have, though from the box art you may be tempted to pass this one off as one of the endless Zalman King-style infidelity and revenge sex flicks cluttering the late night premium cable rosters. But this is good stuff, actually, something fans of Jane Campion’s THE PIANO will like better than IN THE CUT. 

Newcomer director Zev Berman and newcomer screenwriter Deborah Pryor have conjured up a mystical swamp environment that augments what amounts to nothing less than a genuine psychosexual feminist fairy tale, the type where the frog suitor of the imprisoned princess shows no signs of ever being a prince, but if she looks at her chains the right way they sparkle like jewels and a beautiful castle lies hidden in the dirt and squalor of her prison. Dominique Swain stars as Inez MacBeth (yeah, there’s Shakespeare connotations), the desirable young bride of local loser Edgar (Henry Thomas, aka little Elliot fromE.T.) whose friend the creepy Flowers (Arie Verveen) is infatuated with her, even stealing her flip flops for god knows what kinky purpose. Karen Allen is great as the “witch” who lives in a big house down the way, who predicts Inez’s true love will soon ride to her rescue. Inez assumes she means her pale, rich boy in town (James Urbaniak) who looks vaguely like a marionette just waiting for someone with the raw humanity of Inez to turn him into a human. What follows involves murder, desire, suspicion and double-crossing, but what makes it succeed is all that groovy archetypal mythic resonance, ala the female’s journey to adulthood, which one hardly finds in films these days. There’s lots of that good old southern fried gothic po’ poetical dialogue, and symbolic metaphors like blindness, chains, and headless chickens. 

Thankfully, visionary directors and writers like Berman and Pryor are finally starting to realize these low budget sex pot indies can be used as more than just wastes of drunken late night cable viewers’ time. They take a typical swamp and cut off shorts exploitation set up ala Gator Bait, Poor White Trash, or Mudhoney, and then go off the deep end with it, into Kentucky-Freud Gothic grandeur. There’s a great, scraping viola and cello score by Nathan Barr, and dark, steamy cinematography by Scott Keven, both of whom worked, along with Verveen, on that last great entry in the redneck genre, Cabin Fever (2002). Keven doesn’t waste any chance to capture muted swampy sunlight trying to break through the filthy windows of these muddy shacks. The performances are all wonderful, especially Verveen’s, who manages to be believable while being simultaneously dirty, poetic, sneaky, charming, and oh so creepy as he woos Inez with lines like: “I wanna see what you look like when you grow old. Is you gonna grow gray or what?” Swain’s untamed Lolita-like energy makes her a believable force of girl nature, running around in her cut off shorts (nowhere near as short as Daisy Duke’s, alas) and cut up, dirty legs, or a filthy summer frock.

The big bow should probably go to Thomas though, as Edgar he manages to give one of the best abusive husband performances ever. His rage is shocking to himself, and deluded attempts to try and forgive or justify his own actions come off as false even to him, driving him further into a spiral of rage and self-hatred projected in all directions. Sexy, brutal, funny, well-paced, well written, and turned into something truly mythic and magical thanks to a great writing, moody score and cinematography, Plain Dirty is one of the reasons why taking risks on the straight to video shelves sometimes pays off.

---
MMMmmmm, filthy... isn't there some over-nurturing movie parent out there who can come do her laundry?

2 comments:

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  2. Erich, I stumbled on your exquisite review of our film 'Plain Dirty' around the time it came out, and it made me so happy to have someone dig into it on the level you did. Wide ranging, playful, and incredibly insightful! I'm a fan! keep up the great work!

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