Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


It's always nice to ride out the brutal chills of February with horror films more frozen than oneself. I'm writing this during the Winter Olympics and watching people shooting and skiing and luging and snowboarding can leave one feeling inordinately guilty for being so lazy and warm, but watching winter strand poor folks in the middle of nowhere, leading to the collapse of their objective reality and a fight for survival? Cozy affirmation of one's decision to stay indoors.

Here are four solid examples I've seen this week, some of which are on Netflix streaming. So make sure the flask on the collar of your St. Bernard is filled with good brandy, your windows are boarded up tight, and the heater's close and the generator closer --and plunge.

Of course there's already some classics of this genre which have the gold now and forever, like The Thing 1951, The Thing 1982, and The Thing 2011 (here). And there's also my recent Netflix stream favorite, Pontypool, so good it's listed all on its own here.

("Fritt Vilt") 2006 - Dir. Roar Uthaug

Viktoria Winge (above) is a gorgeous Nordic alien hybrid gone snowboarding way off the Norwegian ski map grid with a group of friends, but when one of them breaks his leg they seek shelter at an abandoned ski lodge and... hey, it's not totally abandoned, so it seems, and the generator still works... and there are dusty half-full liquor bottles waiting in the cozy lounge. Nice! But soft, they're not alone, and the place is mighty, mighty large.

Proud of its generic slasher roots, Uthaug's film--gorgeously photographed by Daniel Voldheim--builds up careful attention to set and setting with measured quality, wit, and inexorable tick-tock momentum, studiously avoiding the usual dripping industrial torture basement Rob Zombie video look of so many similar 'wayfarers stranded in a remote killer's lair' horrors. Instead, the vibe is all the more unnerving for being so cozy, with just certain things 'off' that begin to mount up.  As the kids take over the ski lodge lounge area, helping themselves to the booze, starting a fire, goofing around they never lapse into that annoying American imbecilic snickering kind of dialogue that feels like it was written by ephebiphobic middle-aged virgins. Here the characters interact and play off each other very well and the climactic battle way out in the middle of the frozen snow blind emptiness is unique and totally chilling, literally, figuratively, and other-ly... In Norwegian with English subtitles, not that you really need them. There's apparently a solid sequel that picks up where this leaves off (like Halloween II) and then a third that totally sucks (like Halloween VI).

2007 - Dir. Gregory Jacobs

Emily Blunt plays a type of college student here that very few films realize exists but whom I know very well: the old-before-her-time hottie who's gotten away with being 'difficult' for so long (if the girl is hot, dudes will put up anything--to a point) she doesn't know how to stop (the point of no return gets passed; the expiration date strikes). Dismissing all the guys she meets as losers or pervs, and all the girls as jealous or fat, she grows so used to being alone she barely knows how to make or keep a friend. I've known girls like that, I love playing the beard for them (keeping the flies from all hitting on her so to speak by acting the arm candy). One of this type is even in one of my own movies! I can say that because I know she'll never read this, just like Blunt's character wouldn't, because she wouldn't know it's about her until it's too late.

Having this type in a horror film is tricky. In her armored narcissistic bubble, she's impervious to threat, so we have to worry for her. She's so blind to danger she even accepts a ride home to Delaware for the holidays from a creepy freshman (Ashton Holmes). Big mistake, of course.

Director Gregory Jacobs' film might have been creepy enough just from Ashton Holmes slowly revealing he doesn't actually live anywhere near where he's taking her, and the whole ride share thing is a ploy to meet her, but that gradually fades away once they're stuck in a weird time loop on a lonesome side road, visited by an array of ghosts, including a scary psycho cop played in a way that sticks with you by Martin Donovan.

 Snowman skull subliminal!
Produced by George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, there seems to have been some original intention to make this a creepy two hander with an antisocial stalker and an antisocial narcissist forced to depend on one another for survival, but along the way a bunch of ghosts and a complete disconnection from reality sinks it... almost like the filmmakers realized there wasn't enough material for a feature, so drug in anything they could think of. We can dig the way the collapse of the social sphere and disorienting symbolic structure make one privy to the tricks of ghosts as long as there's some awesome twist or gotcha moment to snap all the disparate elements into place at the end. Not to spoil things, but there isn't. At least Blunt gets a much warranted chance to carry a film. The journey is supposed to be through Pennsylvania, a very creepy place, but was actually shot in Canada, where life is cheap! 

(2006) Dir. Brian McNamara

Driving at night in wintery weather when you're tripping way too hard is a very nerve-wracking and bizarre experience, especially wearing smudgy glasses. For one thing, your sense of three-dimensional space is way off, so the road feels like it's just a postcard in your lap and the frost on the edges of your windshield seems to extend before you like a tunnel of ice. When the traffic lights change your heart jumps in your throat--the newly arrived colors prism through the salty windshield in extreme primary and secondary color blasts that come out of nowhere, like a UFO. The red light can feel like blood, the eye of the Cyclops, or a winking god. Taking place over one long New Years night, the film follows a young couple (Al Santos and Sandra McCoy) who do some flavored shots they don't know are spiked with LSD. They split before midnight, and the drugs hit on the drive home. From there they get lost and wind up either killing or be killed-ing. This doesn't make too much sense as the couple does lines of coke before they go too, so they should at least know they're high on something when they start hallucinating strange pursuers. Instead they abandon their car and get lost in the woods at the first sign of ghost cops. But are they crazy or is someone really out to get them? Kudos to the film that for a fair chunk we cannot tell.

I like to think that if director Brian McNamara had the budget he could have created some nice effects in that vein. And I hiss like a rabid snake at this film's detractors, who clearly have never been lost in the woods at night, or taken too much LSD, or both - or become convinced that their girlfriend is trying to kill them, or been feeling the pressure from ghost bathroom attendants to dump all your drugs down into the safety of your throat. I also know the feeling of seeing a face -- usually a townie with a thousand yard stare -- who always seems to be watching from behind some partition in the basement, while your friends are playing darts, and this townie represents your death, and no one else can see him, not that you ask, and when you finally go up to confront him he turns out to be a mix of shadow from the stairway and a macrame owl. Now you get scared because you don't know where your death went, he's not in your sights. You can feel the darts hitting you and drawing blood though they've stopped playing by now. You turn to the 1.75 of Old Granddad to wipe the electric madness away and the weird genderless old face on the label seems to melt and wink, and if you're me, what do you do? Get your ass home, put on the VCR and watch Pre-code Betty Boop cartoons or The Cocoanuts (1929). Never fails.

Good as it all is, McNamara should have checked imdb before naming his film, there's about eighty movies called Dead of Winter. Lost Signal is a pretty weak title, too. May I suggest Acid Snow? Or Ice Tripping?

Another problem is how constant cutting back and forth to the toasty police station and various phone calls amidst law enforcement saps the trippy momentum (it would have been great if we never saw who was on the other line, and had the lady cop just shows up out of the darkness), and yet this is all apparently based on a true story, with recorded 911 calls to prove it! Hell, I believe it. The woods are mysterious, dark and deep, and anyone who's been to them at night, on psychedelics (or as a spooked kid lost in the woods), knows how their ancient magic can bend reality and expose deep archetypal roots too vivid and real for normal adult daytime senses to decode (and, if their senses can't decode it, adults tend to block it out as unimportant, dismissing the impressions of those whose senses aren't so hindered as insanity or 'active imagination'). If the hallucinations here are much less elaborate than, say, the top shelf 'becoming-animal' visions of Kristen Stewart in Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) at least it tries, and that's what counts. Even without CGI or LSD, Dead of Winter allows us to can see what schizophrenics, animals, and psychic mediums see all the time, the fifth dimensional vortex intelligences of the woods, and how the trees are in on it. Which came first, the ghost or our ability to finally see it?! The only answer is isn't.

The low budget is no problem in that regard and in its small way Winter is a sleeper little icicle of modernist ambiguity which anyone whose every been lost for hours whilst a mere block from their apartment or who appreciates the great works of modernist 'collapse of objective reality' ambiguity like Blair Witch Project or The Shining or Antonioni's Red Desert, will understand what director Brian McNamara and writers Robert Egan and Graham Silver are aiming for. These cats clearly know the full range of horrors that LSD can create out of the winter sights and sounds, and having gone to college (and all that entails) up in wintry Syracuse I can authenticate their every last impression. Your mileage may vary but the world can't wait all day for you to catch up and Dead is, at least for a decent chunk, a great entry in the modernist alienation collapse-of-the-symbolic horror genre, and one of those few and rare mysteries wherein we can't tell whether or not the protagonist/s (and by extension the viewer) are being fucked with by external (ghosts - gaslighting spouses, tree spirits) or internal (latent psychosis, LSD, cabin fever) forces --and if quantum physics tells us anything it's that there is no difference.

("Fritt Vilt II") 2008 - Dir. Roar Uthaug

The first was so good I had to go back for seconds, especially after learning that the sequel picks up right where the last one left off, ala Halloween 2, covering similar 'later that night' and following the final girl to the local hospital territory. Character development is solid, actors likable (no vile cliche like H2's sleaze bag goomba EMT), and the vibe and beautiful cinematography from the first film carry over flawlessly. The action takes its sweet time regrouping, chronicling the interaction of a sleepy little Norwegian local hospital in the process of closing suddenly confronted by all these murders and the comatose monster; but there's a good sense of tick-tock momentum, and a vivid sense of the vast emptiness of Norwegian mountain regions, the lifeless still beauty. Those of us who have misgivings about the medical community's insistence on saving the lives of mortally wounded psychopathic killers will be very pleased at the comeuppance rewarded this 'heroic' practice (they indignantly stop the final girl from the last movie pulling his plug) and the crazy loner sociopath Viking murderer figure is a nice representation of the bloody past of the Norwegian people rising up from the ancient past and into the country's current sleepy socialized medication/education system to smite the sophisticated, racially uniform, and far too-trusting youths. And it's pretty gratifying to see our heroine finally wise up and go all Ripley in Aliens. Nordics rock. Check out the whole issue of Acidemic devoted to their grace and hotness -- issue #7 - The Nordics. 

(2013) - Dir Renny Harlin

Renny Harlin is back, his ear low to the ground, like an Indian! Sorry, Native American. Has there been a director who's both made and lost so much money so fast? Now he's playing it a little wiser, ala recent work by De Palma. Slim in budget, returning to an off-the-cuff approach with no chance for budgetary bloating, Devil's Pass (written by Vikram Weet) works a chilled found footage plot that combines elements of many other films melded to the very real mystery of the the 1959 Dyatlov Pass incident. And there's much wodka shots! Much!

That's a good beginning but the thing about a great mystery like Dyatlov is that any 'answer' is going to be a let-down. Harlin manages to keep the diegetic cameras whiplash-free and to ensure there's always some new layer to penetrate, and the acting is pretty top flight, especially Holly Goss in the "I gave you back the map" Heather role. But Harlin never lets the inhospitable barren mountain snowscapes tear the fabric of objective social reality and so the paralyzing fear associated with being unmoored from the symbolic order vanishes with the first explanatory note. In the future, Harlin, don't let the symbolic or explanatory contextualize the mystery! The refusal to commit to a set point of view about what's going on is part of what made Blair Witch and The Shining work so well. Explain it all with scrapbooks and old photos and the unknowable vanishes. If you can't handle the impossibility of objective truth, you should never have looked farther than your own backyard, and certainly not ventured into the white abyss... that's for trippers with balls of ice... like Roar Uthaug! 

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