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, a time wherein watching people shooting and skiing and luging and snowboarding on TV while being all lazy and snug can after a few consecutive days make one start to feel guilty and lazy. But watching motivated, handsome, disciplined snowboarders and hikers get stuck in the middle of white-out nowhere and fight for survival against unseen foes can make one feel their decision to stay indoors, at home, the very fount of wisdom and strength.

Here are four solid examples I've seen this week, some of which are on Netflix streaming at the moment. So make sure the flask on the collar of your St. Bernard is filled with cognac and that your windows are boarded up tight. Keep the heater's close and the emergency generator closer....You'll need both.

Of course there's already some classics of this genre which hold the gold standard, now and forever, like The Thing from 1951, The Thing from 1982, and The Thing from 2011 (here). And there's also my recent most favorite, Pontypool, here.

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

Viktoria Winge (above) is a gorgeous Nordic alien hybrid gone away for a weekend of 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 a big abandoned ski lodge / hotel 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. It's like a cozier Overlook if no one ever came back after Shelly and son split in dead Scat's Snowcat.

Proud of its generic slasher roots, Uthaug's film--gorgeously photographed by Daniel Voldheim--builds up careful attention to set and setting (looks like a real abandoned Norwegian ski lodge!) 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, lowering the remaining booze bottle water lines, starting a fire, and 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 emptiness is unique and totally chilling, literally, figuratively, and other-ly... In Norwegian with English subtitles, not that you really need them.

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 she doesn't know how to stop. Dismissing all the guys she meets as losers or pervs, and all the girls as jealous or fat, she grows so used to judging everyone it's only gradually she realizes how alone she's become. Having this type in a horror film is tricky --in her armored narcissistic bubble, she's impervious to threat. We have to worry for her and it's tempting not to carem especially when she's so blind to danger she even accepts a ride home to Delaware for the holidays from a creepy freshman (Ashton Holmes) who seems to know way too much about her before she even gets in the car.

Director Gregory Jacobs' film might have been creepy enough just from 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's gradually tossed away like Marion Crane's $40,000 once they're stuck on a lonesome side road, visited by an array of ghosts, including a scary psycho cop played by an against-type 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 a creepy freshman stalker and an antisocial upperclassman narcissist forced to depend on one another for survival, but along the way a bunch of ghosts and a complete disconnection from reality sinks in and sinks it. It's almost like the filmmakers realized there wasn't enough material for a feature in the first idea, so drug in anything they could think of along the way to keep the twists coming, hoping it would all right itself in the end. As viewers, we'll always dig the way the collapse of the social sphere that comes 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

In case you never tried it, driving at night in wintery weather when you're tripping way too hard on psychedelics is a very nerve-wracking and bizarre experience, especially wearing smudgy glasses. For one thing, your sense of three-dimensional space is way off: the road feels like it's just a postcard in your lap, yet 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 wiped dirt in extreme primary and secondary color blasts, like a UFO seen in a lake reflection after someone just fell in. DEAD OF WINTER gets that, sort of. And it's enough, mostly.

Taking place over one long crazy 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 at a New Years party. They split before midnight, but the drugs hit on the drive home and soon they get lost and wind up either being chased by evil killers or just shadows from backyard fences and tree branches. This doesn't make too much sense as the couple does lines of coke at the party, so they should at least know they're high on something when they start hallucinating strange pursuers in the reflection of the gas station quick mart fridge doors. But they're clearly amateurs and they panic. At the first sign of ghost cops they abandon their car and get lost in the woods, the kind of ghost cops a seasoned tripper would know to ignore. But are they crazy or is someone really out to get them behind the hallucinations? 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 woodland night-tripping hallucinations and I hiss like a rabid snake at this film's detractors who clearly have never been lost in the woods at night after having taken too much LSD, grown convinced that their girlfriend is trying to kill them, and/or felt the pressure from ghost bathroom attendants to dump all your drugs down into the safety of their throat all on the same night. I also know the feeling of seeing a face -- usually a townie with a thousand yard stare -- who always seems to be watching you from behind some partition in the basement while you and your friends are playing darts, and this townie represents your death, and no one else can see him, not that you ask them, because you're too fucked up to voice such an insanely complicated sentence. 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 hung. Instead of being calmed by the sight of the owl you're even more afraid -  where did Death go? You can feel the darts hitting you and drawing blood though the game's long over. 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 at you. And if you're me, what do you do? Get your ass home, carefully. If you wig out on the way, just think about what you'll put on the VCR once you get home. I recommend Betty Boop or The Cocoanuts (1929). It will get you safely down from the ledge.

Still McNamara should have checked imdb.com before naming his film --there's about 80 movies called Dead of Winter. Lost Signal is a pretty weak title, too. May I suggest Acid Snow? Or Ice Tripping? No one comes to me with these things, but they should. Or shouldn't. What do I know?

Another problem is how much atmosphere gets lost through cutting over to the toasty police station with various phone calls to law enforcement both by and about the trippers: it 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; anyone who's been to them at night, lost, scared, on psychedelics, knows how their ancient magic can bend reality and expose deep archetypal roots that are too vivid and real for normal adult daytime senses to decode. If the hallucinations in this film are much less elaborate than, say, the top shelf 'becoming-animal' visions of Kristen Stewart after a face full of swamp spores in Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), at least it tries, and that's what counts, and what's better, it succeeds more often than not, because it dares to be vague. 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 the cosmic joke. Which came first, the ghost or our ability to finally see it?! Those trees know, but they'll only tell when you're too fucked up to believe their answer.

The low budget is no problem in that regard and in its small way, Winter is a sleeper little icicle of modernist ambiguity and film fans who groove on modernist 'collapse of objective reality' ambiguity like Blair Witch Project, Let's Scare Jessica to Death, 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, LSD-drenched Syracuse I--as we say in AA--really related. 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 fine entry in the modernist alienation collapse-of-the-symbolic horror genre, the kind where 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, 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 both that film's similar 'later that night' immediacy and 'following the final girl to the local hospital' change of territory. Character development stays as solid as it did in the original. The new flight of actors stay likable (no sleaze bag goombas like H2's 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 (shades of Assault on Precinct 13). Suddenly confronted by all these murders and a comatose killer, they react with typical Nordic efficiency. There's a vivid sense of the vast emptiness of all those treeless Norwegian mountain regions, the lifeless still beauty of the ice and winding roads. 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 pulling his plug). 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. 

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, budget bloody but still existant. 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 and Coppola - getting back to their low budget roots, returning to an off-the-hip approach that allows no chance for budgetary bloating. Devil's Pass (written by Vikram Weet) work a chilled found footage plot that combines elements of many other films melded to the very real mystery of the the 1959 Dyatlov Pass mystery, but there is much wodka shots! Nostrovia! 

The thing about a great mystery like Dyatlov, though, is that any 'answer' is going to be a let-down compared to the juice of the mystery. Harlin does manage 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 tent fabric of anyone's 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 (and in this list, Dead of Winter) work so well. 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... Roar, Uthaug! Roar.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...