Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Post-irony and DETENTION (2011)

Detention (2011)
Director: Joseph Kahn
Seen via: Sony Pictures DVD (R1)
Rating: 4/10

I'm continuing to work through some newer horror, and Detention is definitely one the films that's provoked the most thought (and words)...

One of the primary deficiencies of modern pop culture is its tendency to treat being genuine as a failure of some kind. Somewhere along the line (I'd peg it in the late-nineties) it became cooler to feign interest with a smirk then express honest enthusiasm for the quirks and flaws tied up in a given genre. It's always easier to mock something than to improve upon it, but mocking ultimately brings nothing new to the table. In the last few years it seems like a watershed moment has occurred, when irony increased too much and it was simply impossible to attain higher levels of smugness. Tongues were poked straight through cheeks, smirks morphed into genuine smiles. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

This is the realm of post-irony, where things that might have been previously mocked are embraced wholeheartedly, throwing the consumer into a state of uncertainty. Can they really be serious? Can you tell the difference? In music, the oft-cited example is Die Antwoord, a South-African rap duo soaked in bad fashion, shock-theatrics, and midi synthesizers drudged up from decades past. In the past, this might have been played for laughs, but Die Antwoord fucking dare you to call them out. There are no cracks in the facade - this group is by all reasonable measure wholly serious about their (non-)schtick and carry on without a hint of self-awareness, seemingly oblivious to any outside criticism.
These individuals are not joking.
The world of horror also seems to be ripe with irony at this point. The debut of Craven's Scream perhaps marked the mainstream debut of this trend, and it's since appeared in countless other films in degrees ranging from subtlety to blatant attempts at being "so bad it's good" (a bullshit phrase, and one that's logically impossible in my opinion). It's not necessarily all bad though. Shaun of the Dead wouldn't be half as entertaining without the winks and nods. Who doesn't like a sly acknowledgment that you and the director are on the same page and love the same stuff? In small doses, there's nothing wrong with poking fun at a genre whose side you're ultimately on. The culmination of this trend seems to have happened this past year in The Cabin in the Woods, which lovingly tears down the slasher film with the aim (one hopes) of provoking others to build it up again. This is a film that literally cannot exist without its self-awareness of genre tropes. So where do we go from here? Can we expect a post-ironic horror film to make its debut?

I can't remember how I initially heard about Detention. It's one of those films that snuck onto my watchlist and sat there while I promptly forgot about whichever favorable review convinced me to write its name down. One thing is clear in retrospect: whoever wrote that now-forgotten review has pretty different tastes than I. It's not that Detention is a bad movie. I'm just not sure that it IS a movie.

Detention aims to take the slasher film and update it for modern sensibilities - i.e. the "Twitter" generation, if such a thing exists. Its means of attack is to throw so much at you so fast that you'll never have a chance to absorb it all. If I'm not bored, I must be entertained; Q.E.D. Steep this all in the trash culture of the 90's and you'll have a satisfying movie experience. Right? This ostensible slasher takes place in the same sort of ironically day-glo high school you might find in Heathers, or more recently, Kaboom. It's the only setting possible, really, given the target audience. We're introduced to the main characters thorugh a set of flashily edited fourth-wall-breaking monologues in which two girls named Taylor and Riley describe the opposite poles of the life-in-high-school spectrum. One's the loser, the other popular. Nerd vs. cheerleader. You've seen this before. The rapid-fire editing isn't a bad start. The only thing is... it never stops. We never get a break from camera tricks, flashbacks, flash-forwards, arbitrary chapter titles, digressions, and distractions. This movie is flat out terrified of being boring.

Do we look self-aware enough?
Onto the plot though. I took a while to start talking about the story, and that's also what you can expect from the film. If you wade through the flashy exterior, is there even a story? Sort of. The students of Grizzly Lake High are being murdered by a killer who's straight out of a current in-film slasher franchise ("Cinderhella"). Put that idea on hold though, because in between the pop culture references, and editing gimmicks, you'll barely notice until the last act. There are hints that this could have turned out to be a clever film, and at the risk of spoiling the last act or so, I'll say that there's at least a good reason for the pop-culture references. But the last thing this film needs is to mash up two genres when it barely gives one the time to develop properly.

Most of the clutter comes from an inability to let a single scene pass without making some sort of external reference. Right up front we're told by a character that "the 90's is the new 80's." God forbid. This film is absolutely immersed in the pop culture detritus of that decade and has no shame in fetishizing many things that I'm still trying to forget. I live in a cave far removed from any modern high-schoolers, so I can't vouch for whether kids today really are enamored with C&C Music Factory or Steven Seagal films. In all honesty, I think it's writer/director Joseph Kahn's dysfunctional attachment to his childhood seeping through into his script.

So does all of this serve a purpose? Is it post-irony, as it flat-out labels itself near the end? Does this film embrace the corniness of the past without pretense? In short, no. There's a willfull obliviousness necessary for that categorization, and nothing here is allowed to be subtle. References to music or other films can't be made without being subsequently acknowledged. It's a constant string of "see what I just did there?" Maybe it's great if you're too young to remember the 90's, but if you can, it's like being bludgeoned to death with a Kris Kross cassette.

Torrenting a movie that references a movie alluding to
another movie-within-a-movie...  I just OD'ed on "meta."
Detention doesn't give a shit about anything except seeming cool, an approach that makes it ultimately hollow. The longer I sit and think about it, the less substantial it seems. From some reactions I've read, it seems like there's a fair amount of people who love this film. Maybe I'm too old, or maybe I'm just tired of films mistaking rapid-fire dialogue and gimmickry for intelligence. Either way, I can't really recommend this as a good film. Style never trumps substance, no matter how much style you have. If your attention span is short enough to allow you to be entertained without the necessities of plot or continuity, then by all means, go rent this film. Or don't - you might be better off watching YouTube for a couple hours. Rather than embracing wholeheartedly the genre and era it claims to admire, it's just using them as a quick attempt at being hip. This is not post-irony - there's enough deliberate irony here to last me a lifetime.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Recent (Non)Horror Review: SUPER (2010)

Super (2010)
Director: James Gunn
Seen via: MPI DVD (R1)
Rating: 7/10

I missed this when it came around at Actionfest '11, but finally got a chance to check it out on DVD...

I'm sort of tired of superheroes being deconstructed. I like superheroes. Sure they can be corny or farfetched, but they're also simultaneously able to explore some pretty deep issues through their simplified portrayal of the world. Tearing them down just seems... I don't know. It's shooting at an easy target. And while I realize smart criticisms like Watchmen blow anything I've just said to bits (the comics, not the movie), the recent proliferation of disaffected, irony-saturated fare such as Kick-Ass and The Boys hasn't held much appeal for me.

I like James Gunn though, so I was more inclined to give his take on the real-life superhero subgenre a take. Super came out a little too late it seems, just after the film adaptation of Kick-Ass had become a minor hit. For that reason, I think it was unfairly overlooked, as it has the smart, funny, and clever production that are characteristic of Gunn's work.

What makes this work where others have failed is that he gives us a likeable protagonist who never falls so far into madness that he becomes irredemable. Rainn Wilson plays Frank Darrbo, a soft sort of childlike man whose wife has just relapsed into her old drug habits and left him (for Kevin Bacon nonetheless). The split crushes Frank. Inspired by a Christian kid's show (clearly riffing on Bibleman) and a pretty massive set of hallucinations, the Crimson Bolt is born. Frank's moral code is fiercely intolerant of any evil, whether it's kidnapping, robbery, assualt, or cutting in line at the movies. Despite his swing towards violent vigilantism, Frank never struck me as a sociopath. He's clearly mentally ill, and is the victim and perpatrator of some heinous acts of violence, but in the end he's working to achieve something good (unlike the narcissistic protagonist of Kick-Ass). This ends up saving the film in my eyes, because once the Crimson Bolt hits the streets, he has to face some very, very dark foes that are grounded in reality. The ensuing chaos is bloody enough to keep any gore-hound satisfied.

Super is by turns violent and light-hearted, and sometimes these things clash. Mostly though, it's the story of someone who's just been pushed too far by life and wants to even things out, no matter the cost.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Recent Horror Review: WAKE WOOD (2011)

Wake Wood (2011)
Director: David Keating
Seen via: Dark Sky DVD (R1)
Rating: 6/10

Here's another film that's been on my watch list for a while. This is Hammer's second horror feature since their revival, and it continues their streak of strong films that just fall short of being memorable. Let Me In was a surprisingly inoffensive remake that unfortunately neutered (ha ha) one of the most subtle elements of the source material. The more recent Daniel Radcliffe vehicle The Woman in Black was an enjoyable piece of atmospheric horror that retread some pretty well-worn ground. It's nice to have what's shaping up to be a production house capable of churning out reliably solid horror films that aren't insultingly stupid or aimed at the quick-and-dirty direct to video market. Still, I'm waiting for them to really hit a home run, and unfortunately, Wake Wood is not it.

Wake Wood starts off boldly by introducing us to a couple who have recently lost their daughter to a vicious attack by a mad dog. By moving to the pastoral town of Wake Wood, they hope to regain a sense of peace and escape the memory of their daughter's death. That's the thing about death though - it follows you. Having their daughter ripped from their lives so suddenly has shattered them, and no matter how much they run, they can't escape the gaping hole that she used to occupy.

So when they're offered the chance to be reunited with their daughter for three days, the choice seems clear. They won't have her back forever, but it'll allow them to say their goodbyes and make their peace with her passing. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, when you're resurrecting the dead, quite a bit. The magic in Wake Wood is a dirty, earthy sort. Spells and rituals are primal, pagan things that require sacrifices proportional to the boon they produce and (like birth) involve grime, sweat, pain, and blood. There's a fair amount of gore in this film, which I was not at all expecting. It conflicts at times with the more serious tone that's established up front, but is consistent with the overall allusions to nature as a brutal, unforgiving force within the world of the film.

A horror film that deals with the resurrection of a child is undoubtedly going to draw comparisons to Pet Sematary. While Wake Wood initially offers a mature, unsensational take on the idea, in the end it can't figure out what to do itself, turns the kid into a monster, and falls back on a disappointing conflict. So yeah, essentially what King did, but in Ireland. It'd be fine, except we were set up for much more in the beginning. Throwing worn out horror film tropes around at the end feels like a cop-out.

Still, it's a pretty solid flick. And if the new Hammer hasn't yet produced a masterpiece, I'm willing to stick with them. After all, being buried for over twenty years could take its toll on anyone, and this corpse is still taking some time to wake up.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Recent Horror Review: BEREAVEMENT (2011)

Bereavement (2011)
Director: Steven Mena
Seen via: Anchor Bay DVD (R1)
Rating: 3/10

I've finally caught up on some newer horror releases that I've been meaning to get around to for a while. Here's the first...

Bereavement is an attempt to flesh out the backstory of 2004's Malevolence, which employed a single scene of a kidnapped child watching a man murder girls to drive an otherwise uninspired and hopelessly formulaic slasher. In other words, Bereavement tries desperately to take the only interesting fragment from its predecessor and expand it to feature length. It's the prequel nobody asked for.

Unfortunately, what's an interesting idea is framed inside an otherwise unremarkable story. Poor Allison, her parents have died and she's gone off to the country to live with her aunt and uncle. If it wasn't for that cute guy that lives down the road, she'd have nothing to live for. Except maybe solving the mystery of the identity of the little boy who keeps peering out of the abandoned meat processing plant at her.

Get used to this expression - it's the only
one the kid makes for the entire film.
Answer: the kid is the quintessential evil horror movie child. Silent and stony-faced, peering ominously out from shadows, he's supposed to scare you simply by existing. A mannequin could have filled this role. Why can't more filmmakers realize that kids who actually enjoy killing (as in Bloody Birthday or Devil Times Five) are far more sinister and infinitely more fun to watch than a sullen, immobile brat with a severe lack of affect. Has he been subjected to years of abuse, or has his X-box been taken away? It's difficult to tell.

Aside from a couple of unexpected moments in the last act, this one is a chore to get through. Despite mild controversy that predated the film's release (a child! with a knife! on a movie poster! - please, I saw way worse wandering the aisles of the video store when I was a kid) there's nothing terribly shocking within. Skip it.

Friday, August 17, 2012


I stopped by Food Lion a few Fridays ago, desperately needing to re-stock the wine cellar after a particular grueling week. While there, I happened to walk by the DVD rack and stopped (as I always do) to see what bargain-bin rejects they'd dug up to put on the shelves. Most of the time their offerings consist of blockbusters from years past and family 10-packs crammed with TV movies involving dogs or horses. Once in a while there are some decent horror multi-packs though, so taking the time to scan the shelves can sometimes be worth it.

After skimming over the usual fare, I found this lurking at the top of the rack:

No. Way. The Reflecting Skin is a weird little arthouse gem that somehow never made it onto DVD, despite being something of a minor cult classic. For five bucks, this seemed worth every penny.

Unfortunately, this article has to serve more as a warning than a call for rejoice, as whoever was responsible for overseeing this release has done this film a grave disservice. First, it's a full-screen pan & scan transfer. Second (if #1 didn't give it away), it's ripped from an old VHS source. The picture quality is simply awful. Special features? Nothing.

Still, owning a shitty release of this film (especially for five bucks) is better than not having the chance to see it at all. I'm tempted to just recommend snatching a VHS copy online, since the picture quality might even exceed that of this transfer. But if you're grocery shopping and see this lying around, it might be worth the convenience. It'd just be nice if this film got the respect it deserved.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

THE DIVIDE Between Order and Chaos is Small

The Divide (2012)
Director: Xavier Gens
Seen via: Anchor Bay DVD (R1)
Rating: 7/10

Xavier Gens' ultra-bleak piece of post-apocalyptica wastes no time dropping the bomb on New York. We first encounter the characters as they flee towards a basement for safety, much as we would were we also running for our lives. Who knows who they were, what they did, how they acted before they were forced together? Take a random sample of eight individuals from society. What are the odds you'll get someone dangerous?

A movie set inside a locked room is only as interesting as the interactions between its characters. Gens favors spectacle over nuance. Violence over character. It makes for an entertaining watch, but sacrifices an opportunity to say something meaningful in favor of showing something shocking.

What's a post-apocalyptic movie without gas masks?

The only new fodder brought to the table is the depths to which it's willing to plunge. Macho jock-boy New-Yorkers metamorphose into sadistic tyrants in the span of days - hording food, torturing the weak, falling slowly into madness. Radiation sickness warps the mind, the social norms, and the reality of this tiny subterranian microcosm until what's left is more hell than Earth.

I can't comment on Hitman, but there are definite echoes of Gens' debut, Frontier(s), here. The gore and deprativy are trowled on thick in hopes of obscuring the thin plot. Still, it's often nice to look at, has a great soundtrack, and is never boring. Entertaining, and worth a look for fans of the genre, especially if you're not opposed to watching normal people degenerate into something vile. Right at Your Door had a more taut story (and with a single main character), but didn't have the style. I wasn't a fan of Frontier(s), but this has rekindled some hope. I have another chance to give Xavier Gens - here's hoping he continues improving.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Her Weapon is Her Body...

Ginger (1971)
Director: Don Schain
Seen via: Monterey Video DVD (R1)
Rating: 3/10

What tries to sell itself as a spy thriller turns out to be a microbudget sexploitation flick. Surprise! Cheri Caffaro plays Ginger, a rich girl who hooks up with the local police force to take down a prostitution/drug ring. Caffaro is really a mystery to me - far too gaunt and sun-bleached by just about anyone's standards. She also has a weird aloofness that's just sort of ... well ... off-putting. There's a scene early on when she's seducing a man as part of a bar game and watching her cycle through grimace after grimace trying to make a "sexy face" was sort of absurd.

Do you like watching ugly people having sex? Really? Well, you'll love this movie. They're the kind of artless, passionless sex scenes where one person just sort of lays on the other for a while - more unsettling than erotic. Other than the unappealing nudity, there's a certain degree of trashy fun in this film, and the nearly nonexistent plot is obscured by stuff like girl-girl fights and genital torture. That is, when it's not pale lumpy people doing the nasty. There's also really bad lighting, community-theater quality acting, and dialogue that's often weirdly punctuated by silence.

It's worth a look if you need to satisfy some morbid curiosity, or if you think you'd like watching Caffaro for about 100 minutes. Otherwise, skip it.

[Can anyone comment on the sequels? They seem to look more promising, but I'm a little hesitant after this one.]

Sunday, August 5, 2012

And you will face the sea of darkness, and all therein that may be explored...

The Beyond (1981)
Director: Lucio Fulci
Seen via: Anchor Bay DVD (Region 1)
Rating: 10/10

Every time I rewatch this film, I realize just how good it is. This is the apotheosis of Fulci.

A doorway to hell, a vortex of evil, mangling both the flesh of those who seek it and the logic of reality nearby. Fulci has always been obsessed with eyes, vision, and seeing the forbidden (even metatextually). Some things are not meant for men's eyes, and come at the price of sanity. This is a study of ignorance and blindness - ignorance of the fact that you've transgressed against primal boundaries and blindness to the fundamentally vindictive nature of the universe.

All the rules are gone in this one. It's unsettling every time I watch it because it defies human logic. To defeat something, you have to understand it. Without a clear antagonist, how can you hope to survive? There's nothing but despair in the face of pure disembodied malevolence. You're afraid of going to hell? How about realizing you're already there?

Everything Fulci does well, he does well here. The sleaze of italian horror cinema coats this one thickly, and it's not a taste that everyone will love. If you've acquired it though, it doesn't get much better than this. Dreamlike (il)logic, tons of gore set-pieces, an incredible Fabio Frizzi soundtrack, and an atmosphere of pervasive dread all work seamlessly. It's also beautifully shot. All-in-all, a must-see. 1981 was an incredible year for the genre, due in no small part to this film.