Tuesday, July 16, 2013

THE INVOKING: The Past Inside the Present

The Invoking (2013)
(Formerly Titled Sader Ridge)
Director: Jeremy Berg
Rating: 7 / 10
Seen via: DVD Screener

The mind tends to bury memories slowly, sifting new experiences over them to gradually erect a barrier between past and present. What's always fascinated me is how easily these walls can collapse. I experienced this a few years ago when I visited my childhood neighborhood after over a decade of absence. While I can recall a fair amount of detail about the early events of my life, the memories have been worn down in my mind and mythologized through telling and retelling. Once back in the neighborhood, I was amazed at how the tiniest details were able to trigger the return of old memories with a remarkable level of clarity. Thankfully, my childhood was free from trauma, so the memories unleashed were small and harmless. Not so for the characters in The Invoking.

The Invoking starts as so many horror films do: with a group of young adults headed out to a house in the woods. Don't let the premise put you off - they're not traveling there to be slashed, possessed, or otherwise killed for your entertainment. The characters are the pivot about which The Invoking turns, and it needs them intact for a while (at least physically). Sam (Trin Miller) has inherited a piece of farm property from her estranged aunt, and brings her friends out to inspect the land and have some fun. Having been raised by foster parents, she knows little of the early years of her life or the identities of her parents, so the personal connection she has to the house is minimal. Accompanying her on the trip are three of her closest friends, each of whom is also bringing along their own batch of insecurities. The character interactions drive the majority of this film, especially early on, so it's a huge boon that they're well-drawn and multifaceted. All the actors are extremely comfortable in their roles, and the time you're given to invest in them strengthens the ultimate impact of the film.

Once at the cabin, the four encounter a creepy caretaker named Eric (D'Angelo Midili) who's roughly Sam's age and previously worked for her deceased aunt. He hints that he knows more of Sam's past than she remembers, and that this isn't the first time the two of them have met. Midili's straight-faced portrayal of Eric is a highlight - you're never quite sure whether he's just shy and quiet or if he's deliberately keeping secrets from Sam and her friends. As the four friends explore the property, signs seem to point to the latter, especially when Sam's memories begin resurface in disturbing fragments. While memories of her childhood have eluded her for her entire life, she becomes witness to increasingly strange events in the farmhouse that seem to echo the past. Tension builds within the group of friends, and she's left wondering whether she's witnessing reality-distorting flashbacks or is just overreacting to a stressful vacation.

Slow-burn horror that works is extremely rare, but The Invoking gets it right. While we're aware throughout the film that something sinister is building, the pieces we're given don't quite fit together until the very end. The incomplete picture is both intriguing and foreboding. The mood is aided by the film's atmosphere, which takes full advantage of the rural setting. The pace is a little slow early on, and isn't afraid to take its time letting its characters explore the area surrounding the house. But these scenes are employed in the interest of character development, and in my opinion end up paying off. At 82 minutes, The Invoking doesn't drag, and the best part of the gradually building plot is that it eventually brings everything together in a suspenseful climax.

For a small-budget independent film, The Invoking boasts professional-quality production value. The film is expertly shot and edited. With the exception of a few nighttime scenes that are sort of tough to make out, the film looks spectacular. Enhancing the tone is the score by Seattle rock outfit Trip Like Animals, who scale back their bold psychedelic rock to somber ambient melodies occasionally laced with droning feedback. This is a film that was clearly assembled with care, and I'm glad to add it to the growing list of strong character-driven indie horror that I've seen this year. (For more examples, see Found, Dead Weight, and The Holy Sound.) Rather than try to mask budgetary deficiencies with cheap gore or insincerity, the team behind The Invoking realizes that the secret to good horror lies primarily in solid storytelling.

Thanks to co-writer/producer John Portanova for sending me a screener copy of the film. The Invoking has played a number of festivals, including Sun Valley, Crypticon, and the Seattle True Independent Film Fest, where it earned the fest's Audience Award. Future screenings include the Fright Night Film Fest in Louisville, KY later this month. You can watch the trailer at the official site, or keep up to date with new screenings and information at the film's Facebook page.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

God is an Astronaut

Chariots of the Gods (1970)
Director: Harald Reinl
Rating: 6 / 10
Seen via: Netflix Instant

Chariots of the Gods is an adaptation of Erich von Daniken's book of the same name that popularized the notion that aliens have visited Earth throughout human history and played an integral role in our development as a species. Citing countless ancient artifacts across the world as evidence, von Daniken's thesis hinges on the notion that primitive people couldn't have been technologically advanced enough to engineer marvels such as the Pyramids, Stonehenge, or Machu Picchu on their own. Combined with specimens of ancient art that seem to depict spacesuits, spacecraft, and godlike figures descending from the stars, von Daniken proposes that these extraterrestrial visitors have been continually mistaken for gods by ancient civilizations across the world.

The fact that von Daniken's book actually tacks a question mark onto its title is emblematic of his approach: to throw evidence in front of you and ask a ton of questions that are never conclusively answered or backed up with solid facts. You can almost picture von Daniken's raised eyebrows and shrugging shoulders. "Doesn't that cave drawing look like a spacecraft?" "The Nazca lines sure do look like runways, right?" "Could the ancient Egyptians really have moved that many stones to build the pyramids?" In the age of instant fact-checking, it doesn't take a whole lot of skepticism to poke holes throughout the whole thing. But there's something attractive to me about the way von Daniken delivers his message. In examining artifacts from across the world, he's continually marvelling at their sophistication and how the seemingly vast gulf of time which separates us from our ancestors doesn't diminish the fact that we are actually very much like them.

The film adaptation takes a similar approach. It's more travelogue than documentary, and jumps back and forth across the globe from one exotic locale to another. The English adaptation is narrated by a nameless guide who detaches himself from the scenery most of the time. Even so, there are occasionally slips when he speaks as if he's telling stories from his own journeys. "For six days we trek onward, sleeping beneath the sparkling, starry desert sky. We are curious to learn as much as we can of the fascinating world around us." Fragments sounding as if they were lifted from a travel diary work their way into the story, particularly as he recounts a journey across Africa in search of ancient cave paintings.

It's a somewhat naive journey across the world with no active scorn for ancient civilizations, but an implicit wonder at the fact that they'd be able to achieve so much without extraterrestrial aid. The worn film stock and Peter Thomas Sound Orchesta's sweeping score often manage to convey a sublime beauty and antiquated sense of fascination with our place in the universe. Coupled with the frequent use of stock footage, this attitude lends it the feel of an old educational film. It's not surprising that an edited version (narrated by Rod Serling) was reputedly released on 16mm and sold to schools.

Even though it's a documentary with a questionable amount of truth, the earnestness of Chariots of the Gods sets it apart from more lurid mondo films. While the science is nonexistent and the conclusions are drawn based purely on hunches and speculation, it never feels exploitative. If anything, it tries to convey just a genuine enthusiasm for knowledge and questioning established histories. It's that sense of misguided curiosity that kept me engaged, just as it keeps me reading alien abduction stories I know are fictitious, just as it won't let me turn off a bogus documentary on the paranormal. It's all fake, but what if - what if? Chariots of the Gods globetrots for about half an hour too long, but the moments of adventure and optimism sprinkled throughout make it worth at least checking out - especially if you're willing to abandon rationality for a bit to bask in the impossible.