Sunday, November 10, 2013

YOU'RE NEXT Restores My Faith in Home Invasion

You're Next (2011)
Director: Adam Wingard
Rating: 8 / 10
Seen via: Raleigh, NC Dollar Theater

No sooner have I finished bemoaning the limited possibilities of home invasion films than along comes You're Next to change my mind. Here's a film that gets it - a film that understands that we don't want to empathize with weepy rich people and allows us to be shocked and sort of thrilled at watching the mannered upper class having their boundaries violated. And just to be fair, it occasionally forces us to acknowledge that we're getting our kicks from some genuinely horrible stuff before we go back to the fun.

You know how this sort of thing starts. Young lovers Crispian (played by the ubiquitous A.J. Bowen) and Erin (Sharni Vinson) journey to the lavish country home of Crispian's family for a reunion of sorts. It's quickly revealed that the rest of the family are a bunch of twits, each one with his or her own grating personality flaws, from arrogant brother Drake (Joe Swanberg) to creepy brother Felix (Nicholas Tucci) and his brooding girlfriend Zee (Wendy Glenn). Why are they such jerks? Don't worry, there's a good reason. Mom and Dad are drab and despondent, as all their wealth is powerless to solve the problem of Mom's depression. We know from the film's prologue that there are murderous criminals in the neighborhood. Can this stately house and this crumbling family survive the assault?

What's most surprising about You're Next is how the characters act against conventional expectations once the invasion begins. There's relatively little at stake initially since we're not terribly predisposed to like these people, but everyone transforms under pressure as they're forced to confront their attackers. Some become more loathsome, some sympathetic, and some downright evil by the end. A hero eventually emerges, but it's not necessarily one you might expect. While the scenario and the setup are familiar tropes, the varied way in which everyone responds goes far beyond the run/scream/hide/plead tactics typically employed by most home-invasion victims.

Adding to the film's effectiveness is its superb craft. I was initially skeptical about this film, having had mixed feelings about Adam Wingard's contributions to the V/H/S anthologies. Here he shows a surprising amount of skill behind the camera and a subtlety I hadn't seen in his previous work. Wingard constantly keeps us guessing as to what lurks in the negative space in his shots. Jump-scares are made more effective by creeping tracking shots that fizzle out and reveal nothing. These tense moments are interrupted with adrenaline bursts of action, the key moments of which are frequently dragged out in slow-motion to draw out the suspense and give you a clear view of the chaos. One of the best sequences involves a character searching a dark basement for one of the assailants with nothing but a camera flash for illumination. Little things like this count for a lot, especially when many films these days are content to furiously shake the camera around in an attempt to be scary. Layered underneath it all is a great soundtrack that throbs and pulses with vintage-style synths.

What struck me most about You're Next was how much fun it is. It's a film that isn't afraid to go off the rails occasionally. Sometimes it throws us a little bit more violence than we're expecting, other times it playfully holds back. There's a gleeful absurdity to the film as this family gradually self-destructs, which culminates in a reckless display of unconventional kitchen appliance use. It was in that moment that I remembered how nice it is to be surprised by a film like this, and how nice it is to have a director who's willing to pay attention to the details. Check it out.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Life of Fear: The Sideshow Attraction

I was familiar with the State Fair scene. I knew the drill. Even though I'd only recently moved to North Carolina, I'd been to similar events when I lived in Minnesota, although they admittedly took place on a smaller scale. I knew what to expect though: farm animals, grotesquely large vegetables, and fried food whose calorie content was more horrifying than any movie I'd seen in years. After milling about for a couple of hours, my friends and I were getting slowly and steadily drenched by a light mist, so we decided to leave for the night by crossing through the midway.

We were nearly at the exit when I heard something above the din of the crowd. It sounded like a sideshow barker's pitch shouted through a megaphone, vaguely archaic, boasting of wondrous sights to behold within a nearby tent. I stopped and located the source to find that this was a single-attraction stand, featuring what was purportedly the world's smallest woman: Tiny Tina.

I'd never seen any sort of sideshow attraction like this outside of the movies. It was too good to be true. I'm a sucker for tourist traps, roadside attractions, and other schlocky carnival fare. When I saw that two of us could get in for a dollar, I was sold. It took some persuading, but I convinced a friend to go in with me to help me verify for the rest of the group what we'd see inside. I paid our admittance and we walked into the small tent.

I'm not sure exactly what I expected, but before entering all manner of charlatanry had run through my mind. An oversized doll? Some decades-old mechanical figure who'd dance and sing through a speaker in its mouth? A statue? The one thing I hadn't counted on was that it'd be an actual person.

Tina sat on a stool just behind the front wall, fenced in with a worn velvet rope. She was a small black woman, a little over two feet in height, wearing a worn lace dress that billowed around her diminutive frame. She sat reading a paperback novel, occasionally looking up at the people who'd paid to gape at her. Her sunken eyes were those of someone who has been tired or depressed for a long time.

I was speechless. This was simultaneously too real and too unbelievable for me to comprehend. I couldn't bear more than a glimpse - it made me sick to think that she was put on display like an animal in a zoo, a caged curiosity who existed for the sole purpose of my entertainment. Even worse were the reactions of the fellow fairgoers in the tent. They pointed, laughed, took cell phone photos. They hung around in the tent like they had all the time in the world, milking that buck for all it was worth.

My friend grabbed my arm and asked if we could leave. I nodded, still speechless with surprise and shame. We exited the tent and our friends asked how it was. We briefly related the scene to them and they shrugged it off. As we left the fair, I tried to excise the scene from my mind so that I could enjoy the rest of the evening. I was successful for a while, but the memories resurfaced throughout the following week.

The thought that I'd paid money to look at another human being made me feel horrible. However much I told myself that Tina was there of her own volition and that she had every right to capitalize on the circumstances of her birth, the expression on her face said that she was not doing this due to any active choice. Her demeanor wasn't that of a person who was happy with the state of their life. It was a look that spoke of regret and disdain for the endless crowds shuffling by day after day. I went into the tent looking for something surprising and a story to tell. It gave me exactly what I paid for. What I hadn't foreseen was the additional cost: that little flake of my soul that I hadn't realized was gone until after I left the tent.

Thanks for sticking with me through all these digressions over the past month. As I sifted through my memories there were many other experiences I considered writing about. For one reason or another, many didn't make the cut. Some were too grounded in reality, some still too fresh. The posts that I did end up writing were all about pretty formative experiences - so think of this as my own personal greatest hits collection of terror. Maybe I'll dig up others in the future. Let me know what you think. For now, click here for other posts in the series that you may have missed. As an added bonus, here's another post from a few months ago which fits nicely with this theme.

Regularly scheduled programming will resume shortly. Thanks, as always, for reading.