"Art is not a thing; it is a way."

Elbert Hubbard

Monday, July 19, 2010


Horror films have generally been associated with a niche market. Aimed squarely at the teen audience, they were a cheaper way to make money and lots of it. Quite often forming cult-like followings, the horror films of the seventies and eighties focused on the audience's desire to be scared as they got high on adrenaline and raced for their lives from gun or axe or machete-wielding maniacs. Somewhere in the late nineties and early noughties the game shifted. For no longer was the focus on the adrenaline rush of the chase but more upon the response to the carnage. Torture porn was born and in a search for new audiences so began the race by writers and filmmakers to outdo each other in the area of gore.

Gore is nothing new either but with the developments in make-up design and CGI effects so did the gore intensify. Gone were the days of fake blood and guts. Here was as close to the real thing as one could get and audiences seemed to lap it up. Entire franchises began to spring up, again not a new thing, but where the focus was on the horror villain in the past such as Jason or Freddy Kreuger now it had become on the killing that was taking place.

Saw took horror to a completely different level. Upping the ante on the gore and beginning the torture-fest trend of noughties horror, it made over $100 000 in a two-month release. It also began a franchise that currently sits at six films whilst in turn making it the biggest-grossing franchise within the horror genre. Ever. Whilst it kept up the tradition of having a central character at its core, in this case Jigsaw, other films that followed in its path tended to merely focus on the gore and the finite detail in how the film's victims were killed. The Hostel films followed as did the Americanised versions of the Asian horror films that had so creepily and eerily thrilled audiences in Asia for years.

This shift in tone of horror has been examined by many and identified by some as a direct result of September 11, however, that aside it cannot be argued that audiences aren't still lining up for it with each new film that opens. The barrage may be over but its mark has indelibly been left. For the reality of the gore has seeped its way into even more mainstream and arthouse fare. Television has even been impacted as the crime-scene genre upped the gore relative to their usual fare. Tempered when compared to cinema, it has still, it could be argued, been as a direct result of audiences' willingness to accept the gore that it has become more common fare on the big screen.

So what to make of it when one of the world's premiere arthouse auteurs plays his hand? Lars von Trier, one of the original Dogme 95 practitioners, had up until Antichrist made films about females with edge. From Breaking The Waves to Dancer In The Dark to Dogville to Manderlay, his films given major releases were controversial and for the most part divisive. Whilst the focus was more often than not on the technical side of his films with criticism coming from traditionalists towards the Dogme rules, it wasn't until Antichrist that the controversy shifted wholeheartedly towards his subject matter. Sure, Dogville and Dancer In The Dark raised interesting questions about his treatment of his female characters and numerous rumours about his mysoginistic attitudes towards his female cast members always fueled conjecture about his personal life and attitudes, however, it was not until the sheer graphic nature of Antichrist that people seemed to completely get up in arms. Von Trier was not a foreigner to the potential of graphic film either. The Idiots featured strong depictions of sex and Dogville a quite appalling suggestion of rape, however, the sheer ferocity of some scenes in Antichrist seemed to shock some viewers far beyond the line von Trier had previously led them.

Antichrist tells the story of a married couple, He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) on the verge of irreparable breakdown after the death of their son, Nick. Beginning with a stunningly shot black and white sequence of the couple having sex in the shower, the film shows its hand quite early on with what appears to be actual shots of vaginal penetration. Whilst this isn't shocking in itself what is is the inclusion of the shot within the sequence being shown. Is von Trier trying to provoke? Is he trying to be controversial? These are criticisms all labelled at the film but what those criticisms don't negate is the fact that this scene in effect has significant power. And that's where von Trier seems to get past the controversy. For later on even further acts of sexual activity, including a scene of a hand job after a horrendous act of violence, don't seem to take away from the sense that this is a family in absolute decay. The power is palpable.

But what is he trying to say? Who knows? might be the best answer but as his talking fox divulges, "Chaos reigns," and that may in fact be the biggest clue as to what indeed von Trier is trying to say. For as a whole Antichrist is a horror film of sheer domestic chaos. From the manipulation of He as the psychoanalyst to the infliction of significant violence by She as the patient Antichrist turns into one absolute hell-hole of unanswered questions. For whilst the suggestion is there that She could have stopped the death of their son and that in fact she was behind it all along, the shoes scene is significantly telling, what the hell has the genital mutilation scene got to do with anything? Is the idea of castration punishment? Is von Trier suggesting that the sensation of pleasure being removed is the personal consequence deemed appropriate by She as she nears the film's conclusion?

Whatever was going on in von Trier's head, what can't be argued against is that the man knows how to make a movie. Antichrist is a visual splendor. It's the most beautifully shot film he's made and he illicits two brave turns from his leads. In the end, however, the questions far outweigh any answers he gives and one is left wondering if indeed he is merely pulling tricks left, right and centre to shock for the sake of shocking.

Pulling tricks left, right and centre lies at the heart of the Swedish adaptation of the late Stieg Larsson's best-selling novel, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The first film of the trilogy arrives ahead of the inevitable American version with all guns blazing and a searing grubbiness that sets it apart from the majority of other crime thrillers.

Following Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and his fight to clear his name of a libel case against a wealthy industrialist, the story shifts gear and begins to tell that of Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) a twenty-something tech genius who works as an investigator and fights too for her own rights as she battles a welfare system that has kept her in care for the majority of her life. Disturbed and insular, Lisbeth is a firecracker, and as dangerous, as she hides behind a peculiar beauty and a huge potential to explode.

The first of the connections between the two arises when she is hired to investigate Blomkvist who has been chosen by another man of wealth, Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), to investigate the disappearance of his great niece decades earlier. Blomkvist, facing prison time, is convinced to partake and so begins the messiness of the convoluted but utterly gripping plot.

A potential who-done-it thriller sounds far from the world of horror but what quickly becomes clear is that Sweden, in this view, is a dark and sinister place. For Lisbeth is brutally raped in a scene that is incredibly difficult to watch and the griminess and evil at the centre of the investigation that becomes clear, will leave many with acrid tastes in their mouths. Why would we want to see this on screen? Well, the answer is clear and it lies in the heart of the matter and that's the fact that it's a ripper yarn told with clarity and a tight hand and eye of a solid director, Niels Arden Oplev. The narrative is intriguing and the sense of place intoxicating as Blomkvist and Salander journey together on this tale of something far darker than we were perhaps initially made to believe.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a nifty little film that wil leave the Americans behind the remake potentially shaking in their boots. They've a substantial amount up to which to live.

Never once troubling anyone to even consider remaking it, M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening is an absolute mess of ideas and execution that fails on almost every level. Telling the story of Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and his family as they try to escape from a bizarre environmental payback that causes victims to kill themselves when they come into contact with a particular neurotoxin, Shyamalan opts for that twist-in-the-tale structure and quiet sense of tension he used so effectively in The Sixth Sense. What goes wrong here is his absolute disdain for the audience's ability to follow sensical plot developments in favour of style. It completely lacks substance.

Shot beautifully, the film looks grand up on the big screen but that does nothing to circumvent the fact that stuck in the middle of this picture is a big fat turkey. Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel, two idiosyncratic actors who are just wrong for this tale, struggle monumentally to convince that they are in fact not bad actors and Shyamalan's ending, to suggest it's going to happen all over again in another place, is a kick in the head for anyone who already checked out about an hour earlier.

At only just over an hour and a half the film still feels long, which goes to suggest that perhaps this environmental allegory might have made a significantly better short film. If he hadn't proved it before, he has here. Shyamalan's a one-trick-pony and that pony is lame. The horror here lies purely in the fact that The Happening is as bad as many suggest.

It's a similar horror in Peter Jackson's adaptation of the massively successful Alice Sebold novel, The Lovely Bones. Taking what is a pretty harrowing and evocative source material, he dumbs it down in favour for imagery losing what it is at the very centre of the piece that makes it such an affecting read.

What should be a horror story of the real kind turns out to be a story far from that as he fails to get under the skin of either of the parents (Mark Wahlberg, again miscast, and Rachel Weisz, strangely ineffective) or that of the kidnapper/killer (a wrongly Oscar-nominated Stanley Tucci who has been far better in other places). Hell, he even loses sight of his protagonist, Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) which is a feat in and of itself considering how wholeheartedly Ronan throws herself into the role.

What causes the film to derail so badly is Jackson's complete misread of the emotional side of the story. He stops any traction that might take hold, particularly within Jack's storyline, and whilst humour is important to lighten the mood he uses it inappropriately with the introduction of Susie's grandmother, Lynn (Susan Sarandon).

The visual effects abound as Jackson focuses on the fantasy elements of the film but this too has disastrous impact on the emotional gravitas of the story being told. This should be a harrowing tale and in the end it is not. It's neither an uplifting one or even an interesting one as the story parts are left to flounder singularly amidst a whole that just doesn't gel together very well.

It is frustrating to see a film that should have been great turn out not bad but simply mediocre. At least with a bad film you could blame incompetency or blatant misinterpretation. In this case it just seems to be as a result of an auteur who simply may have got far too big for his boots. The Lovely Bones ain't that lovely even in the horror sense.

Far more shocking than most of what the modern horror genre can produce is what lies amidst the 109 minutes we see of the life of Claireece Precious Jones in Precious: Based On The Novel 'Push' By Sapphire. As played by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, Precious is a quiet, insular shell of a young woman, illiterate and pregnant with her second child to her own father. The victim of incestuous rape and constant beatings at the hands of both of her parents, her mother ironically named Mary (Mo'Nique), Precious suffers in a self-imposed silence as she lies deep within the morbidly obese frame of her body.

Forced from her school she begins lessons in a learning centre for troubled teen girls where she receives tough love from the gifted teacher employed at the centre, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), and begins to realise that there is more to herself than what she is told, particularly by her mother.

This isn't a new story. In fact it's a story seemingly built upon what could be viewed as a series of cliches, however, it's the treatment it is given by the cast that sheds new light. For the honesty and sheer courage of the performers is so raw and real that as an audience it is hard to deny that Precious's life is relatively close to hell on Earth.

Sidibe is a revelation in her first ever role as she moves through this horror-filled life and she's supported wonderfully by fierce performances by Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Sherri Shepherd who again proves she has the potential to be a far better dramatic performer than a comedic one, Lenny Kravitz and a surprisingly effective Mariah Carey as Precious's counsellor, Mrs. Weiss. The supporting cast in the school - Stephanie Andujar, Chyna Layne, Amina Robinson, Xosha Roquemore, Angelic Zambrana and Aunt Dot - also add depth to a section of the film that could have, and in fact sometimes does, delve into far less interesting territory à la Dangerous Minds, Sister Act 2: Back In The Habit, or Mr. Holland's Opus as the treacle is laid on thick. The film turns towards something far less brave and strangely far less honest in this section, which does unfortunately bring a ring of falsity at some points, however, director Lee Daniels never forgets where this story is set and where it is headed and using Sapphire's novel, 'Push', as its source material he somewhat clunkily redirects it in a way we sadly know the film needs to go for it to be truly authentic.

This is a story of hope, barely, but it is a story given power due to the integrity of its components. There is an undeniable belief on screen that this is a story of a young woman that needs to be told and, it's true, it brings forth an element of 'our' lives that sadly seems to be being waylaid for the troubles of celebrity and the false grandeur that surrounds it. What truth is there in something that is at its core fake? Precious: Based On The Novel 'Push' By Sapphire subtly looks at the world to which we have suddenly given creedence and respectfully and wholeheartedly gives it the middle finger. For what more of an honest answer can one give than a telling of the truth? No matter how ugly it is. Precious is tough and at times torturous but it's a pain worth dealing with as is usually the case with any reality-check.




Lars von Trier


Willem Dafoe

Charlotte Gainsbourg

108 min

Denmark ׀ Germany ׀ France ׀ Sweden ׀ Italy ׀ Poland




Niels Arden Oplev


Michael Nyqvist

Noomi Rapace

Lena Endre

Peter Haber

Sven-Bertil Taube

Peter Andersson

Ingvar Hirdwall

Marika Lagercrantz

örn Granath

Ewa Fr

Michalis Koutsogiannakis

Annika Giannini

Sofia Ledarp

Tomas K

David Dencik

152 min

Sweden ׀ Denmark ׀ Germany ׀ Norway




M. Night Shyamalan


Mark Wahlberg

Zooey Deschanel

John Leguizamo

Ashlyn Sanchez

Betty Buckley

Spencer Breslin

91 min

USA ׀ India




Peter Jackson


Mark Wahlberg

Rachel Weisz

Susan Sarandon

Stanley Tucci

Michael Imperioli

Saoirse Ronan

Rose McIver

Christian Ashdale

Tom McCarthy

136 min

USA ׀ UK ׀ New Zealand




Lee Daniels


Gabourey Sidibe


Paula Patton

Mariah Carey

Sherri Shepherd

Lenny Kravitz

Stephanie Andujar

Chyna Layne

Amina Robinson

Xosha Roquemore

Angelic Zambrana

Aunt Dot

109 min


No comments:

Post a Comment