Saturday, September 29, 2012

Horror Pre-Season: The House at the End of the Street

I'm going to be back-publishing this entry so it's chronologically near when I actually watched the movie, so that it fits into the pre-season and doesn't bloat the 28 movies in the actual October viewing list.

Hoo, boy.

House at the End of the Street is a psychological thriller directed by Mark Tonderai and starring Jennifer Lawrence, Elizabeth Shue, and Max Theiriot.  It was filmed mostly in mid-2010, and originally intended for release in April 2012 before being moved to September 2012.  What's interesting about that is that had it been released in April, another Jennifer Lawrence movie would have still been playing in theaters.  The Hunger Games was released in March 2012 and made an absolutely absurd amount of money, also making a massive star out of the then relatively unknown Lawrence.  They then enacted a 6 month advertising campaign heavily focused on letting us know Jennifer Lawrence is in this movie, also moving the thriller's release into that late-September to early-October timeframe I mentioned in The Possession's review.

It's quite clear that this movie was never intended to have such a major release, but decided to capitalize on its star's suddenly heightened profile.  The major problem again is the characters don't feel real.  This time I don't think it's a problem of acting, I think the writing is just poor.  The things people do just doesn't make sense, their motivations are practically non-existent and the relationships absolutely don't work.  A significant amount of the first act is devoted to showing off Elissa's (Lawrence) multiple artistic and devious talents and how utterly charmed her life is.  Instead of the traditional new-kid difficulties settling in and problems fitting in at a new school, Elissa immediately makes friends with everyone.  Getting invited to a massive drinking party with all the "popular" kids seemingly on the first day, and being invited to join a band by the second day.  She plays guitar, keyboard, sings, has a popular myspace music page, looks amazing, lives in a gorgeous house and the only enemy she has is the slimy alpha male that tried to force himself on her but had the decency to stop when asked.  The only tension seems to be between her and her mother, who she deliberately antagonizes presumably because of some past faults or indiscretions which are never elaborated on and just mentioned as existing in passing.

Also, I'm pretty sure there was a bit that included the phrase "trying to do this mom thing" 3 times in as many minutes.  The mom also said that Elissa liked to "make projects" out of people or "fix" them and tended to "find the most damaged" person around so many times I lost count.  It almost felt like lines where just copy-pasted around.  To say the movie repeated itself is an understatement.

The look of the film jumps from ultra-realistic handheld camera to this repeated shot where the camera cranes from below a character up past them and then shoots them from some point above the house to this "artsy" style with psychedelic colors, POV shots, and fast cuts.  It's jarring, but the worst part is that all of it fails to convey internal geography.  I don't know where locations are in relation to each other, and I don't even know what houses are shaped like.

As to the plot, if you're at all familiar with the Paul_Millander plot from season 2 of the original CSI series, that's basically what's going on.  There are some twists to get there but it's pretty predictable.  There's also a bit of some other TV plot in there, but I can't actually remember enough specifics about it.  And that's the problem, really.  This is a 100 minute long movie that tried to create an effective mystery centering around a serial abductor.  They've tried to include a well-characterized lead character, add a lot of psychosis to the antagonist and create a complex plot of misdirections to avoid their twists being obvious.  This is something TV shows have been able to do really well recently, since they have a few episodes to do it.  The movie tried to do a lot, but managed its time poorly and wound pulling out a lot of random "oh yeah...his parents also did meth!" things that came out of nowhere, didn't add much, and were sometimes inconsistent with previous scenes.

I don't know why I was expecting a lot out of this movie, but I really feel let down and the problems were so myriad and obvious I felt really bad about seeing it.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Horror Pre-Season: The Possession

Late August through mid-September is when studios like to release horror movies outside of the shadow of whatever late-October juggernaut franchise is popular.  I guess either because they're unsure of the movie's ability to stand up to the competition or they want to give something a bit different a chance to flourish.  I'm honestly not entirely sure which The Possession is.
Don't get me wrong, I liked the movie.  I thought it was pretty decent and a largely unexplored concept with a pretty great 3rd act.  However, there was something about it that made it hard to take seriously, and if you can't take a horror movie seriously it loses all ability to scare.

Firstly, I really enjoy it when a possession story takes a different approach to the mythology it's going to use.  Most entries in the genre focus on the Catholic rites of exorcism, so I take particular interest whenever a movie bases itself on a different culture's possession myths.  In this case, the Jewish dybbuk, which is more of a ghostly possession than the traditional demonic one.  I recall The Unborn being about a dybbuk as well, and though the movie wasn't too creative with its scare design it had a few really good ones and I thought the unique concept elevated it a bit.

So The Possession is a story about broken family and their experiences after one of the daughters convinces her father to buy her a Dybbuk Box at a garage sale.  She falls under the influence of the box and becomes increasingly dangerous to herself and her family as the dybbuk takes hold, while her father tries to convince his ex-wife that something is wrong with the girl and eventually to get an exorcism.

Jeffery Dean Morgan does a decent job as the ex-husband, Clyde, conveying a real sense of a father who just wants his kids to like him.  His character is pretty well developed, without spending a lot of time on him which is really nice.  Another standout in the cast is Natasha Calis is Clyde's daughter Em.  She reminds me a lot of Chloe Moretz, and has some real acting skill.  She does a great job here developing the character's mannerisms as the possession continues.  There are some nice creepy moments that rely on her acting being convincing in order to carry them, and she sells them well.  I wish there were actually more bits in the movie like that.

The sound design is also pretty unnerving.  I've noticed this is something that does a really good job scaring me when it's done well.  It's probably why I like Ti West's movies so much, he had the same sound designer (Graham Reznick) on House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, and he's really good.

The exorcism sequence itself was also very nicely done, being chaotic while still clear and focused.  There are some contrivances to set the scene, but it is an effective setting once you forget how we got there.

However, I think the movie falters at a few points.  One being Kyra Sedgwick is pretty unconvincing as the ex-wife.  There are only one or two scenes where she seems to be putting the correct emotions into her lines.  It's heavily implied she's angry at Clyde, and really into her new boyfriend and the various yuppie lifestyle trappings he brings, but the way she behaves never conveys that.  She actually seems to be happy to see her ex most of the time.

Another issue I had is that the dybbuk is absurdly powerful, even when it's still trapped in the box it's able to send a grown woman flying across the room and snap her back.  It ruins all sense of proportion, so nothing can escalate properly and the whole movie winds up feeling pretty flat.  There are peeks and valleys with the action, but the average line doesn't move much.

It feels like the script had been rewritten or heavily edited several times.  They make a lot of hints at what would have been really interesting bits of mythology to play around with, like in one scene Em finds a small carving of some sort of animal in the box, like a dog or a boar.  A few scenes later some sort of animal you never see is shown having wandered into Clyde's house and raiding his fridge.  Could it have been related?  I dunno, would've been cool, though.  They have a similar thing with a moth from the box, but then moths are made really prominent.  I wish they had given some indication of why moths were so important.  As nocturnal creatures they have obvious symbolism, but is that the intent or is it just "bugs are creepy"?

Scenes alternate tone drastically as well, and that keeps breaking the immersion, which makes the attempts at drama fall a little flat.  You kindof lose the tension they're trying to develop, so the whole things feels a bit scattered.  They also didn't really make use of the dybbuk mythology, and treated it more like a standard demonic possession with a sprinkling of Judaica.  So yeah, it was entertaining.  Not nearly as bad as everyone seems to be making it out to be, but it does fall a little flat.  It's got a few good scare moments, but it never comes together as anything so it winds up being pretty forgettable.