Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Is this a horror movie? – Poltergeist

“Poltergeist” scared the hell out of me as a kid. I didn’t see it in the theater, but I did see it at a friends house. He was a horror fan, and I wasn’t quite into the genre yet. He felt this would be a good movie to start with, and so popped it in. I have to say that the scene where the investigator rips his face off was probably the most horrific thing I’d seen in a movie at that point.

After watching the movie again this year, my wife turned to me and said, “You know, this isn’t really a horror film. It’s a family drama”. This reminded me of the second time I saw the film with my buddy back in the late 80’s. We didn’t like it because it wasn’t like “Creepshow” or “Nightmare on Elm Street”. And that is what most people think of when they think Horror. Well that and the countless “Saw” films that seem to be plaguing us.

Truth is, lots of things can be considered horror. I’ve covered a few opinions in this blog (including Stephen King’s look at the genre in “Dance Macabre”), but for me “Poltergeist” works with one of the most effective types of horror – the fear of the unknown.

The reason the movie still works and rises above some of its dated special effects is because of two key elements. The family is introduced in a way that makes them very familiar. They remind you of your neighbors or yourself. In fact the trailer goes out of its way to say how normal the house in “Poltergeist” is. “A normal town, with a normal neighborhood, and a normal house… except for one detail”. This normalcy does two things. It makes the family relatable and it shows that these aren’t super heroes, just average folks. Contrast this to “The Haunting” where the house is a towering mansion, or even “Dracula” where the heroes at least have Van Helsing and his key knowledge. Here, the family is on their own facing something they can not explain.

And that is the other key to “Poltergeist”, the forces at work in the house are powerful and unknowable. You can’t reason with them, because you can’t communicate with them. Some don’t seem to want to do more than move things around the house, and others seem bent on taking Carol Anne into their world. Logic is thrown out the window and there seems to be only two options – fight the unknown or run away. And the Freeling family would have run away if Carol Anne hadn’t gotten sucked into that brilliant vortex.

To add to the horror you’ve got the two forces summoned to combat it: science and magic. The ghost researchers are obviously the scientific weapon. They come in and try to figure out why’s and how’s. They feel logic and documentation can solve this mystery. Quickly they are assaulted at all sides and the weakest of their number is driven away from the house (after he hallucinates that he tears his own face off – I’d run away too). This unknown force can not be quantified and the researchers end up doing little more than catching some great evidence on tape. But they realize that they are overmatched and turn toward magic.

Enter Tangina, the short and shrill psychic who’s able to contact Carol Anne and even figure out where in the house the portals to the other world are. At first Tangina seems to be the solution and it makes sense: use magic to fight the unknown. Humans have been doing it since the dawn of man.

Notice one key thing – Tangina does not go into the portal herself and rescue Carol Anne. She’s prepared to do it, but instead it is the mother, Diane, who enters the unknown world and comes back with her daughter. This works with the main theme of the film, of facing the unknown. The family, who we have become connected to must face the danger by themselves and even if they have help of science and magic, they must make the sacrifices and take the risks.

Well it all turns out well, with Carol Anne being rescued and the worst of the horror just giving Diane a streak of white hair. Tangina even declares the house “clean”. But the movie isn’t done yet. In a final defiance – the forces go right back attempting to take Carol Anne again. Magic was not effective. The researchers are gone, so even the reassurance of science is nowhere to be found. Even dad is far away - just mom and the kids and house full of malicious forces. The horrors are unleashed one on top of the other and things go bad very quickly. But it is the family that fights and escapes. Notice that all the members of the family show up by the end of the film, even the teenage daughter who was staying with a friend manages to show up just as the house is destroying itself in it’s unknowable fury.

The last image ties the knot. The family is together, exhausted and shaken, but together. They check into a motel room and push the television out of the room in a moment of dark irony. As the credits roll, Jerry Goldsmith’s score goes into a lullaby, ironic and maybe over cute. But stay till the end when the demonic giggling kicks in. Nice ending.

“Poltergeist” has a lot of great things going for it. Personally I wouldn’t have shown as much of the ghosts ands the powers as they did in the film. Horror of the unknown works better when it’s intangible. And since it’s the effects that are dated, these things could have been avoided with a less “in your face” approach to the story (See the 1963 version of “The Haunting” for a good example). But aside from that its power lies in the set up and in the execution of the story. A family drama? Sure it is. The family as a whole faces the forces of the unknown and survives. But the horror of the unknown is the other key. “Poltergeist” wouldn’t be as effective without either part.

What do you think of “Poltergeist”, solid horror film or over-rated special effects movie? Would you call “Poltergeist” a horror film or does it straddle a line? Do you have a favorite haunted house film?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dark Demented Noir – Lost Highway

David Lynch has been one of my favorite directors since the end of the 90’s. I remember seeing a scene from “The Elephant Man” when I was a kid. In it the nurse sees the unfortunate man, and his image terrifies her. It was filmed like a horror scene and it scared the hell out of me.

As a kid I also watched “Dune” because I loved “Star Wars” and my dad brought home anything sci-fi related. Needless to say The Baron terrified my sister and I found it to be the most disturbing sci-fi film I’d ever seen. I know others feel the same way for other reasons. :-)

I can’t remember if I saw “Lost Highway” before I got pulled back into David Lynch, or seeing that movie was the cause – but I do know I saw it and the film impacted me profoundly. It was surreal horror in a way I’d never seen before. Lynch had captured the feel of the nightmare, and in doing did something that I had rarely felt – he scared me.

Most of the time, horror movies are gross and don’t do much more than startle me. But there are the rare films that use atmosphere to build horror, and the first half of “Lost Highway” does it very well. I heard the first 40 minutes described as a pressure cooker, with you feeling certain that something horrible is going to happen, but you wait for the other shoe to drop.

Now if you haven’t seen the movie, I’ll tell you right now, most people leave the film immensely confused after the first viewing. The first forty minutes move very slowly, and many find them boring. The next hour or so seems to be a completely different movie and the final fifteen to twenty minutes are screw with your sense of narrative so much that confusion is the only resolution. To be honest this isn’t good story telling.

Now, this provides a bit of an issue, if Lynch doesn’t tell an effective story than “Lost Highway” fails as a movie right? Correct. But if Lynches goal wasn’t to tell a story but create an effective and horrifying atmosphere that creates mixes an uneasy and uncanny feeling in the viewer, then his goal is met. To be honest I don’t know what he was trying to do in this movie, and if I got a chance to ask Lynch, he wouldn’t tell me. His favorite reply to that question is “What do you think I was trying to do?” For him it’s more entertaining to hear what others make of his work.

So maybe he’s just a snobby guy who has a very good eye behind the camera and knows how to create nightmare visions on the screen. But he does this in such an effective way that many other filmmakers have used his techniques to great effect – and especially in horror films.

Lynch’s follow up to this movie, “Mulholland Drive” is a better film. The story makes a bit more sense, (once you piece it together after multiple viewings) and the style seems more assured and concise. The pacing is quicker and fits the mystery of the film.

But “Lost Highway” is primarily a horror film dressed as noir. Shadows and light play huge parts in the film. Lynch utilizes sound and music in such a way as to disorient and horrify the viewer. Early scenes seem to have eerie silence, or undulating rumbles as if the world is waiting to close over the main characters. The house of the characters is always in shadow and hallways seem to stretch into a dark oblivion.

Lights are used in ways that seem to be perfect. Flashing white-blue bursts signify power and a moment of change. Brilliant headlights bath nude bodies in the desert. And the red light of a jazz club illuminates the face of a man who feels suspicion and rage building inside him.

Haven’t seen it and curious? Let me tell you a bit about the premise of the first part of the film. A couple living in modern house seems to be having a strained relationship. There is no sign of understanding or passion between them. One day a video tape is left on their porch (movie was made in 96, so no DVDs). The tape shows a slow pan of the front of their house. The next day another tape arrives, showing the same thing, but after a burst of static, it now shows the inside of the house, from a very high angle, almost as if it was floating in the air. It moves down the hallway and into the bedroom right over the sleeping couple. They are so disturbed that they call the police, but the detectives are unable to find any evidence of a break in. Later on the couple is at a party, and the husband meets a small pale man with no eyebrows. The man claims to be in their house, “right now”. He hands his cell phone to the husband, who dials his home number, and the man answers, even though he’s standing right in front of him.

Seriously, it’s one of the most surreal and messed up phone calls in movie history. And that bit of the uncanny starts the unraveling of reality for all the characters, and only gets darker from here on in. If you are familiar with Lynch’s other work, “Twin Peaks”, “Blue Velvet” or “Wild At Heart”, you’ll know what to expect. But this film is darker, perhaps the darkest of his movies (although I still haven’t made up my mind about “Inland Empire” yet). But in my mind, it’s the closest we will get to a David Lynch horror film and that’s why it’s one of my favorites for Halloween viewing.

Seen “Lost Highway”? What did you think of it? David Lynch: skilled film maker or insane pretentious “arteest”? Can a movie or novel be successful if it only accomplishes mood, but fails in telling a cohesive story?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Whole Book about Walking – The Long Walk

In some ways Stephen King is a polarizing figure among book readers and writers. Some feel he is completely commercial and writes to please the masses. Others find his work to be among the best of modern storytelling. I dislike extremes, but I have to admit, Stephen King is a very good writer. Nearly every book I’ve read by him, I’ve enjoyed on some level. Some of them are better than others, but most of them keep you reading until the end.

While King is known for his horror work, he’s written plenty of other things. Some of the best adaptation of King’s work to screen come from his non-horror offerings: “Stand by Me” (based of “The Body”), “The Shawshank Redemption”, and “The Green Mile”. In fact one of the books I recommend to King neophytes is “Different Seasons” a combination of four short stories that don’t really have much to do with the supernatural.

My sister recommended “The Long Walk” to me, saying it was another one of King’s different tales. I knew little about it, other than it was written by King when he was using the Richard Bachman pseudonym. The introduction to the book explains King’s view of Bachman and about the alter ego’s untimely death. King says of Bachman “…he’s not a very nice guy.”

What is very interesting about this book is that it shouldn’t work. It has two things going against it. First off, it’s bleak. There is very little humor here and what there is black as the depths of space and nearly as cold. The setting is harsh, grim future – a true dystopia. The tone is hard and unforgiving and it doesn’t let up, not even at the end.

The second strike against it is the subject matter. The basic plot is a publicized game. It seems to be the only game in this future U.S. One hundred teenage boys start walking from a point in Maine heading south. They can not stop, they can not drop below four miles per hour. If they do either, they are warned. After three warnings they are shot. The winner of the game is awarded a fabulous prize. All you have to do is survive.

That’s it. You start off with the main character and follow him all the way through The Long Walk until his end. There is nothing else going on, you don’t get to see anything outside of what the main character experiences, and so you don’t get much background as to why the game was created, how it is promoted and televised, and why anyone would want to participate in such a thing in the first place. You only know that it’s happening and that you are trapped with the main character as it happens.

The thing is, the book works very well. There are two key reasons for this. For me the most important element is the set up. If the first couple chapters don’t grab the reader then they are not going to stay with the book for the long haul. King creates an interesting character with Garraty Davis. He’s someone we can all relate to in a way. If you’ve ever been a teenager then you understand some of what Garraty is going though. You wanna seem smarter than you are. You feel invincible one level and very self conscious on another. You do things on impulse with much though for future consequences. You have something to prove but don’t know what it might be or who you want to prove it to. In a way he reminds me of some of the better drawn teen protagonists of Japanese animation or video games.

Most readers will understand Garraty and as King slowly feeds you more information about the game and what’s happening, your curiosity grows. Garraty obviously knows some things, but his mind isn’t focused on them, instead elements of the game and the dystopian future come out in conversation and internal monologue.

This is the second key to the book. There are elements that are hinted at from the beginning. Why is Garraty involved in the Long Walk? Who is “The Major” and why is he in charge of The Long Walk? Why do some of the boys act the way they do? Each of these points perks your interest and keeps you reading. Garraty finds some of these answers, the readers may have to glean others from Garraty’s reactions and dialogue. Some are never fully revealed. Then of course there are other questions that arise as the book unfolds.

King handles it all very well, and kept me reading even when I questioning the point of the book. It’s so grim and dower, and yet there was something going on at its core, a cold nugget of truth that seemed to elude me. The book made me think, and for most of us writers, if you can get your readers to interact with the book and think about after they’ve shut it – you’ve succeeded. I definitely recommend this for anyone in the mood for something a little different from King, and not afraid to take The Long Walk.

What did you think of “The Long Walk”? You think King is over-rated? Ever read a book that didn’t seem like it should work but because of the writer’s skill, it did?