Friday, May 18, 2018

Flatliners



This is a movie where I can’t really pretend that I take the premise seriously for a single second.  While I do have a personal belief in the afterlife, I do not think near-death experiences are evidence for it.  If such evidence existed it could only be presented by contact with spirits of those who are definitely dead, not the memories of those who were close.  Even if their experiences were completely valid, the afterlife might very well last five minutes rather than an eternity for all we can tell.
Beyond that, I’ll never understand what Medical Student Nelson Wright (Kiefer Sutherland) thinks he’s proving in this story.  The plan he forms with his fellow students is to stop their hearts, revive themselves, and record what they experience.  I don’t see anything about this experience that makes them especially different from the numerous other near-death experiences.
The closest the movie comes to scientific objectivity is when Dave Labraccio (Kevin Bacon) undergoes the experiment assuming that, as an atheist, he would experience nothing unless there was an afterlife.  This completely disregards the fact that he was raised in a culture of religion.  It also disregards the possibility he himself raised: the brain might release some hormone at the point of death to calm the dying individual
I don’t say all of this as a negative.  The fact that the movie isn’t scientific frames how I view it.  I approach this movie as pure 80s cheese not that far removed from Re-Animator (never mind that it was made in 1990).  From that perspective, this movie is pitch-perfect.  Kiefer Sutherland gives a stylized performance that’s brilliantly over-the-top in his utter narcissism.
Nelson is backed up in his insane endeavor by Rachel Manus (Julia Roberts), who doesn’t look like she’s missed a second of sleep through medical school, the aforementioned Dave Labraccio, and resident womanizer Joe Hurley (William Badlwin).  The group is rounded out by Oliver Platt as Randy Steckle, who takes very little part in the actual flatlining, but sticks around to tell the others that they’re insane, and provide some assistance with reviving them.
 Being a movie, of course, things must actually happen in response to this experiment.  Things that, for some reason, have never happened to anyone experiencing near death experiences before.  Rather than simply seeing glimpses of a supposed afterlife, the med students being to have visions of their past sins haunting them.  Dave, for example, begins seeing visions of a little girl he picked on when he was a child.  Joe sees visions of women he filmed without their knowledge.  Rachael’s “sin” was rewritten to avoid tarnishing Julia Robert’s image, so she still struggles with guilt concerning the suicide of her father.
Interestingly, the movie would be very different if it was limited to those three scenarios.  Both Dave and Joe are “haunted” by the “ghosts” of people who are clearly still alive, and Rachel did nothing wrong.  In and of itself, even as cheesy as the whole premise is, these three stories could be taken as purely psychological horror.  Near the point of death these three people faced their own demons.
But, naturally, the 80s couldn’t be that subtle.  So, Nelson finds himself face-to-face with the physical ghost of his childhood dog, and a kid (Joshua Rudoy) whose death he was accidentally responsible for.  This ghost child is able to physically beat up an adult Kiefer Sutherland, because of course he is.
In terms of horror, Nelson is almost in another movie.  Not to say that it isn’t cheesy throughout, but there’s a difference between being tormented by visions of past wrongs, and a cut 20-something being spat on by a small child who just overpowered him.  Furthermore, unlike the others who ultimately share emotional moments in which they deal with their sins, Nelson never calms down enough to really give a sense of closure.  While the movie does use one scene to establish the possibility that Nelson is engaging in self-harm and imagining a child doing it, I don’t think Nelson has a single scene in which he deals with his own wrongs in anything other than a blind panic.
Eventually, Nelson tries to reconcile with the demons of his past by flatlining with no one else present.  After apparent “death” he’s apparently forgiven by the ghost of his childhood enemy, and returns to the land of the living for a happy ending.  It’s exactly the blend of cheese this movie needed.
If you haven’t seen Flatliners, you’re missing out.  You won’t be scared, but it’s a fun movie.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Split



And so, Shyamalan returns to form.  For anyone who hasn’t yet found out yet, Split is the sequel to Unbreakable.  While I was initially a little skeptical of the movie due to the portrayal of mental illness, this aspect really fixed the problem for me.  Kevin (James McAvoy) isn’t a mental patient, he’s a super villain.
The premise of this movie, that a man with multiple personalities has been taken over by three malevolent personalities intent on creating a super-human amalgam, sounds utterly silly on paper.  It works largely because McAvoy is a brilliant performer, who can signal with his body language exactly who he’s supposed to be at any given moment.
We largely see the story of Kevin from the outside looking in, as we follow two subplots.  Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), Kevin’s psychiatrist, who begins to realize that his malevolent personalities have taken over, and Casey Cooke (Anna Taylor-Joy), a victim kidnapped by “Dennis” as a sacrifice for “The Beast.”  While Casey is one of three victims (the other two being played by Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula), the others largely exist as foils to her.  Over the course of the film we realize that this is not her first time in the role of a victim, and she alone realizes that no empowerment mantra can fix the situation easily.
The leader of the three personalities is Patricia.  While she’s both female and terrifying, I feel the movie largely avoids transphobia.  She induces fear mainly from the disconnect between her calm demeanor, and her brutal plans to literally feed the girls to The Beast.
Her recruit, Dennis, really could have been split into two characters.  One who was a sympathetic protector of Kevin, the first alternate personality, and another who was a sexual predator.  These traits make it frequently unclear whether or not we’re supposed to sympathize with Dennis as misguided, or view him as irredeemably evil.
The final “evil” personality is Hedwig, a childlike being who has the power to take “the light” from any of the personalities, and give it to any other.  Hedwig is a very difficult character to nail down.  His nature creates the impression that he was manipulated by Patricia, but there are times in which he takes actions that seem to serve no purpose other than personal malice.
The trailer made it quite clear that, yes, the Beast was real and did come.  If there’s a real shocker to the ending, however, it’s in The Beast’s decision to let Casey go.  Through a series of flashbacks we find out that Casey has been living for years with her sexually abusive uncle, following the death of her family.  The Beast, upon realizing that Casey has been abused, tells her to “rejoice” that she is “pure” because of her brokenness, and by extension is worthy to live.  There’s arguably a strong implication that she will kill her uncle in the near future.
The movie closes with Patricia, Dennis, and Hedwig reflecting on how amazing The Beast is, as we look on and wonder what will happen next.  The ending reminded me of Edward Norton’s The Incredible Hulk, leaving us with some uncertainty whether the “monster” was a purely malevolent entity.  I do kind of wonder what Shyamalan is thinking presenting a character who literally cannibalized multiple people as morally grey.
The movie isn’t shocking or sickening, but it is intense.  It’s a film that I certainly wouldn’t show to a child.  With the sequel, Glass, on the horizon, I’m very eager to see what else M. Night has up his sleeve.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Fright Night



Fright Night is a movie that, structurally speaking, I should hate.  I hated the original Poltergeist because of its disjointed nature.  To a point, Fright Night is the same.  By the end of the movie we technically have four villains.  This in and of itself wouldn’t be a problem, especially as three of them are subordinate to the vampire Jerry (Chris Sarandon).  However, the movie makes the bizarre mistake of never having these three subordinate villains interact as villains, leaving us uncertain of their relationship, and making scenes with them seem almost like random encounters in a video game.

I suspect that at some point there were two versions of this script.  One in which our hero Charley’s (William Ragdale) best friend Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) was turned into a vampire, and one in which his love interest Amy (Amanda Bearse) was turned.  I imagine either of those two versions would have allowed walking corpse Billy (Jonathan Starke) more time to develop.  As it is, he seems to mostly function as an extension of Jerry, getting plenty of screentime, but being used mostly to advance the plot as the vampire’s daylight agent.

Then again, this is my usual schtick, find one flaw and go on and on about it.  But, I did open this review by saying I should hate the film on paper.  Obviously, I don’t.  The special effects, the acting, and the strong characters all make this a wonderful film.

To get into the actual meat of the film, Charley, spying on his neighbor Jerry, sees him attack and kill a young woman, and realizes immediately that Jerry is a vampire.  Furthermore, Jerry realizes almost immediately that Charley knows, and begins planning to silence him.  Charley, meanwhile, finds himself unable to recruit Amy, and that Evil is willing to help him only for money.

After an attack by Jerry in which Charley is threatened, he runs to Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell), a Horror Host and former movie star who Charley seems to believe is an actual vampire hunter.  The character is supposedly based on Vincent Price, but honestly I found myself thinking of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing immediately.  Vincent seems to see his films as metaphorically true art, and humors Charley until he realizes that the boy actually believes that there’s a literal vampire across the street from his house.

The movie does a good job of giving us characters who are just different enough from their archetypes to be effective.  While Charley is a fan of old horror movies, there’s no pretense that this is unusual in and of itself.  Evil and Amy are both lovers of Peter Vincent as well, even if they find Charley’s literal interpretation a bit out there.

Jerry, meanwhile, manages to present us with a fundamentally human vampire, without angsting or monologuing.  He’s able to get himself invited into Charley’s house almost immediately, but seems to actually like Charley’s Mom, and initially feels little resentment of Charley himself.  Sarandon has said that he wanted to portray Jerry as more complex than a simple movie monster, and he succeeded.  Jerry has no desire to kill anyone for any reason other than survival, and is even reluctant to kill Charley in any situation that would also require harming his mother.  Ideally, he would scare the boy into silence.

While it would be easy to portray Peter Vincent simply as a money-grubbing glory hound, or a cliché Shakespearian actor “reduced” to horror parts.  But, the movie steers clear of either of these traps, giving us a Vincent who clearly saw the merit in the horror genre, even as he resented the slasher films of the 80s.  When Amy offers him money to “test” Jerry for vampireness in an effort to snap Charley out of what they believe to be a delusion, he takes it, but is facing eviction, so it’s hardly a surprise.

…oh, and Jerry thinks Amy is the reincarnation of his lost love…

It’s kind of hard to believe that the movie is able to deal with all of these dynamics in a 2 hour runtime, but it does so flawlessly.  While Vincent is able to fake a “vampire test” to show Jerry is human, he finds himself persuaded when he notices that the man casts no reflection, and retreats to his home.

Jerry, concerned about if not truly frightened by Charley, turns both Evil, and eventually Amy, as a show of power.  Charley attempts again to recruit Vincent, who finds his courage when Evil attacks him, and he fulfills his title as “the Great Vampire Hunter,” killing Evil (…who gets better…).  The two attack Jerry’s home.

The two find themselves forced to contend with Amy as she’s transforming, and Bill who’s undead status seems to give him the immunities of vampires, without the same weaknesses, before finally battling Jerry.  The confrontation manages to be properly intense, but maintains the focus on the characters, without their drama ever being lost in the special effects.

The movie ends with Jerry dead, but Evil somehow revived, while Amy is again human.  It’s generally considered a tragedy that Geoffreys declined to return for Fright Night Party 2, as he had a great dynamic.  That said, the first film is fantastic.  I’d put it in roughly the same category as Monster Squad, as a 80s films that didn’t attempt to draw a clear line between the comedy and the horror, letting the audience decide for themselves when to scream or laugh.