Thursday, August 30, 2018

Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III

Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw III (1990)
Dir. Jeff Burr
Written by David J. Schow
Starring Kate Hodge, William Butler, Ken Foree, Viggo Mortensen, R. A. Milhailoff

            Rummaging through obscure old genre movies is like prospecting for hidden treasure; you can set yourself up in a likely spot, you can search as much ground as possible to increase your odds, but in the end, you still have to get lucky. There’s no substitute for luck. Every once in awhile, you turn up a pretty good one (THE NEST), sometimes you get something useless but singular enough to be interesting (THE AMERICAN SCREAM) and mostly you just get disappointing nothings (THE BLOODYJUDGE). This is especially true for old horror movies, since horror fans are among the least discriminating people on planet Earth and also watch 500% more movies than normal humans. Consequently if there’s anything worthwhile there, it’s usually been discovered long ago. So not only is the prize you seek already exceedingly rare, you’re covering terrain which has already been thoroughly traversed and minutely prospected by fellow travelers. Sometimes, then, your best hope is not that the gold you’re panning for is so obscure as to have never before been seen, but that is has been widely seen, but somehow missed and overlooked, misjudged, misunderstood.

This can happen sometimes; occasionally, a film just happens to be wrong for its time; it’s roundly criticized and dismissed in the moment, only to be rediscovered a generation later with the benefit of time and distance to help the world see subtler charms which were missed by contemporary eyes that expected something else. This is an especially likely fate for offbeat cult genre movies that have even a hint of marquee appeal -- something that draws an audience with disastrously erroneous expectations upon its release, and can never overcome the initial negativity generated by the shock and revulsion that follows from the wrong eyes seeing something they were never meant to see. We talked about this phenomenon back when we discussed Nic Roeg’s EUREKA, a nutty, impressionistic art movie with the gall to try to lure in the normies by casting Gene Hackman and fraudulently passing itself off as some kind of whodunnit.* Some poor suburban dad with a vague memory of liking THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE is not gonna get the fun night at the movies he was hoping for.

Obviously nobody who gets hustled that way is going to come away happy, and generating such universal ill-will so early in a movie’s life is often sufficient to drive away the very people who should see it, dooming a film to immediate and unexamined obscurity. This is obviously a bad PR strategy for the movie in question, but it’s the perfect method of preserving a time capsule for future generations to discover --the cinematic equivalent of getting a mosquito caught in amber-- because it’s one of the few ways to bury a movie so deep and ignominiously that even connoisseurs will fail to unearth it for decades to come. Heck, even Tobe Hooper’s insane TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 suffered a little from this fate; turning his bleak, grueling horror classic into a outrageous campy comedy was not what fans of the first film were expecting in 1986, and you can still find people even today who dismiss it offhand (most have not seen it recently, or they’d have changed their minds). My point is, these things are out there, ready to be recovered, reevaluated, and burnished to their original glory in the eyes of the world.

Alas, LEATHERFACE: TEXAS CHAINSAW III is not such a film.  

Anyway, I can’t say they didn’t warn me. Nobody has ever claimed that LEATHERFACE; TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III was any damn good at all, and if even 1% of humans were capable of enjoying it, I’d have heard from one of them by now. But even so, I dunno, you look at it on paper and think come on, it’s got fucking Viggo Mortensen and Ken Foree, and the absolute greatest fucking trailer in film history how could this not be at least a little entertaining? And here’s the thing: it is a little entertaining. But here’s also the thing: it’s only a little entertaining. It’s not even some kind of EXORCIST 2 style ambitious wrongheaded hubrisical catastrophe, it’s just the most milquetoast final product you could possibly imagine having the words “Chainsaw massacre” in its title. Or even “Texas,” for that matter. It’s mostly not bad, it’s mostly just nothing. Which unfortunately is just about the most unforgivable sin a movie with “Chainsaw Massacre” in its title could possible commit.

It’s not utterly bereft of merit, however; especially early on, there seems like there might be some hope. After a pretty middling re-introduction to Leatherface (now portrayed by R. A. Milhailoff, a former pro-wrestler and one time Full House guest star) and his penchant for bludgeoning young women and wearing their faces, we meet our ostensible protagonists, Michelle (Kate Hodge, THE HIDDEN II) and Ryan (William Butler, FRIDAY THE 13th PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD, writer of THE GINGERDEAD MAN), who the film treats with the exact maximum possible level of resigned acceptance at the necessity of having a couple of victims in a script. But we also waste little time getting to the obligatory TCSM pervy weirdos, first the handsome and apparently harmless Tex (Viggo Mortensen, RENNY HARLIN’S PRISON), and then the less appealing Bible-fixated peeping-tom Alfredo (Tom Everett, a career which has taken him from DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN to THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON**).

These early scenes don’t really work, but they do vaguely hint at why you might imagine director Jeff Burr (STEPFATHER II, PUMPKINHEAD 2: BLOOD WINGS, PUPPETMASTER 4, PUPPETMASTER 5, THE WEREWOLF REBORN!) would not be the worst choice in the world for a TEXAS CHAINSAW movie. Or at least, they might, if you’d seen what appears to be his one and only watchable horror movie, 1987’s FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM, a surprising and disquieting anthology film long on uneasy atmosphere and Southern Gothic flavor. The original TCSM and its sequel are more geek show than Flannery O’Connor, but one could dimly imagine Burr recapturing that timeless, stagnating sense of baking sun and decaying sanity and successfully applying it to the debauched world of the Sawyer clan. And in fact, it sounds like that might have been exactly what he intended to do; he wanted to shoot in 16mm, in Texas, and to make it as twisted and grimy as possible.

 But, as you can read in this career-spanningand dream-crushing interview, he had good intentions often, but never the clout to actually make them a reality. In this case, he was hired on at the last minute, with the script already in place, the set already built in California, and a premier date already announced, and that was that. It would not be shot in 16mm, would not be shot in Texas, and would not contain any twist or grime that could feasibly be avoided. New Line, fresh off the underwhelming NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET  5: THE DREAM CHILD and hoping to replace their flagging horror property with a new franchise, would be calling the shots, and, as Burr points out, the final product of that kind of corporate thinking could only be a corporate movie. Which LEATHERFACE indisputably is, and which is the one thing a TEXAS CHAINSAW movie must indisputably never be. It smacks of a film made by responsible, sane people who are just trying to show the kids a good time, and consequently it is irrecoverably hobbled right from the gate. It’s about as perverse and shocking as a Disneyland ride.

So instead of a continuation of the maggot-brained intensity of Tobe Hooper’s two TCSM movies, instead we get a movie which looks and feels like a pretty generic low-budget slasher which would be shot in California and lazily rip off THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. And as far as that genre goes, it’s by no means the worst; I mean, it looks like it was shot by professionals, there’s some production value in there, a couple attempts at some gimmicks. Leatherface drives a jacked up monster truck covered with human skin, for example, which is about as deeply stupid as movies get, but the kind of stupid that’s at least trying to be fun. He also gets a tricked-out chainsaw with the words “The Saw is Family” engraved on the side, which I’m just now realizing is probably a play on “The Sawyer Family,” which is actually kind of funny. Ken Fornee shows up as some kind of survivalist militia guy, I guess, which explains why he has the weapons and wherewithal to actually do battle with the offending backwoods people-eaters. And in the movie’s most interesting idea, they introduce a cute little daughter for the family, who uses a desiccated baby corpse as a doll and gets spoiled and doted on by the older maniacs who are trying to murder up some dinner. Obvious, perhaps, but pleasingly grotesque.

That stuff by itself seems like it should be more than enough to add up to a movie, and yet it somehow doesn’t ever quite seem to make the impact it should. Part of that, no doubt, is the squeamishness of the MPAA, which in the late 80s and early 90s was uniquely merciless to horror films. Consequently, the biggest massacre anywhere in sight is what the MPAA did to it, cutting it to absolute ribbons in order to dodge an unreleasable “X” rating. They might’ve just as well used a chainsaw. Certainly what they did to the film was vastly more brutal than anything the characters ever do on-screen. Numerous shots, and even whole scenes, furtively cut away before anything really awful can happen, deftly refuting any halfhearted claims the film might float to bolster its dubious titular claims. That’s partially a result of the dozens of re-edits, of course; supposedly the film was re-submitted a record 11 times before it got its “R” rating, which would be a badge of honor except that the final product is so mild-mannered. But it’s also just that the movie was kind of a pussycat to begin with. All those cuts definitely didn’t help, but it’s not like it began as an extreme, brutal film only to have all the gore cut out in post; it was always going to be a pretty inoffensive movie, made with with the looming specter of a ratings challenge in mind. And then the MPAA gutted even that. There’s a couple additional moments of blood in the “unrated” cut I saw, but nothing even remotely shocking.*** Even the deleted original ending is barely more nihilistic than a given episode of The Twilight Zone, and not a squib more violent, either.****

So while it would be easy to pin the wholesale failure of the movie on its tortured crucible of ratings-hunting, I can’t really do it. There’s something else missing here. After all, the original TCSM isn’t fundamentally some kind of wall-to-wall gorefest either -- the sequence here wherein our heroine has her hands nailed to a chair and then rips them free is easily as explicitly violent as anything that happens in the original (irony noted: Hooper also tried to avoid explicit violence in the hopes of getting a safer rating -- in his case, an unrealistic PG instead of an R). So it’s not really the violence that’s missing, it’s something more ineffable. It’s the sense of sleaze, of sun-baked dirt and sweat, of decay, of impenetrable, incomprehensible, almost Lovecraftian madness. Hell, it’s the Texas. You miss the Texas. Even inside the Sawyer house, there’s not a frame of this movie that doesn’t have California written on it. And a rather cheap, perfunctory sort of California, at that. Burr and cinematographer James L. Carter (ONE FALSE MOVE) appear utterly incapable of staging anything to convey that they find any of this any more shocking or debased than your average marquee slasher, lighting the movie like a sitcom and framing even the most disturbing content with a listless disinterest. The title character is wearing a mask made from crudely skinned human flesh for the entire movie, but you’d never know this was in any way unusual behavior from the way the movie presents it. It’s there, but the movie makes nothing of it, and in doing so actively diminishes it. It hardly seems possible to take such inherently salacious material and render it so low-impact, but here we are.*****

There’s simply nothing in evidence here which would suggest why anyone involved thought this should be made, what was supposed to be good here. The best it can do is to settle on dimly reminding you of its more formidable predecessors. So it doesn’t really tell a story so much as it checks boxes. You gotta have the chainsaw in there, for example, so there’s a scene with a chainsaw. Now, nothing interesting or memorable happens with that chainsaw, but it’s in there, so it technically qualifies as a TEXAS CHAINSAW movie from a legal standpoint. I mean, you’ve got everything you would want in a TEXAS CHAINSAW movie in there; chainsaw, family dinner scene, creepy hitchhiker who turns out to be in on it, old grandpa propped up at the family table. The ingredients are there, it’s just that not only are none of them even remotely the kind of escalation you’d need by a third sequel to a iconic classic, but they’re also just milder and blander and phonier and more insubstantial in every conceivable way. It’s a movie which seems confused by its own existence, like a stagehand hanging out backstage who suddenly gets grabbed and shoved out in front of an audience by some banker hissing “do it like that other one!”

Which I guess is kinda what happened.

 * ONLY GOD FORGIVES would be a good modern example: a lot of well-meaning respectable citizens saw that trailer and said, “hey there, Martha, that cute young fella you liked so much in THE NOTEBOOK did some kind of  kung fu movie, how ‘bout we make a date night of it?” Most of them will never recover.

**He also plays a character named “Sargent Pepper” in DANCES WITH WOLVES, and that’s a true story.

*** Viggo Mortensen gets to die twice, which is an improvement from his baffling off-screen implied death in the theatrical version. Neither death is any good at all, and his second death is so badly lit that it’s almost indecipherable and was probably cut for clarity rather than delicacy, but I guess that’s a net gain in quantity-over-quality sort of way.

 **** Though it is a vast, vast improvement on the comically nonsensical theatrical ending tacked on by the producers without Burr’s involvement after the only thing test audiences seemed to remember is they liked Ken Foree, who we’re now inexplicably told has survived having his skull sawed open and his body laying submerged in a fetid swamp for several hours. Not that realism is exactly high on a list of my priorities for these movies, but it is at this point that we exit “horror movie logic” and enter the “Bugs Bunny cartoon” universe.

 ***** Alternate take: Here’s the only positive review of the movie I've ever heard of, and it still spends half the review talking about all the things that went wrong with the production, before making a long series of absolutely bewildering claims ("It makes Leatherface scary again!") as if they're established facts.


The Discreet Charm of the Killing Spree

The Terror Begins the Second It Starts, which is technically true, I guess, since we’re introduced in the midst of a different Chainsaw Massacre which has immediately preceded the one we will be observing.
I mean, Leatherface is pretty prominent, they say it’s Texas even though it’s clearly not, there is a chainsaw, and if killing two people counts as a massacre, then sure. Actually come to think of it, the Sawyers take worse than they give here, so maybe the massacre is what happens to them.
Yes, the third sequel of four in the original continuity (we don’t talk about the remake continuity around here)
Not specifically, although I think with the prequel and everything the remake continuity is up to part 3 by now. Oops, I just broke the one rule I established regarding this issue. Forget I said anything
Cannibals, slashers
Ken Foree. I guess R. A. Milhailoff counts?
No animals that I recall.
Yes, the little girl has a baby-doll made from a child’s corpse, which, man, that’s so fucked up, I honestly don’t understand how the movie makes it seem like such a mild detail.
Yeah, I’d say so
Definitely, in fact the first creep we encounter has precisely this desire.
If you absolutely must do battle with a clan of inbred cannibal psycho killers, you could absolutely do worse than running into Ken Foree for backup.

And barely a C-, but still technically proficient enough to save itself from a "D" 

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Ghost Stories (2018) and the Problem Of The Twist

Ghost Stories (2018
Written and Dir. by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson
Starring Andy Nyman, Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther

Here’s the problem with watching an absolutely unhealthy, physically exhausting, emotionally deadening amount of movies. No, it has nothing to do with the socially isolating effects of forgoing the last vestiges of real human experience to follow the flickering siren of obscure horror cinema, don’t be stupid. The problem is, eventually, you see pretty much everything.

I don’t mean, of course, that you literally run out of new material (there are still CRITTERS sequels I haven’t seen, for God’s sake!), I mean that you eventually just see so many iterations of the same narrative and stylistic tricks that they lose every lingering remnant of their once-potent ability to surprise you. There is a never-ending stream of new movies, but they increasingly reveal themselves to be merely thinly repackaged iterations of older ones, familiar as an old shoe, and about as exciting. Twists which once blew your mind, you can now confidently identify from a trailer. Clever narrative sleights of hand get repeated so often that you have pet names for them all. Eventually you find yourself getting uneasy 15 minutes into some indie thriller, and furtively asking “this isn’t going to turn out to be another fucking time loop cop-out is it?” In short, nearly everything you watch becomes predictable (to an alarming degree of accuracy) just by virtue of revealing its basic structure -- not through any particular fault of its own, but simply due to the titanic amount of predictive power all that accumulated experience with the medium brings.

            That might sound a bit dispiriting, but it’s honestly not as bad as all that. Despite the obsessive, almost fanatical emphasis fanboy culture now puts on avoiding “spoilers,” (a phenomenon of modern vintage, I think --at least in degree-- possibly traceable directly to the unbelievable hype surrounding the release of the STAR WARS prequels*) some foreknowledge is not entirely incongruous with enjoying a narrative tale. Sure, experiencing a story for the first time is usually going to produce a greater impact than subsequent tellings, but the joy of most narratives is found in the journey, not in some abrupt twist or turnaround which can be “spoiled.” This is particularly true in genre fare, where basic story structure is necessarily somewhat fixed and rigid, but it’s largely true for fiction in general; most stories are build around recognizable archetypes, so the emphasis becomes less about the unravelling of a plot and more about the unique details of this particular iteration. We don’t doubt that James Bond is gonna bed the girl and route the bad guy, we don’t doubt that Jason is gonna hack up those horny camp counselors, and we know roughly how they’re going to go about it. There’s nothing narrative to “spoil”; the pleasure is in the experience of watching it.

Not every film is quite as heavily invested in formula as those two examples, of course, but even films with more significant narrative “twists” often hold up smartly upon rewatch. Hell, there are even cases where a movie is probably better once its surprise has been revealed; I certainly felt that way about REGRESSION, a movie whose arguable strengths are found entirely upon the ostensible revelation of its secrets. And come on, is TOTAL RECALL less fun once you know the nuts and bolts of its story? Absolutely not. Does the fact that every single living human learns --apparently in utero-- the “twists” in EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and PLANET OF THE APES and SOYLENT GREEN make them any less enduring? Their shocking twists are so iconic that, to modern audiences, they barely even read as though they were ever intended to be surprising. And yet they remain unflaggingly popular and beloved, perhaps even more universally now than when they still retained their ability to surprise.

So a movie which indulges in a game-changing twist is hardly a lost cause, and hardly in bad company -- or even exclusively modern company, for that matter. 1920’s THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI has a twist ending, for fuck’s sake. And if you want to trace its lineage even further back, it’s a simple matter to follow a thread that leads you to Robert Chambers, and Ambrose Bierce, and probably rightfully to Poe (maybe further, though older examples elude me. Anyone think of one?).

But while plenty of stories which include a shocking twist may still maintain their potency upon subsequent viewings, the prospects for films which are fundamentally built on surprise tend to be dimmer. Whodunnits, for example --with their singular narrative focus on the solution to a mystery-- can find themselves much diminished once their secrets have been revealed, as can movies which deliberately identify and subvert the audiences’ narrative expectations in an attempt to catch them off guard (for example, the rote role-reversals of the JJ Abrams STAR TREK reboot). So too can works of fiction which don’t particularly traffic in shocking twists, but rather prioritize provocative conceptual conceits over compelling narrative content (a friend of mine was recently bemoaning his disappointment in reading an anthology of early sci-fi short stories and finding it comprised mainly of perfunctory plotlines built around great sci-fi concepts… concepts which, unfortunately, had been so thoroughly cannibalized and scavenged by subsequent genre writers that they barely even registered anymore, leaving the reader with a very lean meal indeed.) But of course, the subset of fiction most vulnerable to the kryptonite of foreknowledge combines the two, packaging a radical conceptual element as a shocking narrative turn. And so it is that otherwise perfectly adequate meat-and-potatoes horror movies become overcome by hubris enough to point their artistic wings of wax straight at the sun on the hottest day of the summer. That sun, of course, is the twist-ending mindfuck.

The mindfuck thriller is a subgenre which seems to have proliferated significantly since the 90’s, perhaps inaugurated by PRIMAL FEAR and certainly catalyzed by THE SIXTH SENSE, but finding its most devoted acolytes in the indie boom of the 90’s and more recently the indie horror boom of the last decade or so. For two distinct waves --ebbing somewhat in the dour mid ‘noughts-- it often seemed, and still seems, that mindfuck twists have been the expected standard more often than they’ve been the shocking exception.

A mindfuck, of course, is more than just a surprise, and more than just a twist; it’s a twist which radically recontextualizes everything that preceded it, alters the fundamental meaning, and sometimes even the actual fact, of the events which led up to it. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that our long-neglected subject of the day, 2018’s GHOST STORIES, is angling for a mindfuck; it telegraphs the fact pretty openly, right from its first scenes. And that’s inherently and immediately reason enough for concern, but not quite reason enough for a general abandonment of all hope. It’s a risky gamble, but also a potentially rewarding one. Successfully executed, a good mindfuck can throw viewers into a perfectly beautiful chaos, upending reality and forcing a sudden and elemental reevaluation of every assumption made so far, sifting for hidden layers of meaning. At its best, it is a kind of primal creative destruction, smashing apart a narrative so an audience can rebuild something more complex from the pieces. But it carries a high risk: a mindfuck which fails to justify itself can simply leave an audience sitting in the shattered ruins of a wrecked narrative, resenting the person who broke it.

            It is, then, one of the most potent narrative tools available, and consequently requires a supreme mastery of storytelling to wield effectively; it requires, in essence, no less than the complete creation of two completely self-contained parallel narratives, both comprised mostly of the same pieces but independently able to produce radically variant results, and both of which independently read as satisfying drama. No easy task in itself, but made vastly more difficult by an increasingly savvy audience, watchful for any hint of such trickery, and for whom the film's drama will be irrecoverably hobbled if they get ahead of the plot. Surprise, is, after all, a vital part of this formula; an audience that sees the trick coming is, I think inevitably, an audience which is waiting for the movie to catch up. But surprise alone is not enough; to pull the trick off --which is to say, to invest your entire raison d'ĂȘtre in a sudden and radical “twist” which fundamentally shifts the viewers’ understanding of what they’ve seen -- you need tightly crafted storytelling and a genuinely intriguing concept.

Gosh does this poster resemble but remain legally distinct from that other Martin Freeman-starring genre hyrbid SHAUN OF THE DEAD! I bet the guys who made this were really kicking themselves when they realized they'd made such an embarrassing blunder!

            GHOST STORIES, frankly put, does not have an intriguing concept. There’s not a frame of the movie which isn’t derivative to the point of parody, and its brazen denouement, in particular, is more likely to inspire groans than shrieks. That’s a problem, because as a unabashed and enthusiastic mindfuck, it’s absolutely a movie which lives and dies by its ability to stick the landing. It is, in fact, exactly the sort of movie we’ve been so enjoyably discussing the in abstract for 1400 words now; one which gambles its entire existence on its ability to pull off a particular magic trick. And in this case, that magic trick, once revealed, is such a corny old chestnut that you can barely help but laugh at the absurdity of the seriousness with which it is executed. It’s as though a fierce-eyed stage magician drenched in blood and covered in occult tattoos emerged from a pit of fire, dramatically shouted incantations summoning the blackest demons of hell, and then pulled out a peanut can with a coiled snake in it.

            But it is executed with seriousness, and quite a bit of care, as well. Which brings me back around to my original question: is it this movie’s fault that I’ve seen this exact movie before? Can a mindfuck still be worthwhile once experience has rendered my mind essentially unfuckable, or at the very least utterly impervious the the kind of low-imagination fuckery which is employed here? Should a work of art be judged solely upon the sturdiness of its execution, or are we permitted --perhaps even required?-- to consider its content against our awareness of the vast panoply of its brethren? Judged on one standard, GHOST STORIES is deserving of a modest admiration. Judged against the other, it’s very possibly a disaster, if not an actual insult.

            While we consider that question, however, let us first explore what GHOST STORIES indisputably is. It commences in the childhood memories --by which I mean the 8mm footage, which is apparently just what memories look like on film now****-- of Professor Philip Goodman (Andy Nyman, a busy actor in Peaky Blinders, DEATH AT A FUNERAL, BLACK DEATH, and serving triple duty as co-director and co-writer here, adapting his work from the successful stage play of the same name). Goodman is ostensibly a professor by title, but TV star by trade, as he serves as creator and protagonist of the paranormal debunking show Psychic Cheats, and is introduced to us pulling off an exact recreation of James Randi’s famous expose of charlatan faith-healer Peter Popoff.***** Despite (or, the movie insinuates, more likely because of) his strict Jewish upbringing, Goodman is a militant atheist skeptic (and apparently so insulated in that mindset that he’ll later be confused and visibly annoyed when a priest insinuates that there might be some kind of afterlife), which in real life is arguably a sane, logical worldview, but in horror movies is inevitably a sign that he’s a close-minded husbrisical fool who needs to be taught a lesson in humility.

If that were true, pal, I'd be watching a better movie right now.

            This lesson will be administered in the form of three interviews with different characters who claim to have experienced paranormal phenomenon, cases pushed upon him by a hostile former mentor who dares him to try and explain them. This neatly divides the movie into something of a portmanteau, albeit one where the individual segments are not exactly self-contained stories in themselves so much as little clues to a larger puzzle masquerading as separate incidents. (This is, again, hardly a spoiler, as the movie is unabashedly unsubtle about the repeated motifs it drops with a thud [or, more often, a loud musical sting] in front of the audience’s face over and over, lingering almost pornographically over them until they become impossible to miss, even absent any context for them). In the first, Goodman interviews a former nightwatchman (Paul Whitehouse, “Gentleman Drunk” in BURKE AND HARE, absolutely terrific here) who spends a scary night wandering around the poorly-lit halls of an abandoned mental hospital. Next, he interviews a young man (Alex Lawther, Black Mirror, overacting so hard it’s physically exhausting just to watch) who recounts a demonic encounter while driving. And finally, a posh banker (Martin Freeman, every movie) who encounters a poltergeist while his wife is at the hospital giving birth to his child.

            The movie begins worrisomely flat-footed, with some very awkward talking to the camera in the context of a painfully unconvincing “documentary” Goodman is making (a conceit which is rapidly abandoned) and also some unmotivated narration over freeze-frames, immediately and unnecessarily muddying the water of the film’s basic perspective. Thankfully, this turns out to be merely early jitters from first-time full-length writer-directors Nyman and Jeremy Dyson (best known as part of the comedy troupe the League of Gentlemen) and the film quickly settles into a much more simple and elegant style, aided to a degree which would be almost impossible to overstate by cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland (prolific TV work, including The Missing and The Crown) who imbues the film with a splendidly oppressive gritty surrealism that somehow emphasizes both the broken-down plainness of the surroundings and the omnipresent otherworldliness hovering (mostly) unseen just beyond our ability to perceive it.

This part of the movie is virtually identical to the 2013 micro-budget HEAD TRAUMA, which was also bad and derivative. Spoilers, if you've seen HEAD TRAUMA, I guess?

            For a while, this works quite pleasingly indeed, drawing strength from an unhurried but steady pace and some stridently solid filmmaking fundamentals. The first and third interviews are textbook perfect specimens of patient, tightly controlled suspense scenes, perfectly evoking the universally relatable experience of apprehensively wandering through a quiet, empty building with boogeymen lurking in every shadow and beneath every squeaking floorboard. The second segment confusingly swerves into some kind of broad, borderline-comic EVIL DEAD tone (including an unmistakable steadicam run through the woods, just in case there was any doubt), but not entirely without success. There’s not a single beat in any of these which isn’t a screaming cliche, of course, but that doesn’t mean they’re not well executed, or even that they’re not effective. Sure, it feels cheap and lazy by this point in history to pull out the old gag where a ghost which was not previously visible suddenly and impossibly appears behind you accompanied by a loud musical sting, but you still can’t argue with its utility.

            Even so, some of it doesn’t quite click. The acting is mostly pretty good --Whitehouse is flat-out terrific, and Freeman does a perfectly serviceable job with his stunt casting as one of those overtly-friendly Europeans who threatens you in a cheery voice while wearing a really nice suit. Lawther seems to be acting in some completely different, much wackier movie, but it’s to generally strong effect, and isolating him in a single segment at least makes the competing tone feel separate and distinct, rather than utterly out of place. Unfortunately, Nyman himself is the weak link here. He’s not a bad actor by any measure, but his mopey doormat of a character makes for a maddeningly passive protagonist, and the movie, even punctuated by its three marquee flashbacks, unmistakably posits him as such. There are arguably thematic reasons for him to be such a weenie, but anchoring the film to this offhandedly irritating sadsack who is doomed to be emasculated and easily humiliated by everyone he encounters until he’s simply impossible to root for… well, it makes for a slog of a journey. Everyone loves an underdog, but no one roots for a born loser, and that’s what his character amounts to, simply offering no reason for us to identify with him.

I mean, look at this fuckin' asshole, here.

I think it was a mistake from the start for director Nyman to play this character; had he cast another actor, simple vanity on that actor’s part might have inspired them to push for just a little more resolve and dignity. But Nyman, free to direct himself, approaches the role with a destabilizing black hole of anti-charismatic self-loathing, and there’s never a frame where he’s not being dominated by another actor (or just the scenery). One gets the sense that, as a writer and director, Nyman doesn’t like this character, and his contempt for Goodman’s smug facade (masking desperate insecurity) all but drips off the screen. In fact, given his role as writer and the intense, personal way in which the film despises its protagonist, one is tempted to speculate this must come from a personal place-- a portrait of someone he really has a deep-seated anger towards, or, perhaps more intriguingly, a autobiographical portrait of tremendous self-hatred.  

There’s a sort of boldness, I suppose, to making a film which is so thoroughly contemptuous of its central character. And it is, I think, intended as a generous performance, the performance a director gives when he’s acting in his own movie and self-consciously trying not to showboat and steal the stage from his fellow actors. But there’s no escaping from his centrality to all this, and the part desperately needed someone with a little less whipped-dog acquiescence if it had any hope of capturing our sympathy for this man.  

(This also, incidentally, turns the film’s ostensible conflict of skepticism versus belief into a distressingly fixed fight; Goodman fails to put up even the feeblest defense of reason, and since the movie never fails to humiliate him and show him up as a vain, insecure phony, it ends up [probably inadvertently?] being one of the most casually dismissive films about atheism this side of GOD’S NOT DEAD. I’m not certain this is the movie’s intent; absent any reason to believe Dyson or Nyman are militant believers with an ax to grind against skeptics, I think it’s more likely this is intended as a study of this specific character--and possibly even an unflinching self-critique by a couple of avowed atheists-- not a comment on skepticism more broadly. Nevertheless, the film’s structure stubbornly drags the subject of scientific skepticism into the spotlight again and again -- it begins with Goodman’s unhappy, strictly religious childhood, segues into his professional pride in exposing frauds, and posits its three segments explicitly as “unexplainable” cases which he is goaded into investigating as a proxy for justifying his life’s work. The subject’s centrality to the movie makes it very difficult to wave away as a mere plot device, but the movie has absolutely no interest in an honest discussion about it.)

            Nevertheless, the genre goods, such as they are, are certainly present and accounted for. It certainly fits snugly into the burgeoning subgenre of low-key, all-atmosphere low-budget indie horror flicks like IT FOLLOWS or THE WITCH, or particularly I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE. It has none of the imagination of any of those, of course, but it shares with them an ambition for fanatically slow-burn scenes of ambiguous, lingering dread. Irritatingly, though its modern vintage is written in every frame, many reviewers (including Variety’s Guy Lodge, AV Club’s Mike D’Angelo and Newsweek’s Andrew Whalen) seem to have latched onto its British pedigree and episodic structure to advance the absolutely misguided idea that it’s some kind of nostalgic throwback to the heydey of British horror, particularly citing the Amicus anthologies of the late 60s and early 70s. It’s self-evidently nothing of the kind, except in the most mild superficial ways, serving as yet another reminder both that most mainstream critics' knowledge of horror films is often unfortunately shallow --Variety’s Lodge offhandedly cites the “Decayed Victoriana associated with the genre” as a signal of the film's aspirations towards nostalgia, obviously forgetting that Amicus’ whole MO was dodging the Gothic flavor of Hammer by cultivating a thoroughly modern setting******-- and that their appreciation for the genre is too often correlated almost exactly with the degree to which a horror film can be categorized as anything but a horror film (a meta-textual analysis of the genre, a psychological drama in horror dress, a cheeky referential throwback... anything but the genuine article).
            Still, I don’t consider its lack of nostalgia to be a weakness -- if anything, it would probably be more irritating if it was trying to mine some goodwill from half-remembered sentimentality of the good’ ol days of British horror. It seems comfortable enough in its own shoes, mostly content to cultivate a glacially spooky vibe, but occasionally indulging in bit of real horror red meat (even if it is almost exclusively of the most blandly familiar variety). Indeed, if it were only this, I could probably feel confident offering it a mild but unambiguous recommendation.

But of course, it’s not only offering that. It is, after all, a mindfuck, and a mindfuck is almost never offering what it first appears to be. Which brings us back to the topic which has taken up so much of your valuable life today, and which we have been putting off for an absolutely unforgivable amount of time: What happens to a perfectly fine film which insists on blowing itself up with an ill-conceived movie-negating twist in its final minutes?

The answer, I guess, is that it falls apart. Or rather, it deflates, leaking momentum and goodwill like a dying balloon, until at last you’re left with a flabby, hollowed-out skin of a narrative, every aspect still visible, but wrinkled and distorted and diminished, lingering shamefacedly as its complete insubstantiality is nakedly exposed. I don’t think there’s any other narrative device which has the potential to be so completely devastating. A mindfuck isn’t just a twist, after all, it’s a trick. It’s a bait-and-switch. It tells you what it is, and then, once you’ve comfortably settled into that assumption, reveals that it’s not at all what it claimed to be, that it is actually something altogether different. So if you liked the thing it was claiming to be, you’re going to find it rudely yanked away from you and replaced by something altogether dissimilar and often decidedly more threadbare.

That, of course, is the case here, and in order to go further I’m going to have to SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER the end of the movie. There are a number of different mindfucks which could be employed here, and you’ve probably already narrowed it down to three equally hacky possibilities: he’s being gaslighted, he’s really a ghost himself, or he’s hallucinating all this as he lies dying. You’ll notice each possibility negates the plot in a slightly different way, but they have one thing in common: they all render most of the runtime completely moot, even within the context of the fiction. If he’s being gaslighted, for example, the the stories which compose the bulk of the runtime are just arbitrary lies, and we might as well never have heard them for all they end up meaning. That would be an infuriating enough end, but unfortunately I’m obligated to inform you that it would be absolutely scintillating stuff compared to what they did go with: The fucking ending of WIZARD OF OZ. Or, the ol’ Owl Creek Bridge, to give it a name which speaks to its antiquity.

SPOILERS CONTINUE SPOILERS CONTINUE SPOILERS CONTINUE SPOILERS CONTINUE It seems, in fact, that Goodman is really unconscious in a hospital bed, suffering from locked-in-syndrome after a failed suicide attempt (so that’s why everyone he’s been meeting has been going on at length about this obscure medical condition!) and basically making up random, meaningless stories in his head based very loosely on the various people who wander around his hospital room (the janitors, doctors, nurses -- “and you were there, and you were there!”) and then because he’s so incredibly dull, not even imagining those stories are happening to him, but imagining that he’s some dolt being told these stories by fictitious characters, and, I guess, visualizing the stories that the imaginary characters in his own head are telling him in a surprisingly cinematic way. (Yes, you read that correctly: this jackass has a subconscious that requires a framing device for stories which occur entirely in his own head). So, to summarize the movie … nothing happened. Nothing at all. None of it happened and none of it meant anything. A guy in a coma or whatever dreamed he had three conversations with fictional people where they told him stories about a time when they slowly walked around someplace scary and then at the end there was a jump scare (his imagination apparently provides musical stings).

In the movie's defense, this poster is fucking fantastic. If anything like that happened in the movie, this would be a very different review indeed.

SPOILERS CONTINUE SPOILERS CONTINUE SPOILERS CONTINUE SPOILERS CONTINUE Now, just as a movie with a twist isn’t inherently doomed, so too are movies which are all a dream, or all unreliable narrator, or otherwise fictional even within the context of the story, not inherently doomed to make you shout “oh, come on!” at the screen and roll your eyes until your optic nerves droop out of your eyesockets in exasperation, although admittedly that is a very real possibility. RASHOMON, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, and a personal favorite of mine, CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND, for example, are all movies where much of what we see on-screen is later revealed to be entirely fictitious, even in the context of the story. But the difference between those movies and the single most infuriating film of all time (SHUTTER ISLAND) is that a good mindfuck doesn’t negate the bulk of the story which we see; it recontextualizes it, gives the events new meaning. What you see may not be objectively true, but the very subjectivity of it imparts a different kind of truth. RASHOMON’s conflicting perspectives aren’t just meaningless falsehoods; they’re stories-within-a-story designed to communicate something specific -- just something about the storytellers, rather than the plot. We can assume that almost nothing we see in CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND actually “happens” -- the whole story is a lie. But through the lie we learn a great deal about the liar, and why he would feel compelled to make up this particular bizarre lie.

SPOILERS CONTINUE SPOILERS CONTINUE SPOILERS CONTINUE SPOILERS CONTINUE There is something of that in here, of course; there are little glimpses in the imagined stories which must reflect the unconscious anxieties Goodman is feeling as he lays, paralyzed, at death’s door, mostly having to do with his fears of death and his guilt over a fantastically cliched incident from his childhood. But not enough. His subconscious seems more interested in spooky atmosphere than working through his issues, and most of the references to his own state of mind are tertiary, glancing little things, meant to broadly hint at the existence of a hidden meaning, rather than add any independent significance to that meaning. Goodman keeps glimpsing the figure of a mysterious child in a coat, for example, which will be explained when we learn that this is the central focal point of a guilt-ridden memory lurking in his subconscious. But wait, does foreshadowing this figure in an otherwise unrelated ghost story really tell us anything meaningful, even in retrospect? Not really. Learning what’s “really” going on doesn’t elucidate these incidents or add any particular layers of meaning, it just confirms that, yes, the film has indeed been really blatantly teasing us with a twist for the whole movie, and now here it is. That’s basic problem; the twist is the point here. The movie is serving the twist, not the twist the movie.

How can you tell the difference? I propose a simple question: would this be a story worth telling if the twist was moved to the beginning of the film? Because after all, that’s what you’re ultimately left with: once the deception has been revealed, the film up to that point has to stand up to scrutiny in this new light. If knowing the truth enriches the whole experience, it could have done so, albeit perhaps not quite so impactfully, from the get-go. If knowing the truth cheapens the experience, well, it was probably just a lazy gimmick all along, a petty contrivance to try and hustle you into believing a dull story was more interesting than it really was. A successful mindfuck must have a narrative that justifies its twist, and GHOST STORIES simply cannot make that claim; if anything, the reveal undercuts the movie’s genuine strengths (some solid meat-and-potatoes suspense scenes which in retrospect never happened) and replaces them with a dismayingly rote hail mary towards some kind of psychological surrealism. The surrealism actually works OK, but the psychology is not even interesting on a purely superficial bullshit movie logic level --since we already hate the character and the movie does too-- let alone on a level of any actual meaningful insight. It’s a miserable substitute for a finely-tuned ghost story, at any rate, and the way it firmly shrugs off any consequential connection between the two means that it can only be a substitute, not a compliment (in fact, it even has the audacity to turn one of the movie’s few genuinely effective shocks into a dumb joke in the last second before the credits roll).

I began this review by musing about what happens when a filmgoer has seen so much that the ability to be surprised becomes elusive, and I preceded my discussion of the movie itself by asking how a critic ought to approach a film which features sturdy construction, but relies on a completely predictable twist. Now, having indulged in some 5,000 words in which to mull it over, I’m less inclined to think that these are the right questions to ask. A good movie with a bad ending is a good movie with a bad ending, nevermind whether or not you saw it coming. And GHOST STORIES is only an OK movie with a bad ending. Surprise or no surprise, this ending stinks to high heaven, and there’s not nearly enough red meat here to warrant leniency. Even the most credulous possible viewer, even a neophyte so unfamiliar with the basic tropes of genre fiction that this lame WIZARD OF OZ bullshit would seem fresh, might experience a moment or two of surprise and disorientation, but would be forced to concede upon even a moment’s reflection that it doesn’t add up to anything. Surprise can be a powerful tool, but that tool has to be used in the construction of something. Far too many recent films seem to have forgotten that vital truth, and the result is something akin to a very long shaggy dog story which peters out without a punchline. OK, you brought us here, now what? Even if such a film manages to actually get ahead of a viewer enough to go somewhere unexpected --and that’s a very big if indeed-- it’s all wasted effort if that unexpected place turns out to be dull. A minute or two of mild surprise by itself is not a destination worthy of a 98 minute journey with so few roadside attractions.

A much better surprise would be to just tell a story interesting enough to stand on its own.


* Seagalogy author and national hero Vern speculates that the basic desire to preserve the secrets of an artistic work is not new, it’s just that as these discussions moved online it became harder to do and consequently required more effort and focus. 

** This is best summarized by Vern’s “BluesTheory of Slashers,” which proposes that certain kinds of genre films --slashers in particular-- are, like blues songs, remarkably consistent in their basic construction, following extremely predictable structures. The onus, then, is on the performer -- not to reinvent the wheel, but to imprint their own unique personality on a standard format.

***No so fast, THE FORCE AWAKENS

**** Most curiously in BABY DRIVER, wherein a young man clearly the junior to several generations of iphones inexplicably recalls his youth (presumably in the mid-2000’s) in washed-out silent 8mm.

***** The movie begins, in fact, with some spectacularly unconvincing “movie-within-a-movie” footage of what appears to be a documentary on Goodman, a conceit which seems mainly intended to allow for some clunky addressing-the-audience-directly exposition, but also terrifyingly threatens a found-footage premise which mercifully never materializes. Also, you’d think charlatan faith-healers would have retired that trick after Randi caught them at it.

****** In fact, it’s becoming increasingly clear that many of this new generation of arthouse indie horror are being praised lavishly by critics who have little affinity for the horror genre and comparably shallow knowledge of its history. Reading a review of THE VVITCH, for example, is often an exercise in watching it find praise for its fine dramatic work, amended at the end with a grudging admission that yes, it does have some of that tacky genre stuff at the end.

I know, I know, this one is awesome too.