Thursday, July 13, 2017

THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE NIGHT


The line between screaming and laughing can be razor thin. Both instinctual reactions in humans are similar, as they are spontaneous and impulsive. In horror movies, the line between the two is just as close, often predicated on how well a scare is executed. A moment designed to make one jump can instead turn to guffaws if not done right. It’s a problem in too many horror movies where amateurish acting, writing, or directing can turn even the most horrific bloodletting into B movie howls of laughter. Two movies out this weekend play in the field of the supernatural and beg examination of how well they pull off the eerie vs. the silly. One suffers from too many unintentional laughs while the other achieves a melancholic tone that is truly unsettling.

WISH UPON is a better than average horror entry, which is veiled praise as so many frighteners that open in theaters and VOD are cheesy duds, but its shortcomings keep it from even the upper tier of middling horror like THE PURGE or INSIDIOUS franchises. WISH UPON simply makes too many faux pas and earns too many stray giggles to be qualified as a success. It rushes its dread, it leaves its actors flailing, and it traffics in far too many tried-and-true clichés that have become so overused in horror that they’ve stopped being frightening. In fact, they’ve become far too easy elicitors of unintentional sniggering.


The movie starts with Johanna Shannon (Elisabeth Rohm), a stressed and bedraggled mother, going through the motions as she parents her young daughter Clare. Not long after, the little girl discovers her mom hanging from a noose in the attic, and then the narrative flash-forwards years later when the grown girl is now in high school. The clichés start with teen Clare (Joey King) standing out as a beautiful girl who just happens to be from the wrong side of the tracks. How many times have we seen this trope, from the SCREAM series to just about every John Hughes movie, for that matter? 

Still, this film acts as if she’s a novel creation. Boys don’t pay attention to this cutie, even though she’s got big, blue eyes and full lips tailor-made for staring at through study hall. She’s artsy and smart-alecky, and her enemy is Darcie (Josephine Langford), the most popular girl in school and the ultimate mean girl which has now become one of the most overdone defaults in movies. We're barely five minutes into this one and already the predictable is piling up hard and heavy.

In fact, Darcie is such a bad egg that she casually tosses her Venti drink right at the homecoming mural Clare has worked on for weeks. Of course, no teen ever reports such malfeasance to teachers in these kinds of movies, let alone are their ever hall monitors present to patrol the bullies, so evil Darcie gets away with it. Still, the audience knows that Darcie will soon get hers as the class bitch always does in these sorts of things.
Joey King as Clare in WISH UPON.
Indeed, the forlorn Clare will get a golden opportunity to wreak revenge sooner than later when her junk collector dad (Ryan Phillipe) brings home a mysterious Chinese music box he found in someone's trash. Thankfully, Clare knows  Chinese because she's studying that foreign language in school, and even if that plot point is a bit on-the-nose, at least she's able to figure out some of the Chinese inscriptions on the box. She discovers that it says the holder will be granted seven wishes. Even better, classmate Ryan (Ki Hong Lee) has a cousin Gina (Alice Lee) who can translate the more complex Old-World text, which will turn out to be warnings that unfortunately for Clare, will come a reel or two too late.

And soon enough, Clare is wishing on that box, expressing her desire for Darcie to rot. Before you can say “the game is afoot”, Darcie contracts gangrene and goes to the emergency room to lose a few toes. From there, Clare starts to realize her power, and the wishes come fast and furious. She wishes for a better home and suddenly, she inherits the estate of her rich, old uncle. Then she wills the box to grant her the attentions of the hunkiest boy at school and sure enough, he's all over her. It all seems too good to be true, but then the family pooch ends up dying mysteriously and it goes downhill from there. (BTW...it's a sign of lazy screenwriting to use the family pet as an early, easy victim. Haven’t any of these spookmeisters ever read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat?)

The warning on the box finally gets translated and it tells that a blood sacrifice will be taken by the fates for granting the positive wishes that come true. Thus, those around Clare start to bite the dust each time she makes another selfish wish to better her life. It’s not a bad twist, and such moral debate fills in the scenes between the scares, but unfortunately WISH UPON squanders its chances to be truly provocative or mine territory that feels fresh and vital.  

King with Hi Kong Lee and Gina Lee in WISH UPON. 
Deaths start piling up around Clare, not surprisingly, and the film seems mostly interested in how garish the offerings are. Worse yet is that none of the deceased matter too terribly much because there's little character development of any of them. Barbara Marshall’s script doesn’t flesh out the victims much beyond making them cliched ‘types.’ And if she's mostly interested in their deaths, why isn't the bloodletting more clever?  

WISH UPON clearly wants its set pieces to resemble the intricate ones in the FINAL DESTINATION horror franchise, but there isn’t a fraction of their surprise here. Instead, we get the hoary old uncontrollable garbage disposal dooming a victim, or a slippery bathtub that becomes a deathtrap to a clumsy bather.

And because these scenes are all so obvious and even familiar, we laugh. We know what’s coming and we get way ahead of the film. Director Leonetti even rushes some of these scenes, as if he knew they were written too transparently and he doesn’t want to belabor them. He ends up cutting away way too fast and it gives his edits an abrupt, almost comical bluntness. These deaths should be terrifying or at least involving. Instead, we moan at how dumb the neighbor character is to blithely dig into the garbage disposal with her hand and then let her errant braid get caught in it so it breaks her neck. Disposable indeed.

And Leonetti lets most of his actors overdo their parts too. The strident pitch of most of the performances makes things even campier. King tries mightily to manage a sustained sense of panic throughout, but her character is just too slow on the uptake. We start to dislike her, not because she grows more and more immoral, but because it takes her forever to figure out what's going on. 

Leonetti even casts some actors here to give this venture some borrowed cool from better properties. Sherilynn Fenn of TWIN PEAKS plays the the woman with the betraying braid, and has about six lines, and Shannon Purser of STRANGER THINGS plays one of Clare’s more sensible friends, but that's basically the only trait her character shows. So how cool is it to have these people in your cast when they’re not even given much to do?

Shannon Purser with King in WISH UPON.
WISH UPON fulfills that middling sort of horror that is sufficient for 90 minutes of mindless entertainment, if that's all you want from frighteners, but it isn't the kind of movie that will stick with you. For as much attention as that magical box is given, I wish that the filmmakers had thought a little more outside of the box to give horror fans something fresher, scarier, and more worthy.

The other supernatural film making its debut this weekend is A GHOST STORY, written and directed by David Lowery, and it is one very special film. Don’t be misled by its title as this is hardly your garden variety ghost story. In fact, this arthouse effort is the farthest thing from your typical frightener. It’s a film about loneliness and unresolved lives. And it just so happens that the main character here is a ghost, and in that, a ghost that is a man wearing a sheet with two eye holes cut out.  

In this modern age of CGI, when ghosts can be rendered so skillfully that they can be as ethereal as the floating transparencies in 2017’s PERSONAL SHOPPER, or as vividly comic as the baddies in the GHOSTBUSTERS reboot last year, Lowery chose to go "old school" with his approach. It’s the most basic of Halloween costumes and yet, it doesn't seem silly here. In fact, the simplicity of this approach lends the ghost an accessibility it might not have had otherwise. 

Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck in A GHOST STORY.
The movie establishes its simple humanity with that choice, as well as how the story unfolds from the get-go. The narrative here is all about little moments of life, not big Herculean events. The main characters are a young married couple played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. They're known as C and M here, respectively, and we observe intimate scenes of their time together. They live modestly, in a meager one-story house in a Texas suburb. He’s a struggling musician and tinkers through the day and night on the piano that came with the house, writing songs for her that she doesn’t seem to fully appreciate. Their marriage appears to be somewhat strained, and one night a bang on the piano spurs them to investigate and even contemplate their life together. Then, C dies tragically in a car crash not far from home, and it sends M on a journey of self-discovery. She tries to reconcile herself with her lost partner, as well as what she wants from life in the aftermath. 

When she identifies her husband’s body at the hospital, the camera stays on the slab in the morgue for an eternity of time. Finally, after minutes of stillness onscreen, the figure under the sheet sits up. And thus, the character of C is now a ghost, personified by the sheet and accented with eye holes. The main thrust of the narrative starts here as a study in loss and loneliness. The ghost personifies both as he returns home and can only watch M as she goes through her life in the house without him. 

The film starts to become  truly profound here. It's audacious to ask an audience to identify with such an inert character, but he ultimately becomes something akin to a silent film clown like Chaplin or Keaton. C is now tethered geographically to his house and unable to move on from it. His life as a ghost becomes utterly mundane in its way, as he can only wander from room to room, and await for things to happen to M to add meaning to his passive existence. He watches her sleep, he observes her coming and going, he wishes he could retrieve the note she stuffed into the wall to read it, but he cannot. It's a terribly sad void that C is now a prisoner in. His tiny home becomes his prison cell, or maybe worse, his tomb.



M is struggling too and we watch private moments where she becomes lost in her guilt or remorse. Sometimes she spins out of control into moments of desperation. One of those occurs when she sits down on the kitchen floor to dig into a pie. The camera stays on M forever as she consumes bite after bite, filling herself with mouthfuls of the dessert to perhaps fill the emptiness she's feeling. It's a tour de force scene by Mara as M chows down until she's sick, all the while being observed by the helpless ghost. 

The scene is excessive in its use of time - it felt like 5 minutes, easy, though I didn't clock it -  and it edges close to being a stunt, but what the scene is going for is to put the audience within her desperation and trap us in that scene with her. The dinky home is her prison now too. The camera work here by Andrew Doz Palermo is extraordinary, as it is throughout. Interestingly, Lowery had Palermo shoot the film in a tight, aspect ratio of 1:33:1 to make it all feel all the more claustrophobic. The frame is as prohibitive as the house. We’re boxed in, just like its residents. 


As mundane as things can get in the minutiae of their small world, the story never bores. Despite long takes that spend minutes upon minutes in stillness, a lot still happens within the context of the characters' loneliness. Eventually, we start to see M come to life again and open herself up to new directions. She takes on a new lover, and even beds him in the house, much to the chagrin of the ghost. But while C seethes, M finds purpose again. It leads to her to move on from him and move out of the house. 

The rest of the story stays with the ghost as he experiences new tenants, as well as ginormous physical changes to his surroundings. The house ends up being leveled by a bulldozer to make way for a corporate office complex. And sadly, even as the ginormous high-rise is constructed around him, the ghost of C still cannot leave. He doesn't know how. 

Lowery is clever to have a pretentious guest (Will Oldham) at a house party thrown by new tenants pontificate about the world and how change is inevitable. He goes on and on about everyone being a mere speck in the universe, and how time repeats itself and the world recycles. It sets us up for the ghost’s remaining journey as he lives a long, long time tethered to that land - through time, through the future, through reincarnation, and through a retracing of steps that brings back C and M to go through their life together all over again. The sad-sack ghost must not only watch all that he’s known crumble and/or die, but then he has to watch it all over again. It's as devastating as most screen deaths are in conventional horror.

There are a few ghost-like moments in the film that would be at home in most frighteners. A glass of milk is levitated, and dishes are thrown about when the ghost throws a temper tantrum. But the most disturbing moments come in those points of the story where we realize just how long and tedious this ghost’s existence is. He's stuck in limbo but it feels more like hell. 

Filmmaker David Lowery with Mara at Sundance this year.
The ghost is truly a compelling character even if he says nary a word or barely gestures in his sheet-covered state. Sometimes some droll, dark humor comes into play, like when C's ghost makes contact with another ghost he discovers in the window of a nearby home. They communicate with each other through stiff gestures and funny subtitles that explain what they're saying to each other. And through all of this, we feel Affleck’s droll, affecting presence. He may be under a sheet the whole time, but we feel him in there. It's a strange performance, granted, but an extraordinary one nonetheless. 

A GHOST STORY is a film that painstakingly makes every moment matter, even if they go on and on and on. Some of it is too self-conscious but most of it is utterly riveting. The skill and care of Lowery is evident throughout and his direction will stand as one of the year’s finest efforts. (The extraordinarily moving score by Daniel Hart should be remembered come awards time too.) This may be a story about a ghost, but it’s not a horror film. Still, I will be haunted by this one a lot longer than that WISH UPON music box.

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