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This was my busiest day of the entire festival--five movies in one day. It was difficult, and tiring, but also a lot of fun. There wasn't a lot of time for food (I didn't really schedule with eating or sleeping in mind), so I made sure to grab a tasty combo meal from Wendy's before heading in to my first movie.
Films I saw today: Tattoo, The Park, One Point O, Memories of Murder, Nine Souls, and The Toolbox Murders
This was a short film showing in front of my first movie. The filmmaker, Genevieve Okupniak, was in the audience for the screening. She has created a very nice, creepy little movie, reminiscent in style and format to the black and white, surreal short films of Maya Deren. (If you don't know who Maya Deren is, for God's sake, go and find a copy of "Meshes of the Afternoon" immediately and without delay.) Tattoo is a very short film that uses stop-motion animation to show us a tattoo slowly spreading, like some rash or infection, over a woman's body as she sleeps. The eerie music, hazy visuals, and choppy editing all add to the atmosphere of fear, dread, and inexplicable horror. A very nice little film. The audience was so affected by it that it sat in hushed silence for a few moments afterwards, before applauding. (Looking back now, I think perhaps this film would have worked better playing in front of my next film, One Point O, which also deals with the horror of an inexplicable infection creeping over your body, but it was nice to see something good before being subjected to The Park.)
I like Travis Crawford, the programmer of the Danger After Dark series at the Philadelphia Film Festival, and I like Danger After Dark. Travis always adds some interesting Asian, horror, and science fiction films to the program that you wouldn't otherwise be able to see. And those are the genres I tend to be most attracted to, so I'm seeing almost every movie in the Danger After Dark series this year. That being said, Travis can sometimes be a little over-enthusiastic about films that are, frankly, pretty bad. So it was with particular apprehension that I heard him introduce The Park as a film that was "not really good" and that he'd really just put into the program because it was in 3-D. If even Travis thinks it's pretty bad, how bad am I going to think it is?
But The Park was one of the films in this year's festival that I was looking forward to the most. I read the first line of the description in the program booklet (Hong Kong horror in 3-D) and that was enough for me--I knew I had to see it. What could be more fun than a Hong Kong horror film in 3-D? So even after Travis's introduction, I still had hope for the movie. After all, I was holding a real pair of 3-D glasses in my fist, that had been given to me at the door! Even if the movie was lame, at least the lameness would be in exciting 3-D, right?
Well, as it turns out, even the 3-D wasn't exciting. First of all, the movie isn't all in 3-D--only certain parts of it are. When a 3-D section of the film is coming up, a warning flashes up on the screen, telling you to PUT GLASSES ON NOW. At that point, you frantically fumble to put on your glasses, in order to witness...not really all that much. Somehow, the people who made this film failed to understand the basic and simple principles of 3-D. I don't know if they had never seen a 3-D film before or what. But it seems very easy to me--you film a scene in which something comes at the camera, and then you use the 3-D effect to make it seem as if that thing is actually flying out of the screen at the audience. The audience then jumps, and perhaps screams a little. And there you go, an effective use of 3-D. Not once does anything like this happen in The Park. There are scenes in which things come at the camera, but for reasons that are totally inexplicable to me, those scenes are not in 3-D. The scenes that are in 3-D don't seem to use the 3-D at all, except to maybe make the subtitles appear to stand out from the background. I kept turning to my friend Star and asking her if it was working for her. I thought maybe I'd gotten a bad pair of glasses or was somehow using them incorrectly. That's how bad the 3-D is.
And, unfortunately, the rest of the movie isn't any better. In fact, The Park is pretty much the equivalent of a live-action "Scooby Doo" episode with some added gore. And a pretty mediocre episode, at that. The movie opens by showing us the accident that gives birth to all the horror that is to come--a little girl falls off of a Ferris wheel at an amusement park. With an abruptness that is almost ridiculous, we leap fourteen years into the future and follow a young man who was there that night as he digs into the past and makes his way back to the titular park. This opening sequence has such poor pacing, and is so ridiculous, melodramatic and predictable, that all the scares fail utterly. There is no tension built up before each scare--the monstrous things show up before we're even ready to be scared, and then without warning they're gone. Luckily, this sequence doesn't last long. Soon the young man is safely "missing," and we begin following his sister Yen, who is worried about him and his mysterious disappearance. Here's where the movie succeeds in delivering one of its few successful scares in Yen's creepy dream, in which she is haunted by a pair of small ghost-children. After she wakes up, she is haunted again, but this time by memories, which take the form of ghosts themselves. This visual comparison of memories with ghosts is an interesting one, and a different, better movie might be made to explore it more thoroughly.
Next we meet Yen's Mom, who happens to be a Buddhist priest and an exorcist. Her method of removing evil spirits is an interesting one--she uses a camera with a special lens to capture the spirit on film, and then burns the picture. This is actually an essential element of a Japanese horror video game called "Fatal Frame," but the game uses it to much better effect--it's easily the scariest game I've ever played, and far better than this movie. But it makes me wonder if magical cameras that capture ghosts are regular things in Hong Kong and Japan.
Anyway, Yen soon decides she must pull together a gang of her teen friends to explore the last place her brother went before he disappeared--the old abandoned amusement park. This is where the dumb cliches kick in hard. The teens start fooling around and making out in the abandoned park. Then they come upon a classic stock character in horror films--the creepy old coot who knows something about the mysterious horror. (This coot is particularly creepy, and even has a creepy dwarf-like son, but their characters and background are never really explained.) And inevitably the teens decide they'd better come back at night to explore the place, and of course, "it'll get done faster if we all split up! Scooby and Shaggy, you go that way." The characters in this movie are even spied on by the eyes of a painted portrait. And I'm sure it won't surprise you to learn that the park is built over a cemetery.
One of the teens also thought to bring a video camera, and some rather effective scenes are based around this prop, although again the basic ideas are stolen from other movies, like The Blair Witch Project and the recent remake of House on Haunted Hill. Regardless, some of these scenes are actually scary--the filmmaker's ability to pace scenes well and build tension seems to increase as the film goes on--and many of the scenes that fail to be scary do at least succeed in being funny. Which is not to say the movie is good. Any points it may earn for trying are lost during the excruciatingly long and ridiculous ending sequence, which involves a lot of smiling group photos of ghosts. I kid you not.
And, of course, staying true to the tropes of the B-movies that sired it, The Park gives us the old trick ending, where the horror seems to be over, but then it inexplicably comes back for one final scare. But the final scare is not really very scary, like most of the other scares in the film. In fact, it really just made me angry, because it didn't make any sense. That's the way I felt at the end of Nightmare on Elm Street--kind of betrayed and confused. Films like these establish the boundaries of their fictional worlds as they go. They create rules for how the ghosts and monsters can act, and what can defeat them. They give you an idea of the level of suspension of disbelief you have to bring to them. If they suddenly shift the boundaries, break the rules, or introduce some new, unbelievable element, it's like they're pulling the rug out from under your feet and then laughing at you when you fall down. That's lame.
My Poll Rating: Fair
I said good-bye to Star, refreshed myself a bit, and then it was right back into the Prince Music Theater again to see my next film. I decided definitively, as I sat watching this year's festival trailer for only the third or fourth time, that it really sucks. It's literally just a series of close-up shots of the cover of this year's festival program booklet. They're not even good quality images--they're rather pixilated--and I didn't think the cover image was very inspired in the first place. Zooming in on it just made its shortcomings more obvious. The trailer does have one advantage over last year's, however--it's short.
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This is a science fiction film about a paranoid computer programmer. Seeing as how I'm a bit of a paranoid computer programmer myself, as well as a fan of science fiction, I thought it would be right up my alley. And this time, unlike with The Park, I was not disappointed.
The programmer in the film is a rather lonely and anxious fellow named Simon J. His single letter last name is undoubtedly a reference to Kafka and his tendency to name his main characters K--in fact, the film is Kafkaesque in many ways. It's world is the surreal, claustrophobic nightmare-land of Kafka's stories. And J is the hapless protagonist, stumbling towards his unavoidable doom. Our unfortunate main character is played by Jeremy Sisto, a competent actor who's been knocking about for some time in various small roles in movies and on TV (notably in HBO's "Six Feet Under"). And actually, the movie stars a couple of other good actors who've been playing bit roles for years and have never really received much notice. There's the wonderfully creepy Udo Kier as Derrick, J's neighbor and friendly local robotics expert, who's building a freakish talking robot head named Adam in his apartment. And there's the hoarse, leathery Lance Henriksen as Howard, the maintenance man at J's apartment building, an eccentric but paternal character who's also a bit of a techie--he's made little robot insects that chirp, to remind him of the country. In fact, as someone mentions during the film, they are all--all of the characters in the film--tinkerers of one sort or another; another neighbor (who is listed in the credits only as The Neighbor, and is played by Bruce Payne, perpetual creep and bad guy) is building an extremely realistic (not to mention disturbing and disorienting) virtual reality game with a decided S&M bent.
J's apartment building is the main setting for the film, since we follow J's point of view exclusively, and he's a very sedentary fellow who works from home. And it's a wonderful setting, loaded with atmosphere. It's one of those huge, old, dark, echoing, decaying apartment buildings that we often see in movies (think Blade Runner, for instance). It's full of whispers and secrets. There are crawl spaces in the walls, leading from one apartment to another, and voices in the garbage chute. And the building and it's surrounding neighborhood, though sagging and old and crumbling, are full of cutting edge technology.
But the building may also be full of something else--some kind of infection. J meets a man on the elevator whose skin suddenly starts coming out in a rash. In a moment he's covered in splotches and collapses on the ground. What is this sickness? J has a computer virus, too--are these sicknesses connected somehow? He finds a package in his room, with no address, and nothing inside it. He finds another the next day. What do they mean? Who is sending them? How are they getting inside? J secretly hacks into the security cameras in the building so he can keep an eye on things, and asks a friend of his to install a state of the art security system in his apartment, as well as the latest virus protection on his computer. But still the packages keep appearing, and his computer keeps crashing. When he goes to the convenience store to buy milk, someone is following him. Adam, his neighbor's robotic head, is calling him on the phone, trying to tell him something. And he keeps going back to buy more milk, over and over--it seems to be all he drinks. Is he addicted? Is that a commercial for milk that's being piped, almost subliminally, into the trash chute? Why are other people also consuming certain products, over and over, as if obsessed?
As J spirals into a paranoiac panic, mysteries and questions abound, but themes and repetitions appear, and a story starts to take shape--a story about infection, corporations, consumerism, and technology. The film is full of interesting ideas and images, of surrealism and satire. Note the astronomical prices at the convenience store--is this the inflation of the future? I mentioned above that One Point O alludes to Kafka, but cinematically it also alludes to David Lynch, in visual style as well as in story elements. There are even similarities to The Matrix--this strange dual world of crumbling old buildings and high technology, of people under the control of robotic creatures that they don't even realize exist. The ending of the film is certainly dark, and reminds me of the ending of Brazil in certain ways. It's also a bit confusing, but it's not the confusion that bothers me. In fact, the film's only real problem lies in its making certain things too clear. Its message is about the overwhelming power--especially in a capitalist, consumerist, technological society--of faceless, amoral corporations to dominate our minds and pocketbooks, and it pushes this message a little too hard; takes its metaphors a little too far. Nevertheless, One Point O is a very good film. I particularly like how one character sums up the bitter bind that is at the heart of this film's dark, paranoiac view of the world. He tells J that two groups of people are coming for him now--one good, and one bad. "The bad people can save you, but they won't. The good people want to save you, but they can't."
My Poll Rating: Fair
I had a pretty good amount of time between this movie and the next one, and it was a nice day out for a change, so I took a leisurely walk over to the El station before riding the train over into west Philly, and walking up to The Bridge theater. Here's where I managed to fit in a nutritious dinner--nachos and cheese. I was planning on hot dogs, but they weren't ready yet. The theater filled up slowly, and I had plenty of time to talk with other all-access badge people about the festival so far and the movies we'd seen. We complained about the disorganization at the various venues, and about screenings starting late (apparently, a screening of Double Agent started 45 minutes late, which scared me, since I was seeing it the next day, and had jammed it into the middle of a very tightly scheduled block of movies). I complained about The Park, and we traded recommendations and warnings about certain films. I have to say, I'm very glad I decided to get the all-access badge this year, and not just because it was a good deal and ended up being less money than buying individual tickets for each show. When you have the all-access badge, it's like you've got a card that gives you access to a club, or identifies you as a member of a small and special community. You see a lot of the same people over and over with the badge, and you know you can talk to them. It's a strange but rather warm feeling. I experienced something like this last year at the festival, but I felt it even more this year.
And besides the feeling of community, the badge also gets you great seats, and great seats for anyone you see movies with! It's so nice to be able to stand in your own--much shorter--line, and to get that slightly preferential treatment. And you can make schedule changes at the last moment--you can decide not to see a film, and not have to feel guilty about a wasted ticket (not that this was much of a problem for me--I pretty much stuck to the schedule I'd put together a week before the festival began). Now that I've been pampered this way, I'm not sure I'll want to go back--I'll want to get the badge again, even if I end up seeing so few movies that it doesn't even make sense in terms of money!
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Based on the true story of the hunt for Korea's first serial killer, Memories of Murder (the second film from director Bong Joon-ho) was a huge critical and box office smash in Korea, and understandably. It's an excellent film, expertly balancing elements of genres as diverse as action, comedy, drama, mystery, suspense, and horror, and delivering a moving story, fine acting, in-depth character development, beautiful photography, and some poignant and terrifying thoughts about humanity and crime.
The film begins on the small-scale, zoomed in on a shot of an insect and a child examining it. As the camera pulls out, we see a group of children playing in a field--a seemingly innocent everyday occurrence. But the field is also a crime scene--the body of a dead girl has been found, and local police detective Doo-man (Song Kang-ho, in a performance equal parts funny and moving) has been sent to investigate. Unfortunately, Doo-man is a bit of a bumbling anti-hero. One of the kids frustrates him by refusing to answer any of his questions. Instead, the boy mimics his every word and action. And the investigation of the scene soon becomes a comedy of errors, as each newcomer tumbles down the same hill trying to get down to the body, and a farmer obliviously drives his tractor over a footprint that might have been a substantial piece of evidence. The film will continue in this vein, carefully mixing high drama and low comedy. It's a combination that keeps you on your toes, and that keeps you interested. In a story so dark, the infusion of some light and laughter is welcome. Which isn't to say the comedy is completely out of pace with the rest of the story; the jokes are dark enough to fit in. Most of the humor is satire at the expense of Doo-man and his partner Young-goo. Their methods are clumsy, brutal, and dishonest. They rely mainly on luck, intuition, and torture. Once they find a suspect (and rumor and guesswork is enough to make someone a decent suspect in their eyes), they take him down to the basement of the police station, and Doo-man starts asking him questions, while also helpfully providing the answers he wants. Young-goo dishes out beatings when the suspect's answers don't match. If they need more evidence to support their claims, they simply fabricate it.
It's a system that has apparently gotten them results in the past. But this case is different. More dead girls start showing up, with the same MO as the first. So a city cop named Tae-yoon (played with quiet intensity by Kim Sang-gyung) arrives to offer his assistance. While he is still en route to the police station, a young woman mistakes him for a molester (perhaps even the rapist and killer he is looking for) and in her rush to escape him, falls down a hill. He tries to help her, but Doo-man, who happens to be passing by, thinks he's witnessing an attack, and beats up his fellow policeman. It's a funny scene, and ironic, since Doo-man is constantly claiming he can spot a criminal simply by looking in his eyes. And really it's Doo-man who should be mistaken for a criminal, given his illegal methods of enforcing the law. But the scene also encapsulates what the film is all about--the difficulty of identifying the criminal responsible for a crime; of picking out the guilty from the not so guilty. A later scene does a great job of continuing this theme, as the cops search through a group of workers at a mine, trying desperately to find the one guilty man hiding among them--but of what crime is he guilty? We'll learn as the movie continues that it's easy to find freakish and dangerous people--the hard part is finding the right one.
Tae-yoon follows Doo-man on his search for this particular bad guy, and watches silently and disapprovingly as Doo-man and Young-goo work their questionable methods on their latest suspect--a local retarded boy who used to follow the dead girl around. When their methods become public, and the press turns against them, Tae-yoon takes over, applying his analytical approach to the problem. He relies on research, facts, data, and documents. "Documents don't lie," he likes to say. He finds patterns and follows leads. Hostility grows between him and Doo-man. Doo-man, a tough country boy who never went to college, takes offense at Tae-yoon's stuck-up, educated, city ways. They pit their opposite police styles against each other. It's only after a lot of squabbling, disagreements, and false leads that they begin to warm to each other, and to work together. Ultimately their desire to find the killer, and their increasing desperation as the murders continue, unites them. But the killings are also tearing each of them apart. And ultimately all of their methods fail.
Yes, the case remains unsolved. This is based on a true story, and in reality the criminal never got caught. Memories of Murder, though it is often funny, has a dark, hard little lesson to teach us. In the final sequence of the film, we see Doo-man many years in the future, now apparently a salesman. He is passing by that very first crime scene--the field--and he stops to take a look at it; the case still haunts him, even now. By complete chance, he meets a girl at the scene who may have seen the murderer. At first, he is almost too stunned and disbelieving to speak--or perhaps he dreads the answer he will receive. The possibility of finally capturing this phantom of his past is overwhelming, but finally he asks the girl to describe the man. She says she can't really do that--there was nothing about him that really made him stand out. He was just ordinary. An ordinary man. Doo-man looks down for a moment, then looks up at the camera. The expression on his face is one of utter horror.
My Poll Rating: Excellent
To fit in five movies today, I did some pretty tight scheduling, and here's where it got me in trouble. My next movie was literally a few steps away, in the theater right next door, but it had already started by the time I got out of Memories of Murder. I asked the volunteers at the door if I could get in anyway, and they told me to ask at the front desk. Inevitably, after I'd run up there, the people at the desk told me to ask at the theater entrance. When I explained hurriedly that I'd already talked to them, they grabbed a passing manager for me and he speed-walked me back down to the theater and ushered me in, pointing me to some open seats near the front. After I snuck in and got settled, it looked to me like I hadn't missed much of the film at all--the characters were still being introduced, and the title was just being splashed across the screen. But I'd learn later from another festival-goer that I did in fact miss a relatively important opening sequence. Luckily, this is the only film I'd miss a significant portion of in the festival--and since the movie could have used editing anyway, it wasn't a huge loss.
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Nine Souls is a Japanese film about nine prisoners who escape from jail and attempt to re-build their lives in the outside world. Pretty much every one of them fails spectacularly, and all for the same reason--they cannot escape their pasts and the hurt they've done to others. Most have built up elaborate dreams and fantasies about the world outside while they were in jail, and most are disappointed by what they actually find there. The film starts out as a goofy, rollicking comedy, but around the halfway point, it slows down into a somber, surreal tragedy (a strange transition that I would notice in another Japanese film at this year's festival: Moon Child). And somewhere in there, it lost me. I stopped sympathizing with the characters, I stopped caring much about what would happen, and I even stopped understanding, to a certain extent, what was supposed to be going on. The movie gets a little too melodramatic and elegiac for me; protests a bit too much about people and their shortcomings; and tries a little too hard to say something important about humanity. But for all its faults, it is a well-made film in many ways, and is certainly an impressive attempt.
When our nine anti-heroes first bust out of prison, they have a clear plan--find their way to some buried loot that they learned about from a fellow prisoner, dig it up, and share it amongst the group. But to do this, they need a means of transportation. Luckily for them, one comes along quickly, in the form of a van full of junk driven by a young man who's praying he won't meet the ghosts of samurai along the road at night. He's glad to pick up all nine of the convicts (who are posing as a school of martial artists, to explain why they're all traveling together in identical uniforms), in the mistaken belief that they can help protect him. In fact, the unofficial leader of the convicts (a strict, domineering fellow who likes beating people with a big stick; he went to prison for killing his own son) soon gets tired of the guy's constant prattle, and throws him out on his ear, along with all of his junk.
Having acquired a vehicle, the convicts next head to the house of an old friend of one of their number, to get some basic supplies (food, clothes). On the way, in a memorable scene, they have a small car accident. Finding themselves in a field full of sheep, some of the hornier convicts chase after the animals, hoping for some quick sex before they get back on their way. But their leader doesn't believe in waiting around and, for the first of many times, he orders the van's driver (he refuses to drive the van himself) to head on without stopping for the stragglers. (They chase after the vehicle and eventually get back on.)
When the convicts finally get to the house of the old friend, they take it over, eating everything, using up all the toilet paper, always demanding more. Their host's new wife leaves him after a little of this, but finally the convicts get on their way. After a few more picaresque adventures (as you might have realized by now, the film proceeds in discrete episodes, mostly interchangeable with each other), the outlaws finally dig up their loot, only to discover that it is nothing but a worthless time capsule containing, among other things, what purports to be the key to the universe. One of the convicts, a silent, brooding boy who will become one of the main characters of the second half of the film (he went to prison for killing his father--and yes, he does get into a fight with his opposite, the leader of the gang) is given the key as a souvenir. In one of the films many surreal sequences, the key seems to give the boy extraordinary powers--he finds numerous four-leafed clovers, and is able to predict the shapes of clouds.
Another of the more interesting convicts is a dwarf doctor who went to jail for euthanizing his patients. He's an escape artist--he helped his patients escape from life, and he helped his fellow prisoners escape from jail. After the convicts lose their purpose, he's the first of them to break away from the group, when by chance he comes upon a girl he'd sacrificed himself for in the past. And so the group wanders on, and one by one members break away and make a stab at following a dream or a long-lost past they hope to somehow recover. By this point, the movie has slowed down considerably. (In fact, it was moving so slowly that I wrote the word "slow" in my notebook and underlined it.) Nine Souls does a lot of wandering and meandering and contemplating. The convicts discuss their dreams and their lives, moving slowly from one episode to the next, and the movie goes on and on. There are occasional bright spots, like when the gang stops to rob yet another convenience store (a trick they've pulled multiple times along their trip), only to discover too late that the proprietor is an expert martial artist. There are also nice little details--when one of the more pathetic convicts steals a cell phone to make yet another call to his old girlfriend (who just won't answer for some reason), the phone happens to belong to a young teenage girl, and is loaded with dozens of brightly colored charms. In a way, this prisoner also succeeds in escaping back into a loving past, though it's only a dream escape, as in the end of Brazil. But most of the prisoner's ultimately fail to escape, fail to find their way back to a real life of warmth and happiness. Slowly all joy is sucked out of the film. During a long montage, the young, brooding convict narrates a series of observations and complaints about humanity, and the film drifts on towards its painful, violent, surreal conclusion.
Nine Souls wonders about humanity--about what can make people do inhuman things, and whether they can recover their humanity afterwards. Can they escape their own inner prisons? Can they make their dreams come true? These are some important questions, and there are some interesting observations made here. But the film is so long and rambling, and the characters often so difficult to sympathize with and understand, and the events of the story so random and surreal (I often felt like I was missing something), that ultimately I was left unsatisfied and even a little annoyed. I feel like I understand too much of what the movie is trying to say, and yet at the same time, not enough. I sense that Nine Souls could have been a great film. It has some great performances, some amusing comedy, some interesting characters. But it needs editing, focus, better pacing, and a more consistent tone.
My Poll Rating: Good
I just can't resist horror movies. I even almost went to another Stuart Gordon film this year, despite the fact that he's disappointed and sickened me numerous times. So it shouldn't be surprising that now I was off to the Prince Music Theater to see The Toolbox Murders, a horror movie by a director whose work I'm not even all that fond of.
I thought I had a pretty good amount of time between movies here, so I decided to walk down and take the El across town, rather than waste money on another cab. But as I stood in the station, waiting and waiting, I began to get more and more worried that I'd be late for another film. Luckily, Travis Crawford, programmer and presenter of the next film I was going to see, showed up (with a small group of followers) on the very same platform, waiting for the very same train. I figured as long as I got there at the same time as the guy who was introducing the film, I'd probably be all right. And I was right. I followed him on and off the train, and rushed just ahead of him into the doors of the theater, past an incredibly long line on the sidewalk outside. I was extremely grateful for my all-access badge again, since a quick wave of it got me inside before any of the poor suckers waiting in that line. I got a great seat (my favorite seat, in fact--I've been establishing favorite seats in most of the theaters now), and didn't miss a thing.
The film was preceded by a short presentation ceremony, as the director of the film, Tobe Hooper, received the TLA Phantasmagoria Award in recognition of a career of groundbreaking science fiction and horror film-making. This is, after all, the man responsible for such classics as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the original and the sequel), Poltergeist, and Lifeforce.
But as I said, Tobe Hooper's not my favorite director. Though I recognize its importance to film and to the horror genre, I've never been a fan of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's a little too gruesome, horrible, and degrading for me--it crosses lines I'd prefer a film not cross. But I do love Poltergeist, and I thought Lifeforce was okay. And The Toolbox Murders sounded pretty intriguing. During the presentation ceremony, however, a montage of clips from Hooper's films was shown, and I almost thought I'd made a mistake after all. These didn't look like movies I'd want to see, or that I'd enjoy. They looked cheap and lousy. It's not as if I'd walk out of a movie before it even started, but my expectations were getting lower. Maybe that worked in the movie's favor...
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A sort of remake of a 1978 slasher movie of the same title, Tobe Hooper's The Toolbox Murders really keeps only the basic elements of the original film's plot: a masked man is killing the residents of an apartment building using various tools. As you might expect in a slasher film with this title and premise, the murders are quite grisly, and the first comes within the opening fifteen minutes of the film. But unlike the typical slasher film, Toolbox Murders doesn't just give us an assembly line of interchangeable, scantily clad, beautiful teenagers, who show us a bit of cheap T&A before being slaughtered in some ludicrously grotesque fashion. In fact, the film is loaded with atmosphere, thanks to the excellently creepy apartment set; it has a clever and involving story, and some fine acting (from mainly unknowns); you actually care about the characters and what happens to them; and--rarest of the rare in this age of the incredibly self-aware, overwhelmingly ironic and sarcastic horror film--it is genuinely scary. I mean it. I bit my lip. I gripped the arms of my seat. On more than one occasion, I actually screamed--this may be the first time a movie has made me do that.
As I said, the movie is set an apartment building--and what an apartment building. It's one of those old historic Hollywood apartment buildings, covered in history, romance, and intrigue...and strange black magic symbols. It's full of surprises, and is at the center of the film's mystery. As the movie begins, the building is in the process of being renovated--although the renovations have hit a bit of a snag, since the man in charge was just killed in a freak accident. But was it an accident? Soon enough, a woman tenant is killed in what is definitely not an accident--it involves a hammer, and a lot of blood. Enter our main characters: a young newlywed couple who are just moving in. Steven (Brent Roam) is studying to be a doctor, and is on his rotations, so he's constantly getting paged and having to run off to the hospital at all hours. Which leaves his wife Nell (Angela Bettis) alone most of the time, to deal with the strange neighbors, the less than helpful landlord, and with her feelings of grief (her father has died recently, and she is still troubled by nightmares), loneliness, isolation, and unease. And ultimately, of course, she has even worse to deal with--like listening to the strange bangs and screams that travel through the building's thin walls, exploring the building's eerie secrets, and dodging a crazed, inhuman killer.
Soon enough, Nell meets my favorite horror movie stock character: the slightly creepy old guy who has secret knowledge of the lurking horror. In this case, the character is a long-time resident of the building, Chas Rooker (played by long-time character actor Rance Howard, father of actor Clint and director Ron), who haunts the place like a ghost, appearing and disappearing at random times, and offering Nell important tidbits of information about the place in the form of short observations that are almost like riddles. He has a paternal air, but he is also enigmatic and even vaguely sinister. He speaks of the building as if it were an animal or a force of nature that needs to be understood and treated with care lest it turn on you.
Another presence haunting the building is handyman Ned, a creepy guy with long, greasy hair who carries around a toolbox and stares at everybody--especially the women--in a less than pleasant way. Of course, he's far too obvious a suspect to actually be the killer...or is he? Ned particularly has eyes for Nell's neighbor, Julia (Juliet Landau, whom you may know better as the mad vampire Drusilla from the TV shows "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel"), another interesting character, whom Nell ultimately befriends. She jogs constantly, and her apartment is covered with motivational slogans; it turns out she's recently lost a lot of weight and is on the prowl for a beau. But she doesn't enjoy Ned's attention one bit. Another one of Nell's neighbors is Saffron, a ditzy weirdo who has loud fights, and loud sex, with her tough punk of a boyfriend next door. And creeping unseen amongst all these characters is the masked killer, armed with saws, screwdrivers, and a drill.
The drill murder was the first scene that made me scream. It's amazing when a horror director can still surprise me, and Hooper managed it. Not only did he surprise me in the simple, physical way of having things appear on the screen when I didn't expect them (or having things not appear when I did expect them--there's a particular scene with a mirror that was such a great piece of manipulation by a director aware of horror movie tropes, of an audience aware of those same tropes, that it made me applaud); he also surprised me in deeper, more important ways. I didn't quite know where the story was going. I didn't know who was going to die, and when. Hooper has honed his skills as a horror director, and has consummate control of us as an audience. The movie is wonderfully paced, with the tension building and breaking in longer and larger waves. Contributing also to the tension and fear in the film is the score. There are plenty of great music cues that really add so much to the emotion of certain scenes.
And it was indeed an emotional movie, and a really frightening movie, because I was really involved in it--I really cared. In movies like the Friday the 13th series, you could care less who's going to get it next, and when they do, you're meant to laugh, and to enjoy the gory effects. And that's all right, if that's all you're going for. And that's not to say Toolbox Murders is lacking in dark humor or gore--it has plenty of both. But what so many filmmakers seem to forget, in horror films as well as in every other film genre, is that if you don't create a likeable character, or at least one that we can understand and sympathize with to some extent, then your story will fail to be interesting every time. During The Toolbox Murders, I found myself totally invested in the sympathetic character of Nell. I was really afraid for her--I really wanted her to live. I was also totally fascinated by the slowly evolving mystery of the building. Nell digs back into its past, learning about its designer and his interest in the occult; discovering patterns in the odd symbols on its walls; finding her way into the shadowy wonderland of its secret inner heart. And what she finds there...
Well, now, I wouldn't tell you that. But I will tell you this: see The Toolbox Murders as soon as you get the chance (and you should get the chance quite soon, as Tobe Hooper told us they were in talks with distributors). It's one of the best and scariest American horror movies I've seen in a good while. If nothing else, it will teach you to check out an apartment building very carefully before moving in. Speaking as someone who lives in an old apartment building, and is looking for a new apartment right now, I can tell you, that definitely added to the fear factor.
My Poll Rating: Excellent
There was a question and answer session with Tobe Hooper after the film, but I didn't stay for the whole thing. I didn't have any questions, and Tobe Hooper, though (I must now admit) he is a fine director, is not very good at speaking. His answers to the questions were often to the effect of, "I don't know," or "I don't remember." Plus, I was really tired.
And so my longest day of movie watching finally came to an end, and it was time to go home and sleep, and prepare for the next day. I have to say, I didn't really enjoy the idea of going back to my apartment building after seeing The Toolbox Murders, but I was so tired that thoughts of killers lurking in the corners didn't really bother me for long.
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