Sunday, February 28, 2010

Movies: Eighties night.

Visionary filmmakers don't just come up with a clever pitch or a few kooky shots. Any boob can figure out a way to "show you something you haven't seen before." After all, cinema is just over a century old. If considerably older media can still retain some shock of the new - we still have novel novels, for example - then we shouldn't be surprised that cinema's creative storehouse is far from exhausted. No, to be a visionary requires more. Visionaries find some new way to explore a genuine human experience and then thoroughly immerse themselves and their viewers in the lived reality of that experience. The bring us the real and familiar at an angle that forces us to revaluate what we believed we knew. At some point in the writing stage of Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, Ti West said to himself, "Ti."

Well, actually, because he's him, he'd be speaking in first person. But I think it's important to keep the awareness of the artifice of the idea that I somehow know what Ti West was thinking in the forefront of your mind because the illusion of seamlessness is a tool for social control. It's part of my commitment to politically switched on criticism and the reason why ANTSS is the blog that believes there's no school like the old Frankfurt school.

Where was I?

Oh, yeah. "Ti," Ti said. "People sometimes piss blood. It's true. They have to pee and blood comes out instead of piss. Sure, sometimes it's blood mixed with piss. Or, you know, it's some STD maybe and it's all squishy. But people get sick or they get punched in the kidneys or something and, whammo, blood out your dick. But you never see that. In Lethal Weapon, when Riggs gets worked over, he doesn't have some scene where he's pissing blood. But it's a real thing. There's a whole unexplored country of human reality begging for examination. And it's something Hollywood, with its airbrushed Disney attitudes, has ignored. I'm going to put pissing blood in my next movie."

And right there, if Ti West had stopped, he'd be simply a clever filmmaker. Bloggers would clap. When some blogger made the inevitable "Top Ten Pissing Blood in a Horror Movie Scenes" list to fulfill their weekly list obligations (though, honestly, every time a horror posts a list, an angel loses its wings - don't do it!) West would rank in the top quartile.

But West didn't stop there.

He thought, "And I'm not just going to throw in some half-assed scene of pissing blood as some random day's martini shot. No siree Bob, I'm going to commit to the program of pissing blood in cinema. I'm going to show multiple consistencies of urethra-centric desanguination. And the most important varieties of weenierated bloodletting are going to be hightlighted with a stable, long take, medium close up. You know, so people really feel like they're that penis and smegma is really passing through them."

Ti West set out to be for blood coming out your third leg what Robert Burton was to melancholy. And that fateful decision is why Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever is about 7 billion times better than Ti West's other experiment in 1980's archeo-filmmaking, the abortive House of the Devil.

Ti West has always been a filmmaker who pulls inspiration from the history of horror cinema. The Roost was a veritable taster's menu of 20th Century horror, from the radio show and the 1960's TV horror host to Blair Witch style indie minimalism and the zombie renaissance. The Trigger Man fused naturalistic indie aesthetics with survival dramas (like Deliverance) and slasher tropes to create a surprisingly effective hybrid. So it's no surprise that his last two flicks borrow heavily from previous eras of film. But West has always been a master of sampling; he's never let sampling be the master. And there's the rub. Despite, or perhaps because, Spring Fever lost its central guiding vision and became a hurried collaboration, it is never in thrall to its diverse sources. It's bitter sarcasm - as little more than a "fuck you" to the studio system that spawned it - gave West the distance he needed from the project to not get lost in it. The producers who then reworked the flick after he wrapped admit that they approached less as a work of art and more as a dare. The result is something bracingly anarchic. House of the Devil, on the other hand, wears its source material like a straightjacket. The project of recreating, rather than exploring, a justly neglected Reagan era mutation of the Satanic cult trope robs West of his own creative impulses and traps him in a joylessly reverent mode that the source material hardly merits.

Energetic, bitter, fast, and sloppy, Spring Fever plays like punk band who has decided to give a double bird to the label signing the checks. It isn't just the most punk flick made in the last decade, it's a specific punk song: the Pistol's EMI. Consequently, it's a hot mess. But it's a driven hot mess. The flick picks up from a scene of the original Cabin in which the original's lead falls into what appears to be dammed area, tangling with a diseased corpse, and catching the flesh eating super-disease that is the franchise's chief baddie. From there we find out that the tainted water is collected and shilled by bottled water company. The shipment heads to a local high school. The water is used for to mix up a prom punch (and, to seal the deal, the filmmakers have an infected dude piss into the punch bowl - which goes ultra-pear-shaped and becomes our first pissing blood scene) and makes what had, until then, been a cheese ten prom comedy become something like Masque of the Red Death on crystal meth.

Spring Fever knows it's '80s horror. West et al hit the obvious allusions. Leaving Carrie out of a blood-soaked prom-center teen scream pick would have made the allusion naggingly conspicuous by its absence. But West and Co. look past the straight horror canon to dig up resonant images from flicks as diverse as One Wild and Crazy Crazy Summer, Donnie Darko, and (an ANTSS fave) Class of 1984. The filmmakers crib some visual style from the period as well, bathing selected scenes in candy-colored lighting. Even the synth heavy soundtrack of original songs made to sound like intrusive pop needle drops evokes the commerically-minded sonic clumsiness of early John Hughes.

Despite the flurry of allusions, CF2SF is saved from becoming a paint-by-numbers experiment in recreating '80s teensploitation by a bitingly satiric Mad Magazine sensibility that helped the filmmakers keep the source material dancing to their tune. In contrast, House of the Devil is in hock to the sources it borrowed from, a debt that's all the more deadening for being utterly unnecessary.

Intended as a homage to "satanic panic" flicks of the 1980s, House of the Devil is gets the worst of both worlds: It is neither a particularly accurate recreation of the flicks its meant to emulate nor a creative and innovative film in its own right. House tells the story of a cash-strapped college student hired to provide in home care for an elderly woman on the night of an eclipse. It all turns out to be a trap and, before the flick is over, our heroine is tapped as breeder for one of His Satanic Majesty's demonic servants.

West paints himself into a corner with House. Because of his sure filmmaking instincts, House is far superior to the vast majority of flicks in the subgenre it pays homage to. West, for example, is not bush league enough to think that a scene filmed in front of a religious symbol is inherently more meaningful than one that isn't. Nor does he fill his soundtrack with bad "gothic" compositions and hokey boy choir pieces. In fact, despite the 80s trappings, the film is recognizably a piece of his larger oeuvre: It has a slow burn structure, uses minimal dialogue, and avoids backstory and explanation. (So much so that at least one normally astute reviewer wondered in his review where the baddies left to in the flick; in fact, the flick implies that they never left the area around the house.) Much has been made of how exacting a forgery House is, but I find it hard to believe people who have made that claim have any knowledge of flicks from the subgenre. None of the post-Exorcist/Rosemary flicks were ever this competent.

Unfortunately, West's ill-considered commitment to following in the steps of crap hamstrings the film. West's normal slow burn strategy works because his films are building towards a novel experience the viewer isn't ready for. Furthermore, West is a master of details (I suspect he cranked out the period detail in this piece without even breaking a sweat), though those details are never simply window dressing. In Trigger Man, for example, the long intro contrasts with the sudden and inexplicable appearance of the sniper and the use of a sniper, instead of a more traditional slasher figure, radically transforms the movie. In House, the fine details are irrelevant because the viewer is aware that West is recreating a familiar plot. The '80s details are there because, you know, its the '80s.

If horror has an Achilles heel, it is the genre's tendency to mistake nostalgic pandering for depth of context. With House, the genre's best hope made that error.


Anonymous said...

On a completely different note... I thought I should bring this to your attention, because, you know, I'm a big troublemaker:

CRwM said...


You instigator!

Sarah said...

Red Masque of Death on crystal meth, huh? I might have to watch this, even if I didn't care for the first Cabin Fever movie.

Shon Richards said...

"If horror has an Achilles heel, it is the genre's tendency to mistake nostalgic pandering for depth of context."

That should be tattooed on every filmmaker's arm. My wife and I have created a drinking game that pretty much involves identifying modern movies ripping off older movies.

Today's word verification is 'gruse' which I think should be used to describe blood pissing fascination.

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