Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Movies: Ain't no sin in Cincinnati.

I was going play this cool and keep my blog cred by not stickin' out my neck for a total ho-hum direct-to-video flick that, perhaps justly, was roundly trashed by the blog-o-sphere. But, honestly, what cultural capital am I worried about burning up?

It's bloggin', not real life.

So here goes.

Tasteless, clumsy, lopsided in pace and construction, needlessly excessive, and embarrassingly self-important, The Hills Run Red is best slasher film in two decades.

Here's the thing with slasher flicks. They all remind me of this old joke: A traveling salesman from Cincinnati made a trip to Iran. (NB: This joke's so old that "Iran" meant 1,001 Nights and not an America-hating theocratic dictatorship.) While there, he was picked up by a princess who felt this strange, pale American was an freakish lark.

When this worldly traveler returned to Jefferson Avenue, he described his adventures to a friend. He told his pal of the princess's exotic beauty; the opulent palace she took him to; the priceless vintage wines they drank; the perfumed baths they took, waited upon by flocks of pale, virginal beauties; the orchestras of blinded eunuchs who serenaded them; the jewels and silks she discarded; and, at last, every sensuous detail of of the princess's shimmering, transcendent nudity.

"And then what?" the salesman's friend gasps.

"Oh, well then its just the same as it is in Cincinnati," the salesman says.

Whatever the foreplay looks like - be it the color-by-numbers knuckle-dragging of the originals, the pomo gags of Scream, or the 3-D projection of the Valentine reimangling - there's a stunted simplicity to the concept of the slasher that's the ultimate pay-off: It's always the same as it is in Cincinnati.

The beauty of The Hills Run Red is that it is happy to be in Cincinnati. It doesn't have twenty years of criticism-proof nostalgia hanging around its neck like a millstone. The makers don't have to worry about hand-holding a generation of fan-entitled middle-aged amateur critics. The result is a film that's pleasingly nasty, joyfully slight, and possessed of a nimble disrespect for the genre that birthed it. In an era of bloated remakes that mistake market penetration for archetypal significance, The Hills Run Red comes the closest to providing the cheap, sullied, dirty, semi-trangressive pop thrill that slashers used to deliver before their audiences resembled Old Home Week crowds.

This isn't to say that THRR is dumb. It's smarter than your average slasher. But it never forgets that we didn't queue up a flick called "the hills run red" to get a lecture on the socio-political ramifications of post-Hostel retro-slasher semiotics. THRR giggles all the way through, but only because it is having a blast and wants you to join in. Unlike the slavishly dogged, emotionally dead recreations that gracelessly spill out on the big screens, it isn't obsessed with limning the rules and preaching to the cult. It's an Anita Loos to their Ayn Rand. (That metaphor pushes all bounds of sense, but it's the only way I could think of to work in Anita Loos, to whom I owe the Cincinnati joke.)

To the degree that slashers have plots, The Hills Run Red focuses on a small crew of would-be documentary filmmakers searching for the legendary complete cut of the titular film: an early Eighties slasher so foul and repulsive that it was pulled from theaters after a brief, scandalous run and never seen again. The leader of this doomed trio discovers that the film's reclusive director's daughter is a stripper at a remarkably well-appointed roadside adult entertainment establishment. (Not that I frequent such places, mind you; but the private rooms are large, genuinely private individual rooms with a whole couch for a single client - I'm in the middle of planning a bachelor party so I'm unusually sensitive to such logistical concerns at the moment.) After essentially kidnapping the girl and holding her through an enforced withdraw of her dope addiction, the documentary director enlists her in the search for the missing film. She tells the documentarian that the director of the missing film - which featured a hulking, malformed, porcelain-mask-wearing mass murderer Babyface - died a decade earlier. However, the director's isolated cabin in the woods, the set of the original film, still stands and is full of The Hills Run Red memorabilia. Perhaps the flick is there.

The documentarians go to the house and, after a few tense scenes, they find the missing film. The cabin is full of old editing and projection equipment, so they watch the film there. It turns out that the film is much more than a cheap slasher flick. It's a undiscovered gem of outsider art. The technique and artistry on display reveals the mind of brilliant, raw talent. The documentarians realize that they've rediscovered a hidden genius of American cinema and, along the way, the shattered daughter of the infamous director and the wounded director of the documentary learn to love again.

Not really though. The film within a film was basically snuff. The daughter's in on it. Pretty much everybody dies. Or gets raped and dies. Which is still dead, of course, but worse.

What's interesting about The Hills Run Red, in the admittedly limited way that slashers can be interesting, is that it, along with Ti West's Trigger Man, it represents the possibility of truly new slasher. Rob Zombie's Halloween films flirted with updating the genre, but ultimately they got tangled up in the imperatives of the marketplace (need to push the franchise's saleable IP markers) and the vampiric life-draining demands of fan-entitlement. What Trigger Man and THRR benefit from is the lack of franchise history. It frees them to create a slasher particular to their time and place. For example, The Hills Run Red doesn't just occasionally borrow the visual language of torture porn, the tension between the formalized, fossilized formulas of the slasher and the more anarchic, unpalatable norms of its replacement subgenre appear as a plot point.

The film also gets a boost from the acting which, about two-thirds of the way into the film tips into a near-camp range that suddenly gives nearly all the actors a sure footing. After struggling for almost 45 minutes to give naturalistic performances, director Dave Parker let's his cast go ape and it gives every performer the freedom they need to hit bizarre operatic heights. There's something pleasingly John Waterish about this film's approach to characterization. Sophie Monk, who has a truly delightful evil-grin face, especially benefits from the freedom to go crazy. Danko Jordanov, stuntman turned slasher actor, should get a few props to for his turn as Babyface. The brilliance of his role is in it journeyman quality. He's weirdly efficient and coolly logical: In one nice touch, he's dispatched the boyfriend of the lone girl in the crew, so he fishes out his cell and starts calling numbers until his next victim's cell starts to ring, allowing him to locate her. The film within a film set-up gives him a distinct focus as a killer who needs to hit his marks and deliver what he's there for. The "creative kills" so beloved of genre fans are the work of others: the directors. I can't think of another film in which the role of the slasher was actually constructed to fit the world of a film as the stuntman who inevitably plays the baddie experiences it and the result appears in the finished product. Jordanov also, for a character who has a single line in the whole film, delivers his dialogue with surprising and well-chosen understatement.

I could ramble on, but you get the idea.

There are a million slasher lovin' dudes out there that will be happy to tell you that The Hills Run Red isn't a patch on whatever slasher they cuddle close at night. And their right. Because it isn't about the cinema necrophilia of '80s slasher love. The flicker ain't perfect, but at its heart is the desire to push things forward.

And I'm all for that.

Let's get the heck outta Cincinnati for once.


the jaded viewer said...

Good review. I agree and it is utterly ridiculous but Sophie Monk is naked in it and the marketing downright got me to see this.

Slickly packaged but very deceptive as you said

TVSA said...

If the director had gotten the color-quality of the images on the box and not still have been stuck in Charles Band-Land (at least inside his head) this film would be legendary. I make the above comment because he once worked for Band, and they both are under the impression that, hey, this cost me a lot of money, I need to show every inch of the gag in closeup and slowmo, and every second of film I shot. That sort of thing is hilarious if it's a bad film, but excrutiating if it's a worthy one.

Shon Richards said...

"the vampiric life-draining demands of fan-entitlement"

I am going to be using that line every day, I know it.

I'll have to check the movie out. I like slasher movies but often find them unsatisfying for many of the reasons you described. I am curious to see if this will get me out of my movie slump.

CRwM said...


I doubt you'll find this transcendent or anything. Same as it is in Cincinnati and all that. Still, once we get to the loopy final act and everybody can start behaving as weird as they want, it gets a nice shot in the arm.