Sunday, July 18, 2010

Movies: Cut to the chase.

Laid to Rest, writer/director Robert Hall's '09, was a bit of a dud with slasher fans. Fans of slashers cited its believability shredding plot, the quality of the acting, the thinness of the characterizations, clumsy dialogue, and over-reliance on jump scares as reasons for their dislike. Though, honestly, those are hallmarks of the sub-genre and are as integral to classic slashers as edged weapons and torn teenage flesh. On almost every standard metric, Laid to Rest falls pretty much dead-center in slasher quality bell curve.

That said, there is something odd about the flick. In approaching the shop-worn clich├ęs of the slasher flick - tropes that had exhausted their dramatic and horrific potential nearly two decades ago - Hall tries to keep things free by 1) going outside the big franchises for inspiration and 2) taking an absurdist, minimalist approach to the material.

The baddie of L2R is Chome Skull: a mask-wearing, knife-weilding slasher straight out of slasher central casting. For an insane homicidal loner, Chrome Skull's a fairly dapper gent: his matching death's head mask and baroque barbed knives jump out against his understated thin suit, with militaristic flourishes that are both handsome and functional (the smart epaulette on is right shoulder serves as housing for his camera), and plain black tee. Furthermore, the innovative use of medical adhesive to secure his strapless mask in place gives him a sleek profile that Jason and Michael Meyers must surely envy. Despite the nice character design, there's a tiring sameness about Chrome Skull. He looks like one those satirically derivative slashers that appear in Hack/Slash. At one point, threatened by one of his victims, Chrome Skull unsheathes his knives and sighs wearily, as if to say, "Back to the old stab-stab." The viewer can sympathize.

It isn't the update look of his killer that's Hall's smartest redeployment of vintage '80s horror detritus. Rather it's the heavy borrowings from Phantasm and The Hitcher, two second-tier flicks, that give this unnecessary trip down retro lane some spark. Though the look is Voorhees by way of The Sartorialist, the Tall Man and his funeral house trappings are equally evident. The overall plot, in which Chrome Skull doggedly pursues a single victim through the lonely back roads (here the Southeast rather than the Southwest) punishing anybody unlucky enough to cross paths with his victim, owes far more to relentless John Ryder than the teen slaughtering villains of the bigger slasher franchises. Hall also reconfigures Phantasm's unusual team dynamic, pitting his killer against a oddly assembled group of determined fighters rather than a relatively defenseless gang of kids. Sure, this doesn't elevate L2R beyond the level of reheated cultural leftovers, but at least we're not being asked to eat the same three meals we've been served over and over.

The other thing that helps L2R differentiate itself from the copies, remakes, reboots, relaunches, re-imaginings, reinvestments, rebrandings, and what have yous is Hall's distillation of the slasher formula to its minimal elements. Hall's flick is essentially an extended final girl chase with all the unnecessary slasher baggage trimmed away. Hall spends as little time on background and characterization as possible. The victims of slasher flicks were always plot points disguised as human beings. With their lack of depth and the irrelevance of their characterizations, they all might as well have been shipped straight to Haddonfield direct from some overseas victim factory. (It is a sign of how little characterization actually took place in any of these movies when the people will cite as an example of good characterization the fact that a specific character fights back against their killer.) Hall recognizes this and embraces it. His final girl, credited as "the girl," literally comes out of a box without a past. She starts the film by crawling out of a coffin with no memory of who she is or why she's in a coffin. The result is a light-weight, nimble flick that runs off grimly absurdist humor. (One of my favorite touches is fact that Chrome Skull, the only slasher to have customized license plates that advertise his identity, actually has a briefcase that matches his mask and weapons - told you he was dapper!)

So why didn't slasher fans go for this? I'm not sure. I suspect that Hall's attempts to streamline the sub-genre stinks of heresy. Slasher fans worship their genre and worship needs ritual. The slasher formula exerts such a powerful drive to orthodoxy because it is so near-perfectly ritualistic. The positives of Laid to Rest are not strong enough to counterbalance what you lose when you deny viewers the ritual pleasures of genre.

L2R is middling slasher. If you're moving-watching agenda has room for such thin pleasures, you could do worse.

4 comments:

Shon Richards said...

I will have to check it out. Coming to the slasher genre in my 30's, I am often disappointed by the lack of craft in these films. Even a middling slasher movie would be nice.

I think there should be a think tank of horror bloggers to figure out how to improve the slasher genre.

CRwM said...

Shon,

I'm not certain that L2R is fully worth your time. If you generally feel slashers are lame, then this one is not going to require you confront that notion.

I'm trying to think of a better exemplar of the genre, but I'm not coming up with much.

Shon Richards said...

I saw it today and I was pleasantly amused. It had a nonsensical nightmare quality that I may be imagining. People walk in, die and things go on.

I have to say, that shrug the killer does outside the quickie mart made me laugh out loud. I feel his reluctant slasher pain.

CRwM said...

Isn't that sigh and shrug brilliant? I actually wish that it appeared in a better movie because that's one of my favorite horror moments in recent memory.

While we're on the topic: Do you think Chrome Skull is basically on some elaborate suicide by cop trip? What little we know about him suggests that he was a wealthy doctor or something similar. But his MO and flashy outfit (even before the last scene, his mask destroyed his face as part of the normal wearing process) basically announce that he's given up on ever blending back into normal life.