Friday, December 28, 2007

Movies: This one's for the ladies.

Chicks with marital difficulties lie at the heart of both Let's Scare Jessica to Death, the 1971 haunted house tale, and Incident On and Off a Mountain Road, the 2005 revisionist slasher that was the first episode of the first season of Showtime's horror antho series Masters of Horror.

The latter flick tells the story of Ellen. One night, while driving along a mountain road, she collides with an abandoned car. This collision attracts the attentions of Moonface, a knife-wielding slasher that looks like a cross between the rat-like Nosferatu and former NBA giant Gheorghe Muresan. Moonface pursues Ellen, like you do if you're a slasher. Only, to Moonface's great chagrin, Ellen turns out to be a remarkably resourceful victim. Through a series of flashbacks the viewer learns that Ellen is the wife of a creepy militia-style survivalist (played with scene-chewing gusto by baby-faced Ethan Embry). Instead of running through the woods until she conveniently trips on something – the way Moonface likes to play these things – Ellen goes off on a tangent and starts getting all McGuyver on his pasty butt. Using the skills taught to her by her hubby, Ellen becomes a real match for her would-be killer and the film takes the normal hunt-and-slay narrative of the slasher genre and turns it into something more along the lines of Straw Dogs or Deliverance, where a seemingly soft character is forced to draw on an unsuspected well of kick-assness in order to survive.

The story, based on a short story by genre-fiction jack of all trades Joe R. Lansdale (whose short fiction also provided the inspiration for the wonderfully goofy action-horror flick Bubba Ho-tep), unfolds quickly and ends with a neat twist ending. These days "twist ending" has almost become a dirty phrase. And justly so: for some reason the horror flick biz has caught on to the unfortunate notion that twist endings make a movie smarter. This is, sadly, untrue. A dumb movie with a twist ending is nothing more then a dumb movie with a twist at the end. Still, supposedly shocking endings are tacked on to films in an effort to give them a sense of intellectual heft. At best, these forced twists are forgettable blips that don't do anything but underscore the overall sloppiness of the story. Think of the "twist" at the end of the most recent version of House of Wax in which, in the final seconds of the film, a new villainous family member is introduced. This sounds like a more important revelation that it is: the story's over, the titular building and the two key members inside are dead, and "surprise" villain was a creepy SOB to begin with so it doesn't even change your opinion of the character. It is entirely shrug inducing. At worst, these twists send the film down a sort of intellectual rabbit-hole from which even great films can't fully recover. Despite its slick stylishness and white-knuckle suspense, the last fifth of High Tension lost that film who knows how many fans. And, I should add, not because the twist is so complicated. The only thing confusing about it is why the filmmakers bothered with it at all. To Incident On and Off's credit the twist works, follows logically from the story, and has a real emotional impact. It is what twist endings should be.

Jessica, the titular character of Let's Scare Jessica to Death, has no commando skills to fall back on. Though, even if she did, I'm not sure they would have helped.

Jessica's just finished a refreshing little holiday in a mental institution. Her husband, hoping to get her away from the sanity threatening pressures of New York City, purchases a New England apple orchard and Victorian farmhouse. With another friend tagging along for the kicks, Jessica and her hubby move in to the new place only to find a squatter – a flirty red-headed girl named Emily – has been living the house on the assumption it was abandoned. Emily joins the clan and all seems to be going well until Jessica stars to witness mysterious and sinister things. Is she relapsing into insanity? Emily an the hubby do seem awfully friendly and that's just the sort of thing that would set Jessica off. Or do these weird visions have something to do with the sinister Bishop family whose tragic fates nearly a century ago cast a strange gloom over the town even today?

There's not a whole lot I can say about LSJtD without ruining the fun of it – but I can say that the flick is really a standout flick that fans of slow-building tension and Gothic mystery should make an effort to check out. Clearly the highpoint of director John D. Hancock's career (a spotty run that includes the Love Story of pro baseball, Bang the Drum Slowly, and the 1989 Christmas/animal pic Prancer), he manages to sustain his moody tension without access to elaborate effects, with reliance on overwhelming soundtracks, and without recourse of extensive gore (there are PG-grade shots of bright red stage blood and that's about it). The acting is a wooden, but the actors are given enough to do that you'll focus on the plot without being overly distracted by their efforts.

All and all two worthwhile flicks: the first being good and the second verging on great.


Anonymous said...

Does it share any background author/story/inspiration with Diabolique (either version) ? Seems similar plots.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

I think it is my description that makes it sound like Diabolique. That flick had a sort of Hitchcockian feel to it whereas this feels more like, say, The Wicker Man or Salem's Lot. The plots are pretty divergent as well - but that doesn't come across too well in the review as I'd have to give more details and I didn't want to spoil the flick for anybody.

Anonymous said...

For whatever reason, I like the title of INCIDENT ON AND OFF A MOUNTAIN ROAD, so I'm glad that it's a pretty good entry in the MoH series. I'll have to check it out.

I haven't seen LET'S SCARE JESSICA... and it sounds like I really should.
Although, every time I read the title, it reminds me of one of my favorite horror movie titles, THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE.
I haven't seen that either, I just like the title.
But it's good to know another creepy horror flick.
My wife's started watching horror movies with me last year, so it's nice to come up with some titles that are less gory, etc.
We just watched SESSION 9 finally.
The main thing we had to get past was David Caruso, but only because we have problems taking him seriously in CSI: MIAMI.
But he was very good in SESSION 9, and we really liked it.
It also reminded me of running around at night in the Buffalo Central Terminal.

Hey, and by the way, I hope you had a good holiday season. And Happy New Year to you.
My holidays were good, but they distracted me from most of my blogging stuff, hence, my absence from all this stuff.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Catty,

When I saw Prison of the Psycho Damned, I thought of Session 9 and how lucky so flicks are to find such photogenic locations. The plantation house in Dead Birds is a similar great location.

I'm thinking that if you've got a restricted budget, one of the best ways to give your horror movie the boost that will make it look all pro is to find a great location and let the set do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. Heck, even if the location itself is just water - I'm totally forgetting the name of it, but that shark one with the couple that gets left behind by the diving tour group. Anyway. That was on location and it would have looked like crap if you'd shot it in a big pool somewhere and tried to fake it.

I'm glad to hear that you had a great holiday season. It was the first married Christmas for me and missus - got a tree and stockings and the whole nine. It was nice.

Ah, Open Water is the shark flick.

Anonymous said...

Yet another film I haven't seen but should.
And as for "letting locations do the heavy lifting in low-budget horror films": oh yeah, right on with that.
Red Scream Films producer/director/writer David Williams lives by that philosophy, for sure, and understandably, financially speaking.

His first film (PRISON OF THE PSYCHOTIC DAMNED) was at the Buffalo Central Terminal. His next film was set in a local Halloween amusement park, Fright World, which was also the name of the movie.
In fact, the Terminal has become the unoffical Red Scream movie studio, it seems. He's filmed at least two more films there and I think his next film is being filmed there. FRIGHT WORLD also had a prologue filmed at the Terminal.
On the one hand, part of me feels like that's going too many times to the well, but I haven't seen those other films either, so I don't know how those settings are introduced. Perhaps in some instances we only see the interiors and it's not acknowledged that it's a train terminal, which is completely feasible.
The thing has like 17 floors so I'm sure there's still plenty of location left to be exploited in there.

The local horror stinker THE MAIZE (renamed DARK HARVEST 2: THE MAIZE on DVD) was inspired by a local maze set in a large cornfield for Halloween. Unfortunately, the script, written so quickly and skimpily (due to tight scheduling restrictions), never supported the location with a sufficient story.

But this is not unprecedented.
I think Roger Corman kept using the same castle set for all his films that required a castle.
Jean Rollin seems to keep using a similar location in his films, like in FASCINATION. It may even be the producer's house.

Oh, yeah.