Friday, June 13, 2008

Movies: Got woods?

That the ironically named Lucky McKee continues to be widely ignored and relegated to cult status says more about the fundamental state of contemporary horror than any amount of critical fuss about the supposedly negative impact of torture porn or the hopeful box office numbers for flicks like The Strangers. McKee's films are smart, effective, stylish, wonderfully-built works that neither pander to low audience expectations nor wallow in self-indulgent genre hipsterism. McKee's films emerge from a rich background of horror allusions, but they never fail to be original and always bear the unique signature of his dead-pan magical realism. The Woods, McKee's 2006 feature about a witch possessed 1960s girl's school, shows the director at the top of his form.

Superficially, the plot of The Woods sounds like a rip-off of Argento's classic Susperia. In the late 1960s, a young girl, the rebellious Heather, is deposited at an elite girl's school by her egomaniacal, overbearing mother and milquetoast father (played by horror icon Bruce Campbell). Once there, Heather immediately runs afoul of the Mean Girls grade alpha-female click. But these socially-predatory teens are the least of Heather's problems. The headmistress, Ms. Traverse (played Oscar-nominated and multi-Emmy winner Patricia Clarkson), and the school's staff are hiding a dark secret. As students disappear and inexplicable incidents pile-up, Heather uncovers a sinister coven of witches whose evil plans threaten the lives of all the students at the academy.

It would be easy to dismiss The Woods as little more than "an American Susperia." And, in a way, that's exactly what it is. In his previous film, 2002's May, McKee revealed his love of Italian horror by not only name dropping Argento's Opera and Trauma, but also by working in some of said directors more dreamy stylistic ticks into the later sequences dramatizing the title-character's violent descent into madness. It is, I think, unlikely that McKee wasn't fully aware of Argento's legendary flick. However, The Woods is no remake or exercise in slavish stylistic imitation. If you're going to think of this as the American Susperia, then you need to imagine that McKee tore the film down to its most basic core and rebuilt it with distinctly American elements. Stylistically, McKee looks to the sun-drenched retro look of the nostalgia industry: colors are crisp, all cars have a factory-fresh shine to them, the period details are exacting but comfortable. Think Stand By Me or The Wonder Years. The elements of fantasy are shot with surrealistic stagy, crispness – the fake-real of Hollywood sets when make-up, costume, and art design were your chief special effects. Even the one CGI effect of note, the movement of Ruins-like vines and branches, has a solid, carefully-studied quality.

The plotting and characterization also stand in contrast to the dream-logic minimalism of Argento's work. The story feels like a Nancy Drew mystery as imagined by Ray Bradbury. The mystery is genuinely unfolded, rather than simply distilled by the director and screenwriter. The supernatural elements are sinister and magical, but not nonsensical and deployed willy-nilly whenever a scare is needed. The actors all turn in effective work, partially because McKee gives them space to tweak what could be otherwise stock roles. In fact, McKee might be one of the few horror directors who is not, if feel, in any way sadistic. This is not to say there isn't violence and gore (though The Woods has much less than May and May had much less than your standard slasher fare), but that McKee isn't simply interested in them as fuel for whatever cruel scheme he's cooked up. They suffer because horror demands danger, but McKee is more interested in what they'll do than what he can do to them.

There's something about The Woods that harkens back to an age when the horror film was not yet a cinematic ghetto. It reminds me of Robert Wise's The Haunting or the stylish thrillers Val Lewton produced. The resemblance is not in visual style or content elements, but in a common approach to high-quality genre filmmaking. There's a professional storyteller's care in how Wise, Tourneur, and McKee approach their stories. They follow through on their plots; they use violence as a dramatic tool rather than an emotional smoke screen; they create characters they care about in hopes that you will too; though they respect mystery, they don't leave things hopelessly obscure knowing that forgiving fans will conspire to confuse sloppy work for stylish intelligence; they appeal to lovers of good stories, not to genre otaku who demand fanservice. This isn't to say that McKee is a throwback or some postmodern recycling specialist who is lucky to have inadvertently picked up some good habits by virtue of stealing from his betters. Technically and thematically McKee's skills, style, and concerns are thoroughly up-to-date. What McKee is an example of is even rarer than that: he's a guy committed to good filmmaking. It is his unfortunate luck to arrive on the scene when the worship of trash cinema, pursuit of vacuous visual extremism, elevation of obscurantism, and genre fundamentalism appear to rule the day.


Arbogast said...

I haven't liked any of McKee's stuff but The Woods, which I think is better able to accommodate his taste for outsized characterization (which in his other films seems to me over-arch and unnecessarily ironic). I also appreciate his not casting Angela Bettis, who is sort of becoming the female Robert Englund. And no, I don't think that's a good thing. Having said all of these unflattering things, it's nice to hear another minority opinion in favor of The Woods.

CRwM said...

Mr. Arbogast,

Thanks for swinging by. Curiously, I've never found McKee's characterizations ironic or cynical. Sometimes a bit heavy-handed, but I've always felt that McKee actually likes his characters. In May, for example, the scuzzy lead male shows genuine discomfort at the alpha female abuse being heaped on May. The title character herself is, for as odd as she is, actually pretty sympathetic. Even in The Woods the mother, the flattest and most overt caricature in the cast, has reserves of real emotion (which, admittedly, we see only for a few seconds before she's snatched away.) I'm also thinking of the scene where the headmistress appears to show genuine regret for the death of one of her students. Brilliantly we don't know whether this is because it sets back the plans of the woods or if it is because she still has some vestige of human emotion. It is a great bit of characterization.

To be honest, I probably also cut him some slack because his generosity towards all his characters - good, bad, and insignificant - and his interest in character development is so rare that I am happy to see it done at all, flawed execution or not. If it was more common in the genre, I'd probably be more picky.