Monday, July 28, 2008

Movies: Yet another reason not to live in Manhattan.

Recently my lovely and talented wife, a bookseller who works in Manhattan, told me an unnerving story. She was working one of the later shifts at the shop and, after the long day was done, she and a co-worker decided to head out for a gin and tonic or two at a much beloved nearby watering hole. To get from the shop to drinking establishment, wife and co-worker normally head down Crosby, a charming still-cobblestoned street in the middle of the absurdly upmarket neighborhood of SoHo (the caps there being intentional and typical of the neighborhoods designation – even its typographic representation wallows in unnecessary pretentiousness – says a dude who goes by the nom de blog CRwM). This night, however, as they walked down the street, they noticed that rats were swarming everywhere. Out of every shadow, crisscrossing the street, diving into darkened doorways, swarming over piles of gnawed open trash bags, vanishing and appearing out of imperceptible holes in the storefronts. There were seemingly hundreds of the beasts running in mad zigzags all over the street.

My wife is no wilting flower of Brooklyn womanhood. She was raised on a ranch out in the California desert. Despite the fact that she was wearing open-toed shoes, she turned to her co-worker and said "Follow me." She began to loudly stomp her way down the street, like some drum majorette leading a instrumentless and utterly creeped out parade of one down Vermin Avenue. The strategy, she later explained to me, was derived from her childhood experiences with rattlesnakes. These potentially fatal reptiles were a common feature of the ranch that served as the setting for her youth. The theory goes like this: animals don't want to be fucked with and they don't want to fuck with you. Consequently, most unfortunate animal-human interactions are the result of one or more of the involved parties being surprised. Conclusion: Make a lot of noise and everybody will simply avoid one another.

Apparently, the rats did not understand the theory. Stomping down Crosby Street just seemed to rile them up. As my wife and he friend got further down the street, the rats became frantic. The seemed to swarm in greater numbers, appear in larger bunches, and make weird feinting dashes towards her and her co-worker. As odd as it sounds, the rats – collectively – seem to have concluded that my wife was behaving aggressively and, worse, that they had sufficient numbers to respond in a similarly aggressive manner.

Eventually, concerned that she was somehow escalating the situation to a potential breaking point, my wife decided to retreat. It was the first time I've ever heard of any New Yorker actually altering their travel plans because rats made the normal route impassible. Though I can't say I blame her.

For the record, I never wear open-toed shoes in the city. I know plenty of people who do. When the situation depicted in Jim Mickle's 2006 horror flick, Mulberry Street happen, all those who do will be laughing out the other side of their necks, so to speak.

In Mulberry Street - named after the primary setting, a block of SoHo/Little Italy (about five or six blocks from Crosby Street, where, incidentally, the rat swarm described above happened) - the rats become the vectors of disease that turns humans into nosferatu-looking were-vermin with minimal social skills and taste for human flesh. (Honestly, how come these diseases never turn people into tall, healthy, good-looking, socially-conscious locavores with a insatiable hunger for NPR? A sort of Park Slope plague that makes folks kinda smug, but mostly harmless.) This outbreak wreaks all holy hell on reunion between Clutch, an ex-boxer of no discernable profession, and Casey, his daughter who was recently wounded in one of the various foreign wars America has managed to find its way into. Caught up in this disaster are the other residents of Clutch's apartment building, a set of earnestly developed characters out of central casting who give the proceedings a "Will Eisner's 28 Days Later" feel. The film covers a single 24 period, slowly unfolding the crisis over the course of sweltering hot day and culminating in a classic nocturnal Night of the Living Dead-grade siege.

On first glance, there's not a lot here for the jaded horror fan. You've seen this "zombie" holocaust plot before, tweaks or not. The visuals shift somewhat clumsily between digital hand cam vérité and a jarring lush, overly-edited, and color-washed "edgy" style. The plot is somewhat slow to grind up, the effects and violence are hardly paradigm shifting. Finally, some plot points – notably the sudden reappearance of certain characters here and there – pushes the bounds of belief; no small feat in a flick that features man-eating rat people.

But this assessment undersells the flick, I think. Those who dig on solidly-built genre entertainment will find Mulberry Street delivers on all its promises without condescending to audiences or treating horror archetypes as easy shortcuts.

Building its plot, MS brings an almost Dogme-esque creativity to the problem of creating a citywide disaster on a budget that, for most filmmakers, wouldn't even cover craft services. Through television updates, radio reports, and the clever shooting of street culture as it is lived every day, MS manages to create a genuinely unnerving sense of a city falling apart at the seams. As an example of the rigorous use of every asset available, one of the most effective scenes involves a struggle between infected versus pure-strain humans (to evoke Gamma World terminology) in a bar. What makes this scene stick out is the fact that the bar features a massive projection television. Aside from being a valuable way to deliver exposition without seeming forced, the prop adds a disorienting dimension to the physical conflict that eventually occurs in the bar. The projected images of mass chaos and, later, the color-bars of a dead channel heighten the tension and make for a neato visual effect. Just by exploiting the setting to its fullest, the filmmakers are able to create a surreal effect that gives the whole scene added impact. That's good filmmaking.

The characterization is effective. Though none of the characters rise above the status of generic urban clichés, the filmmakers treat their cast with genuine interest, investing these stock personas with the dignity of archetypes. The ex-boxer, the local flamer, the wounded soldier, the old man who refuses to give over and die, the single mother looking for a good man – they can all be described with thumbnail sketch, but they are treated like they're not disposable. They're a slightly more ragged version of "these are the people in your neighborhood": efficiently spare types that feel more evocative than hollow. This characterization is all the more impacting for the ruthlessness with which the filmmakers treat their characters when the action starts in earnest. When it is time for a character to go, they tend to vanish with a rapid and unsentimental blur, all the more unsettlingly for its deadly flat suddenness.

Oh, yeah, and NYC indie horror fixture Larry Fessenden shows up briefly in the role of "Man Behind the Gate." That's a nice touch.

Mulberry Street reminds me of a perfect garage rock single: its success comes from executing a time tested and fan pleasing formula with energetic enthusiasm and creative confidence.

1 comment:

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