Thursday, December 03, 2009

Over There: Horror films and the War in Afghanistan - Part 2: Red Sands.

The only one of the three current horror films set in the American Afghanistan conflict to actually have filmed in Afghanistan (Kabul, Afghanistan, specifically), Red Sands may have the curious distinction of not only being among the first horror films to be set on the front lines of an on-going conflict, but the added distinction of featuring footage of the country we're fighting in. Imagine a Nazi zombie film that had been shot in Germany when Nazis could have still shot you. It would be easy to make too much of this odd fact. Most of the film was shot in California. Still, historically, it's a first as far as I can tell.

Red Sands is the second stop on our tour of one of the oddest mini-genre to have developed in this particularly tumultuous era of horror: the first American horror films set on the frontlines of an on-going U.S. military conflict.

Without recapping too much of the first installment of this mini-series, the short version of the story goes like this: Horror films are usually Johnny-on-the-spot when it comes to spinning cultural anxieties into filthy lucre, but live-fire wars seem to be the exception. Horror films tend to touch on such conflicts in passing (example: Jacob's Ladder features a shell shocked 'Nam vet after he's returned home) or be influenced by such conflicts (example: some critics have suggested that the slasher formula was influenced by the tedium-then-ambush structure of the Vietnam War), but there are few, if any, American horror films made prior to 2008 that are set in a conflict that is currently popping off. In short, when bodies are actually being shipped home, we don’t tend to invent fantastical reasons that more should corpses should be on the plane.

The current Iraq War seems to follow this pattern. There are several dramatic and action genre flicks that are set in the Iraq War, but no horror films. Arguably, many films have been influenced by the war - some critics have suggested the entire alleged genre of "torture porn" is little more than a symptom of the conflict - but none have featured, say, a unit attacked by ghostly Saddam torture victims in a haunted mansion in Baghdad.Though, for some reason, the War in Afghanistan has broken this rule. In 2008 and 2009, at least three horror films have been set on the front lines of the War in Afghanistan. Questions of artistic merit aside, these three films represent something genuinely new in the horror genre. As such, I think they merit our attention.

Helmed by Alex Turner, the sadly under-appreciated director of 2004's Dead Birds, Red Sands is essentially one giant flashback. We open on a soldier being questioned about a fiasco in the wild hill country of Afghanistan. Seven troops were sent on a mission and all of them died but one. And his story just don't add up.

Credits. Start movie.

We start with a squad of seven troops. They're pretty familiar types: We’ve got a Rock (tough-as-nails sergeant) who later becomes a Hudson (he loses it late in the game), a Tori Montroc (idealist sent to the army by his upper class parents), a Vig (the racist lughead – this particular model happens to be a Southern dude who sports a Confederate battle flag on his helmet), a Fodder (who, oddly, in this flick is obsessed with obscure and most likely imaginary sexual activities of the donkey punch variety), a Bozz (a self-oriented barracks lawyer type), and a Sassoon (the bespectacled translator). Sadly, we're once again short a Brooklyn.

This band o' brothers' latest mission is to monitor a lonely stretch of desert road – well more like a flat wasteland with pretentions to roadness - for potential Taliban activity and, if necessary, engage the enemy. On their way to their new post, these proud few nearly drive over a landmine. They get separated from the rest of their convoy and end up stumbling upon an ancient idol depicting a djinn (or, as most of us say it, genie). The squad's interpreter informs the other soldiers that this genie isn’t a big blue dude who’s here to grant wish and drop one-liners. Instead, it is a shape-shifting creature driven to kill by its limitless, murderous hatred of humanity. The fact that djinn get so killy when left on their own is the reason they get trapped in things like bottles or, oh, I don't know, ancient idols. Like the one our proud few are standing in front of.

Not all the soldiers are immediately convinced that they're dealing profound supernatural forces beyond the reckoning of their feeble modern logic, and they discuss what should be done with the idol. Though none of them could be considered "true believers," they rapidly reach a consensus that there’s no point in needlessly tempting fate. They decide to leave the area immediately and tell nobody of their discovery.

Just kidding. The unreconstructed jackass with the Reb flag on his helmet shoots it to bits.

Jump to: House in the middle o' nowhere.

Our boys arrive off at a small, partially destroyed stone house facing a desolate stretch of sand, rock, and desert brush. This is the not-really-a-road they're supposed to monitor. Or, at least, they decide it must be because they don't find any more road-like features around them. The soldiers explore the house and find a quartet of singed corpses – victims of white phosphorous bombing – that they promptly bury.

Before you can say R-Point, the soldiers are receiving cryptic radio messages and getting weird visions. A massive sandstorm drives them indoors and brings them a mysterious visitor: a young woman wearing traditional garb and speaking a language even the translator doesn’t recognize (it's Aramaic, according to the "making of" featurettes). Soon, their transport is sabotaged and squad solidarity begins to crack under the strain. The situation gets no better when soldiers start disappearing.

A haunted house story in desert camo, Red Sands closely resembles Turner's Dead Birds, which featured an armed gang of Reconstruction Era bank robbers hiding out in a haunted plantation. Unlike that film, however, it lacks the baroque backstory that gave Birds its epic sense of the uncanny. This is both a blessing and a curse. Without a sense of mystery to build on, Sands slow burn approach to the scares feels like an unwise pacing choice. Turner tries to make a leaner, meaner genre machine, but fails on the leaner part. On the plus side, the stock frame lets Turner trick his film out with elements he's picked up from his study of other genre works. Indeed, the pleasures of Red don’t lie in the originality of its conceits, but in the clever application of the directors inspirations. Unlike the stylistically inert visual presentation of Sand Serpents, Red borrows the washed out, sun-blasted palate of Three Kings (complete with caption intros for the troopers). An obvious move perhaps, but appropriate and effective. The soldiers are built almost entirely out of stock parts, but their dialogue snaps and the actors suitably embody their roles. Furthermore, Turner encourages a Hawksian improvisational liveliness to their interactions that gives them an charge. Sands seems less daring and original than Dead Birds, but it is work of a man with a good eye for what works and discerning taste. On those terms, Red Sands is a more modest, but still thoroughly pleasurable success.

As a document of the war, Red Sands is a curious beast. Despite being the only film of the trio on our list to actually include footage from Afghanistan, it seems the most removed from the conflict itself. The Taliban, the ostensible reason for the soldiers' mission, never make an appearance. We witness one extended gun battle in a flashback (within the extended flashback), thought that appears to occur between two groups of US troops firing on one another in a panic. The only other combat occurs between our protagonists or between them and the djinn. Aside from a short intro, the only interactions with Afghan civilians are disasters: We see the remains of a family that’s been roasted alive by US bombs and witness a military arrest that goes sour and ends with the death of a small child. The movie's relentless centered on the American protagonists, but not in a jingoistc or egocentric way. Instead, the US presence is depicted as a sort of giant beast, so powerful that it can touch nothing, observe nothing, affect nothing without leaving destruction in its wake. It's a problem of scale, not ethics. With the exception of Johnny Reb (and the later Ahabing staff sergeant), the soldiers are presently as flawed, but basically good human beings. But they can't do anything right because the only way they have to interact with the world inevitably breaks it. Curiously, this both parallels and contrasts with djinn. The conflict between the soldiers and the evil genie is just as one-sided as any of the conflicts between the soldiers and the Afghan land they stomp through. But where the Afghans face a particularly fatal form of blundering, the djinn is deliberately bloodthirsty (and no respecter of national or political allegiance – it's an equally opportunity killer of Americans and Afghans).

The lack of context brings up a sort of chicken-egg question with regards to the films liberal borrowings and allusions. Is Red Sands‘s context of no context an unintentional product of Turner’s extensive mirroring of other pop genre works? Or did he deliberately sever the flick from its historical moment, by design or indifference? Deliberate or not, the result suggest to the viewer that, as Julio Cort├ízar once said of fires, "all wars are one war." No matter who is fighting, or what the fighting occurs, or what people say they’re fighting about, it’s always just a slaughter of the weak by the strong. Like the djinn of the flick, the particulars might shift and change, but its murderous essence stays the same. It's always a horrorshow.


Sasquatchan said...

I'm curious -- is the device change from the generic "ghost" to djin relevant or not ? Does it make a distinguishing factor or not, for the genre and what not ..

(ie take a stock plot, stock characters, and vary only setting a "method" [ghost/djin/man with axe] and can you really break out the creativeness or not ?)

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

It doesn't vary the formula as much as it would have if they'd used the Robin Williams genie - but there's some notable features to your djinn that ghosts don't seem to have.

Your djinn has a great operational range, for example. It doesn't seem to be tied down to any one spot or person.

There's also none of the standard "what does the spirit want" mumbo-jumbo. It wants people dead. Because it doesn't like people. No other backstory required. In that sense, it's a simpler concept.

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