Saturday, March 05, 2011

Movies: Trusting young normal human girl wanted to watch completely normal human child of unremarkable human parents.

There's probably no better example for how absolutely familiar the well-trod ground over which Babysitter Wanted walks is than the shot of Angie (played by the preternaturally young-looking Sarah Thompson) plucking a phone number off a babysitter wanted flier hanging on a bulletin board on the college commons. It's one of those movie-real moments that only doesn't strike us as fake because we've seen it repeated so often in fiction that we've grown to accept it as reasonable. Like elaborate terrorism-for-hire plots or the idea that mental asylums all look like a cross between Disney's Haunted Mansion and the Bastille, we've seen so many people put up random posters for a babysitter - instead of using their social network of personal connections, as most folks do - that this bizarrely non-discriminating way of hiring somebody to watch your offspring doesn't strike us as odd. Or, to put a finer point on it, we know it's odd because Babysitter Wanted is a horror movie, so we know it's a horrible idea to go to the home of somebody who is fine with any babysitter just showing up. We know the poster might as well read, "Trusting young normal human girl wanted to watch completely normal human child of unremarkable human parents. References unnecessary. Non-virgins need not apply. NO CELL PHONES!" What strikes us as not odd is that nobody in the film thinks that it is odd. It's a genre plot point that's become so comfortable that it doesn't even evoke a twitch on disbelief-suspensometer.

The babysitter flier is one of those genre cliches that has become so overused that it no longer seems like a short cut or lazy storytelling, but rather a small shared ritual, like saying "bless you" when somebody sneezes. And in that small space of the knowing exchange of shared meanings, Babysitter Wanted delivers a surprising amount of simple pleasure. This isn't to say that such a willingness to embrace genre expectations doesn't come with some serious drawbacks. BW engages the viewer so effortlessly and places so little in the way of demands on the viewer's attention that the experience is inevitably a shallow one. But some pleasures are narrow. When I was a young boy, I was obsessed with card tricks. My stubby, sausage-like fingers ensured that I would always lack the dexterity to master such tricks myself. I had to content myself with simply learning all the secrets and watching others perform them. When I watch a magician perform a card trick, I (usually, but not always) can see exactly how the trick is done and follow every slight of hand and misdirection. Because of this, I think I enjoy the tricks far more than the uninitiated. For those being "tricked," there's always a hint of potential aggression there. For me, there's the uncomplicated, refreshingly simple pleasure of watching somebody being competent enough to successfully complete a tricky task.

Speaking of cards, let's lay them out on the table. Babysitter Wanted is really nothing more than a poor man's House of the Devil. Or, to give BW its chronological due, House of the Devil is nothing more than an artsy remake of Babysitter Wanted. The plots are similar: young college girl takes a babysitting gig for a family living in a remote house, there's a satanic angle, chasing and sacrificing ensue. But there, the differences end. Reviewers of West's retro fright pic often praised it with negatives: no jump scares, no torture porn, no ADD-friendly pacing and editing, and so on. From the list of negatives, you could imagine a theoretical alternate version of the film that deployed far more typical genre tropes; but you don't have to, Babysitter Wanted is that hypothetical flick.

Aside from storytelling choices, the key difference between the films centers around the treatment of their source material and, by extension, each film's relationship to its genre. BW lacks the period trappings, apparently a major draw for legions of folks who felt that the lack Walkmans in contemporary American cinema was a dire failing much in need of correction. But otherwise, the two films are genetic relations; BW and HotD both draw deep from the well of "Satanic panic" films of the 1980s, only the former does it without the self-conscious display of influences and technique. House treats the whole Satanic stories subgenre as an archival tourist spot, a curious destination to visit and document. By contrast, Babysitter treats it as just another subgeneric tributary, perhaps somewhat attenuated but still flowing, that pours in the mainstream of horror. This is distance is typical of West. The result is that West's work, even at its most energetic (Cabin Fever II), possesses an emotional detachment. This isn't a criticism of West; his most sublime moments often come from his careful indifference to the demands of genre and his movies would lack their delicious sadism if he trafficked in fan-service. In contrast, Barnes and Manasseri are eager to please and driven to fit directly into the expectations of their viewership.

What struck me while watching BW is that we no longer recognize how weird the standard horror flick is. In a way, West's flick is a far simpler beast. Its obsessive awareness of influence acts to restrain it. It wants to be a very specific thing - an '80s cult flick - and only that. By contrast, Babysitter pulls from satanic panic flicks, uses some torture porn elements, throws in some slasher like hunting scenes, goes in for some black comedy, and so on. These things are presented in a oft repeated and utterly familiar context, so the use of these elements doesn't seem particularly surprising or innovative. But, watching them come together, it dawned on me how many influences, how much film history appears in even the most run of the mill horror film. Most horror films, regardless of their merits and intentions, are the result of a century of artistic history and they carry the marks of this heritage, for better or worse, on their face.

One of the most common visual metaphors for evolution is the ascent of man illustration. You know the one: there's a chimp on the far left side, the start of a series of increasingly bipedal and hairless humanoids, that ends with a fully human individual. The problem with that picture is that it suggests variable levels of evolution. Chimps aren't proto-humans that couldn't cut it and therefore never got the bennies of a fully upright posture. Chimps are the result of the same millions of years of evolution as humans. They are equally, but differently, evolved. The same, in a strictly metaphorical sense, can be said of that most reviled of horror products: the "standard horror flick." Babysitter Wanted never voluntarily picked up this burden and it is almost unfair for me to place this weight on such a slender and innocuous flick, but for a brief 93 minutes, the film reminded me that even the commonplace is highly evolved.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Excellent analysis....
I may check this one out, even if it is rather hum-drum.