May 8, 2013

Less is More Horror: 21st Century Low-budget Fright Films

Note to my readers: After nearly 14 years in the same location, I'm on the move again. After the last move I vowed it would be the final one. With 14 more years worth of accumulated aches, pains and grey hairs, I'm hoping that it will be at least that long before I have to pack up and do it all over again, if ever (I now know enough to never say never). We're not pack-rats, but as I go through all the flotsam, jetsam and detritus of normal (?) middle-class living, I don't think I will ever again look at anything other than a consumable on a store shelf without thinking "do I really need that?" and more importantly, "do I want to box that up and move it when the time comes?" I'm at the point where I'm ready to pass the torch to the next generation to keep the durable goods economy going. Preparing for a move really focuses your mind on the basics, and reminds you of how little is really necessary for a comfortable life: a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and of course, a good collection of DVDs and movie memorabilia. Since I will be busy in the next couple of months making sure my movie stuff, among other things, arrives safe and sound in its new home, I will be posting somewhat less frequently to the blog. But I will try to keep posting regularly to Films From Beyond on Facebook (featuring capsule reviews, B movie trivia, quotes, photos, etc.). If you haven't already, check it out!

I'm going to mix things up a bit for this post, and write about some nifty low-budget horror films that have been released since -- **GASP!!** -- 2000. While these titles are well outside the normal parameters for this blog (under-appreciated genre films from the 1930s through the '70s), they serve to illustrate that the "B" spirit is still alive and well, and that with a little imagination and creativity, you can make a movie that is just as effective in its way as something costing tens of millions more.

In my last post on Castle of Blood (1964), I observed that "[y]ou don't need over-the-top shock effects or a bunch of high-end computers dedicated to CGI to raise goosebumps. You can do it with lighting, make-up, sound, in-camera effects, and some imagination." Unfortunately, much of filmed science fiction and horror these days is caught in a vicious circle: ever more sophisticated and costly effects are used to capture attention and box office bucks; the productions are so expensive that few studios are willing to gamble on unknown or original material, so an endless parade of familiar comic book and TV franchises and sequels are trotted out each year; in spite of the whiz bang effects, the movies begin to blend together and look the same, so even more money is spent on trying to distinguish the product from all the other imitators; and on and on it goes. (On the horror side, filmmakers are caught in an endless circle of "gross out" one-upmanship, to the point where last year's Saw or Hostel sequel looks almost tame compared to current nauseating gore standards. TV is getting especially bad. This is not horror -- it's gore/torture porn.)

Cover of Filmfax, Spring 2013, No. 133
In the latest issue of Filmfax, Miller Drake, a special effects editor who got his start with Jack Rabin and then went on to work for Roger Corman's New World Pictures, talks about how the film itself has almost become secondary in today's market:
"Everybody wants to make sequels, remakes and video games, comic books or graphic novel adaptations. They're all so afraid of doing anything original. Film companies are all owned by big corporations now and all they want to make are these big expensive, what they call 'tentpole' projects, that they think will make a lot of money. They're more concerned with merchandising, like selling toys and video games, than with making good movies. So they're really locked into that kind of thinking." ("From Rocketship X-M and Kronos to Island of the Fishmen and Beyond," Filmfax, Spring 2013, No. 133)
One upside of the digital production revolution is that a whole new generation of artful, imaginative films are being made on a shoestring. These movies, aimed at a select audience, don't need comic book heroes, familiar franchises, or worldwide theatrical releases to be successful. Like the B's of old, the ingenuity and creativity is reserved for the movie itself, not the advertising campaign or merchandising tie-ins. And quite often, they are surprisingly original and effective on budgets that are a fraction of what some blockbuster productions spend on catering alone. Here are four very good examples in the horror genre that have caught my attention since the turn of the millennium. They've all earned the Films From Beyond Honorary B Movie award. And best of all, they're readily accessible on Netflix Instant Watch.

Session 9 (2001) - Poster
Now Playing: Session 9 (2001)

Pros: Great setting; Good, solid cast; Grabs you with its creepy atmosphere from the outset and steadily ratchets up the tension
Cons: Some of the characters' motivations are murky to the point of confusion

In brief: Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullan), owner of a small hazardous materials cleanup company, wins the bid to remove asbestos from the old abandoned Danvers State Mental Hospital, but the job has to be done in an almost impossibly short time frame. Success doesn't seem guaranteed, as most of the crew are dealing with an assortment personal problems: Gordon is having family troubles, Mike (Stephen Gevedon) is a depressed law school dropout, Hank (Josh Lucas) has stolen fellow crew member Phil's (David Caruso) girlfriend, and Gordon's nephew Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) suffers from fear of the dark. The dark, creepy corridors and rooms of the abandoned hospital aren't helping anyone's mood. Mike discovers a box with 9 taped sessions with a patient, Mary, with multiple personalities. Mike's curiosity gets the better of him, and he starts listening to the tapes. Strange things start happening in the old hospital, and by the time Mike gets to session 9, where Mary's malevolent alter ego Simon speaks on the tape, an old evil seems to have been unleashed on the hapless cleanup crew.

Key scenes: Session 9 was a revelation to me way back in '01. I realized that some filmmakers out there were actually willing to make subtle, sophisticated psychological horror films that were about realistic characters and the building of mood and suspense instead of gore effects and high body counts. At the outset, simple shots of the dark, Gothic set -- a real state hospital -- establish a forbidding atmosphere. It builds from there, and by the time you hear "Simon" speaking out of the old reel-to-reel tape recorder, the short hairs on the back of your neck are standing up.

Key player: David Caruso, the most recognizable actor in the film, was between stints on the popular TV series NYPD Blue and CSI: Miami when he appeared in Session 9.

The Ceremony (2008) - Poster
Now Playing: The Ceremony (2008)

Pros: Keeps things in the shadows to stir the viewer's imagination; Great use of sound and masterful editing; Solid performance by Scott Seegmiller
Cons: The manifestation of the demonic force may seem like a cliche to some

In brief: Graduating college student Eric Peterson's (Scott Seegmiller) life seems to be on the upswing-- his professor and mentor has offered him an important research position overseas. As he starts to clean up his apartment and prepare for the big move, he discovers an open book surrounded by candles sitting in the middle of his roommate's bedroom. Intrigued, he takes time off from his moving preparations to investigate the passages in the book, even taking the trouble to consult a professor of ancient languages at the university. Soon, weird poltergeist-like activity starts to take place: lights and appliances turn off and on by themselves; objects move around seemingly by themselves; and just out of the corner of his eye, shadowy things seem to be lurking in the rental house. He comes to realize that he's inadvertently set in motion supernatural forces that have trapped him alone in the house, and are demanding an unspeakable sacrifice.

Key scenes: Like Session 9, the very low budget The Ceremony masterfully builds tension and suspense, starting with a handful of small, weird occurrences that then grow in number and intensity to two climaxes: in the first, Eric meets a surprising physical manifestation of the dark force; the second presents a very unexpected and disturbing surprise ending. There are no CGI effects or blood -- just very clever use of a single set, a single actor (for most of the film), eerie sound effects, fleeting images, and some skilled editing.

Key player and filmmaker: Incredibly, The Ceremony seems to be actor Scott Seegmiller's and director James Palmer's only credit to date.

Pontypool (2008) - Poster
Now Playing: Pontypool (2008)

Pros: Bizarre, haunting premise; Crackerjack dialog (and monologues); Tour-de-force performance by veteran actor Stephen McHattie
Cons: Egregious, gory scene that seems out of place

In brief: They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but in Pontypool, the spoken word can literally kill. The film opens with Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), a talk radio announcer whose career is in decline, driving in the middle of an early morning blizzard to his new job at a small radio station in Pontypool, Ontario. At a stoplight, he's startled when a woman suddenly appears out of the swirling snow at the car window. She seems disoriented and keeps repeating words over and over, then almost as quickly as she appeared, she vanishes back into the blizzard. Grant arrives at the station, rattled and guilt-ridden that he couldn't do more to help the mysterious woman. On top of it all, former shock-jock Mazzy is a rather bad fit for the station in the Canadian boondocks. He has words with station manager Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) and technical engineer Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly). Soon, his boring morning of winter storm updates is interrupted by unnerving reports of deadly riots in town, and of people mumbling words over and over again, then joining packs of other "infected" people that act like mindless insect swarms. Then, the station receives emergency government transmissions warning that the use of certain words, especially words of endearment, are somehow causing people to go insane, and to not speak English at all. Somehow, a bleak, snowy, humdrum morning has turned into a fight for survival as Mazzy and the small station crew have to figure out how to avoid succumbing to the language plague and those unfortunate souls who have already been infected.

Key scenes: Although there is one gory scene that's difficult (at least for me) to watch, Pontypool is first and foremost a film of bizarre ideas and psychological suspense. According to the film's Wikipedia entry, author Tony Burgess came up with the script adaptation of his own novel, Pontypool Changes Everything, over the course of a couple of days. Orson Welles' legendary War of the Worlds radio broadcast provided the inspiration (a radio play version of Pontypool was developed simultaneously with the film). One of the movie's most effective scenes is when the station's field reporter describes to Mazzy the bizarre behavior of the rioting crowd, and stumbles upon a person who has just become infected. The mental images that are conjured up by the breathless descriptions are more effective and disturbing than anything the producers might have tried to film (or worse yet, tried to develop with CGI).

Key player: Grizzled Canadian character actor Stephen McHattie has been incredibly busy in films and TV since the early 1970s. McHattie is a one-man tour-de-force in Pontypool, and is a joy to watch just sitting at the microphone at the radio station, reacting to the crazy news reports being handed to him, and in turn trying to warn his listeners about the deadly spoken-word plague. Predictably, Hattie was nominated for best actor by a number of fantasy and horror festivals, and won the prize at the Puchon International Fantasy Film Festival. (Don't get him confused with Lance Henriksen, with whom he shares more than a passing resemblance. Both actors have a list of credits a mile long.)

Ghost from the Machine (2010) - Poster
Now Playing: Ghost from the Machine (aka Phasma Ex Machina; 2010)

Pros: Intelligent script engages the viewer's imagination and keeps him/her off guard and guessing; Touching, poignant scenes alternate with creeping terror; Amazing, natural performance by Matthew Feeney
Cons: Main character Cody is so obsessed with his project (and neglectful of his younger brother) that he loses audience sympathy

In brief: Twenty-something Cody (Sasha Andreev) is wracked with guilt that he is indirectly responsible for his parents' tragic deaths in a automobile accident. An electronics genius, he becomes obsessed with the idea of bringing them back through technological means. In his research, he discovers that many ghost sightings and other paranormal phenomena seem to be associated with weak electromagnetic fields like those generated from power lines. He spends all his time in his garage building a field generator through which the dead can return. Cody attracts the attention of Tom (Matthew Feeney), a used electronic parts dealer, when he buys two rare devices that can be used to tap into commercial power lines. Unbeknownst to Cody, his machine actually works, and suddenly Tom and others in town are being visited by dead people from their past who don't seem to know they're dead. Cody has spent so much time and energy on the machine, he's in danger of losing custody of his younger brother James (Max Hauser), who's been missing school. As Tom tracks the mysterious energy field to Cody's garage, James tries to convince his older brother that there are intruders in the house. It turns out that the noisy intruders are a highly eccentric mother and son, dead for years, who have come back to reclaim their house…

Key scenes: One of the nice touches in Ghost is that the machine conjures up dead people that some of the living characters (and even the film's viewers) don't at first realize are dead (and there's one nicely written scene in which it's not entirely clear if Cody has been talking with someone living or dead). I also appreciated that there's no dramatic Frankenstein-like "It's alive!" moment of triumph for the inventor. Through most of the film, Cody doesn't realize his machine has actually worked, which seems more authentic. There's also a very touching scene involving a long lost little girl and an amazingly stoic mother.

Key player: Matthew Feeney, an actor and stand-up comedian, turns in an amazing, poignant performance as the used parts dealer who at first is curious about the somber young man who wants to buy obscure electronic equipment, and then has a much bigger mystery on his hands when his beloved dead wife shows up at his house, cooking, climbing into bed and acting like nothing has happened. Feeney's everyman character experiences terror, dread, joy and hope, at times all mixed together. It's one of the best performances I've ever seen in a low-budget independent feature.

1 comment:

  1. I would add "The Changeling" starring George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere. It is one of my all-time favorite films!