Thursday, March 28, 2013

Twist and Shout: Surprise Endings in Horror Films

I really like a good twist ending, which may be surprise some people since I'm kind of a know-it-all. But I love 'em! They can have a huge impact on an audience binding them all together so as not to spoil the secret to anyone who hasn't seen the film. A good surprise ending is preceded by a story that posits the narrative direction in another way. Usually it is a character's perception that is changed, they are illuminated in some way which brings about the surprise or twist ending. Because the audience follows a singular character's journey (which is not uncommon in most narrative films) we are in their head space. We believe what they believe. We have our audience horse-blinders on.

"I see dead people"

One of the most common tropes of a twist ending is that a character has been dead all along (like Sixth Sense, The Others or Carnival of Souls) is something I find particularly interesting. Our notion of death in the Western hemisphere is one of finality. Even if we have religious beliefs they are that our souls ascends (or descends in come cases) into another plane of existence. We are no more in this world. The "Dead Protagonist" trope extends the notion of life, after our hearts stop beating we still have a presence. In some ways it is oddly comforting. Upon our first viewing we may find such a reveal frightening because we have for the past 90 or so minutes with someone who is dead. Could we be dead? Why did we pay to see a movie if we're dead? But upon repeat viewings, if the film is well made, we can pick up on clues that illuminate the twist and in turn, we see that life might not simply just end. We are still a part of this world. In The Sixth Sense (1999), it is Malcolm's (Bruce Willis) realization that he is dead that ends the narrative. He accepts his death that we saw early in the film and is able to say goodbye to his wife.

"This house is ours, this house is ours."

In The Others (2001) it is Nicole Kidman and her children who are our protagonists and dead. Confined to a creepy house the titular "others" are the new owners and the thrust of the film is Kidman & Co. scaring them away without realizing it. Released within two years of each other, The Others is often criticized as riffing on The Sixth Sense's final shock. (if you want to play the semantics game An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is even older) But what The Others does differently is it puts the ghosts in control. In the Sixth Sense Malcolm is a narrative tool, but the plot lives and dies with the deceased in The Others. Had the new living owners never entered the house, we would have no narrative, it never would have begun.

"You dream too much about water in this house." 

Another common trope is an inversion of the plan. For me, the touchstone in this is always Cluzot's Diabolique (1955) (or Les Diabolique if you're feelin' fancy). The plot is a simple one; the wife and mistress of a cruel school master plot to murder him... I feel like a dick for even typing that last sentence since the movie does close with this: Don't be devils. Don't ruin the interest your friends could take in this movie. Don't tell them what you saw. So will not say any more. Diabolique investigates the explosion of chaos. The boarding school where the film takes place is wound tighter than a monkey in a pinata, it's primed for an uprising and once the two women agree on a plan the controlled tension of the symbolic underclass in the school becomes palpable throughout the whole film. Once the two women agree on a plot the film remains a thriller but one based in emotions that begin to run high and once the emotions are unleashed it is a question of containment. The ending is an emotional one, one born from intense feelings and one that incorporates all the imagery that has come before it. It is not a narrative tragedy, but a moral one. It is unexpected (well, maybe not by today's standards) but once you see it, it seems there is no other way it could have ended.

"Muffy hasn't been in an institution for three years, she's been at Vassar!"

Then, of course, there are the surprises which read as a "fuck you" to the audience like April Fool's  Day (1986). I happen to really like April Fool's Day, it's so goofy. A bunch of young people go up to a stately and remote house only to be terrorized by a killer who is the host's identical twin sister who escaped from a mental institution. The Final Girl fights till the end only to discover... it was all a joke. The host doesn't have an identical twin sister but has organized the whole thing as a test run for some kind of horror resort she wants to open. There isn't a whole lot of analysis for this one, except that it plays on our coded expectations of slashers. April Fool's Day openly mocks the conceit that the entire weekend is fictionalized. Every story we see or tell is fictionalized in some way. April Fool's Day comes right out and tells us is it. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Fancy Aprons - Revenge of the Stepford Wives (1980)

I do adore The Stepford Wives. But this ain't 1975 anymore. Nor is it a film. It's the made for TV sequel The Revenge of the Stepford Wives, starring Don Johnson. Need I say more? I stumbled on this gem while I was tracking down a couple hard to find DVDs at Eyesore Cinema and the gleaming pink cover featuring Johnson's pursed lips was calling my name. The owner of Eyesore mentioned that there were Dutch subtitles on the film. Sale made.

We pick up a few years after the events of the original film. The Men's Association is still fighting female individualism. But instead of having their wives killed by robot versions of themselves, they hypnotize them using Lite Brights, noises and pills that have to be taken when an alarm sounds throughout the town. This time around it's television producer Kay (Sharon Gless) visiting Stepford with an eye to produce a segment on how Stepford has the lowest divorce and crime rate in the country. Her arrival in the town immediately draws the attention of the Men's Association. Kay befriends the newly arrived Megan (Julie Kavner, Marge on The Simpsons) and Andy (Don "Trout Mouth" Johnson). Megan is still herself, meaning she's messy and doesn't care about her appearance. Andy is being groomed to join the Stepford community which of course means a significant other overhaul.

Kay then spends the rest of the movie doing the worst investigative journalism EVER. What are those sirens? You say all the women take pills for their thyroid problem, has anyone looked into that? Why do "accidents" keep happening to me? But noooooooooooooooooo. Kay wanders around the town, not so much doing anything related to journalism but living her life in a super creepy weird town that doesn't sell pants to women.

Kay actually seems to start, y'know, breaking into people's houses and listening in on conversations when Megan starts acting funny and gets addicted to daytime pinafores. From there it's a race against time (ish) to figure out if she can reverse the procedure and bring Stepford down. For all the promise this set up mercifully silly and it's actually a real pleasure to see Don Johnson's original face. If you thought the original lacked subtlety, you need to rent Revenge stat.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Twirling Towards Freedom - The Spiral Staircase (1946)

 When I have a free evening and am at a loss for what to watch, I pick up this bad boy, flip to a page and pick a movie. Last night's selection was Robert Siodmak's horror/thriller The Spiral Staircase (1946) which epitomizes the dark and stormy night story and is a precursor to films like Peeping Tom and Black Christmas. Combining elements of slasher films with a Gothic aesthetic, The Spiral Staircase is an engrossing yet stage-y thriller which does fall into the traps of many films from the 1940s.

Set at the turn of the 20th century, the majority of the film takes place in and around a small town in New England where handicapped women are being murdered. Every few years there is a spat of stranglings and no one has been able to catch the killer. The killings have started again and everyone is worried that Helen (Dorothy McGuire) who is mute after a childhood trauma is possibly next.  Helen works in a mansion on the outskirts of the town caring for an ailing matriarch Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). Mrs. Warren's step son, his secretary, her visiting son, Helen's doctor boyfriend and a contingent of nurses and housekeepers are all in the house that evening along with a sleepy bulldog and a window that seems to keep opening on its own. That, along with some killer POV shots make this not all that dissimilar to to any number of slashers. The first kill in the film happens early on when Helen is seeing a movie in town. A woman with a limp is upstairs getting changed and a killer lungs at her from the closet in a moment very reminiscent from the first kill in Black Christmas.

What truly sets The Spiral Staircase apart from other films of this genre is Nicholas Musuraca's amazing cinematography. Mururaca makes brilliant use of the titular staircase lighting it in a ways that mirror Nosfaratu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari creating extreme shots that mirror the decaying sanity of certain characters. This helps alieviate the larger problems in the story or the obvious killer and the tropes of films from this period. McGuire gives a wonderful performances as Helen but was hampered by her love story with the local doctor. Halfway through the film Mrs. Warren demands that Helen leave the house that very night and the Doctor will take her away. This is all well and good but the doctor says he knows of someone in Boston who will help treat her mute-ness and from his description it sounds like an early version of electroshock therapy which everyone seems very happy about because its a movie from the 40s set in the early years of the past century. But before the good doctor can attach his electrodes to his lady love he decides to try therapy on her by making her confront the situation that caused her to become mute. And if you've ever seen a movie from the 1940s  you know he does this by yelling at her "face it!!" and shaking her like a baby. 

The Spiral Staircase is an interesting experiment of blending popular cinema with European Gothic art-house aesthetics. While not always successful it is an enjoyable movie with a bulldog in it.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Television King: Rose Red (2002)

I guess when you write the sheer volume that Stephen King does, you're bound to repeat yourself. You can't help it. Rose Red is the biggest rip off a writer has ever done of their own work. Released in 2002 after the miniseries heyday in the 80s and 90s, Rose Red is one of his few works from King's mind not based on a novel, but there are nods to some his most iconic stories such as The Shining, Carrie and Firestarter. Even more impressive is that he uses his works to take from an even greater work, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting which continues to be one of, if not the, best haunted house stories ever.


Also, partially based on the infamous Winchester House, a house built on gun money and after her rich husband died Sarah Winchester continued to build on the house with no plan. With stairs and hallways that lead nowhere, it was only a matter of time before Winchester House became a haunted destination. I guess that's it's part of King's genius (or madness) that he can combine all these stories into one. Granted the "one" is a three hour miniseries, but who's counting?

Rose Red is a house that has a life of it's own that can build additions, shift dimensions and the laws of physics at will. The house has lain dormant for the last few years so who better to go in there and stir shit up than a university professor and some psychics. Joyce the professor is played by Nancy Travis, and every time she's on screen I can't get this out of my head:

Moving on... She brings in a team of psychics which include a mean fat person, an autistic teenager, the autistic teenager's sister, an old lady, the great grandson of the couple that built the house and a bunch of other characters that I can't really recall. Joyce is a bit of an academic joke for her work in the paranormal and by spending a few days in Rose Red Joyce will collect enough data to prove ... something... I don't know. But it seemed like it was really, really, really important to her.

And then... they just sit around, swap stories and accusations while bits and pieces of the house's history are revealed. Granted, it takes them a bloody hour to just to get in the house. While I appreciate King's dedication to character development, it constantly slows the entire story down as people emote. I'd really much rather hear about the creepy history of the house, but no, you talk about how you and your mother don't get along.

See? Character development?
There are some moments of menace and tension but they quickly become goofy. A creepy figure is foreshadowed watching the group and then they pop up only to talk at someone for far too long revealing their weapons to be pun-y dialog and an odd mix of computer graphics and wonky animatronics. Like all the problems of Rose Red it relies far too heavily on retreads of better scares and stories. The camera pans around looking to fill the void of an empty and hammy story but only finds dead air.

Ever play Blair Witch Project game set in the 16th century? The graphics in Rose Red and that are remarkably similar