Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Horror is Hard, Dying is Easy

I wonder how people in film towns keep a straight face when watching movies. All through A Horrible Way To Die (2010, directed by Adam Wingard), I was distracted by the fact that it was shot in my home town of Columbia, Missouri, and parts of the film became for me an exercise in spotting the locations ("Hey! That's the Broadway Diner! And that's the wine shop!"). There are one or two crew members from the film that I've met, too. Does all of this constitute a conflict of interest? Maybe.

This movie represents something kind of interesting. On its most basic level, this is a low-budget, low-key relationship drama, made on a tiny budget and featuring seemingly improvised dialogue. It's one of the spiritual children of the films John Cassavettes used to make. But this film slightly changes the conditions of the idiom by introducing genre elements. One of the corners of the film's relationship triangle is a serial killer, and the movie spends some of its time documenting his rampage as he works his way back to the wife he left behind when he was sent to prison. Like last year's Cold Weather, this is a film that finds mumblecore expanding its field of view.

The performances are mostly good--an essential element of this particular idiom, it must be said--though there are only three of any note. A. J. Bowen has the hardest part as our mild-mannered serial killer. There's a deliberate banality to his character that the actor doesn't quite manage. There's too much spark of decency in his interactions with his victims that he doesn't read as a serial killer. Though maybe that's the point, given the way the film ends. There's a spark of humanity in everyone, the film seems to be saying, everyone has something that they love. Amy Seimetz, for her part, does well as the recovering alcoholic heroine, though a great deal of her dialogue is too subdued to make-out, particularly in intimate scenes with Joe Swanberg's love interest. Swanberg, unfortunately, tips his hand early. He starts off with the vibe of a creep and the movie plays this out in predictable fashion.

For the most part, I liked the film, but I found some of its structural conventions--particularly the (over) use of a wandering handheld camera and the frequent rack focus editing transitions--to be more than a little off-putting. If you're down with this stuff, then you'll dig the film. If you're not, then it's going to be a slog, and there's no way to sugar coat that. Hiding behind all of this is a clever screenplay that makes interesting use of its twelve-step program situations and of its twist of the tale at the end. It's worth sitting through the more annoying elements of the movie to get to the end.

A Horrible Way to Die is another movie that films rural America in winter. That winter light is harsh. It manages to infuse my humble and usually sunny and welcoming home town with more menace than I thought it had. The interior scenes tend to be nocturnal affairs, filmed with a very shallow focus (I mentioned the rack focus transitions, right?). This has the effect of isolating characters in the frame even in group scenes (there are several scenes at AA meetings), which is further alienating. The interior scenes also use a constant motif of Christmas lights which, when filmed out of focus, add texture to what might otherwise be a threadbare film frame. The shallow focus and wandering frame also disguise the film's gore, which may frustrate some viewers. I think it shows just enough. More would overwhelm the point of the movie. This isn't a movie about the violence anyway, though it needs the violence to add punch to its ending. The ending is what makes the movie.

Current tally: 13 films

First time viewings: 13

Fellow Horror 101 contributor Lee Price has a new blog called 21 Essays, and he's running 21 pieces on The Golem this month. Lee is one of my oldest friends in the movie-o-sphere. He's an excellent writer and he always always has interesting things to say about movies. Check him out.

The always excellent Tenebrous Kate over at the Love Train to the Tenebrous Empire isn't doing the challenge, but she has a new post about Aldo Lado's interesting giallo, Who Saw Her Die?, set in a haunted Venice. She's always worth a read.

The stalwart Vicar of VHS kicks ass for the lord after viewing Dead Alive.

Tim over at The Other Side discovers the original version of The Haunting after enduring a Witch's Sabbath.

Mr. Gable discovers The Devil Within Her over at Mr. Gable's Reality. He's paying a heavy toll for allowing his readers to pick his films for him.

J. Luis over at W-Cinema checks into The Silent House only to find that it bores him.

Eric at Expelled Grey Matter thinks the go go dance numbers pad the length of The Gore Gore Girls.

Andreas over at Pussy Goes Grrr takes a look at how horror movies have fared at the Oscars and draws some interesting conclusions.


Eric Wincentsen said...

Mumblecore? Sounds like the latest offshoot of ambient drone. :)

I get the same feeling watching films made in Phoenix, especially when they put supposedly upwardly mobile couples in areas of town you would think twice about visiting after dark. Or when they forget we are not in the South.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Ez,

I sometimes forget that some of my readers aren't hard core film heads. There's no excuse for me not to include links to the esoterica in the age of hypertext, eh?

Here's what "mumblecore" means.

Anonymous said...

When locals watch my feature that was shot here in St. Louis, they usually don't see the film the first time, because they are sight-seeing. They usually see the film on the SECOND pass, and then they're sure I've changed it, re-edited it or something...

Most amazing "Strange if you live there" film - Volcano. Despite the unlikely premise, if you know LA the locations and dynamics in that film are spot on, so much so that it was a little unsettling.

Wyatt Weed

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Wyatt.

I can't imagine what it's like living in LA when it comes to recognizing the landmarks. I imagine you get used to it.

I didn't get that sense of sightseeing as much from your film as I did from this one, perhaps because I only visit St. Louis, while I actually live here. Go figure.