Monday, October 01, 2012

Splendor in the Grass

The Reeds (2010, directed by Nick Cohen) uses two of the more metaphysical tropes associated with ghost stories to great effect. First, there's the idea that ghosts and those who are haunted by them are trapped re-enacting some horrible trauma and, second, that ghosts are often reflections of ourselves. Used in combination, these lend the film a kind of nightmare logic that feeds off some of the more disorienting narrative structures in film. The Reeds is essentially circular, though its circles of story are concentric within one another. It also embraces the conventions of the horror genre as pulp while using the familiar formal tricks of the genre. It's kind of a perfect post modern horror movie, though whether that makes it a good movie or not is another matter entirely.

The story here is another iteration of the "group of callow young people heads into the wild" story that should be familiar to most film-goers these days. The group in question here are six Brits who head into the fens of Essex for a holiday, renting a boat and navigating the channels between the reeds. Our characters are level-headed Laura, her friend Nick, fiancees Joe and Helen (Joe is kind of a boor), Mel, and Chris. Only Joe and Helen seem to be a couple even though the split is three male/female couples. The film introduces our characters to the uncanny early in the film, as Laura almost hits a mysterious red-headed girl who runs across the road in front of her car. The red-headed girl, reappears throughout the movie, giving dire hints to the nature of the film's story whenever she does. Once they're out on the fens, our heroes take a wrong turn and are subsequently lost as night falls. The film's antagonists appear at first to be a group of hostile teens, who glare at our heroes and later appear to torment them. The environment itself does them no good, either, as the boat winds up impaled on an underwater hazard that turns out to be a submerged gibbet, complete with a human corpse. Meanwhile, each of our protagonists begins to see dire visions in the darkness, often of themselves. Then they begin to die off in grisly ways. Joe is impaled on the spiked top of the submerged gibbet. Mel is blown up when a fire started by a stray flare ignites a kerosene can. Helen is badly burned by flames that sweep across the water while she's caught treading water, then has a fatal encounter with Joe who mistakes her burned body as some kind of monster. For his part, Joe has been accidentally hit with a machete to the collar. Joe and Mel end up in the water at the end. This leaves Nick, who falls in with one of the locals who promises a way out, and Laura, who has a fateful encounter with the ghosts. This turn of events is coded at the start of the movie, by the way, when we're introduced to Nick and Laura driving one car, and everyone else riding in another. This follows the pattern of selecting a final girl and sticks to its guns. The ghosts, for their part replay the horror of their earthly demise in a way that sucks all of our young heroes into their vicious cycle. But why these people? What connection do they have to the ghosts? Or is this just a random horror perpetrated on unlucky travelers? That's at the core of the movie's climax.

If anything, The Reeds is a kind of catalog of horror tropes, some of them not frequently used, some over-familiar. It hints at Lovecraftian ideas of wrong and unreliable geographies, touches on the rural massacre movie and the Sawney Bean myth (complete with unhelpful locals who attempt to thwart our heroes), appropriates the evil kiddies of Children of the Corn and puts them in a similar terrain, and even utilizes the submerged POV shots of films like Jaws and Piranha to ratchet up the dread. In terms of what it looks like, this is very much of a piece with the current school of new British horror films, which are characterized by a certain signature grim griminess and a predilection for filming at the so-called magic hour. It's formal techniques are also common horror currency, from the dark figure briefly running across the foreground with a music sting to a reliance on eyes that have been turned shiny black to indicate possession or a ghostly nature. I say all of this to indicate that The Reeds is very much a film that comes to the audience at second hand. But this is genre, after all, and the value of a genre piece comes not from the originality of its ideas--truly original horror movies are extremely rare--but from the way they are combined.

This film's circular narrative is effective. The tropes may be familiar, but the concept is scary. Given that the film is a kind of closed moebius strip, the film's nightmare logic is such that there is no waking from it for its characters. I like that. This is a film about haunted people and it doesn't let them off the hook. I'm less sanguine about the conflation of the slasher film with the ghost film, which seems too conveniently plotted for my tastes. But where the film really fails is in its characterizations. Granted, horror movie characters are often not much more than chum for the sharks, but even by that standard, this movie is slapdash about its characters. The two non-final girl characters are so interchangeable that I lost track of which one was which. The only one of the chum characters to make an impression with an actual personality is kind of odious, marking him with a big target on his chest at which the film dutifully takes aim. But even our two final heroes are colorless beyond a certain level of base competence to get the audience on their side. This is the film's fatal flaw. It manages to ratchet up the dread well enough, but it's hard to care.

Current tally: 1 film

First time viewings: 1

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