Saturday, November 03, 2012

Writer's Block

David Koepp's Secret Window (2004) is another avatar of the vogue for identity horror that was so popular around the turn of the millennium. As such movies go, it's not bad. It mostly acts as a showcase for star Johnny Depp, who dials back the quirks of his usual roles for a more nuanced character than we're used to seeing from him. It's a middlebrow horror movie that's light on the violence and long on psychological suspense. For all that, it's not bad.

Writer Mort Rainy is going through a bad divorce with his wife. He finds her at a hotel in the arms of another man, sending him into a spiral of depression and writers block. Six months later, writing at his vacation cabin (leaving his wife to their house until the divorce is finalized), he's been stuck. He spends more time avoiding writing than not. Soon, he has a new problem in his life, in the form of one John Shooter, a Mississipi farmer who shows up on his doorstep to accuse him of stealing his story. This puts a finger on Mort's neuroses, given that he was guilty of plagiarism at some point in the past, but not this time. Shooter gives him a manuscript that is nearly word for word the same as his own published story. Mort has proof of his authorship, though, in the form the original magazine where it was published, a magazine that was published two years before Shooter claims to have written the story. Shooter gives him three days to come up with the magazine, or else. The "or else" escalates from mere intimidation to the murder of Mort's dog, the burning of his house, and other, darker crimes. Some of the things that Shooter does seem familiar to Mort, and soon, he has to confront a terrible truth about himself....

One of the opening shots of Secret Window finds the camera moving through Mort Rainey's cabin, spotting Rainy sleeping on the couch reflected in the mirror, and then moving through the looking glass. I admire opening shots that summarize the movies that follow them, and this one is better than most. It tells you everything that is going to happen with significant props (that, of course, are meaningless in the beginning) while summarizing the theme of the movie. It's elegant. This is a film about secret sharers, of course. It's about guilt and expiation, it's about who its protagonist is when he looks in the mirror. I like to think that it's a clever revision of writer Stephen King's earlier novel, The Dark Half, another story about a writer with a secret sharer and about the id that is exposed during the act of writing (particularly when writing about horror and violence). That this movie co-stars Timothy Hutton as Amy Rainey's lover is surely an accident, but it's suggestive of a direct relationship with The Dark Half, given that Hutton was the lead in the movie version of that book. Movies are sometimes composed of happy accidents. Fortunately, this is a better story with a darker ending.

This is a film that turns on a single, largely transparent plot turn. It's a gimmick, really, but it manages to work in spite of its gimmick because of Johnny Depp. Mort Rainey is a stock character (particularly in movies based on Stephen King stories) that comes to life in this movie because Depp brings unconventional acting choices to the role. This isn't a "quirky" character of the sort Depp is used to; rather, Rainey is an individual rather than a type. This is hard to do in movies, but it's something at which Depp excels. The intonation of some of Rainey's bitterest lines ("this is not my beautiful house. this is not my beautiful wife.") and the falling of the mask at the end to reveal a the chaos behind Rainey's eyes would elude a more conventional actor, but Depp sells it. He's aided in this by John Turturro, who is an odd choice to play Shooter. Turturro (who also has a history of playing cracked writers) nails the genteel southern menace Shooter embodies. The rest of the cast is good, too, but this is really a two character drama, and the fun of the movie is watching them play cat and mouse.

I like the ending of this film, and even though it's a "twist" ending of the sort beloved of contemporary identity horror, the movie plays fair with the audience. The reason I like the ending is that it leaves the lid off of Pandora's Box without gathering up the horrors and putting them back inside. This is not a film where good wins out and where the family unit is put back together again or where there is some kind of forced redemption in the end. When Mort Rainey "revises" his story at the the behest of Shooter (like all secret sharers, Shooter is an avatar of the hero's own id, it should be noted), the film is subverting all such things. Even though this film is, at its heart, a middlebrow horror movie for meat and potatoes filmgoers, it's not film that panders or comforts its target audience. It's an example of a popular film that realizes that an ending need not be "happy" in order to be satisfying.

Current tally: 29 films.
22 first time viewings.

From Around the Web

I've been lax when it comes to keeping up with Bob over at Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind, but he's been a dedicated correspondent when it comes to Toronto After Dark. His latest post takes on Game of Werewolves, which was one of the highlights of your humble bloginatrix's month, too. And while you're there, check out some of his other posts from the last four weeks.

Eric over at Expelled Grey Matter finishes his month with a look at John Carpenter's The Ward.

Tim over at The Other Side is less fortunate in his choice of a final film for the challenge, enduring Bloodrayne: The Third Reich in the name of blogging.

Dr. AC at Horror 101 caps his challenge at an appropriate 101 films. Aaron raised an astonishing $1213 for his charity. Check out his breakdown of how he did it.

DeAnna over at All Things Perfect and Poisonous has a triple feature at the end of her challenge, including The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, The Deadly Spawn, and The People Who Own the Dark.

The Rev. Anna Dynamite gives some love to Tom Atkins and Night of the Creeps over at Dreams in the Bitch House, and throws in an ode to Gremlins for good measure. I'll be appearing on the Dreams podcast with the good reverend in a couple of days, so check back when it goes live.

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