Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Movie Review: "There Are Monsters" by David Pretty

*** Special Atlantic Film Festival Sneak Peak Review ***

As I've said before: "independent horror...can (often) be counted on to smash expectations and venture to dark places where studio films often fear to tread. Unfortunately, you also run the risk of trudging through some pretty amateurish shlock."

For example, Karen Lam's Stained is good indie horror film. There Are Monsters, unfortunately, leans more towards the latter category.  

Here's the vastly superior short film that the feature-length version sprang from:

The story follows four film students who undertake a weekend road trip in order to procure promotional interviews for their patron college. Along the way, they begin to experience a series of increasingly odd events. Lone figures are glimpsed standing around in the background, often facing walls or staring out into space. The contents of a stoic elementary kid's lunchbox looks vaguely Lovecraftian. Kristin Langille's character has a bizarre encounter with two spaced-out, lipstick-obsessed twins in a gas station washroom.

Writer / director Jay Dahl then proceeds to plant a slew of possible explanations as why this may be happening. Does it have something to do with an off-the-rails hadron collider experiment in Switzerland? Is it a mass outbreak of Capgras Syndrome, which provokes acute paranoia and hallucinations in the afflicted? Is it some sort of Cronenberg-style body parasite? A good, old-fashioned alien invasion, mayhaps? The audience is encouraged to take their pick since the script itself is completely non-committal.   

Regardless, more disjointed oddities continue to pile up. Kristen Langille has another run-in, this time with a fraudulently friendly, Joker-faced convenience store clerk. Matt Amyotte's character gets the wits scared out of him by a girl who does her best lamprey impersonation. During their final interview at a dental office, a young patient begs to be rescued from her pod-person dad, who also displays a disconcerting talent for surreal facial contortion. Eventually this leads to betrayal, endless scenes of running and vast tracts of nausea-inducing "found footage".  

The Coast has already said that There Are Monsters will "scare the tar" out of you. The program guide for the Atlantic Film Festival gushes that it "may be the scariest movie to ever come out of the East Coast".  Both of those claims may be true; assuming that the viewer hasn't seen another horror movie since 1998. As it stands, There Are Monsters lifts liberally from The Blair Witch Project (1999), REC (2007), 28 Days Later (2002), and the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Oh, and about a hojillion other movies in which weirdos don creepy masks in order to scare the shit out of people.
After a fantastic opening grabber, an evocative title sequence, some highly-atmospheric establishing shots and a chorus of dissonant and eerie musical tones, I was firmly on board. But then things started to go downhill almost immediately, mainly due to the ill-advised decision to shoot the movie "shaky-cam" style. The Last Broadcast and Blair Witch got a pass for this back in 1998-99, merely because they were the first flicks to do so. But now, when directors employ this technique, it's often because they're trying to conceal a low budget and/or an abbreviated shooting schedule.

Then Dahl goes a step worse and pads the film with painfully protracted stretches of people running with cameras, cameras lying on their side cranking away at abstract and out of focus images or, even worse, pitch-black darkness. Now, I'm willing to forgive this to a certain extent, since the camerawork should be chaotic during moments of panic and terror, but it's notably bad here. To the point where even quiet scenes of conversation look like crap.   

This is particularly galling after you've just been told that these people are supposed to be graduate film students! You'd think that, at the very least, they'd be capable of keeping their subject matter in frame and in focus for more then two fucking seconds. Jesus Christ, I have 90's-era, VHS road trip videos that are more watchable than this!

Although there are a few effective scenes in the film, they just left me pining for their original inspirations. The camera phone flashlight gag is pretty intense, but it pales in comparison to the protracted, infrared terror at the climax of REC. The facial morphing is cool, but Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" video was more engaging, not to mention eighty-five minutes shorter. And while it's always eerie to see people wearing creepy masks, it's already been done plenty of times before in The Shining, Saw, V/H/S, The Wicker Man, Donnie Darko, Motel Hell, The Strangers, The Orphanage, You're Next, Trick r' Treat and a slew of other movies.

But what makes many of those films superior is the unbearable amount of suspense and dread they manage to generate and sustain throughout their run times. Even though the bank scene and the assault on Matt Amyotte's car is genuinely squirm-inducing, any terror manufactured during these moments is often quashed by a poorly-gauged one-liner. Up until recently, Dahl's been known mainly for comedy so maybe it's a case of "old habits die hard". Unfortunately, in a horror movie, cheap laughs can be tonal suicide, letting the audience off the (meat) hook prematurely. 

I actually love movies that don't spell out every little detail and actually leave things open for audience interpretation. Unfortunately, There Are Monsters goes to hell with the joke, serving up massive plot holes big enough for Optimus Prime to drive through. Is this some sort of plague? An invasion? A metaphysical, scientific or cosmic fuck up? Is the condition passed on by the polyps glimpsed in the kid's lunch box or barfed up by the bank clerk? Or do they assimilate people via good, old-fashioned consumption like we see later on?

What little narrative we get scarcely makes sense. If the creatures are strong enough to rip a car door off of its hinges, then how do the characters manage to survive multiple encounters with them? Ah, yes, that part is pitch dark and we can't see anything.

Wait, kids, there's more! Do the creatures wear masks just because they know that us humans find them scary? Why do some of the creatures have control over their facial features and other don't? If their end game is to take over the world, they why do they keep going through the motions long after everyone  has been assimilated?  And why the fuck does the paranoid water bottle girl risk getting on a public bus after she's already been established as someone who's clearly in the know? Just to tack on an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style ending, I suppose.

Look, there's nothing wrong with coming up with a few scary set pieces and then building a story around it, but Dahl seems to have skipped the whole "story" part of that equation. If a script is so vague and nebulous that it provides absolutely no information, no context and no closure, then the audience is going to tune out. Lord knows I did; this is the first movie I've seen in a long time which had me checking the time and pondering an early departure.    

Bless the actors, they did what they could with this wafer-thin material. I'm seriously hoping that most of the dialogue was improvised on set, since most of the lines boil down to shouting "Man, that was fuckin' weird!" over and over again. Matt Amyotte is great as the film's resident acerbic asshole / scaredy cat and his terror during the car attack sequence is genuine and contagious. Evoking scruffy shades of Cillian Murphy in 28 Days Later, Jason Daley is also gloriously frenetic, quirky and weaselly.

Guy Germaine and Kristin Langille also do terror very, very well, even if I had a hard time buying them as collegiate-aged friends with a history. I actually had to stifle a bit of a snicker during the scene in which when their matching, homemade, fabric-marker childhood soccer club t-shirts were revealed. This was followed by a moment of cold sweats as the actors tried their best sell this hackneyed concept and the accompanying "theme song". Things get even more wince-inducing when you realize that this clunky plot device exists merely to pay off the film's obligatory nihilistic ending.

Stephen King once posited that horror is the genre of choice for many first time feature directors because its "an easy lay". If that's the case then the found footage / shaky cam sub genre is an even cheaper date. I'm guessing that Dahl employed this approach, not because it was the best way to tell a story, but because the film could be shot and then cobbled together a bit easier that way. Plus, you really can't beat a style that comes with the built-in rebuttal of "Welp, that's just the nature of the beast" whenever someone says that your movie is a chore to watch.

I'm not saying that there wasn't a genuine, concerted effort to bring this movie to completion. I'm just saying that if you're gonna sink five years into making a horror movie, why not use what little time and money you have to come up with something that's genuinely innovative and original? Andrei Tarkovsky produced the sci-fi classic Stalker under similar conditions and, more recently, Bruce MacDonald delivered in spades with Pontypool.    

In stark contrast to those films, There Are Monsters is nothing but the cinematic equivalent of the duplicated creatures in the film: a difficult-to-watch, photocopied pastiche of elements cribbed from vastly superior sources.

  Tilt: down.

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