Friday, January 25, 2013

V/H/S & the brilliance of the small idea

What’s missing in most horror films isn’t the big idea but the small one.  Films with big ideas are great‑Night of the Living Dead (1969), The Blob, Cabin In the Woods‑but they are necessarily rare.  Films with small ideas are rare as well, but there is much less excuse for this.  Horror writers and directors should search for the little ideas that make a character and story genuinely captivating and nurture them with just the right degree of attention. 
V/H/S is a fine little piece of found footage film making that is pretty much a workshop for what I am talking about.  It accepts the usual flaws of the genre: annoying motion, implausible assumptions about people who keep filming while they are running for their lives, etc.  On the other hand, it makes a virtue out of the low budget project.  All the visual effects fit within the realm of the video recorder, which gives them a visceral kick that is almost always lost with CG. 
The film is an anthology of short horror stories.  The context piece involves a gaggle of hoodlums who apparently make a living by harassing people and selling the footage they record as they do so.  They are hired to break in to a house and steal a VHS tape.  One of them watches the tape, on which the other stories appear.  It’s a nice setup.  I got the idea (perhaps it was a product of my own imagination) that anyone who views the tape will end up on the next version of it.  
What makes the film unusually good is that each of the set pieces (with one exception) plays off an exquisite small idea.  In the first story, a bunch of rowdy guys set out to party on the town and hope to end up making a porn film.  Two of them are typical jocks and one is the essential nerd.  At a bar the nerd picks up a very unusual girl who has astonishingly big eyes but who can’t say anything but “I like you”.  She seems to become attached to them, showing up in each subsequent scene though we never see how she comes to be there.  That’s the small idea: the girl who seems to stick around even though she is barely noticed.  The filming here becomes a metaphor for our inattention to detail.  We get glimpses of her body that indicate something very sinister but only fleeting glimpses.   No one pays enough attention until it is way too late. 

Another story is a version of a very familiar one: boys and girls go into the woods and are stalked by a killer.  The small idea here is that the killer flickers in and out of reality, much like the images on the video.  The film makers used the device of video distortion to convey the supernatural power of the killer who can never be caught.  At one point the woman with the camera cries out in frustration: “Why can’t I film you?”  I share the frustration.  I couldn’t get a coherent screen capture of the killer.  He is visible in no single image even if he can be seen more or less as the film rolls. 
In another story, a young woman communicates with her boyfriend by means of a split screen program (Skype?).  We see his face in the lower corner of the screen as she tells him about the poltergeists in her apartment.  What looks like a very common story becomes uncommon by the small idea.  She thinks that something is inside her arm and she starts digging.  This is the most inventive and least predictable of the stories. 
I wouldn’t count this among great films, but it is surely a breath of fresh, if rather bloody, air.  Each story plays with a delicious small idea and tells you just enough and no more.  I really enjoyed this film and I suggest that you will as well. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


I listen to a lot of podcasts.  I would say that, next to the Internet itself, the podcast has the greatest effect of all the new media on my everyday life.  Sorry, smart phone.  The podcast has revived the traditional radio in a very big way and given it riches that the radio pioneers could scarcely have dreamed of.  I listen to podcasts on food, jazz, comedy, politics, and, dare I mention it, horror. 
My second favorite horror podcast shut down recently.  That was Rue Morgue Radio.  I used to listen to it every Saturday morning as I cleaned the kitchen.  Rue Morgue still produces a podcast, but it is a sad reflection of the former beast. 
Fortunately, my favorite horror podcast is still going strong.  Pseudopod is a weekly horror podcast that presents stories read aloud.  I don’t know how these guys do it, but they manage to find exquisite stories week after week along with fine narrators to deliver them.  No other horror venue has ever been so relentlessly, toe-curling good. 
Alasdair Stuart is the Rod Serling of this Twilight Zone.  After each story he offers some reflections.  I can’t say that any of his comments have ever failed to disappoint.  One thing that any good genre ought to do is dig a little deeper into the vein of life, and Stuart does that after every chilling tale. 
If you are new to the podcast, you can begin with the recent lot of offerings and then delve into their archives going back to 2006.  So many of them have been delicious that I scarcely know what to recommend.  I would suggest ‘Lizard foot’ which I happened to enjoy as I was driving over a swampy lake in Northern Missouri. 
I think, however, that the best things they have offered are the Coyote Tales by Jim Bihyeh (Pseudopod 159, 167, and 182).  Bihyeh is a White guy who grew up on a Navaho reservation.  His interpretation of the traditional coyote stories are works of sheer genius.  Listen to them in order.  Trust me on this one: these stories will rework your soul.  For the better, I hope. 
I cannot recommend Pseudopod highly enough.  It is as close to perfection as any production could come. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Let Me In is Superb!

While zombies have staggered over more than their share of cinematic surrealestate for decades, Vampires have been steadily extending their domain both on TV and in film. I haven't seen True Blood, though I have heard it's pretty good. Nor have I seen either of the Twilight films, though I heard they were uneven. From casual glances, both look like 90210 with fangs. I did watch the British series Being Human, which is about a London flat shared by a vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost. If they walked into a bar it would be some kind of joke. The series was brilliant. Suffice it to say that the vampire genre has been a toothsome vehicle for studies of adolescent and young adult lives in these times.

Let the Right One In was, in fact, the most powerful and creative vampire movie I have seen in years.  Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a twelve year old boy who is suffering at the hands of merciless bullies at school. He lives with his mother in an apartment building. His father is an alcoholic. He has a morbid interest in violent crimes, and keeps a scrapbook of articles about murders.  He keeps a knife, and stabs a tree at night as if it were his foes.
One night he meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), a girl his own age (give or take a few centuries) who turns out to stay next door. He is immediately drawn to her, and gradually comes to realize what she is. He doesn't much mind.
Eli lives with an older man, who turns out not to be her father or grandfather. A lot of the story focuses on that relationship, but I won't go into it for it gives away the primary secret of the film.
Let the Right One In is crawling with delightful innovations. The most prominent is the shift from more or less adult sexuality to adolescent awakening. The contrast between Oskar's growing fascination with Eli and the frustrated, even stunted emotional lives of the adults in the picture is vivid and compelling. As in most modern horror, it is the cracks in traditional family life that allow a point of entry for a greater darkness.
Without giving much away, there is a clever innovation in the standard infection vector in the vampire mythos. In the original model, anyone killed by a vampire becomes a vampire. The problem is that the vampire population would expand exponentially, eventually running out of victims. Anna Rice, in Interview with a Vampire, introduced the siring model. Some killed by a vampire just dies. To become a vampire, you have to be "sired" by drinking the blood of a vampire while still alive. That has become the dominant trick in contemporary vampire fiction, for reasons of nonproliferation and because it establishes interesting relationships among the dentally endowed. My favorite genre achievement, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, largely used that model.
In LTROI, the vector switches to the traditional werewolf version. You become a vampire only if you are bitten by a vampire and survive. The movie doesn't do much with that, but I would be surprised if it doesn't show up again in new movies.
The real brilliance of Let the Right One In is reflected in snow. Kåre Hedebrant is so white he is almost invisible against it. The snowy background creates a world of light and shadow and nothing else, until the snow is stained by red. Snow muffles footsteps, and the pacing and dialogue are made up of silence as much as anything else. The effect is unforgettable.
Let the Right One In is available on Netflix for instant viewing. If you like the horror genre (why else would you still be reading?) you will like this one.
Ps. The American version, Let Me In, is a slavish copy of the original.  While I find the domestic setting much less compelling than the original, that is in part a function of familiarity. 
I should also note that John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, on which the movies are based, is a splendid piece of horror writing.  If you are looking for a book to sink your teeth into, this would be it.