Thursday, March 13, 2008

Movie Reviews: They

It's been an on-going obsession of mine to hunt down a really good Western horror movie. You'd think it'd be a pretty easy task considering the large quantity of films Hollywood churn out per year. However when you take away films that are true-gore masquerading under the horror genre (Saw, Audition, every Eli Roth movie), the Asian remakes (The Grudge, The Eye, The Ring), the old '80s film remakes (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, every George Romero remake), the video game remakes (Resident Evil, Doom, House of the Dead) and films by Uwe Boll, the pie chart gets a lot smaller. And let's not even consider the abomination to the genre that are the films which pitch two classic horror icons against each other.

Horror, as it is, is such a loosely defined term. What makes one person scream in terror, is another's idea of comedy (re: Uwe Boll). To me, good horror is atmospheric. It gets under your skin and makes you doubt what you think you know. Those irrational fears as a child that you've long forgotten comes back to the surface and you wonder, just maybe, there might be something to it there. It could be something simple as darkness, aliens or zombies. Urban legends is a good one, but Urban Legend 2: The Final Cut (2000) wasted away the opportunity. A good horror movie subverts all the modern cliches that have become attached to the notion of horror. Yeah, we know the amped up music indicates the looming death of a peripheral character, but how will it be different from all the others is what will set a good and bad horror movie apart.

Which brings me to They. Plot wise, it's been done to death; what haunted a bunch of children when they were younger, has returned to claim them later. As per your standard text book horror film, the cast is attractive and the dialogue leaves nothing to the imagination. What makes this stand out, apart from the fact that I had watched it following Pulse and frankly, anything after that cinematic piss-pile of IQ-diminishing junk would be Oscar worthy, is the fantastic tension that runs throughout the film. I mentioned atmosphere being the most important component in a horror film, and They delivers unequivocally on that front.

Having witnessed her best friend, Billy, shoot himself in his brain after mumbling erratically about night terrors and things that go bump in the night, Julia (Laura Regan) begins to find that the night terrors she suffered as a child has returned. The running theme of reality versus paranoid delusions is executed quite perfectly to a T. The decision to write Julia as a student psychologist makes her hyper-awareness an interesting aspect little seen in other horror movies I've seen. In one scene where she speaks to her psychologist, having her self-examine her own case lays out quite explicitly what we've all thought about in times when we thought we saw something at the corner of our eyes.

Just before he offs himself, Billy tells Julia to run when the lights go out, darkness being their main source of existing. Actually that's another brilliant point from the film. 'They' are never quite shown. Basic understanding of psychology tells us that humans are afraid of what they don't know, things they can't see. Cloverfield, for the most part, was a pretty interesting film, right until the actual monster was shown in all his fidgety-camera glory. For the film to never explicitly reveal the true faces of the 'they' heightens the tension; best encapsulated in the climax where Julia is fending them off in a subway tunnel. To get back to the original point though, throughout the film, TV news report warn off rolling storms that affect the electrical output in the city. So when lights start flickering, like Julia, you're never quite sure if it's because of the storms or them exactly.

I read on IMDb that many found the ending pretty weak. They were unhappy with such a depressing conclusion and thought it cheapened the meaning of the film. On my Region 4 DVD, I found both the film ending and the alternative ending very satisfactory, one celebrated the visceral desolation that of reality while the other completed the theory of paranoid delusion vs reality that was hypothesized. Either way, the movie is certainly one of the better Western horror movie I've seen in ages.

And just because this post isn't long enough, let me throw in what I think are some worthy horror moments in modern film:

1. The opening sequence of Boogeyman. Watching it, I was so sure it'd be a pretty damn awesome flick. But 'tis not to be. The rest of the film rates up there with Pulse in the race for "Worst Horror Movie Ever, No Hyperbole, Seriously!"
2. Nightmare On Elm Street, Part 1.
3. The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock.
4. The opening sequence of 28 Weeks Later. The film isn't bad by any count, just lackluster to Danny Boyle's original.
5. Ju-On. Although this might have been indefinitely scarier because I watched it in the most run down movie theatre ever. We're talking the kind of place people go to die at in horror movies.
6. "They're hereeee."
7. The Exorcist, but not where it should matter. Personally I only shudder when Linda Blair goes for her very thorough medical examination. What can I say? I have issues regarding sticking foreign objects in bodies.

Last but not least, I'd just like to add that if anything should be learned from They is that horror movies don't need gore, sex and slash to make it good. Eli Roth, do take note!

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