Monday, 2 November 2009

Fright Night: The Enfrightening

Time for an after-action report on SpaceSquid's Sixth and Final Halloweenapalooza. I discussed my thoughts on The Mist in some detail last December, so I won't go over them again (suffice to once again suggest people go see it with all possible speed). Also watched, however, were Drag Me To Hell and Hellraiser. Thoughts on these films are below, along with spoilers for both films (though if you haven't seen Hellraiser by now, you can't really mind all that much).

If all the world's supercomputers were linked together, programmed to analyse each nanosecond of Evil Dead II and Army Of Darkness, and then tasked with extrapolating what a (comparatively) big budget Sam Raimi horror film would look like, Drag Me To Hell is exactly what they would churn out, right before they ascended to artificial sentience and sicced the robo-monkeys on us. It's really not much more than an excuse to slap together as many ludicrous comedy horror skits as humanly possible (including a haunted hanky; a talking killer goat; and an attempt to suck someone to death, and not in the way you think), but then that's exactly what Raimi is good at. The plot is flimsy, the characters non-existent, and the ending disappointingly predictable, especially from a man who gave us "Ash is suddenly in the past!" and "Ash wakes up in a post-apocalypse landscape!", but dammit, Raimi gives us what we want. Well, what I wanted, anyway; C complained that it wasn't a funny film, rather a dull film which happens to contain an awful lot of funny moments. It's difficult to argue with that assessment, but whether or not you care is up to you.

Hellraiser is very much at the opposite end of the scale. There's no chance you could get the supercomputers to spit this one out (and I wouldn't suggest trying, the robotic apocalypse is liable to be bleak enough without the T-101's developing a taste for chains and meat hooks). It might be fun to mock the film as Clive Barker's Clive Barker's Hellraiser by Clive Barker, but in truth it's genuinely impressive to see one man's cheese-dream lunacy given form without smoothing out any of the rough edges. The Cenobites make for fascinating antagonists, all nauseating visuals and otherworldly mystery, and the level of detail involved makes it all the more impressive that they aren't even the main villains. Instead, as in so many of the best horror films, the true evil is all our own doing. The horror film as morality tale idea so... simplistically expressed by Friday the 13th and its ilk raises its head here, but whereas Jason punishes those that have found illicit pleasure, Hellraiser warns against what happens to those who seek it to the exclusion of all else. The Cenobites are the very incarnation of the danger of getting what you wish for. So too is the final fate of Julia; whose all-consuming desire to get more of the best sex ever (first experienced on her wedding dress, with her fiance's brother, the week before tying the knot; classy!) leads her to murder first strangers, then her loving (if somewhat dull) husband, only for the bad boy she fell for to stab her to death. As a theme, it's not the most complex or layered, but it does its job, and does it pretty well.

That's it for this year, then (unless watching Return to House on Haunted Hill and/or Zombie Strippers somehow inspires a post, which seems... unlikely), but I hope everyone will join me for SpaceSquid's Seventh and Final Halloweenapalooza, which may or may not involve me trying to scare myself with finger puppets inside the cardboard box which is now my home.


BigHead said...

BigHead's brief thoughts (by BigHead). Some spoliers on Drag Me To Hell.

The Mist is all-round good. I particularly liked that, unlike many films, I felt all the stages of the film were the right lengths. Often films spend too long on the setup and then rush the conclusion. This one is fine. The hero chooses a pointwise dominated decision in the final decision problem, but after all the stress he went through I will forgive him some temporary irrationality.

Hellraiser is OK. I appreciate the crazy imagination and the overall creepy menace is well done. I felt is was missing a bit more towards the end though. I don't mind some loose ends but I would quite like to know what the hell I just watched. Perhaps I missed some key exposition while experimenting to find out how many "Clive Barker's"s you can add to a sentence before people stop laughing.

I thought Drag Me To Hell was pretty bad. Initially I thought this was bacause basically I didn't think the heroine deserved it. That's not the full story, but it's an important part. It isn't a bad film if the protagonist loses and doesn't deserve to. But there are some things that combine to make it so.

First, I got the impression that the powers that be had decided that she deserved it. I generally resent such things when they're obvious, particularly when they don't strike me as having any basis in logic. The girl does some innocuous things, and apparently this is sufficient that I don't mind watching her suffer for the rest of the movie.

Now, you can immediately respond to that by pointing out that lots of stories feature people who basically get kicked around all through the story and don't deserve it. It's practically what being a hero entails. I think the point is that in most such stories, you get the impression that the odds are against the hero but they still have a chance. They don't necessarily have to win (if the hero wins every single time then there's no tension). But what we have in this film is certainty that she's going to lose.

So, you know you're watching some girl who didn't really do anything getting beaten around by a super powerful demon, and you know the inevitable outcome. The super powerful demon who holds all the aces is going to win. It's not very exciting, is it?

Even that wouldn't have been hugely bad if she'd been asking for it. Seeing someone unpleasant getting a slapstick battering from a demonic goat would have been at least a laugh. But the heroine was actually one of the nicest characters in the film.

A bit of a shame because there were actually some themes that would have worked rather well if they'd been in a serious film that had an uncertain conclusion. But I guess they will have been done before in better films, so it's not a big loss.

Alternatively, they whole thing could have been properly played for laughs. The talking goat was kinda worth it.

SpaceSquid said...

"Perhaps I missed some key exposition while experimenting to find out how many "Clive Barker's"s you can add to a sentence before people stop laughing."

I believe we can conclude that there is no upper bound.

"Even that wouldn't have been hugely bad if she'd been asking for it. Seeing someone unpleasant getting a slapstick battering from a demonic goat would have been at least a laugh. But the heroine was actually one of the nicest characters in the film."

I wouldn't argue that she was one of the nicer characters, but she was still fairly unpleasant. She turned down an old, half-blind woman desperate to keep her home purely because she wanted a promotion. She goes to see the old woman's daughter and immediately lies to her face. The very moment she hears that killing an animal might save her she goes for her own cat. She could have gotten hold of something else, and instead she murdered her own pet out of convenience. She comes within a hair's breadth of cursing someone else to save herself. Yeah, he isn't a particularly nice guy either (though one can argue whether stealing a file to guarantee promotion is better than throwing an elderly woman out of her home), and she decides against it in the end, but it's still hardly a ringing endorsement of her character.

All in all, I think she was kinda unpleasant.

Having said all that, she certainly didn't deserve the curse, but the "bad things happen to good people" idea is so ubiquitous in horror (as is "obvious final moment nasty twist") that I may simply have developed an immunity to it.

Bonus marks for applying decision theory to The Mist, by the way.

BigHead said...

The Mist is incredibly interesting for a decision theorist. Most of the work I do is about situations where you can't identify the best course of action but you can eliminate some bad ones. The problems facing our heroes in the Mist are similar.

Re: Drag Me To Hell, she did some unpleasant things throughout the movie, but mostly after she learned about her curse. I thought this was a potentially interesting theme. You have someone who is cursed to die for something innocuous, and the question is, how far will they go to stop that from happening, and indeed how far can they go before they start being wrong? Would have liked to have seen this investigated more.

SpaceSquid said...

I agree that such a theme would be very interesting, but Sam Raimi is unlikely to be the person you'd want to give it a go.