Thursday, February 28, 2013

Stay Up Late: V/H/S, The ABCs of Death, John Dies at the End

Chase Williamson, as Dave, in John Dies at the End

One of my favorite movie books is J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies, which was first published in 1983 when the midnight movie as countercultural phenomenon was about to go the way of all flesh, displaced by the convenience and insular charms of home video. Hoberman captured the special appeal of midnight movies when he wrote of “epic, environmental films – really crazy ones,” that “instead of dreaming, you could spend the night with these visions.” One of the earliest and most prolific creators of midnight hits was George Romero, whose Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968 and played the international midnight circuit for years, and who followed it up with both the sequel Dawn of the Dead and his riff on vampire mythology, Martin. And the midnight horror movie reached an apotheosis in 1985 with Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, which, like Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, was probably ultimately seen by far more people who caught it on video than in a theater. Not all the major midnight hits were horror movies, but most of them – Eraserhead, El Topo – were nightmares of some kind, and even the congenial, geek-show vaudeville of early John Waters and the communal-utopian The Rocky Horror Picture Show, drew much of their appeal from their fans’ sense that they were identifying with people who could have starred in their parents’ nightmares.

Even without an actual, theater-going subculture for the movies themselves to tap into, there remains a special, hip allure to a horror or fantasy picture that can generate a plausible “midnight” vibe – that seems as if it would be a natural to tap into that audience, if it still existed. The Toronto International Film Festival, which has managed for years now to cling tight to a reputation as the premiere film festival for that select group that actually attends film festivals to see movies, still programs its “Midnight Madness” lineup every year, and now that several of last year’s entries have trickled into theaters (and onto Video On Demand), civilians and people who couldn’t schedule their vacations for September can get a taste of what passes for hip horror these days. The ABCs Of Murder and John Dies at the End, and another recent horror picture, V/H/S, may provide some hints about the current state of the midnight movie gene and how today’s indie-genre filmmakers are trying to tap into it.

Both V/H/S and ABCs are multiple-director anthology films – a type of movie that has had a bad rap since, oh, at least since Fantasia, and not without reason. Anthology horror movies are especially problematic; other kinds of anthology films have to reach a climax and then restart, but they may at least offer the promise of some variety, where movies like these have to scare the living bejesus out of you, stop, restart, then do it again. Of the half-dozen stories in V/H/S, the most strikingly effective is the first (not counting the framing story), a young-male-anxiety nightmare about picking up a scary chick, which was directed by David Bruckner. By a funny coincidence, Brucker’s only previous feature work was directing the opening third of the multiple-director horror movie The Signal, which was far and away the best part of that movie. I don’t know if he has an unusual career niche, or if this just says something about how hard it is now for a talented young filmmaker to get the chance to make a whole movie.

The framing story involves a gang of louts who shoot footage of themselves committing various heinous acts, and who have been contracted to break into a house and steal a VHS tape. Naturally, their search for the tape involves a lot of hit-or-miss loading of tapes into the VCR, which is how we get to see the other segments of the movie, all of which are shot in faux-found-footage style. Most of the fun has beaten out of the found-footage-horror genre in the fourteen years since The Blair Witch Project, a movie that, thanks to its clever use of the Internet and cable TV as part of its marketing push, felt like a new, up-to-the-minute kind of multimedia prank in 1999. It says something about how much water has passed under that bridge by now that V/H/S, with its meticulously created look of crappy homemade video, tries for a slightly old-school retro charm at the same time that’s it’s trying to catch a ride on the tail wind of the Paranormal Activity movies and Chronicle and the original The Last Exorcism.

Surprisingly, the most interesting segment here besides Bruckner’s comes from Joe Swanberg, a specialist in sleepy-time “mumblecore” movies like Hannah Takes the Stairs. It’s a paranoid fantasy about a woman who finds something funny implanted in her arm. It’s too talky by half, but the outlines of something intriguing poke through, and in this kind of movie, an arresting outline feels as if it counts for something. Ti West turns in a video recording the mysterious stalking of a couple on their honeymoon. West is a hot item among aficionados of indie horror, but I don’t quite get the excitement some people have expressed over his films, such as House of the Devil and The Innkeepers. Their charm is supposedly based on how masterfully he recreates the look and feel (and hairdos) of slightly boring, jerry-rigged and padded-out scare movies from the early ‘80s, and if that’s really his aim, he pulls it off, but why would anyone want to recreate, without irony or any larger contextual meaning, movies that had people coughing at looking at their watches the first time around? I sure don’t understand why anyone who wound up sitting through one of them would feel as if the director had done them a favor. V/H/S finally stumbles to a close with an embarrassing version of the old “Hey, I think those guys pretending to be devil worshippers about to sacrifice a girl on Halloween may be the real thing!” gag, wrapping up with the all-purpose ending that Michael O’Donoghue once shared with readers of the National Lampoon: “Suddenly, they were run over by a truck.”

If V/H/S has one foot in the distant pop-culture past and one in the day after yesterday, The ABCs of Death is very much a stunt of the moment. It consists of 26 shorts, each from a different creative team (from a pool of talent drawn from 15 different countries), each centered around a violent death tied to a letter of the alphabet: “D Is for Dogfight,” “F Is for Fart,” “H Is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion.” There’s name talent on display, including Ti West (“M Is for Miscarriage”); Jake West (no relation), the director of the cult obscurities Razor Blade Smile and Evil Aliens; Ben Wheatley, the director of last year’s head trip Kill List; Xavie Gens, of the French film Frontier(s); and Nacho Vigolondo (Timecrimes), who gets things off to a fast start with “A Is for Apocalypse.” But the film grows tedious before it hits the halfway mark, and not just because a fair percentage of the entries are duds. (The assemblers should have figured out they were in trouble when they found themselves accepting not one, but two films in which the directors appear onscreen and “comically” wring their hands over trying to decide what they’re going to do.) It’s easy to let yourself wile away a couple of hours clicking from one video clip to another on YouTube: it’s like eating potato chips, and can be just as numbing. And you don’t expect a sustained aesthetic experience from that kind of activity, or even a consistently enthralling one; you just get into the rhythm of doing it, and hope you’ll get lucky a couple of times. What makes The ABCs of Death so contemporary is that the filmmakers have bypassed the process of making a movie, assembled their own YouTube channel, and released it to theaters.

Don Coscarelli’s John Dies at the End is at least a real movie, sort of. Coscarelli is one of those filmmakers I’ve always liked the idea of. He’s probably best-known for the low-budget horror movie Phantasm, which he made, for $300,000 (in 1979 bucks), when he was 25; since then, he’s signed his name to the ‘80s basic cable perennial The Beastmaster and the 2002 Bubba Ho-Tep, in which the secretly still-living Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) faces off against a murderous reanimated mummy preying on the inhabitants of a Texas nursing home. The story of John Dies at the Endwhich is based on a novel (first published on the Internet) by the pseudonymous David Wongmakes even that plot synopsis seem like a slow night on Playhouse 90. It’s narrated by the hero, David (Chase Williamson) to a reporter (Paul Giamatti), and involves a visionary drug called 'Soy Sauce', supernatural visitors from another dimension, and a TV psychic named Albert Marconi (Clancy Brown), who actually knows something you don’t know.

Coscarelli has an honest entertainer’s desire to ply his audiences with cheap thrills; what he lacks, after some 35 years in the business and with surprisingly few movies to show for it, is the style to put it all together in a pleasurable, half-coherent way, and the conviction to make it mean something. John Dies at the End marks some kind of step up for him, because it may be the first of his feature films that looks better than something you’d praise as being pretty good, for something that was made by a 25-year-old kid with $300,000and only someone who was being unduly kind would have said even that about Bubba Ho-Tep. The new movie is watchable as a collection of random scenes of weird shit, but any chance that it might become more than that is undercut by the director’s giggly lack of nerve, which begins to feel self-deprecating and finally borders on self-contempt.

He actually got a beautiful performance out of Bruce Campbell as the heroic, aged Elvis in Bubba Ho-Tep, but he tossed it away, and there are moments here when he has the characters making the kind of jokes that wiseasses in the audience might make, while they’re right in the middle of the action. (When the heroes pass through a dimensional portal and are greeted by a procession of masked, nude women, one of them deadpans, “This must be the Eyes Wide Shut planet.”) John Does at the End doesn’t lack for imagination, but Coscarelli’s work was more entertaining when it was riddled with dead spots but the director hadn’t yet become so adept at winking at the audience. Dawn of the Dead and Re-Animator didn’t wink, either; even at their most slapstick-farcical, the directors of those pictures weren’t about to let you catch them smirking at their own material, which is how they were able to cast a spell. Too many people making indie genre pictures today are less interested in weaving a vision than in making a movie and the MST3K version at the same time.

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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