Thursday, July 10, 2014

When These Dead Reboot: Deliver Us From Evil & Afterlife With Archie

Eric Bana in Deliver Us From Evil

Has there ever been a good horror movie about demonic possession? A few years ago, there was a reasonably clever little sleeper called The Last Exorcism, in the “found footage” style of The Blair Witch Project. In addition to some impressively athletic callisthenics on the part of the possession victim (played by Ashley Bell), it had a decent comic idea at its core: a fake exorcist (Patrick Fabian) who’s grown sick of exploiting the superstitious fears of gullible rubes agrees to take part in a Marjoe-type documentary exposé (shot by the filmmakers whose footage we’re watching) and stumbles into the real thing. Mostly, though, demonic-possession movies take their cues from The Exorcist and use viewers’ own fearful, unresolved feelings about religion and God and the devil to touch easy nerves while congratulating themselves on their fake seriousness.

The new Deliver Us from Evil was directed by Scott Derrickson, whose previous credits include The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which is very likely the most despicable of all the “inspired by true events” movies. Emily Rose is based on the actual story of Anneliese Michel, a young German woman who died of malnutrition and dehydration while being “cared for” by her parents and a pair of Catholic priests, who interpreted the behavior caused by her temporal lobe epilepsy as signs that she was possessed. Derrickson’s movie treats the priests as heroes who understood that there are things that science cannot explain, and as martyrs to the legal system. (In real life, the priests and Michel’s parents were convicted of negligent manslaughter and given suspended sentences instead of jail time, which is bad enough.)

Deliver Us from Evil is a genre hybrid, a tough-and-gritty New York police drama about a cop—Ralph Sarchie, played by Eric Bana—who encounters supernatural forces in the course of his work and, with the help of a maverick priest (Edgar Ramirez), ends up conducting an exorcism in the interrogation room at his station house, driving demons out of a man who’s been stalking him and his family. There really is a Ralph Sarchie, a 16-year member of the NYPD who, after his retirement from the police department and our reality, co-authored a book about his investigations into the paranormal.

In terms of action-horror craftsmanship, Deliver Us from Evil is a polished piece of goods. Derrickson can make you jump, and he serves up a rainy, downbeat vision of the Bronx as a devil’s playground that’s convincing, if also totally humorless and deadeningly one-note. (This is the kind of movie that makes Se7en look inspired.) That “convincing, humorless, and one-note” also sums up Bana’s performance; I don’t know who or what was possessing this cow-eyed dude when he gave his authentic wild-man star performance in Chopper fourteen years ago, but I hope he reconnects with it, soon. (As his adrenaline-junkie police partner, Joel McHale has his moments; I love the giddy way he says “I’m good!” when preparing to tangle with a fleeing perp. But he’s not brilliant enough to keep you from wondering, when he’s onscreen, if this is an extended fantasy sequence from Community.) Derrickson knows what he’s doing, and as a horror movie lover, I might be able to make allowances for the fact that he’s openly anti-science and anti-sanity if he weren’t also anti-fun. He’s so solemn in his approach that it’s easy to believe that he really thinks he’s conveying an important message: that guy strangling his wife in the next apartment might be taking his orders straight from Beelzebub. Pauline Kael used to talk about directors, some major artists among them, who had “more talent than brains.” Having now filmed two “true” stories about driving literal demons out of people, Derrickson doesn’t need to demonstrate a whole lot of talent to fall squarely into that category.

Jughead develops a taste for something other than burgers in Afterlife with Archive

For a genre mash-up that’s at least as weird conceptually as a “fact-based” exorcism movie but a lot more fun, check out Afterlife with Archie, whose first few issues have now been collected in trade paperback, available at a comic-book shop near you. In recent years, the publishers of the Archie franchise have been trying like mad to freshen up their seventy-year-old property and make it more attractive to readers who don’t buy comics for G-rated antics down at the malt shop. The characters in the current series of Life with Archie are now drawn in a more “realistic,” naturalistic style, since many comics readers are now thought to view imaginative cartooning as old hat, and it’s been announced that Archie himself will die this year, just like Superman and Bucky and Gwen Stacy before him. The series has already knocked off the schoolteacher, Miss Grundy, who died of kidney disease shortly after marrying the rotund high school principal Mr. Weatherbee, bringing closure to a “will they or won’t they?” that literally no comics reader on the face of the Earth had ever considered even as a remote possibility.

That’s nothing compared to the carnage in Afterlife with Archie, a zombie comic that begins with Sabrina the teenage witch ill-advisedly resurrecting Jughead’s dead dog and bringing an apocalyptic zombie plague down on the good people of Riverdale. This is a whole other level of crazy from stunts like the 1994 Archie Meets the Punisher, a spoofy crossover one-shot that brought the Riverdale gang together with the Marvel Comics vigilante in the death’s-head-insignia costume that represented mainstream comics’ first attempt to incorporate the kind of amoral, violent movie heroes Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson were playing in the 1970s. There, the visual style of the Archie comics was maintained, to make it clear that, even if Riverdale suddenly housed a drug dealer who resembled Archie, the Punisher was on Archie’s turf and the school dance wasn’t going to end in a bloody shootout. This comic boasts gorgeously unsettling, graveyard-milieu artwork by Francesco Franavilla, and the script, by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, follows the same basic rules as The Walking Dead—no rules at all beyond trying to honor its obligation to shock the reader—except that it’s Jughead Jones, in cadaverous, rotting form, who shows up at the big dance. In a classic Archie touch, it’s the Halloween dance, and he’s complimented on his costume before he bares his teeth and starts tearing into people.

Afterlife with Archie is part of a wave that’s been generated by hardcore nerd-fans entering the ranks of pop-culture professionals and bringing their nerdiest passions and most fannish impulses with them. Twenty or thirty years ago, pop-culture artists like the comic writer Alan Moore and the TV writer-creators Chris Carter and Joss Whedon generated new work that was based on the things they’d loved about, or been troubled or perplexed by, old superhero comics and TV shows like Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Now, creators of reboots and remakes of old franchises go right to the source, often bringing a stunning degree of seriousness to some very silly stuff, so that we get a brooding, poker-faced version of Thundercats and new entries in the Scooby-Doo franchise that bestow families and back stories on the old characters who, in the original Saturday morning cartoon, seemed to live on the road in their van and existed in some limbo state of undefined youthfulness, so that it was impossible to know whether they were playing hooky from their adult jobs or from high school.

Afterlife with Archie is serious, too, but at least it’s serious about being a horror comic; it takes its identity as part of the Archie Comics universe as a challenge to be overcome, to prove that it can scare you despite the baggage attached to these character names and this setting. It also shows traces of a malicious sense of humor toward its source material: the second issue strongly hints at a Cersei-Jaime-style incestuous relationship between the “bad” rich twins, Jason and Cheryl Blossom. (Seriousness spiked with this kind of prankish inside-joke dark humor is a very pure nerd formula.) It’s a fannish slash-fiction concept executed by pros, and it carries that kind of subversive charge even if it was conceived in a boardroom. On some level, it can be seen as a troubling artifact of a time when talented entertainers can only get people involved by invoking their interest in characters and material they should have outgrown. But if the world is dividing up between those who are still interested in Archie Andrews and those who think that mental illness is caused by the devil, I know which side I’d rather be wasting my time with.

 Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

No comments:

Post a Comment