Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Unsungquels : pres and ses that deserve some love Part 1

Sequels 'n' prequels. Let's just call them quels. Yes, those annoying puppies of hit movies that gnaw around your ankles and yap, trying to outdo their progenitors. Sometimes they're better but mostly you just have to say "quel damage."

Here are a few I like.

 Here's a case of a sequel far outstripping its folks in depth and effectiveness. The Amityville Horror is an adequate  70s piece falling between a ghost story and the still popular demonic possession subgenre. The problem I have with it is that apart from one really good scare (eyes!) it isn't really scary. The best moment for me is when the priest once again has his phone line reduced to buzzing static when speaking to Mrs Lutz. It's a moment charged with a real sense of despair. There's a sadness to its inevitability that lends more weight to the climactic scenes than they deserve.

So if sequels are just good bits of the originals writ large why is Amityville II The Possession such a subtle and creepy film? Well, I say subtle. The thing ends in an excorcism that was conceived of like a shopping list. But the central theme of guilt from the incestuous union of the son and daughter of the house and the forked road each sibling follows afterward does allow for subtlety. The impending doom of this, involving the girl's various overtures to her brother and refuge sought in the church, the brother's spiral downward into what might be possession or psychopathy or just intense controlling guilt, is a richer experience that a lot of higher profile dramas that might add a more acceptable but befogging hysteria to the issue. Here a sensitive subject is made troubling by the casualness of its core act and then channelled into severe allegory. But the allegory remains grounded in the pain of family dysfunction.

Ok, so once you get to the big payoff the movie just tries to outdo every Exorcist cover version that came before it, amping up the latex as though it was stolen from George Lucas' garage. But as with most thrillers and all whodunnits once it's clear that the conclusion will be rushed and put together with gaffer tape I don't really care if it's done well or not. The bulk of Amityville II is the depiction of disturbing behaviour with enough light around it to avoid sensationalism (until the end) and engage the noodles. As such it embarrasses its predecessor and could easily have been retooled to drop the association. But the world doesn't work so.

Oh yeah, and it's much scarier than the Amityville Horror, with a constant sense of otherworldiness pervading. Eerie.

The really interesting thing about this one is that they hired a documentarian to do a slick fiction film. Joe Berlinger had made a significant feature documentary about some goth teens who were accused of murder: Paradise Lost. I haven't seen it nor its sequel but it was deemed strong enough stuff for the Myrick and Sanchez team of The Blair Witch Project to hire him to direct the sequel. Berlinger's idea was to make the events of the tale a matter of ambiguity that might change with perspective. Artisan, who'd had such a monster success with the first film went all Hollywood on the sequel and turned the risk control down to half a unit and released the film recut with some re shoots to make the events definite.

First, the fun bits. Blair Witch 2 is set in a world that knows about The Blair Witch Project. It's on the media and back at Burkitsville, Maryland, there are stalls selling twigs fashioned into the stick figures from the movie. There are also tours of the woods for the curious. One of them is led by a guy only recently released from a mental health facility. he takes a group of the kind of people you'd expect to go on such a tour and horror ensues. Or does it?

The narrative is framed by a lengthy police interview in which the surviving tourists give their accounts of the events which are variously supported and contradicted by video evidence. As the testimonies proceed we settle into the story's digesis and, apart from necessary returns to the frame, all goes narratively well.

Berlinger's most noted work had been in the depiction of evidence and its manipulation, of witness and testimony. Here, backed by a digetic realm aware of the artifice of a realistic looking feature film (ie the original), Berlinger tries to set up something for the audience to not just think about but enjoy thinking about. The facing mirror approach has a pleasantly intriguing effect and it's wrapped up in the immediate high gloss surface of an American feature film.

Fine, but is it any good? Actually, yes, one thing Blair Witch 2 doesn't forget to do is be a horror film. After you get past all the clever clever intentional stereotypes among the cast and the tricksy references to the original, what you still have is an increasingly eerie supernatural tale delivered with great atmosphere. The cast and their material range from sharp to stock, as though they know they're in a knowing movie featuring knowing characters who know etc etc but that's all to the film's strengths.

I saw this film at the cinema on a blisteringly hot Melbourne afternoon with a fellow horror movie fan (heya Polly!) and enjoyed the afterchill on the walk through the dusty heat. Berlinger says on his dvd commentary that this is not the film he intended and that changes he was involved in were often done under protest. But he also admits that he did make the changes and must live with the results. Bingo! Don't remake a mistake, learn from it and do the next thing with the lesson in mind. And where do you put the protest? In context where everyone can see that you're not just mouthing off at the suits.

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