Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Marebito / The Stranger from Afar (2004)

"I'd go so far as to imitate a psychopath to record the terror of the victim on my retina and videotape."

-  Masuoka, Marebito

From Takashi Shimuzu, director of The Grudge, comes this weird little story about a numbed cameraman who is obsessed with understanding and recording pure fear. Even as the story begins, all is not well in Masuoka's world - living alone in an apartment crowded by TV screens and recording equipment, taking (and then not taking) Prozac and listlessly watching snuff in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the weapons-grade terror he's searching for, it's implied that we've entered the story at an unknown juncture of a colossal downward slope.

Things take a turn when Masuoka records a disturbing suicide on the Tokyo subway. Watching and re-watching the clip obsessively causes it to change in Masuoka's eyes - for a second, the suicide victim looks right into the lens, prompting a miniature headtrip in which he percieves a shadowy other world under the city, populated by skittering half-people. Venturing beneath the subway, he finds yawning Lovecraftian vistas (Richard Sharpe Shaver and At the Mountains of Madness are name-checked) and a beautiful, naked girl, whom he rescues from the underworld and brings back to his apartment.

Marebito ultimately turns into a strange brew of vampire romance, Chthonic fantasy and mind-of-a-madman narrative, all unfolding at a cool, unemotional pace that mirrors the narration of the detached Masuoka. It's hard to decide exactly what's happening on a first viewing, partly because there are several competing strands of confusion: Masuoka frequently states that he can only experience reality through a video camera (leading us to wonder whether the frequent changes from handheld to third-person viewpoint are significant), and characters who seem less crazy than him hint at a hidden backstory, which might offer a more rational explanation for what we're seeing.

I'm not sure Marebito even is a puzzle that can be deciphered by analysing scenes to filter out what's real and what's Masuoka.While the tone is completely different, it's an American Psycho-esque meeting of internal and external experience, underpinned by an oddly specific and obscure mythology (The Shaver Mysteries, which I'd never heard of before this but might hold a few more answers) and a monster-human love story that may or may not be a fantasy.

The most rational reading is that we're sharing the delusions of a psychotic as he ambles further and further from reality, but it could just be interpreted as an open-ended piece of surrealism about a man journeying deeper into his subconscious, complete with symbolic killings and beautiful monsters. Definitely more of a chin-stroker than a creeper-outer, Marebito's still got enough scary to watch it as a straight-up horror, but it demands interpretation rather than just viewing.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Antikӧrper / Antibodies (2005)

"Who did you expect, Hannibal Lecter?"

 - Gabriel Engel, Antibodies

Serial killer films often follow a formula that makes them kind of a guilty pleasure - a freak show where a human monster (usually with an inventive mode of killing or a quasi-mystical philosophy underpinning his actions) is eventually undone by the one detective with the mental resources to defeat them. Antibodies may not tread too far from this model, but by resisting sensationalism in favour of a thoughtful, downbeat examination of evil, it creates a much more absorbing story than the usual fare.

The film opens with a police team moving in on the Berlin apartment of Gabriel Engel, a paedophile serial killer who paints in his victims' blood. Engel loads a shotgun and prepares for his last stand, fatally shooting one policeman and diving out of a high window before his arrest by police commissioner Seiler. Crippled and in custody, he makes a leering confession to the murders of thirteen young boys, but fails to mention Lucia Flieder - his only female suspected victim, from the nearby rural town of Herzbach.

Meanwhile, Herzbach's starchily Catholic constable Michael Martens is struggling to deal with the aftermath of Lucia's butchering in the suspicious, tight-knit community, as well as the increasingly disturbing behaviour of his son. Drawn to Berlin in the hope of laying the case to rest, he tries to interrogate Engel but only has his buttons pushed by the smirking monster in the cage. Before he leaves, Engel tells Martens that he knows who killed Lucia, a hook that guarantees he'll be back for more.

While there are token elements of the procedural detective story in Antibodies (including a mismatched partner in the sleazy, whorehopping Seiler) they are almost incidental to the main show: an upright man of faith's corruption through exposure to a poisonous mind. Engel not only succeeds in rattling Martens, but remains on his shoulder long after he has left the cell, infecting his repressed sexuality, his relationship with his family and, inevitably, with his God.

Lacking the arch wit of Lecter or the detached, fanatical conviction of Se7en's John Doe, Engel has no apparent grand plan or moral lesson to teach: he's openly, almost cheerfully committed to his depravity and just seems intent on taking one more soul down with him. Martens, whose suspicions about Lucia's killer shift back to his home town, follows him a little too readily down the rabbit hole and finally comes apart in a conclusion that proves a multi-layered test of his faith.

Writer/director Christian Alvart has put together a tight thriller that perhaps owes a little too much to the films already alluded to, but is nonetheless completely gripping from the explosive beginning to the end. The plot unfolds at a patient, measured pace without feeling baggy, with the occasional gore and queasy sex scenes providing flashes of colour in the generally cold, washed-out tone.

Playing mind games with serial killers never goes well for on-screen detectives, and Antibodies doesn't break much ground in this regard - but it's deftly shot, superbly cast, tightly plotted and engrossing. More importantly, by depicting Engel not as a cartoon bogeyman but an uncomfortably believable sociopath, it allows its moral and religious questioning to achieve a rare impact.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Incoming - John Dies at the End

Well, here's something. Don Coscarelli, the man behind the completely awesome Bubba Ho-Tep, Phantasm and, um, The Beastmaster is extending the trip further with an adaptation of the novel by David Wong of Cracked.com. Titularly done-for protagonist John and his friend Dave discover a new drug (street name: Soy Sauce), a paranormal psychoactive that allows users to exist in the past, present and future simultaneously and read other people's thoughts. So far, so Philip K Dick, but using Soy Sauce also seems to catch the attention of masked cults, interdimensional shamblers and other hideous agents of the unknown.

I'm not completely sure the above description is accurate, since the only thing most reviewers seem to agree on is that John Dies at the End is a headfuck and a half. I take this as a good sign, and the addition of Paul Giamatti as the reporter hearing Dave's tale in flashback (John presumably having carked it by this point) and veteran rent-a-creep Angus Scrimm is also welcome. Don Coscarelli has made some truly mind-bending comic horror in the past (go watch Phantasm, now) and I look forward to seeing how this psychedelic little number plays out. It's already been confusing audiences at Sundance this year, but no word yet on UK distribution.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Incoming - V/H/S, Skew

Both of these are kicking up a bit of interest for different reasons: V/H/S because it's a collaborative effort helmed by (at least) six directors with pretty respectable credentials; and Skew because it won quite a few awards last year, which shames me slightly because I only stumbled across it a couple of days ago. They're also probing some of the more interesting possibilities of the found footage subgenre, which is always nice.

Tabloid-baiting tales of  viewers collapsing in terror at screenings aside, V/H/S should catch attention for its directing crew alone. Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers), Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way to Die), David Bruckner (The Signal), Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead), Joe Swanberg (Silver Bullets) and Radio Silence (the three-man team behind several acclaimed shorts) helm this found footage anthology, and Simon Barrett (Dead Birds) is also on the writing team.

In the tradition of the horror anthology, there's a single wrapper that ties all the stories together: an eccentric gang of criminals are hired to break into a deserted house and retrieve a videotape. There they find a dead body and more than one videotape, so they decide to put them on for shits and lols, providing the frame for the films-within-a-film format. The tapes range from a creature feature to a slasher-in-the-woods yarn, revisiting the story of the misfits in the house in between each one.

I love a good anthology, I love a good found footage flick and I love many of this team (admittedly I'd never heard of Radio Silence, hated I Sell the Dead and haven't seen Silver Bullets, but whatevs), so I'm reasonably pumped about this setup. It's been picked up by Momentum Pictures for UK distribution, says Screen Daily, so hopefully it'll be hitting a festival or two soonish.

Skew takes a different tack with a superficially more traditional friends-on-a-road-trip-videotaping-their-larks plot, but again looks like it's handling the subgenre in a fresh way. Three people off to attend a friend's wedding have their buzz killed when cameraman Simon complains that people's faces keep looking "all fuzzy and fucked up ... and then they die!" As the bodycount rises, Simon becomes more unhinged and soon the carefree jaunt turns into a nightmare.

It doesn't look too mind-blowing from the trailer below, but more than a few critics have been praising it as an original and intelligent found footager, so I'm guessing the approach is a bit more intricate than "evil camera what kills people". Add to that a slew of awards (from A Night of Horror in Australia, Fear Fete in Louisiana and Urban Suburban in Philadelphia) and writer/director Sevé Schelenz's debut looks well worth keeping on the radar. It's been on Netflix in the US for quite a while now, but apparently the UK'll have to wait until it premieres on the Horror Channel later this year.