Psycho – movie

THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

USA, 2010

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The poster for the movie is smart and mysterious. The cabin is detached from the woods it is supposed to be inside.   It offers a clue to what will make the movie different. This horror movie will have an added dimension. The Cabin In The Woods earned twice the considerable amount of money it cost to make and received critical acclaim. An inevitable sequel followed. The movie demonstrates originality and intelligence. There are some witty lines of dialogue, and serious ideas about both horror movies and the limitations of the modern world exist behind the mayhem. The movie is misanthropic and, despite the humour and wit, informed by despair. Those who like the film are entitled to the distractions it offers. They laugh at smart in-the-know jokes and feel gratified because they have identified the serious themes. Some of us, though, are not so easily flattered, and the success of Joss Whedon depends on audiences that are susceptible to flattery.

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Many years ago the film critic in Punch magazine asked, ‘how do you burlesque a burlesque?’ He was talking about the James Bond films of the sixties and the various send-ups that followed.   Most of these spy spoofs have been forgotten. The movies were limp and tedious. More important the humour in those films was irrelevant. The jokes were already in the original Bond films. Absurdity has existed in popular culture and entertainment for over three thousand years. What appear to be cheese and corn to one generation were previously recognised as audacity and irony by others. All we have to do to understand this is read Homer and Shakespeare. Not every attempt at audacity and irony succeeds. The level of success helps define quality but views regarding what is tolerable absurdity change. The impossible antics of superheroes of today would be laughed at by a mediaeval audience if we could find one.

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Although completed in 2010 The Cabin In The Woods appeared in cinemas in 2012. Scream director Wes Craven had already exposed the routine formula behind horror movies fourteen years earlier in 1996.   The jokes or point had been made. One of the attempts at humour in The Cabin In The Woods is embarrassing and crude.   The typical bulky handsome hero suggests that the four college friends separate to cover more ground in what is a small cabin. The joke is that this always happens in horror movies. Instead of staying together the victims part and allow not only the monster to kill them one by one but also the proliferation of set pieces. The problem with the scene is that the joke is several decades too late. Hitchcock managed the trick of separating the victims in Psycho but he had a smart scriptwriter. When the overrated Alien arrived in 1979, we were already familiar with the cliché and the device.

The script of The Cabin In The Woods was written in three days. This is not necessarily bad. The audacity that genre entertainment needs is often inspired or facilitated by contempt. Take a potboiler too seriously and it will become leaden and stodgy.   But two people worked on the script of The Cabin In The Woods. The moment that calls for the group to separate, and a few others, should have set off alarm bells. Writing in three days the script of a film that has had blockbuster appeal requires talent but even the gifted writer benefits from having the time to become acquainted with his characters and plot. If the writers are not engaged with the story, it is no surprise if it fails to involve those who are interested in something more than sarcastic spectacle. There is also something distasteful about spending $30m on a film that satirises the efforts of filmmakers who had a fraction of that budget.

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The Cabin In The Woods is a deliberate and textbook example of postmodern culture. The movie has an original concept and approach but avoids original moments. Instead, Joss Whedon creates a kaleidoscope jumble of clichés and familiar moments. This is not a criticism. Not just horror movies are targeted, and there is some reward in identifying the various references, elements and genres.   What The Cabin In The Woods lacks, though, is a cohesive whole. The movie feels like two films tacked together, the old spooky dark house in the first half and the dystopian technological nightmare in the second.   Each section has a different objective or target and neither is given enough attention.   The characters and the movie leave the old dark house too soon for it to be a satisfying examination of horror movies.   Compared to what other filmmakers have achieved with old dark houses the satire in The Cabin In The Woods is underdeveloped.   We are familiar with the caricatures and their predictable fates. This is okay but their premature demise is not.   As in Alien, the moments of slaughter appear as sudden shocks rather than the conclusion of scenes of suspense.   There is humour in The Cabin In The Woods but most of it is confined to the dialogue. The visual potential of horror is considerable, which is why it attracts young and ambitious directors ready to demonstrate cinematic style.   In The Cabin In The Woods the best visual effects exist near the end of the film.

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The climax is a dystopian nightmare that precipitates an Armageddon. Compared to The Cabin In The Woods the ambition of Westworld is modest. Nothing can justify an apocalypse but before we are doomed there are brief pleasures. The insert from Japan is clever. Whedon takes a sly dig at Japanese horror movies and the need of those directors to feature innocent schoolgirls. The corridor shots inside the computer centre after the widespread slaughter confirm how the human imagination is degraded in a world designed to provide gratification and little else. The descent of the elevator down to the technological hub and nerve centre is also very fine. The violence is restrained because the monsters are trapped behind glass walls. The journey is haunting rather than violent and it is very sinister.

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The Cabin In The Woods is not the only film to invite us to watch another audience and its creation. For the structure to succeed, though, there needs to be more than scattergun fun and jokes that most of us are primed to expect. Yet despite the second rate mockery The Cabin In The Woods does not feel like self-indulgence. If anything, the movie suggests atonement by Joss Whedon for some of the escapist nonsense that has brought him fame and wealth. The final scene, which is about as unhappy as could be imagined, reveals the hidden truth about the fascist fantasies that Hollywood and Whedon have called action movies. In a contest between superheroes and super villains decency and humanity will be found not amongst the supposed good guys waging battle but off screen amongst ordinary and undistinguished people. This is more than whimsy. Amidst his atonement Joss Whedon shares his misgivings about the modern world. The Cabin In The Woods is loaded with warnings. Imaginations programmed for sadistic thrills will not be alert to the consequences of their behaviour. The final murder in The Cabin In The Woods is ignored by the spectators inside the movie.   Technology also makes us remote from human feeling. The bureaucrats and technicians place bets on outcomes rather than worry about the fate of human beings.   Thanks to technology the corporate world can hide behind machines and secret algorithms.   The technicians in The Cabin In The Woods are the new unapproachable secular gods. Faced with their power, old-fashioned heroism, as the two survivors realise, is futile.

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Horror movies are conceptual and have the virtue of teasing out the hidden neuroses of human beings. But the sadistic taste for mindless gore that exists amongst some horror fans cannot be denied.   Nothing exposes our double standards more than our attitude to physical pain in our neighbours.   We can be sympathetic but pragmatism about suffering and stoicism is for other people. Right now the utilitarian politicians that run the world have decided to escalate the conflict in Syria. A few of the powerful decided that bombs and casualties were needed to make a point to other powerful people. These decisions could mean a lot of innocent Syrians will experience additional physical pain and premature death. Those making the decisions may have to risk a disadvantage in future meetings with rivals but they will, of course, be immune to any of the physical pain. In their world of bulletproof limousines and obsequious lackeys any discomfort is minimal for these self-imagined good guys. The rest of us in the West may not share the luxury of our masters but, like the bureaucrats in The Cabin In The Woods, we have the benefit of watching the suffering of others on large TV screens.   Some of us object to the creation of violent conflict in remote lands but many of us fail to sustain our protest. Others, often middle-aged males, respond with enthusiasm to the prospect of a battle that will not involve them.   Nothing adds to the spectacle on our screens quite like violence.   Escalation of the Syrian conflict means more people will die in a country in which there has already been unnecessary death and carnage. Some TV viewers, though, will open cans of beer and cheer.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

LOS PARECIDOS (THE SIMILARS)

MEXICO, 2015

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Even before it was butchered by an inept English translation the title was terrible. Los Mismos would have been a better effort at a handle but something must happen to Castilian Spanish in South America. Los Parecidos was described as a distressingly familiar film by one critic. Homage is important to both the style and plot, but there cannot be many films as nutty as Los Parecidos. Although packed with references to horror movies and The Twilight Zone there is something singular about this Mexican movie.  The famous Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn said that a film should begin with an earthquake and build to a climax. Los Parecidos begins with a thunderstorm and the arrival of two hysterical passengers in an almost empty bus station. The arrow aimed at the climax, though, misses the target. Sam Goldwyn would not have approved. It is clear that director Isaac Ezban intends Los Parecidos to amuse and scare. Not everyone will think he succeeds. For those who relish modest gore and knowing silliness the playful absurdity of Los Parecidos will have appeal. Some of the ideas deserve applause. The scenes are played straight but fast and with comic timing.  Horror fans can have an odd sense of comedy, which is why Los Parecidos has collected devotees. Comedy is at its best exploiting desperation and not the desolation that exists in this Mexican bus station, and that is a weakness in the film, but the insistent silliness of Los Parecidos cannot be begrudged.

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The waiting passengers endure terror for two reasons.   The bus will not turn up because of the torrential downpour outside the bus station, and everyone including the women will grow a beard and look the same. The person everyone looks like is Ulises played by actor Gustavo Sánchez Parra.   Ulises is anxious about his wife who is in hospital and giving birth.  Irene is pregnant and needs to get to a hospital.  Gertrudis already has a son.  These three people are particularly distraught. The rest are just moody, strange and cantankerous.  The beard of Ulises makes him, and everyone else of course, look like Sam Phillips the record producer in Memphis that helped Elvis Presley create rockabilly.  This may be more than a coincidence because Los Parecidos exists as a reminder of how Mexico and the USA share iconography.  The remote setting in the film looks like somewhere from rural Texas.  Los Parecidos has an odd rock and roll edge.

The neat trick in the film is that the terror that haunts the people in the bus station is not that terrifying. Rain downpours stop at some point, and beards can be shaved.  All the people need to do is settle down, have some patience and apply a little thought. The thinking and conversation that occur do not help. Instead, violence becomes epidemic. In Los Parecidos sympathy and support for the plight of others rarely last more than an instant, and paranoia and resentment affect everyone. For the viewer it means having to observe relentless and often mindless hysteria. Bewildered by the hair that has grown on her face the bathroom attendant attacks her beard with a knife until her face is ripped to shreds, the bathroom is covered in blood and her body has had enough.   The reaction is extreme but it is a very thick beard. Outside the bathroom the waiting passengers search for a plausible suspect that carries the beard-inducing virus.   Irene tries more than the others to be reasonable but no one emerges with credit.  The accusations come thick and fast.

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Anyone with any sense will assume that Los Parecidos has a political sub-text. The sacrifice of individuality and the aggression that we witness are a consequence of an authoritarian capitalist society.   Raise the stakes in a competitive society to ensure that survival is always at stake and winners will gorge on greed and the losers will scramble for scraps. Unaware that their lives are blighted by distorted rewards everyone will feel threatened by the others and feel compelled to attack rivals.  Inevitable envy is resented by those envied.

Throughout the film the news on the radio in the bus station mentions the Tlateloco massacre. This occurred in 1968.  Ten days before the Mexico Olympics began students in Mexico City staged a protest against the Government. The students felt that the money spent on the Olympics was extravagant and the oppression of farmers and labour unions excessive. Between 300 and 400 students were killed during the protest, and nearly 1500 were arrested. In a sane world the 1968 Mexican Olympics would have been cancelled. There was some indignation but most of it was restricted to the three African-American athletes who put single fists in the air.  Fans of athletics soon forgot the 300 dead students. All of this should confirm that Los Parecidos is a political film.

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Director Isaac Ezban, though, is adamant. According to him he included the Tlateloco massacre reference to acknowledge Mexican movies of the sixties and the political context of those films. That loop in thinking is typical of what occurs in the film. What he said about the political context may be true or not but whatever he really thinks Ezban is determined to have fun, and some of it will be at our expense.   The joke, though, may be on him. The film he has produced may be a lot less flippant than he is. In his defence Ezban might argue that there is a lot more silliness than politics in Los Parecidos.

The music on the soundtrack is orchestral and relentless. It is at best a decent imitation of the music by Bernard Hermann, it does quote the Psycho soundtrack, or at worst an echo of the production line scores that accompanied B horror movies in the sixties. If it has an effect, it is to remind us of how persistent melodramatic musical exaggeration can soon be ignored by a viewer. Throughout the film the pitch does not vary. There is no shading between individual scenes. Like the rest of the film, this may be a sly and affectionate tribute to bad taste and thwarted imagination.

Rather than film Los Parecidos in widescreen black and white Isaac Ezban decided to desaturate colour film. It looks like black and white but it is not as sharp.   The claim is that it creates a dreamlike atmosphere. These days the demand for black and white film is minimal, and that makes it expensive. Desaturated colour film helps to keep costs under control. In certain scenes there are odd items that appear in pale colour, blue seats and the yellow raincoat of the child.  It is an effect and different but how it helps either the comedy or the tension is unclear. Black and white film facilitates both crisp images and exaggerated shadow and light. Desaturated colour film like the music in Los Parecidos offers little variation. It also undermines the tribute that is being paid to the past.

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Fans of The Twilight Zone, though will not be disappointed. The idea behind the plot, the actual threat to the waiting passengers, is taken from a highly rated episode of The Twilight Zone called It’s A Good Life. The episode was aired in 1961. In that episode the consequences of the threat are more serious and terrifying but the action is gentler. It takes place in the social stability of suburban America and before a Mexican Government waged its ‘Ugly War’ and slaughtered 300 students. Back then we had an alternative view of both the past and the present, our fears about the future and our sense of humour were different. As used to happen in every Twilight Zone episode, there is a spoken introduction and summary to Los Parecidos. The narration at the beginning of the film is more successful than what occurs at the end.  The final narration is fanciful and the whimsy, in view of what happened in 1968 to 300 students, is odd.

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Much of what happens in Los Parecidos consists of human beings trying to not only apportion but deflect blame. Each person at some point in the movie asserts that one of the others does not belong to the group. These assertions are not consistent, and the accusers are willing to accuse more than one person and for different reasons. In national politics such behaviour is often accompanied by the waving of a flag. Since Brexit there has been much flag waving in the UK and much pointing of fingers. Newspapers create scurrilous headlines about politicians not just having unacceptable opinions but about them meeting someone who possesses what are regarded as dangerous thoughts. Boris Johnson lectures the British people with a speech that says he can unite everyone providing we all agree with him.  The British economy flounders but those who like to quote depressing statistics are shouted down with lies. So far there has been mutual hatred and contempt but limited violence.  Unwelcome beards are under control but an outbreak of the ‘flu has made the NHS vulnerable. In Los Parecidos no one is able to help the others.  This, of course, has been the tragedy of much of the politics of South America.  Watch Los Parecidos and it is tempting to think Britain might share a similar tragedy.  We could become the Mexico of Europe, a bewildered and impoverished cousin that will eventually recognise with envy the more stable mainland  across the Channel.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.