Sir Alfred Hitchcock

THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

HAPPY DEATH DAY

USA, 2017

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The title is not as smart as the people who made the movie but the word happy is important.  Happy Death Day is feel good horror.   The movie borrows from the light but entertaining comedy Groundhog Day, which is referenced in the final scene inside the coffee shop.   It is not the only cinematic reference in the film. The reverse tracking shot up the staircase that first appeared in the Hitchcock masterpiece Vertigo is repeated in a cute almost sentimental suicide scene. There are also references to post-modern horror movies like Scream and Halloween. Films that paid homage to earlier movies are now themselves objects of deification. Talk about going round in circles.

Happy Death Day may depend on Groundhog Day for its basic theme and ideas but it is an okay film. It is not, though, much more than that. Utilising the idea of the self-recycling day so that the heroine is repeatedly slashed to death is bold and clever, a concept that any horror writer would envy. The execution of the idea is also accomplished.  Happy Death Day was made by Blumhouse Productions. So far the company has produced half a dozen films. None are weak although a couple are routine.  The Gift is not a bad idea for a thriller but the final result is a little flat. Sinister is well made and has strong performances but is unexceptional. Oscar winners Whiplash and Get Out are not to be missed movies. The films from Blumhouse Productions have made enough money to keep the Company in business for a lifetime.    Happy Death Day cost $4.6m to make and so far has earned $122m. The business model for the company is to produce independent films but then sell them to the big studios for distribution.   This can be called having your cake and eating it.  It is how smart people sometimes think, and the people at Blumhouse Productions are very smart.   If they are undone, and if Happy Death Day has weaknesses, it is not because of stupidity.

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Jason Blum has his full name on the film as producer, and his surname features in the title of the production company.   Blum learnt how Hollywood operates working for Harvey Weinstein.   He would have needed pragmatism or something to survive. Pragmatism is not as self-effacing as the pragmatists suggest.  Often it nurtures wilful determination. If Happy Death Day had been pitched as an offbeat horror movie for art cinemas, it would have less ambition. The writer would have settled for exposing how lives are defined by predictability and routine. The changing but same scenes would have revealed the way we unwittingly shape what is around us and how our decisions and development influence other lives more than we imagine.  Those elements exist in Happy Death Day but, because the producers want maximum audience appeal, we also have a feminist message wrapped inside sentimental and conventional concerns that are anything but feminist.

Tree the heroine escapes death and learns how to be polite to her father and fall in love with a young man who is as cute and as dull as a young Tom Hanks. Tree has scope for moral progress, being slashed to death every night is bound to change a person, but her rapid moral transformation that covers all bases will make many wary and unsympathetic.   And yes the name Tree is intended to have significance.

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After preview screenings left audiences feeling something other than satisfied the final scenes of Happy Death Day were changed and that had implications for the rest of the film. There are holes in the plot of Happy Death Day but the repetitive day and its variations make it feel as if the holes are being filled in after the event. They are not. It just feels that way.  Tree assumes that the days will repeat themselves without a conclusion. Later she asks the question that has already occurred to the audience, whether there might be a day when she really does die. In one scene the boyfriend of Tree suggests how she can use the repeating days to discover the identity of the person who has slashed her to death. This scene is way too premature in the plot but on subsequent days it is ignored by Tree and has no consequence, so its slipshod heavy handedness is subsequently distilled. There are also loose ends like the issue of what happens to the other victims when days are repeated. Jason Blum has a track record that proves he is smart. Maybe, though, he thinks the rest of us are stupid. The climax has two twists, and in a film that is obliged to vary and repeat a single event the denouement needs to be simple and neat and not add more chaos.

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Happy Death Day was directed by Christopher Landon who is the son of the Little Joe who left the big house of Bonanza to live in a little one on the prairie.   Christopher Landon has talked about being gay and how it affected his family. There is a brief reference to coming out in Happy Death Day. As the reincarnated and reformed Tree conquers all, she persuades an ex-boyfriend to admit to his sexuality. The scene is glib but is not alone. The reconciliation with Dad not only provides healthy competition but also adds to an overburdened plot.   Happy Death Day may or may not have a gay context. The repetitive day that requires a false performance and ends in disappointment is an idea that suggests the experience of suppressed sexuality. Happy Death Day begins with the suspicion of what was probably unsatisfactory sex, not remembered and best forgotten. And in a sense Tree does eventually come out to reveal her authentic self. It helps the film that the character is female, and the absence of a male hero is evidence of the progress that has been made since The Graduate appeared in the late 60s. Both films, though, are lined with treacle.  Happy Death Day would have been improved and made more sense if Tree had been gay.   That, though, would have meant commercial underachievement, and Jason Blum is too smart for that.

Happy Death Day, like other ‘slasher’ horror movies, requires a resolute woman but any notion of female emancipation is undermined by the romantic ending and the contribution of the Tom Hanks lookalike.  Happy Death Day is smart but heartless. Instead, we are given slippery and calculating sentiment. The movie is weighed down by astute commercial ambition and a determination to embrace a wide audience. It lacks the clarity and the genuine grievance that informed Get Out.  In its favour there is the energetic performance of Jessica Rothe who is believable as both good and bad girl. Despite being almost thirty years old she looks like an adolescent student and it is encouraging that her boyfriend is played by an actor who is seven years younger.

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Happy Death Day, for all its superior compromises, is worth an hour and thirty-six minutes of the time of anyone. The defiance too often becomes a fashionable pose but the film has the charm and energy of TV hits Buffy The Vampire Slayer and I-Zombie. The movie is on the right side of tolerance and a reminder that we are too inclined to make decisions about who and what other people should be. Not only does this long-standing and regrettable inclination have unfortunate consequences for those we oppress it does not help us to make the right decisions about who and what we should be ourselves. Many go to their graves without a clue as to how their identity has been constructed, what is authentic and what is artificial.   In Britain right now we have a political leader whose identity was shaped by a narrow world and excess ambition.   Who or what she may be is for Theresa May to ponder. We are neither obliged to like the woman nor vote for her. Theresa May, though, has lost something in the construction of her identity. Otherwise she would not be able to tell conscience free lies in such a measured and confident accent or have needed to make the unforgettable hurried retreat from the victims of Grenfell Tower.   Her latest untruth concerns the dates documents of British citizens were destroyed, when the identities of some British people were redefined by politicians and opportunistic bureaucrats.

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When she was Home Secretary, Theresa May was keen to create what she called a ‘hostile environment for immigrants’. Few of us thought that would include those who had been welcomed to the UK over 50 years ago to ease the problems of an economy that had labour shortages. As Home Secretary, Theresa May was determined to not just define the numbers of the British population but to insist on who would qualify as pedigree stock.  Britons live in a country where the homes of people are invaded so those without identification papers can overnight be separated from their families and dumped into detention centres. For some time this has applied to people we would expect to be accepted as contributors to our society.  Now we know it was even happening to long-standing British citizens. Because of a rush to prejudice and persecution, the British Government has forced some British citizens to live in countries of which they have no knowledge.  It has even prepared advice on how these British citizens can adapt to the local population and pretend to be something other than, well, British.  Meanwhile the Government and the press celebrate the colour of what is an increasingly dubious British passport. Welcome to the 2017 version of what we call the United Kingdom.

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

HUSH

USA 2016

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Mike Flanagan has powerful friends. Writer Stephen King and director William Friedkin think that the latest film by Flanagan is great. Stephen King said that Hush is way up there with the 1967 movie Wait Until Dark.   Hush is not fabulous but it is superior to the mechanical and uninspired Wait Until Dark, which is not way up anywhere.   Now we are here something has to be said about Stephen King. The American writer is rich and famous and deserves to be. He is prolific and has a knack for ideas that attract interest from readers. But a gift for abundance and modest premises transformed into tales that have moments but few genuine surprises do not constitute exceptional literary merit.

In 2013 Mike Flanagan wrote and directed the interesting Oculus.  Initially, the achievements of Hush appear to be restricted to mechanical mastery and directorial flair. The tale is simple. Maddie is a writer. Because she had meningitis when she was 13 years old, she is now unable to hear or speak. She lives alone in an isolated house.   A serial killer knocks on the door or rather he drags to the window the attractive neighbour he has just killed. For the rest of the film the audience watches the struggle for survival between likeable Maddie and the not so pleasant serial killer. Hush is a horror movie, and Flanagan is a fan perhaps devotee of the genre.  Some of the violence is explicit, and the lone woman fighting against the home invader is typical fare for horror fodder. Yet the confrontation in Hush also has elements of the Western.   The fight on the wooden terrace at the front of the house resembles the climactic gunfight in Man Of The West, the classic revisionist Western by Anthony Mann.  More significant is how Flanagan pays obvious homage to Scream by Wes Craven.   The killer stalking Maddie even wears a similar Halloween type mask.  Hush does have merit, and director Flanagan is an obvious talent, but the never to be forgotten terrorisation of poor Drew Barrymore makes the attempt at suspense in Hush seem pitiful.

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This happens because Flanagan attempts the impossible. In Scream the confrontation between the human invader and solitary female occupies a few minutes of the film. In Hush it is almost everything. Most people will expect Maddie to survive the terror. What might make them anxious is the doubt that Flanagan will be able to stretch his idea for the length of a whole film. There are serial killers who mean business and the others who mess about. The psychopath in Hush would make striking a match look complicated. Director Flanagan makes the most of limited material but so he should because he wrote the script with the help of his wife Kate Siegel who appears as Maddie. When the serial killer hesitates about invading the home and explains his ambition is to prolong the suffering of Maddie, we realise what is really happening.  Flanagan has just written a tame excuse for why the film will last 87 minutes. Once we hear the creepy killer reveal the basis of the film we have to settle for an academic exercise.

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Academic application, though, is not without appeal. The action is confined to a house where bright lights are taboo.  Maddie cannot hear anything and somehow has to survive. Despite her lack of hearing she has to match a serial killer armed with a crossbow, a sharp knife and two good ears. Two of the violent confrontations have ordinary elements. We witness a stabbing and an attempted strangulation. Nevertheless these encounters are given a strong sexual edge.   Near the beginning of the film the killer stabs the female neighbour while he observes Maddie in her kitchen. Mike Flanagan is not the first director to recognise the symbolic potential of a long knife. In Hush the stabbings are phallic thrusts emphasised by how the victim is held and the lust we see in the face of the assassin. The final violent confrontation is not complicated.  Two people struggle for supremacy but the almost coital climax that violent death brings is memorable.   The sound design is also exceptional. It alternates between muffled murmur that represents the world of Maddie and a detailed soundtrack that reminds us of what Maddie cannot experience.

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Mike Flanagan had intended to make the film with no soundtrack but decided it destroyed the suspense in the action scenes. This makes sense but there was another option. We could have heard everything but the dialogue. None of it would have been missed, and we would have still had a sense of the awkward world of Maddie. If the dialogue is not always impressive, the cinematic skill of Flanagan elevates a basic story. This may be why Stephen King likes the film. He recognises a kindred spirit who has similar ambitions. At the beginning we see a Stephen King book on a bookshelf.  Hush was sold to Netflix. Since then Flanagan has adapted the Stephen King novel Gerald’s Game. This film, which is also available to Netflix subscribers, has supernatural elements but feels like reworked Misery and Hush. This alliance between King and Flanagan may not have a happy ending.

But, and this is where the film becomes interesting, there may be a good reason why the serial killer in Hush hesitates so much. Maddie is struggling to end the book she is writing, a book in which the narrator may be killed. What happens in Hush may be nothing more than a writer exploring an imagination. At one point she discusses what will happen next with her other self, the author, the person within Maddie that has a voice she can hear. She also imagines being killed by the home invader.  This fanciful scene is the most vicious in the film.   There are absurd moments in Hush and a meandering serial killer who is too complicated to be vicious. But interpreted as the development of a plot in front of our eyes the film becomes conceptual. It feels like a cheat, and, whatever way the film is viewed, the lack of credibility or reality punctures the drama and suspense.  Yet Hush also obliges us to think again about what we are watching. For that, Mike Flanagan, whatever his intentions, deserves some credit. The title of the film could refer to what all authors would like to silence, the ideas that have to be imagined and then abandoned.

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The comparison that has been made with Wait Until Dark is misleading. Audrey Hepburn played a blind heroine in a film that was a glossy suspense thriller, a weak attempt at Hitchcock thrills. Hush has moments that we associate with slasher movies.  Maddie has to not only struggle against a serial killer but also compete against all the other ‘final girls’ that survive horror films.  Flanagan may be being sly because Maddie, unlike her competitors, begins this film as a ‘final girl’, a female warrior who has already survived meningitis.   At times the film lapses into Tomb Raider moments.   Put a crossbow in the hands of an attractive brunette, a woman who already knows that she is a ‘final girl’, and you take that risk.  Indeed, Maddie has a facial resemblance to Lara Croft.  It all helps us to think more about Hush the cinematic construction than the fate of Maddie. Hush is an artefact that required effort to make, and, whether we like it or not, we are obliged to relate it to other movies and artefacts so that we have some idea of the creative process.   More than most Flanagan provides a helping hand. Maddie is an uninhibited author. At the beginning of the film she shares the creative process with an admiring neighbour and throughout the film she reveals more of how she works than we realise.   At one point the voice of the author inside Maddie asks, ‘You can’t run, you can’t hide, fight. What are you going to do?’ The answer Maddie gives is inadequate because there is nothing she can do and any response requires an alternative logic. The real answer is buried underneath a deliberately inconsistent narrative and in the imagination that created the terror. Neither can the viewer assume that the imagination of Maddie and the existence of the unnamed killer are exclusive.

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Such sly tricks are not restricted to the cinema. Politicians have created a world that also has its own alternative reasoning. In political debates we hear strange utilitarian arguments that have nothing to do with reality and listen to politicians who are unable and unwilling to aggregate the suffering of their citizens.   Foodbanks continue to expand in the UK, and child poverty and homelessness increases.  Financial grants to City Councils and local authorities have since 2010 been cut year after year. Liverpool has had its Central Government funding reduced by 60%.   The treatment of Tory local authorities has been less savage but because of their ageing populations the Councils are flirting with bankruptcy. People were burned to death in a tower block because private contractors thought it clever to reduce unit costs. Yet we are told by a Government Minister that people are happier than ever with public services.   It is, of course, nonsense but a permissible utterance because Government now exists as an independent and almost irrelevant artefact. Like Mike Flanagan, our Government expects us to admire and evaluate this alternative world as an independent creation. How their actions increase the suffering of bewildered citizens can be ignored or so they think.

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.