2020년 4월 30일 목요일

Il cento notte di orrore PART 4- DANIEL ISN'T REAL (2019), UNDERWATER (2020) & THE DEAD CENTER (2018)

Still not giving up! I am back with the fourth installment of Il Cento notti di orroreOne Hundred Nights of Horror review series. It’s more than a year, in fact, that I have put up the last installment. The delay has little to do with the frightening pandemic sweeping the world at this moment, that has rightfully elevated Stephen Soderbergh to the seat of the prophetic film artist of twenty-first century (which he probably did not want, but what can I say? I cannot watch the film again at this moment, despite its hopeful ending, for fear of becoming too depressed). I am certainly not enjoying wads of free research time, and the promised glut of film reviews for both Koreanfilm.org and M’s Desk are, surprise, surprise, not exactly materializing. M’s Desk at least has old Korean-language reviews from more than a decade ago that can be uploaded with less-than-extensive revisions.  If I could not get my academic work done with great efficiency, I thought I would at least get the film reviews flowing, but of course, having little time to do one often means having little time to do the other, as well.  Anyway, enough cranky talks.   

Needless to say, not contributing anything to Q Branch does not mean I have stopped watching movies, although even in this area I have more or less failed to adequately catch up with the untouched and unopened piles of Blu Rays.  More cheating: I have uploaded the reviews of three Korean horror films recently to our mothership site— 0.0MHz, The Divine Fury and Warning: Do Not Play— so they will count as Nos. 11, 12 and 13. Therefore, this list shall start with No. 14. Well, we are approaching the 1/6 point of the hundred pretty soon. Ever optimistic that we shall see through it by the end of this physical year (what a strange year 2020 is shaping up to be!).  As usual, the rating system is based on the Japanese critic Futaba Juzaburo’s invention: a white star counting for twenty points, and a black star for five points, with somewhere between 55 and 60 points pinned down as the “average” score, given that almost no movies actually score higher than 90 or lower than 30.      

14. Daniel Isn’t Real (US, 2019). A SpectreVision/ACE Pictures Entertainment Co-Production, distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films. 1 hour 40 minutes, Aspect Ratio 2.39:1. Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer. Written by Brian De Leeuw, based on his novel In This Way I Was Saved. Cinematography: Lyle Vincent. Music: Clark.  Watched through subscription: March 2020, Shudder.  SpectreVision, a company co-founded by The Hobbit star Elijah Wood (who even manages with his associates a podcast series interviewing major horror-fantasy creators, available via Amazon and other venues), is fast becoming the go-to production house for me to catch the new American indie horror opuses, outdistancing Blumhouse in terms of their batting averages as far as I am concerned. Their ninth motion picture, released theatrically just before Richard Stanley’s return vehicle Color Out of Space, received some welcome publicity due to its legacy casting, Miles Robbins, son of Tim and Susan Sarandon, and Patrick Schwarzenegger, son of Arnold and Maria Shriver, playing the introverted protagonist Luke and his “imaginary friend” Daniel.

At first glance, the film seems hopelessly conventional, trying its hand yet again at the split-personality premise that was already stretched to the breaking point in such mainstream thrillers/fantasies as Fight Club (1999) and Mr. Brooks (2007). However, Brian De Leeuw’s screenplay is actually pretty clever: he quickly establishes that Luke is well aware that Daniel is his imaginary friend. Daniel, too, while appropriately suave and cocky, seems genuinely committed to Luke’s welfare, not just offering the latter the timely advice to look and talk cool but also compelling the shy young man to confront some tough truths about his life (at one point Daniel helps Luke prevent his mother [a convincingly disturbed Mary Stuart Masterson] from committing suicide), before revealing his true colors. I was not expecting much in terms of the emotionally affecting interaction between these two, but, to my surprise, the movie takes time to build their relationships, and manages to capture interesting ambiguities in Luke’s “friendship” to Daniel. The young actors are also more than adequate in their respective roles: Patrick Schwarzenegger is rather restrained and believable as the darkly handsome Daniel, with just the right amount of flashes of reptilian sadism. Miles does not get to show his acting prowess properly until he is “taken over” by Daniel but is nonetheless able to convey Luke’s intelligence and anxiety without reducing him to a whiny schmuck. 

Daniel Isn’t Real starts off by semi-seriously exploring the psychological traumas suffered by Miles but by the two-thirds point transforms into a blatant monster show, wearing the influences of the better-known ‘80s horror films such as second and third installments of Nightmare on Elm Street series on its cuffs. It might disappoint some viewers who would have preferred the movie to take the Fight Club route, but I, for one, liked its somewhat reckless indulgence in gloppy special effects makeup and the borderline-chintzy massage-parlor-cum-haunted-mansion ambience representing Luke’s subconscious realm. Sure, its frantic climax and ending probably needed a few more tucks and trims: the denouement certainly makes sense in terms of character motivation but, given the affecting performances given by the leads up to that point, could have been much better. All in all, though, Daniel deserves a praise: it is a clever and charming horror flick that does not pretend to be more meaningful than it is. Another third-base hit from SpectreVision. 

15. Underwater (US, 2020). A 20th Century Fox Presents TSG/Chernin Entertainment Co-Production. 1 hour 35 minutes, Aspect Ration 2.35:1. Director: William Eubank. Screenplay: Brian Duffield, Adam Cozao. Cinematography: Bojan Bazelli. Production Designer: Naaman Marshall. Special Visual Effects: Blair Clark. Music: Marco Beltrami, Brandon Roberts. Rented April 7, 2020: Vudu.  In retrospective, Alien has turned out to be perhaps the most influential horror SF films of the last half-century, providing templates for countless features, nearly as much as The Exorcist has done for demon-possession/religious horror sub-genre. Underwater is yet another one that could count itself among the progenies of the Ridley Scott-directed classic, right down to the protagonist Norah (Kristen Steward), clearly an updated version of the original’s Ripley (Signourney Weaver’s star-making role).  Right away, the film puts a select crewmembers of an undersea drilling operation (run by a shady corporation with a Chinese-sounding name Tian Industries) into a life-or-death crisis, as the seventy percent of the station collapses in a matter of minutes, killing most of the personnel. They have to deal with the unimaginable levels of water pressure as well as a hitherto unknown species of deep-sea creature, the existence of which, the flashing main titles ominously suggest, has been covered up by the corporate interests. 

Like Brad Pitt-starring Ad Astra, Underwater is technically well put together: it showcases what a high-end Hollywood production could achieve both in terms of creating a superbly realistic setting, tightly sealed yet overrun by all manners of rubble and debris, and depicting a completely otherworldly deep-sea environment nonetheless devoid of neither life nor illumination. Director William Eubank is certainly capable of wrangling complicated action sequences and visually conveying the terror and mystery of the deep-sea environment, but as was the case with The Signal, on the strength of which he was probably able to nab this project, he has not yet learned how to modify his chosen template into something original or powerful in its own way (Some wags over-exaggerate the “conventional” quality of Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay for Alien, citing other precedents such as Planet of the Vampires and It! Terror from the Outer Space. I am quite certain that O’Bannon, had he survived [he died in 2009] to see the way Ridley Scott continued with the Alien franchise, his response would have been unprintable, at the very least useless for the purpose of promoting the latter films). 

The surviving crew members are nicely played by an appropriately multiracial cast— a jokester with a teddy bear fixation (T. J. Miller), an African deckhand (Mamoudou Athie), an Asian biologist (Jessica Henwick) and a frazzled otaku engineer (John Gallagher, Jr.)— but their odyssey to reach the escape pods is rigorously conventional, no matter how technically complicated it gets (as soon as one character insists, “the Shepard station is dead, there’s nothing there,” you know immediately that the allegedly destroyed station will show up in some capacity). At least Vincent Cassel as the captain of the rig gets to play a decent guy.

For me, the best thing Eubanks and company have done was to cast Kristen Stewart in the title role. Stewart, always an underrated actress even after working with the likes of Woody Allen, Ang Lee and Oliver Assayas, initially looks all wrong for a Ripley stand-in, with her cruel blonde-dyed crew cut, but even when she has to run around in bikini underwear (just like what Sigourney Weaver had to do in Alien’s final reel), she projects a winning combination of resilience and vulnerability.  While she carries the entire narrative on her shoulders like Atlas, Stewart is unable to uptick the creativity quotient of this slickly made studio blockbuster. Especially disappointing from my perspective is the design of the Big Mama monster finally revealed at the end: it is better than the ridiculous eels-sprouting-from-a-pufferfish thing that shows up in the inexplicably popular Deep Rising, but mostly it reminds us just how incredible H. R. Giger’s design work for Alien really was, and how essential a memorable design is for a monster show like this. ☆☆☆

16. The Dead Center (US, 2018). A Sequitur Cinema/LC Pictures Production. 1 hour 33 minutes, Aspect Ratio 1.85:1. Written and directed by Billy Senese. Cinematography: Andy Duensing. Producers: Shane Carruth, Denis Deck, Jonathan Rogers, Billy Senese. Editor: Jonathan Rogers. Music: Jordan Lehning. Purchased: Arrow Video Blu Ray, Region A. Release date: October 22, 2019. I probably would not have watched The Dead Center had Arrow Video not released it stateside in a special edition Blu Ray. Despite my efforts to keep abreast of any and all well-known horror & dark fantasy films stateside, sometimes an interesting example passes through the cracks.  Developed by director Senese and Jeremy Childs, who plays the Patient Zero in the feature, from their short film The Suicide Tapes, The Dead Center does not reveal its genre stripes until quite late in the plot. Before that, it focuses on the mounting frustrations and self-doubts of a psychiatrist Forrester (Shane Carruth, well-known for directing and starring in the indie mind-fornicator par excellence Primer), in what appears to be a dour, low-budget version of The Hospital.  When he encounters a patient who has inexplicably returned to life after committing a suicide (Childs), Forrester at first genuinely tries to help the latter with all the available tools of the trade. However, his perception of reality begins to slip from his control as he realizes that the Patient Zero had apparently been affected by a phenomenon, or a malicious being, left deliberately unclear which in the film, provisionally called “Mouth of Death.”  

The Dead Center is the kind of phlegmatic, you-should-be-afraid-of-shadows-in-the-corners-of-your-room psychological freakout that one tends to associate with the heydays of contemporary J-horror, although its reigning masters such as Kurosawa Kiyoshi and Miike Takashi have been making much more robustly genre-knowledgeable, straightforwardly “scary” films than Senese’s. It is quite successful in generating an atmosphere of quietly anticipated dread and stained-brown-hued despair, held together by an effective performance from Carruthers (looking like a handsomer version of Ron Silver), ably supported by Poorna Jagannathan as his equally harried supervisor and Childs as the mysterious (possibly undead) victim. The scenes set in the morgue, hospital rooms and corridors have that uncomfortable sense of wrongly lit rooms threatening to disclose some disgusting details about its walls or floors at any moment. This pervasive atmosphere is the best thing about the film.

Unfortunately, once Dr. Forrester goes over the edge and become convinced that some Evil Presence is lurking inside the Patient Zero, The Dead Center gets locked into a conventional structure of a zombie plague film, with the typical downer of an ending thematically sensible (especially in regard of what Senese wanted to convey in terms of his motivation in making the film, trying to make sense out of a close friend’s suicide) but emotionally unsatisfying. It might have been helpful, at least for me, if the visualization of “Mouth of Death” was less abstract than it is in the film, or conceptually truly out-there.  As it stands, the final third of the film neither reaches the Lovecraftian heights of plain weirdness, nor provides some intriguing insights about its characters and their psychology.  Having said this, I must say that the abrasive and nerve-wracking sound design of this film, that comes across with all the bells and whistles— or in this case, all the screeches and moans— in the Arrow Blu Ray version, does its job impressively well.

The Dead Center is well-constructed, competently directed and acted, and is plenty creepy: it could well have been an US-indie-circuit equivalent of Kurosawa’s masterpiece Pulse (Kairo), but in the end, it wraps itself up all too neatly and tightly.  Still recommended to the fans of psychological horror (not really recommended to the fans of the medical or “body” horror, despite unnerving scenes involving an autopsy and so on). ☆☆☆★