Genre films walk a fine line. One side of the line is cliché, on the other, artiness. To stumble in either direction is to risk commercial failure, and genre movies are above all commercial enterprises.
We horror fans are jaded traditionalists. We want our movies to have something old and something new in a satisfying blend. Unfortunately, if its too innovative, the movie may not reach its proper audiencechalk this up to the bewilderment of studio execs, distributors or marketing people.
Count these three in the orphaned category: Ravenous (1999), Session 9 (2001) and Frailty (2001), all movies that pretty much fell through the cracks of the system. While most films are sold with comparisons to other films they resemble, these films are best characterized by their differences with mainstream fare. No wonder they didnt make the grade in your local mall mega-theater. Theyre all readily available on VHS and DVD, however, and theyre just the kind of thing that might appeal to readers of this monster magazine (into which one may sink ones teeth).
These films are unusual horrors for our time in that they dont partake of the joking post-modernism of the Scream series or its imitators. Though not devoid of humor, theyre straightforward scare films with only undercurrents of irony.
Unlike many recent big-studio products, these films dont rely on special effects for their frights. I cant think of an instance in any of the three with obvious CGI. And although theyre not squeamish about the occasional bloody effects of violence, theyre far from being gore films; this makes them, in a sense, classically styled.
(As filmmaker Brad Anderson says in the program notes for Session 9, Todays so-called horror movies are really just tongue-in-cheek J. Crew ads with lots of fake blood and some flavor-of-the-week MTV metal band screaming on the soundtrack. Not scary.)
Finally, these movies are about men. Not the manlike action figures of Predator, or Aliens, or Ghosts of Mars, or Reign of Fire, or any number of other monster films. These are regular everyday grown-up men, with all their faults, phobias and vulnerabilities on embarrassing display.
Ravenous was distributed in theatersI use the term distributed looselyby 20th Century Fox, which evidently didnt quite know what to do with this oddball film. Viewers of the theatrical trailer, myself included, could have easily mistaken it for a standard outdoor survival adventure livened up with a cannibal attack. The mischaracterization continues on the home video cover, which links the story to the Donner party nastiness of the 1840s, a weak association at best, and refers to non-stop action and a marauding band of cannibals, neither of which occur.
If youre thinking Night of the Living Dead or one of its imitators, think again; this movie is an original and smarter departure from that legacy. Guy Pearce, seen recently battling Morlocks in the misconceived The Time Machine (2002), here goes up against equally powerful but far more articulate flesh-eaters. The setting is the Old West frontier, and the conceit is that cannibalism is the key to acquiring super-human strength, endurance, and the ability to heal ones own wounds. One character refers to such beings as wendigo, a misreading of a northern Native American legend. In fact cannibal number one behaves more like a vampire here, killing some normal humans and recruiting others to his cause, a monstrous variation on manifest destiny.
Pearce is an atypical slayer of monsters. At the outset hes exiled to the wilderness for apparent cowardice; instead of battling his fate he tends to brood, and at one point hes seen cowering in fear of his antagonista perfectly understandable reaction, but not what you expect from a Hollywood leading man. Robert (The Full Monty) Carlyle and Jeffrey Jones are effective as suspects in this weirdly low-key scenario, and even David Arquette is tolerably subdued.
During the short lulls in the leisurely plot you might enjoy the evocative outdoor photography by Anthony B. Richmond or the quirky and memorable music by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn. Incidentally, Ravenous is directed by Antonia Bird, a womana fact that may or may not have anything to do with anything.
The independently produced Session 9 has at its center a terrific location, the Danvers Mental Hospital near Boston, a massive institutional complex built in the 1860s and abandoned in the 1980s. It is interesting to note that filmmakers Brad Anderson and Stephen Gevedon had this site in mind even before they began writing the script.
Their next step was to come up with some good reason for people to hang around a haunted house. Their answer was ingenious, one of the best rationales I can recall: the characters are in a crew removing asbestos from the building and working overtimeeven after darkto meet a deadline. Which is to say, its the profit motive.
So far, so good, but there are complications. The crew is undisciplined and fractious, even more than the usual bunch of working-class guys, and they neglect their pressing job duties to pursue their disparate preoccupations, led on by urban legends about the building. For example, one gets the notion theres treasure hidden somewhere. And another becomes obsessed with a room full of therapists audiotapes, particularly recordings of the ravings of an alleged victim of satanic ritual abuse in hypnotherapy sessionssession one, session two, session three….
Creepy psychic residue in a former insane asylum is also a theme of the recent remake of The House on Haunted Hill, and its the scariest thing about that film, but Session 9 goes right where The House on Haunted Hill eventually goes wrong. Anderson and Gevedon keep the spooks just out of sight, and the shadowy visuals and hysterical soundtrack carry the burden of thrills, almost to the disturbing end.
Actor Bill Paxton made his unconventional debut as a director with the indie Frailty. Paxton has done fine work in dozens of good films, among them Aliens, Near Dark, One False Move, Apollo 13,and A Simple Plan. He seems to have more fun making movies than any leading man Ive seen. But hes still under the radar for most moviegoers, and frankly, this well-made but outlandish horror film probably wont raise his profile.
Think of Frailty as an M. Night Shyamalan script turned upside-down and twisted hard. It has Shyamalans standard scenario of faith and family challenged by apparent supernatural intervention, but here faith is not the solution, but a murderous problem.
The story is told mostly in flashback by a wrung-out looking Matthew McConaughey to FBI guy Powers Boothe, whos looking for the recently revived Gods Hand Killer. McConaughey claims to have the key to the serial murders, but first we all have to hear his life story.
Seems that young Fenton and Adam Meiks (Matt OLeary and Jeremy Sumpter) are having a normal childhood, or as normal as it gets when youre children of a single father in what looks like Billy Bob Thorntons hometown. Then one night Daddy Meiks (Paxton) suddenly decides hes the instrument of Gods justice against demons on earth. God even supplies the tools: a used work glove that can reveal the demons true nature with a touch, and the main weapon, a nasty looking axe. Uh, right, Dad.
Our protagonist Fenton is having trouble accepting this unusual turn of events, but Adam becomes increasingly gung-ho, even wielding the axe himself on one occasion, and helping Dad confine his wayward brother in one particularly grueling scene.
For those who prefer their blood in drops rather than buckets, this is probably the most delicately portrayed series of axe murders since the classic made-for-TV movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975). But I wouldnt recommend Frailty for the squeamish. No Shyamalan sentimentalism here; this is old-time religion, old as in Old Testament, where the vengeance of the Lord can be pretty shocking.