The Green Inferno (2015)

Guess who just got back from seeing Eli Roth’s latest. Yep, that’d be me. This isn’t a complete review, as I’m still processing the film, but I wanted to write down some of my initial impressions.

First off, I did some research into the film’s somewhat complicated production history to determine that yes, all of the actors were fairly compensated for their work. One of the points that have been touted around about The Green Inferno was Roth’s use of native Peruvian villagers as actors, many of who had never seen a movie before. From what I’ve been able to dig up, everyone was compensated by union standards, the whole process was democratic and entirely voluntary, and all of the actors understood what they were getting into in the first place. It also appears that some of these actors have moved on to other pictures, including Antonieta Pari, who had an incredible screen presence for a first-time actress. I’m in the process of looking up her other film, and hope to see more of her if she decides to continue in the industry.

Coming out of The Green Inferno, I can see why a lot of people disliked it. A film like this just isn’t easy to sit through. Some art is pleasant to look at, and some pieces hit you repeatedly in the face with their ideas. For better or worse, The Green Inferno fits the latter bill. Two people walked out of the screening I attended. Eli Roth’s style is a mix of in your face brutality and cutting social commentary that sometimes get lost under the weight of all the gore. A lot of audiences just don’t have the stomach to sit through one of his films. And make no mistake, The Green Inferno is one of his most brutal. There are scenes of dismemberment, torture, cannibalism, and wanton mayhem, among other things. Eli Roth said that a lot of the actors wanted to be covered in fake blood during the shooting, and it’s very clear that they went through a ton of the stuff in the process. The Green Inferno is bloody, hard to watch, and at times just flat out disgusting. Not everyone, even regular horror fans, is going to be able to sit through it. That’s just the long and short of it.

And yes, this film is art. I will fight you on this.

It also relies heavily on the assumption that the view knows enough about current events, grindhouse horror, and the controversy surrounding its clear inspiration, Cannibal Holocaust to keep up with all the ideas the story is juggling. Above all, The Green Inferno is a horror film made for horror fans. I might go even further and say that The Green Inferno was made for horror scholars, though I’ll admit that most horror experts wouldn’t consider themselves scholars in the traditional sense. The casual viewer risks missing a lot of the nuance without doing some research beforehand. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – lots of genre films tell stories specifically for their longtime fans. However, it does lead to instances where audiences critique the story as senseless and disgusting while ignoring the very real ideas the film is trying to work through. That’s a risk that Eli Roth took going in with a project like this, and the controversy surrounding the film had to be expected.

To his credit, Eli Roth has been incredibly nuanced and respectful in his responses to the arguments that have cropped up since he first announced the project. It’s worth looking at some of the interviews he’s given concerning The Green Inferno. These two are interesting.

I guess now would be the time to give my opinion. While I’m still in the process of figuring out a longer answer to that, I’ll say that I liked it from an analytical standpoint. I’ve been a fan of Roth’s for a long time, and I’d say that this is one of his most thought-out projects yet. It’s also one that poses a lot of questions and leaves them for the audience to ponder, rather than trying to force a perfect solution in at the end in the style of your usual, Hollywood blockbuster. However, I am aware of the complications of a white, American director telling a story about Peruvian villagers terrorizing (mostly white), rich American teenagers – and my own perspective on this, as a white, American, middle class audience member. We all come into films with an agenda, and we always leave with an opinion on the one portrayed on-screen. I appreciate that Roth didn’t try to squeeze in an answer for all of the questions he posed, something that I admire about his work as a whole. In his films, it’s enough just to ask and wonder. The world is too big and strange to solve with a single answer. But isn’t it cool that we get to have the discussion in the first place?

On a technical level, the film was well shot and the scenes of the jungle were absolutely beautiful. Still, I’d argue that the scenes done in the marketplace were the best of the film, with the careful color balance and juxtapositions of modern and seemingly “traditional” objects. I also liked the hand-held shots that popped up in moments of fear and confusion, which gave the film a cluttered, disjointed feeling to match what the characters were feeling. The Green Inferno is a visually complicated films, with a tendency to cram a lot of “stuff” into the frame and leaving the viewer to decide on their own what to look at. This is a stylistic choice I’m not usually fond of, especially in horror films, but it worked strangely well here.

I’m also curious about the inclusion of the two lesbian characters, who did eventually die, but seemed to have one of the only healthy relationships in the story. There was also the implication that one of the women, Amy, was mentally ill, though this wasn’t fully explored within the story. It’s something that’s popped up before in Roth’s work, both the surprisingly (given the genre’s reputation) positive treatment of queer women in his narratives, and the inclusion of a female character with mental illness. I haven’t come to any conclusions about this just yet, but the inclusion of these characters is interesting to me. I shall give this more thought.

There’s still a lot to say about The Green Inferno. I hope to continue on with the discussion. It’s not a film for everyone, but if you can sit through it, then come talk about it with me.

Barracuda (1978)

 

Your average animals attack story, with a coastal town under siege by a giant barracuda, and the sheriff and marine biologist who team up to take down the fish and the chemical company that created it. Think of it as the younger, more annoying cousin of Jaws. It’s on obvious attempt to make the ocean look scary again and cash in on the summer blockbuster phenomena after the massive success that Jaws enjoyed.

Sadly, Barracuda lacks the tight script and masterful filmmaking that made Jaws so compelling. This film had some of the worst sound design I’ve ever come across, the props weren’t realistic, and none of the story had the dark undertones or hell, any undertones at all. The anti-pollution message was layered on pretty heavy at the top, but the discussion failed to touch on anything new or interesting. Even in 1978, the debate would have seemed dated.

The characters are as flat as their acting, the story rambles on without establishing any real tension or memorable conflict, and the monster looked awful on screen. I was surprised at the level of gore included in a film from this time period, but that didn’t add anything to the story. Plus, it was pretty easy to tell which “pieces” where plastic and which were cow bones.

Skip this one. Go watch Jaws.

The Barrens (2012)

In your traditional but well-loved story about a vacation gone very wrong, a man takes his family camping in the New Jersey Barrens and becomes convinced that they’re being stalked by the legendary Jersey Devil, a local legend made terrifyingly real in this film. A series of strange and violent events seem to support this. After all, eviscerated animals don’t usually drop straight out of the sky. But Richard also has a high fever from an unexplained injury, his temper seems to be getting worse and worse with every perceived slight, and the strangeness of the events surrounding him seem connected to his nightmares of a monstrous event in his childhood. Coincidence? Maybe. But then again, maybe not.

The Barrens does its best work when it just turns the camera on its cast and lets them bicker amongst each other, letting the drama unfold naturally without trying to explain everything in clear terms. This leads to some brilliant foreshadowing in the beginning (what happened to the family dog, for instance, is critical) from an event that initially looked like set dressing. However, it also leads to a few instances where pieces of the characters’ backstories aren’t revealed, and muddles the situation a bit too much. We know Richard and his daughter are from London, but his new wife and youngest son are not. We also know that Richard spent most of his childhood in New Jersey, and that something traumatic happened to him in the woods there. This trauma reveals itself at the worst possible moments, but is never fully explained or even examined. I’ll agree that some pieces of the backstory don’t need to be revealed – this is story about who these people are right now, not who they were in the past – but a few moments could have done with some clarification. For instance, whatever happened to Richard that he still (subconsciously) believes into adulthood that a monster was responsible? We don’t know.

Still, I like how The Barrens chose to disclose some information and keep the rest under wraps. It led to moments of poignant confession when various characters finally admitted things they’d been keeping secret, which makes for powerful filmmaking – especially with a horror film. Most of the horror here comes from the fact that there are circumstances that will make generally decent people do unspeakable, horrible things without changing their fundamental character. That, more than anything else, is what makes The Barrens so scary.

 

SPOILERS BELOW.

Whether or not the Jersey Devil exists or influenced any of the events in the film is left ambiguous at the ending, a move I’m not fond of. I feel that it undercuts the real unease that the story works in, about how decent people can – seemingly inexplicably – turn on the people they love without changing their fundamental character. Sometimes, good people do terrible things. A great deal of The Barrens is about secrets and hidden shame, and the resentment that grows out of keeping things from your loved ones. It places a lot of importance on the nature of confession and coming clean, though surprisingly doesn’t bring religion into the discussion. The Barrens just suggests that keeping shameful things hidden and lying to spare your loved ones feelings might not be the best course of action – and can lead to tragedy further down the line. Especially if the underlying cause of your childhood trauma is feeding into your hallucinations about the local boogeyman. Supernatural or not, the moral is about being truthful to your loved ones. It doesn’t hit you over the head with the message, but it’s buried beneath everything that the film does.

Still, The Barrens did give a surprisingly simple reason for all the weirdness that goes on in the film. Remember that injury that Richard had on his arm?

Turns out it’s a dog bite. And he has rabies.

Some information on the disease can be found here and here. For the most part, The Barrens gets most of its science right. The timeline of exactly when Richard got infected is a bit fuzzy, but the rest of the storyline makes sense to me. However, I am not a medical professional, so you can take that with a grain of salt.

Speaking of diseases, the film didn’t spell one of the more tragic aspects of rabies as it relates to the story. One of the reasons that Richard wants to go on the camping trip, aside from trying to connect with his children and increasingly frustrated wife, is to spread the ashes of his father. In a twisted bit of irony, he manages to do neither. Furthermore, rabies is almost always fatal once the neurological symptoms start to present. No matter how you take the events of the ending, Richard was already dying. So he went and alienated his family on the trip that was supposed to unite them, and would have inevitably died on the journey he was taking trying to put his father to rest. It’s one of film’s more tragic notes, though not spelled out. I didn’t put two and two together until I did some research on the disease. I’m undecided on whether or not this was a good move.

SPOILERS DONE

Visually, The Barrens is a lovely movie. The subdued imagery of the New Jersey forests were some of the most beautiful I’ve seen recently. However, some of the gore effects didn’t quite mesh with the rest of the background – it’s clear in a few instances that the dead animals are props, which broke the momentum of the scene – and some of the blood just didn’t look “right” compared to the realism of everything else in the film. The monster, however, looked goddamn amazing. It’s a feat to make something as outlandish as the Jersey Devil look persuasive and – dare I say it? – realistic on film, but The Barrens managed it. I give my since applause to the art department on that one.

The film was also well acted, with especially strong performances from Stephen Moyer as Richard and Peter DaCunha as the young Danny. However, the relationship that evolved between Sadie and her stepmother was my favorite by far, revealing a nuanced understanding of female relationships that I rarely see anywhere, let alone in horror. The Barrens isn’t afraid to portray its characters are people – well intentioned, but ultimately flawed, and sometimes cruel. Their flaws aren’t meant to demonize them, but simply to show how people let the best and worst of themselves out in moments of extreme stress – and occasionally just for the hell of it.

I enjoyed The Barrens a lot more than I expected to, despite its occasionally stumbling. Go see it. There aren’t many horror films that come out this nuanced these days.

Extinction (2015)

Extinction has a lot of ideas packed into what should have been a very small story. At times it wanted to be a zombie flick, then an “after the end” type story about an unconventional family, then it slipped into a monster flick, and then into a more traditional coming of age story. Unfortunately it tries hard to be all of these things at once and as such, fails to give each aspect its proper due. The family storylines never come to their logical head, and the eventual resolution of the plot rings hollow after so much setup for so little payoff.

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A lot of the character development didn’t make sense or wasn’t explored fully enough. For instance, one of the characters might be going mad from isolation and alcoholism, despite living in close proximity to other people, and suddenly seems to just…get over it one night. The young girl felt much older than what she was portrayed as, and her voice never quite found a solid tone to settle on. Her coming of age subplot didn’t have much of a conclusion. Sure, she gives up one of her dolls (symbol of childhood) in order to defeat a monster, but what happens after that? Extinction has a few lines about what it means to be human – mainly, not hiding in a house for your whole life – but doesn’t give its characters a clear direction to go in. The increasingly fractured family dynamics makes you root for them, but once those threads are resolved, there isn’t much to keep the audience invested.

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The monsters look decent, despite some moments of truly conspicuous CGI, but Extinction never explained how the shift from traditional zombies to the final product happened. The genre rules established in the film’s opening scenes suddenly don’t apply later on. While this makes for some interesting tension as the audience watches the characters scramble to adapt to the change, it comes a bit too late to be effective.

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I got the feeling that with its many ideas and mostly internal character development, Extinction would have been better served in novel format than a feature film. This one has too many ideas crammed into its two hours, and doesn’t manage to bring any of its questions to satisfactory answers. There are good moments, but the project as a whole is disjointed and confusing.

Fear The Walking Dead S1E3: The Dog

 The dog in question dies, if you were interested.

Fear The Walking Dead’s third episode is not giving me much hope for the rest of the season. The quality of episodes has been going steadily down since the pilot instead of improving as I’d hoped. Episode Three features some of the most inconsistent pacing and narrative that I’ve ever seen in a TV show, especially one with Fear’s budget. The story limps from one point to another without maintaining consistent tension, and several characters have already displayed attitudes that contradict their actions in previous episodes. I’m still hoping that these are early-episode stumbles and that Fear will eventually straighten itself up. The alternative is dealing with two full seasons of…this. It’s disappointing.

Still, Fear did have its moments this episode. We got to learn a bit more about the Salazar family, who introduced some interesting new character dynamics as well as establishing who’s most likely to survive the zombie apocalypse in one piece. (Spoiler: it’s the dude with the gun that is actually willing to use it). The clear generational divide in the Salazar family, as well as the tension between the American-born Ofelia and her refugee parents, added some realistic tension to a story that clearly needs a dose of it. Reality, that is.

See, another problem that Fear has had is that it’s trying to build a world that doesn’t know about zombies – a world that has no notion of even the fictional version. No myths of corpses rising from the grave to stalk the living, no 80s grindhouse films to laugh at over popcorn. Thus, what the characters face is completely alien to them. They have no way of comprehending or compartmentalizing what is happening to them, because it has no basis in their reality – or even their fiction.

The problem is, the audience already knows all the rules of the zombie genre. Watching characters play catch-up is annoying, and Fear has unfortunately been doing that for three episodes straight. Furthermore, it doesn’t establish what this world has in place of zombie stories – what myths do these people have about death? It’s clearly not the same as our world. Do they have ghosts and killer diseases inside their science fiction? How will that help the characters come to terms with the events going on around them?

So far, the world of Fear hasn’t proven itself to be especially well thought-out. Perceptions of police brutality spark a protest, but the resulting riot seems to be included for the sake of filming chaotic crowd scenes – without really considering that it was started by desperate people trapped with zombies in a situation that was both started by the police and made incredibly worse by the actions they took. If Fear is going to depict these sorts of events, then the writers need to really understand what they’re saying and how. You know who starts riots for funsies? White people. You know who starts riots because they’re legitimately angry, frustrated, and have been rebuffed by the system that’s supposed to protect them? Activists. That’s a very important distinction that Fear seems to have overlooked.

At this point, I can’t honestly recommend continuing with this show to anyone else. On an artistic level, the storytelling just isn’t up to par. It’s lazy, contradicts itself, and doesn’t maintain a consistent level of tension. The visuals are great, but it’s not enough to stick with a show just because it’s pretty. I’m liking the acting so far, but the script is making me groan.

Personally, I’m going to be sticking with Fear at least until the end of the first season because it’s talking about things I find interesting, even if I don’t agree with the show’s perspective on them. But I’m not going to make anyone else do it if they’re not sold already. Maybe things will get better. Most shows establish themselves in the first three episodes. Some nail it in the pilot. And some take a little bit longer. (The 100, for example). Fear is touching on some important and very relevant issues, including racism, class divisions, activism, and the consequences of relying on what’s becoming a police state in-story. I’ll be watching to see what Fear has to say.

Whitechapel (2009—2013)

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So, let’s talk about Whitechapel. I discovered it, as I tend to discover a lot of things, by picking up the first season randomly at the library. It concerns a group of detectives working in Whitechapel, London, and the various crimes they encounter. The first season is focused on a Jack the Ripper copycat, and the other three divide their time between various other cases – some with historical basis, and some that are just plain weird. The show goes a whole lot darker than what you’d expect from a police procedural, and earns its place in the horror genre. Sure, Whitechapel has its fair share of errors in addition to its great strengths, but I’m not giving a review today.

Well, not exactly. I want to talk about a single aspect of the show, one that I found interesting.

See, the first three seasons of Whitechapel are pretty much what you’d expect from a cop show, even one dipping its toes into the horror side of things. Horrible things are done, and horrible people are – eventually – brought to justice for them. Par for the course. But the fourth season jumps in with a completely different question. As the various crimes and misdeeds keep piling up, each of them somehow worse than the last, the characters start to ask themselves why all these things are happening in Whitechapel. Why do they have so many violent crimes and serial killers? And who is this woman who seems to be showing up in the periphery of every crime they’re investigating?

Pretty standard stuff for a crime show, right?

Now look at the trailer for the fourth season.

Folks, what we have here is a TV show trying a genre shift from your standard serial killer horror to supernatural horror. Even stranger, we have a TV show that actually pulls off a genre shift mid-story, without violating any of the history, rules, or logic it had previously established.

Now, TV shows have been playing around with genre for years. Remember the musical episode of Buffy? But there’s a small difference here. In the case of Buffy, the musical only lasted for a single episode and was explicitly caused by things already existing in the diagetic universe. Thus, it didn’t really change the nature of the show. It was played as a weird event in-universe, and – more importantly – not a recurring theme that would actually rearrange all of the rules and established history of the show that the audience had already accepted. The equivalent of the Buffy musical episode in a feature film might be a strange event that took about ten minutes of screen time and was eventually explained as being caused by drugs or something similar.

This is not what Whitechapel is doing with its fourth season. No, Whitechapel is threading in the possibility that supernatural forces and events are at work within the already dark world that the characters inhabit. Whitechapel goes a step further than that and also implies that the supernatural elements were present the entire time – the characters just didn’t know what clues to pick up on.

Strangely enough, this actually works. The fear and paranoia that the characters experience is matched by some strange camera effects that have always been at play in Whitechapel – but in the fourth season, suddenly seem very appropriate. Without spoiling anything, the supernatural elements are weaved into the storyline so expertly that the audience got to experience the same thing the characters did: struggling to understand a world where the rules suddenly and inexplicably change. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a TV show do something like this, adding in – or just revealing – elements of a completely different genre than the one presented in the initial storyline.

Even more interesting, in my opinion, is that Whitechapel didn’t change genres, per say: it switched subgenres of horror. Just think about that for a moment. This is a TV show that understood its own tropes so well that it could shift between to seemingly incompatible worlds of fiction (fantasy vs. realistic) in a way that didn’t throw the audience off.

That being said, there were fans of the show that didn’t like the direction that the fourth season took. The term jumping the shark was used. It’s also worth saying that Whitechapel was not renewed for a fifth season.

Still, that doesn’t detract from what the series attempted and – in my opinion – expertly pulled off. There is no exact equivalent to this sort of shift in film, for the simple reason that TV and movies just don’t work in quite the same way. I don’t think a film could pull off a shift like this so late in the story, so to speak. TV shows work on their own timeline, with each season working as an overarching story with individual chapters within it. Thus, there are chances for different seasons to go in radically different directions than the ones that came before or after. Another example of this would be Helix, though that show worked on a slightly different scale, timeline-wise, and I’d argue it wasn’t nearly as well executed.

This isn’t a review of Whitechapel as a whole, and I’m not going into the details of the storyline beyond this one feature. I enjoyed the show, thought it was well shot, and had some of the most sympathetic and interesting portrayals of a character with significant OCD in recent memory. It also took three seasons to add a woman to the main cast and never got around to casting any people of color in reoccurring roles. Whitechapel had its issues, sure. It also had some great cinematic and storytelling moments.

It also had this shift in tone and (sub)genre at the very end that I thought should be highlighted. I thought people should know about it.

Lost After Dark (2015)

 A 1970s period piece with your average slasher plot: a group of hooligans and one A+ student decide to steal a school bus at a dance, and promptly get stuck out in the middle of nowhere with a psycho killer. Hilarity ensues.

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There’s not all that much to say about Lost After Dark, to be honest. It’s decently acted, has some surprisingly human moments in unexpected places, and walks to the beat of a well-established drum. This is a movie that knows its roots. It’s a horror film about a certain breed of horror films and looks exactly like the old-school slashers fans of the genre have come to know and love. But looks are about as far as it gets. Lost After Dark features some decent moments, to be sure, but the film itself just isn’t remarkable. There’s no analysis or refection on old horror tropes, or even the culture of the 70s: everything is presented as is, all surface level. Individual characters have conversations that reveal some more humanizing complications, but these aren’t reflected in the film as a whole.

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Another problem I had was that the majority of the film was shot at night, and in such poor lighting that I had trouble telling what was happening for most of the scenes. There is an art to shooting film in the dark, but this movie has sadly not mastered it.

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Lost After Dark has its moments, but the lump sum just doesn’t hit the mark. Skip it.