Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Movie Face/Off! Biblical Horror Edition (Round Two)

I blame the Reaping trailer. From the first moment I set eyes on its finely edited, momentum-packed, locusty goodness I was sold. Also, I'm one of the few who doesn't think Hilary Swank is a punchline to a joke, and have a thing for bibli-horror, so it was a no-brainer. Even though reports were coming in of less-than-10% ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, and people leaving the cinema wailing and gnashing their teeth at the awfulness, and the direction being handled by long-time moviemaking failure Stephen Hopkins, still I held out hope. What, I ask you, is wrong with my brain that compromises my judgement so completely? Is there a medical condition out there that explains why fast-editing gets past my internal censor? I should ignore trailers for life. They're responsible for so many wasted hours.

Last week we wasted two on The Reapening. Many apologies to Canyon who was wise enough to stop me from seeing the damn thing at the cinema, but unable to stop me hiring it via Amazon. Tellingly, it was the first brand new DVD I've ever put at the top of my rental list that didn't indicate any waiting time. Even The Number 23 has a Short Wait marker. This should have been a warning. In my defence, I will say I thought the negative reviews were easily ignored. Horror movies are notoriously ill-served by critics eager to distance themselves from a genre they think is beneath contempt. So we watched The Repeapening immediately. And verily it did suck, enough to bring down the walls of Jericho and scourge the city of Sodom even unto the ending of the world, amen!

Swank plays a professional miracle-debunker, zipping around the world in a effort to disprove the existence of God, like Richard Dawkins crossed with Indiana Jones but 100% less exciting than that, though admittedly 100% more attractive. Considering the amount of Swankbum close-ups, I think Stephen Hopkins agrees. She is approached by David Morrissey, all rumpled and tortured after the death of his only child, whose hometown of Haven is being plagued by, well, plagues. Biblical plagues! Right up Swank's alley.

She enlists the help of her colleague Idris Elba, wearing an egregious handlebar moustache, at which point I placed my bets as to when he would die. Because it's the rule in movies that the black sidekick dies before the end, usually to signify the raising of the stakes or the evil of the antagonist. It's so common that I unconsciously make predictions even while feeling nauseated by the whole insane cliched horseshit of it all. I plumped for one hour in, and settled back as the team leaves to go meet Morrissey back at his town, way down in Louisiana.

Morrissey, famed for undergoing auto-erotic asphyxiation during sex in Basic Instinct 2: Kink Addiction, is one of those actors that is obviously talented, but is most famous for appearing in films where there is no evidence of such. It's very frustrating. There is also the problem that he looks a bit like a smug potato, something that The Nesbitt also has trouble with.

Here he is charming the pants off Swank with his erudition and earthy, Southern swagger. It's a serviceable performance, hamstrung by the decision to use his dialect training to improve his Elvis impression, and we spent the entire movie finishing every one of his lines with an impassioned, "Uh huh huh!" This joke refused to get old, despite my efforts. He tells her of a murder of a boy in his town, and the young sister who may have committed the murder and then turned the river to blood (AnnaSophia Robb, who does sinister child-staring very well). He's pissed because, while investigating it, he ruined his best pair of Blue Suede Shoes. Uh huh huh.

With barely any delay, our team of Mythbusters get to work testing the bloody river for the presence of sciencey stuff. Biblical scientists (those who tally biblical tales with verifiable historical events) were consulted for the film, which accounts for one of the few good moments of the film, where Swank is confronted by a bunch of scared yokels whose cows are tipping themselves (by dying horribly). After listening to their theories of plagues and whatnot, she snaps and reels off the ten plagues that hit Egypt after the Old Testament God got pissed off at something the Egyptians did. Exploring their sexuality, or getting body piercings, or exercising their free will, or something equally heinous and plague-worthy. All ten plagues are accounted for by science: bacterial contamination of the Nile killed all the frogs, which created an increase in flies, which coincided with a terrible sandstorm, and more spreading of illness, and the poorly fed firstborn children of the area couldn't fend off the disease, and thus died (there was more, but I can't remember the ten plagues now. Baldness? Giant rabbits? My biblical knowledge is very basic). It's a very convincing argument, and the yokels immediately ignore it. Except Morrissey, who is all shook up by her brilliance.

Or so it seems! The town really is being hit with a series of biblical plagues, usually heralded by an appearance of the weird girl. Even if she was the meanest girl in town, why is this godly place being hit with the same plagues visited upon the godless Egyptians? It makes no sense, something that anyone with a suspicious mind would spot. So someone at some point says, "The Devil likes to borrow God's tricks," which is great misdirection, and totally fools everyone, oh yes (except for me who had totally spoiled for the finale for myself months earlier).

I know what you're thinking. "Why is Swank so anti-religion? There must be a very serious reason, because a natural belief in rationality and an interest in scientific objectivity just isn't good enough." The film responds thusly. She is phone-stalked by a priest from her past; Father Costigan, a name nowhere near as likeable as Bugenhagen. He's played by Stephen Rea, obviously killing time until Neil Jordan gets in touch. This was bad news for Canyon, who reacts to the appearance of Rea in much the same way I do when Thewlis and Schreiber show up.

During his various conversations with Swank, we slowly (and I do mean slowly) find out that Swank was a nun whose husband and son were killed in the Sudan by superstitious villagers suffering from the effects of a severe drought. Those crazy primitives! Beyond the offensiveness of the stereotype, it paints the scientific sceptic as someone hitting back at religion as vengeance. God (literally) forbid she might just be an unbeliever. Who'd sympathise with one of those? I'm sure it fulfils some McKee doctrine rather too literally, and ticks a box from a script meeting, having the heroine face the demons from her past, but it bugged me, especially as she is shown to have tried to commit suicide, which is ripped off heartily from Carl Schultz's far-superior The Seventh Sign. Anyway, her scepticism soon fades in the face of her many many dream sequences, mainly of her family being killed, though with the occasional kitchen mishap involving eggs filled with blood and kettles that don't just boil, but boil in italics with multiple exclamation marks after it!!!! She reacts badly to this, as you would.

See her pain? This scene made me wish I was watching Poltergeist. You know, the bit with the crawling steak, and the maggots, and the torn-up face. That was proper horror. The trouble with this scene is that a fairly important moment happens before this one. Morrissey decides Swank is probably feeling lonesome tonight. Cue much rutting, though at least this time we don't have to witness Morrissey's twitching buttocks and neck-harness enhanced O-face, a la BI2:RA. Despite this wonderful omission, the scene is filmed in such a way that you can't tell if it's actually happening, or if it is, is Swank in control of herself?

(I don't have a screen capture of the sex scene, for decency's sake, but I do have a picture of Idris Elba, topless. You can't see his back, which has a huge tattoo on it. He's a Christian in the movie, so I guess the tattoo is probably Jesus, but I was convinced it was Bob Marley. Hopkins has lit the scene so badly you can't tell what's going on. This is nothing new.)

Re: Swank's possible loss of control, I don't mean, "Phwoar, I'd do Morrissey as well, cor!" Until that moment she appears to be a hard-headed woman, but suddenly she's all swoopy hair and sweaty back with the potato man. If you know what happens at the end (hint: it involves evil pregnancy, as lots of bibli-horror movies do), this dramatic plot-swerve comes across as obviously paving the way for the big reveal, and if you don't know the ending it's needlessly creepy and unerotic, perhaps not as much as the rape scene in Rosemary's Baby, but similar in tone if not extent. Either way, it's ambiguous, because as soon as that ends, she's in the kitchen, and things are going bump, and the ghostly mysterious child returns, and then she's in the Sudan. Was the sex a dream a la Rosemary's Baby? Or is Stephen Hopkins a really shitty director with an appallingly bad track record? Oh, I answered my own question there. Never mind.

By this time there are more plagues, including a lice infestation among the children. This spells T-R-O-U-B-L-E for our intrepid scientists, and B-O-R-E-D-O-M for the audience. A series of plagues hitting a small Louisiana town should be fun, right? Well, perhaps it's the presence of Hopkins behind the camera, or budgetary constraints (it's made by Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis' medium budget horror factory Dark Castle), or maybe plagues just ain't what they used to be, but it goes nowhere real fast. We ended up entertaining ourselves by inventing alternate endings. Our favourite involved the Lice King, who lives in the sewers and send his lice soldiers out to rummage around in hair. Here is Canyon's sketch of the mighty and fearsome Lice King:

And yes, that ending would have been better. At around this point (where we were both surfing the net or washing the dishes in terror), Stephen Rea phones Swank to blurt out a ton of exposition about an ancient cult that sacrifices every child except its firstborn. Oh my God, more sacrifice! Swank's backstory has matched up with the A-plot! But what's this? More exposition tumbles out of Rea, heralding his imminent death, of course. There's an unnecessarily complicated prophecy involving second born children and a chosen one who will become the Anti-Christ! So it must be the young girl, right? She was a second born. But God doesn't actually seem to be targeting her. And there's supposed to be an angel involved. Whuh? That doesn't make... Oh, look, a big effects sequence involving billions of super-deadly locusts!

Swank regains her faith in about four seconds flat after getting the call from Rea (who then dies, for no real reason), and surmises the mysterious child is going to be killed by her crazy hillbilly family, and while looking for her gets caught up in the 7th plague, known as The Enlocusting. Actually, this is apparently what The Reaping is, perhaps because locusts eat/reap crops, though I doubt they can kill people, which is what they do here. Are they poisonous? Do they fly into your lungs eww? Maybe I missed something from my vantage point in the kitchen. Ignoring our sudden compulsion to switch the movie off and watch A Bug's Life instead, we stuck around to see, oh teh noes! Idris Elba killed in mysterious circumstances! At an hour and twenty, so I lost the bet with myself. This movie is obviously full of surprises.

Like the first big shock of the finale; it wasn't just the hillbillies that are evil, it's the whole damn town! And the kid is not evil, but sent by God to trigger the plagues, or something. And David Morrissey, while not actually being the devil in disguise, might as well be, that pig. And Swank is the angel, because she was once a nun. God unleashes his final horrifying plague; the CGI Fireballing! The townsfolk are rent asunder in a shitload of digital flames, and Morrissey tries to mess with Swank, but God says nuh uh bitch and hits him with all of his fancily rendered wrath. Booyah, potato man! God obviously likes his spuds roasted.

With everyone else in the film now dead, Swank drives off with the holy child, which would have made a tolerable end, but then the child reveals that The Shagging that happened mid-film got Swank pregnant. That virile bastard! Turns out it counts as her second child and his second child, and basically, thanks to the risible rules the movie has written for itself, the kid is the Anti-Christ. All along she was a puppet on a string, and woooo big shock ending. It's totally superfluous and adds nothing to the movie. In fact, it just complicates matters greatly. Very silly stuff, but of course the film has to portray sex and pregnancy as being the end of the world. That's what this shit always does.

Needless to say, I hated it. The able cast is wasted utterly, obviously trying desperately to breathe life into a movie edited into flatness in post. I really do have a big problem with the continuing employment of Stephen Hopkins. Again and again he pummels good or indifferent material into empty, momentum-free film-chaff. With The Repeapeninging Hopkins proves yet again he has no idea how to pace a movie or create atmosphere; it's one of the least effective horror movies I've ever seen. Nothing in it works, which is surprising as it borrows plots from far better movies: Rosemary's Baby, Exorcist III, The Seventh Sign, etc. Yes, the script (which he is not responsible for) is horribly derivative and silly without his help, but that doesn't change the fact that everything he touches turns to grey paste. Only the first season of 24 and The Life and Death of Peter Sellers rise above his usual level, and they're for TV. Perhaps he should stay there.

Right, I'm in the middle of inventing a hugely complicated scoring system to see which Fightbot will triumph in this Face/Off, but until then, see how many Elvis references you can find in this post. It should give me time to work out my film algebra.


Tara said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

"Exploring their sexuality, or getting body piercings, or exercising their free will, or something equally heinous and plague-worthy.".....wow I am pretty sure the plagues were a result of the Egyptian's continued slavery of the Hebrews. Does the saying, "Let my people go" mean anything. This is a pointless article by whoever wrote it.

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