Friday, December 31, 2010

#98: The Vanishing (George Sluizer, 1988)

I love horror movies, but horror movies don't really scare me. I've been unsettled by a handful of disturbing movies and felt suspense and shocks and surprise during particular scenes of many films, but horror is fun. There is a pleasure and a joy I take in the watching of horror movies that I just can't get anywhere else. When I really want to scare myself, I have to turn to another interest. In a separate compartment from my love of horror films is a fascination with true crime, particularly murder, double particularly the murder of a stranger by a weirdo with no apparent motive. I haven't had cable for thirteen years, but when I stay in a hotel or travel back home for the holidays, I load up on murder shows like "Forensic Files," "Cold Case Files," etc. I became fascinated by the Manson Family and Ted Bundy and Son of Sam when I was a small child of eight or nine, and I devoured serial killer biographies and television specials. I dubbed Geraldo's ridiculous interview with Manson in the mid-1980s on a cheap VHS tape and watched it dozens of times. I would drop everything to watch an episode of "Unsolved Mysteries," even a rerun.

I don't know why this fascination with murder and violent crime continues unabated. If I think about the victims too much, I start to feel terrible. Some people's lives are so brutal and short and full of misery, and too much thought about them and their families is a real buzzkill. However, the lives of killers, the cultural impact of the murders on the region where they occur and the area's collective psyche, the process of the police investigation, the science of forensics, the randomness of chance, all these things are so compelling. Murder also scares the shit out of me, and there's a sick part of me that thrives on this fear. I don't like rollercoasters, but a part of me likes the fact that there is a tiny chance I will be the victim of a violent crime. The fact that I haven't been the victim of a violent crime is, in some weird way, life-affirming. I'm not alone in my family. My mother used to read true-crime books. My sister shares my fascination with killers. (We once stayed up all night one Christmas break watching a marathon of serial killer specials.) My beloved late grandmother on my mother's side, a devout Catholic whose empathy and kindness explained her serious aversion to anything from the darker, dirtier side of life, nevertheless shared my same fascination with violent crime and serial murder.
You'd think horror movies about sociopathic killers would be right up my alley. Most of them, unfortunately, are pretty stupid. The Vanishing, a Dutch horror-thriller from the late 1980s, is one of the few that succeeds. This is an unsettling and disturbing film. It's also well made, well told, well performed, and compulsively entertaining. The Vanishing is a piece of fiction, but everything in it could conceivably happen. To other people. To someone you know. To someone you love. To you. And to me. A few of you sick bastards could even do these things. Maybe you already have.

The Vanishing opens with a Dutch couple in the middle of a road trip from Holland to France. They've been on the road for too long and are starting to wind each other up, as couples often do on long car trips. Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) won't drive on the highway even though Rex (Gene Bervoets) is tired. He won't stop for gas even though she thinks they're probably getting low. When they run out of gas in the middle of a dark tunnel road that is only one lane each way, the tensions burst. Rex leaves Saskia alone in the tunnel and walks to a gas station without telling her where he's going. He returns with a gas can. She's gone. He fills up, drives out of the tunnel, and sees her standing on the side of the road. They make up, apologize for being jerks, and continue the vacation. They stop again later for a beer, some Frisbee, a chance to stretch their legs. Saskia promises to do some highway driving and goes into the gas station for a beer and a soda. She never comes back.

The film then subtly and expertly interweaves the chronology of events before, during, and after Saskia's disappearance. We follow the man who kidnapped her, Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), as he gets the idea for the crime, practices it, makes some unsuccessful attempts, and finally gets his victim. We see Rex, three years later, with a new girlfriend, still haunted and obsessed by Saskia's disappearance. Finally, Raymond and Rex meet each other, and the film's supremely disturbing final act begins.
The Vanishing is a character-rich film without the usual blustering hyperbolic nonsense of the psycho killer genre. I could have done without the golden egg metaphor that crops up three or four times, but otherwise this is a film that proceeds intelligently, logically, and calmly toward its dark conclusion. Raymond is a fascinating character, a high school science teacher and a family man with a wife and two happy daughters, whose sociopathy drives him to do terrible things in the same matter-of-fact way he does the other things in his life. He's a complex, developed character, as are the other people in the film.

I first watched this film six or seven years ago, and the kidnapping scene still haunts me. I take a long road trip with my wife once or twice a year, and I think of this film whenever we stop for gas, food, or a bathroom or have those dumb arguments you have with your loved ones on a long car trip. A mild uneasiness hits me when we momentarily go our separate ways in those simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar gas stations in random small towns and cities off the interstate, and I don't breathe easy until my wife and I are back in the car together.
Dutch director George Sluizer made a horrible mistake when he directed a Hollywood remake of his own film in 1993. The remake cost more than 20 times the budget of the original and is, in every way, inferior. A truly inessential movie, the remake is ill-conceived, ordinary, stupid, and gutless. The usually wonderful Jeff Bridges is miscast as the sociopathic killer, and the film's second half betrays everything unique and disturbing about its predecessor. With a grindingly dull devotion to Hollywood convention, the remake's second half amps up the tension between the Rex character, here renamed Jeff and played by Kiefer Sutherland, and his new girlfriend. We get loads of dull scenes where Jeff fights with the girlfriend about his obsession with his missing ex-girlfriend (here played by Sandra Bullock, who I can only hope will actually disappear someday if a Blind Side sequel is ever proposed), and an extended fight scene in which Kiefer and Jeff Bridges battle each other to save the new girlfriend. Bridges is killed, Kiefer saves the day, poor Sandra is dead, but Kiefer and new girlfriend (Nancy Travis) can now live happily ever after. Avoid this bullshit at all costs.
Sluizer may have defamed his own accomplishment, but fortunately the original film still exists in a nice Criterion Collection edition. I highly recommend The Vanishing. Just make sure you're renting the right version.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

#97: Urban Ghost Story (Genevieve Jolliffe, 1998)

This low-budget Scottish film, though not without its problems, is a solid, enjoyable haunted house/social realism hybrid that convinces in both its modes for most of the running time. Take out the haunted house story, and you have a compelling drama about a 12-year-old girl, her young half-brother, and her single mom living in a Scottish tenement full of drug addicts, criminals, and the working poor. Take out the drama, and you have an atmospheric poltergeist story. Put them together, and you have a comedy about a lovable Sasquatch who moves into the household and turns it upside down. Wait, forget that last part. What you do end up with is a movie that successfully blends its genres into an organic whole.

Urban Ghost Story is full of memorable characters, and 12-year-old Lizzie (Heather Ann Foster) is the pivotal one. A smart, angsty pre-teen, she and another friend from her building decide to grow up a little too fast. The two middle school tenement buddies make some poor decisions that are a little advanced for their tender ages, including joyriding in the boy's father's car while loaded on vodka and ecstasy. These things tend to end poorly, and this is no exception. She survives the terrible car accident, though she is clinically dead for three minutes. She's left with a bum leg, but her friend isn't so lucky. He's trapped in the burning car and gets incinerated.

Lizzie is left with a wicked case of survivor's guilt and a poltergeist who may or may not be the spirit of her dead friend. Furniture starts moving around the bedroom she shares with her little half-brother Alex, his bed covers jump off the bed by themselves, and some invisible something scratches the walls and pounds on the doors. Her stressed-out single mom Kate thinks Lizzie is responsible at first, but soon changes her mind. She reports the events to the police and social services, but no one believes her. In desperation, she stupidly turns to a tabloid reporter she thinks believes her. He sees a marketable story to exploit and temporarily moves in to milk it for all its worth. The apartment is soon crawling with paranormal investigators and psychic mediums. Fun fact: the reporter is played by Sean Connery's son, Jason Connery, who has a much subtler Scottish brogue than his old man.

Things are tough for the family. Social services is investigating the mother for possible child abuse and neglect, a group of hired thugs led by Billy Boyd of Lord of the Rings fame comes calling for a debt, and Lizzie is hanging out with a teenage mom/druggie who is another of the tenement's many bad influences. Meanwhile, the ghost becomes more aggressive. These story strands are fleshed out and compelling until the final third of the film, but I'll get to that later.
Director/co-writer Genevieve Jolliffe has a nice eye for detail and shot composition, and her characters are three-dimensional and well written. The cast is uniformly strong, and their Scottish accents are so cute. That's a little condescending, I know, but I love a Scottish accent. The most terrible news sounds heartwarming when delivered in a Scottish brogue.

I'm recommending this film, but I have a few reservations. The soundtrack is occasionally oppressive. There are nice moments when Lizzie has her headphones on and we get a blast of the industrial metal she loves, but other instances of loud score are less organic to the story and punch scenes harder than they need to be punched. The film's final twenty minutes seem rushed and a little forced. The filmmakers seem to have realized, "Oh shit! We need to conclude these story strands! And fast! 23 skidoo, gang!" Plot points are resolved in a dizzying array of activity. The film is only one hour and twenty minutes long, so an extra ten minutes to conclude things less frantically wouldn't have been excessive. Despite these quibbles, Urban Ghost Story is an unfairly overlooked film that mostly succeeds as a social drama and a horror movie. I liked it.