Sunday, May 23, 2010

#85: Shadow Builder (Jamie Dixon, 1998)

I had low expectations for visual effects man Jamie Dixon's straight-to-video directorial debut, Shadow Builder, and these low expectations were largely met. For one thing, look at that title. Yes, the title comes directly from the obscure Bram Stoker story that loosely inspired the film, but Shadow Builder? It sounds like something New Age idiots buy. I would like one dream catcher and one shadow builder, please. Shadow builder, build me a shadow! Then there's that whole straight-to-video thing, and that first-time director thing, and that director-is-normally-a-special-effects-guy thing. Sometimes, these things ain't no thing, but this time, these things were definitely a thing.

Here are the problems. The movie is visually generic and presented in a flat, anonymous style with no real sense of place. Filmed in the Toronto suburbs, it could be taking place in any random town or suburb in Canada or the United States. The script is ridiculous, simultaneously overwrought and underwritten, with loads of unintentional hilarity. The actors in the leading roles do a good job of naturally selling the ridiculous material, but many of the supporting roles are wildly overplayed. And the one thing I thought would be solid, the special effects, blows clams. Dixon was one of the pioneers of CGI, which still looks bad but is slowly getting better. Late-1990s CGI, however, can't be helped. It looks like outdated video game graphics and never for a second appears like it was filmed in the same place as the rest of the movie. There is no suspension of disbelief with CGI, especially from this early era. Even the packaging for this movie fails. The DVD cover with that goofy-looking demon on the front? That demon is not actually in this movie. The menu screen shows an image of a young boy who is also not in this movie, though a young boy is one of the main characters. I'd love to see this trend continue. Well, Tom Cruise is in this movie, but any movie star will do. Let's put Harrison Ford on the DVD cover instead.

Shadow Builder opens with renegade priest Michael Rooker (Henry in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) sneaking into the ceremony of a Satanic cult. This cult is summoning a demon called a shadow builder, who will unleash hell on earth by sacrificing one of God's chosen people during the upcoming solar eclipse. This comes directly from your Bible, people. I think it's in the middle somewhere. Remember all those shadow builder sermons you had to sit through in your youth? This cult is doing the ceremony up right. They've killed a man and a woman, drained some of their blood, and smeared the blood on a Bible, which they read from while standing in a pentagram. They've paid the drunken, deadbeat father of a young boy who experienced stigmata during his baptism and is pure at heart and all that shit to present a sample of the boy's hair and blood and a likeness. He comes through, they burn the stuff in a spooky, Satanic candle, and the shadow builder is summoned. This ceremony contains my favorite unintentionally hilarious line in the movie, from the cult leader: "You understand, 'hell no' will soon be a contradiction in terms. Hell will no longer be denied." Rooker busts in on the ceremony a little too late since the shadow builder has already appeared and left to do his work, but he does get to whip out a couple of guns and blow away all the cult members.

The film then shifts to the small town of Grand River, where the chosen boy lives with his veterinarian aunt, who dates the town sheriff. His mother is dead, and his dad's the aforementioned deadbeat. The shadow builder, who resembles Darth Vader and the Predator except his face is a constantly swirling CGI shadow, has hit town. He turns to dust in the light, but in the dark he can swirl around town and gather souls. He gets stronger with each soul, and he needs six of them to take the boy. Besides his direct soul stealing, his mere presence in the town is enough to create havoc. Grand River soon devolves into a succession of fistfights, axe murders, and spontaneous topless dancing. Soon, the boy, the sheriff, his aunt, the renegade priest, and the town eccentric (a sorry collection of affectations and tics sadly played by the Candyman himself, Tony Todd) are the only ones capable of saving humanity from the shadow builder.
Dixon, whose only other directing credit is a TV movie sequel to another TV movie called Bats: Human Harvest (apparently the story of killer bats attacking U.S. troops in Afghanistan), is still enjoying a long career as a visual effects person. His credits include Robocop 3, True Lies, Showgirls, Titanic, Deep Blue Sea, X-Men, Undercover Brother, and Tropic Thunder. Oh yeah, and Flubber. Never forget Flubber. Shadow Builder is no great shakes, not particularly scary, and not that memorable, but I did have fun watching it. You might, too, with enough beer, nachos, friends, and snarky comments to last two hours.
Bonus dialogue: "What is a priest doing with two nine-millimeter cannons?"

Saturday, May 1, 2010

#84: Session 9 (Brad Anderson, 2001)

Session 9 is, happily, a modern anomaly. That is, a horror film relying on character, suspense, tension, dread, and avoidance of cliche instead of godawful, anonymous, 2000s-style quick cutting, personality-free adolescent and twentysomething voids as main characters, bland and/or stupid remakes, and extended rape and torture. American horror films had a pretty weak decade, so it's even more disappointing that a gem like Session 9 fell through the cracks.
The movie takes place at, and was filmed in, a real abandoned mental hospital, Danvers, outside of Boston. I'm not sure why the facility closed in our real world, but in the movie, Danvers has been abandoned and empty since the mid-1980s because of the double whammy of Reagan economics and lawsuits over repressed memory therapy. I like having the facility closed for these reasons because they were some of the most idiotic bullshit of the 1980s. State institutions were forced to close thanks to that cocksucking prick of a president Republicans still can't stop ejaculating over at every mention of his name and his failed economic policies (terrible actor, too) and lots of mentally ill people were forced onto the streets. Also, a bunch of dumbass therapists convinced a lot of patients that they had been raped by their incestuous, Satan-worshiping family members and/or witnessed a lot of baby sacrifices and had repressed the terrible memories for years. None of this shit ever happened, a lot of families were torn apart, and a lot of therapists and institutions were deservedly sued. But I'm meandering on my foul-mouthed soapbox.

Anyway, the abandoned institution is going to become an office building, so a Hazmat team is contracted to remove all the asbestos. The team's boss (actor/director Peter Mullan) and his second-in-command (David Caruso, not playing a cop, also delivering one of the best fuck yous in cinema history) place their super-competitive bid and win the contract. Mullan says they can finish in a week, but Caruso thinks it will take at least three weeks to do a thorough job. The $10,000 bonus if they complete the gig in a week is incentive enough for Caruso to silence his objections. The rest of the team includes Josh Leonard (Undertow), who's sleeping with Caruso's ex-girlfriend, Mullan's mulleted nephew Brendan Sexton III (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Boys Don't Cry) and law-school dropout Stephen Gevedon (also the film's co-writer). These guys all have their own stresses, conflicts, and problems, and the film does a good job of showing the dynamics of a small group of people who've worked together closely for years. They're all developed characters, and they each get their moments. Leonard has one overwrought monologue (one of the film's few missteps), but he also gets a couple of the best lines. (On finding an old coin: "1883? Fuck yeah!" On discussing Mullan's stress over having a newborn daughter: "It should be the joy of his life, dude.") Every character is sympathetic, flawed, and suspicious at different moments in the film.

Besides the creepiness of an abandoned mental hospital, things get creepier when Gevedon, who has been considering a return to law school, sneaks away from work at periodic intervals to listen to tapes of nine therapy sessions he found in the basement. These sessions are between a psychologist and a woman with multiple personalities, and the woman is being goaded into revealing what happened on a Christmas night 22 years ago. The voices of the various personalities are unsettling, and the movie handles these scenes well. They could have easily been ridiculous, over-the-top, and stupid, but nothing stupid happens. For example, the tapes don't make Gevedon go crazy. Things do start getting stranger once the tapes are played, but the connection is mostly left to the audience's discretion. Once the tension really gets cracking, everything seems ominous, including such benign items as photos of a christening and an empty jar of peanut butter (seriously).

Director Brad Anderson lets his characters and story dictate the filmmaking style, instead of the other way around. One of the first features to be shot in Hi-Def digital, Session 9 relies on natural light, naturalistic shot compositions, and organic effects (CGI was only used once). We also get a couple of excellent cameos from CSI's Paul Guilfoyle and director Larry Fessenden (Habit, Wendigo). I haven't seen much of director Anderson's other work, but he directed the Christian Bale movie The Mechanic, which I've heard mostly negative things about, Next Stop Wonderland, Happy Accidents, and Transsiberian. He's also directed a lot of television, including two episodes of The Wire. I just started watching that show, and recently watched the first Anderson episode, which was particularly strong. Anybody have any opinions about Anderson's other films?
I'm giving a strong recommendation for Session 9. We need more character-based, non-idiotic, non-torture-based horror movies in our modern era. And this movie is actually scary.