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“Stay Away! For God’s Sake . . .!”
by Lucius Shepard
November 13, 2005

Most people, I believe, have had dreams that are more terrifying and more creative than the plots of horror movies. I know this to be true on a selective basis, at least, because I’m writing a series of fantasies based on other people’s dreams, and, in the process of researching the subject (i.e., letting people tell me their dreams), I’ve been impressed by the freshness and variety of the materials that have danced across the brains of so-called “non-creative” types. Given that it’s the so-called “creative” types who write the screenplays and make the movies, it strikes me as curious that almost nothing new and stimulating and inventive is to be found in the contemporary dark fantasy film. The genre has been boiled down to a few basic plots, the most common of which entails isolating your characters in some atmospheric locale or building, having an evil force pick them off one by one, and, along the way, providing them with enough information so that, perhaps, a couple of them can escape their particular demon/serial killer/predator. I’ve previously discussed the various wrong-headed logics underlying such reductions (multiple screenwriters; producers who ill-advisedly seek to render a script accessible to the broadest possible spectrum of the populace; etc.), yet it nevertheless seems odd that so little idiosyncratic material finds its way into the final product. Aficionados of the horror film have been conditioned to ratchet down their expectations, to take pleasure in slight variances, in twists, in anything that strays from the formulaic. And thus it was that, on learning Marc Forster, the director of Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland, competent and somewhat idiosyncratic movies both, was preparing to film a dark fantasy entitled Stay, featuring Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, I could scarcely be blamed for anticipating the result.

Foolish me.

In Stay, Sam (McGregor), a Columbia University professor and New York psychiatrist, and Lila (Watts), an artist, are lovers who are in the midst of coping with the aftershocks of her attempted suicide, an ordeal that Sam helped to steer her through. Introduced into this intimate dilemma is Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling), a morbidly inclined young painter for whom ordinary depression is a sunny day; he tells Henry that he intends to kill himself in three days, precisely at the stroke of midnight. As Sam makes his accustomed rounds of Brooklyn, playing chess with his blind mentor, Leon (Bob Hoskins), attempting to aid his friend and Henry’s traumatized former therapist, Beth (Janeane Garofalo), and, eventually, paying an alarming visit to Henry’s mother, he comes to realize that his life is intertwined on some deep level with that of his new patient.

Stay is not the typical hymn to incompetence produced by Hollywood—its incompetence is funded by misguided directorial ego more than by the usual culprits, a bloated budget and a fundamental lack of concern for matters of subtlety and taste; nor does it conform to the commonplace plot described above, but rather on a less frequently used yet even more antiquated conceit, one originally put forward by Ambrose Bierce in his story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” It might be proper etiquette for this revelation to be preceded by a spoiler alert, yet it would be pointless to preserve the movie’s purported surprise, since it is so heavily foreshadowed by symbols and tendentious dialogue (including a Shakespeare quote by a side character named for the Greek goddess of wisdom that hamfistedly reveals both plot and theme); the surprise is blown for everyone in the audience, except for preschoolers and the terminally obtuse. The movie serves as a souped-up, overly technical framework that masks this hoary twist, like a Ferrari powered by a Model T engine, and comes off as one of those dreadful student exercises in existential theater that preaches a soul-shattering message such as We Are All Alone or ends with an image of ants scurrying over a shinbone, a searing emblem of life’s inevitable bleakness. Instead of building on lessons learned from his experience in directing five feature films, Forster—in the service of art, one supposes—has chosen to return to his sophomore year in film school for inspiration and overexposes us to every trick contained in Film Directing Shot by Shot. Overlapping dissolves; interruptions of the visual flow; dressed-exactly-alike triplets posed in the backgrounds; shots marred on purpose by out-of-focus objects in the foreground; morphing for morphing’s sake; etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. There are so many spiral staircases and Moebius strips in the film, you just know that he recently discovered the work of Escher. Forster can’t stop showing off. He’s impressed by his technical repertoire, even if the audience is not. The film’s strongest moments—as for instance when we see Henry standing by the glass wall of an aquarium, and a sea lion appears out of the murk, attempting to bite off his head—-are ruined by Forster’s insistence on artistic overkill; in this particular case, he immediately thereafter presents us with a shot of a picture of a sea lion in Lila’s studio, turning a powerful image of impending doom into an unintentionally funny bit of pretension.

What’s it all mean?

Actually, I understand what most of the symbols mean and what the superfluity of visual gimmickry is intended to convey; I’ve read some of the same books as Forster, although we’ve apparently reached different conclusions as to their worth. However, there are several things I don’t understand. Like why is Naomi Watts in this movie, when her character serves no purpose? How did Forster, with all that talent and money at his disposal, manage to make such an uninvolving film? And this is the question that plagued me throughout the picture and plagues me still: Why, in every scene, were Ewan MacGregor’s pants hiked up so high that his cuffs hung six inches above his ankles, making him look like a tweedy yokel, Huck Finn with leather patches on his elbows? I’m certain there must be a reason, some homage to movies past, perhaps, and if I were able to grasp it, I’m certain it would cast Stay in an entirely new, albeit equally loathsome perspective.

Fortunately there are alternatives for the horror fan, ones afflicted by neither pretension nor budget bloat. First up, just out on DVD, we have Dan Mintz’s Cookers, a nasty little low-budget (it makes the The Blair Witch Project’s budget seem epic by proportion), three-character movie with a nifty twist on an oft-told tale. A white-trash dealer, Hector (Brad Hunt) and his girlfriend, Dorena (Cyia Batten), take refuge in an abandoned farmhouse, led there by a friend, Merle (Patrick McGaw), who lives in the area. Hector has stolen a large quantity of chemicals, which Dorena, his cooker, intends to turn into enough crystal meth to send them on permanent vacation. As Doreen proceeds to up cook up the meth, all three of them indulge and, before long, they’re using constantly, staying awake for days at a time, paranoid as rats, squabbling over the pettiest of issues, unable to determine whether or not the things they’ve begun to see are the product of their tweaking or something more sinister. Demonic presences, perhaps. They’re too paranoid to tell one another what they’re seeing, for fear the other two will consider them unreliable, and this leads to an ambiguity of resolution that’s refreshing in an era when most filmmakers are prone to drive home their intentions with all the delicacy and nuance of a shotgun blast.

The characters’ hallucinations are rendered allusively, yet vividly, and the acting—particularly Brad Hunt’s sweaty, twitchy, gum-rubbing, uber-paranoid man-with-a-plan—is utterly persuasive. Cookers is not without its flaws: the editing style, though appropriately quick and jumpy, is often hard on the eyes, and a couple of the FX shots are substandard. But apart from being one of the most authentic depictions of addiction ever put on film (credit the script by Jack Moore), this is the first movie I’ve seen in a long while that succeeded in unnerving me. And not by means of jump scares or FX shots, but through a genuine, slowly developing creepiness.

Even creepier is Soft for Digging, a movie made for a thesis project by twenty-year-old NYU student J.T. Petty. Shot for $6,000 on Super 16, this film is the horror genre stripped down to sinew and bone. The first line of dialogue (a single word, “Murder!”) occurs about eighteen minutes into the film, and then, about an hour later, is followed by three lines of exposition . . . and that’s it. There’s nothing forced or artificial about the silence, because the film treats of a lonely old man, Virgil (Edmond Mercier), and the silences of his empty existence, of water boiling for his morning egg, a squeaking cat toy, coffee perking, the scrape of chair, the creak of a door. Standing in his long johns on bird-thin legs, Virgil displays every lump and dent of a long hard life and, because we are so focused on him, these imperfections convey a rich emotional context that could not have been achieved through dialog.

When Virgil’s cat runs away, he hunts him in a nearby wood and happens upon the murder of a young girl—all he witnesses of it are the murderer’s back and two childish legs in tights and black Mary Janes suspended in mid-air and jerking spasmodically. Unable to persuade the police that a crime has been perpetrated, Virgil sets out to solve the murder and receives help from an unexpected source, the victim herself, who turns out not to be the innocent she appeared. The suspense is heightened by the division of the film into chapters with titles such as “A brief encounter with a strange couple; the occurrence of a horrible thing.” And Petty’s camera does the rest, utilizing missing frames of action, mysterious pixilated figures, speeded up film that blurs and perplexes, techniques that translate into jackhammer shocks and assist in the creation of something rarely seen in the genre: an effective and ingeniously devised horror film married to a beautifully observed character sketch, with an ending you will not see coming.

Lastly, we have The Descent, a remarkably intense British film due to receive an American theatrical release in late 2005 or early 2006. Directed by Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers), the picture begins with a rafting expedition that ends in disaster for one of its six women characters, then leaps forward a year in time, allowing both characters and plot to mature over the first half of the movie, all the while maintaining an unrelenting air of menace. Following this hiatus, the women, experienced adventure travelers, descend into a cave system which the leader, Juno, believes to be unexplored (this, by the way, is not to be confused with the crapfest The Cave, released earlier in the year). She has misled the others into thinking that the system is well-explored—it’s her idea that they need a challenge to reclaim their confidence. Before long, prevented from retracing their steps by a collapsed tunnel, they become lost; not long after that, they discover evidence that men have penetrated the system in centuries past, and they further discover a series of primitive cave paintings. The claustrophobic blackness; the silences; the distant noises; and, finally, the terrors that await below . . . Frodo’s journey through the mines of Minas Tirith was a Sunday stroll by comparison. Marshall employs his camera to excellent effect, at times using it to quote Frazetta paintings, shots that last no more than an instant, imprinting their savage content almost subliminally, and subsequently causing the screen virtually to explode in a chaos of blood and violence. Natalie Mendoza is a standout as the morally ambiguous Juno, as is Shona MacDonald, as the traumatized Sara. Though Marshall never strays far from the formulaic, he tweaks every aspect sufficiently so that each moment feels fresh, even to a jaded filmgoer. The ending, though it doesn’t come as a complete shock, is intelligently achieved, and the last shot, presaging a final descent into madness for one of the expedition, is an absolute stunner.

The rate of universal suckage being what it is,

we can’t expect too much of the horror genre. Films like Stay, like The Skeleton Key and standard-bearers of studio hackdom such as Bless the Child will be with us always. But there are some glints in the darkness, some suggestion that better films are on the way . . . unless, as with the characters in The Descent, we have reached a depth where every promising gleam is absorbed into the blackness and proves to have been merely the signal of another gory disappointment.