Saturday, March 28, 2009

For the children and because of them...

The Children (2008) [*]

How the hell is is that one does not like movies about killer children? Who can resist those mischievous grins when they're party to some real balls to the wall trouble like murder. Does anybody remember when Brian Bonsall of "Family Ties" took it to the house as a bow and arrow brandishing, throw a radio in the pool/hot tub certified psychopath? Maybe it's because I was a kid, but it was terrifying then and even now I have a cousin who looks eerily similar to the kid from "The Omen" remake and I dread the moments when he yanks my facial hair. Remember "The Children of the Corn" or Leif Garrett in "Devil Times Five"? Well take all those memories and hold on to them a little tighter because the Brits are about to fuck all those memories in the ass with "The Children."

Running only a scant 76 minutes, but paced and executed like it lasts as many years is set in the British countryside during Christmas and involves two families getting together, lots of screaming ass little bastards (home schooled, spoiled and nurtured in a frankly faggotty "no hitting zone"), almost as many stupid adults and one poorly reasoned explanation for why the kids are suddenly bloodthristy killers. I'll try and explain.

A little girl named Leah is sick, she's hanging out with her cousins and they cough on shit and share toys, people scream and another little girl coughs and wipes her findings on the pillow next to her, the camera zooms in on the stain and we see microbes or bacteria swimming all about. There's also the magical 99.6 on your radio dial which may or may not be a trigger for these children to start killing and then there's a scene where Leah slams a toy down repeatedly and stabs it while we cut to another child doing the very same thing to her own mother. Psychic link, radio trigger, mysterious disease? Why not all of them? It'll be more chilling if we don't explain it.

Also, everytime one of these kids runs around screaming, their parents come running to check on their children. A particularly stupid moment involves a kid named Paulie (the annoying, ugly William Howes) screaming on the monkey bars. His mom runs over to help him and as she reaches out to grab him, he keeps backing up and she keeps following him. He kicks her and she gets tangled up in the jungle gym and breaks her leg. Have any of these people for a second ever used their brain and said, "I don't want to deal with you when you're like this and just walked away?" It's a simple trick, if a kid feels like they're in danger of you ignoring them they'll change their strategy and/or behave. They might be old enough to kill you, but they're still young enough they don't want to be alienated from you yet. I can't vouch that these tricks will work on psychotic children, but they have obviously never been ignored before and it might shock the shit out of them.

Dinner table misbehavior is part of an elaborate scheme to get one of the adults alone outside and onto a sled so they can place a wagon just so that he can get his scalp ripped off by the gardening tool sticking out of the side as he sleds past. It's not exactly as visceral a moment as it could be, but Paul Hyett's F/X are a pleasant surprise-- child impalings, a skin flap that oozes blood when lifted and a nice broken leg are the highlights. Sadly, the film is edited to within an inch of it's life. Cutting away at the wrong time or providing pay offs a few scenes past their prime effectiveness.

Not every horror film can be a winner, but few waste their premise as soundly as "The Children."

Last House on the Left (2009) [***]

Another Wes Craven film hits it big in the remake sweepstakes. "The Last House on the Left" is the story of a vacationing family pushed to the limits over the course of a single day and night when they come face to face with a murderous gang seeking shelter from a storm only to walk smack into the middle of another one.

Krug (Garrett Dillahunt) is freed from police custody when his girlfriend and brother crash into the vehicle transporting him. The coppers are brutally put out of their misery and then the action cuts to the next day when the aforementioned vacationing family The Collingwood's (pa Tony Goldwyn, ma Monica Potter and daughter Sara Paxton) who after a hectic few months are looking forward to some peace and quiet out in the middle of nowhere.

Sensing that her parents haven't had much time alone together Mari (Paxton) offers to get lost with her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac) who unwisely opts to buy some weed from a shoplifter in the store she works at, unwisely opts to stay at his motel room and get stoned and unwisely opts to get bled like a stuck pig (against her will) when we find out the dealer's father is our opening credits psychopath Krug.

"The Last House on the Left" resorts to pulling no punches early on, the early murder of the police officers is brutal and in a recurring bit Krug teases his victims with comforting images; as he strangles one cop, he dangles a photo of his children in front of him and when he kills Paige he insists that Megan offer her comfort as she dies because "her friend needs her." Dillahunt whom you might know from "Deadwood" or "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" is good at conveying a sort of robotic menace (I mean that as a compliment). He knows only to perform an act, every word seems calculated to lead to a certain end. Words, he understands, are a trigger and can lead to violence. Any sort of physical reaction or movement is designed to inflict pain and/or fulfill what would be a biological imperative in a normal person but is, in him, rote memorization learned from watching people interact.

When I watch films about civilized people getting righteously Medieval on the asses of their oppressors like "The Hills Have Eyes" or "Hostel" it seems like every moment is calculated to get the audience standing up and cheering by the time the hero fights back ("The Hills Have Eyes" screening I attended three years ago, elicited some cheers when Doug vanquished his first mutant baddie, come to think of it people liked it when the dog killed some of those the mutants as well) or at the very least feeling a catharsis of some sort. "The Last House on the Left" elicits what could arguably be called the correct response for a movie like this. The villains are not mutated creatures or businessmen who pay to torture but a regular roving band of psychopaths and an innocent(ish) kid. We witness things that make us want to want these people dead, but we feel hollow and nasty at the end just the same. No vindication only shame.

There are times when we die right alongside Mari spoiler! After her frank and brutal rape at the hands of Krug and watching her friend bleed to death the soundtrack is pierced only by silence, an intense disquiet haunts the audience as Mari summons the courage to run, she strikes Krug with a rock and she's off end spoiler! We see Mari taking broad strokes as she hits the water, successfully escaping, and the power of the image of the ocean as a symbol of woman, rebirth is not lost upon us then the bullet hits her in the back. We know this doesn't kill her from the trailers, but Iliadis' ability to dash our hopes so completely, to destroy the power of a symbol and never offer the proper victim a chance to fight back can't be denied. To that end, how effectively this picture utilizes cruelty is actually a plus.

Another way in which Iliadis' picture succeeds is in how it makes us feel complicit not just as people watching, but by having the Collingwood's execute a man together. Everything they do is not quiet enough to kill him; they have to improvise and when they fail to drown him in the sink they turn on the garbage disposal to mangle his hands and finally bury a hammer in his skull. Who knew it would take so much effort to kill a man? The implicit suggestion is that our darkest impulses are best left in the farthest corners of ourselves and to expose them with others, whatever the circumstance, is to expose the most shameful parts of ourselves.

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