Like all genres, horror films are dominated by trends. 2016’s big fad was the “survival” subgenre, probably because it was hitting a nerve in this tumultuous year.
Now, like the goddamn “Home Invasion”movies, “Survival” flicks don’t really rank high in my list of favourite subgenres, so I was admittedly a little reluctant to check out the three critically and commercially wildly successful entries The Shallows, Don’t Breathe and Green Room, but due to the overwhelmingly positive reactions I was willing to shake off my prejudices and give them a try.
And, speaking of the weirdness that is 2016, it revealed to be yet another occasion when I found myself totally at odds with the critical and audience consensus.
Because bottling up negative emotions is not healthy, I decided to channel my thoughts into a triple
write-up rant, starting with the least unwatchable of the three and closing with the worst, the probably most undeservedly overhyped movie of this season so far.
For your enjoyment!
directed by Jaume Collet-Sera
Probably the best out of the bunch, due to some trashy flourishes. Yet there are still not enough to elevate the movie over the “barely entertaining” level.
Which is regrettable, because on paper director Jaume Collet-Sera would have been the right choice for a trashy fun ride. His House of Wax (2005) remake is a guilty pleasure of mine. I also enjoyed his riff on the “amnesiac spy” trope Unknown (2011). Well, Orphan (2009), a belated entry into the dreadful “domestic peril” genre from the early 90s, admittedly not so much.
The story starts with medical school-dropout (characterization!) and surfer enthusiast (more characterization!) Nancy (Blake Lively) arriving at a “hidden” beach somewhere in Mexico. First we get 20 minutes or so of what seems to be a disguised tourism ad, including video phone conversations and instagram posts directly inserted into the frame. While this (sadly) might be a very accurate reflection of the non-immersive, permanently “connected” vacation experience that has become common nowadays, it’s also pretty annoying and made me peek at the timecode more than a few times. Things get more interesting when the shark finally attacks and Nancy has to fight for her survival, stuck on a tiny rock in the sea that is going to be submerged by the flood in a few hours, which will be leaving her as defenceless prey to the marine predator.
As I said before, The Shallows would have been more enjoyable if it had just focused on the shark attacks with multiple victims, because those are the moments where the movie excels. But instead, it tries to be a tense survival drama, which doesn’t really work for several reasons. First, this concept needs a really strong performance by the lead to keep us interested in the fate of the character and Lively simply doesn’t deliver, which might be partly the fault of the script though, to be fair. Second, essential ingredients for a story like this, such as a subtle tension or an intimate atmosphere, don’t belong to Collet-Serra’s core strengths as director, as it was proven with Orphan already. He is at his best shooting loud and trashy yet well-crafted set pieces, which makes me wonder why he hasn’t been hired to direct a Fast & Furious movie yet. And third, it’s very much a tested and tired trope – Open Water anyone?
In the end, a few good moments are smothered under the weight of the extremely predictable, plodding plot and a silly showdown that features some horrendous, possibly rushed CGI.
directed by Fede Alvarez
A gang of three juvenile burglars (one of them played by Jane Levy) plans to rob the house of an Iraq veteran (Stephen Lang) whom they suspect of storing a sum of $ 300 K, which he received as a settlement after his daughter was killed in a Hit and Run, at home. Although it’s the first time they break into a house that is not empty, they consider the operation a sure thing as the circumstances are perfect: The veteran’s house is situated in a deserted quarter of Detroit, he is living alone and even better, he is blind. Unfortunately though, he is not as defenceless as he seems…
The big problem of this movie is that it never, at no point, draws you in, missing a certain immersive quality that is crucial to make a ludicrous story like this work. It’s not entirely director Fede Alvarez’ fault, who can deliver a glossy, well-made product. Most of the blame can be put on the piss-poor writing. Not only are there no believable characters in this movie, they are not even OTT enough to be entertaining. Levy’s character’s motive to join the burglary is to escape the clutches of her white trash patchwork- family with her baby sister, illustrated in a eyeroll-inducing social class exploitation scene set in the family’s trailer whose absurdity and lack of impact is emphasized due to its Tony Scott-gloss style, light-drenched visuals. But far more disappointing is how understated, or rather underwritten the villain comes over, totally wasting the constantly brilliant Stephen Lang by giving him nothing substantial to work with. His performance actually still remains the best element of Don’t Breathe due to his incredibly imposing and charismatic presence, but he could have been so much better if he had stood a chance against the lousy script.
Coming to the major sin of this flick, namely the lack of internal consistency or logic. Unlike other horror subgenres, the more grounded “home invasion” and “survival” movies have to adhere to a certain set of rules based on real-world logic, especially when they are set in a confined space, otherwise they fall apart quickly. Shots of people hiding under furniture or sneaking through hallways alone don’t create any suspense and get boring soon when the stakes are set to “random”. Don’t Breathe is all over the place in this regard. One moment the “Blind Man” can smell shoes placed beside the door, the next he doesn’t notice someone standing an arm length away. Then there is his dog who turns up whenever the plot needs it and is conveniently absent in between. Not to speak of the house whose architecture reveals to be more “impossible” than that of the Overlook Hotel.
Even if you are willing to ignore all those faults, there is nothing much to cling to, just a procedure of ticking all the boxes of the typical “home invasion” mechanics. Of course, there is this nasty, frequently discussed twist in the second half of the movie, a story turn that had the potential to put things into a completely new perspective, but doesn’t lead anywhere. In the end it’s reduced to a gratuitous plot gimmick, just one dumb moment following many others, nasty for nastiness’ sake.
Allow me a short detour here. The secret of the effectiveness of a nasty moment in thrillers and horror movies, especially one that is based on real world incidents like in this case, lies in the presentation. Either it has to be extraordinarily gripping -which it isn’t- or it has to have some twist to it, might it be artistically heightened or be integral to the themes of the film, whatever. It’s not unlike a joke about a serious topic, you can be humorous about anything, as long as you do it with wit. In times of overwhelming media coverage of literally anything though, including a “taboo” topic solely for shock value doesn’t do it anymore. Tabloids already did that before, the artist has to add something and Don’t Breathe fails at that.
Don’t Breathe is an empty experience with an utterly clueless script and a serious lack of personality.
directed by Jeremy Saulnier
A touring Punk band (among them Anton Yelchin) is invited to a Rock festival in a remote area, only to find out that it is a Neonazi/Skinhead happening. To add insult to injury, they accidentally get to witness the murder of Nazi girl in the backstage “Green Room”. After a botched hostage situation the band is trapped inside the room, while the Nazi gang outside (led by Patrick Stewart) makes up plans to kill those witnesses.
A lot of what I said about Don’t Breathe applies to Green Room as well. It’s another movie that tries too hard to be nasty and gritty, but it’s too aseptic looking, ineptly written and woodenly acted to be the visceral adrenaline- pusher it pretends to be. And it’s that poserdom that puts it a level below Don’t Breathe even.
Making the lead characters unlikeable assholes didn’t really make me feel invested in their fate. I guess the intention was to make them appear gradually more and more sympathetic as the film progresses, but the script doesn’t live up to that challenge and when the third act started, I still wanted them to die, which makes me almost feel bad considering Anton Yelchin’s real-life fate. In a noble attempt to avoid the usual cliches, the Nazis are painted as more reasonable and level-headed than it’s usually the case in movies, but again the mediocre acting and writing sabotages this intention and they end up as being bland and exchangeable only. They could also be a gang of mean-spirited hicks, meth cooks or whatever group of generic villains you can think of, the Nazi background is nothing more than an aesthetic decision. I was very disappointed with Patrick Stewart, who does don the menacing look perfectly, but is sleepwalking through his performance as if he didn’t want to be there.
Director Saulnier is too keen on keeping the plot cards close to the chest so he can take the audience by surprise any time, but this approach backfires, because it makes all events seem frustratingly random and therefore not engaging. For a good chunk of the movie, people are just running from one location inside the building to the next, get into a confrontation and run back. Nothing of this hoopla exudes any sense of urgency, as the geography of the building was never established, nor do we know what resources the villains have at their disposal, what the time frame is, and so forth.
Whenever the plot grinds to a halt, it’s kickstarted again with an absurd out-of-character decision by one of the pro- or antagonists. One of the most outlandish moments must be Yelchin shaving his hair to disguise himself as a skinhead as part of a distraction maneuvre, which ends up being more of a sight gag than anything else. All the action beats are uninspired and routine and then there is of course the obligatory gross-out/violent moment, this time involving a box cutter. You can literally sense how they patted themselves on their shoulders for the more violent beats that feel so non-organical and gratuitous, they are obviously intended to be included in some “Top 10” lists on several movie- and horror- sites at the end of the year. Notoriety, the engineered, boring instant coffee kind.
Green Room: When you try to be Punk, but you are just Nu Metal.