Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Dialing Satan. Satan, are you there? A look at 976-EVIL and DEVIL

Back to the films.

I've had a nice bit of thematic continuity this week by watching a lot of Satan-related films and thought it'd be as good a time as any to make a quick mention of them (I actually wanted to write about the new Ju-On Grudge films I saw, but I need to finish the second one before I go there!).

So, we all know that there are many films that directly relate to Mr. Lucifer himself. Some of these are well executed classics (Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen the obvious choices), and some not so well executed (Exorcist 2: The Heretic and The previously debased Last Exorcism). If you are like me, you are very picky with these kind of films. Just today, I watched an exposé about J-horror (Japanese horror films) that hypothesised that the reason these horrors were so new and exciting for Western audiences is that Japanese horror stories revolve around a culture of the supernatural that you cannot escape, whereas the Eurocentric/Americans have a moral cause-and-effect theme (you do something bad, you suffer) with the evil typically being overcome and a lesson learned (it might depress you how many films fit this criteria).

It makes complete sense that a film about our cultures biggest tempter can either be effective or a complete lame duck. I like to think that the Big Red Fella is not some chump who can be tricked by the common man (where's the threat in that?) so a lot of these films that try to conclude with the a-typical overcoming and moral lesson really flatline with me. The Exorcist is so effective because it is both something that cannot be controlled (a young girl being possessed by a demon) and it even gives a moral lesson without dumbing it down (the ending is a sacrifice and choice, but for the right and uplifting reasons). The original Amityville Horror is a turd because the family run away from their haunted house and, through their love, get through their experience (OK, Amityville isn't exactly a film about the devil, but I ran short on good examples!). An audience needs to be put through the choices the characters have to make while dealing with Beelzebub, that is my point. We need to see justice and right and wrong, but more importantly, we need to see the possibility of redemption. This is where lesser Satan films fail (except Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, of course). It is how epically they fail and if it is worth the experience that needs to be looked at. And that somehow leads me in to this review of 976-EVIL.

This 1988 horror is directed by none other than Freddy Kruger himself, Robert Englund. This virtue drew me to watch the films years ago and a recent Deftones song bearing the same name drew me back to it. This is around the time of balls-to-the-wall horrorfests like A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 and Evil Dead 2 and you'd expect such an icon as Mr. Englund to provide something to satisfy our blood lust. Look elsewhere!

The skinny is a young rebel without a cause (and the excellent name of Spike) finds the number for a novelty phone line that gives you a 'horrorscope', which turns out to be from the devil. He tries discard the number but his geeky cousin (brilliantly named Hoax) finds it and becomes addicted to the predictions, which quickly begin to dispatch with those he seeks revenge on, with the trade off being that he must essentially be the embodiment of evil and carry out these despicable acts (we are shown at several stages that those who don't follow through are struck down by the evil one).

The film is no big thrills. I just wanted to mention it because I'd seen it and am sure there is probably a lot of people unaware of it. For those who are curious, it is worth a peek. The first hour is good, what with some of the most odd acting (intentional, don't worry!) and a potentially strong storyline keeping it afloat. The last act just breaks down into typical horror fare and is only worth watching if you care about what happens to the characters (I personally became disinterested, but meh). Robert Englund definitely set out to make a horror different to the then-current offerings. It's almost like what John Waters might do with a horror. It's quite campy and it knows it. I can't quite call it a guilty pleasure, but I will say it was a bit of a laugh. I think a good drinking game could revolve around this film.

If anyone's seen Wes Craven's Shocker, it reminded me of this film, though this was by far better, if that means anything. This film is nearly forgotten, but should be in the pile of cheap DVDs for an 80s horrorthon.

Now to modern day, we have Devil.

Produced by M. Night Shamalamdamagamadana... in what is the first of a supposed trilogy of urban horror films, I have to say, this is a decent start. Now, let me put my view here in perspective: I liked The Happening. It was good B-Movie fare. Don't get me wrong, I see the problems everyone else sees (Marky Mark as a teacher? I'm pretty sure I read a quote where he didn't even believe it! and don't get me started on Leguizamo), but horror has a bad habit of getting into a pattern of taking itself too seriously. Films like this need to be made just to balance out all the Case 39s and Orphans (yeah, I found both are awful... sorry...). With that in mind, I will quickly dissect the piece in question and essentially say that Devil, while not earth-shattering, is part of its own deserving subgenre.

Devil is about five strangers who get trapped in an elevator, which the building maintenance cannot open. People start dying and nearby police (who were investigating an apparent suicide) are called in to try figure out what's going on. There is an early narration to let us know we are about to see a morality tale involving the king of the underworld (and if you didn't get it from that, the film is called Devil), and plot points about the shady acts of each of these people come to light so everyone is a suspect while we try figure out which one is the Devil just screwing around.

I won't reveal more than this as it will give away the suspense and prevent you from saying 'What a tweest!' (Robot Chicken anyone? No? Ok...). Needless to say, if I had to explain why I liked The Happening, you can see where I'm going with this. This film is ham-fisted at best, with important plot details thrown at us in dribs and drabs to keep us questioning. This can be effective, but this film isn't the one to do that. The basic idea of five strangers trapped in an elevator, with one of them actually being the Devil, is such a great plot device and should have brought a claustrophobic intensity and character driven piece with it, but alas, we have Devil. But take it for what it's worth. It knows it is a B-movie. It could have been more, but it doesn't try to be.

I think a lot of people were frustrated by such a great idea under-performing, but when you get over that, you find a film that just wants to entertain. It is pure popcorn. Like I mentioned, it is a subgenre in itself. Think of it like the array of nuclear monster movies from the 50s. Just instead of big bugs, we get supernatural suspense. I went in to this film knowing it was going to let me down (when compared to the trailer anyway), but I got over that and enjoyed a film with enough character and plot development to keep me in, and shot well enough to stand along any big budget bad boys.

If I could recommend one film to see this year, it isn't Devil (but you knew that. It wasn't even in my top 18). But if you want an easy horror fix, you could go a lot worse (again, Case 39, what the fuck!?!). Like Frozen, a far superior simple premised piece, this film builds on a basic fear (here, being trapped in an elevator), but doesn't go far enough to evoke any lasting reaction (the aforementioned Frozen is well worth seeing for this reason, props to Joey). I actually had to Wikipedia the film to precisely remember the ending. But think of it like the B-film it is. You know it is going to at least try deliver on an entertainment level that an A-film would be too serious to attempt.

Final recommendation? Both films are worth checking out, particularly for guilty pleasure or a dumb movie night with friends. However, maybe wait until their prices are nice and cheap!

Eventually I will figure out how to link this thing to the UK Amazon properly!