Monday, February 04, 2008

Alfred Hitchcock's Movie Babies

The master of suspense, the late Alfred Hitchcock, still casts a long shadow across the Hollywood thriller and horror genres. Several filmmakers over the last quarter century have been dubbed "the new Hitchcock" by over-eager reviewers hoping to pass the torch. Some modern directors may even merit the comparison (my personal favorites: De Palma, Carpenter, Franklin and Fincher). It's funny how these things go in cycles, but in two 2007 films, Vacancy and Disturbia, one can witness the deliberate unearthing once more of the Hitchcock timeless aesthetic. In terms of the former (Vacancy), the experiment is rather successful. In terms of the latter (Disturbia), a bit less so. But both are decent films.

The term "Hitchcockian" is bandied about a lot in the movie reviews of the day, sometimes by critics who weren't even alive when Hitchcock was making films and more often by critics who have no idea what the term truly signifies. They think every thriller with a twist ending is "Hitchcockian." I disagree. For a film to appear legitimately Hitchcockian, I submit it must accomplish three important goals:

1. The film should concern a key Hitchockian obsession as an important component of the narrative. The mistaken identity (as in North by Northwest), sexual aberration (as in Psycho or Frenzy), and voyeurism (Rear Window) are three prime examples of the terrain Hitchcock charted during his career.

2. The film should be presented in a manner that Hitchcock himself would have approved of. This means that the film should be highly formalistic rather than realistic, expressing emotion, story, and suspense via the mise-en-scene and camera angles themselves. In other words, the camera should express, not merely record, what is happening to the characters and in the plot. For easy short-hand, I always call this facet "form reflecting content," but it's really the canny understanding and deployment of film grammar; Hitchcock's unmatched facility in crafting images that make us feel a certain way about the film and the people we are watching on the silver screen.

3. Finally, the film should also strongly feature gallows or black humor; a sense of wit about the proceedings. In Hitchcock's canon, death is sudden, terrifying and strangely funny. I'm always reminded of that terrific scene in Frenzy when - following a murder - the potato killer outsmarts himself by gets trapped himself in the back of the truck.

Given this set of principles, the 2007 thriller Vacancy, directed by the unfortunately-named Nimrod Antal, is clearly and boldly Hitchcockian. The story follows a bickering married couple, Amy (Kate Beckinsale) and David (Luke Wilson) on a night-time trip through rural countryside in California. Their car breaks down, and before you can say "road-trip gone awry," they find themselves staying at a strange, filthy motel (replete with cockroaches), where a creepy little hotel manager, Mason (Frank Whaley) and two masked side-kicks produce snuff films with the hotel guests as the unwitting and unwilling stars. In terms of Hitchcockian narratives, the film echoes aspects of the Master's canon. The out-of-the-way motel clearly evokes the Bates Motel in Psycho, and both managers - Norman and Mason - are anti-social characters who hide desperate secrets.

Beyond that obvious connection, the idea of voyeurism runs throughout Vacancy. Amy and David discover that their "honeymoon suite" is packed with hidden cameras, and that Mason keeps an elaborate editing suite in his ratty little office. When the couple pops a tape in their room's VCR, it's a snuff film made by the killers, and so they're watching gruesome murders occurring in the very room where they are staying. Not only is Mason a voyeur (while the other men do the dirty work of killing, he videotapes with a digital video camera...), but David and Amy are voyeurs as well. They watch the snuff tapes and - in a delightful comment on attentive movie watching - learn how to escape the killers. It was here that Vacancy really got me; when David behaved not like an unaware character in a stupid horror film, but began to review the horrifying films and studying the tactics of his opponents. Something monstrous and brutal (the snuff films), became the key to his survival. This is, in fact my very argument for the validity of horror films: they have merit and worth, not, perhaps, as life survival guide, but certainly as social commentary and catharsis.

I have to admit, I'm most impressed with Vacancy because it succeeds on the second Hitchcockian principle I've expounded on here. This the most difficult of the three principles, and the rarest in Hollywood films. Since the home video revolution of the late 1980s, movies have (to their detriment) grown to appear more and more like TV shows. Filmmakers no longer make full use of the rectangular frame; they instead depend on the TV structure of master shot, two-shot, etcetera, just hoping everything is "covered" and they can fix mistakes in "post." The result: movies look an awful lot like cop shows and lawyer shows, and have for a good while. Much of the artistry of "film" (the understanding of film language) is missing in action.

Not so with Vacancy, which I confess surprised me. I was expecting a somewhat stupid, derivative horror film, but what I detected instead is that this particular director comprehends precisely how to utilize the frame, and how to cut, to reveal information about the characters and the stories in an appealing and illuminating visual fashion. For instance, early in the film, the estranged couple (in mourning over the death of their son), are seen from a camera mounted on the hood of the car. A director not so aware of imagery, would have shot this sequence in traditional fashion; depicting the bickerers in the same frame together. We would have gotten the point from that shot, of course, but it wouldn't have been nearly as artistic. Instead, Vacancy's Antal gives us opposing frames looking in through the windshield. Each frame features one person bisected by the outer wall of the car, and the speeding road on the opposite side of the frame. This means that when we're watching David, we're only watching him, and thus registering his isolation and distance from his wife, and vice-versa. In her shots, we're seeing the same thing: just her head and shoulders, and speeding road. Again, it sounds like a simple thing, but the staging visually cues us in to the separation between husband and wife. It's a literalization, perhaps of the idea that they've been down a long road, and that this road has separated them.

Secondly, Antal provides in his film an inordinate number of shots which literally "box in" the endangered couple, framing them inside smaller frames. We look at them inside the limited cage of a rear view or side mirror on multiple occasions during the first act. We watch them within the framed windows of an auto garage window, or within the frame of the motel room window in the honeymoon suite. We gaze at them through the squares of trap doors in the floor, and hatches in the ceiling. This frame-within-a-frame leitmotif provides the visual link to the narrative theme about voyeurism. The killers literally want to put Amy and David into a box (the TV set), and shot after shot reflects the limitation of their physical space, and what could be their ultimate destiny: just another "movie" for another unwitting soon-to-die couple to pop into the VCR.

From the Saul Bass-style opening credits (which intentionally remind one of Psycho) and the Hermannesque score to the obsessive-compulsive nature of squirrely Mason, who speaks in odd but literate cadences ("rules are rules") not entirely unlike Norman Bates, Vacancy seems to not merely understand but actually synthesize what the term "Hitchcockian" truly means. On the last principle, gallows humor, Vacancy also scores some serious points, proving jaunty in its sense of shock and surprise (what Hitchcock once termed "playing the audience like a piano.")

Watch, for instance, how much mileage Antal gets out of a simple scenario: someone unseen knocking on the door to the honeymoon suite. The opening act of Vacancy, with the couple countenancing the grotesque, filthy motel room ("I'm sleeping with my clothes on...") reveals not just a great if morbid sense of humor, it puts other recent horrors to shame because the simple scenario (someone's at the door...) requires no CGI special effects, no short-attention-span editing techniques, and no overt gore or violence. It's the art of the nuance, and the understated humor - the realistic reactions of the two leads to their situation - makes the scenario genuinely frightening. I hasten to add, this isn't post-modern humor, even in the discussion of "prozac-zoloft" cocktails, but merely sharp talk from a couple not getting along. It's funny, but not so funny that you don't believe it. Also, the death scenes (excepting the horrifying snuff film footage, which is blunt and gruesome...) evoke gasps, laughs and screams in the best tradition of Hitchcock.

Honestly ,I didn't expect to like Vacancy very much. But I did. It's actually a great horror movie if you appreciate the form for intellectual as well as visceral reasons; if you appreciate how a skilled director can suss suspense out of a basic scenario and provide a trenchant comment on contemporary culture (here, the media, voyeurism and what we require in this age of celebrity to entertain us). Best of all, Antal artfully tell his story via imagery, not merely words. If you like horror just for the gore, you could be disappointed, I guess, though honestly, in the age of PG-13 thrillers, this is the most "savage" horror film in a while, in part because you come to legitimately care about the characters. Just like Psycho, there's no wasted note, no mis-used time in Vacancy. It's a machine that rocks and rolls, and at 82 minutes, has no fat whatsoever.

What a blessing.

And then we come to Disturbia, directed by D.j. Caruso and starring Shia Labeouf as a kid named Kale Brecht. Kale has seen his life go badly off track after the horrifying death of his father in a car accident. Now Kale is angry at the world and in a fit of anger, "pops" his irritating high school Spanish teacher in the face. He is spared juvie, but Kale is placed under house arrest for the spell of one year. His mother takes away his I-Tunes, cuts the wire on his flat screen television, and takes away Kale's video games. Sadly, the kid has apparently never heard of this arcane thing called "reading," so instead Kale begins to obsessively spy on the neighbors, including a hottie named Ashley (Sarah Roemer) who's just moved into town, and a man named Robert Turner (David Morse), whom Kale comes to believe is a serial killer.

in Disturbia, Kale spends much of his time sitting in his bedroom, legs propped up (and he has one of those ankle monitors on...), looking through binoculars. So, I'm sure you guessed it, we're clearly into Rear Window territory here. In terms of Rear Window knockoffs, I didn't like Disturbia nearly as much as De Palma's Body Double (1984). That film was a perfect example of "you can't believe everything you see,"/"you can't trust your own eyes" whereas in Disturbia there are virtually no surprises once the premise is established. Turner is indeed a serial killer, just like Kale thought...so there you go. Chases and brawls and attacks and rescues predictably ensue.

But going down the list of Hitchcockian principles, Disturbia clearly adheres to the master's favorite obsessions. Yep, it's voyeurism again, this time with a bored teenager indulging his burgeoning sexual interest by peeking at a would-be girlfriend in a bikini, doing yoga in her room, and so on. He also happens to catch sight of that killer, a character like Norman, who hides a sexual aberration in the plain sight of suburbia. Here, the voyeurism is achingly high-tech, an almost fetishistic focus on the technology of the 21st century (cell phone cameras, DV cameras, I-Tunes, etc.) and how it all can be marshaled to spy on others.

I'm going to skip to the third Hitchcockian principle now. Because Disturbia gets that right too. It does have a sense of humor about its story and characters. There's a wonderful scene that finds Kale spying on Robert Turner. Kale is laying flat on his chest in his yard, peeking through a slit in a wooden fence (voyeurism again...). Suddenly, on the opposite side of the fence, Robert begins talking. "What are you doing in my garden?" He asks playfully. He approaches, coming closer to the fence, still talking, and the audience is sure he has seen Kale, and is addressing him directly. How the scene plays out is somewhat different, and actually highly amusing. It is both tense and funny, and yes, Hitchcock would have approved.

Where Disturbia fails to be Hitchcockian is on the second principle, frankly. For me, this is the deal breaker. The film doesn't ascend to that higher level of artistry where the shots tell us about the characters and their predicament. In that sense, the visualization, save for an adrenalin-provoking "night vision" race through the killer's house, is pretty uninspired and routine.

Also, whereas Vacancy boasts the good sense to get out of Dodge as quickly as possible (again, 82 minutes...), Disturbia is 104 minutes, and takes unnecessary detours into blind narrative alleys. I mean, do we really care about the neighborhood kids who tease Kale? Do we really need to see his romance with Ashley blossom? These moments merely lessen the suspense; make the whole enterprise more diffuse.

Finally, Hitchcock always understood how to square the circle, bringing his films together in a way that there were no loose ends (unless he wanted you to ponder the loose ends; as in the conclusion of The Birds). But Disturbia makes goofy errors that leave the audience yelling at the screen. For instance, Kale's friend Ronnie (Yoo) disappears into the killer's house, and Kale breaks his house arrest to attempt to rescue him. He runs over, lunges into the house and searches for his friend. The police respond and arrest Kale, the wrong guy (mistaken identity -- another Hitchcockian obsession!). However, Kale just can't convince the cops that his friend is in danger. They drag him away, and we are left to wonder what has become of Ronnie. Well...why doesn't Kale simply ring Ronnie's cell phone, which he had on him in the house? The ringer on the phone would have proven conclusively where Ronnie was, and confirmed or shit-canned Kale's story. But this "tech smart" kid never even thinks of that, and that's a hole big enough to drive a mack truck through. On one hand, the movie asks us to believe the kid is a technical genius (we see him up fitting a DV camera at one point), and then on the other hand, the movie wants us to believe the kid would forget to use a cell phone. That's bad writing folks.

Still Disturbia isn't a bad movie, taken in toto. On the contrary it's exactly the kind of movie I thought Vacancy was going to be: an average-if-serviceable thriller with some enjoyable moments; a good diversion but nothing to write home about.

I just glanced at the IMDB, and users rate Disturbia higher than Vacancy, which only says to me that most film watchers today don't really understand or care about the aesthetic and legacy of Hitchcock. Disturbia, with its teen protagonists, sexy blond (who undresses a few times...) and other pandering nods to today's youth culture, somehow turns out to be more of a crowd-pleaser than the spare, visually-inspired Vacancy.

I have to wonder what Hitchcock would have thought of that...

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