Friday, December 28, 2012

2012 at the Movies #9: Lovely Molly

Lovely Molly (2012), the new horror film from The Blair Witch Project (1999) co-director Eduardo Sanchez, is all about…an empty chair. 

It’s not Clint Eastwood’s empty chair, however, but rather the comfortable-looking easy chair that once belonged to Molly (Gretchen Lodge’s) unsavory but now-deceased father.  That chair appears prominently at least twice in the film -- at critical narrative junctures -- and the notion transmitted is one of a ghostly (and ghastly) figure who hovers over everything, and has a sinister effect upon Molly’s world and very psyche. 

When we first see the empty chair, Molly unearths it from beneath a white sheet.  This act is a metaphor for the bringing-into-the-open of buried memories.  

When we later see the chair again, it is perched inside a messy tool shed.  Here it guards, at least in a sense, the subterranean entrance to a very, very dark place, one decorated, apparently, with a Satanic emblem.  In terms of the metaphor, the memories excavated have now taken root in Molly’s life, and evil comes to the forefront the deeper Molly treads into her own disturbing history.

The symbol of the empty chair is appropriate and resonant in a horror film that so delicately walks the line terms of its psychological subject matter.  In broad strokes, Lovely Molly concerns how Molly’s state of mind deteriorates shortly after she marries Tim (Johnny Lewis) and moves into her family home.  That deterioration is caused either by a demonic possession, or the re-awakening of memories concerning physical and sexual abuse.  The film walks a tightrope of ambivalence for much of its duration, so we aren’t certain at times if we are witnessing a psychological or supernatural descent into madness and violence.

The Bad Father's Empty Chair.

The Bad Father's Empty Chair #2

By the end of the film, the answer is made clear, but rewardingly, Lovely Molly still plays as a commentary on “malefic” psychological influences, whatever their precise nature.  Although it doesn’t rank alongside The Blair Witch Project in terms of impact, and utilizes found-footage, first-person camera techniques only sporadically, Lovely Molly is nonetheless a carefully-wrought, intriguing “cerebral” horror.

But just don’t make the mistake that it’s a fun horror film.  This is a dark, brooding, nihilistic entertainment obsessed with dark acts and human ugliness.  The films’ climax -- which suggests that the cycle of violence and abuse continues -- is thematically legitimate and consistent with the earlier portions of the film, but it permits no light and no optimism to creep into Molly’s world.

“Something is wrong…”

Lovely Molly follows a newly married couple, Molly and Tim, as they move into Molly’s family home.  Both of her parents are dead, and people in town frequently allude to the terrible events that occurred there.  Soon after moving in, the home’s security system is triggered, and Molly and Tim find the back door open, and hear footsteps.  A police man (Ken Arnold) finds nothing.

A truck driver, Tim is away most of the time, leaving Molly alone in the house.  Before long, the creepy noises and strange incidents in the house lead Molly to resume her old drug habit.  She starts out with weed, thanks to her sister Hannah (Alexandra Holden), but before long has graduated to heroin.  Molly grows increasingly unstable, and increasingly convinced that she is being haunted by the spirit of her dead father, a man who abused both his daughters.

Soon, Molly loses her blue-collar job, and her spiral towards madness accelerates.  She begins spying with a video camera on a happy family living next door.  And then she attempts to seduce Pastor Bobby (Field Blauvelt), the preacher who officiated at her wedding.  

Soon, Molly graduates to murder, though all the while she insists that isn’t her doing the killing.  Rather, it’s “him” (meaning her father…).

“It’s not me.  It’s Him.”

Is she mad or possessed?

One quality that really stands out regarding Lovely Molly involves the lifestyle of Molly and Tim.  They both work blue-collar jobs and are experiencing real problems making ends meet.   When Molly begins to show signs of mental illness, she insists she can handle it, because there is no other option.  “We don’t have health insurance,” she reports. 

Similarly, Molly goes to her job exhausted from the nocturnal visits of the (apparent) malevolent spirit, but begs her concerned boss to stay at work because she “needs the hours.”   

Again and again, the filmmaker paints a powerful picture of economic calamity, and the vise grip of unpaid bills and responsibilities.

This is an important aspect of the film’s tapestry, because so often in mainstream Hollywood -- even in horror films -- those who are struggling financially are portrayed as living in arts-and-crafts mansions, without even a nod to economic reality.  The sense of economic desperation pervading Lovely Molly makes the film all the more ominous and tense.  Molly and her husband are people with few options, and fewer escape valves.  Accordingly, when Molly falls sick and can’t visit a doctor, she falls back on religion (not a therapist), choosing to talking to a preacher.  Pastor Bobby doesn’t exactly prove helpful.

In terms of the film’s approach to its tricky psychological subject matter, I appreciate how, for much of Lovely Molly, events can be interpreted in two ways.   After one bout of madness, for instance, a horrid stench infiltrates the house.  You’ll think immediately of brimstone and the Devil. 

But then we learn that Molly has hidden a rotting deer carcass in the basement. 

Similarly, creaky doors and ringing security alarms can suggest the presence of a ghost…or merely the wind.   Lovely Molly is admirably subtle and opaque in its storytelling, until one blazing but resonant image occurs at the denouement.  It’s one that will take root in your imagination, if you let it. 

Alone, mad and weak, Molly steps out of her house into a misty front yard, and there, an answer to the puzzle is revealed, albeit briefly.  Reading the image literally, the existence of the supernatural is plain.

But even metaphorically, the image could be read as an embrace of madness, brought on by drug use. Lovely Molly is not a straight-forward found footage horror film, and that fact allows the director some flexibility in terms of storytelling.  Sometimes the film is a conventional drama, with the camera adopting a formal third-person perspective.  But at other moments, Molly picks up a video camera and we see the world through her (mad) eyes.  She becomes insistent upon and obsessive about chronicling the presence of her abusive -- and apparently dead -- father in the house. 

In these found footage-styled moments, the film is indeed reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project and its deliberate uncertainty about “seeing.”  In that film, the camera provided a filter to reality, and nobody could agree on what was happening in the woods, despite the presence of video tape and film as impartial observers.  Here, similarly, the camera is never positioned quite right to see any spirits, even though we hear Molly screaming and crying for help. 

One scene that conforms to this approach involves a store’s surveillance video.  In this video, Molly pulls down her pants, and goes through the (disturbing) motions of being savagely raped from behind.  But no rapist is visible.  Either she is bonkers, or there is an invisible force attacking her.  Again, there’s simply no easy or certain answer about what is happening to Molly.  The more cameras are rolling, it seems, the less we actually “see” (or can agree we’ve seen.) 

Again, Lovely Molly offers the engaged viewer the opportunity to interpret the narrative through the rubric of sexual/physical abuse.  Such abuse occurs all too frequently, we know by the facts, and yet many family members and friends make a point not to see it.  We watch Molly’s rape, likewise, and don’t really see it.

What is really happening here?  Even the camera can't tell us for certain.

At a point about two-thirds of the way through the film, Molly -- either mad or possessed – commits a genuinely awful act against an innocent, and I must admit that I found myself troubled and disturbed by these visuals.  I don’t want to state that the film is depressing, but I should make plain that it isn’t an easy watch, or mere entertainment.  Rather, Lovely Molly is hard core in a sense, and really, that’s a valid and legitimate artistic approach given the seriousness of the subject matter.

If the idea is that the cycle of abuse in families is transmitted -- demon possession-like from one generation to the next -- then a film could hardly have treated the subject matter more artfully or more respectfully than does this one. 

Lovely Molly is a legitimate and consistent work of art, with some occasional scares, and it peers, eyes wide,  into the very heart of human darkness.  Gretchen Lodge must be commended for a gutsy, courageous, unblinking lead performance that reminded me of Barbara Hershey's in The Entity (1983), or Mia Farrow's in Rosemary's Baby (1968).   I must admit that I feel torn between praising it as a serious, carefully-crafted and meaningful horror film and wishing that, in some sense, it was more unpredictable or fresh.   But that predictability too may be the point, actually.  

Once you get a look at the empty chair, and realize the emotional burden that Molly carries, the horror in her life is indeed inescapable.

1 comment:

  1. This film, quite honestly, is one of my favorite horror films that I have seen in the last 10 years. And horror it is! I am seriously jaded and yet this film disturbed me. There is some serious violent images that strike home because of my concern for all the characters of this film. I absolutely love ambivalence in a horror film and this film is in the vein of 'Picnic at Hanging Rock, Session 9, and BWP. The director has turned in a skilled and highly effective horror and I truly, truly look forward to future work from Mr. Sanchez...I am a believer.