Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Films of 2016: The Disappointments Room

[Beware of Spoilers]

So many of today’s big budget horror films out of Hollywood feel rote, and off-the-shelf. The Disappointments Room (2016) is a prime example of that sad trend. This movie from director DJ Caruso and writer Wentworth Miller feels like a bad sequel to Insidious, or Ouija, or The Darkness, or The Conjuring…except that you can’t tell which one, exactly. 

The movie is flat, generic, and utterly lacking in imaginative distinction.

At least the popular horror movies I just name-checked above tend to be competent in terms of their execution. They may not be much more, in the final analysis, than jump-scare roller-coaster rides, but basic matters are handled with a degree of care and some level of attention.

By that, I mean the audience can determine -- while watching those films -- what is happening to whom, and generally the reasons why it is happening.  There’s some narrative logic, in how things unfold. The monsters must obey certain rules, so that protagonists learn how to circumvent those rules to eke out a hard fought victory.

The Disappointments Room fails to reach even this modest threshold in terms of quality. Plot threads dangle. Storylines remain unresolved. At the end, there are a lot of questions to be asked, about the specifics of what was just witnessed, who survived, and even, finally, what was real, and what wasn’t.  The movie is a disaster, actually, in its lack of coherence.

“Disappointment” is exactly the right word to apply to this dull, formulaic horror film from 2016. Even at a mere 85 minutes, the movie is a long, tough slog through trite genre conventions and clichés.

“Nobody has lived in that house for quite a long time.”

Following the untimely death of their infant daughter in 2014, Dana (Kate Beckinsale) and David (Mel Raido) move to the Carolinas with their son, Lucas (Duncan Joiner). 

There, the family moves into a colossal, historic home in the country, one that was once home to a draconian judge and his family.  The plan is for Dana, an architect to heal from tragedy at the same time that she heals the old house, which is falling apart.

Upstairs, in the attic, Dana soon discovers a secret room. Once she has found the key, she opens up the door, and exposes herself to a dark piece of social and family history.

The Judge who built the house, Blacker (Gerald McRaney) apparently had a deformed daughter whom he kept locked up in his “disappointment room,” a chamber not uncommon in the past, in a less evolved era. Wealthy families, fearing social rejection, would hide their sick or unwell children in such rooms, and their offspring would live and die there, separated from society forever.

Now, Dana believes she is in communication with the spirit of the judge’s little girl, who lived her life – and died -- in that room.  

The ghost of the judge (and the ghost of his dog, apparently), are unhappy by Dana’s interference in their affairs and begin to strike out at both Dana and her family.

“Sometimes, bad things happen and we don’t know why.”

One of the strangest aspects of The Disappointments Room is the incoherent depiction of the evil ghost, and his dog sidekick.  These spirits can apparently physically harm living beings, and also, be physically harmed themselves. 

This means that the ghost dog can maul and murder the family cat, Rascal, with his sharp teeth.  This means that, when fighting the judge, Dana can bash his head in with a hammer. And the ghost’s head actually bleeds.

How is any of this possible?

The movie doesn’t say.

But the ghost’s powers are beyond the realm of the physical too. The judge can, for instance, recreate and replace family portraits that we have seen Dana take out of the house and burn.  When she returns to the house, they are back where they were before, untouched.

So these ghosts can affect matter in our world -- even though incorporeal. And they can re-arrange external matter (like the portraits), without actually touching them. 

Basically, these ghosts are all powerful, and can do, miraculously, whatever the screenplay demands they do, at any time. They can kill living beings brutally. They can restore burned artworks. And they 
can resurrect themselves, after apparently being killed (again).

And why are these ghosts killing people, or at least torturing them? Because the ghost of the judge’s little girl is trying to escape from her room, and Dana is trying to help her to that. 

But if ghosts are all-powerful -- as the judge and the dog aptly demonstrate -- what’s to keep the girl just from leaving the room? Or from fighting back with the same ghostly powers?

If a locked door can’t hold back the judge and the dog, why does it hold the ghost of the little girl? Why does she not possess the same powers as they do?

The questions in logic and consistency keep coming.

At the end of the movie, the ghost girl gets away, but the dog and the judge -- both of whom we have seen killed on screen -- are back in the house again, perfectly fine. What’s to stop them from going after the ghost of the little girl, and dragging her back to the disappointments room?

Basically, the problem is that there is no decision ever made, apparently, by the writers or director, about what a “ghost” is in The Disappointments Room.  There are no laws that these ghosts have to obey. There is no thought about what constitutes a spirit, or how it should behave.

If the ghost are as powerful as the film seems to indicates, why spend eternity hanging out in a haunted house?  Why does the spirit of judge even care that the spirit of his daughter is still in the disappointments room? Why does he want to keep her there? Who is judging his social worth in the afterlife?

It gets worse. Much worse.

At one point in the film, a young, sexy handyman, Ben (Lucas Till) is introduced. He is featured in a subplot during which he repeatedly hits on Dana while David is away. This subplot goes nowhere.

David doesn’t confront him, or even learn about his behavior.

So why is Ben even in the film? Well, I suspect he’s there to remind us that even at the age of 43, our star, Kate Beckinsale is quite attractive, even to men twenty years her junior.  Movies include female characters all the time for this very purpose when there is an older male lead, so turnabout is fair play, I suppose.

But in a horror movie, there has to be a good dramatic reason for characters to exist.

For example, Ben reappears later in The Disappointments Room, only to be killed, but no one in the family ever comments on the fact that he has been murdered. No police are called. The family just drives away, and the judge peers after the family members, from the house, as they go. 

No one even remembers poor Ben ever existed. 

So did Ben die at all? Was this all a hallucination by the grieving mother, Dana? 

Isn’t somebody going to notice that Ben is missing? 

And when they find him dead, won’t they have questions?  The movie just completely shoots itself in the foot with this character and his fate.

Other clichés abound.

We get the grieving parents, trying to move past their tragedy, characters we have seen so many times.

We get the little boy exposed to dark forces, perhaps manipulated by them. For a minute, it even looks like he’s going to have an imaginary friend (but it’s a cat, not a spirit, thankfully).

And we get the heroic protagonist, who rallies to fight evil, and in the process of saving another person, heals her own broken parts.

We even get half-hearted attempts by the writer and director to make us think that Dana is insane, subject to hallucinations, and in need of medication. Let’s Scare Dana to Death.

The Disappointments Room is terribly predictable, bland, and, well, unoriginal. The “disappointment room” is actually any room in which you decide to screen this movie.

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