Tuesday, April 25, 2017
The Films of 2017: The Void
[Beware of Spoilers. Swim at Your Own Risk]
The Void (2017), from directors Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski, is a new “homage”-styled horror film. That description means it derives much of its life-energy from a demonstration of reverence and appreciation for its beloved genre antecedents.
However, the directors here don’t merely pick a single film or a general cinematic style to honor or ape. On the contrary, they have created with The Void a veritable homage to the entire career of one (beloved) artist: John Carpenter.
The idea of, basically, name-checking an entire career’s catalog of films is an ambitious and original one. To wit: The Void begins like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) a siege-styled movie, features elements of The Thing (1982) in terms of practical effects and gore, and then leaps wholeheartedly in its last act into a late-era Carpenter homage featuring aspects of Prince of Darkness (1987) and In The Mouth of Madness (1994).
So, we get in The Void, clever allusions -- visual and thematic -- to seventies Carpenter, eighties Carpenter, and even nineties Carpenter.
To describe this film another way, it’s as though the filmmakers assiduously studied all epochs of John Carpenter’s film work, and decided to create a master’s thesis about that work in the form of an actual motion picture.
On that admittedly narrow basis, I admire and enjoy The Void very much. As other critics have noted, the film is a rip-roaring “throwback” to old-fashioned horror movies, both in terms of effects, and setting/characterization. Set in the 1980's The Void thus corners the market, one might conclude, on nostalgic, niche, horror filmmaking.
And if any horror auteur is deserving of a film-long homage, today, it is certainly Carpenter, who still hasn’t gotten his due from mainstream Hollywood.
And yet, some aspects of the film are not entirely effective.
The Void’s narrative is convoluted and confusing at times, and Gillespie and Kostanski don’t yet possess Carpenter’s visual chops. The movie often captures well the thematic and narrative aspects of the maestro’s canon, but few of the visuals achieve the same kind of energy as a legit Carpenter film, or manipulate the audience as effectively.
Of course, in the age of cookie-cutter, mega-million dollar blockbusters, a Carpenter-knock-off is the closest we are likely to get to the experience of a new Carpenter genre film. To its credit, The Void successfully feels very “eighties,” and is a lot of fun overall. But another recent film -- It Follows (2014) -- still feels more like an original Carpenter film, and less like a pastiche of the director’s personal obsessions or best moments.
I recommend The Void for your viewing if you consider yourself a fan of Carpenter’s oeuvre, and also if you just straight-up enjoy 1980’s styled horror films.
If you’re seeking a horror film that is a bit more internally consistent, however, you may be disappointed by the film’s narrative problems and overall lack of visual distinction.
“You’d be surprised at the things you find when you go looking.”
A police officer, Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) brings a wounded man he discovered on the outskirts of a dark forest to the nearest hospital, which is in the process of being closed down following a fire. Daniel is reluctant to visit that particular hospital because his estranged wife, Allison (Kathleen Munroe), works there. Not long ago, they lost a baby, and their relationship has since deteriorated.
Soon, the wounded mystery man becomes the quarry of a group of cultists, who surround the hospital, and turn off the power. And the same man, James (Evan Stern) also becomes the prey of a father (Daniel Fathers) and son (Mik Byskov) team of hunters, who seem to hold a grudge against him.
While Daniel tries to process all that is going on, new crises quickly capture his attention in the hospital. One nurse, Beverly, seems to go crazy, killing a young patient, while a young pregnant woman, Maggie, goes into labor in the emergency room.
As Daniel and Allison are further endangered, they learn that the doctor at the hospital, Ricahrd Powell (Kenneth Walsh) has undertaken a dangerous line of research involving the afterlife.
“There are things much older than God.”
In Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), as you may recall, a police officer played by Austin Stoker was given command of a lonely police station on the night it was to be shut down. He had only a skeleton crew to assist him, and things spiraled quickly out-of0control when a stranger ran into the precinct, pursued by members of a vicious, bloody gang.
By refusing to give up the prisoner, the police opened the door to an all-out attack by the gang Street Thunder. The majority of this Carpenter film played out as a siege situation, with the precinct under a relentless, all-out attack by the gang, and the policeman forced to team with criminals in the station’s jail, to repel the enemy.
As the synopsis above hopefully makes plain, the initial set up of this film mirrors Assault on Precinct 13 very closely. Here, we have a hospital that is understaffed, and is about to be closed down.
We also encounter another heroic police officer, Daniel, whose primary job becomes the protection of a stranger who is now in custody in an isolated location, in this case the hospital.
Intriguingly, Night of the Living Dead (1968) from George A. Romero plays on a hospital room TV set at one point, early in the film, and it is the movie that Carpenter sometimes credits as the spiritual ancestor of Assault on Precinct 13.
So if Night of the Living Dead is referenced here, why is The Void pretty much a Carpenter riff?
Well, consider that in addition to Assault on Precinct 13, Prince of Darkness and Ghosts of Mars are also siege movies. Romero may have made the horror grand-daddy of the form, but Carpenter has exploited that format at least three times, at all stages of his career (1970’s, 1980’s, and early 2000’s).
In this section of the film, there are some nearly shot-for-shot translations. Assault on Precinct features several exterior night shots of the gang, standing outside the police station in a vacant parking lot, forming a menacing phalanx.
Here, the cult-members in their white robes form a similar pattern, also standing in a dimly lit parking lot. One of the best scenes in the film sees the red and blue police lights of Daniel’s car, swirling over the non-moving cultists in white.
At any minute, like a juggernaut, they could leap into murderous action.
John Carpenter’s The Thing is another, obvious source of inspiration for The Void. The film starts with a variation of The Thing’s opening act narrative feint. Consider that in The Thing, we see a lone dog being pursued across an ice cliff, by Norwegian helicopter and sniper. The opening moments of the film suggest that the Norwegians have gone mad. Why else waste resources of chasing down a dog?
Of course, later on, we understand: the dog is a carrier of the alien virus of the thing. It is no longer a dog at all. It must be destroyed, even though that quest looks insane to an outsider.
The Void begins with a similar trick. At a lonely farmhouse in an isolated area (which reminded me, visually, of the farmhouse in the first act of John Carpenter’s Vampires ), a man and woman escape out the front door.
The man, James gets away. The woman falls, is pursued, and then, finally, burned alive by the father and son hunter combo. The natural assumption here is that the woman is the victim of the father and son, attempting to break free from captivity.
As is the case with the dog in The Thing, however, that assumption is quite incorrect. The woman “victim” is not a victim at all, but one of the monsters that Dr. Powell has experimented upon.
Another reference to The Thing involves the personification, or physical qualities of the “monsters” from the void.
They are moist, spurting, tentacled, misshapen monstrosities, much like the thing in Carpenter’s masterpiece. In that film, the ever-transforming Thing -- always in a state of flux -- represented the frailty of human flesh; its capacity for damage by perforation, injection, burning, you name it.
The same concept of frailty of the flesh gets play in The Void because so much of the film involves mortality; the weakness of the human form. There is not one, but two “monstrous” pregnancies in the film, and there are at least two instances of children who have died tragically, lost to their parents.
Just as The Thing featured many close-up shots of mangled, violated skin (think of the close-up of stitches being sewed into the flesh of Bennings’ leg), The Void features shots of knives being slowly pressed down and through human flesh, or scissors penetrating human eyeballs.
The Void like The Thing, also concerns transformation: the transformation of grief into misguided action; and the transformation of human flesh into something…horrible, and monstrous (if not down-right demonic).
Early in the film, we also get a very clear visual reference to Prince of Darkness (1987). A female nurse, Beverly, cuts her face off with a pair of scissors, and murders a patient (puncturing his eye-socket with said scissors).
She looks and acts very much like the pizza-faced Kelly (Susan Blanchard) in that film, attacking victims, and boasting a face that isn’t really hers.
Both Prince of Darkness and The Void climax in similar fashion as well: with a heroic self-sacrifice.
Specifically, both films concern protagonist (Catherine or Daniel) pushing the antagonist (Kelly, or Powell) through a portal to another dimension/reality. After doing so, the protagonist is trapped there, left to contend with a brave (or horrific…) new world.
Finally, of course, The Void features a strong Lovecraft influence. H.P. Lovecraft wrote frequently of the deities known as the “Outer Gods” or “The Old Ones,” horrible creatures such as Cthulhu or Shub-Niggurath. These are beings who once ruled Earth (and beyond), and still exist, just waiting to return.
A key Lovecraftian theme then, is the non-importance, or non-centrality of mankind in the grand scheme of the universe. The Void features such creatures who inhabit (and re-shape) human form, and cross from “the other side” represented by the portal, where an imposing black pyramid stands.
But importantly, The Void is Lovecraft by way of Carpenter, and in particular, his too-often neglected masterpiece, In the Mouth of Madness. That film establishes the power of the “others” over our world, and an invasion of our world from the outer place. That’s exactly what happens here, although we can hope, at least, that the invasion in The Void is stopped.
Basically, in In the Mouth of Madness, man’s propensity to seek terrible things (represented by the horror novels of Sutter Cane) is the thing which cracks open the portal to the dark place. In The Void, man’s inability to accept his own mortality, is the thing that props open the door to the Lovecraftian world. Dr. Powell is a Prometheus figure, not unlike Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Channard, or even Nix in Lord of Illusions (1995). He is a man who goes in search of answers, and opens the portal to an evil realm.
I could argue that it is incumbent upon engaged audiences to recognize the allusions to Carpenter’s work here, and to movies, even, outside that canon, and then ask: what does it all mean? Why dramatize the story in this particular fashion?
In other words, is a Carpenter-homage an intrinsically intriguing way of telling Daniel and Allison's story?
The answer is affirmative, though with caveats. Through the references to Carpenter’s work, The Void takes on, or transforms, if you will, into a film of deeper meaning and resonance. All the references within Carpenter’s work carry meaning, and The Void absorbs those meanings, and also mirrors them. So the approach is not merely innovative, I would argue, but artistically valid. Daniel’s sacrifice, and final journey, for example, carries deeper emotional weight if we link it Catherine’s sacrifice, or compare the two.
However, The Void is not nearly as well-visualized as Carpenter’s films. Even lesser Carpenter films, like Village of the Damned (1995) manage to come off in a visual sense, capturing the imagination of the audience even when the narrative details prove disappointing.
The Void is a low-budget production, of course, but its monster-attack-in-a-hospital hallway does not compare favorably to scenes created 36 years ago for The Thing. Here, the lighting is dim, we get a lot of confusing close-ups, and there’s a dangling light panel flickering constantly, to assure we never get too good a look at the monster.
Similarly, there are moments of head-scratching character behavior in the film. At one point, Daniel exacts a promise from Allison that she will wait to visit a medical supply room until he comes back (from retrieving the shot-gun from his car.)
She makes the promise, and then ignores that promise to go to the supply room anyway, an event that leads to her demise (and sets up the film’s final sacrifice).
It also is not clear, at least to my eyes, why the cultists wait so long to invade the hospital after surrounding it and cutting off the power. The argument could be made that they are waiting for the birth of Maggie’s child, but it seems that the birth of the child (Powell’s girl, reborn) is such an important event that they would want to be in control of the hospital before it occurs.
Similarly, if memory serves, Powell constantly refers to the portal as the abyss, not the void. So how come the movie is titled The Void?
These are not big things. These are not disqualifying factors in any way. But they add up, and grant the impression of a film that is incoherent at times, and simply convoluted at others. It is ambitious and quite remarkable that the film apes the canon of Carpenter, but The Void needs a clearer, sharper script, so that those amazing elements aren’t thrown, well, to the void.
A void might be defined as a “completely empty space,” and indeed that is not a good title for this intriguing horror movie. The Void fills up its empty spaces with a reverence and respect for the works of one of our greatest horror masters.
It’s just that when these filmmakers have to paint in some of their own empty spaces (involving the narrative), they fall a bit short.