Friday, December 10, 2010

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

Rare Exports is the kind of idea that should have been made a long time ago.

Most of the big Christmas horror films I can think of involve some nut stabbing people during the holidays, which is fun and all but leaves the holidays as little more than dressing for another run-of-the-mill slasher flick. Very few major horror films actually tweak with the roots of the Santa Claus myth, which can actually be pretty horrific. Legends of naughty children getting dragged away by demonic woodland spirits to be thrashed and disemboweled and cast into Hell are the kind of stories that would have terrified me as a child, yet we really haven't seen the definitive Krampus story.

Well, look no further.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is there!

Once upon a time, in a tiny town in Finland, an excavation team uncovers something terrible in the depths of a lonely mountain. Shortly thereafter, a band of hunters discover something has butchered their herds. As the mystery deepens and naughty little children disappear, one little boy follows the clues that lead him to the dark heart of the holiday season.

Thus begins the tale of Rare Exports. The whole movie has a sort of Lovecraftian vibe to it. It's all about isolated locales and ancient secrets, only the heart of the matter is jolly old St. Nick. On paper it sounds ridiculous, but the movie plays the concept with deadly seriousness. The movie isn't particularly campy or humorous and its seriousness keeps the movie engaging.

I like foreign horror films for the same reason I keep watching the travel channel: it's a great peek into the weird foibles of another culture. One of my favorite aspect of the movie is the Finlandishness of the whole thing. The film focuses tightly on a father and son who make their living in the wilderness and the chill of the countryside is almost tangible. It's rough, wild terrain they live in, and the people who make their lives there are a hardy bunch.

One of the most unsettling images in the movie are the wooden dolls left in the place of naughty children. They're creepy and primitive and brought back memories of the stick crosses from The Blair Witch Project. Looking at them, you can't help but imagine the vicious and subhuman mind that created them.

Now, while there's a lot of stuff I enjoyed about the movie, not everything worked. Spoilers here, but we discover that the creepy old man the heroes have chained up is merely one of Santa's helpers. We never actually see the Santa monster throughout the movie. It's clearly meant to be something grand and terrible and probably out of the filmmaker's budget. Still, there's a lot of tease for little payoff.

Also, the little boy hero becomes a little bit too competent and capable towards the end. He starts out as a quiet, nervous boy with a strained relationship to his father, but by the end of the film he becomes Rambo, dangling off helicopters and charging the horde of buck-nekkid Santa men. By the end of the movie it felt more like a child's wish-fulfillment fantasy than a character arc.

I don't know if this is a movie I'll keep coming back to, but I could see this being a sort of cult film. It was playing in the art house circuit in NYC when I caught it and I'm sure it will be passed from dorm room to dorm room. So, basically, if you ever wanted to see Santa Claus done properly scary, this is probably the best example you'll find.

The Rite Trailer

Is it reasonable to enjoy a story you emphatically don't believe in?

I like possession films, cliched as they often are, but I don't agree with the themes presented in them. Two of the most famous ones, The Last Exorcism and The Exorcist, tell the story of modern day conflicted priests confronting old-timey evil in a way they're unprepared for. Only by returning to the superstitious roots of their faiths are they able to overcome the forces of hell, usually at the cost of their own lives.

I don't believe in gods or devils and I think such ideas are detrimental to society at large and, more than any other aspect of the genre, I think that the demonic possession subgenre is the most conservative and regressive thematically (Constantine being a notable exception.) The Rite looks incredible and dramatic and beautifully themed, but it's the same sort of Old Testament sturm und drang you see in this genre.

Still gonna go see it.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Burning

The Burning
is one of those movies I should have gotten to a long time ago.

I love summer camp slasher flicks, I love Tom Savini's make-up effects, and I love cult films. The Burning has a big reputation among devotees, especially for the infamous raft attack In addition, the movie was discussed in the famous gender study Men, Women, and Chainsaws for being one of the only slasher flicks featuring a final boy. Finally, the killer in the movie is supposedly based on the urban legend of Cropsey that circulates on the East Coast.

Yet despite all these intriguing features, I never bothered to track it down until one lonely afternoon last week while surfing my Netflix instant downloads on my Xbox. I went in with an open mind, expecting a cheesy good time.

Turns out The Burning is a genuinely well-made and scary horror film.

The Burning tells the tale of Cropsey, an ornery old drunk who works as a handyman at a summer camp. Some campers got it into their heads to play a trick on him, but things go horribly wrong and Cropsey is burned. Cropsey returns to the woods years later, gardening shears in hand, looking for payback. The rest is what it is.

On paper, much of this story boils down to the same tale told in Friday the 13th. While Cropsey didn't have the same staying power as his more famous counterpart, his romp is unquestionably memorable. The acting is pretty good, the script is strong, and the scares are genuinely effective. In some weird ways, this movie actually resembles the original Halloween, in that it's a slow burn sort of film, and the filmmakers take their time in setting up the scares.

One of the things that got me about this movie is that it takes place in an actual, functioning summer camp. The story takes places while the camp is in full swing, with the place packed with adolescents. They goof around, play pranks, splash each other, and act like kids having a good time. And, unlike most slasher films packed with gorgeous '80s 20somethings, the kids in The Burning actually look like kids. There are dorky kids and heavy kids and awkward kids. Even the girls who get nude look more less like toned athletic models and more like shy virgins.

The screenplay is well-written by later Hollywood moguls Brad Grey and Harvey Weinstein. The characters are actually characters (I loved the awkward, virginal sex scenes), the story unfolds in a logical progression, and the young campers are actually capable outdoorsmen. When the kids are trapped in Devil's Cove after Cropsey steals their canoes, they immediately set out to building a raft and escaping. It doesn't end well for them, but you have to applaud their initiative.

Going into the movie, one of the big selling points was the fact that the final survivor was Alfred, a nervous outsider who somehow manages to best Cropsey at the end of the film. Much is made in Men, Women, and Chainsaws about gender inversion in the slasher genre, specifically that most final girls are more masculine than their counterparts, whereas Alfred is slightly more feminine than his friends. I dunno if Alfred is necessarily more feminine but he is unquestionably more weird. We first meet him sneaking into a girl's shower, trying to peep at one of the fellow campers. He gets caught and, unlike most macho fratty movie assholes, Alfred comes off as a creepy weirdo. He's actually not a particularly pleasant character. He sneaks and spies on his fellow campers, particularly when they're having sex, and he cowers behind his friends whenever anyone confronts him. He does make interesting cinema, and he is one of the two young men to end Cropsey's reign of terror.

The other final boy is Todd, the head counselor with the mysterious connection to Cropsey. Unlike Alfred, Todd is confident and capable without being an overconfident goon. Most of the macho types in slasher movies usually become knifebait, but Todd is a nice change of pace. He goes back to rescue Alfred from the creepy, maze-like foundations that Cropsey hides in. It's a great final battle in a creepy locale, and the scene ranks among my favorite closing acts in any slasher film.

I do have to say that watching The Burning was a very similar experience to watching Friday the 13th Part 2. The campfire ghost story scene is taken almost verbatim from F13 and the story hits a lot of similar beats, replacing the counselor's bar night out for an upriver trip for the older campers. I don't think it's necessarily a case of plot theft, but rather both are sort of the ur-story of the madmen in the woods.

Overall, I really liked The Burning. It's a strong, scary horror film and what it lacks in refinement it makes up for in lean, muscular storytelling. It's probably not gonna win any converts, but if you like horror campfire tales, then check out The Burning.

Oh, and the movie stars a young Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter.