House Of The Devil: Ti West, who is being hailed as the next big hope for horror and, I think, is working regularly for Larry Fessenden's Glass Eye Pix, has probably made better films, but what starts out seeming an overly slow thriller ends up generating an impressive level of suspense, as a babysitter in an isolated house wanders blissfully ignorant from room to room - except for the one upstairs where the Really Bad Things have happened. I don't usually feel the need to turn off a horror movie and do something else because I'm too unsettled to continue, but this film had that effect on me, making my own environment feel decidedly unsafe. Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov - whom I for one have not seen for years and find delightful and sexy still - are utterly great and should be paired in more films, and West offers many inspired directorial flourishes, but the film ultimately disappoints; when the promised Really Bad Things arrive, it's just the rather uninspired having-Satan's-baby routine (yawn). Plus, the film hints in its opening titles that it's going to have a conspiracy angle - namely the connection between Satanic ritual abuse and covert government mind-control programs - which it doesn't deliver on in the slightest. Worth a look, tho'; it makes me curious to see more of Ti West's movies, since I rather suspect he's capable of better.
The Haunting In Connecticut: one of the nice things about the appearance of ghosts in Japanese horror films is that often it's simply the fact that they're fucking ghosts that is scary. A dark apparition in the corner that does not belong to the land of the living is plenty menacing, even if - especially if - it's just sort of standing there, insisting on nothing more frightening than its own presence. The Haunting In Connecticut most unfortunately does not understand this simple principle, and has its ghosts appear in momentary jump-out-and-say-boo flashes, horrifically made-up and accompanied by loud, discordant bursts of music which proceed to swirl unsubtly about the 5.1 sonic space in a creepy, orchestral miasma, sounding rather like the Kronos Quartet with a bad hangover. Such moments are meant to startle, not unsettle, with the ghosts often placed onscreen for the benefit of the viewer, not the characters in the film, who mostly can't see them, as if our identification with said characters was irrelevant - or at least secondary - to our being scared by the ghosts. I somehow doubt that the filmmakers intended this as a Brechtian distanciation device, but it has just that effect - taking us out of the filmic world and reminding us we are watching a movie as surely as if the ghosts had addressed us directly. The house, meanwhile, mostly just gets to be a house; the film utterly lacks the attention to atmosphere that make the environment itself unsettling and alien in Dark Water or, say, in the excellent Brad Anderson film Session 9. No; The Haunting In Connecticut makes its scares far more overt, bordering at times on Grand Guignol, as when the water Virginia Madsen is mopping her floor with suddenly turns to blood or we see the eyelids of desecrated corpses being sliced off in closeup. (There's also some CGI ectoplasm that evokes nothing so much as malignant kelp; unexplained flights of ghost birds; and a vivid illustration of what it looks like when shower curtains attack). All of which does amount to something, actually - a moderately effective ghost story about a family, faced with the oldest boy's cancer, who must right past wrongs in the former funeral home that they've unwittingly moved into, thus healing their son (since this is a mainstream, bigger-budgeted affair that must pay lip service to dominant Christian-cum-New-Age principles and have something like a happy ending). All of this I would have been prepared to live with, if only the story were told with more restraint and sophistication. The cast includes the sexy and under-used Virginia Madsen of Slam Dance and Candyman, a rather wasted performance by Hal Hartley favourite Martin Donovan, and the ever-excellent Elias Koteas as a cancer-ridden priest; I hope his career has not been reduced to taking supporting roles in films like this and imbecilic alien abduction movie The Fourth Kind, which I pillory a few posts back. Ti West has apparently been tapped to direct some sort of loose sequel; here's hoping he gets final cut, since he does know how to do quiet.Still from The Haunting In Connecticut
No Telling and Corn: These are, thus far, the two best horror films I've yet to see about genetic engineering. The first, an early film of Larry Fessenden's, actually has a nod to Animal Liberation author Peter Singer in the end credits. A couple move into the countryside; she's a painter with an interest in ecology, whereas he's doing medical research for a private corporation, experimenting with grafting techniques that require him to work on live specimens. As his wife flirts with a fellow townie - an environmentalist played by percussionist David Van Tieghem, come to investigate the damaging effects of pesticides on local farms - he decides that he needs larger species to work on than lab mice, and - when chimpanzees he's requested aren't forthcoming - takes matters into his own hands. One of the many interesting things about Fessenden - who has written a primer on low-impact filmmaking - is that he is willing to explore and subvert the genre he works in; when city folk come into the country in horror films, they usually are confronted by rural degeneracy, but No Telling has the city folk pack the degeneracy along with them - which we see also, at least to some extent, in the more conventional urban/rural horror of Wendigo. I liked that his characters seemed real and human enough to have their own trajectories, not enslaved to any particular idea that Fessenden was working through in the plot - tho' they are sometimes used as mouthpieces for the filmmaker's views; and I much preferred Fessenden's conception of the monstrous here to that in Wendigo and The Last Winter (two other idea-rich and worthwhile horror films of Fessenden's that rather err in feeling they need to show us monsters to be effective). My only dissatisfaction with No Telling lies in the ending; having characters that are human enough to be believable is a good thing, but it would have been nice to have more of an idea how the stories of a couple of them resolved; the film ends on a bit of a "that's it?" fizzle, with the wife driving away into an uncertain future. Fessenden's best film remains his vampire film Habit, but I think it's fair to say he's the most interesting horror filmmaker working today. Unfortunately, the DVD of this may be a bit difficult to track down...Still from No Telling
Corn, by contrast, is a quite a bit more conventional, for both better and worse: a young pregnant woman moves out to the country and discovers horrifying farming practices, involving genetically modified genes in a test crop that are spreading to the weeds and making the sheep that eat them act strangely. She becomes increasingly politicized as she investigates, realizing that something is very wrong - and not only with the corn and the sheep, but possibly with the baby inside her, since she's been eating food from the same farm. The film will likely be more appealing to eco-feminists than hardcore horror fans, who will likely be disappointed by the relative lack of mutant sheep violence - an opportunity that no doubt got wasted due to budgetary constraints. This film, like No Telling, tends to preach to the converted, and is nowhere near as scary as docs like The World According To Monsanto or The Future Of Food, but if you like the idea of a horror film dealing with GMO's, you'll probably appreciate it. And damn, it's a great title for a horror film, eh? Much better than, say, Soybeans.