What are you afraid of?
High on my list of current anxieties is the family of raccoons making regular appearances on my third-floor deck, plotting how to turn my dormer into a permanent winter residence. My panic at the sight of their pointy snots and unblinking eyes is out of proportion to this urban nuisance; clearly, they represent some greater threat of invasion.
Not hard to guess, then, which of three horror movies in this week's Halloween crop scared me the most. I could laugh off the blood-thirsty apocalyptic cult featured in Silent Hill: Revelation. I was more convinced but still largely unspooked by the murderous vampire dates of V/H/S. No, it was In Their Skin, a Canadian home-invasion thriller in which a well-to-do couple and their nine-year-old son are visited by their increasingly demanding neighbours, that had me crouching behind the couch.
One common theory of horror is that it offers a safe place in which we visualize our worst fears and thus exorcize them. I can intellectually understand the process – but horror doesn't work for me: I would never actually pay money to be terrified. If I did, then I suppose I might judge the movie based on its success in terrifying me, in which case In Their Skin is the best bet for the middle-aged parent and homeowner who is terrified by the prospect of having her house and family are violated. My worst fears don't get much worse than that.
But whose worst fears include apocalyptic cults that employ cyborg assassins wielding amputating saw-blades, or feline-like vampires who rip their victims to shreds with their teeth? The answer, of course, is young adults, the group at whom most horror is aimed. If they do not literally fear those things, they fear their changing identities, their powerful sexual appetites, their fickle romantic partners and their incomprehensible elders, and the repeated tropes of horror – the screaming girls, the exploding heads, the murderous perverts – are those anxieties on steroids. Or perhaps on CGI.
Of the two teen flicks here, Silent Hill: Revelation has lots of nifty CGI but precious little else. V/H/S has some very interesting things to say about the genre itself, so let's start there.
Directed by Adam Wingard, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and others
Written by Simon Barrett, Ti West and others
Starring Hannah Fierman and Sophia Takal
A bunch of petty criminals who film themselves mugging young women, and then make money selling the videos get a much more lucatrive offer: Go to an old man's house, break in and steal a VHS tape. They will know it when they see it.Inside the house, they start playing the many tapes kicking around and watch one that features the home movie of a group of young men rather like themselves. These geniuses outfit one member of the gang with camera glasses and go out cruising the bars where they pick up two willing young women and take them back to a hotel room. One of their dates passes out, so the alpha male of the group turns to the remaining one for his sex – except she reshapes herself as a monstrous cat woman and tears him to shreds with her teeth. Mr. Glasses screams and runs – but also captures it all on camera.
Thematically, we are in Fatal Attraction territory here: Is the men's misogynist voyeurism being justly punished? Or are all women insanely vengeful?
V/H/S follows this with more short bursts of horror, all shot and performed as though they were amateur videos, and returns from time to time to the burgled house. At the point where the viewer realizes there is no explanation of that framing device other than its excuse for showing the other short films, and that those films will never unite to tell a single tale, much suspense and thus much terror is lost.
The little films, written and directed by a dozen young indie spirits, all feature stories of betrayal in which a supposedly benign figure – a beloved, a friend or even a victim awaiting rescue – lures the protagonists toward their deaths. Whatever the outlandishness of their gore, their aliens and their demons, the shorts make that archetype chillingly current through the familiar voyeurism of today's video technology. If horror has a future beyond Hollywood directors' increasingly bloated attempts to out-gross each other (in both senses of the phrase), this low-budget and artfully self-conscious anthology points the way.
In Their Skin
Directed by Jeremy Regimbal
Written by Joshua Close
Starring Joshua Close, Selma Blair and James D'Arcy
Classification: 14ASeeking solace after the accidental death of their little girl, Mark and Mary Hughes (Joshua Close and Selma Blair) pack nine-year-old Brendon (Quinn Lord) and the family dog into the SUV and head off from an unseasonal vacation at the "cottage." Once ensconced in that retreat, which has more in common with a French chateau than a cabin in the woods, they are visited by inquisitive new neighbours who invite themselves over for dinner. It soon becomes clear that the psychotic Bobby (James D'Arcy), the mentally vacant Jane (Rachel Miner) and their suspiciously large nine-year-old Jared (Alex Ferris) plan to move in permanently.
If the goal is to terrorize an audience, In Their Skin scores. Still, even from a position behind the couch peaking through one's fingers, there seems something bloodless about this exercise, both literally (no gore) and figuratively. The Hughes are very quick to realize the other family is hostile – must be the spooky music – as director Jeremy Regimbal rapidly ticks all the boxes, from the shooting of the family dog to the threat of rape. The wackos' performances, especially D'Arcy's as the oddly charming Bobby, are strong; as the traumatized victims, Close and Blair produce only two much-repeated notes – sorrow and terror. Regimbal's one moment of inspiration, in a script written by Close, is a sequence in which the wealthy Hughes act out their perfect life for the envious intruders, which gives an audience respite and ramps up the ensuing terror.
It's a rare passage that feels clever and stirring in a film that is otherwise generic – a Canadian movie that is purposely vague about an unnamed North American setting where Mark can keep a handgun.
Silent Hill: Revelation
Directed and written by Michael J. Bassett
Starring Adelaide Clemens, Kit Harington and Sean Bean
In a sequel to a movie that in turn was based on a video game, writer and director Michael J. Bassett takes teenaged Sharon back to the ghost town of Silent Hill where some supernatural cult uses its garbled beliefs as justification for tyranny, torture and cyborgs.
Bassett shows a fairly deft touch with flashbacks retelling the first movie, set when Sharon is a little girl. But once the now 18-year-old Sharon (played by Adelaide Clemens) ignores all advice and sets off for Silent Hill in pursuit of her father (Sean Bean), the plot rapidly descends into video-game territory. The approach is additive rather than exponential: Sharon goes from place to place in horrific Silent Hill, defeating various enemies – a crazy old blind man, a gang of storm troopers in gas masks, and a giant spider with living mannequin heads at the end of each leg – as she goes. The performances are shallow; the plot is incomprehensible; the gore is gratuitous. But yes, there are some neat effects.
The lucrative but brutal collision of the video game and the horror movie does some serious damage not only to narrative but also to character and voice. The screaming girl, victimized by supernatural forces (often for pornographic effect), is the standard protagonist of the classic horror movie, a genre originally intended to be watched by passive young men. But the protagonist of an interactive video game is not a victim but an actor, usually male so male players can directly identify with him. In the original Japanese game, Sharon's father was the key figure; now, Sharon herself becomes our protagonist, with the male figure, a young man (Kit Harington) who has escaped the cult, as mere sidekick. That leaves her awkwardly alternating between screaming and conquering: Young women increasingly appreciate the genre and now make up half its audience, but filmmakers are going to have to do better than Silent Hill: Revelation if the new woman of horror is going to find her cinematic footing.