Monday, October 8, 2018

The Halloween List: Pyewacket, The Meg, & Hold the Dark

Previously: Nicholas Cage's Mandy, A24's Slice, and Summer of '84.

Talk about three intensely different movies. Today I've got a demon summoner, a giant shark, and a veteran-turned-Slasher. And surprisingly, The Meg is not the worst movie I watched for today.

Let's dive in, starting with the overlooked gem that is Pyewacket.

Pyewacket (2018)

I’ve been giving more IFC films a look since they released Devil’s Candy. Pyewacket had a very quiet premiere in March – so quiet that I only heard about it in a random thread on Dreadit.

It follows a single mother and daughter handling the trauma of the father’s death. The two are driven far apart by their pain, and the daughter seeks comfort in cheesy occultism. After a particularly horrible fight with her mother, she performs a ritual asking for her something to happen to her mother, but no lightning strikes. It’s a bit of runtime later when she starts hearing strange noises around the house. Whatever listened to her prayer seems to have followed her home.

The atmosphere of Pyewacket approaches A24 levels of tense authenticity. It’s shot in a real house bordering real woodland in Autumn, and the shots feel cold enough to make you put a jacket on. It’s edited with enough quiet, and a strong balance of soft, eerie sounds against sharp and abrupt ones. The actors couldn’t ask for a better indie production to walk into. These surrounding details earns confidence much faster than the plot.

The movie is more of a slow burn than it lets on. It’s deep in the movie, during a sleepover with one of her punk friends, that we get our first hint that whatever followed her home is real and dangerous. Even after that, shaken as she is, you won’t grasp how much things will go awry until the last ten minutes. It’s then that everything that seemed random in the film comes together, leading to one of the least predictable climaxes in Horror all year. Both of the stoic Horror fans I watched it with professed to feel like the movie was messing with their heads.

Whatever else I have to say about the movie, its ending makes it worth watching, and particularly worth finishing. I need to accentuate that it’s worth finishing because I almost gave up after half an hour. Pyewacket is packed with bickering between the mother and daughter, much of which is capricious or downright abusive. I can buy that the mother is devastated, but not that she’d say she hates that she sees the father’s face in her daughter’s and wishes she could destroy it – and then never bring it up again. She never apologizes, and the daughter never brings it up again. It’s just one of a litany of one-off fights they have that see no resolution. The movie has intense Conflict ADD, right up until the mom abruptly chills out in a way that doesn’t track with trauma or mental illness. These fights are uncomfortable and then extremely unsatisfying because they don’t go anywhere.

One of my bugbears, especially in visual media, is lazy conflict. Characters who are supposed to be beloved in the second act are introduced as awful in the first, and often they don’t get redemption – the screenwriter just flips a personality switch. Jamming emotional content like this into a movie can be cruel, as when Guardians of the Galaxy needlessly opened with the death of Starlord’s mother before going on to make him a goofball adult. It’s great to create art that tackles difficult things, like abusive home life after the loss of a parent, but that’s not what most art is doing. It’s why the memorable parts of Pyewacket are the plot of its second half.

The Meg (2018)

This is probably the most embarrassing thing I’ll type this year, but:

I remember enjoying the book?

Believe it or not, this trashy movie about a giant shark is based on an even trashier novel by Steve Alten. It was a surprise success following some monumental pre-Amazon self-publishing efforts, a passion project that reeked of “I could do Jurassic Park but better.” The novel even opens in prehistoric times when Alten’s super-cool giant shark eats a t-rex that wades too far into the water, to show us how much cooler his book was than Crichton’s.

I was fourteen and didn’t understand how trite and sexist most of the book was. It followed a discredited marine biologist and mediocre academic who the world refused to believe had seen a living megalodon, and who of course was right, and so got to outlive his evil ex-wife and fight for fame and justice. It lived on ridiculous set-pieces, which is what the movie has decided to keep.

The loathsome main character has morphed into Jason Statham, a hero ready to plunge into action scene after action scene to save the survivors of a series of silly cascading failures. So yes, it turns out giant sharks aren’t extinct, and at least one has come to the surface to try modern cuisine. In order for plenty of shark-based set pieces, the humans are about to make as many mistakes as possible. The Meg is basically incompetence porn.

The movie has a much more diverse cast than the original novel, although it doesn’t know how to use many of them. This movie isn’t just a chomp-fest. In the first half hour, there are two separate big scenes culminating in people of color selflessly sacrificing themselves to save their white co-workers. Bingbing Li plays Jason Statham’s love interest, which mostly means her being tossed into peril so he can help her. Some of this mess is pulled together by the end where several people get to play in the big shark hunt, but whenever it works, it’s mostly because of a charismatic actor working above their material, like Page Kennedy’s DJ.

Horror fans were disappointed at how bloodless The Meg turned out to be. It’s a popcorn PG-13 movie where an admirable number of people get chomped by sharks, but with very little human carnage. The less bloody approach works because of how intensely cheesy the movie is. It leans on a token cute kid, token cute dog, token romantic pairing, and a plethora of one-liners – it’s a silly B-Movie. Having such a light atmosphere despite the stakes of the giant shark makes it much more casually watchable. I took it in with about ten friends who alternately shrieked and mocked it. It’s exactly right level of on-screen violence for this sort of atmosphere.

You watch Pyewacket to be absorbed in a morbid journey. You watch The Meg to cackle and throw popcorn.

Hold the Dark (2018)

Hold the Dark is proof that adapting novels into movies is hard. It stars Jeffrey Wright (who you probably love from WestWorld), and is directed by Jeremy Saulnier, who proved he knows how to do dark dramas with Blue Ruin and Green Room. It’s got a killer premise: a boy is killed, seemingly by wolves, and a wolf expert is flown in to track down the truth for the boy’s traumatized mother.

The trailer promises either wolf mayhem or a wolf-inspired cult, either of which could be harrowing. Instead, we got this morose and aimless slog through Alaskan backdrops.

It barely tells a story, a problem that feels like an artifact of being too faithful to the novel it’s based on. There are too many scenes where the characters are feeling something important, or are living couched in some context we don’t know about, that the actors aren’t able to make work. These are exactly the sorts of scenes where prose thrives, with its ability to delve into the human mind and our emotional reactions. The baggage makes sense in prose. In a film, you’re just seeing people behave. It doesn’t flesh things out. Films work differently. When you adapt a book this stiffly, you only let the audience see things that happened in a book without giving them the reason to care.

That gets much worse as the movie trudges along. The missing boy’s father is wounded while serving in Iraq, and within a day of coming home, starts sullenly slaughtering the entire town. Why? It’s not explained, although his victims spout excuses that are supposed to hint at why. They’re supposed to hint at why, but I dare you to put their yammering together. Instead Hold the Dark slouches toward one of the most unemotional and boring Slasher movies of the decade, while exploiting the trauma of veterans, drug addiction, and the loss of children to minimal effect.

It’s not that a veteran going on a killing spree couldn’t be an intense movie – it could be earthshattering. But nobody has a developed personality and the town where all this is happening doesn’t have a clear community or feeling. It meanders from character to character, nobody with anything going on until it’s their time for gore.

Hold the Dark is two hours long, and it easily could have been one hour and forty minutes. You read the previous sentence and thought I just meant the movie feels too long. But no. Near the hour mark, the cops (not a single one of which is a developed character) go to the wrong suspect's house (who has barely been in the movie until now), and they embark on twenty minutes of mindless yammering and a gun battle that feels like a parody of the alt-right. Nowhere is the ineptitude of the film more obvious. A cavalcade of characters that don't even have names are shredded for no reason, and the film's belief that the death of a single child mattered evaporates because we've just seen something far bloodier - and all that bloodletting was trivial.

This exhausting scene stalls the plot so hard that when we finally cut away to the main characters, you remember, oh right, this movie had a plot before, but you can't possibly care about them anymore because of the vast overkill that just went on and blotted out the entire film's arc. Even the veteran’s continued killing spree feels minor.

It’s an awfully boring movie for how many people it kills. Jeffrey Wright deserves better.

Next: Cosmic Horror treasure trove! Thelma, Annihilation, and The Endless.

1 comment:

  1. I'll skip the last one.
    Pyewacket is definitely on my radar. I can appreciate a slow build to unsettling ends.
    The Meg was fun. never read the book, but I appreciated that the movie didn't go for the Sharknado side of cheesy.


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