CINEMA: Whirling Hall Of Knives

halloweenrobzombie.jpgTHEM (2006, directed by Xavier Palud & David Moreau, 77 minutes, France)
HALLOWEEN (2007, directed by Rob Zombie, 109 minutes, U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC

In my gloriously misspent youth, I lived for a time in a tent and worked in a fish cannery in Petersburg, Alaska. One night a woman from our camp was cleaning the fish gutting machine when her hand became clamped in the conveyor belt and like a particularly nasty Chaplin gag she was dragged kicking and screaming across the slippery gutty floor all the way down the line towards “the header,” a blurry pair of revolving blades. At the late moment she was able to wrestle her hand away and although she wasmedivac’d away for years of painful surgery, I’d like to think that she would take comfort in the fact that she inspired a handy cinematic metaphor for the guy two tents down: when it comes to thriller I just want to be efficiently dragged flailing and wailing towards the whirling blades.

Them, a French import (titled Ils in France) snags your collar and pulls you into its jabbing daggers with the mechanized precision of Alaskan cannery equipment, which is no small trick, although by design it does little else. Still, if you’re not going to make it to the shore this Labor Day weekend Them should jolt you like a good boardwalk spook house.

Part of Them‘s strength is in its running time, a daringly brief seventy-seven minutes. Back when the feature was just one part of a theater’s programming – when newsreels, cartoons and short subjects were still in the mix – many low and medium budget films had running times of less than eighty minutes and that leanness was a benefit to countless filmnoir and horror films. With less than eighty minutes a director wields just enough time to establish character, conflict and consequence and he can shear away any musical numbers or comic relief or any of the other crowd-pleasing distractions. Them has a limited number of tricks up its sleeve, just a few expertly executed ones, so getting on and off stage before the audience can ask many questions is probably the smartest of the smart choices this film’s directing duo has made.

Set in sleepy modern day Hungary, Them opens with a sniping mother and daughter whose van swerves off the road during a rainy night. They stick around only long enough to provide an ominous warning to the film’sils.jpg main couple, a good-looking though rather generic French couple. She’s a school teacher, he’s a novelist who has sought the solitude of a good-sized Hungarian estate to finish his novel. They have some very nondescript naturalistic banter and fall asleep before something finally goes bump in the night and wakes them…

That’s really all we have in the way of character development but these characters are underwritten by design, the directing/writing team of XavierPalud & David Moreau have stripped them of all unneeded baggage to focus their attentions solely on how to sustain the cat and mouse stalking that takes up most of the film.

Stubbornly resisting the urge to overly inflate its horrors, Them doesn’t attempt to give motivation or metaphoric meaning to the things that are terrifying our couple. Instead its thrills are all visceral as the man and woman creep slowly across their spooky rental estate not quite able to see what has them under siege. Palud and Moreau are resourceful in obscuring the threat till the final moments (audiences will probably split pretty evenly on whether they’ll accept the threat once unmasked) but I was finally impressed with Them‘s purposeful purity, delivering an experience that is pure “movies”, one that could not be told as well on the page or on the stage. This impressive debut has not gone unnoticed in Hollywood, the pair are set to direct the English language version of the J-Horror hit The Eye next year.

Last time I saw the original Halloween in the theater (just a few years back)a friend leaned over during the closing credits and whispered, “You see the Bresson influence, don’t you?” It’s hard to imagine that Rob Zombie’s deep-fried and turbo charged remake of the original Halloween will receive similar comparisons.

When you talk about sheer numbers of films inspired in its wake, Halloween has got to be one of the most influential films in American history and when watched again the film’s elegance and subtle craftsmanship is still breathtaking, especially in comparison to it’s many gruesome imitators. Visually, Rob Zombie’s version may allude to theoriginal’s autumnal atmospherics yet he works overtime to dismantle most of what made John Carpenter’s original iconic and timeless.

Where the 1978 original gave us little motivation for Michael Myer’s violent mindset (he seemed like a typical suburban kid inexplicably possessed by something evil), Zombie’s starts with a half-hour prologue of little Michael (wearing a Kiss t-shirt, no surprise to the God-fearing) moping around in one of Zombie’s white trash fantasies, then gives over another twenty minutes to Michael’s years in the asylum. Zombie spends so much time running up the body count and remodelling Michael Myer’s from an inexplicable supernatural bogeyman to a bullied kid with social issues that he barely has time to cram the events of the original story into the film before the running time is over. Somehow he does, speeding through the stalking then lingering on the torture and still having enough time to lard up the climax with a few extra endings.

I did enjoy visiting with Zombie’s cast, like Ed Wood clinging to enfeebled old Hollywood types Zombie’s films are filled with grizzled sixty-something character actors from cult film’s past, weird cowpokes like TomTowles ( Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer), Clint Howard (Ron’s dweeby brother and star of Evilspeak), Danny Trejo (Death Wish 4), Udo Kier (Flesh for Frankenstein) and Brad Dourif (the voice of Child Play’s Chucky doll). It’s like it’s the mid eighties all over again, and I’m up all night drinking cheap beer and watching Cinemax.

At 2 a.m. the crowd at the Jersey cineplex howled appreciatively at the ending (the studio was giving no advance critics screenings, sending me to the hinterlands of Cherry Hill for a midnight Thursday show); blood, guts and mayhem was delivered. I’d like to think that they missed the Bresson but it seemed like the wrong time to ask.

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