January at the movies is a very special time of year. You've got all the award-bait films making their expansions into (or dejected retreats from) the national market. At the same time, as conventional wisdom has it, that's when studios dump the crappiest films they have sitting on their shelves into the marketplace to see what happens, like some sort of cruel frat game involving humiliating dates.
So I took this as a challenge: Let's find whatever films the blogosphere/Twitterverse/usual media are dismissing most brutally and check them out. Of course, I see all R-rated horror films anyway just on general principle, so this wasn't any sort of sacrifice (or even inconvenience) for me.
Well, except for ...
The Legend of Hercules 3D, the latest film from Finnish director Renny Harlin, whose body of work spans the sublime (The Long Kiss Goodnight, Cliffhanger) and the execrable (Driven, The Covenant), with a couple of notable terrible sequels in esteemed franchises (Die Hard 2, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master) thrown into the mix. He's not a great director, but I'd never thought of him as boring — until this.
Only 30 Rock and The Comeback seemed to understand Kellan Lutz well, allowing him the chance to do comedy that worked against his Science Lab Beefcake physicality. Tarsem's Immortals kept him nearly silent and scantily clothed in Eiko Ishioka designs, and it worked. But as it is, his career was made and defined as Emmett Cullen, the most built of the vampires in The Twilight Saga.
So there's a certain amount of chutzpah and canny humor in casting him as Hercules, the grand hero of mythology who also burnished the star of Steve Reeves back in the day. He gets one grand moment where he has to accept his semidivine birthright and call down some wrath of the gods, and he straight-up "by the power of Grayskull"s it.
But no matter how much money you throw at a story, there's got to be something special there. Something fun, or insane, or inspiring, or grotesque. How do you take a story with spiteful deities, the crumbling of cities and empires, unstabbable lions and gladiator battles in mud pits, and have it end up this boring? The story keeps only the vaguest outlines of the Herculean myth, preferring instead to slice-and-dice the narratives of Spartacus (both the Kubrick film and the TV show), 300, Gladiator, and Christ (yeah, and not at all well, making the proceedings insulting to both classicists and evangelicals) while adding them to a big cloud of computer-generated everything. Never have I found myself hoping that the superintelligent sharks of Harlin's 1999 say-what-now messterpiece Deep Blue Sea would show up and enliven the proceedings.
There's one inspired moment in all of Hercules, with a throwaway shot of Princess Hebe (Gaia Weiss), forlornly sitting by her pool of pondering. A single tear falls from her cheek to the surface of the pool, which ripples the entire image. In 3D, it's a stunning effect, and sadly the only one in this effects behemoth that doesn't seem like a cut-rate version of something you saw in another movie.
Much more interesting are the two found-footage horror flicks that have seeped into theatres in the first few weeks of 2014. The Marked Ones, a spinoff (though I think I prefer the term "fugue" for very specific structural reasons) of the Paranormal Activity movies, takes the established formula of that series — fixed frames, demon ex machina, unseeable shockwaves that show no respect to property, families torn apart from within and without, delayed gratification as the audience scans the image like a Where's Waldo of murderous intent — and tweaks it in an interesting way, removing the tradition of folk mounting cameras in their homes to document the supernatural shenanigans that are messing up their lives.
Instead, it gives us Jesse (Andrew Jacobs), a recent high school graduate with a new GoPro camera and a sense of curiosity about the weird things happening in his apartment complex. Instead of security cameras, we just have the one handheld HDCam — so yes, there is some shakycam. But it is a Paranormal Activity movie, and they do find a way to use moments of stillness to creep you out. There are also a couple of instances of using fixed focal length to have inexorably approaching monstrosities seem to gather mass from the pixels around them — good, scary stuff.
The Marked Ones aims to be the Hellbound: Hellraiser II of the Paranormal Activity series — a reinforcement of the series' strengths that expands outward in all sorts of unexpected directions. And though it doesn't raise the visual stakes of the series on quite such a level, it's a fascinating infusion of cultural and temporal elements — including a last few minutes that open up whole new vistas of possibilities for the series.
And then there's Devil's Due, which just opened this past weekend to a resounding chorus of "grumble grumble found-footage Rosemary's Baby grumble grumble." But here's the thing — it's actually one of the more interesting films about surveillance culture out there, and every review that simply calls it a Rosemary's Baby ripoff is being incredibly lazy. It is a film about a woman who ends up impregnated with a child, possibly of demonic origin. There is a group who wants to facilitate this. There's the same vertebrae present, yes. But to slag this as a ripoff is to demonstrate an unwillingness to examine the structure and material.
During its initial post-Blair Witch boom, found footage used to mean film students not listening to reason and doing stupid shit in the woods. After the world collectively realized that no one really cares about film students — trust me, I've got the degree to prove it — the genre shifted to "just regular folk" who either want to find a way to document some weirdness or horror that they've gotten into. (This fits the Paranormal Activity films perfectly, as well as a disproportionate number of the films in the horror section on Netflix.)
In Devil's Due, it's devoted husband-to-be Zach, who has decided that he wants to document the life he and his fiancee Sam are making for themselves as a family, along with their awesome golden retriever. Zach is played by Zach Gilford; Sam is Allison Miller, giving it her all in a part that does a great job of reflecting the horrors any woman faces when she finds herself pregnant on the wrong end of a patriarchal conspiracy.
Of course, we're introduced to this concept as Zach breaks into his own house, giving us a continuous first-person shot that lays out the entire geography of the McCall's home. There's more than a casual shout-out to Halloween's opening shot here, and the tradition of subjective-camera stalker shots in the late '70s/early '80s. So it's meant as a relief when we realize it's just the guy who lives there playing a weird joke on his wife-to-be.
This establishes, though, the camera as something wielded by Zach and Sam and as something that they use to tell their own story. Now, we know something's amiss for two reasons: 1) the film mentions the Devil in its title, and 2) the very opening of the film is footage from inside a police station of a blood-spattered, handcuffed Zach.
So even as we acclimate to the camera as being the McCall's tool, we're already aware of an outside presence. As the devilbaby gestates, we incorporate other ways of seeing: an ultrasound machine, grocery store security cameras, parking lot monitors, that sort of thing. Who is controlling this footage? Who has the access?
Things get more complicated as the operatives of the cult/coven — said to be a group that predates the Catholic Church, because as always the only kind of Christianity that matters when you're dealing with devilbabies is Catholicism — infiltrate the McCall house and install cameras. Before, we saw the house in fluid takes that followed the characters or stayed with them in identifiable space in the room. Now, all bets are off. Rooms are bisected, refracted, and reframed, and we even see the media control center that the cult operates from.
But the film cuts between the cult's footage and the material that Zach and Sam shot themselves. So who is the phantom editor lurking behind this (and, truthfully, the majority of) found footage? It's not like The Last Exorcism, wherein the ultimate concept is that the film was assembled by the involved cult. It's not like The Blair Witch Project, where the impression is that the film school that Heather, Josh, and Mike attended was involved in editing the piece. And it isn't like Cloverfield, where the impression is that there was no editing other than the in-camera choices made by the characters.
Because Devil's Due is a conspiracy movie, it makes sense that there's a conspiracy behind its visual sensibility. Whoever is shaping this material has access to police archives, public CCTV feeds, the private footage shot by the McCalls themselves, and the super double-secret footage that the cult has obtained. But to what end?
This is the first feature from Radio Silence, the production/effects collective responsible for the final section of V/H/S, the one with the secret ritual/house of unstable boundaries. I thought that short was a nicely inspired nightmare, and that Radio Silence could be the only filmmakers who should even attempt making The Navidson Record into a movie. With Devil's Due, they've managed to make one of the more interesting feature debuts of recent years, and they've De Palmaed up the multiplex with an astonishing amount of visual text and subtext. Mark my words, this is the kind of horror film that will appeal equally to readers of Fangoria and Infowars.
The film ends in death, betrayal, confusion and horror, with Zach back in that police interrogation. Nothing he has depended on can help him. None of the footage he's shot or people he's interacted with are accessible. Nothing he has personally experienced is believable to anyone else. And he's left helpless and at the mercy of the domestic legal system, a pre-Catholic cult of the infernal, and public opinion. Someone has all of the story, but they aren't playing their hand.
So even if you think Devil's Due is only a serviceable devilbaby movie (it's certainly more than that), it is an exceptional NSA horror movie. Only a voracious, faceless maw that is pulling all information into itself could have all the pieces of the puzzle. And it doesn't matter. Bureaucratic indifference to the suffering of others dictates the edit structure — an inspired subtext for a film unceremoniously dumped into the January marketplace.