Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Haunting of Hill House (2018)

I added this new series on Netflix to my queue last month, but I made the mistake of not making it a priority. I guess I thought maybe it was some kind of remake or spin-off of House on Haunted Hill. But it's not. I watched it after Halloween, and it's one of the best shows I've seen in a long time. With high production values - particularly the writing and acting talent - it's one of those titles that rises above the din of the horror genre, and makes me proud to be a fan. I recommend it to fans of great TV, even outside the realm of horror fandom.

Although the show has its fair share of scares, much of its dramatic weight comes from its themes and its characters - five siblings and their parents, each a broken person, living as adults but still haunted by the traumatic events they experienced in childhood, during a brief but unforgettable stay in a haunted house. The show intersperses scenes from the past, constructing an intriguing mystery about what happened in those last days before they moved out in the middle of the night. The child actors that have been cast all do a phenomenal job (also, Annabeth Gish - who was Agent Reyes in late seasons of The X-Files - appears as one of the house's caretakers). But the real story is how these kids are navigating their lives in the present, and to what extent the house's supernatural draw still pulls at them - as an author, a mortician, a psychologist, a drug addict.

I particularly liked the way the series provides natural explanations for a lot of the supernatural phenomena (the kids' dad explains, "dreams can spill out sometimes") - one character, in particular, presses the mental illness angle. Another seeks therapy for recurring sleep paralysis. And while the series presents the supernatural elements in a very matter-of-fact way (and the narrative relies on them), at no point does it ever feel like you couldn't interpret them as "dramatizations" of an otherwise non-supernatural reality. (Somebody seeing something, for example, doesn't mean it's really there).

It's a well-crafted show, that relies heavily on suspense and drama, while also delighting in occasionally shocking viewers (but never in a way that feels "cheap" or undeserved). There's even an episode midway through that's shot in a series of long takes without cuts - which must have been a challenge for the actors, but it gives a very raw and spontaneous feeling to the expression of their emotions, in what is indeed a very dark day of their lives.

This show ruminates on fear and death, existential dread, but also maternal love (and how it can be corrupted), the human need for closeness and comfort, to listen to one another, and not take for granted the connections you have with loved ones, because they could be gone in the blink of an eye. Except that they never really are gone, so long as you hold them in your heart. It takes you on a dark journey, but the trip is a blast, and there is some light at the end of the tunnel. I give this series my highest recommendation.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

13/14 Cameras (2015/2018)

I noticed a movie titled 14 Cameras on Netflix, and I thought the voyeuristic premise sounded interesting. Luckily, I did my research first, and found out that it's actually a sequel to an earlier movie titled 13 Cameras, also available on Netflix. So I watched them both, in order, on two separate nights.

Preying on the fear cultivated by a growing spy cam industry, both of these movies focus on a particular slumlord who likes to outfit the properties he rents with lots of hidden cameras - for purposes that start out perverted, and quickly escalate to much worse. As someone who spends time defending voyeurism as a sexual fetish, I was at first very frustrated with these films. Not because they depict voyeurism as the appetizer to kidnapping and even murder (although perhaps that should frustrate me more), because I guess I'm used to that.

Rather, I thought the portrayal of the slumlord was so ridiculously over-the-top, that it didn't even have a hint of verisimilitude. Compared to, for example, a documentary I recently watched on Netflix (simply titled Voyeur) about a guy who built a motel specifically designed to enable spying on its inhabitants (whose first name curiously matches the villain in 13/14 Cameras). Sure, this guy's enterprise was morally dubious, but I consider him to be a sympathetic person (and, true to the voyeur's code, he never physically assaulted anyone, let alone anything worse than that).

The slumlord in these two movies, however, is a different story altogether. Played to devastating effect by a man named Neville Archambault (comparisons to the slimy worm at the center of The Human Centipede II are apt, in the sense that you can't fathom how the casting department managed to dredge up such a revolting example of humanity), his look and (apparently) smell inspire one renter in the first movie to apply such colorful phrases as "dirty diapers" and "spoiled mayonnaise" to describe him. Meanwhile, he can barely string a full sentence together, leaving you to wonder how somebody so disgusting, and so socially inept, could possibly run a successful business, renting properties out to more or less normal people.

And then when he sits in front of his 13 or 14 monitors unblinking (wearing his glasses perpetually the way a state trooper wears his hat), with his mouth hanging open, you have to ask yourself, does this guy not know about the treasure trove that is internet pornography, that he has to go to such trouble, putting himself at great personal risk for relatively limited gains? By the end of the second movie, though, I began to realize that the creators aren't taking him completely seriously, and there is a little bit of [dark] humor to his character. So as a creation of pure fiction, designed precisely to be so outrageous, I have to concede that it is kind of interesting to watch him in action.

Now, I'm not going to say these two movies are anything other than the cheap horror smut the premise makes them out to be, but if that's the kind of bad movie you like to watch, you could do a lot worse. Considering the subject matter, these movies actually don't go too far with the explicit violence, and there's actually very little sexuality (mostly implied - to wit, I can't even say for certain that this guy rapes his victims; he's so developmentally stunted, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that he doesn't actually know what to do with his...erm, equipment) - especially compared to the waste-of-celluloid that was The Human Centipede.

As for the other characters in these movies - a dysfunctional young married couple in the first one, and a vacationing family with three [twenty-something] teenagers in the second one - nobody's going to be winning any awards for acting (or likability, for that matter), but they do an adequate job of creating some unfolding drama to distract from the central theme of voyeurism, even if it's nearly always present in the form of a multi-view hidden camera perspective (kind of like Paranormal Activity without the paranormal activity), accented by heavy breathing.

There's a point in the second movie where the subject of the dark web comes up - when the slumlord starts live streaming his feed, and a group of bottom feeders spontaneously start bidding on one of the girls (the slumlord's unconvincing response: "not for sale"). This isn't the movie to explore the ramifications of that kind of behavior (and how likely it really is), but I appreciate a movie that's willing to go there without getting super preachy about it. This is horror, after all, and a total work of fiction. And as long as you're viewing it as such, you just might be able to get some twisted entertainment out of it.