Two recent theatrical viewings have made me think about the art of film criticism. I will state upfront that I don’t consider myself a film critic so much as a guy who loves movies. I like to watch them and then talk about them afterwards. It ain’t science and it may not be art but I likes it! But my lack of pretension about critiquing movies does not keep me from reading real paid-for-their-opinion writers both online and in print. Often I find my own perceptions about films to be out of alignment with the general consensus and no more so than with the horror genre. Without going into detail I find that horror is still looked down upon by the majority of film writers. It often seems horror is seen as the deformed bastard stepchild the industry keeps around because it knows how to scare money out of the kids. So I went to see these two movies with the foreknowledge that one was frowned on and the other was given a congratulatory pat on the head.
Of course it was the horror movie that got the crappy reviews. And strangely both movies are essentially remakes of older, better films.
THE REAPING tells the story of a university professor and former priest (Hillary Swank) who spends her time traveling around the world debunking miracles. She gave up her faith years before after a terrible incident in Africa that robbed her of her family. She is contacted by a teacher from the small bayou town of Haven to disprove what locals think is a reoccurrence of the Biblical plague of blood. When Swank and her colleague arrive in the town they encounter hostility from the residents and more events that appear to replicate the rest of the 10 plagues of Egypt.
Structured exactly like the classic THE WICKER MAN the film follows that template carefully but manages to add some twists of its own. It’s not a great movie but its triumphs are better than its failures. I feared it would succumb to PG-13-itis and wuss out as the climax approached but I was happily surprised. The filmmakers actually had the balls to pull the trigger on some very rough stuff including child murder, ritual human sacrifice and other bloody deeds. And even though it ends up stroking the ego of Christians as a whole it paints a dark picture of religion with good and evil as a balancing act that must be maintained. I think the point when most mainstream critics (and unadventurous viewers) turn against THE REAPING is when the supernatural elements start kicking into gear. So just about the time the movie really starts to surprise me I would bet most folks sneer. It’s a shame because it’s at this point that the film takes a brilliant turn and becomes a real horror film. By the time the locusts arrive and begin killing folks in hideous bug fashion a line has been crossed and there is no longer a way to rationally explain events. That can be a great moment in a well done horror film and this one hits it. It’s far from perfect but it is a solid 2 & ½ star film and quite enjoyable for genre fans. For others, I would guess less so.
The second theatrical viewing of the week was DISTURBIA. This film is getting generally good reviews and I think they’re deserved. Immediately identifiable as REAR WINDOW lite it tells the story of teenager Kale (Shia Labeouf) being sentenced to three months of home incarceration for a violent outburst at school. Held in place by an electronic anklet he can’t venture further than his own suburban yard without drawing the wraith of the police for the entire summer. Initially defiant he begins to go a little stir crazy once his mother limits his entertainment possibilities and begins to watch his neighbors as a diversion. This is made more interesting when a new family moves in next door with a beautiful teenage daughter who is fond of the house’s swimming pool. But just as Kale begins to make contact with the young lady he notices that another neighbor might have a connection to a series of murders in the nearby city. Indeed, this older man’s actions seem very questionable even if our Peeping Tom can’t nail down anything verifiable. He eventually resorts to using his best friend and that pretty girl next door to investigate things and the situation gets trickier and more dangerous until Kale’s mother is pulled in as well.
Although a little light this is a well told story with not a single misstep. The movie is paced well with just enough information about our main character to get us on his side and be drawn into the mystery across the street. The young cast does a very good job the and the script is smart in its slow build always holding strictly to what can be seen from Kale’s vantage point. The suspense grows as more info trickles in and even the conflicts with the boy’s mother and an emotional clash between the burgeoning teenage couple serve to amp up the tension. If the film has a flaw it’s that it seems a little too derivative of its obvious source- almost a remake done for the kids. I think that Hitchcock would have found a way to give the story a little more heft by making the danger more visceral but this is still good. It just could have been better. Regardless, the movie is sure footed and the tense final 20 minutes are quite gripping. And I should mention that David Morse turns in a fine performance as the possible murderer hiding in pleasant suburbia. He’s able to say volumes with the almost mechanical twitch of his mouth into an insincere smile.