BIFF Movie Review: Midnight Passion
Each year, BIFF serves up three nights of triple features, usually in the horror/thriller genre. This year, Chained, Compliance and Sinister comprised the Saturday night scare-fest. Seth Fellenz was there.
BUSAN, South Korea -- The only marathons I will ever participate in are movie marathons. Normally, involving films, I've taken on the challenge of the Indiana Jones trilogy (yes, trilogy) and Back to the Future; made an ill-fated attempt at Lord of the Rings; and, at the behest of a very insistent roommate, managed all six Star Wars films while only dozing off during Episode I (which we watched fourth).
But Midnight Passion is a different beast entirely. As I learned from attending last year, these are not popular, big-budget action movies with the rollicking pace of most of the above-mentioned films; rather, they are a collection of three Busan International Film Festival selections deemed most appropriate for late-night viewing. Which brings us to the second difference—Midnight Passion starts at midnight.
After a strategic evening nap, I met with friends at the BIFF Cinema Center and grabbed some necessary snacks and energy drinks that would allow me to stay up until dawn. Doing minimal preparation for this event, I had read nothing about the movies I was about to see aside from the names. After the pre-sale tickets sold out in minutes, I felt lucky just to be attending. As we found our seats and the lights went down, I slammed my first Hot 6 of the night and settled in for Chained.
As the opening credits rolled, I was pleased to see Vincent D'Onofrio as the top-billed actor in Chained. The beginning scene of a man dropping his wife and son off for a matinee on a sunny afternoon shows a typical, happy family. The father insists that, despite money being tight, his wife and nine-year-old son take a taxi home.
As they exit the theater, a yellow cab conveniently pulls up. What happens next is not breaking any new ground—the killer murders the mother, keeps the boy (whom he renames “Rabbit”) as a slave and continues along with his normal routine of brutally murdering innocent young women. Soon Rabbit accepts that there is no escape, and becomes the perfect serial killer assistant, serving breakfast, cleaning the house and burying bodies.
Most of the film takes place in the home of serial killer Bob, and examines the interactions and relationship between captor and slave, all punctuated by the screams of young women. Played capably by the waifish Eamon Farron, Rabbit's behavior is that of an abused dog—chained to the wall, he sits on his bed most of the day, avoids eye contact and hides under the kitchen table when he is afraid.
Bob, who suffers from nightmares of a childhood scarred by physical and sexual abuse, chooses to mentor the boy in his own twisted way, giving him anatomy books to study and preparing him for his first “taste”. The chemistry between the two is excellent, and D'Onofrio's performance is the strongest part of the film.
The story itself is somewhat lacking. If I hadn't seen (and been disappointed by) 2010's Bereavement, the plot may have seemed inventive. Director Jennifer Lynch missed several chances to make a tighter film, and Bob's horrific childhood is an unnecessary detail. Once the story jumps from young Rabbit to teenaged Rabbit, the film can only end in one of two ways. Lynch then tacks on a surprise twist that couldn't have felt more obligatory.
While not blessed with the strongest script or enough directorial restraint, Chained is a perfectly acceptable horror flick. D'Onofrio is at the creepy top of his game, and Farron was an excellent choice as Rabbit. Ultimately a blood-soaked coming of age story, it's just scary enough for people who don't want nightmares.
Following a fifteen minute intermission and another Hot 6, I was feeling good about the night. The opening of Compliance blared, in all caps, “BASED ON TRUE EVENTS.” It tells the story of a (not exactly) prank phone call that goes beyond too far. Depicting what was apparently only the most extreme in a series of dozens of similar incidents, the movie takes a disturbing real-life event and tells you that you are better than everyone involved.
The story follows one particular day at a fast food restaurant. Ann Dowd does an excellent job as the manager, Sandra. She is harried and stressed, but does her best to run a tight ship. Becky is a typical teenager working at the restaurant, soon to be the victim of a horrible con.
“Officer Daniels” spends the day playing puppet master, convincing Sandra via telephone that Becky (Dreama Walker) has stolen money from a customer's purse, and that he needs her help to solve the crime. Within a minute of the phone call's beginning, it is clear that this is not a real police officer.
Over the course of the day, the caller convinces Sandra and her boyfriend to commit several serious crimes against Becky, all while convincing Becky that she has no choice but to go along with it. As Officer Daniels (an outstanding performance by Pat Healy) moves Sandra from a pat down search to more serious offenses (her boyfriend is convicted of multiple felonies), the audience is left wondering what it will take to make this stop.
Quite simply, this is a story that does not cry out to be told. What's more, a feature film is not the appropriate medium. A better version of this story could be told in a 10-second conversation: Hey, did you hear about that fast food place that got pranked? Wow, people are stupid. Rather than inspiring wonder at that stupidity, director Craig Zobel makes the villain into the only sympathetic character and turns his victims into automatons.
Judging from the title, the goal of Compliance was to comment on the dangers of not questioning authority, of blindly following orders without asking who is giving them or why. Problem is, a film based on true events removes free will from its characters. Their choices are pre-programmed by reality, and if a filmmaker wants to stay true to that reality, it makes their decisions a lot less compelling.
Unfortunately, if this had been pure fiction, the story would have been too preposterous to be made. If you like to feel better than everyday folks—and let's be honest, most people reading (and writing) film reviews do—then consider Compliance a kind of superiority porn.
Once the lights went up I pulled out my phone and found the Wikipedia page for the crimes depicted in the film. I found reading it to be a much more rewarding experience than seeing Compliance.
Washing the bad taste out of my mouth with another Hot 6 and some chips, I was starting to worry about my energy level in the face of another dud. Five seconds into the opening credits of Sinister, I was no longer concerned.
As the film opens, struggling true crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) has just moved his family to a new town to investigate the horrific—and unexplained—murder of a family, and the disappearance of their young daughter. Filmgoers soon learn that not only have the Oswalts moved to the town of this crime, they've moved into the crime scene.
As Ellison is taking boxes to the attic, he discovers an old box of home movies. Thinking there may be some connection to the case, he sits down to watch them. One by one, the films cut from pleasant family get-togethers to each family being bound and murdered. That night—in fact, every night—Ellison is haunted by ghoulish, unexplainable events, until he and his family are finally driven from the house, toward the inevitable conclusion of the film.
This is a quality horror film. (Haps culture editor Jen Sotham gave it two punches to my shoulder.) The innovative use of Super 8 footage, set to one of the eeriest soundtracks I've ever heard, is only part of what makes this such a terrifying flick.
Sinister could be called formulaic; it certainly uses many of the genre's time-tested tropes, from the haunted murder house to creepy kids to startling cuts and noises that make the audience jump. But director Scott Derrickson doesn't rely on these exclusively—he lets the tension build. As Ellison walks slowly through his dark house, sweating nervously and trying to find where this sound is coming from, I felt myself begging him to turn on a freaking light.
Rather than jumping out of the shadows to eviscerate, the demon in Sinister is revealed slowly as Ellison zooms in on one corner of a grainy image. Once his face was clear, I could practically hear the audience's collective skin crawl.
In what was my favorite scene of the night, Ellison walks nervously through the dark house, and the ghosts of disappeared children tiptoe after him, ducking into doorways as he turns. Instead of simply scaring us, the scene haunts viewers in a deeper, darker way. The strength of Sinister is that it frightens in different ways: it yells “BOO!”, it sends chills down the spine, it causes wide-eyed terror.
As I finally stood up from my seat, a shade before 5:30 in the morning, I realized just how exhausted I was. Horror movies, more than any other genre, transport viewers into a place we otherwise don't want to access. I can't remember ever being afraid—sweating palms, racing heart, how the hell is this gonna end fear—for five and a half hours. While I was only truly impressed with one of the three, Midnight Passion was a great experience I'll certainly attempt again next year. As I shuffled wearily off to bed, sun poking clearly over the hills, I was glad someone had finally turned on a freaking light.
Read more from Seth Fellenz