in my best horror films of 2009 post, i specifically mentioned three films that i had yet to see that might very well have made the list. well, this weekend i finally got to see all three of those films. my thoughts are below, including how the films might have ranked in my ‘best of’ 2009 list.
the house of the devil
the house of the devil is a beautifully shot film that, true to the 1980s films it so carefully emulates, is a slow-burn tension builder with an explosive third act. everything about this film, such as the opening/closing credits, the film stock “look” and the inclusion of dated fashion statements like acid-washed jeans and handmade friendship bracelets are carefully crafted to make this film seem like it was made in the mid 1980s. the film’s promotion has even gone so far as to even include a vhs copy of the film in certain dvd bundles. despite a slow and suspenseful build-up in the first hour of the film, the pay-off in the film’s finale is disappointingly unsatisfying. while i detest over-explanation, there is such a thing as being too vague and just stubbornly refusing to answer important plot questions. add in that the film’s final reveal is a bit confusing and contradictory, and you’re left with a decent little thriller that, while it wouldn’t have made my ‘best of’ list for 2009, is still worth a look. it’s also worth noting that it also serves as a nice cautionary tale to would-be minions of the dark lord: if you’re a virgin-sacrificing demon-worshiper, you really should take up boating or something and learn to tie a damn knot.
after hearing so many good things about pontypool, i was really looking forward to it. difficult to find for rental, i broke down and ordered a copy from amazon to satisfy my zombie-lust for what brad mchargue called the best horror film of 2009 and entertainment weekly named the 19th best zombie film of all time. i really wanted to like this film, and as the first third of film played out, like it i did. but then something happened. as the horror ramped up in the plot, it became clear that we were never actually going to witness the horror… we were only going to hear about it. the film takes place almost entirely within a radio station which, if handled really well, would be fine. however, the events being described by witnesses and news reports sound so much more interesting than what happens in this film’s single location with its three ridiculously undeveloped and unsympathetic characters.
you may have heard that this is ‘a thinking person’s’ zombie film. and, in many ways, that is true. the central concept of the film is a zombie-like virus that spreads to people not through bites and bodily fluid, but through language. metaphorically rich, the film uses this idea to comment liberally on politics, the nature of communication and pop culture, and as a reason to pose various philosophical hum-dingers. what it doesn’t do, though, is insert all these “messages” into an engaging, believable story with tense situations and sympathetic characters. by the end of the film, the characters are really little more than mouth-pieces for whatever philosophical or political satire the filmmakers wanted to push forward. at one point in the film, a doctor climbs through an open window (in a building the other characters had allegedly locked down due to the rampaging hordes outside) and immediately begins spouting exposition into the radio station’s microphone. it’s like the writer said “well, we need someone smart to explain all this linguistic/pseudo-science mumbo-jumbo, so let’s just have a scientist crawl through a window and start spouting explanations with no rational motivation for doing so — i’m sure no one will notice.”
don’t get me wrong — there are some good, original ideas in pontypool. mixing complicated linguistic, psychological, philosophical and political concepts, i’ve seen the film described as “what you’d get if noam chomsky made a zombie movie” (if that was my description, i might mention richard dawkins as well). throwing all of that into a zombie scenario is a brilliant concept, but, at least for me, it takes more than just an interesting idea to make a film compelling. with no character development, no scares, no tension and unbelievable dialogue and character motivations, the “message” of the film seems to be the only thing that the filmmakers care about and that makes the whole film come across as intellectualized art-school masturbation. If you’re that focused on putting forward your political and philosophical ideas, then maybe it’d be better to make a documentary, write a linguistics journal article or call in to a political talk-radio show than frame it in a horror film. oh, and the ‘epilogue’ the film shows after the credits made me want to microwave the dvd. and then jump up-and-down on it. and then throw it out into the snowmegeddon that was crushing washington, dc at the time.
i tried really, really hard to like pontypool, but just couldn’t manage to do it. however, you should take that opinion with a grain of salt, seeing as i seem to be in the minority on this one and i’m the guy who thinks jennifer’s body is the best horror film of 2009.
call me an uneducated simpleton, but after being disappointed by pontypool, i put in zombieland and said to myself, “yeah, this is more f’ing like it.” from the opening credits i knew i was going to love zombieland… and that proved true all the way through, up to and including the brief after-credits zinger. perfect casting (thankfully they recast emma stone in the role previously slated for mila kunis), super-charged zombies, and a surprising amount of heart for a film so filled with action and laughs, zombieland would have easily made my “best of 2009” list (likely right below drag me to hell). woody harrelson is hilarious as the bad-ass southern zombie slayer, and jesse eisenberg’s awkward, but oddly likable wuss complements him perfectly. my favorite part of the film, however, has to be the placement of the zombie “rules” within the zombieland world itself. what could have broken the fourth wall and pulled you out of the film turns out to be a primary source of the film’s humor and charm. highly recommended. want a sequel. now.