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Of Haunted Houses and Killer Sharks

August Excitement from the Aisle Seat

By Andy Dursin

Thankfully, the supernatural has all of a sudden become a major player in this summer's movies. Horror fare like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and THE HAUNTING each bring something different to the table in genre terms, and this week we get another thriller, THE SIXTH SENSE -- a Bruce Willis vehicle that has been receiving some surprisingly positive word-of-mouth (and where the heck did this film come from? Nobody had even heard of it until a month ago). While holdovers THE 13TH WARRIOR and THE ASTRONAUT'S WIFE will be screened on August 27th (over a year past their original release dates), it seems that the genre ain't finished yet, and with SLEEPY HOLLOW and END OF DAYS on target for the end of the year, it seems clear that Hollywood will continue to churn out some chillers before 1999 draws to a close. (After the summer we've had thus far, I'd even go for another Jennifer Love Hewitt slasherfest. Sigh.)

In Theaters

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (***): It's a shame that radio dramas are no longer a part of our entertainment culture, since this intriguing and puzzling supernatural experiment in low-budget filmmaking probably would have been most at home sans any visuals, much less hand-held cameras and rough black-and-white footage.

Deemed as this year's hot indie property after wildly successful screenings at festivals around the nation, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT arrives in national release as a well-conceived, documentary-told tale of mounting paranoia that can be described in just a few simple sentences. Three filmmaking students set out to the rural woods of Maryland to study the tale of a local legend, only to find themselves lost in the forest with only each other to rely on. The problems, in addition to each character's own behavioral quirks, come only when the sun goes down--and some startling noises can be heard outside their tent, off in the distance of the foreboding woods.

Little is seen in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, and virtually nothing is explained. The ending is satisfyingly ambiguous but also leaves you somewhat empty, as if the picture's only goal was to play with the audience--not provide viewers with a developed backstory or so much as a hint of a resolution or explanation to the mysterious goings-on. It's frustrating since, without that, the movie never becomes a fully integrated dramatic experience, but it still maintains an edgy level of curiosity in the viewer for what it doesn't say.

The filmmakers used extreme methods to elicit a level of believable hysteria in the cast, and the ensuing "performances" are realistic for the most part, though I tired of Heather Donahue's incessant whining and found a few of the confrontations between the characters a tad redundant (you would think, after being spooked by noises at night, that the group would simply take to the hills and run for it, not mope around and elaborate upon what's going wrong). Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick's script--which they also directed and edited--is not freed from some of the regulation conventions of the horror genre, either, as all three protagonists exhibit more than their share of idiotic behavior throughout (if Donahue is such an expert hiker, why doesn't she ever think of marking their location on trees or other landmarks after they get lost? And if you went into a haunted house, would you ever separate from your companion?).

All of this is forgivable, however, since Sanchez and Myrick have tapped into a less-is-more approach with a gritty realism that's striking in relation to all of the recent genre plunders we've received in the wake of SCREAM. The best parts, of course, are when the lights go down and we sit in silence, listening -- with the characters -- for whatever lurks in the woods to show itself. In a way, I think this film may work better on video, where the intimate nature of the story and the crude technical footage will be less of a distraction, and not having an audience full of fellow viewers will make one feel even more uncomfortable.

Like all sleepers that come associated with a huge promotional blitz, the film isn't quite as good as the reviews would have you believe, though this is primarily the fault of over-saturation on the media's part. You couldn't read a film magazine or turn on the Sci-Fi Channel this summer without hearing about "that little movie that's scarier than any studio thriller," and a lot of critics have jumped on the movie's bandwagon, bestowing incredible praise for the film that seems to have been as much a product of the film's underdog production story (nameless actors, next-to-nothing budget, no-name filmmakers) as the movie itself. After all the hype, some viewers are bound to be disappointed (one audience member yelled out, "it sucked! Don't see it!" to the line waiting for the next show), but most are sure to be enthralled by the film anyhow. It is not a classic, but there is something haunting about the film that makes it, at the very least, an intriguing and often successful experiment in utilizing an audience's own imagination instead of explicitly showing them everything that's happening.

That leads us into the inevitable sequel, which has been bandied about by the filmmakers and Artisan Entertainment over the last few weeks. For once, I wouldn't mind seeing one. You wouldn't want to see Sanchez and Myrick repeat themselves by simply producing a bigger-budgeted remake of this picture, but seeing a further investigation--and a cinematic exploration--of the material from these filmmakers in a more technically proficient and fully-developed, cinematic narrative form would be interesting to see. Even on a bigger, perhaps even "mainstream" genre canvas, I think there's a good chance that THE BLAIR WITCH would chill again. (87 mins, R)


THE HAUNTING (**1/2): Critics seemed to be shocked that this remake of Robert Wise's 1963 chiller (and Shirley Jackson's novel "The Haunting of Hill House") represents a conscious lightening of its source material, but what did they expect in a PG-13 rated haunted house movie from Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks studio? It's bubblegum, ersatz-horror all the way, but at least it has been given a classy production mounting thanks to a top-flight artistic team.

Lili Taylor gives the film's best performance as a sheltered and emotionally scarred young woman who is recruited by Liam Neeson to undergo a "sleep disorder study" (really a front for an experiment in observing human paranoia) in a gothic mansion in western Massachusetts. Joining Taylor are Catherine Zeta-Jones and Owen Wilson, who creep around the ghostly house while Neeson looks on, wondering if the apparitions that become visible to Taylor are indeed a product of her imagination--or something else lurking in the house.

Movies like the original HAUNTING and Jack Clayton's supreme supernatural classic THE INNOCENTS effectively played off their protagonist's mounting fear by raising questions about their sanity (or lack thereof). In this HAUNTING, the more subtle approach of those pictures is eschewed in favor of explicit visual effects and a point-of-view that never questions Taylor's behavior, even though Neeson isn't quite sure that she's mentally all there.

It's just one discrepancy in David Self's screenplay, which is nevertheless given a superb visual presentation in director Jan DeBont's glossy production. Beautifully designed (by Eugenio Zanetti of RESTORATION) and photographed (kudos to Karl Walter Lindenlaub of STARGATE and GODZILLA), THE HAUNTING provides low-rent scares in a grade-A studio setting. Say what you will about the lack of a compelling story, but the film's $80 million budget is certainly evident on-screen in its depiction of Hill House, with its towering corridors, gothic designs, pockets of spider webs and paintings evoking purgatory.

It's a shame, then, that the movie never really comes to life and produces the kind of spine-tingling moments one expects from this material. The film has a difficult time generating true chills, with the biggest scare coming from a skeleton that briefly comes to life, and a mural of child sculptures whose expressions change from one cut to another (evidence that, yes, some shocks CAN be generated without CGI). In place of the original's subliminal horrors are those computer-generated special effects, some of which are impressive but none of which come close to evoking the juvenile frights of the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World. The climactic showdown between Taylor and the house's "host" actually recalls the Grim Reaper design in Peter Jackson's turkey THE FRIGHTENERS, and that's likely not the kind of cinematic comparison DeBont and company were aiming for here.

Spielberg's influence, however, can be felt throughout. In many ways, THE HAUNTING plays like POLTERGEIST by way of THE GOONIES--there are corridors and gadgets, hidden rooms and a rationale for the Poltergeist phenomena that culminates in an ending more uplifting than its predecessor. Indeed, several reports in the NY Post this past week that Spielberg extensively reshot much of the film bear an eerie resemblance to the whole "did Tobe Hooper direct POLTERGEIST?" fiasco from 1982, and there is ample evidence on-hand that tampering was done to the picture's ending (not to mention Lili Taylor's hair changing lengths in a couple of spots, which could be continuity glitches or clear evidence of re-shot material). If that wasn't enough, Jerry Goldsmith's by-the-numbers score doesn't do anything other than routinely comment on the action with low-register, brooding strings and lilting, "ghostly" moments that make you feel as if poor little Carol Ann is still lost in the netherworld (the sound effects also bear more than a passing resemblance to POLTERGEIST).

The cast tries hard, but other than Taylor (billed fourth despite having the lead role!), are given little to do. Neeson looks more lost here than he did in THE PHANTOM MENACE, while Zeta-Jones's toughest job is finding a rationale for changing her wardrobe during the course of the preceding. Owen Wilson's surfer dude might have worked better as comic relief if his character resembled Jeff Spicoli from FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, but the movie just misses that kind of inspiration. Predictably, none of them are able to steer clear of some unintentionally funny dialogue, most of which occurs near the picture's climax. (My favorite is Neeson, having just witnessed a haunted house crumbling down and statues coming to life around him, bark out, "what does he think this is? A game?!", as if ghosts do everything EXCEPT fool with their houseguests).

DeBont's pacing is efficient, though, and I admit that I generally enjoyed looking at the movie--it's worth it for its production design alone. Thanks to the sets, THE HAUNTING is enough to warrant a mild recommendation for genre fanatics, even if the only members of the audience who'll be truly scared by it will be fully grown only by the next time that this story is remade again. (PG-13, 108 mins).


DEEP BLUE SEA (***): Let's admit it. For those of us who routinely enjoy action-packed summer-time blockbusters, this has been the weakest summer of the decade'a whimpering, pathetic way to end the Millennium.

Finally, after Kubrick's last gasp, two Julia Roberts vehicles, leering teen comedies, and minor fare that will be more at home on video than the big screen, we get Renny Harlin's comeback film, DEEP BLUE SEA, and for what it is, it's solid, damned exciting entertainment.

Not the kind of movie you see for character development or introspective dialogue, DEEP BLUE SEA--a combination of THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, JURASSIC PARK and JAWS--is a skillfully crafted and exciting thriller that goes to show what happens when man (or in this case, the decidedly feminine Saffon Burrows, whom Harlin wisely allows to slip out of her wet-suit a la Sigourney in ALIEN) decides to tamper with mother nature. The cause is scientific experiments, but the consequence is the unleashing of a trio of enhanced sharks who wreck havoc on helpless researchers trapped in an underwater lab. The victims include shark wrangler Thomas Jane (quite good), lab chef LL Cool J (in one of the summer's more engaging performances), doctor Stellan Skarsgard and suit Samuel L. Jackson, who find themselves trying to outwit the cunning maneaters and find their way to the surface.

DEEP BLUE SEA isn't going to set a new standard in effects or action-filmmaking, but it does succeed on its own terms as a sturdy, effects-filled summer-time thriller--the kind of nonsensical fantasy we need to have during the May-August period, and have been deprived of in '99 up until this point.

The set-pieces keep coming, the special effects are often extraordinary, and Harlin handles the entire affair with the panache he brought to DIE HARD 2 and CLIFFHANGER, two of the best action films of the '90s. Following a pair of bombs, it's great to see Harlin back in the saddle again; with the movie's memorable climax and one ingeniously staged death sequence (you'll know it when you see it), the director replaces visions of former wife Geena Davis sinking in CUTTHROAT ISLAND and THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT with the kind of well-edited, choreographed action scenes the director became known for earlier in his career. The cast, meanwhile, fares well and having a lack of star power in the lead roles only adds to the surprise of the screenplay, a multi-authored affair by Duncan Kennedy and Donna and Wayne Powers that, to give credit where it's due, even has its share of good lines.

It's not high art, folks, but if you've waited for that one fun summer flick that truly is the essence of a popcorn-muncing good time, DEEP BLUE SEA is it. (106 mins, R)


ARLINGTON ROAD (**): Well-directed but amazingly depressing and dour, this thriller with Jeff Bridges and Tim Robbins will leave most audiences wanting to take a shower as soon as they get home.

Bridges plays a professor at George Washington University who thinks his squeaky-clean, WASP-y neighbor (Tim Robbins) may be a hiding a secret. Himself an expert in political conspiracies (you just know he'd love to hold a cookout with Oliver Stone), Bridges believes that the past bombings of government buildings'generally pegged on one or two suspects with little prior criminal activity--is the work of a secret society of anti-government types who shield themselves by putting on the facade of lovable small-town Americans.

Naturally, nobody believes Bridges until it's too late, and like all of the formulas and cliches inherent in thriller genre conventions, ARLINGTON ROAD boasts more than its share of stupid plot points-- including an incredible ending that, never mind showing the work of anti-government fiends, has 'anti- audience' written all over it.

Bridges and Robbins are both fine but the real star that intermittently shines in the film is director Mark Pellington, who deftly utilizes widescreen, filter-filled cinematography and Angelo Badalamenti's bass-heavy, pounding score to gloss over the movie's sour (and often silly) screenplay. He may rise to the occasion with good material one day, but it's not ARLINGTON ROAD. (R, 121 mins).


Mail Bag

From Kyu Hyun Kim <kyukim@ucdavis.edu>

    You are right on the mark with your criticism of EYES WIDE SHUT. Now I would like to request that you take a look at BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. The movie is the biggest sleeper hit I have seen in some time; literally hundreds of people are lining up to buy tickets, which are being sold out faster than for PHANTOM MENACE in its opening weekend, at least in Berkeley and San Francisco. It is a great movie, a very well-made horror film, (God knows it is infinitely superior to SCREAM and other prefabricated Hollywood products) but why is this particular movie generating such a massive audience support? Is this an isolated phenomenon in the Bay Area? The reviews in the media are overwhelmingly positive, but there is definitely something more going on here. I would like to know what you guys at FSM thinks not only of the movie itself, but also of the intriguing usage, or non-usage, rather, of music in it. The credits do list one "Antonio Cora" as the composer, and there is a standard electronic ambience piece over the end title, but in retrospect, I am beginning to wonder if some of the "natrual sounds" used in the various scenes in the film, what sounds like airplane flying over, wind blowing, etc., are actually incidental music deployed at an almost subliminal level to subtly manipulate audience's emotions. Totally intriguing.

Kyu, I think the reason for the phenomenal buzz about the movie is that its word-of-mouth has carried it far beyond the festival circuit, and the online advertising and promotion on behalf of the studio have been subtly excessive. One of the best articles I read on the somewhat controversial marketing of the film was in last Friday's Boston Globe, which detailed how the internet played such a vital role in the movie's success (sadly I couldn't find it online at boston.com).

As far as the "score" goes, I saw that music credit too and have the feeling that the ambient sounds in the movie are a product of the composer. Whether or not they are music deployed at a subliminal level, though, is something I'd have to check out again on a second viewing. While we're on the topic of the film's soundtrack, I have this thought: while I know the film's budget was shoestring, by modern standards, I think Artisan and the filmmakers would be wise to do a Dolby Surround stereo remix of the movie for video and DVD -- it seems to me that the soundtrack would have been even more effective if the surround channels were employed to capture some of those creepy sounds in the woods. What do y'all think?

NEXT WEEK: THE SIXTH SENSE and your comments (more Mail Bag next week, in other words!). Be sure to send in your two cents to me about BLAIR WITCH, HAUNTING, or anything of note, at dursina@att.net and have a good one!


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