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Movies You Haven’t Seen But Should: “Grace”

February 11, 2011 Leave a comment

The Bride and I were discussing feminist horror the other day (doesn’t every couple), spurred by the DVD cover of the “I Spit On Your Grave” remake. The remake’s cover offers a variation on the original’s poster, and while both are essentially offering up a combo of sex and violence, each movie comes down to being revenge fantasies about a woman taking out her rapists. The original is notable for a gut-wrenching rape sequence years before “Irreversible” gained notoriety of a similiar sequence, while the remake apparently pulls back on that somewhat and focuses more on the revenge aspect of things.

There’s an attempt by the filmmakers of both the original and the remake to call them “feminist horror,” since ultimately they both tell the story of women delivering a deserved come-uppance onto groups of men. It’s the same attempt that Eli Roth put out with “Hostel 2” that it had a feminist overtone because (SPOILER ALERT), in the end, the woman with money had more power than the poor and thusly emasculated man.(END SPOILER) 

The Bride’s contention, and I tend to agree, is that castrating a man does not feminist horror make. You have to go deeper than that, and a movie like Paul Solet’s vastly underrated  “Grace” does just that thing. It’s a movie I’ve debated on writing about for months, that I had to chew on for weeks afterwards, one that has kept popping up into conversations with the Bride . “Grace” is, and I say this with the deepest of sincerity, one righteously effed-up movie.

By rights, I shouldn’t like “Grace.” The director, Solet, was unknown to me, and the star, Jordan Ladd, was not exactly someone who had impressed me at any point with anything she’d been in. But I remembered the boys over at CHUD discussing it following Sundance back in ’09, and Devin’s open letter to the film’s eventual home, Anchor Bay, imploring for a theatrical release for the movie. Eventually it landed on DVD and it lived in our Netflix Instant Streaming queue for a while before we decided to kill part of a Saturday afternoon with it.

“Kill” is the key word there.

I won’t go into the plot, because plot isn’t really what makes “Grace” an unsettling and effective movie. The gist of the story is about Ladd’s Madeline, a pregnant woman who seems stuck in a marriage she’s not entirely pleased with. She and her husband are involved in a car accident that kills the husband and forced to deliver the baby, the titular Grace. What proceeds to happen from this point on is best experienced, preferably with the lights dimmed and the baby monitor turned off.

Most horror directors don’t understand tone. They don’t understand that oftentimes it is what is left out that is more important than what is left in. Solet, in his first feature, nails tone. He creates an incredibly disturbing tone from almost frame one, with a painful dinner conversation between Madeline, her husband, and her in-laws. Everything is painted in small, strong strokes, with off-putting glances and clipped dialogue. He continues the contrast with Madeline, a vegan, watching PETA-esque videos of animal cruelty.

Solet never lays it all out on the table the way many directors would have. When characters appear, their motives may appear clear, but their motivations less so. What drives Madeline, unhappy in her marriage (Ladd conveys a world of hurt and disinterest in a sex scene with the husband) and possibly having a baby only because that’s what society expects of a young married woman, to care for the “baby” speaks volumes about societal pressures and the very concept of motherhood and protecting your brood without ever once trying to answer any of those questions, knowing that there are no easy answers.

Solet does seem to acknowledge, however, the tacit power which lies in motherhood and, by proxy, womanhood. The mother-in-law, played by Canadian actress Gabrielle Rose, is a woman who is past childbearing years, and instead she clings to the fragile power of lording over her son and cuckolding her husband. Her attempts to take Grace from her daughter-in-law reflect her own fear of aging and how deeply connected the power of conception and birth are to our own ideas of youth. Meanwhile, Madeline’s midwife Patricia (Samantha Ferris) struggles to get control over her feelings about Madeline following a hinted-upon relationship. (Sollet’s script is brilliant in never explicitedly telling you anything, and respectfully thinking you might just be able to piece things together on your own).

“Grace” is a film about women struggling for control and for power. Don’t go into it expecting strong men; every male character is essentially neutered, from Madeline’s husband, who is still connected to his mother by apron strings, to the OB/GYN (Malcolm Stewart), who is a cretin of the highest (or lowest) caliber. But the women are shrews, they aren’t harpies, they aren’t witches and nags. What they are are women battling generations and millennia of expectations from men and society, looking for some way to exert their own power, and it is soon evident that it is in motherhood that they find their greatest strength.

And yes, “Grace” will scare the hell out of you too. It manages to succeed where a movie like Lucky McKee’s “May” was only partially successful, in building a complex portrait of a woman and then imbuing her with massive reserves of strength (“May” has a stunning first hour and then falls apart, sadly; that said, I’m looking forward to McKee’s “The Woman,” which massively divided audiences at Sundance this year, and actually drove people out of the theater). “Grace” builds and builds with dread, where a simple fly becames a harbinger of death, and once that is surprisingly unviolent until one sudden, shocking act turns everything on its ear and it almost becomes a Greek tragedy.

The ending on “Grace” may not be perfect, but it feels almost inevitable. Ladd taps into depths that nothing she’s been in prior even hints at, and shows that with the right director and script, she could easily move to the next level of film. Sollet is a name to watch from this point on, because he’s made a movie that will upset you, disturb you, and make you think long after the final credits.

When casting goes wrong, “Fright Night” edition

June 9, 2010 1 comment

 The Bride and I (not that he will ever read this blog, but I hope Swierczynski forgives me for steaing some of his lingo) recently revisited “Fright Night,” the 1985 vampire flick with Chris Sarandon, Roddy McDowell, and William Ragsdale before the glory that was “Herman’s Head.” We both had some fond memories of the movie that were, to put it gently, dashed on the jagged rocks of adulthood about 30 minutes in when we realized this movie couldn’t have moved slower if it had been weighed down with bowling balls and tossed into the East River. Besides that, there’s the reeking logic gaps inherent to any 80s flick, such as: 

  • This town apparently only has one cop, and he’s black — as far as we can tell, he might be the only African American in the whole damn town.
  • The cop may be the most ineffective cop ever because there’s four murders in four nights and no one really seems to be sweating it. In fact, hey, let’s go investigate the random claim of this kid and we’ll bring the kid along, you know, so the guy he’s accusing can see his face. Meanwhile, Jack the flippin’ Ripper is draining people of blood and the news acts like this happens every other week.
  • The town’s supposed to be Small-Town America, where you can almost hear the Mellencamp songs playing in the cornfields which surely lie just outside the town limits, yet no one seems to care when two single men (“roommates” *wink wink*) move into some old house and immediately begin renovating it.
  • The town possesses one of the most happening discos ever that didn’t have a giant coke spoon suspended from the ceiling. And after our vampire bad guy seduces the innocent teen-aged girl (who looks identical to his old love but who he turns into a vampire for apparently no other reason than to kill our protagonists — talk about lazy), the vampire then trashes the club and causes a mini riot and, much like the random assortment of bodies being left around town like tissues in the wake of flu season, no one notices.

Despite all of this, “Fright Night” isn’t without its pleasures. Sarandon makes a suitably charismatic and fearsome vampire until the movie’s third act, when they bury him underneath makeup and make him hiss lines like “KILLLL HIM!” The flick’s practical special effects possess great charm and go to prove that CGI will never replace effectively used ooze. Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) is creepy and his death scene is played with an empathy and compassion that the Bride noted you don’t get in recent films, because even though Ed is incredibly nasty by this point, you can see that there’s still a hint of humanness behind his eyes. 

OK, so not a horrible movie, just a horribly dated one. Probably not a film screaming to be reimagined. However, because there are no new ideas in Hollywood (coughcough*sarcasm*cough), it’s getting remade. “Fright Night 2011” has already been preordained for a PG-13 rating, which is a good harbinger that it’s gonna suck, but it’s the most recent casting announcements made my heart sink. 

I can accept Anton Yelchin as Charley, since in the original Charley is one of the most annoying protagonists ever, no doubt partly because Ragsdale possessed the charisma of a coat rack. Obviously they’re boosting the role of Charley’s mother since they hired Toni Collette, an excellent actress you don’t hire to show up in four scenes drinking Vicodine martinis. And I like Colin Ferrell as Jerry Dandrige; Ferrell exceeds at oily charisma, and brings a nice edge to most of his work. 

Devin over at CHUD is bemoaning the casting of Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Evil Ed (really, who didn’t see this one coming from a mile away?), and I won’t repeat his points because he nails it on the head. No, what really bothers me is David Tennant as Peter Vincent, who’s been converted from the original’s horror show host and washed-up Hammer-style actor to a Criss Angel-esque magician

Peter Vincent then

For the record, I thought Tennant made a great Doctor Who. He has a goofy charm that works under different circumstances. However, what made Peter Vincent great was, let’s face it, Roddy McDowell. Vincent was a perfect meshing of character and actor, as McDowell brought his old school high theatrics to a role that demanded it. 

Peter Vincent ... now?

With a career that, at the time, stretched back nearly 50 years, McDowell understood how Vincent was a creature out of time, even more so than Dandrige, an ageless vampire who accepted the passage and changes of time, whereas Vincent was endlessly revisiting what he perceived as his past glories. You could almost feel Vincent understanding how the years had passed him by and how he was more suited to be one of his Victorian-era characters and not this man stuck in a time where all movie fans “want to see (is) slashers running around in ski masks, hacking up young virgins.” 

Taking Tennant from old school Hollywood and making into a de-facto Criss Angel rip-off (and, by association, a colassial d-bag) removes any charm the character possessed. It was that meshing of the old world of horror with an urbane, real-life creature that made Vincent great and gave the original “Fright Night” whatever endurance over time it possessed. By converting Vincent into just another 30something slickster a-hole, the filmmakers again prove there’s no audience they’re not willing to pander to, and manage to again miss the point entirely.