Supernatural Selection: 'Chronicle' and 'The Woman in Black'
Today we review two new supernatural movies, Chronicle and The Woman in Black.
What a funny new-ish concoction this whole "found footage" filmmaking style is. Ushered into the mainstream almost fourteen years ago by the initially startling and upsetting, but kinda goofy in hindsight, The Blair Witch Project, the found footage genre, which speaks strange meta volumes about reality TV vs. scripted material vs. reality TV, has mostly overlapped with horror on the movie Venn diagram. This is likely because it's cheap to produce and can add that strange extra sensation that this is really happening, amplifying the scares and, in the case of the mega-hit Paranormal Activity franchise, the box office receipts. But it's inevitable that, with dollar signs in their eyes, producers will evolve the genre beyond the bargain-bin horror realm. In fact they've already done so with the deceptively ambitious 2008 monster movie Cloverfield and the upcoming party comedy Project X. And, right now, with the exhilarating new teens-with-superpowers movie Chronicle.
Horror movies in the FF (let's just coin a new abbreviation here, shall we?) style tend to feel a bit silly, like a collective act of pretend — "I can't believe they found all these tapes! How scary!" Chronicle, however, doesn't earnestly ask us to be frightened or believe that anything is that real. It merely uses the technique to help disguise the fact that the film was made for a tenth of what most superhero films cost. The you-are-there-ness of it isn't insisting that we find anything documentarian per se, it's simply a crafty medium through which even the simplest of special effects — a kid floating twenty feet above the ground, three kids floating twenty thousand feet above the ground — look nearly as expensive as anything in Thor or Iron Man. It's a cheat, really, and sometimes the movie's explanations for why there just happens to be a video camera present at particular moments are a bit strained, but mostly it feels clever; you appreciate the filmmakers' ballsy (and mostly successful) attempt to tell a story in which big, impossible things happen on a shoestring budget.
The story is classic origin myth: Three teenagers — lonely loner with a crappy home life Andrew (Dan DeHaan), his well-meaning cousin Matt (Alex Russell), and charismatic high school king Steve (Michael B. Jordan) — are at a barn party one Friday night and discover a hole in the ground from which mysterious, otherworldly noises are emanating. Matt and Steve, drunk and stoned and feeling daring, have brought Andrew along on this little exploration because he has a video camera and, kids being what they are these days because of the YouTube and whatnot, they want to make sure they get this on tape. So the boys scramble down into this hole and find what we can only guess is some kind of meteor. It pulsates strange light, when they get close to it their noses start to bleed, and suddenly there is a bright flash and the camera clatters to the ground and cuts out. Are they dead? No, of course, not. They're magic.
In another clever touch, first time feature director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis (son of John) don't show us the first discovery of new powers. Rather we jump back in in medias res, with the boys in someone's backyard, practicing their new telekinetic powers by throwing a baseball at one another. No matter which direction they throw the ball, they can always make it come swinging around and hit the other guy in the face. It's amateur Jackass-y stuff, exactly the kind of thing three American teenage boys would likely first attempt with these newfound abilities. Only Andrew, with his dark and intense stare, can do something the other two can't: He stops the ball in mid-air before it hits him. It hovers there while the three laugh with giddy awe and blood trickles out of Andrew's nose. The nosebleeds are an annoying symptom, something that might tell them they're going too far, straining their brains or whatever they're straining with these powers too hard, but teens being teens, they don't stop. The abilities are like a muscle, Matt reasons, so the more they work them the stronger they'll get.
He's not wrong, and soon, in one fantastic sequence, the boys are flying. Not just flying over the treetops flying, but zooming through the clouds flying, dressed in winter wear to keep out the altitudinal cold, tossing a football around like American teen cousins visiting Mt. Olympus. And, of course, a new camaraderie is forming, with Andrew, suddenly stronger than everyone where it really counts, crawling out of his shell. Though still, of course, always toting around his trusty camera, which he now uses his powers to make hover around him like the invisible camera in a video game. Everything is wonderful! They're kings of the world! Sure there's an incident on a rainy highway in which Andrew accidentally almost kills a guy by making his car swerve off the road, but it's all fine in the end, no real harm, only a little foul. At school, Steve, whom Jordan plays with the same winning mix of humbleness and swagger that he brought to Friday Night Lights, is on a campaign to make Andrew popular, the end game of which, of course, is to get him laid. There's a victorious, look-at-me-now talent show scene in which Andrew disguises his powers as magic tricks, followed by a big, classic house party at some rich kid's mansion, where Andrew snags a girl and everything seems to be going as planned. Though, as tends to happen in these Icarusian stories, things quickly turn south.
After an embarrassment at the party, and with his abusive father and dying mother making him miserable at home, Andrew begins a journey over to the dark side, and the story becomes a teen-tragic tale of resentment and desperation curdling into violent rage. While I feared for a moment that we might be entering school shooting allegory territory here, the movie smartly avoids that particularly complex pothole and instead goes bigger and broader, destruction-of-Seattle bigger and broader. DeHaan, such a mesmerizing presence on In Treatment, does a bit too much young male actor screaming during the film's loud, rattling climax, but he remains convincingly wounded and fed-up, a kid drunk with the ability to finally manifest his anguish externally. For a movie about teenage guys, the relationships between the three boys is surprisingly sensitive and heartfelt — they're unafraid to say "I love you" to one another, unabashed in their shared magical brotherhood. At points the movie borders on touching, not something one typically says about a superhero (or, in this case, superantihero) movie. But, yes, mostly it's a canny spectacle of how'd-they-do-that, one which I have to assume will mean bigger things for Trank and Landis in the future.
Chronicle is one of those shouldn't work but somehow does movies — it's a bit arrogant in its inventiveness, but at least delivers, and then some, on the promise. I've probably done harm to your experience of the movie by giving it a positive review, it's probably best to go in with no expectations in mind, but for somehow being a zippy, zooming entertainment in these dreary post-holiday movie times, Chronicle is an unexpected little pleasure. Playful with genre and form, at times eye-poppingly so, it deserves a place on some cult-hit shelf somewhere. Sure, dusty old Blair Witch might reside on that same shelf, but where that movie had bleakness and terror and ended facedown in a basement, Chronicle stays firmly sky-high.
Would it were that I could similarly enthuse about the new British period ghost movie The Woman in Black, an adaptation of Susan Hill's popular novel, which was turned into a stage play in 1989 that is still running in the West End today. But, alas, this film, the second feature from James Watkins following his well-received thriller Eden Lake, falls prey to overly efficient storytelling and a preference for Creepy Moments over narrative cohesion. As the first post-Potter foray for the likable young actor Daniel Radcliffe, it's neither an embarrassment nor a triumph, it's merely the kind of forgettable B-movie that you're likely to find at the bottom of any long-working actor's IMDb resume.
The plot of the movie, heavily altered from the original novel, concerns a young solicitor named Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) who is still grieving for the wife he lost in childbirth four years earlier. At the onset of the film, Kipps is dispatched by his law firm to a tiny, misty village on the coast of the North Sea to settle the estate of an Alice Drablow, an old widow who has recently died while holed up in her crumbling manor, Eel Marsh House. Upon arrival, Kipps is met coldly by the somber and frightened-looking townsfolk; the local solicitor tries to quickly usher him back to London, but Kipps insists that he must go through Drablow's papers himself, lest he lose his job and face financial ruin. Only one local, Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds), the county's richest man, seems less than miserable to have him around. Though we quickly come to learn that he too lost a child to the curse that has so terrified the rest of the townsfolk (their kids keep dying, you see), Sam thinks all the supernatural stuff is nonsense. So with Sam's help, Kipps heads to the creepy manor, an island home reached via a causeway that is underwater at high tide. It's a perfectly moody, eerie setting for a classic ghost tale, and the film's early scares — mysterious bumps and bangs and other noises, a briefly glimpsed lone woman in black standing in the overgrown grounds — prove appropriately chilling.
Beyond those initial clanks and moans, though, the only way to sustain a ghost story is to present a knotty mystery that needs figuring out. Chiefly, why is this ghost so upset and how can we rectify the situation? The Woman in Black does have such a mystery, involving a half-mad woman and a drowned child, but the solving of it is mostly done in one single scene. There's no satisfying process to relish in, no real twists or turns to be had. Thus the scares become repetitive; you've seen one specter in black darting across a mirror or doorway, you've seen 'em all. Then children in the town start dying in unpleasant ways, and we realize that the movie has devolved into a whole creepy-dead-kid thing, a trope I wish horror movie makers would put in a drawer for a few decades. I'm not sure whether to blame The Sixth Sense or Ringu-style J-horror or both for this enduring trend, but the dead-eyed cherub was an annoying easy-scare crutch to begin with that has since rotted into an exhaustingly overused cliché. No more creepy kids, dead or otherwise! Not for a while, at least.
It's best not to explain any more of the mystery in case you still want to see this rather throwaway film, but know that it's a mostly unsatisfying trip down the greatest-hits hallway of the ghost movie museum, and one that makes another British-y period ghost movie in recent-ish memory, Alejandro Amenábar's unsettling The Others, look like Shakespeare. Radcliffe is, as ever, earnest and pleasant, though here he is mostly reduced to saying polite "Thank you"s to various characters and wandering around silently with a candle. In a small, unnecessary part, Janet McTeer does good weird possessed old lady, but she's the film's only spark of a kind of campiness that could have saved this otherwise soggy film. Stuck somewhere between one world and the next — not living and dead, but rather elegance and genre shlock — The Woman in Black is only a halfhearted "Boo!" at best.