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Posts Tagged ‘Sarah Polley’

I find I have an odd relationship with the modern horror movie: stick me down in front of a Hammer film from the 60s or anything by Romero or Cronenberg from the 70s and I’m as happy as can be, but when it comes to new films in the genre, especially American ones, I’m usually the first to give them a miss. I can’t actually remember the last time I went to see a new horror film at the cinema – looking back, I see it was Sightseers, which is at least as much a black comedy as a horror. Before that, neither The Wicker Tree nor Berbarian Sound Studio are strictly full-on horrors, either. Perhaps it’s best to say that there’s a certain flavour of mainstream horror movie, strong on torture and cliched gore, that does not appeal to me on any level.

That said, I’m still as interested in a decent SF horror film as I ever was, and lurking in the pile of to-be-watched DVDs for an age now has been Vincenzo Natali’s 2009 film Splice. Canada has an extremely honourable heritage of intelligent and deeply icky SF-horror fusions, and – very appropriately – Splice is one such hybrid.

splice

Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play a couple of painfully cool and ominously self-assured genetic biochemists working for a pharmaceutical company in a very near future. Their success has extended to the creation of artificial hybrid lifeforms, which bear an unfortunate resemblance to large ambulatory todgers, and now they are planning the next phase: the splicing of human DNA into the mix and the inception of a wholly new being.

Unfortunately, their backers are more interested in the bottom line and cancel this line of experiments. Incensed by this curtailment of their freedom, Brody and Polley decide to proceed anyway, in an unofficial sort of way, just as a thought experiment. Of course, the thought experiment becomes a viability study, and the viability study becomes a full-blown laboratory specimen: Dren, a rapidly-growing, semi-humanoid creature made from the genetic material of half a dozen different species, human included. Their initial plan to dispose quietly of the result of their experiment is somehow impossible to follow – and their fast-developing bond with Dren is another unexpected factor.

Well, there is a sense in which Splice is not much more than a set of classic old genre tropes: you just know the two scientists are going to be consumed with hubris, set about playing God, and you know that there are going to be various complications, setbacks in their official work, and so on, and so on.

And yet, for all that this is very clearly at heart just another take on a very well-known and iconic story, Splice does manage to put a powerful new spin on it. When you think about it, given that Frankenstein is on one level a story about a parental relationship and the accompanying responsibilities, and one which was written by a woman, it’s peculiar that the perspective of the book is so wholly masculine. Splice could be looked at as a riposte or an amendment to Frankenstein, if not from a maternal point of view then at least a more balanced one.

This is not deeply buried subtext: most of the film is basically an extended metaphor for the trials of starting a family and the stresses this can place on a relationship. This is not especially subtly done – a scene early on where Brody and Polley discuss having a child in the conventional manner flags up the territory we’re in, fairly blatantly – but it is intelligently written and well-played. I get the impression that this is one of those films where the vast bulk of the budget was spent on CGI, and well-spent too: most of the various forms of Dren are convincing, but also convincingly real (this is possibly a rare example of the uncanny valley effect being employed to a film’s advantage). An effective mime performance from Delphine Chaneac as the adult Dren helps considerably too.

Of course, we are dealing with a much-told story here, and as the film continues the question becomes one of how it is going to conclude without becoming hackneyed and obvious. Up to this point the film has been, for the most part, thoughtful, convincing, and engrossing, but there’s a bit of a wobble at the start of the third act when the central metaphor is extended to include things like patterns of abuse from one generation to the next, and the consequences of semi-incestuous relationships. It does recover from this, and appears to be heading for an unexpectedly low-key, but still effective ‘soft’ conclusion.

But then the basic horror DNA in the film’s make-up becomes well and truly dominant, as thoughtfulness, restraint, and even to some extent logic all slip into the background and we are presented with a climax which is all about running, screaming, gore, and violence (some of it sexual). The film does a workmanlike job of ensuring this doesn’t come completely out of left field, in plot terms, but as far as what the film has really been about up to this point is concerned, it’s a complete shift of emphasis and tone.

Prior to the last ten minutes or so, I was very impressed with Splice – though not wildly original in any way, script, direction, performances and production values are all very strong, and it finds some new and interesting angles on an old story. The climax dumbs it all down quite horribly, and while I can see how this must have seemed necessary, simply as a matter of genre convention, it still feels like rather a shame. The bits of Splice I liked least were the bits where it felt most like a mainstream horror movie – but there was enough good stuff in the rest of the movie to make it a worthwhile watch.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 1st 2004:

‘History repeats itself – the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.’ – Karl Marx

Another week, another unnecessary big-name remake. On this occasion the donor is George Romero’s 1978 classic (and I use the term with precision, folks) Dawn of the Dead. This is one of those films that is so perfect and special that it really deserves listing or ring-fencing or otherwise putting beyond the greedy reach of creatively bankrupt modern studios (see also The Ladykillers). As you can imagine I turned up to Zack Snyder’s new take on this masterpiece with a good deal of apprehension.

Rather pleasantly, it’s not that bad at all (especially, I would guess, if you haven’t seen the original). The film starts off with overworked nurse Ana (Sarah Polley) coming home from a hard day at the hospital, watching Pop Idol with her boyfriend, and then missing an emergency news report through being in the shower at the time. This proves to be a serious mistake as when she awakes the next morning she has overslept and missed the start of a zombie apocalypse. Her boyfriend has his throat torn out by the cute little girl next door (now deceased), and comes after Ana himself. Jumping into the car and heading out of town, she quickly realises civilisation is collapsing around her…

And all this even before the credits! Soon enough Ana hooks up with Ving Rhames’ tough cop Ken (his name doubtless a reference to Ken Foree’s memorable performance in a similar role in the 1978 film) and together with a few other refugees they take cover in a huge shopping mall, much to the dislike of the redneck security guards already in control of the place. More survivors arrive, and as Ana, Ken and their friends (of whom Mekhi Phifer and Matt Frewer are about the best known) fortify the mall against the vast undead hordes swelling outside, they realise that help is not coming, and it’s up to them to find a way to survive…

Snyder’s film keeps the mall setting of the original, but otherwise this is a very free adaptation, heavily influenced by 28 Days Later – the zombies in this film (never actually referred to as such, of course) go in for a spot of Romero-style shambling and putrefying when they’ve nothing better to do, but at the first whiff of live flesh they’re sprinting around like puppies on amphetamines. Purists may object, but it fits in rather well with Snyder’s reimagining of the story as a kinetic rollercoaster of an action movie, punctuated by lavishly gory set-pieces at frequent intervals.

All this comes at the expense of some of the characterisation (quite a few of the characters trapped in the mall remain cardboard cutouts) and nearly all the satire and intelligence that defined Romero’s zombie films. In those movies the zombie apocalypse was only ever a backdrop to the conflicts and problems arising between the human characters – the original Dawn opens and closes with acts of violence committed by the living against the living. While the new film remains as bleak and dark as its forebears, this element is toned down. In its favour, though, Snyder’s film is often tense and is unafraid to retain Romero’s very black sense of humour.

The digital effects are never less than adequate to tell the story, and most of the splatter and makeup work is top-notch, even if it lacks the novelty and visceral yuck-factor of Tom Savini’s original make-up. As usual, this is a bigger (well, sort of – it’s nearly an hour shorter, for all that it has a vastly greater budget) telling of the tale, but by no means a better one.

Polley and Rhames make charismatic leads, and at least some of the supporting cast are very effective – f’rinstance, Jake Weber as a resourceful everyman, Phifer as an overzealous husband and father, and Ty Burrell as the sort of wretched yuppy-scum no crisis situation should be without. As is customary in this sort of undertaking, stars of the original get cameos – Savini lands a plum role, basically as the sheriff from the original Night of the Living Dead (‘That one’s still twitching – somebody shoot her in the head!’), while Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger also pop up briefly.

The new Dawn of the Dead is really stuck between a rock and a hard place – comparisons with the original are bound to be unfavourable, simply because the original is one of the greatest horror movies ever made. And it’s true that Snyder panders to the audience in a way Romero never did, and that this is in nearly every way a much more conventional piece of storytelling (particularly at either end). But for all that, this is still an extremely proficient and effective horror film, certainly the best I’ve seen in quite some time. Bloody good fun, and well worth a look if you like that sort of thing.

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