Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Fragile (2005)

NetFlix 3.4/5
IMDB 6.2/10
My Rating: 6/10  

An American nurse is assigned to help transition a group of children from an old hospital to a new location, but becomes aware that a menacing and ghostly "Mechanical Girl" does not want the kids to leave.

What this movie does right:
A creepy, old-style ghost story with limited FX and disturbing undertones set in a dilapidated children's hospital full of helpless victims for the haunting, and an incredibly disturbing ghost.

What this movie does wrong:
Calista Flockhart

I will be the first to admit open bias here.  I absolutely loathed Ally McBeal.  My wife and I started watching it in its first season, when it was a really clever and funny show about a clever and funny young woman and her overactive imagination as she grappled with 20-something life.  However, the series played a bait-and-switch on us - Over the course of its run, it hooked us with engaging secondary characters who were empathetic and enjoyable to watch, while at the same time transforming Ally herself into the worst sort of histrionic, bitchy, self-sabotaging harpy.  Ally spent the last half of the series feeling terribly sorry for herself despite being a high-powered lawyer with a big city apartment in her 20's, because she was lonely and yet could not help but screw up every relationship that she fell into with her latent insanity.  She was the sort of woman that men do not just avoid, they actively run from, and the more the show tried to tell us that Ally was just a beautiful, sensitive soul with too much emotion for this world, the more I wanted to shake her and slap some sense into her.  So what the hell does all this have to do with this film?  It's simple - Calista Flockhart carries all this baggage into this movie and while I was hoping to see some different acting range from her, by the end of the film I was as unsympathetic to her as I was to Ally.

The character problems are the same - In Fragile, Flockhart plays a nurse with a troubled past, who comes to the Isle of Wight to help look after a group of hospitalized children during a big relocation.  While taking the night shift, she begins to have unsettling visions of ghosts and hears strange noises.  Events begin to escalate as the moving date nears, and our heroine realizes that there is a malevolent force in the building determined to keep the children there, and willing to break them into splinters to get what it wants.  Unfortunately, Flockhart handles the situation in a very-Ally way, by bonding closely with the kids while being a bitch to everyone else, including characters who are openly trying to help her, and insists on the primacy of her emotions and feelings over any actual logic... For instance, when she realizes that the kids need to be moved ASAP, she doesn't go to her boss and point to obvious threats like the near-disastrous elevator breakdown, but instead insists that she has "a feeling" about "something awful" in the place and that everyone should bow to her feelings.  I'm not sure how the NHS works in the UK, but I have my own feeling that this approach would not be likely to take one very far up the chain of command in terms of actually accomplishing your desired goal.  The fact that she is clearly a bit unbalanced herself, and has some sort of mysterious bad baggage in her nursing career past, does not incline to help her case.  So, being Ally again, she becomes spiteful and nasty to everyone, even those who are doing their best to be friendly to her.  She only shows any sort of kindness to the children, but here her progress beggars belief, as she manages to befriend and bond with a withdrawn orphan girl within only a couple of days.

So, if the heroine is so unpleasant, why did I give this a 6? It's because it does so much else that's right.  In fact, if they'd had another lead actress with a different approach, I'd have most likely rated this one a 7 or 8, because story-wise, it was most marvelously creepy.  It's a very old-school ghost story that for the most part feels more like something from the early 70's instead of the 2000's...  No wretched CGI distractions, no overdone Playstation ghost FX, no Japan horror ripoff girls with black hair over their faces.  In short, it's just a great little ghost story.  The setting is terrific - The hospital where events take place is a remote country building, now half unused, with a deserted second floor that's been empty and abandoned since the 1950's.

It's pretty much impossible for an abandoned hospital wing not to be creepy, and the setting makes for an eerie "Late night shift at Precinct 13" feel as our heroine patrols the quiet halls full of shipping boxes, listening to disturbing sounds from above and catching furtive movements in the shadows.  Some reviewers have complained that the movie is dull in the first half, but in my opinion it built perfectly, a slow and steady increase of supernatural tension that leads to a chaotic climax where Ally (GOD DAMN STOP SAYING THAT) has to brave the deserted floor and face down the menacing ghost.  And the menacing ghost, it must be said, is pretty freaking menacing - One of the scarier spooks on film and one that resolutely does not fall into the usual expectations of modern ghost behavior.  No staticky film, no sudden jumps from one spot to another, no stuttered movement, no CGI transforms - It's just one pale figure wrapped in mechanical splints that will unnerve you by its very presence.

In the end, I'm torn.  My personal bias against Calista Flockhart kept me from sympathizing with her character in the way I've been drawn into other haunting victims, like The Haunting's poor doomed Eleanor or even that so-typical suburban 80's family in Poltergeist.  On the other hand, it was a good concept wrapped around an unappealing character, and I give everything else about the the movie high marks.  Indeed, Ally fans might even consider this a great scary movie, but for myself, the best I can say is that it was a creepy and enjoyable way to pass 90 minutes, but I didn't come away from it with any desire to see it again or think much about it afterward.  It was, however, an enjoyable "filler" movie for the oncoming Halloween movie season.