Friday, February 24, 2012

Solitary (2009)

NetFlix 3.1/5
IMDB 5.7/10
My Rating: 6.5/10

One day, Sara finds herself unexpectedly stricken with severe agoraphobia and is unable to leave her home.  When her husband goes missing, she is trapped inside her house with only her sister, police detectives, and her doctor to link her to the outside world.  As the mystery of her vanished husband deepens, she begins to unravel.  

Here is the classic "Movie that no one has heard of" - As I write this, it only has one review on IMDB and I don't know a single other person who's seen it, but it's worth seeing.  It is a gripping mixture of some very unbalanced elements - Dull direction, a great lead actress, unconvincing secondary characters, a mediocre TV movie feel, and a genuinely tense and moving story.  In the end, the quality of the story wins out over the film's demerits and I would certainly recommend it to others.  Be prepared to think I'm crazy, though, because this is how you'll react when you start watching this:
  • There are no recognizable actors in this.  It looks like a soap opera.  Is this a TV movie?  Do they still make network TV movies?
  • Wow, those are some genuinely unconvincing suspense scenes.  I've really never seen the camera come flying up behind someone before, to the tune of a screeching soundtrack.  That KFP guy actually liked this?
  • Hmm.  TV movie direction mixed with long quiet bits of tedium, and now something totally unbelievable?  My suspension of disbelief has crawled away and died.  Is this trying to be SF or what?  
  • OK, that was creepy.
  • Is this Gaslight?  Suddenly I find myself getting wrapped up in this.
  • Holy crap, OK, that was very weird indeed.  What the hell is going on here?
  • My entire brain is focused on trying to figure out what is happening.
  • Scary!  But I think I have it figured out.
  • Wow.  I was wrong.  That was excellent.  What a great ending, even with the fairly awful FX.
So, if it sounds like I'm running the movie down regarding its no-budget feel, let me stress that ultimately, the story and your emotional involvement with the main character will overcome its limitations and grab you tight.  By the time it was over, my crying wife had the Kleenexes out - That was how unexpectedly wrapped up we'd gotten in it, after spending the first half hour trying to decide if we should give up and go watch Airport '75 instead.
Our heroine Sara starts off with the perfect life - Happily married to a guy who brings her breakfast in bed and full of wholesome suburban bliss.  One day she goes out for a run and is stricken with agoraphobia, manifested by cheesy "camera zooming up behind her" flourishes that we've seen a million times.  Not wanting her husband to think she's a freak, she keeps this panic attack secret until the day he goes off to work and never returns...  Leaving her literally trapped in her home by her terror of going outside.

The movie starts to get going when she calls police detectives out, and we're also introduced to a troublesome relationship with her sister and one very creepy doctor.  Supposedly this fellow is a specialist in her sort of phobia and he wants to test a new treatment on her.  Considering that this is a doctor who refuses to enter by the front door and who turns up at some very odd hours, it's hard to imagine trusting him with a box of matches, but Sara is forced to rely on him as her link to sanity... and, hopefully, the outside world.
And...  That's all I can really say about the plot.  What I can say is that it draws you in slowly - What starts off feeling stilted and clumsy becomes part of the unfolding narrative, and eventually it does all make sense.  I give the movie great credit for actually tying up its loose ends and providing a genuinely emotional conclusion.  I give it even more credit for keeping me guessing the whole way.  A few folks on Netflix complained that they figured it out, but I had no clue what was happening till the end - It grows into a seriously tangled mystery that could be anything from a straightforward Gaslight-style thriller to a time travel sci fi trip.

And yes, it does span genres...  It's a dab of horror and a lot of thriller and two scoops of mystery.  Think of it as a semi-horror film that you can watch on date night, that your SO will enjoy a lot more than Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.  One moment you're in full "Spot the clues" mode and the next you're tensed up as strange noises start happening in the night.
Another point in its favor is lead actress Amber Jaeger.  She carries the weight of the film and while the other characters are often stilted and distant, she pulls you into her plight even during the times you want to strangle her.  It can't be easy to sell fear when your only indicator is standing at a doorway looking out, but she really convinces as a bright and directed young woman determined to get her husband and her life back, whatever the cost.  This makes it that much harder to watch as the increasing isolation of her predicament takes its toll on her.

My final verdict - Above average and intriguingly different.  Not great, not epic, but gripping and surprising.  Definitely worth seeing, especially given that it's available on Netflix streaming.

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Saturday, February 18, 2012

American Horror Story

NetFlix 4.6/5
IMDB 8.4/10
My Rating: 9/10

A troubled family move into a notorious haunted house and soon face trials of their marital fidelity, loyalty, and sanity.  The house is very occupied...

American TV has produced some good horror series over these past years, from Supernatural to Fringe to Buffy, but all of these other shows relied on a secondary support mechanism - Fringe has CSI framework, Supernatural balances itself with comedy, and Buffy mixed comedy and teen angst.  American Horror Story, by contrast, is the most flat-out, pedal to the floor, uncompromising horror series in...  Well, I can't actually think of anything to compare it to, off the top of my head.

The plot is simple - A family in crisis pick the worst house to move into.  The husband had an affair and their marriage is hanging by a thread.  The sulky daughter is in permanent, "My life is a black room" mode.  Hopeful of patching their fractured family, they buy a house that's a steal on the real estate market, and soon find out it comes with a lot of unexpected baggage.  Scary neighbors, scarred visitors, something nasty in the basement, and a Gimp-suited stalker in the attic are only a few of the new abode's surprises.  As the story of the house begins to be told, it's horror piled on horror - A history of secret abortions, murders, perversions, illegal surgery, and enough lingering ghosts to populate the Overlook.  All of this tension pressures the already straining family and begins to twist them each to the breaking point.

Those of sensitive disposition should be warned, this is fairly racy for US TV.  The show doesn't flinch in its depictions of sexual kink, ghost rape, teen sex...  Hell, you name it, it's in there somewhere, interspersed with far more of Dylan McDermott's naked behind than I really needed to see.  Ladies may be happy that for once, it's a show that's equal opportunity gender flashing, though.

One thing I dearly loved about the show was that it didn't tease its mysteries.  There is payoff to everything.  Series TV, especially in these post-X Files days, has developed the annoying habit of always dangling "The mystery that has no solution" to artificially hook viewers.  You've seen it a million times... Who is that shadowy man watching the heroes at the end of the episode?  What are the motives of the secret government agency shadowing our heroes?  Ugh.  I've reached the point where I just roll my eyes and tune out when these kind of elements are introduced, because I see them for what they are - Nothing.  Literally, nothing.  No great secret to be figured out, no complex backstory that will be revealed...  More often than not, they're just random, mysterious hooks tossed out by different writers desperate to grab a repeat audience.  AHS, by contrast, actually unnerved me by just how much it did reveal.  I kept thinking, "No, this is to soon to explain that.  You're letting all of the gas out of the tank too early!"  But that's the glory of the show - With a 12 episode run that actually ends, the pace never lets up and there's no fear of losing the mystery because this story will be told in full in one season.  Next year, it will be new characters and a new story.  This has the added benefit that no one is safe... No recurring characters means there's genuinely no telling who will live or die in a season.

The characters are brilliant too, though they're also my one single beef with the show - They are almost universally unlikable.  Connie Britton tries for sympathy as the wronged wife, but just seems too abrasive.  The husband is a lying sleaze, and anyone over 23 will want the whining daughter to die immediately.  I'd have hoped for at least one genuinely likable character to invest in and worry for, but as it is, their very fractured psyches contribute to the "I just can't relax with ANYONE!" atmosphere and keep viewers tense.  And the bad characters...  Well, they're delicious in their Grand Guignol creepiness, and rivet your attention using every trick from pity to pure lust.

So there's my review.  See it.  It's one of the best TV series to hit US television in 10 years, and it's a sheer joy to see such an uncompromising horror tale get a series run.  If I seem light on details, it's because I don't want to give anything away - The revelations come fast and bold and it's better to go in knowing as little of the plot twists as possible.  In my opinion, the AHS house takes a deserved place alongside the Overlook and Hill House as one of the scariest locales in screen horror, ever.