Monday, February 1, 2010

After Dark Horror Fest 4: The Graves

If you're a regular reader, then you've probably grasped that I don't care particularly for trashing movies. There are a lot of reasons for that. It is fun to make fun of movies, of course, and I can certainly rail with the best of them about things I don't like.

But when you get down to it, making a movie is an accomplishment, involving at least dozens of people and often hundreds. And even bad movies bring joy (which is why I'd usually prefer to see an awful movie than just a mediocre one) and a certain sense of amazement.

And if I don't like it in general, you can imagine how it is when the cast and crew is in the audience. You don't want to—well, I don't want to, I can't speak for your character—say, "Hey, nice to meet you. You suck."

Which brings us to The Graves. This is kind of a cute title since the movie isn't graveyard based but based on the The Graves sisters, Abby and Megan. Megan is on her way to New York City, which will separate the two for the first time. For reasons that elude me, this leads to the world's shortest road trip, where they end up in Skull City.

The director (Brian Pulido) came up before the movie and thanked everyone, his wife, Francisca, was a co-producer, and the other producers, the Ronalds Brothers were there. (The movie has, like, six executive producers, whose contribution was just money, I believe.) And he thanked the cast for doing a great job, etc.

Unfortunately, it's a terrible movie. And most of that can be laid at the director's feet, with most of the rest laid at Dean Matthew Reynolds' feet, as he doubled as the film's editor.

The Boy said the acting was terrible. I disagreed. One of the things I've learned over the years is that, in low budget movies, editing is the big killer. Think for a moment of a daytime soap. There are these long pauses in between the lines, and especially on fade outs. It makes everything seem stilted.

I've seen great actors reduced to looking foolish by bad editing. Or, say, bad directorial choices. (See Jeremy Irons in Dungeons and Dragons. Or don't. You'll be glad you didn't.) So, for the most part, I'd say it wasn't bad acting, but bad editing and bad choices.

The great Tony Todd, who has provided menace for dozens of movies and TV shows, is ridiculously over the top. There's another guy who talks in the same overblown baptist preacher cadence who is also absurd. But someone told them to play it that way (Brian).

To recap the plot, Megan (played by Maelstrom PB-girl Clare Grant) and Abby (the teeny Jillian Murphy) are splitting up, in a kind of Cloverfield-party sequence shot off-and-on on camcorder, and then off on the road to Skull City (also shot off-and-on in handicam style), where they're terrorized by some murderous folk.

This is more-or-less a remake of the first part of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, down to where every single person in the audience was unsurprised by the "twist". There's a supernatural Children of the Corn angle, as the demon of the mine is shown swallowing some souls in dodgy CGI.

When they escape the the first peril, and you're thinking "Well, maybe this movie will go for being short..." there's a whole cultist angle. This is set up in the beginning, so it's not a surprise, but it's totally a shift in movie tone and feels very slapped on. As if there weren't enough pages in the script so they ended the one movie and started a new one.

It just doesn't hang together. A lot of things don't really follow one-to-the-next. The camcorder thing is completely dropped. (Why have it at all?) The thing in the mine seems to have no autonomy and yet no clearly defined purpose for the townspeople. And on and on. Kill Theory was just as clichéd, but hung together far more successfully and interestingly.

Worse, the director misdirects. There aren't really any great shots in the movie; there's one pretty good one where the girls are in the archetypal car-that-won't-start and you can sort of make out the maniac-of-the-moment coming up. That was effectively subtle.

But otherwise, the movie feels mis-cued. With most horror movies, there's a moment where the film transitions from ordinary story to horror story. (Often these movies start with some horror, but then resets to a road trip or buddy flick, or whatever.) Usually when the characters first become aware that they're in a horror movie, by witnessing a murder or other horrific act.

This movie transitions as the girls are walking through a house in the ghost town, and Megan suddenly pins herself up against the wall and tells Abby there's a murder going on outside. Abby thinks she's putting her on. I thought she was putting her on. There was no music—a shame, as the music used in the opening scene was a nice melange of clichés put together effectively—and when the body shows up, it's outside a window, occupying maybe 15% of the screen.

It's not impossible to pull that off. Well, strike that, it might be. This is your first big shock! Contrast with Kill Theory, where they throw the freakin' body through the freakin' window. Clichéd? Sure! But so is the guy fighting for his life slamming up against the window.

It's all been done; the director's job is to do it well. And sell it.

And it happens a lot in this movie that the director's just not there in any kind of close action sequence. Probably half-a-dozen times, I turned to The Boy to ask him what had happened. (He mostly didn't know either.) At one point, for example, Abby tackles a baddie, and they both drop off the bottom of the screen.

Now, things going out of frame is a common low-budget tactic, and a perfectly valid one. But Abby looks like she weighs less than a hundred pounds and we don't see what happens to the baddie for several minutes (apparently he says something like "Ow! My face!" but I didn't hear that) and even having seen it, it's hard to figure exactly how it happened.

But this happened a lot, like the director wasn't really comfortable with action shots.

Another bad choice was—well, okay, the smell from the mine is supposed to drive the girls crazy at two points in the movie, and that was just silly. And a little bit (unintentionally) sexy. I mean, they're snarling and snapping, but it's not clear what's keeping them from actually biting. I'm all for restraint when using effects, but with no help at all, the two girls just looked kinda hot. Heh.

Then, approaching the film's climax, there was a bunch of exposition which had the unfortunate effect of slowing everything down while failing to illuminate anything. It was all kinda "Duh".

Yeah, I mostly blame the director here. On the plus side, it's his first feature and while I think nobody should ever make some of these mistakes, a lot may simply be knowing what to emphasize given severe budgetary constraints.

And, as bad as it is, I'd still rank it above most of last year's movies, on the strength of the Megan/Abby relationship. Last years' movies were inept in a variety of ways but on top of that features casts of dismal representations of humanity. While Grant and Murphy are among the actors who end up looking silly from time to time, they had good chemistry and could do well with a little more help from Pulido and Ronalds.

This is really apparent when veteran Bill Moseley is on-screen. Moseley (late of HBO's "Carnivalé") is great, even when his lines aren't, and the girls also get better when they're interacting.

Overall, though, hard to recommend, except for Grant and Murphy fans.

Fun side-note: The movie's hulking menace of a blacksmith, Shane Smith, sat two rows directly in front of me. He's about my height and probably weight, too, though he has a wider frame. The rest of the cast was around after, and were all pretty much teeny.

Fun side-note 2: The movie's casting director was Nina Axelrod, star of Maelstrom house-favorite Motel Hell, among other '80s horror goodies. I've noticed her (casting) work in the past, too, and it was cool to see her name come up here.

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