27 April 2014

A Broken Piano & A Burning Car

Pictured: Tangential Learning (this will not be on the test)
The notion of hype and I have this understanding, that I'm allowed to write off whatever it's trying to sell me for any reason whatsoever, regardless of the final product's merits. It's no novel concept that suspense is a double-edged sword every bit as likely to intrigue your potential audience as alienate them. 

The upcoming film in question has the effectively ominous title of As Above, So Below, whose trailer I came across on YouTube only a few moments ago. I'm not going to bother embedding or even linking the trailer; the IMDB page is enough and about all the direct exposure I want to give this film, especially since I'll be touching on key scenes in the trailer anyway. 
Brief Tangent: Remember AOL Keywords? You know how ad campaigns have started using hashtags as a means of marketing & promotion rather than simply referring people to a website? In all, I don't see any of that as harmful, but something about how this movie markets itself is a bit worrying. The end title to this trailer has the following phrase above its web address: 
YouTube Search: Paris Catacombs. 
This bothers me for a few reasons. Firstly, the Paris catacombs are a real place, and likely there's a number of YouTube videos about them. This may well have been the intention of the film's marketing team to help spread word about the film and help aid suspension of disbelief by having people do research and get a better appreciation for the source material. Frankly, I don't buy that notion for a second. I think this is a case of YouTube selling search results to the highest bidder, not unlike promoted Tweets. Again, this shouldn't be anything harmful, but why not have the terms in question be the film's title or some cryptic phrase relevant to the movie? Why a vague geographic reference that's likely to flood the search results of people not interested in the film but the actual location? I'm not saying it's socially irresponsible or anything like that, but it's a sign of a bad trend I hope dies. 
The trailer starts off by introducing us to our setting and our main characters, a Scoobian (not a word, but should be) team of young professionals bent on exploring a network of caves and tunnels beneath the city of Paris. Right away, we can see the earliest signs of the problem this film will either have with itself, its campaign, or both. The movie seems to be a Blair film, a term I hoped would replace "found footage" because that's already a name for experimental films such as the works of Stan Brakhage, with the perspective set in a kind of quasi-first-person view via video equipment our meddling kids are taking with them to document their journey. I don't have a problem with the genre per se (I liked Cloverfield and Apollo 18), but a lot of these shots look way too good to be "amateurism" and makes me wonder if this is going to have the same problem as District 9 where we're not sure if this is true Third-Person Unlimited the more vaguely First-Person Limited viewpoint. It's a minor gripe coming from a film production major, so take it with a grain of salt. However, these doubts about exactly what sort of movie we're in for don't get much better. 

As may well be expected, our team finds themselves trapped in these catacombs, possibly by some outside malevolence. This is genuinely interesting, because we're almost made to think the various cave-ins and pitfalls could be little more than that, with the characters' reactions misleading us into thinking it's something worse. Honestly, that's a neat idea, playing with perspective like that, a disaster movie masquerading as a horror film. As the saying goes, we have nothing to fear but fear itself. The Blair Witch Project has a similar sort of ambiguity, whether or not there's evil afoot in those words, or if it's an elaborate murder conspiracy perpetrated by the participants. Sadly, and as much as I think it's a solid sequel, Book of Shadows threw a lot of that ambiguity out the window. As Above, So Below does not even wait for its sequel to throw subtlety and ambiguity out the window. It doesn't even wait for opening day. It reveals its ineptitude barely halfway through the trailer. 

The Broken Piano.

After the initial series of setbacks that leave our characters going in circles (paranoia, or something worse?), the gang stumbles upon an upright piano covered in cobwebs. One of them comments that he had one just like it growing up. He goes on to say that one of the keys was messed up, the A4 key. This is where the movie more or less loses me completely, as his finger lands on precisely the same key, which is broken. The camera pulls back to give us a reaction shot from the group. It would have been more subtle and less patronizing if they'd all looked into the camera and yelled in unison, "DUN-DUN-DUUUUN!" 

For the record, two of my favorite horror films are Event Horizon and Solaris, the latter not even being much of a horror movie, though it has that 2001: A Space Odyssey quality wherein by not trying to be a horror movie, it succeeds at being one anyway, if that makes sense. Anyway, those movies are about people being confronted with their own personal inner demons via hallucinations made corporeal. I don't think that's a bad cliche, though I could name about a dozen other films I abhor because of it. It can be effective, but it has to be handled very delicately. How that's achieved is highly debatable and equally subjective. In theory, the best way would be to draw as little attention to the trope as possible, i.e. not giving it away in the damn trailer. To be fair, the broken piano is still subtle compared to what comes next. 

The Burning Car. 

Having established that what we're seeing is a group of explorers confronted with a supernatural force that plays off their respective consciences and forces them to confront their inner demons, the trailer is basically done with leaving us guessing exactly what type of film we're getting into. A better film would have left things at the broken piano, cut back to some of the screaming and running from earlier, and then flashed the title and release date. After all, the piano may not be terribly subtle, but it doesn't betray the film's overall sense of scale. It still leaves a bit of mystery as to what our team is up against, how real the danger is. Sure, the question at this point has boiled down to "Ghosts or Demons?/Haunted House or Hell?" but considering ghosts often have motives and even goals (that may only appear malicious) while demons are simply evil for evil's sake, it's still interesting from a conflict perspective. Again, what exactly are we up against? Will confronting these skeletons in the closet lead to some kind of redemption or at least a moral victory (a la Laurence Fishburne in Event Horizon), or is this simply a meat grinder? 

That question gets answered when our team happens upon the burning car. Yes, they turn a corner and see a small, red car engulfed in flames. The camera whip-pans to one of the explorers, sobbing, "It wasn't my fault! It wasn't my fault!" If your eyes are rolling, that's probably a good thing because you won't see what happens next. Our "faultless" guy not only gets yanked off his feet and pulled into the car through the rear passenger window (not unlike Mica's "throwback" in Paranormal Activity), but the car then caves in on itself and implodes like the house at the end of Poltergeist, taking with it anybody's ability to take this film seriously. It's not simply because the effect itself isn't all that good (I often wonder about trailers using unfinished or rough renders of composites), but because we've lost all mystery as to the extent of the danger. The piano left us asking whether or not the worst thing these people have to fear is each other/themselves or something else. The burning car externalizes the threat. It's no longer about facing fears, it's about being picked off by a manipulative and evil force. It's almost like we've seen the entire film, because the number of possibilities for resolution are in single digits by this point. 

Some would argue it unfair to write off the movie based on the trailer simply because it appears to give away so much, going from slightly inept to downright moronic. They would argue that there still could be more to the film, something that may fall outside those few, finite possibilities. In other words, I could be completely wrong the movie's scale and the nature of the threat and conflict. My question, to those people, is how many twists and turns does it take to pique your interest and how many does it take to lose your interest? It's the same problem I had with The Machinist. That film throws so many plot twists and big reveals at you that you're left with absolutely nothing to be invested in by the final act. Questioning reality is fine, many of my favorite movies are all about that (like American Psycho), but it's all for naught if I don't even feel like asking the question in the first place because I'd prefer short answer or even essay to multiple choice. 

Your trailer is supposed to be you putting your best foot forward. If you can't even sell me on your suspense, or make me care to ask what else your movie has to offer, what else are you getting wrong? 
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