Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Pretty Good Movies With Pretty Bad Endings

            It turns out that writing movies isn’t easy.  As anyone who reads this blog -or, more likely, actually watches movies- knows, there are a lot of pretty bad ones out there.  A bad movie in and of itself is pretty innocuous.  After all, truly, truly bad movies are easy to spot, and most people who watch them know what they’re getting into.  Seriously, nobody in 2014 is watching The Gingerdead Man vs. Evil Bong without some personal culpability for the act.  Watching the movie is the viewer’s crime and punishment rolled into one.
More insidious, however, are movies that start out promising but just can’t clinch the final act.  These are movies that you get invested in, that you want to like, but in the end they just plain let you down.  With that in mind, here’s the first installment of Pretty Good Movies With Pretty Bad Endings.  These are two films that I can honestly say I liked 90% of, and one of them is near and dear to a buddy of mine.  Unfortunately they both have unforgivable endings and must be brought to justice. Needless to say, spoilers abound. 

The Last Broadcast (1998) – Despite being overshadowed by The Blair Witch Project, this was one of the films that sparked the “found footage” revolution in horror movies.  With a budget of reportedly just $900, filmmakers Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler managed to create a film with a surprisingly effective and suspenseful atmosphere.  Shot in the style of a TV documentary (think “Sightings” or “Forensic Files”), The Last Broadcast details the violent deaths of a pair of public access TV hosts (played by the filmmakers) in the remote pine barrens of New Jersey.  The two men were filming an amateur hunt for the mythical Jersey Devil, only to disappear and later be found horribly mangled in a veritable ocean of blood. A local weirdo and self-styled psychic was with the men at the time of their deaths, and given his history of erratic behavior –including no small amount of it caught on film – he was eventually convicted of the crime.

The film’s narrator (remember it’s a “documentary”), in a brilliantly executed “Unsolved Mysteries” style, hints at a supernatural explanation for the killings.  Some of the early evidence seems flimsy and this adds an effective level of verisimilitude.  More than once I found myself forgetting that it was a film and arguing with it as if it were intended to be a presentation of facts.  Slowly, more compelling evidence begins to surface, and the viewer is drawn into the notion that there may be something unnatural lurking in the woods.  It’s a great premise, and it’s a lot of fun watching the mystery unravel…until the last five minutes.
            The third act of the movie constantly references a piece of video from the night of the murders that’s being restored by a media expert.  When it finally comes time to see this image…it’s the documentary host.  Suddenly the film switches to cinematic camera angles and the apparently evil narrator slap-fights the media restoration tech before suffocating her with a piece of plastic.  Then he drives back to the woods and keeps filming the documentary.
Fade to black.
The viewer is left to wonder: Is this guy a serial killer?  Is he working with some supernatural force out in the woods?  Is he the Jersey Devil?  Why the hell is he making a confessional documentary, let alone one that beats around the bush so much?  If he knows he did it, why the hell does he act surprised when it’s him in the video?  What does any of the preceding 95% of the movie actually mean now that this plot twist has come up?
 I'm sure this all sounds like I'm just poking fun at a cheap indie film, but that's just not true.  The Last Broadcast flirts with being great, but the ending is catastrophic.  The sad fact is that the climax of The Last Broadcast effectively renders the rest of the film nonsensical.  The ending of this film would be a howler if it were attached to a bad movie, but given that the rest of the movie is actually good, the boner of an ending is doubly disappointing.

The Lords of Salem (2012) – By far the best of Rob Zombie’s films, The Lords of Salem hearkens back to the weird “coven of witches” genre that briefly existed in the 1970s.  Taking all of the best queues from films like Rosemary’s Baby, and The Wicker Man, The Lords of Salem is a disturbing, uncomfortable film that benefits immensely from its surprisingly effective cinematography. It also has an oddly likable cast, anchored by Sherri Moon Zombie but also including the always-welcome Ken Foree of Dawn of the Dead fame.  The film centers on radio DJ Heidi Hawthorne (Zombie) whose life is upended by a mysterious musical album that fills her head with frightening demonic visions. The film becomes increasingly bizarre throughout, and by the end it’s not always easy to tell what’s meant to be real and what’s meant to be hallucinations and fever dreams.

            All of this works pretty well, and the movie is certainly enjoyable, although some of the plot elements are arguably a bit predictable.  The film’s greatest strength is its refusal to go for the cheap scare; there aren’t really any “jump scares” or silly tricks like that to be found.  Instead, Heidi’s world becomes progressively stranger as the evil influences pressing in upon her intensify.  There are scenes in Heidi’s apartment where there are gruesome monsters simply lurking in the background, with no musical stings or camera tricks to call attention to them, while Heidi is seemingly so entranced as to pay them no notice.  This approach feels pretty original and works nicely.
            By the time the end of the film draws near, the viewer probably has a pretty good idea of what the long and short of the climax will be…and then, even as the expected ending comes to fruition, we’re subjected to…a music video?  The viewer is aware that Heidi has become the vessel for the Antichrist, but this is expressed by way of goony montage sequence featuring Heidi writhing around on a stuffed goat, lots of shots of religious iconography being warped with Paintshop Pro effects, and just a smidge too much strobe light.
If the triumph of evil over good really does come down to a bunch of 1990s rock video tropes presided over by some rhythmically masturbating monster-popes, then good needs to redouble its efforts to make sure that never comes to pass.  The trippy ending of The Lords of Salem doesn’t ruin the movie, but it undeniably takes away from it. 

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