Friday, September 4, 2015

Review: They (2002)

So, to commemorate Wes Craven after his death this past Sunday, I was gonna watch and review one of his films... but I've already seen and reviewed every film of his that I have on DVD or Blu-Ray, and Netflix is sorely lacking when it comes to his other films. What to do? Well, I did have this one film that said "Wes Craven Presents" on the cover, let's see how that one is...

They (2002)

Rated PG-13 for terror/violence, sexual content and language

Putting "So-and-So Hotshot Director Presents" on the cover of a movie is one of the lazier ways to get asses in seats, up there with "From the Studio Who Brought You..." (if your name isn't Marvel -- 20th Century Fox tried that one with the Fantastic Four reboot, with disastrous results) and "Based on a True Story". It happened with Quentin Tarantino, Judd Apatow, and today's subject, the late, great Wes Craven, who in 2002 was on a hot streak after the Scream trilogy. This wasn't the first film where the marketing department at Dimension Films jumped on Craven's executive producer credit in order to sell the film; they tried it two years earlier with Dracula 2000, and despite that film's resounding thud, they saw fit to try it again. I'll just jump straight to the point: Craven had about as much to do with this film as J. J. Abrams had to do with Lost. Much as Abrams' involvement with that show was mostly limited to coming up with the idea and directing the pilot before passing the reins to Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, Craven's involvement with this film was more like that of a studio executive than anything, overseeing production and possibly having a hand in the script (which apparently went through up to ten writers if IMDb is to be believed) but definitely not serving in much of any creative capacity.

Given his own hit-or-miss track record later in his life (the man made Scream 2 and Red Eye, but he also made Scream 3Cursed, and My Soul to Take), perhaps it's a good thing that you can't really pin this one on Craven, as this was a stinker. It had a solid opening and a few ideas tucked up its sleeve that, in better hands, could've made for a real chiller. Unfortunately, it's let down by wooden acting, characters who behave like no human being would, monsters whose rules are never adequately explained, and worst of all, an all-around toothlessness when it comes to the scares. This movie's an example of all that was wrong with American horror at the tail end of the Scream-inspired "glossy era" of the late '90s. They say that the worst examples of a trend are the ones that hop onto the bandwagon just as everyone else is getting off, and much like with hair metal and slashers in 1991, or found footage and ghost movies today, this movie, together with contemporary duds like Valentine, is a symbol of just how worn-out the slick, teen-focused horror movies of the mid-late '90s had gotten by the turn of the millennium.

The plot is threadbare. Our protagonist is Julie (Laura Regan), a grad student living in an apartment in the city down the hallway from her boyfriend Paul (Marc Blucas). As a child, she and her friend Billy had night terrors and saw monsters coming to get her, and when Billy kills himself, she soon starts to realize that those nightmares weren't all in her head. She and her friends Sam (Ethan Embry) and Terry (Dagmara Domińczyk) now find themselves being pursued by strange creatures that haunt the shadows. It's a framework for a scary idea -- the boogeyman is real, and he never stopped haunting you even if you stopped believing in him. You are marked for death, and there is no escape, only delaying the inevitable by using light to deter the monsters. On a basic level, this is a good idea, and in fact, there is a film out there that took this idea and made it into something absolutely terrifying: It Follows. I can hear you groaning already at the mention of that film's title (as if it hasn't received enough praise yet), but aside from the mechanics of how its boogeyman works, that film basically took this one's plot and did it countless times better. I can't help but look back on my description of what It Follows would've looked like if it had been a mainstream Hollywood horror film. If I may, let me quote it: "...a slew of jump scares fueled by bad special effects, a high (yet oddly bloodless) body count, tons of "hip" dialogue from writers who haven't been in high school in twenty years, lots of sexy young people looking sexy, and an unambiguously happy ending, with the curse broken and the few survivors living happily ever after... until the last frame reveals that the curse isn't quite dead. (Sequel!)"

Well, I'll give this film credit for ending on a slightly darker note than usual, but aside from that, this is pretty much exactly the movie I just described. Let's start with the scares and the monsters. In It Follows, we never knew the monster's origin, but it obeyed a set of basic rules that are clearly laid out early on, which it almost never violated -- and on the few occasions when it did, it was a very deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers, so as to scare the audience and keep them on their toes. Here, the monsters behave and react as the plot demands, often without concern for what was established earlier. We don't know why the characters are being stalked beyond their run-ins with the boogeyman as kids; we get some hints of backstory for Julie, who's both a psychology student and spent some time in a psychiatric hospital as a child due to her night terrors, but this never comes into play, this subplot likely the victim of rewrites (again, up to ten writers on this piece of crap). We're told that they hate the light, but there are several moments when it doesn't seem to bother them, the most notable and glaring being one of the film's final scares. And speaking of scares, it's jump scare city up in here, with chase scenes composed of a litany of loud noises and bright lights. The monsters are wisely kept to the shadows for most of the film, but it's likely not out of an artistic decision, because when we do see them, their design isn't particularly impressive. There are a number of kills, but they all consist of people getting dragged offscreen by unseen monsters after a chase that does little to earn the tension this film needs. I can easily forgive dry deaths if the buildup to them is scary, but not if I don't feel a chill going up my spine at least once during the film's entire runtime.

As for the characters, the fact that they're adults reduces the sheer volume of annoyingly "hip" dialogue, though it still creeps in with Paul's two stoner roommates who serve no purpose except to be stoners in a horror movie (and who don't even get killed). The worst of the bunch is our protagonist Julie. Her actress, Laura Regan, looks cute enough when standing still but is spectacularly wooden when it comes time to speak and emote, giving a consistently one-note performance throughout the film. It's sometimes a different note, like when she's scared and screaming instead of just dull-eyed, but her acting is flat throughout the film. Dagmara Domińczyk, the actress playing Terry, somehow comes off even worse -- not only is she just as wooden, but her attempts at an American accent are as slippery as a satin sheet. It's telling that Marc Blucas, an actor who many Buffy fans view as flat and dull, having only been cast on that show in its fourth season as eye candy for the ladies, gave one of the best performances in the film as Paul, largely by simple virtue of not embarrassing himself. Ethan Embry also did alright as Sam, especially with his growing panic as he realizes the danger he's in, though the writing did him no favors.

You see, this is the sort of film where a character who's stalked by darkness monsters, which are shown to be capable of frying electrical devices and circuits in order to cause blackouts and grab hold of their prey easier, decides that the best course of action is to flee her boyfriend's apartment and run off, alone, into an empty subway station at two in the morning. Yeah, Julie, you kind of deserved what happened to you after that. Besides, just from the number of subplots that go nowhere, it's obvious what a hatchet job was done on this film during the writing and production processes. I already mentioned how Julie's backstory never factors into the plot, and that extends to her professor/doctor, a man who's set up early on as an important figure who might know something about what's happening but is rarely seen again afterwards. Blucas' Paul has little to do beyond act as a shoulder for Julie to cry on, and Sam, the only character who gets anything interesting to do, is killed off just over halfway in. It also doesn't help that this is one of the slowest, most poorly-paced horror films I've ever seen. Even at 89 minutes, the story and characters have no clear direction until we're closing in on the third act, with most of the time before then devoted to a mix of development for Julie (which never goes anywhere; see above) or some mishandled creep sequences. The alternate ending that was on the DVD hints at a direction that the film may have been trying to go in, but without all the other scenes that were undoubtedly cut away from this film (again, ten writers worked on this), it simply raises more questions than it answers -- and of course, it's just that, an alternate ending as opposed to the one that was included on the finished film. As for the theatrical ending, its attempts at shock are unearned, given that I didn't care about any of the characters by the time the end credits rolled.

Score: 1 out of 5

Even the most diehard Craven fans are advised to skip this cheap cash-in on his brand, especially given that he had almost nothing to do with it. It's a lifeless dud that fails to capitalize on the few smart ideas it has, and it has so many problems from top to bottom that I found it virtually irredeemable -- especially in light of other, more recent films that took this one's basic foundation and did it so much better.

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