Summer of Horror: The Visit, Freaks, The Final Girls In which a white whale from the very first Summer of Horror is finally slain

The Visit

The Visit

The humbling of M. Night Shyamalan is complete. It just took a few high profile flops, a short stint in producing movies that ended up being flops, possibly just because his name was attached, and a banishment to hired gun directing (resulting in a flop) to do it. But now, he’s finally created something worthy of the hype he generated in the early 2000’s.¬†

A big part of the humbling process as far as The Visit is concerned is the fact that it doesn’t feel like a traditional M. Night joint. It’s found footage – but in a creative enough way that it allows something approaching traditional cinematography to seep in – and is far more outwardly comedic than any of his previous self-serious movies were. In fact, I dare say this strikes the rare and crucial balance of being equally effective at comedy and horror, something virtually impossible to pull off.

The other amazing feat of The Visit is the way it demonstrates that anything can be scary if you try hard enough. It’s old people. Just old people. And for the majority of the film the central mystery is whether what we’re afraid of is just dementia and the normal peculiarities of the elderly, something The Taking of Deborah Logan played with. Add all this up, and hopefully you will, as I did, forget that this was written and directed by Shyamalan, and you won’t spend the entire film trying to predict the twist ending. The Visit isn’t that kind of movie. There are reveals, but there’s no wool being pulled over your eyes, because the story is openly a mystery. Just what exactly is wrong with these kindly old folks?

Freaks

freaks

Is Freaks exploitative? That’s the debate that’s been following this movie around for over 80 years, from its short, disastrous initial release to its later rediscovery and appreciation. I guess the answer is both yes and no. The titular “freaks” are very clearly the good guys in this story – which revolves around the beautiful circus trapeze artist and strongman conspiring to separate a wealthy dwarf from his fortune. An admirable amount of care went into portraying the people with deformities as a caring, tight-knit family and the “normals” as petty and evil.

At the same time, the only horror in this horror movie is the deformities themselves. While the first two acts devote several vignettes to the particulars of life as a circus freak, the climax adds a spooky thunderstorm and a few weapons to turn them all into vengeful monsters. The aforementioned vignettes range from amazing (like seeing a completely limbless man light and smoke a cigarette) to, well, freaky. Much the same way I imagine the circus itself treated them.

Like most movies this old, the pace and the static camera and the lack of music can be challenging. Plus, nearly 90 minutes were cut from the original version in a desperate attempt to calm outraged audiences of the era, and that cut footage is now lost, which is unfortunate because it not only reportedly contained more “feats” from some of the characters, but also a graphic castration scene. Wouldn’t that have been something?

The Final Girls

Final Girls

The premise: A group of teens finds themselves trapped in a Friday the 13th-style 80’s slasher movie, in which the main character’s recently deceased mother starred. They must use their knowledge of slasher movie rules to survive, and hopefully get the chance to bring a loved one back to life.

It’s a meaty premise that automatically puts The Final Girls in that Scream/Cabin in the Woods/Zombieland class of deconstructionist horror comedies. And in the first few minutes references to Friday the 13th and other 80’s camp slashers are dropped all over the place. The main title sequence is lifted directly from The Thing. And in a bit of double-meta writing, there’s a character who’s a fan of the fictional slasher this movie revolves around who can explain how it all “works”, giving it a Scream vibe. But…

Ugh! This is such a hard movie to review! On one hand, the premise has loads of potential – and it’s spun out in really ingenious ways most of the time (the flashback and slo-mo sequences in particular). There’s also plenty of inventive camera work and effects that are just fun to look at. But it becomes obvious pretty early on that it’s a PG-13 movie when it really should have been R. It’s so glaring – in a movie that’s supposed to essentially mimic a gonzo camp slasher – I felt like I was watching a network TV edit. It seemed as if maybe they were targeting a young audience.

AND YET…

Anyone old enough to appreciate all the references¬†wouldn’t be under 17. And that’s another thing: there’s SO much more that could have been done with the premise. For something billed as “a love letter to 80’s slasher film”, the deepest they go is, well, Friday the 13th. And I’m not saying this should have been some kind of smarmy, Robot Chicken reference fest, but come on. There’s a vast history of slasher tropes specifically revolving around camps that are just waiting to be mined for comedy. Horror fans eat that shit up.

As it turns out, the strength of this movie isn’t in the premise, and it isn’t in the satire. It’s definitely not in the horror, or even the comedy, as both are played pretty safe. The heart of this movie is the character of Max, the ersatz “final girl”, and the way her grief over losing her mother unfolds as she’s paired with a much younger version of that very person… but playing somebody else in a movie (it’s easier to understand when you see it). Imagine suddenly having a dead loved one back, but they don’t know who they really are. It’s a surprisingly touching story.

So what we have is a horror-comedy that’s about 95% comedy, 5% horror, and its best part is a mother/daughter character drama. Pretty weird.

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