As the legend goes, it’s not officially Killtoberfest until you see a severed head go flying. Fortunately, that happened almost immediately. Welcome to Killtoberfest 2: Kill Me Twice, Shame On Me. This year I’m actively trying for 2 movies a day, 2 reviews a day, for a total of 62 movies by the end of the month. With that in mind, I’ll be doing things slightly differently than I did last go-around, talking up a double feature each day–not only reviewing each film, but discussing how they play off of one another. Sometimes that will mean seeing two vampire movies, or two classic slashers, or even a movie and its sequel back to back; sometimes the connection will be a bit more… tenuous. Tonight, you can watch me dance as I try to compare and contrast a fake documentary about a conspiracy theory with a movie about a killer snowman.
Snowman first: after much deliberation (and much gnashing of teeth at Netflix removing Don’t Look Now from their Instant Watch) over which classic or self-referential horror movie I could start the year with, I ended up punting in the opposite direction with the decidedly inauspicious Jack Frost (1997), a movie almost entirely unlike that crappy Michael Keaton flick.
When I say this movie is almost entirely unlike the Michael Keaton Jack Frost, the “almost” comes in at the beginning, when a deceased man returns from the dead in the form of a grinning, mobile snowman for the sake of a family. In that mediocre film, Keaton is somehow able to connect better with his wife and child as a talking CG snowman than he ever could as a musician (at least until the spring thaw). In the horror film, the reincarnated man is a vile serial killer (shades of Child’s Play), and the family in question is that of the small town sheriff who put him away, ie., the killer’s prospective victims. But in order to get to them, Jack Frost (the killer’s name even before the tragidiculous accident involving a prison transport vehicle, a snowy road, and a “genetic fluid”-carrying truck) must go through roughly half the residents of the sheriff’s small town, Snowmonton. These murders range from inventive (Snowman bath scene) to hacky (decorating a Christmas tree with the victim’s body) to funny (the aforementioned severed head), and are generally accompanied by some sort of atrocious pun.
I can’t say Jack Frost is a good movie. I can’t even say it’s a great bad movie (I may have dozed off at one point). But it is a very, very bad movie, and that can hold its own charms. Mostly it was the little details that pleased me, like the name of the town (just say it: Snowmonton. It’s fun!), or the background actors (my favorite walks past the screen in the background carrying a tree ornament bigger than his torso for no apparent reason). Most of the effects and filmmaking choices are goofily awful, like when the aforementioned truck crash is simulated by pointing the camera at the screaming actors and then spinning it wildly. Too often, though, the movie is simply trying too hard, either to be good (which it’s obviously going to fail at) or to be funny (also doomed to failure–you want to laugh at movies like this, not with them). Every once in a while it tries just the right amount, genuinely interested in its own insanity (as when the heroes tape down the nozzle of a half-dozen aerosol cans as a makeshift, snowman-melting bomb), or finds a note of silliness without calculation, and those are some good moments. The film didn’t hold my attention all the way through, but it didn’t make me dislike it, either. It’s like a one-legged puppy–kinda funny to look at, too useless to keep, too pathetic to really be mean to it. My only real quibble beyond the general awfulness is that the movie’s concept demands a functioning, mobile snowman–even just a guy in a suit–and for some reason they were unwilling or unable to do that, so the thing mostly has to be photographed in isolated close-ups (often with its comically stubby arms flailing). I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the movie just doesn’t live up to the holographic picture on the DVD cover.
Fun facts about this movie: Apparently this is the role that got Shannon Elizabeth (pictured above) the part of “Nadia” in American Pie. Also, the writer/director of this (and the sequel), Michael Cooney, is a serious playwright and theater director. He’s also the writer of one of my favorite horror movies, Identity, so go figure.
The trailer continues the movie’s use of hilariously inapt soundtrack choices:
Now let’s turn our attentions to something a little more serious. Small Change, the 9/11 truther “documentary,” purportedly began its life as a fictional psuedo-doc positing the same basic idea but not claiming it as fact. Today’s second film, The Conspiracy (2012), is basically what Small Change might have been.
This really is the other polar extreme, as far as horror movies go. Last year I opened up my horror movie marathon with Hellraiser, suggesting that it embodied one of the deeper reasons why we watch scary movies–to push ourselves to confront the truly fearful in order to deal more handily with the comparatively tamer horrors of life. And on one level, that might be true.
On another level, though, maybe it’s a bunch of high-flying bullshit. When you get right down to it–horror movies as objects, not a lifestyle choice–we really watch them just because they’re interesting, because as similar as they might be to one another (seen one slasher, seen ’em all, really), they’re totally different from every other kind of movie. There’s nothing quite so outlandish and ridiculous when it fails (Jack Frost) and nothing so odd and fascinating when it succeeds (which The Conspiracy does, in general).
The Conspiracy has a three-act structure, but really, it only has two parts: a “found footage”-style extended sequence wherein unease deepens into horror, and the first two-thirds of the movie, a fake documentary methodically laying the groundwork for that unease. The best idea the movie has–and it’s a really great one–is to use real, existing footage of historical world leaders to suggest an authentic worldwide conspiracy, a hidden cabal that runs the world. Watching that, suddenly the illusion of the movie falls away, and the line between fiction and reality becomes blurred. It’s a fine, eerie effect, and you will find that kind of frisson in no other genre.
The film has other good ideas (particularly the use of visual and aural redactions to turn humans into unsettling, monstrous abstractions), and a few bad ones (in particular the decision to portray an anonymous chat room as a voice-to-text 3D animated cocktail party where people physically move around to connect or disconnect from conversations–that shit does not exist, illusion broken). But the real value of the movie is in its structure. It’s not a complicated or deep movie, and you’ll find no psychological depth or strong characterization here (in that sense I would compare it to Paranormal Activity, although unlike those characters I don’t want to punch The Conspiracy‘s protagonists in the face). It’s essentially a campfire story, updated for modern consumption. Stephen King once talked about how those stories are basically recipes–if you put in the right ingredients at the right time, the result will be a cake. Regardless of the quality of the ingredients (and The Conspiracy‘s are mostly just okay), they manage to work nonetheless, the way fables and fairy tales do, touching on instinctual fears and irrational neuroses. This one plays upon the fact that most of us, deep down, find it easy to believe that the rich and powerful collude, that certain organizations do exist in the shadows, and that the world’s politics and economies follow deliberate patterns put in place by people who do not have our best interests at heart. That man on the street is following you. That car outside your house at night is watching you. How much would it really take to get you to wear that tinfoil hat? Not much, I think.
And so The Conspiracy builds its little chiller out of parts no less necessary for being expected. The professor providing exposition. The vanishing man. The mysterious black car, itself almost an archetypal symbol onto which our paranoia can latch. The moment when a character’s interest slips effortlessly into obsession. The conflict between belief and skepticism. And finally that moment, very late in the film but as exquisite as the very first bite of a freshly-baked cake, when the reasoned unease of the conscious mind gives way to the darker logic of the unconscious, a logic which somehow always knew this would happen. There are only a few ways this kind of story can end, after all. In a neat trick, The Conspiracy manages to end in all of them at once. The last act makes the first two worth watching, but it’s the solid construction of the movie’s first two-thirds that makes the final act work in the first place. The Conspiracy isn’t a great movie; but just as Jack Frost got the lowest insult a horror movie can get (boring), The Conspiracy gets the highest compliment a horror movie can receive: it’s effective.
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