Next up on Killtoberfest 2: puzzle box horror. No, not the Hellraiser kind. I’m talking movies like Cube, Identity, November, or even Saw–movies where a key element of the horror is the inexplicability of the situation. Every story operates on rules, but this is even more true for horror than it is for most other genres. And everybody knows the rules. Vampires can’t go out in the sun. Ghosts haunt places or seek to complete business they left unfinished in life. Mummies can’t dance. And for the love of God, don’t ever go down into the basement.
But with puzzle box horror, the rules are kept hidden from you. You don’t know why these awful things are happening, or what the characters could do to stop them. Saw isn’t a great movie, or even a good one, but its concept is fantastic. It’s almost primal. For an unknown reason, an unknown person has somehow put you in a situation where you must do something incredibly awful or suffer a horrific death. The choice itself is the focal point of the fear response, but you’re distracted from it by the unclear circumstances. If only I knew what was going on, there might be another way out of this! It’s that frustrated impulse to know, and the lack of comfort that knowing would give you, which really makes this particular type of movie so special. And of course, the mind can’t help but try to figure out the puzzle, even knowing that the solution could turn out to be worse than the question.
First, a 2007 thriller from Spain, Fermat’s Room.
An unabashed thriller in the Saw mold, Fermat’s Room (La Habitacion de Fermat) is a tense, claustrophobic movie about four mathematicians caught in a single devious deathtrap. Each of them solved a riddle mailed to them as a test, and were rewarded with an invitation to a very exclusive retreat for the purposes of discussing “the greatest enigma” in higher mathematics. A trail of clues leads the group from the rendezvous point to a remote abandoned building; inside the building is an elegantly furnished room. It is here that the trap is set.
There are two kinds of great thrillers: those in the big, bombastic mold (The Fugitive comes to mind) and those which make a virtue of restraint, exploring characters through the specific choices they make when faced with a deadly situation while confined by the limits of time and/or space. Fermat’s Room is an excellent example of the latter kind. It does not succeed in spite of only having a few characters, a few locations, and one principle idea, but rather because of it. Within a taut 88 minutes, the movie keeps the screws turning at a brisk pace, alternating between new layers of the trap, the characters, and their understanding of the situation.
I’m trying to be vague (and this review will be shorter than most as a result), because I highly recommend you go into the film not knowing what’s going on, if possible. Once you know what’s happening, many of the moves the film and the characters make will come to mind; it’s to the film’s credit that it does not often deviate from a very realistic portrayal of behavior within a surreal situation, but this also means that some aspects of the story are predictable, given the starting conditions.
So I’ll simply list some things here that make the movie particularly fun to watch. For one thing, the characters are all very smart–smart enough to make some very efficient use of their resources, smart enough to hold multiple conversations at the same time, and smart enough that the movie starts to be about the ways in which intelligence and emotion interact under pressure. Each character fits into a particular type but is allowed to become more dimensionalized as the story continues. As well, the writing is full of clever bits–my favorite being the way the lighting gradually and naturally darkens over the course of the movie, a beautiful horror movie progression that’s 100% motivated by story elements. Finally, Fermat’s Room doesn’t fall subject to the criticism that too many thrillers do–that they’re empty, meaningless exercises in craft. Fermat’s Room‘s technical quality and tense, engaging story don’t preclude it from coming to a very nice point about the role of intellectual pursuits in human relationships, and that we sometimes overvalue the theoretical over the practical. So I won’t make that same mistake here: practically speaking, Fermat’s Room is creepy and fun. Go watch it.
From science to science fiction: the obscure but oh-so-good Triangle (2009).
What is a triangle? You know one when you see it, but how do you describe it? Avoid hiding behind mathematical definitions about angles and degrees. Think about the triangles you know, like the romantic entanglement between three people who wish to be two, or the vast, theoretical shape whose outer points are Miami, San Juan, and the island of Bermuda. It’s vague, don’t you think? Conceptual. Yet we intuitively understand it as a system spontaneously arising as the result of three vectors which are not wholly opposed or unopposed. That intuitive, unspoken understanding is how Triangle approaches its story.
As with Fermat’s Room (but even more so), I would not begin to give away the narrative. The film starts with Jess, a waitress and mother of an autistic child, embarking on a day trip on a friend’s sailboat. There are six people on board; Jess is something of an interloper, essentially there on a second date with the boat’s owner, who has invited his friends along. The situation between them all is a little awkward. But the little sailing trip seems fine. Until the wind drops. And a storm comes. And then there’s the distress call… and the ocean liner, seemingly deserted…
Where the movie goes from there I dare not say, but it’s a tense, harrowing ride. The movie reminds me of nothing more than Primer, not because they share any subject matter, but because of the way the narrative twists and turns upon itself, leading us to new and scarier understandings. But where Primer addresses its unreal narrative element through amateurs who only barely hold an intellectual comprehension of what’s happening, Triangle features a completely unscientific, intuitive processing. It uses a human perspective to explore something outside of human experience, and it does so very, very effectively. The filmmaking is of a very high quality–it has to be, given the clockwork plot and need to conjure atmosphere out of almost thin air–but there is one particular motif that stands out as the creepiest fucking thing I have or am likely to see this year. Every time it arises, it gets more and more intrinsically horrific. And the ending of the movie is like a twist of the knife in your gut.
I don’t want to overhype the movie–part of its appeal is simply that its quality is totally unexpected–but I’m 24 movies into this marathon and Triangle is one of the two best I’ve seen so far. It’s one of those diamond in the rough movies, and I’m beginning to suspect that so is its writer/director, Christopher Smith. Smith is one of those directors I’d never heard of, even though I’d heard separate good buzz about everyone single one of his projects (Creep, Severance, Triangle, and Black Death). I hope to watch at least one more of his movies this month, because something as good as Triangle doesn’t just come out of nowhere. The movie is not flawless–I think the lack of characterization is something of a limiting factor, even if the movie doesn’t necessarily need it and benefits from its absence in a different fashion–but it’s rare to find a film that offers something startlingly original, in a new voice, that not only works like gangbusters but manages to be about something meaningful, too. What’s it about, at heart? Take the Shining reference, for instance, a kind of mark of inevitable doom; the allusions to myth; and most of all the detail of Jess’s child having autism. To be autistic is to be someone who not only recognizes patterns but prefers them, a person for whom an expected, undeviating routine is necessary for emotional stability. For those of us who aren’t autistic, what does it mean to think like that? How do you alter recurring patterns of thought? Opposed or unopposed, how do you change the vectors of your life?
Note: this is one of those trailers you really shouldn’t watch. See this movie, and go in as blind as I did. You won’t be disappointed.
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