Here’s another Killtoberfest 2 double feature for today. I can’t actually explain what these two have in common, because that would be a spoiler for at least one of them. I will say that both have twist endings, though.
First up is Frailty (2001), a movie whose critical reputation is totally, completely undeserved. In warning you away from it, I’m doing God’s work.
80% of this movie is pretty darn good, and any positive reviews I’ve seen are reviewing that 80%. But the last 20% (retro)actively ruins the whole thing. See if you don’t agree with me.
The movie opens with Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey in one of his last roles before that dire, “What’s that you say? You’re making a shitty romantic comedy? Alright, alright, alright” period) walking into the local FBI office, saying he knows who’s behind the God’s Hand killings. He lays out his story for an agent (Powers Boothe), and the bulk of the film takes place in flashback, with Fenton narrating.
The story is about his childhood; the killer, Fenton says, is his brother Adam, and here is how he knows. Turns out, back when they were kids, their father (an excellent Bill Paxton, who also directed) went crazy, telling his two sons that God had sent him a vision telling him they were all demon hunters now; that God would give him holy weapons to fight these demons and a list of demons to go fight. Dad starts kidnapping “demons” off his list, and of the two boys, only Fenton is old enough to realize that Dad isn’t fighting demons, he’s murdering people, and getting him and Adam to help. Fenton’s anguish over this situation and his inability to resolve it is the heart of the film, and it’s powerful, moving, scary stuff. The story really gets at the horror of madness and child abuse, and it’s an emotionally harrowing experience, dark stuff all the darker because you know that this story, or something like it, has happened before and will happen again in real life. If this was all the movie was, I’d be telling y’all to go see it. But it’s not.
The rest of this is going behind a spoiler tag, but I encourage you to read it, even if you haven’t seen the movie, because hopefully it will prevent you from doing so.
Okay. So, the agent drives Fenton out in the middle of the night to the old family home, where Fenton says his father’s victims are buried. This is where shit gets weird, and the movie starts piling on twist after twist.
Twist #1: McConaughey isn’t Fenton, the older brother; he’s Adam, the kid who believed in what his father was doing.
Twist #2: Adam believed his father because he had a kind of proof: his father claimed that when he kidnapped the demons and “laid hands” on them, their sins would become apparent (he claims that these victims have committed crimes through the film). Turns out, when his father did this, Adam saw visions of those same crimes.
Twist #3: Adam is still hunting demons, and the reason he’s spun this story for the FBI agent is that the agent is on his list, because the agent had at some point murdered his own mother, something the agent confirms verbally before Adam kills him. (So we know Adam’s visions are accurate.)
Twist #4: Adam’s brother Fenton really was the “God’s Hand” killer, and killed at least one person (plus some Zodiac-style letters confessing to more) to establish that name in the media so that Adam would know it was Fenton, so that Adam would come and kill Fenton, which he did before the movie began. (I realize this makes very little sense from Fenton’s point of view, but this is what the movie says.)
Twist #5: Adam manages to frame his dead brother for all of the murders, past and present.
Twist #6: Just before killing the FBI agent, Adam claims that “God will protect him” and God essentially does, miraculously distorting what would have been incriminating surveillance video of Adam entering the FBI office and wiping the memory of a second agent who met him the night he killed Powers Boothe.
This is all pretty complicated, so to summarize:
1) Just like The Usual Suspects, we have a movie where the bulk of the story is told by an unreliable narrator, thereby calling the entire value of the film into question.
2) What looked like a story about a mentally ill father who puts his children through hell is actually a story about a literal divine Chosen One doing God’s work killing literal, actual demons.
3) The emotional heart of the movie–the kid who didn’t believe and agonized over the conflict between his love for his family and his certainty that his father was doing the wrong thing–is, even if not an invention of the narrator, a total inversion of reality; in actuality, in the movie’s opinion, Dad was right to kill those people and by trying to stop him, the kid was literally going against the will of God.
The problem with this isn’t just that the movie straight-up lied to you, or that even the truth doesn’t hold up logically (even if you accept the film’s version of events, they’re still essentially vigilantes). The problem is that the good movie it looked like was actually, secretly an awful, abhorrent story. Even if this isn’t based on a specific true story, it’s tackling real-life horrors with a tastelessness that is astounding. It would be like if you made a movie about Columbine where all the kids who got shot turned out to be evil vampires so that in this movie the shooters were totally justified. Or a movie about an abortion doctor with psychic powers who discovers that all the fetuses he’s aborting would have grown up to be serial killers. It’s rare for a movie to make me actually angry, but Frailty had me practically speechless.
Hopefully you see now why that last 20% completely ruins the previous 80%. Fuck Frailty.
Happily, the next movie is pretty good: the French horror movie, Ils (aka Them) (2006).
The Strangers is not officially the American version of Ils, but that’s close enough for government work. Like that film, Ils is a quick, quiet thriller about a couple whose home is invaded by mysterious, apparently motiveless intruders. Unlike that film, Ils actually gets better as it goes along, ramping up steadily from the halfway point and concluding with several very chilling cappers in a row. I’m very glad I stuck with it past a somewhat lackluster first half. It helps that Ils is a short, taut 77 minutes.
About 8 or so of those minutes are a totally self-contained prologue, which I’m guessing was tacked on because 1) if a horror movie doesn’t open with scares, 35% of the audience assume they’ve wandered into the wrong theater and leave and 2) somebody probably took the filmmakers aside and told them that nobody’s theatrically distributing a 69-minute movie, no matter how good it is. Regardless, the prologue is totally pointless. I mentioned in my You’re Next review that an unrelated prologue in a slasher can be reassuring, letting the audience know that the filmmakers can handle an exercise in horror movie technique before the story proper starts. But given the minimalism of Ils‘ plot, the entire movie is basically an exercise in technique, so the opener is doubly unnecessary. (Not to mention unrealistic–not even ninja are that quiet.)
The rest of the movie, though, is pretty good. It concerns Clementine (Olivia Bonamy, quite good in a very physical, emotionally draining, mostly silent performance), a schoolteacher, and Lucas (Michael Cohen), her lover (husband?). While on a romantic tryst at Lucas’ country house, the couple become aware that someone is inside. (There are a few reasons why the intruders are simply wearing hoodies, not masks, but chief among them is certainly budgetary restrictions. Here and elsewhere the movie makes a virtue of poverty.) The rest of the film is simply the two of them trying to escape their pursuers over the course of one long night, first inside their house and then through the surrounding woods and beyond. It’s like a tense, tactical game of Hide and Go Seek, plus knives. The film effectively rotates through a number of visual set-pieces, to the point where it becomes a kind of perfected abstraction of this kind of horror–the room with all the plastic sheets, the woods, etc. Although the film does dedicate some post-prologue time to establishing the different regions of the house, the twists and turns of the home invasion quickly break down your sense of space, forcing you to focus on the protagonists’ linear paths of escape.
As I said, the movie gets better and scarier as it goes along, especially once they leave the house, and the final revelation about who and why these people are doing this is an effective punch to the gut (albeit one that plays regressively on certain societal phobias). Even the final crawl offers no real comfort. This movie is a machine dedicated to achieving one specific response in you–tension, ever mounting, never released–and a well-oiled one, at that. I highly recommend it to all horror fans looking for an actual scare this October.
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