Tenement (1985)

No matter how turned off or disgusted you are by Roberta Findlay’s grim & grimy oeuvre, you could never be a harsher critic of her work than the filmmaker is herself. In an incredibly rare interview on her time as a pornographer & schlockteur with The Rialto Report, Findlay disparages the supposed artistic value of her work and dismisses the fans who attempt to reevaluate her films as dangerous lunatics she wants nothing to do with. Findlay describes herself as a human barnacle who would latch onto & follow the whims of the men in her life rather than finding any self-driven motivation of her own. She uses this metaphor to explain how she transformed from a trained pianist who would accompany silent films in a repertory cinemas to a cinematographer & eventual director of hardcore pornography, a business that interested her late husband & artistic collaborator. Findlay herself was disgusted by the sexual extremity of the rough pornos she was filming for profit, a revulsion that carried over to her depictions of extreme violence in the grindhouse horror industry (once the VHS market made porno less profitable). I imagine her disgust & horror with filming rough sex worked against her porno films’ ostensible goal of titillation, but in her hyperviolent genre work it only enhances her accomplishments. In Findlay’s signature exploitation piece, the 1985 home invasion cheapie Tenement, the director’s self-hatred & disgust with the sex, violence, and sexual violence on display oozes through the screen in every scene’s grotesque tableau. Roberta Findlay may report to despise the grime & cruelty of films like Tenement, but there’s no denying the effectiveness of that ill-will in the final product, which makes us all sick to our stomachs along with her.

Instead of invading a single home, the murderous hooligans of Tenement invade an entire community, keeping the film true to close-quarters NYC living. A dilapidated housing tenement in The Bronx (the exact kind of run-down apartment complex Findlay grew up in herself) is overrun by a gang of hyperviolent squatters on Angel Dust. Recalling the similar crime wave paranoia of films like I Drink Your Blood, The Class of 1984, Street Trash, and The Warriors, the film pits helpless families trying to scrape a peaceful life together against hedonist drug dealers who stave off boredom by playing with dead rats, snorting cocaine off switchblades, and mutilating normies with real jobs & families. The film devolves into a PCP-addled version of Home Alone from there, with the building’s proper tenants inventing gangster-killing booby traps (like box spring electric fences & rat poison heroin) to kill off the encroaching squatters. Both the gang & the community of victims are racially & culturally diverse enough to avoid the usual political offenses of this urban crime genre, but Findlay finds new ways to offend all on her own. Sometimes, her amoral cruelty makes for an excitingly heightened version of the home invasion template, especially in how no victim feels at all safe from being torn apart by the crazed hooligans – not children, not the elderly, not single mothers, not pets, no one. Other times, the cruelty goes too far and makes for a deeply unpleasant, almost impossible watch – such as in the first-person-POV staging of a gang rape or in watching the villains bathe in dog’s blood for a fun lark. In either instance, it’s Findlay’s unflinching, self-hating depictions of human viciousness & misery that distinguishes Tenement in its crowded field of grimy NYC exploitation cinema. A lot of schlock peddlers in the business didn’t especially care about the hyperviolence on display beyond its capacity to sell tickets. Findlay, by contrast, despised the stuff and found her own films grotesque, which shows through in the work in genuinely upsetting ways.

Given the heartless cruelty on display, especially in its pivotal scene of sexual assault, it’s not difficult to see why Roberta Findlay dismisses Tenement (along with the rest of her porno & exploitation catalog) as useless, despicable trash. I would at least hope that she can look back with some pride on what she accomplished in her filmmaking craft, though. This is a shockingly well-shot, tightly edited picture considering its budget. Plotted over the course of a single day and regularly time-stamped for temporal perspective, the film boasts an incredible efficiency in storytelling its fellow video nasties rarely mustered. The close-quarters violence of its invasion plot is partly so memorably brutal because it’s never obscured; you’re always aware of exactly what’s being done to the victims, with the camera often pausing for a mood-setting detail. In some ways, this unexpected production quality allows Tenement’s nastiness to catch the audience off-guard. In an early scene, the PCP gang’s head honcho spins on a lazy-Susan while shouting to the sky “I’m going to get my building back!” in a tone that promises major-studio fun rather than the grindhouse mayhem to come. Tenement is also bookended by my all-time favorite movie trope: the plot-summarizing rap song, also a staple of a more corporate, more inhibited product. This grimy NYC nightmare is all the more effective for having someone behind the camera who actually knows what she’s doing, so that you expect a level of quality control in its content that just isn’t there. Findlay’s curse is that she was skilled at her craft but hated the immoral content her efforts were applied to. It’s a tension between creator & art that makes for a grotesque, unsettling experience for the audience – the transgression of a work that hates its own guts and knows it should not exist but pushes on for the meager box office payoff anyway. The results of that payoff are fascinating, even if you can barely stomach to look at them.

-Brandon Ledet

The Strangers (2008)

As much as I’m usually game for cheap, single-location genre exercises, I tend to avoid the home invasion thriller as a medium. Occasionally, the campy humor of a Knock Knock or a Trespass will pique my interest, but I have a general aversion to the genre as a whole when it’s played seriously. This is mostly because home invasion premises tend to lazily rely on the threat of sexual violence to mine their terror, an exploitation genre go-to that’s getting to be just as boring as it’s always been repulsive. The 2008 home invasion nightmare The Strangers does an excellent job of getting around that exploitative tedium by instead conjuring the most terrifying motivation for a domestic break-in imaginable: nothing at all. In most home invasion scenarios, a woman is trapped in house alone as male assailants threaten their financial & sexual safety from all directions. In The Strangers, a romantic couple are surrounded by a mixed-gender posse of masked sadists who seem to want nothing at all. It’s a purposeless, nihilistic cat & mouse game, in that it’s like watching cats bat around a half-dead mouse for 86 minutes just for the mild amusement. There’s something much more disturbing (and yet less morally grotesque) about that approach and the film easily ranks among the best examples of its genre because of it.

Liv Tyler & Scott Speedman star as a disheveled romantic couple bickering in the late night/early morning hours after a friend’s wedding. It’s the kind of drunken argument they should know better than to continue into the delirious headspace of a post-midnight mental haze, but feel compelled to continue anyway. In this vulnerable, volatile atmosphere, a trio of masked killers gradually emerge from the shadows both inside & outside the house. With practically no dialogue and no discernible intent they stalk, hunt, and torture the couple as the night stretches past sunrise. There are, conceivably, only two potential victims in this scenario, so The Strangers has no real potential as a body count slasher. Its tension is instead drawn from the couple being out-gamed & outnumbered, with the potential window for survival incrementally closing as the violence inflicted upon them rises exponentially. When asked, “Why are you doing this to us?” the masked assailants only answer, “Because you were home,” a response so succinctly chilling it was eventually marketed as a tagline. That just-because ethos is a powerful source of terror that largely substitutes any need for a fully-developed plot. Likewise, the look of the killers’ masks is distinctly memorable enough on its own to fill in any void left by their oppressively sparse dialogue. The Strangers dwells in the terror of negative space and the absence of intent, a much more satisfactory source of scares than what’s usually achieved with the home invasion template.

As you likely already know, the titular killers in this home invasion chiller recently resurfaced in a decade-late sequel titled The Strangers: Prey at Night. Watching the original film, I was struggling to imagine a scenario where Prey at Night could be accused of being blasphemous to or “ruining its predecessor, a fate most horror sequels inevitably suffer. The Strangers does a great job of steeling its potential sequels from that concern. Not only does it intentionally leave its ending open to the possibility of subsequent episodes, but it sticks to such a simple, bare-bones story structure that almost anything could be built on its foundation without feeling out of place The difference between the first installment in the Strangers series and its potential follow-ups, then, is almost entirely a matter of style. Prey at Night is a love letter to the neon-lit, post-Carpenter slasher of the 1980s, a violently campy romp that gleefully accepts the phrase “style over substance” as a challenge instead of a potential criticism. It’s a far cry from the cold, keep-it-simple nihilism of the original film, but also not at all tied to that blueprint as a sacred text. There’s almost no text at all to remain true to. Dialogue mostly fades away in The Strangers after its early, scene-establishing arguments in favor of well-staged attacks on its central, petrified couple. The only connective tissue between the two films, really, are the killers’ iconic masks, which is honestly more than enough to justify the liberties of Prey at Night.

The Strangers itself is not above mining nostalgia from past horror greats in establishing its own aesthetic. The opening warning, “What you are about to see is inspired by true events,” distinctly recalls the similar introduction to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That grimy 70s horror throwback atmosphere is only palpable in the film’s simplicity & the distinct design of its killers’ masks, though. If it’s at all an exercise in overt style, its indulgences can only be detected in its attention to detail. Intricate lighting choices allow for some impressively built tension, as the obscurity of shadows affords the killers a wealth of hiding places and the movie literalizes Liv Tyler’s often-deployed deer in the headlights routine. The sound design is even more meticulous, aurally attacking the audience with the chills of scraped metal and history’s most unexpected Joanna Newsom needle drop. Since light & sound are the two most essential components to cinema, I’d say that attention to craft alone makes the film praiseworthy even as a barebones genre exercise. It’s also, to be frank, damn scary, a rare achievement from a horror film so familiar in its basic template. Even though that home invasion template is typically something I avoid on-sight, I was wholly won over by The Strangers. I even preferred it over its Carpenter pastiche sequel, something I never would have expected going in. The sequel’s camp + violence genre formula is usually much more my speed.

-Brandon Ledet

Hush (2016)

threehalfstar

There’s still a few weeks of breathing room left for 2016 to surprise us with a year-defining trend, but barring an unexpected radical shift, I think it’s safe to call it The Year of the Confined Space Thriller. Between Green Room10 Cloverfield Lane, The Invitation, Emelie, and Don’t Breathe, the year had already delivered enough efficient, violent thrillers with cramped locales to earn that distinction, but with this genre entry from horror director Mike Flanagan, 2016’s fate has essentially already been sealed. Like with Flanagan’s other modest budget genre works Oculus & Ouija: Origin of Evil, his confined space thriller Hush turns a straightforward, familiar formula into an exciting exercise in suspense-building & tone. Although it’s the only feature in that trio not to earn a proper theatrical release (Hush was distributed by Netflix), it’s just as enjoyable as anything else I’ve seen from the director. The worst you could say about Hush is that in a year crammed with excellent confined space thrillers this one is merely very good while being far from the best. It’s unfair to ding Flanagan for submitting a worthy entry into a flooded market, but we are certainly on the edge of being oversaturated with this particular genre this year, which makes it difficult for any films that traffics in that territory to stand out.

As far as standing out from its genre peers goes, Hush doesn’t do itself any favors in terms of plot. A home invasion thriller about a lone woman fighting off a mysterious male assailant, Hush resembles too many movies to count. Even its distinguishing details feel overly familiar. Our woman in peril protagonist is a novelist who writes the very same kind of plots she falls victim to; she even has Stephen King books lining her shelves & winking at the audience. The movie’s main conceit is that she is especially vulnerable to her attacker because she is deaf & mute, as hinted at in the film’s title. This is a slight deviation from films like See No Evil, Wait Until Dark, and Don’t Breathe, as blindness is typically the preferred handicap in this kind of genre territory, but it doesn’t stray too far from the usual blueprint, all things considered. There’s no real twists or surprises to the way Hush plays out; this is not coming from the same place as the much more experimental You’re Next. Instead, Hush survives on the strengths of its details. Because it’s a dialogue-light affair that frequently communicates through body & sign language, its muted soundscape sets a unique tone. The endangered novelist uses her talent for plotting to help decipher a possible way out of her plight. The slight smile on its killer’s fixed, stoic mask is a subtle nightmare. The film uses very brutal, but highly specific tools in its sudden bursts of intense violence: a kitchen knife, a hammer, a crossbow, a slammed door. 

Nothing in Hush is especially surprising once you get a handle on what kind of story it wants to tell, but the film still impresses in its competence & efficiency. Considering the familiar ghost story territory of both Oculus & Origin of Evil, that competence seems to be Flanagan’s speciality. I’ve yet to fall madly in love with a single one of his films, but they’re all memorably enjoyable & well crafted. If someone were asking for examples of the greatest home invasion thrillers of all time, it’s doubtful that Hush would make many lists. If, however, someone were merely looking for a list of recent thrillers that were particularly well made, this one might deserve a nod. The only problem is that it happens to have a lot of company this year, maybe even too much for a crossbow or a creepy mask to give it a fighting chance.

-Brandon Ledet

Knock Knock (2015)

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threehalfstar

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I’ve never bothered watching an Eli Roth movie before, mostly because I associate him with the mid 00s torture porn aesthetic that I generally try to avoid in my horror binges. Roth has a way of sneaking into other projects I’m interested in, though, and I’ve started to notice over the years that he seems to have a sense of humor to his work that I had missed out on from the outside looking in. If you judge Roth solely by his fake Thanksgiving trailer for the Grindhouse project, his performance as “The Bear Jew” in Inglourious Basterds, and his production work on the campy body horror Clown, he comes off as much less misanthropic than his usual reputation would suggest. As sick as his sense of humor seems to be, I’ve come to think of Roth as something of a prankster. If you need a brief glimpse of what I’m getting at, look to the trailer for Roth’s recent home invasion piece Knock Knock. Everything from Keanu Reeves’s strange line deliveries to the film’s cheap digital look to its winking title suggests that it’s supposed to play like a joke. I’m not sure that I have enough context to settle that question of Roth’s tonal intent on my own, but I can say that if Knock Knock was indeed meant to be a setup for a joke, the punchline was constantly amusing, making for a decent entry point into a career I’ve been too grossed out to approach for more than a decade now.

A nasty exploitation thriller that resembles a direct-to-DVD knockoff of Funny Games, it’s tempting to view Knock Knock in the same light as more typifying Eli Roth ventures like Hostel or Green Inferno. Whereas those titles have a pointed central message (usually about cultural tourism & American entitlement) & a dedication to gut-wrenching gore, however, Knock Knock is much more deliberately ditzy. Keanu Reeves plays a doting husband who’s alone for the weekend in his beautiful home when two young women knock on his door soaked & shivering in the rain. He’s initially kind to the girls, but far from predatory; things eventually get too steamy for him to resist, though, as the girls flirtatiously pressure him into cheating on his wife over the course of a night lifted straight out of a letter to Penthouse. Of course, as soon as he cheats his doom is sealed and the girls immediately switch from sexual fantasy to violent nightmare. They destroy his home, yip like wild dogs, tie him up, sexually assault him, and stab him with food utensils. You could search for meaning or a sense of morality in their gleeful chaos, maybe something about the gender reversal of predatory sexuality or about how all men are liars & cheats under the surface, but the film feels far too deliberately empty-headed for any of those themes to register. Instead, all that shines through is a Daisies-esque dedication to pointless, childlike abandon (except without the political context or attention to visual craft). Knock Knock is much more of a nihilist comedy than a pointed satire of gender politics and the psyche of the modern American husband/father.

One of the reasons it’s difficult to tell if the comedy was entirely intentional here is that it largely comes across in the performances. Keanu Reeves has a bewildering way of balancing between overacting & underacting, with no measured sense of middle ground, that plays so damn weird when he’s given enough space to chew scenery. In Knock Knock, he reaches Nic Cage levels of distracting performance, a one man camp spectacle that often feels as if he’s making fun of his own lines instead of trying to sell them. There’s an obvious humor to his delivery of lines like, “Wowww, chocolate with sprinkles!,” “Do you kids want to live in a box?,” and “It was free pizza!,” but they’re far from Keanu’s only amusing line readings. Something about the way he says things like, “What’s the point of this?!,” “I’m a good person. I made a mistake,” and “I’m an architect, so I believe that things happen by your own design,” points directly back to how hacky & corny the script is on a fundamental level, to the point where the film plays more like sketch comedy than erotic thriller. Actors Ana de Armas and Lorenza Izzo have an obvious blast playing Reeves’s seductors/tormentors, but even their over-the-top, childlike exuberance somehow can’t match the strangely inhuman way he quietly delivers his lines. Knock Knock truly is Reeves’s Wicker Man (2006) or his Vampire’s Kiss. It’s just waiting to be picked apart and cut down to YouTube memery.

The only question I have is exactly how much Roth was participating in the humor of this film. Knock Knock features a female-on-male rape, raises questions about childhood sexual abuse & incest, and indulges in the exact modes of life-threatening violence you’d expect from a self-serious home invasion exploitation piece, so it’s tempting to believe the director meant for his audience to take the film at face value. However, there’s just as much evidence to the contrary onscreen. Besides Roth’s prankster past & the joke plainly hinted at in Knock Knock‘s title, there’s a visual play to the movie that matched Reeves’s weirdo comedy energy, particularly in the way the frame lingers on details like the Hollywood sign & strategically-placed portraits of its protagonist’s family. If Knock Knock were meant to play as a straightforward thriller about predatory sexuality & the dangers of infidelity, I’d say it was a thorough misfire. As a nasty comedy overflowing with pointless nihilism & memorably campy performances, however, the film resonates a consistent success. I may not know enough about Eli Roth to decidedly say where this film falls on that divide, but I can honestly report that it amused me for the entirety of its runtime, which was a lot more payoff than what I expected to take away from this one.

-Brandon Ledet

Emelie (2016)

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threehalfstar

The standard bearer of unbearable thriller intensity in2016 seems to be Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room (despite potential arguments to be made for Don’t Breathe or 10 Cloverfield Lane in that regard), but that film’s distinction is very nearly surpassed by the first hour of the home invasion cheapie Emelie. The amazing trick Emelie pulls of is in matching Green Room’s sense of dread & helplessness without explicit onscreen violence. The film instead builds its terrorizing thriller tone off parents’ paranoia & vulnerability in leaving their children in the care of a babysitter they do not know. Emelie very nearly develops into something incredibly unique & memorable, but kinda blows it in the final half hour when it loses focus and becomes a blandly faithful genre exercise. It’s very much adept at building tension to a fever pitch, but seems unsure on where to go once it’s time for the hammer to fall.

Similar to the home invasion eeriness of films like Marytyrs & Funny Games, Emelie heightens its terror by setting it against a peaceful, serene suburbia. It opens with a babysitter abduction in plain daylight, kids blissfully biking & playing around the crime. The replacement/imposter sitter who takes over the missing girls’ job, the titular Emelie, is the source of the film’s menace. There’s an incredible amount vulnerability in parents allowing access to their home & their entire world to a complete stranger. Emelie lords over their house while they celebrate an anniversary, a building a sense of dread that only the audience is in on. To the kids, Emelie is a fun, “no rules” babysitter who allows them to draw on the walls, eat all the cookies, and destroy the living room. Her platitudes like “What if I told you that you did not have to be a boy or a girl or a human or anything?” & “Sometimes it’s okay to destroy things for fun” speak to the kids’ sense of power in the imagination while screaming at the audience’s sense of “Get the kids the fuck out of the house!” Emelie’s anarchic sense of babysitting strategy becomes even more unnerving once objects like guns, tampons, pythons, and pornographic VHS tapes come into play & it becomes clear exactly what she’s interested in the children for. Unfortunately, the destination Emelie drives its plot toward isn’t half as interesting as the journey and the film’s concluding half hour could easily be mistaken for just about any other home invasion thriller/kids in danger horror you could name.

It’s a shame Emelie succumbs to Third Act Problems as much as it does, because it very nearly nabs the top spot for thriller of the year before mimicking every thriller of every year. As soon as the deranged babysitter cuts out the lights & wages war with the oldest child in her care the film starts to fall apart. It loses track of promised threats – screwdrivers, axes, bullets – and isn’t sure how to sell the payoff of the more inventive threats that do come into play: fireworks, sportscars, walkie talkies, etc. Emelie holds its own for as long as it can, even finding engaging ways to incorporate the couple’s anniversary celebration & the babysitter’s flashback past into the always worsening situation at home in an effective broadening of the story that doesn’t loosen up the tonal claustrophobia. The dialogue also uses the corny acting inherent to a cheap production to its full advantage, selling the child actors’ authenticity in declarations like “[Cologne] is like perfume for daddies!” and findings strange terror in lines like “I found my Cubby.”

It’s rare that a thriller can get away with being this tense while showing so little onscreen violence. Emelie knows exactly what buttons to push to sell the discomfort of its children in peril scenario, especially when the kids are forced into exposure to above-their-age-range experiences like witnessing a python’s feeding habits or passionate fornication. If it had somehow worked those same provocations into its desperate-for-distinction conclusion I would’ve been much more enthusiastic about its value as a complete product. I really like Emelie, but with a better third act I could’ve fallen madly in love with it.

-Brandon Ledet