Thursday, October 30, 2008

Fantastic Fest Horrors: Jon Hewitt's ACOLYTES and Pascal Laugier's MARTYRS

I don't know who it was who coined the phrase, "I may not know art, but I know what I like", but whoever they were they sure made it easy for plenty of us who may not quite understand the inner workings of true art to cop out real easily. Some people may look at something and say it's art and others may look at it and say it's garbage, while those of us stuck in the middle, the ones with an average or slightly above average intelligence who can't really reason why we like something, simply say that we just do. You don't have to necessarily have to understand Tarkovsky or Bunuel fully to enjoy them, you know?

Pascal Laugier's MARTYRS is easily the most talked-about Eurohorror film of the year, and if were to be seen by more people here in the U.S. it probably will get a bit more attention than it's currently getting. The genre crowd certainly know what it is, but it's being pretty much ignored by the mainstream press, despite a midnight slot at Toronto, though I'm willing to bet $5 that it will turn up at next year's Film Comment Selects at Lincoln Center. But within the genre scene it's been the subject of some intense debate, with some saying it's just another torture movie, while others are calling it one of the most profound horror films ever made. And then there's me, in the middle of both arguments: While certainly intense and incredibly gory, MARTYRS does have something on its mind, something to say, though you have to go through a gauntlet of serious horror to get there. The torture horror sub-genre (I refuse to call it porn) has been the whipping boy of most horror haters over the last few years, but like most things that push the envelope, if someone knows what they're doing with it then whatever they want to do is pretty much justified, as long as there truly is a purpose. Miike's AUDITION is the perfect example of this, a film that goes as far as it does for a reason, though that doesn't make it an easy watch, while the numerous lesser titles in this subgenre (the titles shall remain nameless) just do this stuff because the filmmakers have no real imagination or intelligence. So MARTYRS takes a while to get where it's going and a lot of people are not going to want to stay with it; I myself was eager to get to the point, because there truly was a lot of rough stuff and no matter if you know it's all fake, it's never easy to sit through. So when the point is made, my reaction is, "OK, I'll go with that". It's not "Oh my god, that's so amazingly profound. What a masterpiece!", or "How stupid and pretentious can you get? Fuck this shit!", it's just, "OK, I can go with that". I was down with it, I felt it was an interesting idea, an interesting approach, I appreciate the idea and the concept, but I'm not doing intellectual backflips. MARTYRS goes somewhere where a lot of horror movies don't usually go, but in doing so I'm not 100% convinced that Laugier is the Robert Bresson of the horror genre; I give it a lot of points and respect, but I'm also not thinking that my life has been changed. Is Laugier so many miles ahead of me intellectually that I just don't know it? I am so dense that I don't really "get it"? Or is MARTYRS just a good movie - smart, well-made, and exceedingly well acted and respectable - but not the end-all-be-all of the horror genre? I'm sorry, but I don't know. I do know that I liked the movie, that I recommend the movie providing that people know that they're in for a tough time for a while there, and that the haters are looking at it wrong. But it is art? Is it profound and possessing an intensity that makes it something truly special? I don't know, but I know what I like and I liked (but didn't love) MARTYRS. However, please allow Blake Etheridge and Rodney Perkins to convince you that I'm wrong. You can see for yourself when it hits DVD here on February 24.

In a sense, it's a good thing to have a more straightforward film like Jon Hewitt's ACOLYTES around, because a film like this is a lot easier to take while it's also quite admirable in its more modest ambitions. ACOLYTES doesn't aspire to the heights that MARTYRS does, it merely wants to tell a story and provide some suspense, and it does that very, very well. And I should say that the film does have something to say about the effects of abuse, but it's not trying to be MYSTIC RIVER, it's just trying to do its own thing. To me, the great thing about it is that it has a hook, a killer of a plot point that - providing it's working for you - sucks you in all the way through to the end. ACOLYTES is actually just a really smart mainstream movie, one with a lot of intelligence behind the camera as well as on the screen, and that's what I dig about it. It's a smart thriller; it keeps you guessing, it puts the characters and the audience through an ever-shifting maze that keeps you on your toes, and when it's all over you admire it for that. ACOLYTES is slick and stylish, but smart enough in the filmmaking and storytelling to not let that overwhelm a solid little story that sucks you in pretty easily. Hewitt (a real nice guy and very much a Fantastic Fest cheerleader) has been around a while (I remember liking his shot-on-video vampire opus BLOODLUST back in the mid-90s) and it feels like he's hitting his stride now and deserves to be someone to watch. He's got a really good eye, a solid sense for storytelling, is good with actors (the three teenage leads are all quite natural, while the villains of the piece are appropriately sleazy), and understands how to keep you on your toes. But all in all, what really put ACOLYTES over for me was the hook, the plot points that made you think it was going one way, then went another and you're not sure how it's going to resolve itself. Not a lot of movies can do that right, so all the more reason to respect ACOLYTES for getting it down so well. I know that the film has U.S. distribution (though I'm not sure it's been announced, so I'll just shut my trap on the for the moment) and I hope that you get to see it soon, because it is worth a look. Maybe it's not as deep as MARTYRS, but MARTYRS isn't as slick and entertaining as ACOLYTES, and there's nothing wrong with one not being the other. There's room for everything, you know.

PS - I can't finish this piece without saying this: If anyone has any plans to make a Gram Parsons biopic, all they have to do is teach ACOLYTES lead Joshua Payne to sing like him, because god damn if the kid isn't a ringer for the guy. Strap a nudie suit on the kid and watch the Gram fans lose it. That's all.

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