Thursday 8 November 2012

15 Second Review: I am Nancy (2011)

I love A Nightmare on Elm Street. In fact, I’d go so far as to admit that I am a fully fledged Elm Street nerd.

In that sense, I Am Nancy looked like a great proposition to me. Heather Langenkamp investigates the resonances of the ultimate final girl, who she brought to life in the three best Elm Street movies. After the amazing four-hour opus Never Sleep Again, another Elm Street documentary might have been too much for some fans, but not for me. I really wanted to love I Am Nancy. Unfortunately, it fell a little flat. It is not a bad documentary, it just isn’t groundbreaking.

Its shortcomings are amplified by being released so soon after Never Sleep Again, a comparison that is unavoidable given the ten-minute preview of I Am Nancy included as a bonus feature on Never Sleep Again. The two are not directly comparable in terms of content or aims: I Am Nancy is primarily centred on Langenkamp’s and fans’ views. It has a specialised focus, being based on one character. Never Sleep Again, in contrast, is broad. It covers production, development and characterisation from the perspectives of the many writers, directors, and actors that worked on the series. Never Sleep Again is about the professional side of the series. I Am Nancy, in contrast, is personal.

These differences notwithstanding, they are comparable in terms of the information offered. Its sheer scope means that Never Sleep Again provides innumerous insights that are not located on other DVD extras, commentaries, books, interviews, fan-complied rarity collections (such as Le Chiffre’s gob-smacking goldmine), and scholarly analyses that surround the Elm Street franchise. I Am Nancy has a hard time competing. Aside from its illuminating interview with Wes Craven’s daughter, the content mostly covers well-trodden ground.
As such, I Am Nancy finds itself in a very difficult position. Due to its subject-matter, it will only appeal to Elm Street geeks like me. However, those said geeks are unlikely to find that much that they hadn’t already considered or didn’t already know about the franchise in I Am Nancy. I order to get around this shortcoming, the documentary focuses on fans’ own stories: the hardships they have faced and the inspiration they took from the character of Nancy. The problem is that when translating these into the documentary context, the tone becomes schmaltzy. Resultantly, I Am Nancy’s latter third is torn between offering a series of anecdotes that lack purpose, and imposing a narrative (Nancy as inspiration) that feels forced. This issue almost certainly stems from the film’s “audience paradox”. In fact, it seems as if the filmmakers did not have a clear goal in mind when setting out to compile the footage, other than providing Langenkamp with a way to work through this significant aspect of her career.

Had I personally encountered the fans interviewed at conventions, I can imagine that their stories would have greater emotional resonance than they do watching them second-hand. Herein lies the most significant of I Am Nancy‘s missed opportunities. The filmmakers point outward towards the fans but really its subject is Langenkamp herself, who obviously wanted to make a documentary to share her own experiences of visiting expos and hearing fans’ stories. For a documentary entitled I Am Nancy, the leading focal core – Langenkamp herself – is too hidden. She is often present onscreen, but mostly asks questions of others, or makes light of her/Nancy’s second-billing to Robert Englund/Freddy. Had the documentary shifted its focus inward towards Langenkamp, it would have found a depth that the finished film lacks. Frustratingly, the last half hour makes it apparent that the filmmakers knew the film should be aiming for intimacy, but their attempt to do so doesn’t quite come off.

All this said, I Am Nancy is a brave project. I have not encountered another horror actor that has made a documentary of this ilk – i.e. about their character, and that character’s relative failure to become iconic. Perhaps it is apposite that I Am Nancy itself is also unlikely to become iconic in its own right, having been overshadowed by Never Sleep Again. The character Nancy, as the documentary attests, was easily the most gutsy and powerful of the slashers’ final girls. It is befitting then that I Am Nancy – simply by nature of what it is as a horror documentary - is so ballsy. Like Nancy herself, although the film does not always know which way to turn and does not quite “make it” in the end, there is no denying that it is spunky, independent, and unique.





Wednesday 7 November 2012

15 Second Review: 11-11-11 (2011)

11-11-11 is a film based around prophecy and uncertainty. Unfortunately, it transpires that the film’s central mystery is how it can be so profoundly unengaging. Frustratingly, it looks like it should work. It has the hallmarks of horror aesthetics – minor key musical stabs and drones accompany points of suspense and punctuate the moments that are meant to make the audience jump… Sadly, it just all falls flat.
Since there was little in the plot to distract me, I was eventually able to pinpoint some of the numerous reasons the film fails as a fright-piece. Some of the burden lies with the editor. Timing is crucial for fear-flicks, and it doesn’t come off in 11-11-11. Since Martin Hunter is experienced having edited films such as Full Metal Jacket and Event Horizon, I can only assume he either realised that the film was a write-off, faced pressure/interference from studio execs, or simply had poor footage to work with.
There are several indications that the footage captured was less than stellar. The climax graveyard sequence is crassly chopped together from a mangled series of close-ups. While I could ascertain what was happening, the sequence failed to adequately establish the space, meaning I had no idea how far apart the characters were from one another. Such issues are not only distracting, but also impinge on the film’s ability to build excitement. The car crash early in the film is equally flawed. Joseph drives out of frame, and the camera follows Sadie, who then hears a crash and runs to the car, which is revealed to have flipped over. The problem is that it never feels like the crashed car had ever been moving because the framing and pacing are off. The combination of (a) how little distance the car covers, and (b) the length of time it is off-camera means the car cannot have picked up enough speed to overturn so violently. The ADR sound effect is limp, and Sadie’s reaction shot needs to be much stronger to pull off the sleight-of-hand.
The reason I labour this point is that it is representative: the entire film is off-rhythm. That the film has no opening credits wrong-foots the pacing from the outset. For the first ten minutes, I expected a natural break that would establish the prologue, but it never came. This feeling persisted because the film lacked evenly spaced structure points more generally. There is nothing wrong with being unconventional, but when the plot and aesthetics are as utterly generic as they are in 11-11-11, I’d expect the structure to follow suit.
The film maintains its ‘all slow, no burn’ approach for the first hour, so when something finally happens I thought I’d be pleased. Instead I was wrong-footed again. When the narrative kicks into gear, too much happens. The last half hour contains most of the film’s action. Hell, it also boasts most of the film’s ideas. By that point, any interest in those events had been quashed by the sterility that precedes them. To top it off, Bousman treats us to a recap of “significant” pieces of dialogue, explaining a twist that didn’t need explication. Such recaps worked in the Saw movies because it was one of the franchise’s defining traits, and befitted the  Saw series' playful uses of time/space and flashback. To export and appropriate the technique here feels forced and out of character.
I will give Bousman this: at least it didn’t turn out that Joseph died in the film’s early car crash. There were hints that it might have gone that way, and the production was sloppy enough that it could have had that limp an ending. After all, the script left a lot to be d esired. Some of the dialogue is downright laughable. Take, for example, the risible line ‘I am not Kathy Bates but I will call misery on you if you are not up in two seconds’. Pathetic. At least this line didn’t make it into the denouement’s flashback montage, unlike the references to Joesph’s ’legion’ of fans. What could this mean in a film that was re-titled 666: The Prophecy for its UK DVD release?
It is also beyond me why Bousman felt the need to keep repeating Joseph’s exasperation that Samuel believes in God, and yet does not believe in 11-11s significance. One mention would be plenty. More than just exposes how silly the comparison is: if one believes in the Christian God, should they also believe in every intangible entity anyone mentions? Krishna? The tooth fairy? Wendy Glenn’s acting ability?
The premise itself is just as flawed. Like Michael Bafaro’s film 11:11 (2004) before it, the apparently scary 11-11 phenomenon is lost 11-11-11‘s fictionality. Recurring references to 11-11 could be eerie if they really happened in someone’s life. However, when intentionally constructed in drama, they fall flat. When synchronous events occur, they are potent because they have coincided, and the person who notices the pattern contributes to that meaning. When a scriptwriter artificially fashions events, that quality is lost because there is no room for chance here: everything is fated because the scriptwriter deems it so. I understand that the 11-11 phenomenon has a background, but had Bousman opted for 9-11 instead, the film would have had an extra dimension and some sass. The narrative’s paranoid conspiracy plot would have taken on explicitly political overtones, and Bousman could have made interesting meta-commentary on his own filmic reputation given that Saw has been commonly interpreted as 9/11 allegory.
What I will say is that the set designers had some fun with the 11-11 premise. Plenty of “11 shapes pop up in the background; take the windows in Samuel’s study, for example…
11-11-11!! This is far and away the smartest aspect of the film. Enough of these are included throughout that, like the obsessive ‘eleveners’ in the film, I started seeing ”11 shape almost everywhere in the film’s sets. Obviously it helps that the narrative is so dull that I was primed to look for something of interest, but it became quite a fun game. A couple of pillars: 11! A pair of trees: 11! A shelf of books – 111111111!
As someone who loved Saw 2-4, I am reluctant to say this… but I am finding hard to deny that Bousman has no idea what he is doing. His Mother’s Day had too many characters and consequently Bousman could not sustain their arcs. With Repo! he just plain tried too hard, and the film felt forced as a result. It is beginning to look like Burg, Koules, Greutert and co. really carried Bousman through the Saw films, which is fine considering Bousman’s inexperience at the time. However, now that he is flying solo, I expected Bousman to grow rather than regress.
Unfortunately for him and for the audience, 11-11-11 feels like his most naive film to date.