The Convenient Coincidence

Most movies begin with a convenient coincidence. And as long as it doesn’t completely insult our intelligence, we as audience members will accept just about any inciting incident. A lonely boy befriends a gentle alien who didn’t make it back to the spaceship in time. An ordinary businessman raises his hand at exactly the wrong moment and gets mistaken for a spy. A down-at-heel boxer just happens to live in the city where the reigning champ is searching for his next opponent. This is what sets the story in motion. You don’t need a degree in film theory to instinctively know the conventions of storytelling. But subsequent coincidences, even just one, will test our goodwill. They are cheats, pure and simple. Deployed by the writer to get out of a tricky spot. Every movie gets one free pass, because that’s how it has to be. One should suffice. One is plenty.

Argh! You're breaking the fourth wall!

When I recently watched Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage again, after enough time had passed for me to forget some of the salient points, the same pesky conclusions came back to haunt me. For one thing, the story progresses too smoothly. Now, a sense of simplicity and orderliness is good. The many clunky flicks out there suggest that it is a difficult effect to achieve. But the advancement of a movie’s plot shouldn’t feel this unchallenged or easy. Well, that’s my opinion, anyway. The Orphanage really runs into trouble about halfway through, when main character Laura (Belén Rueda) just happens to see an old woman she’s been searching for right in front of her car, crossing the street. And this is in some snowy mountain hamlet, far from the seaside where Laura lives. Dude, what are the odds? Things aren’t helped by the abrupt and arbitrary nature of the sequence either.

Everything is spookier in night vision.

As has become customary when I dump on a movie here at OP-dEaD, I now come running to its defense. Because I really like The Orphanage. Rueda gives a superb performance, and the director skillfully utilizes the creepy setting. Also, Óscar Faura’s cinematography is really good. Few, if any, haunted house movies have ever looked better. Besides, if faced with a choice, I’ll usually take subtle chills and a mounting atmosphere of dread over blood and guts. The Orphanage is pleasantly slow, infused with affection and about as vulgar as a glass of milk. But a tasteful presentation doesn’t automatically bestow more free passes. The rules apply. The rules always apply. Want a haunted house movie that sticks to them? I’d recommend The Others or The Devil’s Backbone, both of which are splendido.

Surface Pleasures

The Messengers, a haunted farm flick from 2006 starring Kristen Stewart (of Twilight fame), is a bit of a snooze. It isn’t particularly bad in any department, but the story is routine and the dialogue dull beyond belief. Otherwise solid actors like Dylan McDermott and Penelope Ann Miller are saddled with underwritten roles, and the minor characters function merely as convenient plot tools. And seeing as this marked the American directorial debut of the Pang brothers, there are pointless and intrusive touches of J-Horror—why more or less repeat the elevator scene from The Eye? Why do the restless spirits crawl along the ceiling and move in that herky-jerky fashion so typical of Asian movie ghosts? We’re in North Dakota, for crying out loud!

Kristen gets the shaft ... of light. (Yes, I'm hilarious.)

Set the mood with a shaft of light. Never fails.

Cast and crew were really excited about The Messengers, as the DVD extras clearly show, and they sought to make something special. It just didn’t happen. They made a dud. But did I mention that I’ve seen The Messengers three times in less than a year?

Inviting, in a dilapidated sort of way.

Inviting. In a dilapidated sort of way.

I’m a pretty generous moviegoer. Some folks seem to be completely distracted by the less successful elements of a film, to the detriment of the whole viewing experience. I’m not like that. There’s usually something in even the biggest turkey for me to like, and for that reason I can stick with it till the bitter end credits. The Messengers is saved by wonderful cinematography and production design, courtesy of David Geddes and Alicia Keywan respectively. When a movie looks this good, a lot can be forgiven. You even want to see it again (and again). Yes, the visuals are exaggerated, but isn’t that what we expect and crave from this type of movie?

That's one sorry lookin' clothesline.

That's one sorry lookin' clothesline.

The last time I saw The Messengers, I was actually pretty bored, so it’ll be a while before I pop it back in the DVD player. But when I do, at least my eyes will be happy.

Hey! Wanna buy a house?

Rod Steiger, Margot Kidder, James Brolin, Burt Young, Candy Clark and even a young Meg Ryan. The original trio of Amityville movies starred some well-known Hollywood talent. But the opening credits of all three omit a very important name—the name of the main attraction, in fact. Why is there no credit for … The House?

Without The House (middle name: Spooky), The Amityville Horror would have been an OK but pretty run-of-the-mill thriller. But the setting raises proceedings to another level. And those attic windows, which apparently were a feature of the actual Amityville house, make all the difference. There’s sentience behind those eyes … I mean, those cold panes of glass.

In Amityville II: The Possession, the atmosphere of malice is even thicker. Perhaps it’s the Italian influence of director Damiano Damiani and his cinematographer Franco Di Giacomo. At any rate, no haunted house movie has ever looked better. And the opening is a classic. The House waits in the mist, a brooding structure on some supernatural borderland, as the camera slowly approaches. There’s a strange sort of confidence in the air. The House knows that you, the viewer, will come. And Lalo Schifrin’s excellent music doesn’t hurt, either.

 

How could this house NOT be haunted?!

How could this place NOT be haunted?!

 

Perhaps out of necessity, Amityville: The Demon does away with the moody touches of its predecessor. This approach made people and objects stand out better in the original 3D, I suppose. But The House is back. And it still exudes malevolence. Norman Bates (and his dear old mother) can keep their creaky, old California abode. Although it’s a memorably creepy image, perched like a vulture above the carrion that is the Bates Motel, The House in Amityville, Long Island is the king of macabre movie dwellings.

As with people, it’s all in the eyes.

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