Something Old, Something New
Published on April 1st, 2011 | by Carlos J. Segura0
Two of this week’s new releases take two tried and true subgenres, namely the haunted house movie and the stalk-and-slash movie, and attempt to revise and revert to varying degrees. Quentin Dupieux’s “Rubber” is in its most basic form about an entity that goes about killing, eventually fixating on a beautiful, young girl (Roxanne Mesquida) as its prime target. In this case the entity is…a tire. Meanwhile, the Wan and Whannell team “seemingly” (how seemingly can it be when the posters advertise the rug pull?) start out with a traditional haunted house movie with “Insidious.” Instead, turns out it’s the family’s son, not the house, that’s being haunted and hunted.
This might help bring in the folks that don’t know their stuff (you gotta do what you gotta do to make it look new) but this smacks of “The Exorcist” meets “Carnival of Souls,” which to be fair to the filmmakers they have acknowledged as influences. Even if they hadn’t the look of the evil beings is blatantly patterned after the ghosts of “Carnival of Souls” and the Joseph Bishara score screams Krzysztof Penderecki in the best way possible (though at the screening I attended it could have been a tad less loud). When the film opens we’re introduced to a very likable, average family headed by Patrick Wilson and the exceptional Rose Byrne, who find their middle class existence interrupted by their son’s mysterious slip into a coma. The wise attention by the filmmakers to setting up their milieu is noted for it is key to the success of the first half of the film, because more than likely most viewers will relate to these good citizens almost instantly for being so seemingly ordinary, a strategy used to good effect by Friedkin 38 years ago.
Just before and after the coma of their son the family, in particular Rose Byrne’s anguished mother, are slowly and surely visited by mysterious and freaky ghosts; the apparitions and boos are easily one of the highlights of the movie. Wan deserves a standing ovation for staying clear of that most annoying of strategies: the phony build-up to a scare that never happens. Every shock happens with such swiftness that for a good portion of your experience you think you’ve stepped into the best and scariest carnival ride this side of the last scare in “Carrie.” However, once the movie starts showing and explaining too much is when things start setting themselves up for a lame and limp last act. The scenes involving the explanation for the boy’s coma are a mix of intentional and perhaps unintentional comedy. For the record the explanation involves astral projection, which is perhaps the most original element in this otherwise old school haunted house/possession mashup. Lin Shaye delivers her lines with a theatrical flair that may deflate too much tension for some, though, not for this reviewer and Barbara Hershey, running on a genre streak between this and “Black Swan,” doesn’t veer too far off from this style of acting. On a side note it’s a nice touch, which one might imagine is intentional, that Hershey is featured here given that she too has starred in a film about a person pursued by an unseen entity in the extremely creepy “The Entity.”
Given the Hershey casting it is perhaps plausible that Wan and Whannell may have also seen the experimental short that essentially condenses and vamps up “The Entity,” namely Peter Tscherkassky’s “Outer Space,” which is all sound and fury with its strobes and dissonant sounds. One excellent scene in the last section of “Insidious” seems directly inspired by this approach, which takes the idea of using what you can’t see scaring you, only it does show it to you but in a such disorienting fashion that you’re constantly trying to keep your eyes open so you don’t miss a beat. However, once the filmmakers give it all away the carnival ride just seems more silly than scary. Biggest mistake: making the main evil being look like a bad combination of Darth Maul and Freddy Krueger in a finale that was in part cribbed right out of “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” (speaking of Freddy). If you’re going to show the monster you better be damn sure it’s damn scary!
Or just make sure it’s a tire. Now, everyone walking in to “Rubber” that’s read a synopsis will of course ask why. The movie instantly addresses this with a long and amusing prologue that reasons the use of a tire as a killer with this answer: no reason. Ok, that works. It’s a screw-you stance that eventually becomes contradicted. Half of the movie is no different than any other film you’ve seen that involved a damsel in distress on the run while those in the path of the thing or person after her end up left for dead in its wake. It even comes with an origins story that shows the tire developing psychokinetic powers! The other half of Dupieux’s meta-horror-comedy is so self-aware that it even includes an audience in the film (watching events unfold in the desert where the action of the story takes place) commenting on what you would probably be thinking if this were a traditional genre flick.
It is a device that is kind of cool because you admire the filmmaker for trying, and perhaps finding at first, a way around our jaded and hard to impress minds by beating us to the punch. It’s almost as if he’s doing the thinking for us so we can just sit back and enjoy the damn thing without overthinking or questioning it too much. Thing is the metahumor over being a metafilm becomes tiring and distracting from what we really care about: is the tire going to kill the girl? To be honest, the thing works best when its just a tire going after a pretty chick to kill her. Shame that Dupieux underestimated his audience’s ability to suspend disbelief. It would have made sense had he started off with the winking and nudging early on only to gradually discard it once the audience has gotten over the fact that they’re watching a movie about a killer tire (for the record this reviewer was in from the moment he read “killer tire”). Thing is, more than likely the audiences that are going to see this probably wouldn’t have cared if it was a tire, a bike or a bowl of killer SpaghettiOs. Plus, Dupieux actually has a talent for “straight” filmmaking that serves his absurdist set-up well. The way he frames and lights the tire, the care he puts into giving it a very subjective point of view through well chosen camera placements gives it a strong, driven consciousness if not exactly a personality.
Why can’t they make killer tire movies like they used to?