Quiz the sixth: Hand/off (Part one)

Some people need a hand. Some people have a hand to give. But not always as literally as we see in these unfortunate examples.

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Devil (2010)

*. I really shouldn’t be impressed by something as simple (and kind of stupid) as the upside-down shots of Philly in the opening credit sequence, but for some reason they really got me in the mood. For what, I wasn’t sure. But I felt primed.
*. What then follows is a very slick and effective production of a very stupid idea.
*. The basic premise is the locked-room thriller, with a group of people trapped in a confined space and being eliminated one-by-one. It’s very close to the Game of Death sub-genre (we even have a security camera watching the proceedings), but there’s no sense that this is a contest.
*. Given the premise I thought it was very well handled. The one cheat I didn’t appreciate was the simple expedient of turning the lights off every time someone gets killed, and then turning them back on to reveal the body. That’s the same trick they use in the Game of Death film Breathing Room, where they at least had the excuse of having no budget to work with. Here it had me swearing out loud at the screen.
*. But then there’s the stupid twist, which is the supernatural angle. In most of these films the locked-room has either (a) been engineered by a sadistic psychopath (Saw, Kill Theory, Would You Rather) or (b) been set in some vague SF-style future where the elimination game is a way of packaging punishment or entertainment (Cube, Breathing Room, House of 9, Circle). Here, however, it’s all the work of the devil.
*. This won’t come as any surprise, given the film’s title. But it’s still pretty stupid. The most basic question, which has plagued devil movies at least since The Exorcist, is why such a powerful entity as the devil (or a devil) would bother him- or herself with such a petty scheme.
*. As with many of these movies the trapped people all turn out to be guilty of something. This is the No Exit theme. But a blackmailer? A former gangster (who at least seems to be trying to turn his life around)? Some jerk who once operated a Ponzi scheme? Why would the devil be interested in this bunch of losers stuck in a lift?
*. Wouldn’t there be an easier way for the devil to go about harvesting souls? Perhaps something a little more private? Apparently the devil likes an audience. This is news to me, since in all of human history we haven’t been able to find any proof of his existence, at least of the kind captured on security cameras here. But such lore comes to us from a reliable source because, yes, once again we have the cliché of the ethnic character — in this case the security guard Ramirez — who is still connected (via the stories his mother told him) with some kind of folk spiritual wisdom that the advanced, white, professional types have all lost touch with.
*. All of this leads up to a really hokey ending, carrying a message of (Christian) forgiveness and a line about how “if the devil is real, then God must be real too.” Does that make you feel better?
*. Devil was conceived as the first instalment in what was billed as The Night Chronicles trilogy, a trio of films to be produced by M. Night Shyamalan that were each to have supernatural storylines. Which is fine. I have nothing against the supernatural. I just don’t like to see it presented in such a trite way.
*. Things end on an odd note. All the main characters are given first and last names in the film, but none of them are identified by name in the credits. Instead, “Ben Larson” is just Guard, “Sarah Caraway” is Young Woman, “Jane Kowski” is Old Woman, “Vince McCormick” is Salesman, etc. I wonder if the thinking was that nobody in the audience would identify any of these people as characters but only as types. If so, that may say as much about how little they believed in the story they were telling as it does about their estimation of their audience. In either case I found it fitting, as I cared less and less about the characters as things went on and was fine with seeing them dismissed not to hell but into anonymity.

Nine Dead (2010)

*. The one thing you have to say about these Game of Death films is that they really need a tight script. Basically you just have a group of characters trapped together in a confined space (a single set) for the whole movie, talking. So the talk, perhaps interrupted by the odd burst of violence, has to be good.
*. I’m happy to say that the script for Nine Dead, by Patrick Wehe Mahoney, is pretty good. I don’t think there’s much else to like about the movie, but the story set its hook and kept me interested right up to the end. That’s more than I can say for most of the Saw franchise.
*. The set-up has it that nine people are kidnapped (tasered this time), and chained up in a warehouse somewhere. A masked man informs them that he’ll be killing one of them every ten minutes until they can tell him why all this is happening. So basically they have to work together and find out what they have in common. A clock on the wall counts down the time.
*. That’s a fine idea, and pretty bold too because such a story is nothing but build-up. Will all the loose ends manage to be tied together at the end? Once everything is explained, will it all make sense?
*. Well, it’s not perfect, but in my opinion it did as well in this regard as could be expected. I didn’t think the end was a cheat, and it did at least make sense.
*. Of course I had some objections. These mainly concerned the very real hierarchy of guilt that was basically ignored by the killer. Some of the victims were clearly more culpable than others, like Coogan (the pedophile rapist) and Kelley (the D.A.). Others, like Leon and Sully, seemed to have only the faintest, most tangential relationship to the events in the back story. They had every right to feel pissed off at being lumped in with the others. I like how, when the killer secretly tells Christian why he is being killed, Christian is baffled at how he could possibly have known. Coogan, on the other hand, accepts his fate with a shrug. For him it seems fair enough.
*. I was surprised that the directors of another Game of Death film, Circle (2015), said that they had been inspired by 12 Angry Men. I didn’t see the connection there, but it’s far more obvious in a movie like this, where the sequestered group have to reconstruct a crime and deliver a verdict, only in this case on themselves.
*. So that’s all to the good. This is a decent psychological thriller with a script that puts less emphasis on violence and more on problem solving. As I’ve said, however, there isn’t much else to get excited about. I didn’t think it was presented in a very interesting way, and the acting was only passable at best. Critics were predictably unkind, but I think some of this was just laziness. If you like this kind of movie I’d recommend giving it a try.

Saw VI (2009)

*. The sixth time round and it should have been the last. For two reasons: (1) they were obviously running out of ideas (or had run out a while ago); and (2) this is actually one of the best films in the series and they could have ended on a high note. Alas, the “final chapter” was still to be written, and may not be written yet.
*. What makes it better than the franchise average? Well, for starters the traps (or “gags” are they are affectionately known in the industry) are better. From the Merchant of Venice opening, through the jaws-of-breath chest vice, shotgun carousel, acid rack, and final return to the reverse bear trap (which we actually see work), I would rate them all pretty high. Not because I think they’re great, but because I’ve always felt that the traps in the other films were overrated by fans. Most of them are just some variation on a victim in chains having to beat the clock or be torn apart.

*. I also liked that the plot, though complicated (or incomprehensible to anyone who missed the first five instalments), does a respectable job tying up as many loose threads as possible without trying to be gratuitously tricky. There’s a twist at the end, but it really doesn’t have much to do with the main story. They could have wrapped the series up here in a way that at least made sense.
*. It’s a more sedate film. They only break out the crazy editing a few times, and the colour scheme, especially the green torture chambers, is muted somewhat. This is a movie that has a job to do.
*. Another thing going for it is the political angle. None of the other Saw films even suggested a political subtext, preferring to hang their hat on a really dubious philosophical proposition about proving the value of your life by making a choice to live. Here, however, we’re punishing the number-crunchers who screwed people out of their health insurance or who primed the sub-prime mortgage meltdown. I was actually looking forward to seeing these guys get theirs more than the druggies and criminals of the earlier films. White-collar crime is crime too! Jigsaw has his own justice system, and who’s to say it isn’t more equitable?

*. That said, there are a number of victims who appear to be nothing more than meat in some of the gags. What did the poor custodian do to deserve his place on the rack? Smoke?
*. It’s also weird how the police have been targeted by the series. This is something you don’t really notice in the first film, though Danny Glover and Ken Leung both get killed trying to hunt Jigsaw down. It’s just that in their case they were playing their own game of cops and robbers and they lost. It happens. But in Saw IV I was troubled by what crime Rigg was being punished for. Caring too much? Doing his job? And why did Strahm have to suffer such a horrible fate in Saw V?
*. In this film Erickson and Perez are slaughtered almost as an afterthought. Of course, like all the police in the Saw films they were working totally alone. That certainly helps clear up any loose ends, but how realistic is it?
*. Looking at all of this together, you get the feeling that somebody just doesn’t like cops very much. That may be making a political point as well, but I’m not sure what it is. Is Jigsaw trying to show them how they should be doing their jobs?
*. No, I don’t think this is a good movie except in a relative sense. But since this franchise is really a serial that’s the way you have to judge them. If I were to do a ranking I might put this second on my list of favourites. It should have been the last. However, even though the box office was starting to tail off the title was still making money. The carousel would continue to spin.

Exam (2009)

*. Not what I was expecting.
*. Here’s what I thought I was getting: the Game of Death premise (contestants locked in a room and kept under surveillance while they try to escape or eliminate the competition before the clock runs out) given a political edge, made over into an allegory of the dog-eat-dog world of business. The basic premise of the Spanish film The Method, but given an extra tightening of the screw. It’s a J. G. Ballard sort of set-up, which would have made for some interesting commentary.
*. That’s not how Exam plays, at all. But, you may well ask, so what? So it’s not the movie I thought it would be or wanted it to be. That’s not the movie’s fault.
*. Unfortunately, it’s not a good movie even judged on its own terms.
*. In the first place, there’s nothing remotely realistic about it. Indeed, the premise is made even more bizarre and artificial than usual — and these locked-room stories are nothing if not artificial, mimicking the anti-reality of reality TV. The plot is given a bizarre SF overlay having to do with some new wonder drug. It seems the company isn’t a ruthless conglomerate but is instead involved in developing biotechnology that’s going to save the human race. So these contestants are going to kill each other for the opportunity to . . . do some good! Huh?

*. Then there is the challenge itself. The job applicants are given a sheet of paper and told there is one question to answer and they have a limited time to answer it. But the papers appear to be blank. So one would assume there is some sort of trick involved. There is, but since this group of corporate climbers consists of the most literal-minded types imaginable they try to solve the problem by such expedients as smashing light sources to fill the room with different frequencies of light, or setting off the sprinkler system to see if soaking the paper reveals any invisible ink.
*. This might be funny, with the applicants all being too smart for their own good, but I don’t think that’s how it’s meant to be taken. Nor is there any political allegory or message involved. In the end, the test is revealed to have been both cruel and pointless, which seems particularly odd given the CEO and his corporation’s humanistic mission.
*. To give you some idea of how jarring and out of synch the ending is, there’s a montage of flashbacks at the end that recalls the similar montage at the end of Saw. The difference is that the montage at the end of Saw explains the rest of the movie perfectly. Here it’s just a recap of what’s happened, none of which there is any point in recapping since it doesn’t give us any information that lets us reinterpret the events of the previous ninety minutes.

*. The one thing I did like was the opening credit sequence, which had the applicants appearing to be getting ready to go into battle by fixing their hair, straightening their ties, putting on make-up, and stepping into high heels. Those heels will actually come in handy later on too. I only wish there was more of that sort of thing.
*. In brief, I didn’t get the ending and I didn’t think it was any fun getting there. Surprisingly, Exam did receive some good reviews, complimenting the direction, script and cast. People seemed impressed at what was done on such a limited set. I could name some very, very bad movies made with similar limitations. As for the acting, I think the accents might have helped sell what are some pretty dull performances. I mean, another thing about the incongruity of the ending is that the winner is a character who does and says almost nothing the entire film, and about whom we know the least. So how are we to even care?
*. It was a simple enough idea, meaning the movie really only had to do a few things right. I didn’t think it did any of them well enough. That’s my final grade.

Kill Theory (2009)

*. I suppose it looked good on paper. Basically a cabin-in-the-woods, slasher flick crossbred with the Game of Death genre (the children of Saw). The psycho killer here wants a bunch of college buddies to play a game, to test the limits of their friendship in the most absolute way possible. Last man or woman standing wins. Come on people, you know the drill.
*. I’ll give the script some credit. The killer’s back story and motivation is actually pretty interesting (as far as these things go, mind you), and the obligatory twist at the end rounds things off nicely. But when all is said and done, there just wasn’t enough here to keep me interested.
*. Kills? Not very impressive. One guy gets a poker (or something) shoved through his eye. Someone else gets bludgeoned with a shovel. That’s about it. Everybody else just gets shot or stabbed. Ho-hum. Jigsaw at least kept things interesting with his Meccano-set death machines.
*. There were a couple of other problems I’d flag. In the first place, the action is all quite predictable. By now we can all be pretty damn sure that anyone who we don’t see being really killed, isn’t dead yet. If there’s any plausible way they can be brought back, they will be. So gut shots aren’t going to do it. Once you know that, a lot of the plot basically takes care of itself.
*. The other drag on the film is the acting. It’s really not very good. The players aren’t helped out by the script because they have to travel character arcs in a real hurry, but even so I had a hard time buying any of them.
*. For example Freddy, the token fat guy, loses his shit too quickly (and completely). Meanwhile, Brent makes too quick (and complete) a jump over to the dark side. In short, it just seems like the gang falls apart a little too easily. There were a number of options on the table if they wanted to try and survive together, but . . .
*. But maybe they didn’t like each other very much anyway. That, at least, is my reading of what’s going on. None of us has friends, we only have interests. In setting up the game the killer is pushing at an open door. Hell, they might have all killed each other anyway. Just taking away the fat guy’s videogames and the hot chick’s pills might have done it.
*. A decent idea, but not very well executed in any department. A footnote to a sub-genre, and one which you can easily skip.

Saw V (2008)

*. With the fifth kick at the can it’s pretty obvious that the franchise is running out of juice. Of course by now a lot of the ingredients have already become familiar. The industrial traps, usually involving a lot of metal collars, chains, and locked doors. The greenish lighting. The twitchy editing. The converging cops who don’t seem to know what the word “back-up” means (I was amazed when the FBI guy waits right up until he starts discovering bodies before he calls for help . . . and then not for back-up but for an ambulance!). All topped off with the climactic montage. That’s the formula, and they’re repeating it here.
*. But this time it feels different. We’re back to the group Game of Death premise from Saw II, bracketed with a whole bunch of backfill that retells the story of the first three movies with the character of Hoffman now injected into the proceedings. I don’t know for sure but I suspect this may have struck Sawmaniacs as an unwelcome exercise in revisionist history. It certainly seems to diminish Jigsaw to know he had a partner even before Amanda. Or at least I think Hoffman was on board before Amanda. With all the jumping around I kind of lost track.
*. The only positive to all this is that I found the plot slightly easier to follow than previous outings. The downside was that none of it seemed very interesting, especially as I didn’t care much about the Hoffman character or his nemesis Strahm (who, despite being the hero, is impossible to like). It’s also very curious how this series is progressing. Which is to say, it doesn’t advance so much as it keeps picking away at itself like a scab. It’s all two steps forward and two steps back.
*. The traps? A little better than in Saw IV but nothing that struck me as very inspired. Fans seem to like the one where they slice open their hands with a table saw but I wasn’t feeling it. I like how they start off with the pendulum gag though. You can’t go wrong with the classics (something very similar was used in the Dario Argento “Black Cat” story in Two Evil Eyes). The electrical circuit puzzle lost me. I’ll confess I’m not that smart when it comes to such things, but I think if I’d been stuck in that situation I would have demanded better instructions. Like, a whole booklet of them.
*. Not much better or worse than the rest of the series, at least to my disinterested eye. Yes, it’s all seeming old by this point, but the charm (is that the right word?) of the franchise is that curious sense of running in place, as though we’re looping for all eternity in this scum-coloured limbo of the damned. Our visions of hell define us, and are perhaps what we deserve.

Breathing Room (2008)

*. There were two horror subgenres that exploded in the twenty-first century. The first was shaky-cam or found-footage films, the second was the Game of Death or locked-room psychological thriller. To be frank, and maybe even a bit cynical, both cases were being driven by their low bottom lines. These kinds of movies got made because they were cheap and could e counted on to make a good return on minimal investments.
*. Cube is usually given credit as the original Game of Death movie, but it was the success of Saw that really got things started. Breathing Room is one of the clearest rip-offs of Saw, right down to the flickering fluorescent lights, the surveillance cameras, the miniature cassette player with taped instructions, the discovery of various in-game hints, and the shock collars used to enforce the rules. Even the general décor of the single set has a similar, if less worn, look.
*. Calling Breathing Room a rip-off doesn’t mean it’s bad. Not necessarily, anyway. It just means it takes the same basic premise and a lot of the same elements. Unfortunately, nothing about it is as well done as Saw, or even House of 9.
*. It’s not a problem that Breathing Room looks as cheap as it does. It was apparently shot on a $25,000 budget, which I would have thought was impossible. By way of comparison, Saw cost over $1 million. We may take a low budget and all that comes with it for granted when playing the Game of Death. The problem is that there’s nothing in the direction or the script to help Breathing Room rise above its limited means.
*. Say what you will about these locked-room flicks, but they do at least foreground the scriptwriter’s art. If you have a small group of characters trapped in a room interacting with each other, and that’s it, then the script has to do most of the work.
*. This is where Breathing Room falls down. It’s fun to play along with, but it’s a big tease with no payoff. Clues regularly arrive, but none of them are pertinent to anything important. The rules, such as keeping your hands clean, seem totally superfluous. A new character is introduced in the final act who has no role to play at all. There is no explanation of how the killer(s) manage to do all their work when the lights go out. But worst of all is the ending, that totally flubs the question of who is behind all of this and what the point is.
*. You could argue that Cube also left this unresolved, but it was a different sort of movie (and the later films in the Cube series filled in the blanks). What’s odd about Breathing Room is that we are taken behind the curtain but we’re left in the dark as to whether the game is a form of punishment, a social psychology experiment, private entertainment designed by a wealthy sadist, or a reality TV program. This matters because the ending is what is supposed to make sense of everything that’s gone before.
*. As with any good murder mystery, the revelation of the killer is what the whole story builds up toward and, in hindsight, can be seen as having been constructed around. Here there’s just a blank. Why is there a game? Because if there wasn’t then there wouldn’t be a movie. If the rest of the movie were better they might have got away with this, but instead we’re left feeling that the filmmakers either didn’t care or weren’t trying very hard.