If any writer would be qualified to conduct a de-construction of modern horror film, Ehren Kruger would not be at the top of my list. I’m certain this media-anointed uber-scribe finds himself quite equipped for what I consider an urgent, important task. His long-unnoticed screenplay Arlington Road was produced to much fanfare in 1999 despite its domestic terrorism theme and a Usual Suspects preposterousness that seemed long out-of-chic even for the time. This notoriety earned his screenplays Reindeer Games and Imposter sunlight in 2000 that was quickly greeted by guffaws thanks to excessive plot contrivance and dialogue made more stilted by respective leads Ben Affleck and Gary Sinise. That same year, he pulled his greatest stunt by actually embarrassing Wes Craven’s attempt to make a second Scream…with a straight face. By the time one untangled the mess Kruger had made connecting the dots from all three films, they would hardly notice all the pop and finesse of the original was long dead. Any redemption he obtained with his adaptation of The Ring was squelched by the ickiness of its sequel released earlier this year. Kruger is the kind of hack who watches trends in cinema and has enough skill to emulate them before the fad peters out. He’s also lucky enough these projects are released at the right moment; thus studios are vindicated in hiring him.
Therefore, it is interesting that Kruger’s The Brothers Grimm comes out right on the heels of his craven and milquetoast “PG-13 thriller” cash-in The Skeleton Key. Grimm has the noble goal of examining these fairy tales as inspiration for the convention of modern horror while Key seemingly embraces the worst of that genre. While even bad films merit some analysis, Key is simply pedestrian and dull leaving little to discuss outside the context of a review for another film. (My August attempts to “vacation” in Guatemala didn’t leave much time for a review anyhow.) Key stars Kate Hudson as a New Orleans hospice worker who takes a job in a spooky plantation house in the spooky backwaters of Louisiana where all sorts of spooky things happen. The stroke victim she is taking care of (John Hurt) seems possessed by hoodoo. Of course, none of the characters appear to be who they really are so, after awhile, the audience begins to expect that none of the characters to appear as they really are. I am not even sure these characters knew how they were supposed to act at certain points; why would certain characters act clueless around other characters when we later find out that they are in cahoots with one another? None of this is easy to explain, especially when certain details must be omitted to avoid spoilers. What is easy to explain is Key’s cajones in that the plot is a smoke and mirror routine that actually employs smoke and mirrors throughout. I’m sure Kruger and director Iain Softley saw this image scheme as metaphors for self-deceit and secrecy. Anyone who watches horror films on a regular basis would see it as the worst form of irony.
In the same vein, anyone who watches said horror films also recognizes the Grimm inspiration: Blonde damsels in stalked distress, protagonists being persecuted for an earlier-portrayed sin such as greed or gluttony, shadowy figures in the woods, graphic and unsettling violence, violations of the family, and conclusions where no character emerges with clean hands. Dario Argento virtually dramatized Little Red Riding Hood in his nasty slasher Suspiria Most are more subtle than that with these themes and intimations; a possible hypothesis for the adult adoration with horror is indeed associating them with the tales from childhood. Seemingly a film about the Grimm brothers finding real yet other-worldly inspiration for these stories would be a reflective film going moment in a time besieged by middling efforts like…The Skeleton Key. But The Brothers Grimm only finds brief success and most of the blame can be laid on director Terry Gilliam, whose oh-so-British inclinations towards the wacky tend to deflate any serious observation on the connection between these two mediums.
Wil (Matt Damon) and Jacob (Heath Ledger) Grimm are two con artists posing as spiritual experts, scamming towns in French-occupied Germany with elaborate devices and storytelling techniques. Once French occupier Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce) learns of their schemes, he sends henchman Cavaldi (Peter Stormare) off for their heads. Ultimately, he forces them to investigate a village that has lost a fair share of young girls to a very menacing and perhaps possessed forest. The two arrive to find town folk plenty pissed at the French but terrified of recent events. The brothers employ lovely outcast Angelika (Lena Headey) to show them around the forest with the help of an amorous frog and various potions. The two discover a large tower housing the Mirror Queen (Monica Belluci), a vain royal who lost her looks to illness now using these missing young girls as a means to regaining youth. The Brothers Grimm must overcome their fraudulent nature as well as the brotherly tension developed by childhood tragedy to save this village and their own heads.
There’s a menacing presence in Grimm that happily depicts these future fairy-tale subjects with the edge they are entitled. Kruger, for all of his above-listed pitfalls, seems genuinely interested with exploring this dark underbelly. But he only wrote the film and the ultimate vision is Gilliam’s, an expat who has adopted the British sensibility of taking deep, meaningful subjects and making them the punch line of some whimsical, harmless joke. I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with “Always Looking on the Bright Side of Life”, but it’s such a tease to start something meaningful and end with silliness, no matter what the intent. Gilliam takes great delight in staging the bumbling antics of the Grimm Brother’s assistants or with lighting up a particularly nasty demise to a young kitten’s life. All of these Monty Python flourishes clash with the imposing darkness of seeing a red-hooded girl getting abducted by a wolf or the sinister yet seductive nature of the Mirror Queen used for destructive measures. In these moments, Gilliam is the absolute right director. He’s the guy who put the focus of 12 Monkeys on dour Bruce Willis and not the manic Brad Pitt. Most of the time, he is the guy whose Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas made you want to slap him and give him a drink so he could calm down the visual circus and focus on the substance.
If the film gets any help from the cast, it’s only in portions. Damon finds depth and sadness to Wil. Ledger reminds you why he never developed as an actor; it is because he isn’t a compelling screen presence. He delivers his lines but his hair gets in the way of his greatest crutch: Those perceived good looks. Pryce and Stormare both overdo to French accent replete with more snivels than a Parisian bar watching the 2004 Republican National Convention. Best off is Heady, the “cursed” tom boy. Her sexiness never gets in the way of an assured performance that carries most of the film. It certainly wasn’t Kruger, whose potentially good script is upstaged by Gilliam. It certainly isn’t Gilliam, who fails to even create an original looking film. Normally his calling card and redemption in the eyes of many, this film looks more like the set from Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow than an original creation. But The Brothers Grimm does introduce some provocative ideas for the audience. Too often, the film falls into its own preconceived conventions proving perhaps that Kruger is so wound into this genre to ever escape.