BOO-Yah!: Jimmy O's Review of Open Water and Exorcist: The Beginning

 

"Look out! I think I see a Swift Boat Veteran for Truth over There!"

The Chum of All Fears: Chris Kentis' Open Water

About five summers ago, the summer movie season was hijacked by Sundance fave The Blair Witch Project. While the filmmakers and the cast involved with the project are forgotten, Project had one of those only-in-this-lifetime on audiences. Shot on digital video for $35,000 and one of the first marketing campaigns to extensively use the Internet, the improved horror film about a film crew being stalked by evil spiritis grossed $150 million. Every media outlet was enamoured by Project's three actors getting subjected to the sadistic whims of their directors and the harshness of the damp Maryland woods that surrounded them. But the one thing that was largely ignored by the general consensus was how the actors developed these characters out of the story's bare-boned structure. In essence, the actors used the film's themes on technology and misguided ambition to create compelling parts of the film's concept. This summer, Open Water has received comparisons to Project for its scrappy production and gimmick-driven concept. And Open Water's concept is a real whizzer: Susan and Daniel (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) embark with a guided tour on a scuba dive in the middle of the ocean. The couple dives, explores the coral reef, and plays with the fish. They emerge to find their boat is gone. The film spends a great deal of energy explaining how this mix-up occurred, but the audience should only be concerned with the fact that Susan and Travis are stuck in the water. As the hours tick away, the water becomes colder and begins to carry them further away from shore. They get hungry, fatigued, and dehydrated. They must contend with a swarm of jelly fish and feeder fish who pick at their wounds. Oh ,and did I mention the sharks. They see a fin here and hear a splash there. The sharks bump their legs under the water give a little nibble to test and frighten this potential two-course meal. In essence, this is a white-knuckled extrapolation of Jaws' first five minutes.

And this is a great idea with a strong technical backbone. The filmmakers go to great lenghts to make the audience feel the dread and the horror of this experience. The digital camera works in two ways: First, it captures the moments underwater very well. These are brief glimpses but everyone gets an eyeful of every fin and every razor-sharp tooth. Secondly, the economy of the digital camera makes it easier for the filmmakers to use the water. The audience feels every bobbing motion and every drift. It made me a little sea sick, but the point is well-taken. The film also uses the perception of the characters as the perception of the film. A character hears a splash in the water but doesn't get a good enough look to know what it was. That pain in their foot could be a cramp...or a critter. The audience constantly moans: "Man, that has got to suck big time." "I can't imagine..." "Oh my Ga guy, did that just happen?" The film never loses momentum with the scenario. However, the characters are left adrift. Literally. Susan and Daniel get scared. They freak out. They make mistakes and they have to make tough decisions. But there's nothing to either one of them. One could imagine the elbow-room a situation like this could bring to character development. Think about a couple stuck in the middle nowhere and being encircled by danger. Think of all the possibilities. But the only substantive material given by Open Water's script is a fight over who decided to choose this location for a vaction. This argument suggests and insinuates various issues ("We wouldn't be here if it weren't for that job of yours") but nothing develops. I'm not suggesting the film should be a Sam Shepard play, but the film never truly and fully engages once the novelty of the plot's gimmick wears off. Many have criticized Open Water for making the characters "too whiny." I think they've earned the right to be whiny, given the circumstances. I just wish they were MORE than just whiny. Heather of The Blair Witch Project - by contrast - makes the self-absorption of her character part of the tragedy of her fate. She's not just some bitch wandering around the woods.That was a film that needed a hook beyond its basic idea. A recent example from this year is Kevin MacDonald's Touching the Void, a film that presented the story of survival on a mountainside as a chance to question God's existence. In this film, there is no attempt to connect to the sea or to nature or to anything other than the basic idea. Since Open Water's characters never materialize, they exist as nothing more than shark bait. And if they're just potential fish food, their fate seems irrelevant and the film takes on the quality of a sea-lorn snuff film. It's a wasted opportunity but its clear that director Chris Kentis is so bowled-over by the cleverness of the concept that they forget to make us care about the film.

The Pitch:

1 Deep Blue Sea

Plus

1 Phone Booth

Equals

 

2 Open Water

 

"I Haven't Seen Anything Like this Since that Pasolini Orgy at the Vatican."

I Compel Thee to Refuse Paul Schrader: Renny Harlin's Exorcist: The Beginning

Long story short: Exorcist: The Beginning could have been a brilliant film from one of Hollywood's most daring minds. Morgan Creek Productions hired Paul Schrader ( Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Auto-Focus) to direct this pre-quel involving a disillusioned priest searching for the origins of Hell in Africa. Given Schrader's track record of creating characers invloved with great struggles of faith. One must only look at the Savior he painted in The Last Temptation of Christ or even "family man" Bob Crane in Auto-Focus to see the range that Schrader has explored. The Beginning wrapped and was scheduled for release in summer 2003. Of course, the studio saw the final cut and hated. Too much talky! No action! So they fired Schrader and hired former Joel Silver gun Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Driven) to re-shoot 90% of the film at an additional cost of $50 million. (Add $35 million from the original production and this is a costly shift) The story is one that could either be painted as high art or horror exploitation. It's a pre-quel in the sense that it tracks the origins of the Exorcist series but more for the development of Father Merrin, played by Max Von Sydow in the original but now by Stellan Skarsgard. The basic question is posed: What turns an average priest into an exorcist? What would a man of God face that compels him to challenge the demon that possessed little Regan Mac Neil in the original? The story suggests Merrin was forced into the profession not by supernatural forces but by the primal evil that exists here on Earth. In an interview conducted by LA Weekly with key players in the original version of The Beginning, it's easy to see that Schrader was interested in making a film about the evil nature of man rather than a conventional, blood-and-guts slasher. Schrader agrees fully with an earlier quote by Exorcist director William Friedkin: "The standard horror effects were largely hidden from our film. What made it work for audiences was the terror-induced wonder of what humans are actually capable of. That is one thing we can't seem to wrap our brains around." Author Caleb Carr (The Alienist) wrote the original draft of the screenplay that painted Father Merrin as a symbol of the Vatican's acquiescence during the Holocaust. He is forced to select villagers for a firing squad to prevent an out-and-out slaughter. "God is not here today priest", one of the SS men inform him. Merrin flees from the Church and re-starts life in Africa where he works in archeological digs. On commission, he travels to Kenya to interpret symbols found in a Cathedral purposely buried sometime around 5 AD. But why bury a church? Trying to cover up something naughty? As it turns out, the true battle he must fight is not the physical combat with the demon that emerges but from the spiritual conflict that bubbles the Kenyan tribesmen and the British colonists concerned with unrest. Schrader's story seemed very interested with picking at these scabs of western Civilization - the Nazis, the Brits - and suggesting these forces were feeding the forces from Hell and not the other way around. And the pedigree behind this story suggests a pretty good film. However, Morgan Creek feared that the film was too "talky" and didn't have enough gore to goose up the audience. Schrader attempted to fix this in the editing but to no avail. Surely, Schrader's cause was not helped by Carr. Carr felt that Schrader had pushed him out of the project and the author used every opportunity to criticize the film in post-production. "The actors had this look on their face I recognize from working on stage," Carr said. "That look screams, 'Please direct me'"! Based upon Carr's opinion and their own money-making instincts, the suits decided to give reign to the project over to Harlin. Harlin in turn re-cast the film due to scheduling conflicts (save Skarsgard who had worked with Harlin on Deep Blue Sea), parred down most of the dialogue, and added gorier/special-effects laden moments. And the film goes on the gross $18.2 million its first weekend. I only re-count the troubled production because it's the core of Exorcist: The Beginning's initial promise and ultimate failure. There is obvious care put into the film's back story. The moment of Merrin's rejection of faith serves as a strong story foundation and does raise peculiar issues about the Catholics and Nazi Germany. And Skarsgard creates a character that most confront these demons - both literally and figuratively - in a consistent tone that makes this journey all the more powerful. But Harlin's obvious contributions are a real killer. And Harlin knows it. In the same interview, Harlin said he viewed the original version of The Beginning and liked Schrader's take, "but I knew that's not what the studio wanted." What the studio wanted was lots of scares and buckets of blood. And that is what they get. The scenes involving vicious animal attacks, suicide, tribal birthing, and decapitation might as well blare the banner: "This Rock-'Em Sock-'Em Moment Brought to You by the Director of Cutthroat Island!" But one must wonder about the exploitative nature of these scenes. Most of the violence is lodged upon the native tribes with almost a mockish tone to the seriousness of the moment. A young boy is savagely eaten by a pack of CGI-hyenas with a rousing action score blazing in the background. Tribal rituals are handled with the authenticity of a 1930's swashbuckler and the previously-mentioned labor scene insinuates a violence associated with footage of female circumcision. I'm not saying that I'm an expert with how African tribes should be portrayed on screen, but Harlin and Company comes across as vile and shallow as the British colonists they attempt to vilify. And I'm not comparing Harlin and Morgan Creek to the militaristic savages that polluted the African continent after WWII. Well, maybe I am but I think any group of filmmakers who take such an intriguing concept and make it into such graphic grandstanding may be deserving. Never mind the big climax that attempts to parrot the confrontation in the original Exorcist. The actress possessed has the same make-up, she levitates, and Father Merrin must take line after line of foul-mouthed abuse. A line like "You wanna stick your cock up my wet ass?" surely felt like an homage to the original on the page. They got catcalls and laughter from the audience. Why? Because Harlin doesn't understand context. In the original, little Regan's taunts hurled at Father Karras were filthy an awful ("Your mother sucks cock in Hell"!) but grounded in Karras' internalized guilt. In this film, using a dirty word is just like using any dirty word and elicits humor rather than the intended dramatic effect. This scene, like all the additions to Schrader's story - make Exorcist: The Beginning a big exercise in posing. It's tragic that Harlin was brought in to create some sort of carbon copy of the original film. The material left by Schrader suggests a deep and penetrating film that really gets down to the core issues most audiences relate to in a horror film. We're not scared of demons from Hell and CGI hyenas. We're scared of mankind's ability to assist and inhibit real evil. Whether Schrader's final cut of this is a success is still left for debate. (Carr has weighted in that it does not. William Peter Blatty -author of the original - loved it and called it a "classy and appropriate addition to the story." Blatty has yet to see the new version.) But Morgan Creek plans to release both versions on DVD and possibly sell the Schrader version to Showtime or HBO. They want to make their costs back on the wallet strings of big dorks like me who will gladly pay the price. But the dual release may add evidence to the argument that studios should rely more on the independent spirit of filmmakers who are given larger and larger toys. Is there any doubt that horror fans would have lined up in equal numbers for a Schrader Exorcist than for Harlin's? Probably not. These type of films always open huge and - like the weekend numbers suggest - normally begin a plummeting descent after the first Friday night. But if the fans are given something different, they might keep the word of mouth going. What fear inhibited Columbia with handing over Spider-Man to Sam Raimi or Warner's decision to let Chris Nolan direct the next Batman film? Schrader might have given the film more prestige and left the audience with a fresh look at something familiar. Time will tell but for now, Exorcist: The Beginning remains only as a promise to the horror-geek fan with nothing that is delivered. Surely God is somewhere in this project.

The Pitch:

1/2

1 and a Half Indiana Jones

Plus

1 Father Dowling Mysteries

Equals

1/2

2 and a Half Exorcist: The Beginning