DIRECTORS SOMETIMES MAKE ALL THE DIFFERENCE
In my opinion, movie directors are often given too much credit for the movies they work on, as rule. I’ve visited lots of different sets, of various sizes (even met Iggy Pop on the set of THE CROW 2, because I’m a bad ass), and it becomes obvious pretty quickly how many folks are hard at work on the behalf of any given film project. (At least on the kind with budgets, but even in micro budget stuff, there are generally lots of favors called in, couches slept on, etc.).
So, yeah, there are many exceptions to the above and we don’t need to argue about the Alfred Hitchcocks, David Lynchs(es?), and Roy Anderssons of the world. The basic gist is that I don’t always buy the whole cult of director dealio when it comes to movies.
However, I just watched two movies back to back—a hellish Turkish horror explosion called BASKIN, and an American slow build tension freak out called THE INVITATION. I found both movies to be almost great, with some major problems in each, but with one very obvious element in common: their respective directors completely RULE! In fact, I recommend both of these films more as examples of what a great director can do with problematic material, as much as anything else.
BASKIN was directed by Can Evrenol, and is one of the first Turkish horror films ever made (and only the 8th Turkish production to are released in the USA). The fact that the genre is not big in that country, and that this marks Evrenol’s feature film directing debut, one would be forgiven to expect an amateurish slasher film or SAW knock off. Instead, this movie traffics in a demonic surrealism that, at its best, surpasses most every other “devil movie” in feeling like a true descent into HELL.
It follows five police officers who are spending a laconic evening getting drunk, arguing, and sharing bullshit stories at a creepy restaurant out in the seeming boonies. Pretty much from minute one, Evrenol’s vision dominates, and it is mesmerizing. In fact, as the odd vibe of the first part ends, and our anti-heroes head off to answer a distress call from fellow cops, I was convinced that maybe BASKIN was going to be the closest thing ever to a truly WEIRD horror film, in the literary sense. The wrongness of EVERYTHING just felt so RIGHT!
This feeling of impending greatness builds and builds as the coppers have some car trouble in the creepy town of Inceagac, the source of the S.O.S. The seemingly endless abandoned building that they start poking around in is filled with some of the nastiest, most demonic imagery I’ve ever seen, and when the leader of the cult, Baba (Mehmet Cerrahoglu) enters the picture—yikes!
But, to be frank, though this film was brilliantly directed and shot and lit, where it goes in the end suddenly reminds you that this is a first time director from a country with not much of a cinematic horror tradition. RATS!!!!
THE INVITATION (directed by Karyn Kusama) is an American thriller that follows Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), as they drive to the mansion Will used to share with his ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), for a dinner party with many old friends Will hasn’t seen in years. Upon arriving at the house, and after an awkward reunion with Eden and her new husband, David (Michiel Huisman), Will’s eyes begin to look more and more haunted, his actions and reactions seeming stranger as new guests arrive.
The movie’s greatest asset is Kusama’s assured direction, which takes the (decent) script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, and turns it into a slow burn that just heats up and heats up, until the suspense is almost unbearable. Exposition (that old bugaboo) is handled very skillfully. We piece together Will and Eden’s past as Will skulks around the house like a bearded ghost, poking around in rooms that were once home, but are now strangely sinister. Tragedies and back stories are filled in without ever breaking the tension that began the moment Will walked into the house. New friends of Eden’s arrive, and the mystery of just what the eff is going on here deepens. We begin to wonder—is Will going to do something really bad?
The direction is quite brilliant throughout, doing much more of the heavy emotional and thematic lifting than the script. Sublimated agony and anger begins to turn ugly, and when it all comes to a head and shit gets real, it’s a huge relief. The final stretch of the film plays out more like a straight thriller, but we are truly invested in these folks by then, so it’s still interesting and tense, even as it becomes apparent the writers didn’t really know what to do with the story once all the blinders are removed from the characters. The final reveal is pretty sweet, with a memorable last image, but Kusama is the true hero in this sucker—wringing every last drop of mystery and paranoia from the story. This is a movie that could have sucked pretty hard in the wrong director’s hands, because there just isn’t enough heft to the script.
I recommend both BASKIN and THE INVITATION, even though they aren’t masterpieces. They both come really close, though, due to the sure hands/eyes/brains of their directors. Once Evrenol and Kusama find scripts that live up to their skills, I have no doubt they will both knock out some horrific stunners that we’ll be talking about for years to come.