Saturday, September 30, 2006

Film review: Chaos.

On its case, Chaos claims to be the most brutal movie ever made, so let's get that out of the way first. It isn't, by a long way. While the violence in Chaos is certainly unpleasant, if you've sat through either the Devil's Rejects, Hostel, or Irreversible of late, then there's little here that will you shock you.

While the director (David DeFalco, a former wrestler) and producer (Steven Jay Bernheim) both hilariously and deceptively claim Chaos to have been their original idea, the film is an almost entirely straight remake of Last House on the Left, Wes Craven's debut picture, itself a remake of sorts of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring. Two young women go off to a party, one reassuring her parents that they won't be out too late, and look to score some drugs, in Last House's case it was weed, in our modern day tale it's ecstasy. Having found a potential dealer, they go with him to get the drugs, only to be kidnapped by the dealer's father and his two accomplices. What follows is almost 40 minutes of racial abuse, crying, pleading, sexual violence, stabbing and murder, before the film reaches its conclusion with a whimper.

So far, so typical of the new breed of exploitation/neo-horror film. While the aforementioned Devil's Rejects, Hostel and Saw series have been Hollywood's answer to the rise of the "safe" PG-13 rated scare films that reigned in the aftermath of Scream, the American underground has been producing its own even more violent and debauched answer, to which Chaos belongs. August Underground's Mordum and Murder Set Pieces have been but two of those that have been equally acclaimed and derided by the genre's fans, aimed to re-energise the genre to its nihilistic, no holes barred days of the 70s. The difference with Chaos was that unlike Mordum and Murder Set Pieces, which mainly only made the rounds on DVD, it had something of a run in mainstream theatres, despite its NC-17 rating. This was how it came to be reviewed by Roger Ebert.

Ebert, probably America's most esteemed film critic, gave the film a zero-star rating alongside another of the week's releases, Deuce Bigalow: American Gigolo. Ebert called it "ugly, nihilistic, and cruel", which it certainly is. He goes on: "Having seen it, I cannot ignore it, nor can I deny that it affected me strongly: I recoiled during some of the most cruel moments, and when the film was over I was filled with sadness and disquiet." In response, DeFalco and Bernheim took out an advert in Ebert's paper, the Chicago-Sun Times, defending the film and pointing out what they felt were inconsistencies in Ebert's arguments. Ebert himself responded, but it's worth also taking the director and producer's arguments apart.

Their main one, that a critic at the Chicago Daily Herald identified, was that in his opinion Chaos was the "first real post 9/11 horror film" and "the horror reality has long ago surpassed the horror of Japanese movies and PG-13 films." They also write: "Natalie Holloway. Kidnappings and beheadings in Iraq shown on the internet. Wives blasting jail guards with shotguns to free their husbands. The confessions of the BTK killer, These are events of the last few months. How else should filmmakers address this "ugly, nihilistic and cruel" reality -- other than with scenes that are "ugly, nihilistic and cruel," to use the words you used to describe “Chaos.”"

It's quite true that the batch of Japanese Horror films that have made the cross-over to the West have not gone down that well with the horror genre's purists, whose belief in gore and brutality is almost as strong as that of evangelicals in God. Ringu and the Grudge are well-made movies, but they don't have the same appeal or continuing, unending feeling of pure terror that a film such as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre instils in the viewer. Their bringing into the argument of real truth life cases, such as that of Holloway, whose body has never been found, is part of their rather facile justification of the movie as a whole. The film opens with a white text on black background warning, suggesting that over 100 young women going missing in America every year, most of them killed by strangers, and that the film is meant to be as much as a modern day morality tale as it is a gruelling, brutal drive into the minds and lifestyle of a group of criminals. This comes across as patronising on a number of levels; firstly that those watching the film are too stupid to realise that going off with someone you don't know into the woods is a bad idea, and secondly that anyone who has knowledge of the horror movie genre will not instantly recognise it as the Last House on the Left rip-off that it is.

Their bringing up of the beheading of hostages in Iraq is on similar grounds. It suggests that they think that their viewers, instead of going to see a horror film, would rather watch the real bloody murder of an innocent man by religious extremists if the film isn't brutal or nasty enough. Sure, you can argue that their creation is a reflection of the way the world currently is; in an unholy mess without very little to optimistic about, but the film offers absolutely no insight whatsoever. It is an utterly pedestrian, straight tale, which even removes some of the finer nuances of Craven's original. In LHOTL, the killers experience a visible self-loathing after the second rape, a realisation of the visceral stupidity and banality of unjustifiable violence against the person. While Chaos does attempt to re-imagine this, it fails, mainly because the acting is far poorer than that in LHOTL and also because the main character is even more of a psycho than David Hess's portrayal of Krug, a performance which resulted in Hess's typecasting for the rest of his career.

DeFalco and Bernheim argue that evil should be portrayed as evil, that their film was an attempt to do real horror. DeFalco and Bernheim perhaps then ought to practice what they preach and watch one or two of the beheading videos from Iraq. Having let curiosity get the better of me, I viewed the murders of Nicholas Berg and Kim Sun-il. Nothing prepares you for what you see in these grainy, compressed videos. The blank backgrounds, the hooded men and the simplest of recording methods all contribute towards what really is a video nasty. The lack of humanity evident in the men as they hack away at their victims throats, as if they were slaughtering an animal in the slowest, most horrific way they could possibly think up, before placing their severed heads on their bodies, all the while shouting that God is great, is something that you're unlikely to forget about in a hurry. It's something to be viewed once, perhaps to remind yourself, no matter how liberal or conservative you are, that there are the most despicable men and out there, who perhaps genuinely do deserve to be shown no mercy whatsoever. After seeing and experiencing all that, Chaos is a complete picnic.

We have also now had films dealing with 9/11 itself. United 93 by Paul Greengrass has been almost universally acclaimed as a masterpiece, reconstructing what happened, showing courage, humanity and hope in contrast to the horror of what happened on that day. World Trade Center by Oliver Stone has had more mixed reviews, mainly due to the sentimentality and feeling of falseness that surrounds it. Even so, both are putting a message across. Chaos has no such message, unless you see some greater profundity in the magnificently dumb ending.

Ebert, in his response, hits the nail on the head. "Your real purpose in making "Chaos," I suspect, was not to educate, but to create a scandal that would draw an audience." Ebert, it has to be said, helped this scandal along. He could have taken the advice of a fellow critic who attended the screening with him, who said that there was no point in writing a review. Ebert instead decided that what he thought was the message, or lack of a message, needed to be tackled. As it happens, I think his response was the right thing to do, extra publicity or not.

Chaos itself has a number of problems. As previously mentioned, some of the acting is straight out of the amateur dramatics evening class, which is probably where it came from. In fairness to them, the script doesn't offer much help. Kelly K.C. Quann, who plays the female vagrant Daisy (Like Sadie from LHOTL, geddit?!) is uniformly awful, seemingly unable to know which facial expression to put on when she's meant to be either angry or enjoying the brutality going on around here, so instead decides to go with the same one throughout. Maya Barovich, who plays the white college girl from UCLA to the black rurally based Emily, which is the only major change between Chaos and LHOTL, also doesn't come across well, even though the only thing she really has to do is cry and weep. Sage Stallone, who plays Swan, reminded me of an even larger, more docile, less talented Jack Osbourne. Kevin Gage, who plays Chaos does however acquit himself well, while not holding a candle to David Hess's maniacal, menacing Krug, as does Chantal Degroat, Emily.

The dialogue is also at times horrendous. Frankie's line, close to the beginning, of "women, can't live with 'em, can't fuckin' kill 'em" sets the benchmark and tone for the rest of the film. As soon as the girls arrive at the party out in the woods, they suddenly decide they need some drugs, with the epiphany coming in the form of "we need to score some E!" The approaching of Swan, the son of Chaos, who like in LHOTL acts as the bait in his father's trap, also provides no respite, as Emily, on learning of his name remarks, "like the bird?"

DeFalco's direction resembles that of a TV movie. There is no flair, no ideas, just almost entirely straight shooting. While this is perhaps a relief from the frenetic MTV style of direction that currently is the order of the day in Hollywood, it gives the film an incredibly sterile air. Craven achieved something with LHOTL, despite his budget limitations, which is why it's still one of the most lauded of the 70s horror genre. This may well have been intended, as part of their realism drive, but instead it just rather leaves you sitting there thinking, is this it?

Plots holes and inconsistencies similarly litter the flick. After escaping from the clutches of the gang for a while, Angelica is trapped on the same apparent footbridge that they crossed in the beginning to get to the party. It's still light, the party would have gotten into full swing, but there's no one around. Emily, despite being free for hours, doesn't manage to find a way out of the wood until right up to when the gang finds her. Emily's parents spend most of the first half of the film in their dressing gowns for no apparent reason. Despite apparently knowing the police officer that comes after they report her as missing, he turns out to be a racist, which seems to be DeFalco's and Bernheim's answer to the cops in LHOTL's humourous incompetence. The ending, as previously mentioned, is quite possibly the stupidest, most mind-numbingly idiotic finale that they could have dreamt up, although it isn't a cop-out on the scale of say, Haute Tension, which makes you want to yell at the screen. Instead, it's expected, after watching the inanity continue for around 70 minutes.

As for the DVD, the film is presented full-frame, which I assume is its original ratio. The picture is occasionally grainy, as you would expect from its low budget origins, and there are no real problems with the transfer. Audio wise we have the 2 channel original, which doesn't have any real oomph, but does the job. There's also a commentary from DeFalco and Burnheim. Extras include "The Roger Ebert Controversy", which is DeFalco and Burnheim's attempt to answer Ebert's response. It's a sanctimonious, smug little piece which I turned off half-way through, as they continued to repeat their less than convincing arguments. There's also a Tour of the L.A. Coroner's Crypt.

Chaos attempts to do much. It attempts to be brutal, it intends to blow away all those cute and cuddly horror flicks, and it wants to make a point. It fails on all three fronts. The Devil's Rejects, despite being Hollywood funded, blows this out of the water.