Friday, June 7, 2024

Ain't no grave can hold my body down


Written and directed by Chris Nash

Spoilers: moderate

Chris Nash, a fixture of Canadian indie horror, principally as an effects man, now making his feature directorial debut, has decided the best marketing approach for his film, In a Violent Nature, is to prompt you to describe it as "slow cinema" andthis gives the game away somewhat, because he doesn't do "slow cinema"to explicitly namecheck Terrence Malick.  I really want to think of this as just the cherry on top of the assholish joke that In a Violent Nature fundamentally is, but its last ten minutes that feel like a solid half hour kind of make me wonder if he really believes it.  Not that those last ten minutes are good at it (either slow cinema or Malick), or good at anything, but they ratchet his movie into a position of absolute pretension that it scarcely survives and which, anyway, hasn't at all been its abiding mode.  The title also makes me a little suspicious he "means" this in some way, which just makes me sad.

Violent Nature's abiding mode, thenwhat it is, in a more specific sense than "assholish joke"is a Friday the 13th movie.  I mean that pretty much precisely, as with very little exaggeration it shares a screenplay (Nash also wrote the screenplay) with the first and/or second (hell, maybe the third most of all) Friday the 13th, with just enough of the proprietary detail sanded off that Paramount (or whoever) couldn't actually sue him, though if it'd come out between 1981 and 1989, it might've been considered the single most one-to-one of the Z-grade Friday knock-offs, which was already a knock-off of Halloween.  Indeed, Violent Nature is initially good enough at this that the moment where I realized it actually takes place in 202X, not 198X, my heart fell into my stomach, though even with this semi-novelty, it's taking the material of 202X and using it exactly the way a low-effort exploitation programmer from 198X would use its culture, in this particular instance using an early-20-something (Charlotte Creaghan), who speaks virtually nothing besides irritating wokese as a stereotypical trait in lieu of actual characterization, much the way a 1980s slasher would deploy The Prankster or The Slut as an archetype (I guess she's the best-characterized character here, in that she does also have the extra dimension of being slutty).  So even to the extent the dialogue is "of" the 2020s, it's still written and performed like it would be in the 1980sthat is, badly and somewhat inhumanly, with the enthusiastic amateurism that gives classic slashers their likeably larkish spin.  It doesn't wind up mattering a ton, since it's not actually that kind of slasher flick update; it's part-and-parcel to what Violent Nature is going for, and therefore not unimportant, but "dialogue" is by necessity one of the least important things going on here.

One way to describe Violent Nature might be to call it Nash's answer to the theoretical question, "what if an entire slasher movie were the suspense-generating stalk-and-kill scenes, built out of long takes and a repetitive soundscape of heavy footfalls on fallen leaves and, ultimately, some world-class gore effects?"  As I found it, however, the question animating it was a lot more in a film-as-film-criticism vein, something akin to, "if we made a movie that treated the 'human story'i.e., the teen sex comedythat classic slashers used for filler, for audience identification, and as excuses for nudity, the same way most slasher fans and all non-fans treat them, as something absolutely beneath contempt, and just deleted it, could we still make something enjoyable out of everything else that's in a slasher movie?"  If we accept this framing, then the answer to the question, up until the ending, is "surprisingly, yes, but I wouldn't want to see anyone else attempt the same experiment ever again, and even a mediocre real slasher is arguably more honorable in its intentions."  At its most cynically-expressed, though, the question is, "what if we made a slasher movie and spent literally zero time doing anything special with its substance, but we made it look and move like an A24 movie, with a preposterous shitload of shoeleather shots but done 'on purpose,' alongside a bunch of aggressive sound design to compensate for the absence of a score, which will, as a bonus, make our movie cheaper to produce?  Do you think that'd be buzzworthy?"

The answer to that is an objective "yes," though the absence of a score is frankly kind of aggravating to me, in no small part because it causes me to have doubts about whether my most charitable interpretations of the movie are the correct ones80s slashers could have some pretty nice scores, you knowand at this point, you've gotta start wondering why the movie is shot in 1.33:1 for no really compelling compositional reason.  My assumption was it's meant to evoke a VHS frame, and the feeling of watching something forbidden after your parents went to bed.  That's an incomplete feeling even if intended.  For one thing, not that this is hugely surprising, it doesn't have any nudity.  More importantly, it doesn't even pretend to be scary.  The 1.33:1 could just as easily be because, in the 2020s, that's the recourse of the Serious Filmmaker when they desperately want your attention.  It could, in a pinch, double as a satire of Serious Filmmaking in the 2020s and Elevated Horror in particular, and though I don't think it has that much ambition, it would make me a skosh more affectionate towards it.

Whatever the case, what it actually, literally does is spend the vast majority of its time by the siderather, directly behindits slasher killer, Johnny (Ry Barrett), presumably as in "Johnny can't read," and when the camera is not in his immediate environs, it's almost invariably because it's doing a "reverse shot" of what he's gazing at while concealed behind a treeline or in shadow, typically separated by a hundred feet or more from the objects of his murderous rage.  (This is notwithstanding, obviously, the fairly considerable amount of screentime devoted to the actual kills themselves.)  Accordingly, we only get whatever snippets of the "human story" Johnny would stumble across, which is basically just enough to pin down the film's premise, andcoming from someone who has only semi-ironically complained whenever he's had to summarize slasher movies' frequently-baroque plotsthis has the sort-of-nice bonus of not requiring me to delve into the details of this plot, or even do a proper Meet the Meat cast listing.  Sorry, actors, it's not as much an actors' movie as Jason Takes Manhattan, as I hope was explained to you on hiring.*

That premise, meanwhile, is still only a rumored whisper of a rumored whisper, voiced as a campfire story by the guy who sounds distractingly like Jason from the cartoon Home Movies** (Sam Roulston), which Nash barely even cares whether you catchyears ago, a bullied slow kid was tricked into climbing up a fire tower and fell off to his death, but he came backand it's just lore that we've gotten the essentials of already from the very first scene, where a corpse digs his way out of the ground that had held him, establishing that he's a supernatural revenant, capable of being stymied but never stopped.  Eventually, a ranger (Reece Presley), the Tommy Jarvis of the In a Violent Nature franchise, fills in some of the blanks about this.  About halfway through, Johnny gets a mask and an iconic look.  Kills have already ensued.

And I'm being awfully sarcastic about all this, but I think this part of it works.  Once one realizes that it's not interested in being scary or even genuinely dreadfuland I don't know when exactly that realization will strike, possibly upon learning how the film has decided to go about its business of slashing, but probably no later than when Johnny rather goofily uses a head he's severed to break-and-enter a ranger stationthat's when it unveils itself as basically just a horror-comedy, albeit one pitched at a very airlessly intellectual level, a funny structuralist argument about why even kitschy, crappy stories should be told the way they usually are.  Removing the investment (however nominal) one has in the kids having an existence outside of being killed by our Jason Vorhees du jour, and likewise removing as much of the character embroidery as possible that suggests they have lives worth living, it almost completely divests itself of the "memento mori" quality that any halfway-decent (even a less-than-decent!) slasher film still possesses.

What's left, then, is just the absurdity, and the grand guignol, and the pleasant location footage of some big dude in persuasively-gross corpse makeup tromping around in a kinesiologically-inefficient way through the hills of Ontario.  Violent Nature maintains, despite everything else it abandons, some truly bodacious kills; and it certainly doesn't feel like somebody who was taking this as seriously as the worst parts of the movie want you to take it could have built these gore effects, as he'd have tacked toward torture porn instead and it really never does that, even when the kills are drawn out.  The big onethe one that, I believe, is Nash showing his hand most directlyis so cartoonish and involves so much anatomical slapstick that it almost takes it out of slasherdom (it feels more Raimi-ish), though it's right at the edge, a bit of an experiment in and of itself.  It is, anyway, where I felt explicit permission had been granted to start laughing, pretty frequently, at all this nonsense, even when it was drawn-out nonsense (the ranger's passing is just about as silly, in part because he's had his spine snapped so he doesn't feel it when it he gets dismembered so he, also, doesn't bother screaming despite still being conscious).  It's a gnarly magic show, more or less.

But: if you have even the loosest grasp on "slasher movies" as a genre, you have undoubtedly already figured out exactly where this experiment flies off its rails.  That is, if you've got a slasher movie that never leaves its slasher killer, how do you do a Final Girl (Andrea Pavlovic) sequence?  With a lot of flopsweat, apparently, and a runtime that starts telescoping outward and a movie that feels like it's never going to fucking end, because it's got to deliver a themes/"It's About Trauma?" speech from a character who just showed up (Lauren Taylor) that appears to occupy what once, before digital projection, would've been multiple reels.  It's an incredibly sour way to end, and more's the pity because the actual subversive thing to do would be, you know, just the converse of a Final Girl sequence, but failing that, the opening salvos of it are pretty enjoyable, especially some of the most direct Friday the 13th referencing imaginable in Pierce Derks's cinematography, which suddenly goes from "fairly naturalistic lighting conditions even after dark" to "arclit 80s nighttime" in deference to Pavlovic's character's assumed structural importance, even though all she's doing is running semi-aimlessly around (curiously enough, she's repeating the same baseline imagery of her villain, with the camera just following her through the woods with some temporal compression via match cut).  In a Violent Nature is a valuable thing, because there's not many movies that successfully thread the needle of parody and genuine formal critiquewhich is good, I don't think there should be that many, certainly not that are this bluntly obvious about itbut being so bluntly obvious gave it an energy that, heretofore, was worthwhile.  It's not fair to expect such a rarefied energy to hold out for 94 minutes, but I didn't ask for 94 minutes.  It runs out of anything interesting to do long before it ends; to the extent its unsatisfactory ending has something to say, it takes all fucking day to say it.

Score: 6/10

*But as this is unfair, the Not Crystal Lake campers that I've otherwise not identified are, in no order, Cameron Love, Lea Rose Seabastianis, Liam Leone, and Alexander Oliver.  I believe Timothy Paul McCarthy plays the prefatory redneck victim.
**OH, Jason.  What, really?


  1. I've been telling people for a while now that the A24 slasher flick already exists and it's the first Friday the 13th. Yeah, I'm exaggerating for a joke, but in all seriousness I think that movie does play a LOT differently nowadays than it did in 1980.

    1. I 100% see what you mean. Other than the Psycho-ish part, it's got a slow naturalism (and underlit quality) that's very of-its-day and doesn't have the pro polish, but isn't that different than latterday boring horror.