Saturday, January 18, 2014

A hunger game


A thrilling torture movie with Gothic flavor, Would You Rather, while not once suggesting an amateur production, is neither a product of true expertise.  But what is expert is a powerfully twisted performance from the vile one himself, Jeffrey Combs; and what the film does have going for it is a classic premise.  Through sheer scenario Would You Rather tells a compellingly sordid little tale of choices, their consequences, and... America?

2012 (jerks)/2013 (people like you and I)
Directed by David Guy Levy
Written by Steffan Schlachtenhauffen
With our villains—Jeffrey Combs (Shepard Lambrick), Jonny Coyne (Bevans), and Robin Taylor (Julian)—and our victims—Brittany Snow (Iris), Enver Djokaj (Lucas), Sasha Grey (Amy), Eddie Steeples (Cal), June Squibb (Linda), Charlie Hoffmeier (Travis), Logan Miller (Raleigh) and John Heard (Conway)

Spoiler alert: moderate

2013 has been a good year for IFC's weirdies.  I can't claim to have seen them allthey've released, to put it mildly, a lot.  But if what I have seen is a representative sample, distribution by IFC Midnight is practically a God damned seal of quality.

Maniac was a bit of amazing, and it still has the honor of having the year's very best score (take that Steven Price!).  And before I noodled out the flaws in +1's time travel/alternate universe construct, I managed to have an excellent time watching it twice in two days, and I still think it's a significant flick.  Of course, there's also Contracted, which I have not seen but everybody hates.  And then there is, of all things, Dracula 3D, but as an Italian horror naif I've barely had the opportunity to watch Suspiria yet (though I did indeed groove upon it recently), so I'm not about to spoil Dario Argento's downward spiral for myself, with what is apparently... well, let's be kind, and say a not especially significant flick.  (Dracula turns into a mantis.)

But here is Would You Rather, another technical 2012 release that, much like Spring Breakers or Maniac, I refuse to recognize as such.  Picked up by IFC the year before last after ScreamFest, the film was given a limited theatrical run in 2013; it is now available for purchase as well as rental on your fancy laser-operated disc players and allied mastercomputers.  And, now that I have seen it on mine, it has done nothing to dissuade my belief and much to confirm it: IFC Midnight = Very Good Movies.

To describe the premise is to describe the film entire: Jeffrey Combs is evil (duh), and he is rich (but I repeat myself), andno doubt bored because his wealth has exhausted the ethical pleasures of the worldhe has begun hosting an annual dinner under the guise of his charity, the Lambrick Foundation; eight supplicants are invited to attend; and once present, they are obliged to play a parlor game, a simple game we all remember from childhood called, wouldn't you guess it, would you rather.

You know the rules.  You have to decide between two unpalatable choices and perform the action you've chosen; if you refuse to decide, you lose; if you choose poorly, you lose.  But if you win, your request is granted.  Of course, if you do lose, you die.  Often horribly.

Maybe you and your wussy friends played by different rules.

As this is the selling point of this horror film, this obviously is not a spoiler (but I suggest not watching the trailer if you can help it, which spoils details best left unseen).  What I can't quite distinguish as flaw or as feature, though, is that the movie doesn't even try to keep up a pretense of suspense about this.  I don't mean that Jeff Combs' Lambrick is obviously the bad guy.  I mean the movie moves into what you'd call third-person omniscient perspective.  Lambrick then has conversations with his lackeys, as well as with his equally twisted but rather less effective and entirely less Vincent Pricey son, that make it perfectly clear that people are going to die in awesome ways.  Ultimately, I remain ambivalent: on one hand, it's certainly efficient; on the other, I do expect my movies to bother with basic storytelling unless they have a good reason not to.  But no matter.

Brittany Snow's Iris, insofar as she is with whom we begin the movie and is the only person we learn much about, is our obvious Final Human.  I say Human, because while she is a woman, I'm not sure gender matters much in this movie.  I say this even though it has an attempted rape scene; the scene is brief and incomplete, andregretted as it is by Lambrick, that it happened on his watchseems to exist largely to illustrate his bizarre moral code.  Iris, anyway, has a brother with cancer; she needs money and he, a bone marrow transplant.  Lambrick can provide these things, and an invitation is offered.  Although suspicious, she accepts.

If it weren't clear enough already, during dinner Lambrick immediately outs himself as a total monster to anyone with a functioning brain stem, by paying vegetarian Iris $10,000 to eat meat (I'll take that offer) and recovering alcoholic Conway even more to drink a whole damned bottle of scotch.  For anyone who still suspects it's just "eccentricity," he then acts extremely smug about how people can be so easily bought.  This is foreplay, however.  After dinner, the aforementioned real fun begins.  Lambrick, characteristically rulebound, gives them one last chance to back out.  No one does, because, it must be said, no one does have a functioning brain stem.

And of course we have to accept that, because that's not just part of the fun, it's damn near the whole thing.

This is a torture film, you may be absolutely sure.  If it abandons the elaborate Rube Goldbergism of the Saw franchise, it's still people forced at gunpoint to beat each other to death with "African whipping sticks" that look pretty much like any other stick, before they are then required to Andalusian Dog themselves.

But there is a caveat: when you have Jeffrey Combs doing what he does bestnamely campy, compelling supervillainyand you've put him in the setting of a dinner party held at a tastefully-appointed old mansion, the result is necessarily going to have more than just a whiff of that old Gothic horror in it, as well.  These are two subgenres that I'm far from expert in, to my shame, but I can say that combined, they work frightfully well.  The game once begun is the proverbial thriller night, from start to finish.  Cliche as it is, I literally did sit right there, on the edge of my seat.

Man.  Myth.  Actor.

Lambrick's interjections are often hilarious, often chilling, often both, and the very everyday nature of his instruments of torture means a loose playfulness in comparison to the grim torments that clearly took a team of deviant NASA scientists months or years to devise.  Though by no means do I have anything against such Engineering Horror, on principle, I found this approach more enjoyableperhaps merely because it's Jeffrey Combs behind the sadism.

For a torture film, Would You Rather is not even that gory, in retrospect.  It may have been better had it beenno one here quails at the sight of bloodbut, whether it be a budget thing or a style thing, those who prefer suggestion to showcase will find your needs met, and here I will strenuously defend the technique's effectiveness.

I'll praise as well, with some reservations, the cinematographyTrue: only a few shots scream "good composition" (though one"Splendid!"is quite lovely).  However, the overall aesthetic is a fine one.  Wholly absent is the grime and grit traditionally associated with the torture subgenre.  Gone too is shaky cam; as near as I can recall there is not a single piece of handheld footage in this whole movie!  The result is an eminently more watchable film thanwell, Christ, half the movies made these days.

The unbearable yet unbearably enjoyable tension of it all is only marred by a great deal of questionable editing.  Never is it anything like choppy, but it's clearly inexpert cutting; rarely has a movie so needed longer takes that this one can't provide (hasn't Levy ever seen that other movie about a macabre dinner party? you know, the fourth best movie made before I was born? I mean Rope).  More damaging still are the ill-placed scenes of the walking, occasionally talking Shining reference joke.  Yes, it is a good joke, good enough I feel a bit bad spoiling it, but his fate is entirely clear the moment he decides to drive up to the house and get shotbecause, were he somehow successful, you have to admit it would really suck.

Those concerned by such matters, as I am, need not worry, though; neither one of the black guys dies first.  Not to say they don't totally die.  I mean, do they look like the protagonists to you?

Indeed, they do avoid doing anything too interesting narratively, by shifting protagonists on us, although they easily could have: Snow gives a most credible performance, but, hey, there's an Emmy nominee, an Academy Award nominee, and, by God, a seven-time Adult Video News Award winner sitting at the same table, so we are by no means lacking for talent.  And, after all, everybody's going to just be acted into the ground by Combs anyway (albeit, it's true, some more than others; it's not a perfectly rounded cast).  Perhaps, then, this lack of daring is a weakness; but, hey, better is ever the enemy of even the very good.

Don't worry.  Nebraska indicates that June Squibb almost certainly knows what a Best Oral Sex Scene entails.

So: it's never really a matter of who will die, but when and particularly how, and that's where I draw the line at "moderate" spoilers, and will speak no more of it.

But I did say this was about America, didn't I?  I don't know if the rich really do call the poor "pigs," but between this and The Purge, I'm wondering if it's an actual epithet that real people use.  That is the key function of Lambrick's vile son, a spoiled rich snot who would have been played far more profitably by blog favorite Rhys Wakefield, the Polite Stranger himself.  Julian's presence ushers in the class conflict that his father is initially too genteel to spell out in so many words.  It's not enough that Lambrick's victims are the working poor, for that would be simple plot necessity.  What is so interesting about the pictureaside from the pure mechanics of pain and death, which is quite properly the main attractionis how they little by little, one by one, turn on each other, and what they had once believed a friendly competition for the rich man's gold becomes the existential war of all against all not dissimilar to the one we live in, every day.  And if you did not catch the delightfully unsubtle insinuation that the most important part of being wealthy is that it affords one to power to cruelly laugh at others' squalid compromises, then you may not have turned on your screen.

The Purge is a fine contrast; it's a film that I was never wild about and have cooled on considerably, perhaps because it ended in such a middling muddle, both as an action picture and as a class statementIf it also featured far less creative and interesting kills than this (I must now gush) totally rad horror movie, you may tally that upon its list of avoidable sins.  Yet Would You Rather is a bit more even than efficient spectacle.  When it does end, it is true to our world of endless, soulless competition, and remains powerfully cogent of its own message.

A perfect version of Would You Rather might have been made with a more experienced director, a braver script with more subtlety up front and meatier parts for its game's eight players, and a cast of truly excellent actors that could compete on Combs' level.  But what we have here is a damned fine film regardless, that raises my class consciousness while at the same time providing excellent thrills, spills, and chills.  I'll end on this: David Guy Levy, having knocked it out of the park with his sophomore effort, may well be a filmmaker to watch; and first-time feature writer Stellan Schlachtenhauffen, a scenarist of some serious promise.

Score: 8/10

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