Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Passion of Anna

Before I get into some other stuff – I forgot to mention in my September Recap that I re-watched Welles' TOUCH OF EVIL (1958).  It's a great, grotesque picture that appropriately caps the classical noir era by being almost carnivalistic in its representation of an underworld deeply canted and draped in shadows.  It's obviously a four star film.

I've started my October/Halloween horror tradition off with a bang – maybe too much of one.  After a pair of intense nightmare films in AUDITION (1999) and MARTYRS (2008), I'm already itching for some lighter respite.  It was cleansing to watch Tourneur's great, underrated western CANYON PASSAGE (1945) right after AUDITION though; and today, I plan on watching Borzage's MANNEQUIN (1937) to wash the taste of MARTYRS out of my mouth.  I think peppering in the classics with the intense stuff helps me keep my sanity.  October's too beautiful a month to completely drown in blood.

Actually before I watched AUDITION, I finally got to see the whole thing of the original TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974).  I had seen it in chunks before but never completely.  One thing that struck me about this updated and more comprehensive viewing was just how damn funny it is.  There's a macabre sense of humor to the film that is subtle but kinda great.  The whole freak-out ending where we meet Grandpa and sit around the table is pure lunacy to the point where you just have to laugh along with Hooper's demented sensibility.  I haven't seen the remake from the 00s, but I can imagine it takes itself too seriously.

AUDITION, one of the godfathers of torture porn, is vile, quesy, and quite humorless.  BUT – I did appreciate it, even if I can't necessary say that I enjoyed it.  It's undeniably a well-shot and seamlessly crafted film.  And it does a really effective job of building delicately towards its nasty conclusion.  I love how it sort of starts out like an Ozu film, both in its long-shot framing and remarriage subject matter.  I'm sure Miike meant to evoke Ozu on purpose to capture the purity, simplicity, and traditionalism of his style, only to completely subvert it later on in the film and create a thoroughly modern sense of depravity.  It's a clever and gross little twist.

I had first heard of MARTYRS in the comment section of Ed Gonzalez's top 10 lists page.  Someone recommended it to him, describing it as fucked-up torture porn with an unusual message.  I quickly filed it under the "Never see" category, mostly because anything that is sold to me as "really, really fucked up" is something I really, really don't care to see.  But then along came Brandon, who was watching it the other night and recommended I see it (with a strong "it's fucked up" caveat, of course), to spark my interest in it.  His texts to me on it were cryptic and strange enough that didn't sound like just another HUMAN CENTIPEDE or the next A SERBIAN FILM.  Plus, I trust the guy's opinion.  So, I decided to watch it, not caring if I spoiled my appetite for a day or two in the process.

MARTYRS starts out very intensely, and it really does not let up one bit.  Until the very end, it only has one trait–and that's unremitting brutality.  The opening is strong and frightening, with the mixture of a chilling revenge plot and frenetic ghost mystery (it has a very disturbing and violent home invasion sequence that is effectively done).  But from there, the film is just thoroughly revolting, so much so that an hour into it, I was about ready to call it quits.  Once Anna finds the torture victim below the house and pulls the steel vise from her head, I just about threw up my arms and said "that's it!" Still, I stuck with it, mostly due to wanting to know the answer to the mystery and wanting to know what had effected Brandon so much about it. 

After the first hour, we eventually meet the clandestine organization that's running the torture ring, and I admit I was initially very disappointed in their purpose.  I thought the film was trying to give an important "message" to its brutality about victims and martyrdom that I found cheap and exploitative.  When we then cut to an extended sequence of Anna being subjected to the vicious torture that has only previously been implied, I thought the film had completely gone off the rails into utter vileness-for-its-own-sake oblivion. Thankfully, Brandon had warned me about a sustained torture third act.  It wasn't quite as awful as I was imagining, but still pretty despicable (at least we didn't see the skin grafting take place–so there's that).

If you had asked me what I thought of the film five minutes before it was over, I would have told you I hated it.  It just seemed miserable and abominable.  But I tell you what–in that last five minutes, the film does something rich and strange that left me contemplating its meaning more than I would have thought.  I still can't say that I like the film or that I would recommend it, but it's much smarter and more nuanced than something like HOSTEL, SAW, or THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE.  It's ruthless and nihilistic, but it achieves something close to profundity right at the end.  Not too many torture porn, miserablist, extreme cinema films I could say that about.  Still, steer clear of this one if you have a weak stomach or if you don't want to feel like shit for an hour and a half.

Brandon, if you want to dig more into MARTYRS, let's do it.

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