Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Fantasia 2007: The End of the Line and Mulberry Street

The 2011 Fantasia Film Festival announces their line-up this week - July 7th to be exact. Fantasia, is of course, my favourite film festival in the whole world... other than the one that pays my salary obviously.

To mark their schedule announcement, I will try to put up a post a day this week about Fantasia, continuing today with some reviews dating back to the 2007 Fantasia that I have never shared on this blog.


End of the Line (2006) Canada imdb Directed and Written by Maurice Devereux,

End of the Line Poster
Compassionate Monsters

By the director of $la$her$ a film about a group of Americans trapped on a Japanese reality game show where the contestants are thrown into a warehouse with 3 serial killers and the survivors - if there are any - split one million dollars. I love the reality TV show turned horror sub-genre and $la$her$ is a particularly good example, so I was predisposed to liking End of the Line. But had I never seen $la$her$, I would still completely fucking love this picture. I [heart] this film. I want to hug it and squeeze it and call it George.

I am not, despite my cinematic hard-on for $la$her$, a huge fan of the gore. I gross-out easily, and scare even easier, so I have to steel myself to see a film like this and consequently I hold films like this to a higher standard than I do other films. If you are going to revolt me, if you are going to play the gore card, you had better have a compelling reason to play it.

This film's compelling reason: the dangers of religious fanaticism.

$la$herS Poster
There is certainly room for a movie about the dangers of Muslim religious fanaticism, but Devereux makes the allegory more immediate (and more universal) by tackling Christian fanaticism.

Have you ever sat down on a bus or a subway besides one of those polite, clean-cut religious missionaries, with their clean white shirts and perfectly creased black pants and their straight black tie and that spooky little black name tag with their name and rank? They are a little bit creepy aren't they? And isn't one of the reasons that they are a little scary, the fact that they have a rank - implying that they are organized like an army and that they take orders. ("Don't be insolent with me," barks one of the film's villains, "I outrank you!")

What if (asks End of the Line) they did get orders? What if their pagers or cell phones went off one day with an order? And what if that order was to kill everyone who was not a member of the Church?

(Just to be clear the religious fanatics of the film are NOT Mormons. The film gives us equally polite, equally well groomed, brown-shirt wearing members of a fictitious Christian faith.)

Made on a shoe-string budget, the film does not look it. The cast is universally excellent, and the film benefits from that most dangerous weapon in a writer's arsenal: a good idea. There is a sequence involving a dying battery in a flashlight that will haunt me for years.

(Misleading) End of the Line DVD Cover
The film takes place in the Montreal Subway system, "The Underground City", but in such a way that it could be a subway from any North American city. (A subway stop in Toronto was used in the film and the trains themselves are complete movie creations, so the film drapes a fictional cloak over the very real Montreal Metro, much the way that it drapes a fictional cloak over its religious zealots. The French signs seen in glimpses are a bit of a give-away though.)

Since the victims of the film are trapped deep underground, we are trapped with them in claustrophobic dead ends, and like the film's victims, we are uncertain whether this is an isolated phenomenon or, as the compassionate monsters of the film claim, part of a Universal Armageddon. Isolated and desperate, the well-drawn characters of the film have no choice. As another director at Fantasia, Jim Mickle of Mulberry Street said, "It's a Zombie movie. Zombies chase you and you run." This is as true of religious zombies as it is of the undead.

The film is paced like a Zombie film only the killers are all too human, and the film allows us to see the whole gamut of faith at work: the true believers, the doubters, the lapsed, those who joined to satisfy loved ones and those who merely profess belief. The worst of the fanatics is also in a weird way the most reassuring. "I am not sure if I really believe in this stuff, but I am trying to keep an open mind," he confesses to one of his victims. He is the worst of the villains, because he kills (and threatens rape) even though he does not believe that he is getting orders directly from God, but he is also a little reassuring because we can understand him, he is the traditional bad guy from hundreds of horror films. The rest of his tribe are a little harder to categorize.

My Favourite End of the Line Poster
Because they are very human monsters, you feel real anguish when these compassionate monsters are hurt or killed. They are not faceless undead. They are very real people with real doubts and real beliefs. And because they are neither drooling plague victims nor shambling undead, they get to articulate their point of view. Devereux allows room for doubt that they just might be right.

And that objectivity allows Deverux to give us the most horrible tableauxs. There is a beautiful, terrible, gory AWEFUL sequence in the middle of the film, one of such devastating emotional power that reportedly when they were colour correcting, the female technician got up at this sequence, declared that she had worked on Gapar Noe's Irreversible so she was not squeamish, but this was too much.

Bill Maher got into hot water and some suggest saw his successful talk show Politically Incorrect cancelled when he said (partially), "We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly. Stupid maybe, but not cowardly." What I think Bill Maher was trying to say is that calling these religious fanatics names may be satisfying, but if we lie to ourselves, we can not understand them. The truth is that the 9/11 hijackers may have been monsters, but they were also people, with fears, doubts and with courage. This does not make what they did better. It makes it worse.

Read it. One Day You'll Thank Me For It.
It would be so much easier if these were just faceless brainwashed monsters, drooling undead. What makes this film so God Damned terrifying is that the compassionate monsters truly believe that by killing those not of the church, that they are sending them straight to God, saving them from unbelievable anguish and torment in the final days.

I call them monsters, because what they do is monstrous. I call them compassionate, because they do what they do out of love.

From Sandman: Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman:
Remiel: "We will hurt you. And we are not sorry. But we do not do it to punish you, We do it to redeem you. Because afterward, you will be a better person. And because we love you. One day you'll thank us for it."

Damned Soul: "But... You don't understand... That makes it worse. That makes it so much worse."

Please understand, this is not some namby-pamby you might like this film review. This is a film I would go to the trenches for. If the only way to see this film is to crawl through barbed wire, start crawling. If I were a dog, I would hump this film's leg.

One final thought, just to close the loop...

Another $laSherS Poster
In Devereux' other great film $la$her$, you get the same interesting dynamic of vulnerable monsters.

As I mentioned above, $la$her$ is built around the conceit that you are watching the filming of a Japanese reality game show in which the contestants are locked in a warehouse with three serial killers. Any one who survives the taping splits one million dollars.

One of the gimmicks is that during commercial breaks, everyone has to freeze on the spot, held in place by an electro-shock collar. Just before one of these commercial breaks, Chainsaw Charlie is about to kill one of the contestants. During the commercial break, the killer taunts his victim, who coolly informs him that they will both die because rather than dying easily, they are both going over the edge of the catwalk that they are standing on onto the spikes below. The killer panics once he realizes that his intended victim is serious, even more so once he realizes that his collar holds him in place just as much as it does his intended victims.

Again, it is a moment that reinforces that the monsters of the film are human and vulnerable which makes their actions that much crueler.


Mulberry Street (2007) USA imdb Directed by Jim Mickle, Written by Nick Damici and Jim Mickle

Mulberry Street Poster
Do not be scared away by the low budget, this film looks amazing. It was made by wizards who created the film with brains, sweat and their life's blood rather than money. While there are no actors that you would recognize as stars, the acting is universally excellent. I may be projecting here, but the cast feels like it was built out of the extras from Dick Wolf's Law and Order franchise and spin-offs. All of the actors have that vague aura of having been either the corpse that Lenny Briscoe throws the sheet over in the opening scene, or the partner of the cop that briefs Lenny - the one that does not get any lines.

The low budget probably helps the story in some ways, because it forced the film makers to tell their apocalyptic vision of New York island being over-run by plague rats and the rat zombies (or were-rats you pick) that result from the rat bites, by focusing on one New York neighbourhood (Mulberry Street) and one building on that street. Drama is heightened by compressing time and by compressing space. By tightening the screws on where the film takes place, we allow ourselves to extrapolate the destruction of this one neighbourhood, the destruction of this small world, into the destruction of the world entire.

The two main characters of the story are an aging boxer and his daughter who has just returned from Iraq.

The film borrows heavily from the film noir trope of the war veteran returning home from the war only to find that home no longer exists, or that if it does that it can no longer exist for him, because the veteran's scars both internal and external prevent him (or her) from making a real return.

Be it Ithica or Mulberry Street...
Really her journey is that of Odysseus, trying desperately to return home to her loved ones, battling both monsters and the geography that once welcomed her to return to a home that no longer exists as it did when she left it. She is betrayed just as Odysseus is betrayed, because having sacrificed for her country, she returns to find that she has no country.

The building that her father lives in is being yuppiefied, meaning that her neighbourhood is being destroyed as she returns. The film then takes the idea of this slow, gradual destruction of her neighbourhood and makes it literal as the rat zombies destroy the already doomed building and its inhabitants.

And you can see why she desperately wants to return, because her neighbourhood is the kind of place which accepts the scarred and the broken. Everyone in the building is an outcast, battling against some kind of handicap, from an over-the hill boxer to a single mother, from a moody and misunderstood teenager to a disabled WWII vet who needs oxygen to survive, from a man confined to a wheelchair to a man imprisoned in silence by his hearing and so on.

Mulberry Street DVD Cover
The building is also filled with veterans including the boxer, the wheelchair bound Vietnam vet and the World War Two veteran (ANZIO!) All veterans have been forgotten and betrayed by their country, so the film makes their dilemma a generational one - giving more depth to the problem.

(By the way, I am not suggesting that the black and gay character is a freak or suffering from a disability, but he does fall into the category of characters that are marginalized yet accepted by all the other outcasts.)

The only characters in the building that might qualify as not-outcasts are the Yuppie family who desert the building at the first sign of trouble, when all of the other outcasts rally together. In many zombie or apocalyptic films, the main characters inside are almost as much danger to themselves as the monsters outside. Not in this film. In this film, the characters are family who rally to each other's aid (except of course the Yuppie family who flee) which just makes their deaths as the rat-zombies pick off the members of the family one by one that much more tragic.

British Poster (and Title) for Mulberry Street
I have had horror films scare me before. I have had horror films make me think. I have had them make me angry. This film does all of these things, but it does something more - it made me cry, because you are connected to these characters and you do not want them to die. And every death diminishes not just the audience, but the characters who are left as well, as the rat zombies destroy their neighbourhood, piece by piece and brick by brick. Its the destruction of a family and a neighbourhood made more real and more precious because its members choose each other.

In most horror films, the building's janitor would be a stereotyped villain - in the pockets of the developer - but instead, he is a member of the community, ribbed good-naturedly by his neighbours for the building's disintegrating infrastructure, but also making the necessary repairs as quickly as he can in a losing race as the building disintegrates faster than he can repair it. (And tellingly, he is bitten trying to make repairs.) He is one of the early victims of the plague, but also tellingly, when he attacks his neighbours, they choose to lock him up rather than kill him.

The film also makes good use of the idea that in a disaster the media and the government are of little help as the characters (and the audience) get their information in dribs and drabs and that information is frequently incorrect or useless. (No points for guessing that the film makers gets a lot of mileage from the Katrina comparison.)

I guess I probably love End of the Line ever so (just a rat-hair smidgen) slightly more than this film, because it is a film from my neighbourhood, with characters that I recognize and a problem that I worry about. I am not however saying that Mulberry Street is a film that can only be appreciated by those who live near that street. Because it is so specific, it achieves a level of universality.

Again, you NEED to see this film.

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