Budget? What Budget?

Absentia2011film (1)Recently, British horror writer Ramsay Campbell drew the attention of a horror Facebook group to some low-budget horror films he appreciates. His suggestions were in reponse to the question that some people in the group posted, suggesting there had been few actually scary horror films in recent years. Similar questions arise for me in respect of science fiction films – in both genres, I’d be hard pressed to think of many films I would actually describe as great, even though there have been some pretty good ones.

The films Mr Campbell cited were Absentia, Occulus (both directed by Mike Flannagan, who wrote Absentia and co-wrote Occulus) and the British film, The Borderlands – US title Final Prayer), written and directed by Elliot Gouldner. So far I’ve watched and enjoyed Absentia and The Borderlands.

In Absentia, a woman and her sister begin to link a mysterious tunnel to a series of disappearances, including that of her own husband. The film opens with the woman stapling “mising” posters of her husband to lampposts in her community, tearing down the old, ragged ones. She’s been doing this ritualistically for the seven years since he disappeared. We also see that the woman is heavily pregnant. She lives alone and is visited by her younger sister, a drug addict who’s trying to reform by turning to Christianity. The other main character is the cop who has been having a tenuous relationship with the woman who can’t quite let go. The sister brings gifts for the baby-to-be, including the children’s book, “Three Billygoats Gruff,” which provides the subtle subtext for the film. Focusing on the emotions and challenges of the characters and their inter-relationships, Absentia uses minimal special effects to create maximum unease and true horror.

Oculus-poster-exclusive-watermarkedThe Borderlands is less successful, in my view, though also excellent in parts. It uses the tropes of  a Vatican ghost-hunter and his non-religious technical assistant checking out a supposedly haunted church, with handheld cameras throughout. What begins as a dry, sometimes comic, naturalistic film, ends with something which might make you question the very buy gabapentin 300mg ground under your feet. Just as I thought I was going to give up, the film, hooked me in and didn’t let go the entire second half.

In terms of science ficttion, I’ve seen the big-budget efforts like TransformersThe Maze Runner (like The Hunger Games, arguably riffing on  the superior Lord of the Flies – the 1963 Peter Brook version, I mean –  or Battle Royale) and Interstellar and enjoyed them all in their own ways. I didn’t find any of them especially original, however. It’s all been done before, not only in film, but in comics and graphic novels. Intersteller had the edge for me, and it was powerful not for its special effects but for the focus on human emotion.

Equally, I thought The Conjuring was tense for three quarters of its running time, but let itself down badly for two major reasons: 1) it skirted over the question of whether the mother might have been guilty of child abuse and 2) the crowbarred-in Christian “message” ending.

Moon_(2008)_film_posterAt the other end of the spectrum is Moon by David Bowie, Jnr. (Duncan Jones). Astronaut Sam Bell has a quintessentially personal encounter toward the end of his three-year stint on the Moon, where he, working alongside his computer, GERTY, sends back to Earth parcels of a resource that has helped diminish our planet’s power problems.  Simple sets and a largely solo performance by Sam Rockwell (who holds the attention the way Sandra Bullock does in Gravity – can you think of another actress or actor who can convey so much in the confines of a spacesuit with only her face showing?). Moon is original, weird, gripping and has that rare thing, a genuinely surprise ending.

I can’t deny that big-buget films can do a great job very often, but they can also rely too heavily on special effects rather than story. Like screenwriting Robert McKee says, “Story IS character.”

I feel positive that many of you may disagree with me, so I would actively encourage debate. Just don’t throw rotten tomatoes, please.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Considering ‘Oculus’ had ties to WWE Films, my expectations were rock bottom. I was pleasantly surprised to see a genuinely good horror movie. Haven’t seen the others mentioned, but I’ll have to keep my eye out.

    If 2006 squeaks into the “recent” category, there’s a Spanish film from that year called ‘The Orphanage’ that remains one of my favorite horror movies from recent years.

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