Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A Frank Review of "The Gathering" (2002) and "Dark Corners" (2006)

"The Gathering"(Produced 2002, USA Direct-To-DVD 2007)
The Short Version? An American amnesiac in haunted England
What Is It? Supernatural "Thriller"
Who's In It? Christina Ricci and Ioan Gruffudd.
Should I See It? No.

"Dark Corners" (2006)
The Short Version?
Which Is Reality-- a happy couple plagued by nightmares, or a brutalized woman escaping a dystopic realm?
What Is It? Psychological Horror.
Who's In It? Thora Birch.
Should I See It? Yes.

Christina Ricci and Thora Birch have a good deal in common. They were both precocious child actresses who sidestepped the usual pitfalls of entering adult roles. Both accomplished this by gaining weight and appearing in promising independent features that played up their still-present sex appeal. Both then drop ridiculous amounts of weight and critical value to star in more commercial fare. Both also have disproportionately large heads and weird eyes that make them look elven. Still, I would have sex with either of them, or both at once, as the opportunity presented itself.

That last fact had a good deal to do with my having seen the movies I'm reviewing today, a pair of horror films that sat on shelves unreleased for years until 2006, with a cumulative Tomatometer rating of 20% (though in "Dark Corners" case, its 6 2/3rds negative posted reviews were insufficient to rate on the meter at all.) You see, I have issues with child stars. Many of the ones from my generation blossomed nicely (Alyssa Milano, Drew Barrymore, Soleil Moon Frye,) but I could never get Punky Brewster or Tony's daughter Samantha out of my mind to generate an appropriate degree of lust for any of them. Too icky, y'know? I guess the precocious thing got me over my hang-up, but in turn leads me to watch really bad movies to ogle the pair. Of girls. Perverts. Kindred.

Now, Ricci broke away from the pack by becoming a sort of jailbait Parker Posey, appearing in a shitload of arthouse movies that gave her credibility, even though they typically ranged from adequate ("No Vacancy") to unbearable ("Buffalo 66.") What sets "The Gathering" apart is that it isn't very artsy, though it seems to aspire above its station. I would say it was like a very long, very dry PBS documentary with droning narration, but I don't feel that does the film justice. It's more like one of the lectures piped in from a local college after hours, but one that's especially uninteresting. Part of the resemblance is that the pace is so plodding, almost all motion appears to halt at times, like when the lecturer appears in a window box next to a static image from the overhead projector. I gave a copy of this movie to a co-worker, and for weeks he told me of his progress through the movie, before succumbing at every attempt to slumber. We parted company after a few months, so I don't know that he ever finished it.

I have trouble telling you much about the story of either movie I'm reviewing today. The premise of "The Gathering" is the whole film, while the fun of "Dark Corners" is trying to figure out what the frig it's about. One thing that's true of both movies is that they would have worked better as installments of an anthology television series. Birch's would have been one of the better "Masters of Horror." Whichever one ran a half hour ("The New Twilight Zone" or "Outer Limits" maybe?) could have cut Ricci a check. It would have been worth it, as the former Wednesday Adams now fills out a sweater and too-tight blue jeans very nicely, with the only other draw being Ioan Gruffudd, a damned handsome man. Maybe it's because Mister Fantastic is such a douchebag, or because Jessica Alba somehow managed to wear even tighter and less clothing than Ricci in the Fantastic Four movies, but I never noticed how worthy Gruffudd could be of a man-crush if my very preoccupied heterosexuality weren't so distracting during his movies.

For those who must have things ruined for them, Ricci plays an amnesiac blond American, because she can't do accents, hiking through some English village. She's temporarily adopted by the family whose running her down with their car caused the memory lapse. The father is an archeologist or something, connected to the Catholics through the uncovering of some (literally) underground ancient unholy church of evil, where the film opens with a gory death. Woo-boogey-boogey. Attempts at scary atmospherics yield a widespread dull, with occasional sprinkles of excessive gore. Also, lots of creepy old people and children staring while the heroine trips out on nightmarish visions. Cue invisotext: Turns out all those voyeurs got their rocks off on Jesus' crucifixtion, and are cursed to walk the earth forever, travelling from one large scale attrocity after another to play witness. Ricci was one of them, but forgot, and reclaimed her soul by sacrificing herself to avert a disaster. As you might imagine, the ending sorta-kinda puts what was viewed previously in a new perspective, but not really, because it sucks just as bad reheated.

Having seen more Thora Birch movies than most people, and given my tendency to compare her to Christina Ricci, I suspect the former is both smarter and more fucked-up the the latter. I'm all about bright and neurotic, especially when tied to an eating disorder, making Birch aces in my book. Birch hasn't had anywhere near the commercial success or recognition Ricci has, because she chooses more challenging scripts for lower budgets and no reward beyond a higher quality of work. There's no doubt that Birch is the better actress, and "Dark Corners" is the better movie. However, stop me if you've heard this one before: Birch plays a blond American with a variety of disorders in a movie that opens with a gory murder in a church. Attempts at scary atmospherics yield highly derivative visuals executed amateurishly, with occasional sprinkles of excessive gore. Also, lots of creepy old people and children staring while the heroine trips out on nightmarish visions.

But wait, it gets better! Well, not the direction, which would have been a valiant first effort on a tight budget if the director were not a veteran of several films over a dozen years. While her love interest, Christien Anholt, isn't as pretty as Ioan Gruffudd. However, he actually has a personality and some acting skill, even if the Brit seems to have modelled his look and accent off Josh Hartnett. "Dark Corners," despite often lapsing into the production values of a TBS original series, has periods of real tension and is disorienting in a manner admittedly modelled after better J-horror. There are many disturbing visuals, and it holds the viewers' attention right up until the end. Unlike "The Gathering," I won't be posting the trailer to this movie after the review, because its a dish best served cold.

It spoils nothing to point out that Birch plays a dual role, and sells it very well. There is a lighting gimmick, basically a clumsy swipe of "The Sixth Sense's" use of red, that helps differentiate between the two worlds Birch inhabits. It was completely unnecessary, as she so skillfully set apart two souls in one skin. Birch has developed noticable smile lines on her face for such a young age, and I've never seen her play one character so cheerful, if hardly unaffected, for such an extended period of time. It makes me hopefully she's like Jennifer Jason Leigh, seeking out damaged roles far removed from her more sedate existence. Meanwhile, her second part is a character so consistenly and savagely brutalized, there's a unshakable numbness about her I've seen on women who've survived similar circumstances. It is at times hard to watch, but Birch is always believable, and possessed of beauty than contrasts one world, while being complimented by another.

Again, "Dark Corners" has a great many flaws and some cheese, plus it owes a great deal to a variety of sources. It can be frustrating, runs too long, and must be forgiven a lot to allow for its closing to stand. Even without the trailer, there's some heavyhanded telegraphic that ruins any surprise to be found in the last minutes. Depending on how far you're willing, I think these issues can be overcome by a selectively descriminating audience. I expect anyone who enjoyed "The Hole," a similarly troubling Birch movie, might find quite a bit to like here. A cautious recommendaion for your NetFlix queue.

Everything Worth Seeing in "The Gathering":


wiec? said...

great reviews here. The Birch one i might be tempted to Netflick. maybe not the Ricci one.

also about Gruffudd, my girlfriend said "he's such a handsome guy. he should be a bigger actor in better things. he just needs some acting classes." i think she has a crush on him too.

Diabolu Frank said...

Definitely not the Ricci one. BAD. Turns out my sister here saw "Dark Corners" independent of me, and though it vexed her, she was still impressed by it.


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