Friday, January 27, 2017

The Gospel of Marcus Nispel, Apostle of the Hollywood Horror Remake.

"It‘s not that we make these movies because we can‘t make something originally up on our own but because we appreciate that there‘s sort of a culture and an expectation that we can sort of screw with".

Undoubtedly, among defining phenomena of early 21st century horror has been Hollywood‘s taste for repackaging and rebooting former horror hits and classics. Majority of critics have branded them cynical and unoriginal while audiences than paid to see their icons repurposed and reimagined to suit the ever changing tide in hope of experiencing nostalgic terrors. And in the selective "pantheon" of those remakes I find the films of the German director Marcus Nispel the most embodying of all. Making an industry name for himself  directing commercials for big brands such as Coca-Cola and MTV, and music videos for #1 hits by Spice Girls, Cher and Elton John, Nispel‘s directorial sensibilities can easily be traced back to these works (my personal favorite perhaps being his videos for Elton John‘s Recover Your Soul and Puff Daddy‘s Victory). Dead leaves, the strong reliance on established larger-than-life characters pulling the center of the frame and occasionally religious iconography, specific use of shadows and hues... all elements that can be found scattered prominently among the films of his would-be film career. It‘s not surprising given Nispel‘s artistic tendencies that he received mentorship from the cinematographer of Tobe Hooper‘s original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Daniel Pearl. Incidentally it was Pearl that would encourage protegé Nispel to take his first crack at the movie business in collaboration with himself when the offer came to remake what was Pearl‘s first work as a DP, the original Texas Chainsaw film.

Nispel‘s Texas Chainsaw is in among my ideal remakes, embracing that the original is not to be recreated, but repurposed for a new generation of horror audience.  Mostly an exercise in grotesque violence and hopelessness, Nispel‘s nihilism is more stated than in Hooper‘s kinetically ferocious but ritualistic original with the 2003 release date giving the recurrent abuse of authority a new layer. The family patriarch may dress himself as a man of the law but it is a shameless facade in front of the absolute moral corruption at the top of the authorial food chain. The unforgiving bursts of gnarly violence would draft an uncomfortable viewing experience for most on their own but for any viewer willing to engage with its ideologies, it‘s likely to add an oppressing dread to go with.

The 2003 remake of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre would end up a part of the final fashionable spirit of traditional slasher horror because in 2009, Rob Zombie's Halloween II left the nihilistic slasher horror of the 2000s in by removing the shackles off of the crowd-pleasing formalities of final girls and diving headfirst into one of the most devastating depictions of trauma in the subgenre and perhaps most importantly, injecting murder and unflinching violence with a degree of empathy seldom experienced in the genre on whole for the past decade. While i dare not claim 00s slasher horror was derived of freshness as there is evidence against that in films such as Glen Morgan‘s Black Christmas (2006) and Jaume Collet-Serra‘s House of Wax (2005), the impending doom of the traditional slasher as a fashionable enterprise could be felt as the decade came to a close.

And with his remake of 80s horror phenomena Friday the 13th, Nispel would craft an unintentional circumstantial swan-song for the slasher mere months before Zombie said its preliminary last rites. Cleverly opening with a summation of the narrative of the original and a short film-within-a-film, Nispel sets the stage for the franchise‘s now iconic poster-boy Jason Voorhees to lay on a new kind of pain on the new breed of self-righteous and insufferable teenagers that have plagued him since the early 1980s, as Nispel and returning collaborator/mentor Daniel Pearl take Crystal Lake to the next level. As I am not as well-versed in the previous near dozen entries in the franchise as I probably should be I'll assume Friday the 13th works better as a reconfiguration not merely of the original Parts 1-4 but as the whole lot of them (thankfully with the setting of Jason X strategically ignored). My image of Crystal Lake is a space of escapism for horny teens, wherein the sole inhabitant happens to be a towering hermit with a subtle Oedipus-complex and a taste for slashing, incidentally, said horny teens (escapism is an illusion etc. etc.). And Marcus Nispel‘s Friday the 13h holds up to that image perfectly well, while adding a couple of fresh layers of frosting on top. For the first time, Jason has to deal with the smartphone and GPS equipped teens of the generation Z, so Nispel and writer team Damian Shannon and  Mark Swift give Jason bear traps, a hidden underground lair that exorcises cellphone signals (exceptionally decorated and designed by Randy Huke and production designer Jeremy Conway) and a more formidable physique giving Jason the formidable ability of the power-walk  in addition to being able to lift a ton in weight without much difficulty.
Before and after he displays the raw leverage of his physical power (which pulls the frame like its own center of gravity) on the unsuspecting teens Pearl‘s digital cinematography allows Jason to blend in and dematerialize to „become one“ with Crystal Lake itself which has devolved into a desolate, decaying landmark and small barns with even more sexually frustrated loners seem to be the only surrounding residences in close proximity. For the amount of time Jason spends stalking and slaying, Friday the 13th briefly transfigures from an effective summation of a commercial franchise into a digital nu-giallo version of Mario Bava‘s A Bay of Blood, and it‘s in these sequences that Nispel unequivocally finds the true heart of his film. It resolves as a hymn for the slasher‘s of old while also paving new and exciting ground for mainstream horror cinema, which is why I remain unsurprised that slasher movies haven‘t been tinkered with too much for the past 7 years except in the low-budget obscurities that screen at film festivals and best-case scenario make it into theaters exclusively for limited runs.

Which leads us to Nispel‘s most recent foray into the horror genre, Exeter (alt. titled Backmask). After wowing to finally move into original territory and away from tinkering with fanboy expectations and nostalgia, Nispel was approached  by the writer of Paranormal Activity to make a million dollar horror flick with the and the prospect of almost total creative control on condition that it could not by any chance or circumstance be a remake or a found-footage joint, which the German director happily agreed to. 

The result is perhaps my favorite of Nispel‘s works, and the one where, with all the glitz and gloss of the Hollywood  machine removed Nispel has the freedom to let teens party to nu-metal in an abandoned asylum, take subtle a piss at the know-it-all culture of the internet and break down violence into an act of reversed empathy. How‘s that for a proper low-budget slasher movie in the 2010s?

“At the center of it, I want to see the young people who see these kinds of movies. In most exorcism movies, it’s usually very special people that it happens to; families and movie stars like Ellen Burstyn. I wanted it to happen to amateurs.”

Poising internet-equipped adolescents against a demonic summoning that leads to possession and eventually senseless brutality, the writer-director team interrogate and eventually debunk the supposed notion that current youth is corrupted to the point of absolute complacency. Instead the self-aware team of doomed protagonists all emit human qualities in a way only b-movies (on both the high- or low-budget end of the spectrum) will allow in today‘s horror landscape. The first act‘s Project X-lite party and its aftermath is a steady build to all hell breaking loose, the second flirts with parody but descends into a madness reminiscent of Sam Raimi‘s classic The Evil Dead allowing further introspection for the surviving leads, their internal trappings are at once eternal and modern, making Exeter a very fitting avatar for the current wave of slasher horror.

By the third act there is a natural progression to externalising the introspection into form and opposites as a twist reveals the antagonist of the piece not to be a force of true evil, but the broken humanity that inspires such myths. Nispel retrofits Laurie Strode‘s descent-into-madness arc in Zombie‘s Halloween II into flashbacks revealing a shortened but effective lesson in perception and more so a cry for empathy finally condensed in the conclusive lines.

"Bitch deserved it"

"No, she didn‘t"

Suck on that Cabin in the Woods.

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