Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Warnings (2003)

This cheap thriller is in my opinion a masterpiece, but most people hate it deeply. I can't recommend it to anyone, since most people have the same taste as most people.

The atmosphere is really thick, and keeps the viewer in suspense all the time. It starts in Stephen King style with an extremely intense scene. There is a man living alone in a farm house. He's drunk, carrying a gun and scared as hell that aliens are coming to get him, proclaiming loudly that he's ready to take them. There's a psycho-style scarecrow in a sofa, and he's talking with it all the time. Then there are noises and strange lights and the man starts to chase them, but it's not clear if he's just lunatic or if he's after something.

The main events start when a cousin of the man in the farm house hears that the he's dead. He goes on to clear the house with a group of his friends. The suspense stems firstly when they discover various signs of lunacy, secondly when they start to see inklings of the phenomena that caused the lunacy, and lastly about aliens themselves.

The strength of the film is that it relies on dialog and instead of showing the beast, it describes people's reaction to the signs left by the beast. The second strength is the intense atmosphere, which is created by skillful play with viewer's expectations, good soundtrack and massive but controlled onmarch of pretty much every suspense trick you have ever seen in any thriller.

On meta-level, the film works even better. The director is showing off and making a challenge to others. He's saying "I'm showing you how thrillers should be done! I can make this good film by concentrating on storyline, atmosphere, social interactions and other things that matter! Keep your special effects, all I need is 12 days and a budget under one million!" Here are the observations that support this:

  • He packs all known thriller effects to same film - haunted house, scarecrows, traces of something big and scary, tarot cards, beasts that are not seen, claustrophobic corn field, not knowing what is lunacy and what is real, kitchen utensils that cut, sudden appearances that are sometimes other people and sometimes the beast.

  • When the beast is finally shown, it is almost anti-climax, as if he was making a tribute to films that are free from supernatural forces.

  • The film is very consistent. By consistency, I mean that it doesn't contradict itself, doesn't invoke "people just don't behave that way!" reaction and sticks with its assumptions. Consistency usually means that the person making the film knows exactly what he's doing.

Talking about assumptions, it makes one big assumption (which is spelled out in the end) and sticks with it. On my own thriller consistency meter, Wicker Man and Witchfinder General score the highest level. Everything is explained by personalities, situations and social dynamics, no supernatural beings are assumed and large-scale consistency reigns to the end. Warnings gets to the second-highest level: it makes one assumption and sticks with it, and pretty much everything is explained by that assumption and its lemmas. I'd put The Excorcist to the same consistency level.

If I had to choose one film that captures the spirit of Stephen King's novels, this would be it. The intensity structure is the same. It starts with a short, intense scene that gives foretaste of what is to come. Then it does a series of "speed tests" that start out in normal, sane and peaceful conditions, increase intensity gradually and end up in a panic. In the end, there is long uninterrupted mayhem. When it ends, the whole film ends - there is no clean-up. And did I mention the atmosphere, skillful assembly of standard building blocks and emphasis on people's reactions?

Here's one review from IMDB which explains why I like the film but others don't:

"I saw this movie on the sci-fi channel, and I was suprised how good the story line was. I was enjoying the movie until the pitiful cartoon computer generated looking aliens showed up. They should have had men dress up as the creatures, at least they would have looked more realistic than the cartoon looking creatures. The storyline gets a 8 out of 10, but the effects get a very lousy 1 out of 10! Overall the movie I would give it about 4 1/2 out of 10!"

No comments: