31 Days in October, 31 Horror Films – 2015
Day 6: The Gallows, De vierde man
The Gallows (2015)
My, how the sub-genre has fallen.
The introduction of realism to the horror genre was an enthralling gimmick. The Blair Witch Project (1999), with its “unsteady” cam and its flavor of realistic dread in the midst of a ghost story was compelling enough to inspire an entire sub-genre of narrative techniques we now commonly call found footage. From that first pioneering vision of storytelling you can trace a line through moments of innovation and market repetition and creative exhaustion until you reach The Gallows, an ironically titled, nadir of the subgenre.
What started as a thrilling new way of making scares easy to relate to (sort of like John Carpenter’s move into the suburb with Halloween) has now succumbed to the mechanisms of film finance. What The Gallows evokes most of all, is how market savvy Blumhouse Pictures has become in turning a small $100,000 film into a $38 million box office success despite overwhelmingly negative critical reviews.
This aspect of the found footage film has been present from the start. The Blair Witch Project’s incredible financial success was as big a story as it’s innovative techniques, but I think there was an optimism in that film, which is exactly what is lacking today. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez took home the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes award for their 1999 effort and I believe that was an appropriate accolade. They were operating within a film history that was grounded in the art of realist storytelling.
The end of the sub-genre, like all ends, was there from the beginning. Just as Eduardo Sanchez was famously booted from the Blair Witch sequel and spent years, despite undeniable talent, struggling to fund his projects, so the ever-present tension between film marketing and film art began its war on new battlegrounds. I’m not sure if Jean-Louis Baudry could have imagined marketing and distribution when coming up with his concept of “revealing the mechanism” but it would seem that term “basic” when applied to the cinematic apparatus has expanded since 1974.
The Blair Witch Project is hailed as one of the first films to market itself on the internet. The Gallows had an equally innovative advertising campaign employing everything from direct advertising on Youtube to guerrilla marketing on Vine. The biggest difference between these films, however, and the reason I consider it a low point of the genre, is how vacant The Gallows is in comparison to the grass roots mythos cultivated by its predecessor. The film willingly rubs its audiences face in just how little they need to be seduced successfully. Countless shots of the floor, walls, and blurred lights in addition to stunningly thin characterizations motivated by undeveloped narrative instinct for something like a story fill the 81 minutes (81 minutes!) and yet… the film succeeded at the box office.
Will the same audience turn out for a sequel? I’m embarrassed to admit, despite this review, I probably would.
De vierde man, or, The Fourth Man (1983)
Before there was Basic Instinct there was this fantastic film from a young Paul Verhoeven. Part of his excellent early collection of Dutch films (which, if you haven’t seen you really REALLY need to), The Fourth Man combines Catholic angst, the uneasy and often mystical relationship between signs and signifiers, witchcraft, murder, and surrealism into a cocktail of suspense and intrigue, which grabs hold from the first frame.
I loved everything about this playful and creative film. Particularly the “no big deal” approach to sexuality that is quintessentially Dutch. I wonder if American culture has progressed enough to consume and enjoy this film without freaking out over the parts that don’t matter?
Regardless, YOU should watch this fantastic film. It is an excellent story and as unabashedly for mature adults as a film can be. How refreshing!