Wednesday, November 07, 2007

To See, or Not to See; That is the Question:
(Part Three & Final)

What you see, what you don't see: Daniel Gillies, Elisha Cuthbert, Captivity (2007)

So, what about the movie?

Having now enjoyed the unrated DVD release of Captivity, and its extras, I can offer the following review without spoilers, for those of you who haven't yet seen the film:

As implied in yesterday's post, the plot is simplicity itself: successful but isolated, lonely model Jennifer Tree (Elisha Cuthbert) is drugged in a nightclub and abducted. She wakes up in a cell, captive of a cowled, enigmatic, cruel male 'warden' silently demanding submission. Any attempt to resist or lash out is met with Jennifer rendered unconscious and waking up in a different cell, strapped to a chair and subjected to videos of the death of previous victims and the threat of a similar fate. In an adjoining cell, a young man named Gary (Daniel Gillies) is also held prisoner. Establishing contact, they keep their sanity and plot their escape.

Elisha Cuthbert as Jennifer Tree, Captivity

That's it, really -- to say more would give away critical story details of Larry Cohen and Joseph Tura's script. In its current unrated edit, it's a 21st Century spin on The Collector, The Defilers and early pinku eiga: nothing more, nothing less.
It's typical of the ongoing serial killer genre, too, in literature, cinema and television. In mainstream terms, it's essentially Kiss the Girls sans the police procedural (the only two cops who appear aren't onscreen long) and predominantly told from Jennifer's point of view, save for the privileged omniscient narrative information the viewer is given from time to time to tell the whole story -- but everything keeps us in Jennifer's experience, stem to stern.

One can see where new material was grafted onto the film director Roland Joffe originally shot (at Mosfilm Studios in Moscow, Russia) and completed, which was definitely a psychological suspense film rather than a horror movie.

Deleted scenes include the original script's elaboration of the perverse specificity of Jennifer's captor's emotional assault: broadcast footage of a televised interview with Jennifer provides the necessary sound bytes, as Jennifer is subjected to darkness, a vulture (!), etc. based on the phobias mentioned in her TV interview. It would appear that physical torture was not part of the original film.

That might have been sufficient in the draft of Cohen's script prior to 9/11, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib (the new American reality) and The Passion (of the Christ), Saw, Hostel, et al, but at some point, Jennifer's ordeal was judged not grueling enough.

Welcome to 2007.

Given the eleventh-hour context of the additional material -- as seen in the "On the Set" DVD bonus material, the new material was shot in February 2007, mere weeks before the originally promoted April 2007 opening! That's pretty fucking eleventh hour, and Roland Joffe was still firmly at the helm -- I would surmise (all a guess, mind you) that After Dark Films and/or Lionsgate decided the film needed a stronger edge, a higher gore quotient, pushing Captivity into clear horror turf while capitalizing on the 2005-2006 success of Hostel and the Saw franchise.

This would make sense of the original Los Angeles campaign, in which the third of the four panels -- "torture" -- is the only horror image, really. Indeed, it's easy to see how the overtly horrific elements (the videos of the fate of previous victims, the force-feeding of blendered 'soup,' everything that takes place in the wire-mesh cell) were added, along with the new framing material.

Shorn of this footage, Captivity works fine, and it's all there.

In terms of both the story told in the new context of America 2007 and the marketplace After Dark Films and Lionsgate work within (and have cultivated with previous films), I can see why the decision was made to make Jennifer's ordeal harsher, her plight more terrible.

Like I said, welcome to 2007. Even outside of the context of genre, the original version of Captivity must have seemed to tame to preview audiences -- after all, the agonies of the imprisoned heroine of V for Vendetta was much more harrowing, the incidental details of a certain "abduction/imprisonment/torture/termination" narrative point in Sin City far more gruesome.

Mind you, this kind of 'juicing' of what would otherwise be a soft 'R' or hard 'PG-13' feature film, pushing a psychological thriller into graphic horror territory, is hardly new. John Carpenter's original successor to Halloween, The Fog (1980), was originally shot and edited as a non-graphic 'PG' ghost story ('PG-13' didn't exist as yet, that came after the Steven Spielberg triple-whammy of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Poltergeist and Gremlins pissed off parents). At the insistence of the producers, Carpenter shot additional gore shots staged with makeup expert Rob Bottin to land The Fog the commercially desirable 'R,' which was considered essential for any horror movie to compete in the early '80s marketplace. Carpenter at least did his cinematic surgery with care; tripe like Urban Legend II and the like also sport additional gore footage added after completion, staged and stitched into place so clumsily that it stands out like a sore thumb.

Captivity's new footage: Strap 'em to the chair!

Captivity's new footage wasn't haphazardly conceived and executed: Joffe is too solid a craftsman, and I wouldn't be surprised if Cohen was involved with the rewrites and scripting of the additional sequences. It wasn't too far a push, either; after all, Daniel Pearl -- the cinematographer who, as a Texan film student, shot Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel's seminal 1974 shocker The Texas Chainsaw Massacre -- worked with Joffe on this venture from beginning to end, and escalating Jennifer's plight by adding just one more cell to the subterranean prison of the original edit isn't too great a leap.

The new footage places Captivity firmly in what my son Dan calls "strap 'em to the chair" movies, what Head Trauma director Lance Weiler calls "confined horror" (to describe the type of film low-budget producers began clamoring for three years ago). Yes, it's gratuitous -- Captivity's story works fine without it. The sense of vulnerability and danger is increased, though, and that's central to the effectiveness of any suspense thriller.

But we are at a new cultural crossroads, folks, when the psychological abuse meted out against fictional characters like Jennifer and Gary has to be amplified to at least measure up to our new reality. It's easy to dismiss this as cynical, crass commercial exploitation, but I think something more primal is going on here -- and the producers and creators of horror and exploitation films didn't cultivate this crossroads and harsher environment, either. Not alone, in any case. Far greater cultural forces, realities and powerful individuals put us here -- films like Captivity just make handy scapegoats.

After all, we are still amid a reality and media soup where real-life abduction, interminable imprisonment (read: "detainment"), slow suffocation -- the 'controlled drowning' of waterboarding -- and worse is not only considered tolerable by our President, Vice President, his Administration and a sizable portion of our fellow citizens, but essential and desirable, necessary to our safety and national security.

We are confronted by a national zeitgeist and appetite for inflicting harm unprecedented in our lifetimes.

Daniel Gillies as Gary Dexter, Captivity

No surprise, then, that the taboo-pushing imperative of horror films has had to escalate the depiction of what constitutes psychological and physical agony to new extremes. No surprise, then, that the producers and creators of a modest little thriller like Captivity were moved to escalate the ordeal of their heroine to measure up to the new national zeitgest, the new threshold.

The cruelty of the new footage is harrowing; for most, the force-feeding will push the limit, though dog lovers have a choice moment to push their buttons.

Is this what is necessary in 2007 to place a film's heroine in sufficient danger to engage us? We're a long, long way from the sawmills and train tracks of The Perils of Pauline and Exploits of Elaine, but Captivity has a lot of other things on its mind: the Stockholm Syndrome, the bonding between prisoners, gender roles, survival, betrayal, and so on. It's not just the horror movies of the past six years or our new sociopolitical reality that forces a storyteller's hand in amplifying horrors to make a character's plight appalling enough for us to empathize -- there's also Reality TV, forensic crime programs, round-the-clock access to news, and more I could mention. As innocuous a program as Survivor played a part in Captivity's need to tighten the narrative thumbscrews on Jennifer tighter than Larry Cohen probably felt necessary when he completed his first story draft. The metaphoric tightening of those thumbscrews was a process that continued into February of this year.

Captivity would have faded from view and memory quickly had the controversy not erupted over the advertising campaign and the film's rating. In the wake of The Passion (of the Christ), even with its new footage, Captivity is weak tea; in the context of the Saw and Hostel franchises, it barely passes muster as a horror movie. In the context of our current reality, one can only wonder why anyone wastes their time mounting campaigns against as ephemeral a fictional work as Captivity.

It is, however, an effective suspenser. Though I can't prove it at the time of this writing, I also think the version we now have on DVD was altered further by the gender wars skirmish over the March advertising campaign: a new framing device tips its gender war element into harsher territory (I won't say more, as I'm hoping to get through this without spoilers) and the film as a whole into yet another subgenre.

Note that the atrocities of Tarsem Singh's stylish The Cell (2000) 'outgross' anything in Captivity -- except for maybe that bloody smoothy. Grossest blender drink since The Giant Spider Invasion!

A few parting shots:

* Producer Mark Damon brings his own horror movie career context to Captivity. As an actor back in the '60s, Damon starred in Roger Corman's The House of Usher, Mario Bava's I Tre volti della paura/Black Sabbath, Edward L. Cahn's cheapjack remake of Beauty and the Beast, Antonio Margheriti's giallo Nude... Si Muore/The Young, the Evil & the Savage, and more, including teen/JD pix, pepla, war movies, spaghetti westerns, spy films, etc. As a producer, Damon has been active since 1974, and produced, executive produced and/or co-produced films like (ready?) Das Boot, The NeverEnding Story, Nine 1/2 Weeks, Flight of the Navigator, The Lost Boys, Red Shoe Diaries, Wild Orchid, The Jungle Book, Orgazmo, Eye of the Beholder, FeardotCom, and best of them all Monster (2003).

All in all, Damon has produced almost 50 films, in every genre, good and bad, high and low.

* The professionalism and credentials of its creators, prominent among them Damon, Joffe, Cohen, Pearl and all who collaborated with the, should also lend a context to Captivity beyond the sensationalistic shitstorm over the March ad campaign. The direction and performances in Captivity, particularly from Manitoba actor Daniel Gillies, are solid throughout. This isn't a shoddy film by any definition, and it's obvious Joffe shaped the film with the same intelligence, care and attention to detail he brought to his more prestigious films.

* The tenor of Captivity was definitely changed by the addition of the new footage. That said, a key sequence in the bonding of Jennifer and Gary is quite believable due in part to the harsher ordeal they suffer.

* There is, however, one unforgivably stupid fuckup in the film, and one typical of the 'video footage within the film' conceit Captivity depends upon. Without giving away a story point, suffice to say a bit of what is presented as, and has to be (within the context of the story), 'found' home video footage immediately fumbles the ball by editing its action. The action in the footage is inexplicably presented from more than one vantage point, including fleeting closeups, and edited for impact -- thus betraying the illusory 'reality' of it being a 'home video.' Even the most passive viewer is suddenly prompted to wonder, "Wait a minute, who filmed this?" This further unravels the illusion, as the intimacy of the footage is disrupted. Stupid mistake in an otherwise well-crafted film -- but one I have seen over and over again over the past 30 years, particularly in films like this that have narratives utterly dependent upon the 'found footage' being accepted as 'real.' Dumb, dumb, dumb!

In the end, 'Anonymous' -- the author of the Myrant comment that kicked off this three-part essay -- is absolutely right. Captivity's ad campaign seems pretty innocuous in context of the MPAA-approved advertising that's been plastered all over this land and on newspapers pages for the last six years of horror movies, the Saw, Hostel and Hills Have Eyes franchises primary among them. Captivity's ad campaign is downright toothless in light of the whole of exploitation movie ballyhoo since 1960, most of that MPAA-approved, too.

Nor does the film itself merit the outrage and bile it has fomented, sight unseen: once seen, Captivity deserves neither scorn nor much undue attention. It works well enough for what it is, but the much ado about nothing over the original ballyhoo ensures that Captivity will be screened, discussed and reverberate more than it otherwise would have been.

It all comes down to "To See, or Not to See" -- an individual decision. You decide. The ads and promo art is not deceptive. The ads accurately reflect what the film is, prompting one to fear the worse: a very traditional showman ploy in the genre. "Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Those Who Do?" was the MPAA-approved ballyhoo for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). You don't like the ads? Don't see the movie.

Captivity's campaign is hardly worth the controversy, but there ya go. Is it an ugly billboard? Hell, yes. All billboards are ugly. Los Angeles is ugly, to my eye; I loathe driving around there. It's a horrorshow.

We don't have billboards in Vermont, but, look,
we have roadkill all over Vermont's roads. Chalk it up to roadkill, if you must. Seeing roadkill neither makes me complicit in the deaths, react by running over other animals (are we Pavlovian stooges?), nor desensitizes me to life. A sense of proportion and perspective is essential.

Now -- what I want to know, is what does Joss Whedon think of the movie?

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