Becoming so irritated after viewing The Comedy that I thought I might develop hives, there was nothing for me to do but retreat back to the loving arms of a horror film: in this case, You’re Next. Turned out to be a wise move, since it made me completely forget about the previous dud. Had I not followed it up with the distressingly limp Curdled, this might have been game, set, match.
Sometimes, you just know a film is going to be good. Maybe you’ve read some reviews by critics you really trust. Maybe the film is made by one of your favorite directors, a filmmaker who’s never let you down (I’m lookin’ at you, Refn and Wheatley, you big, wonderful filmmakers, you!). Perhaps you’ve seen a great trailer or have been teased by some really cool promotional material. Whatever the reason, there are always a small group of films that we, the discerning viewer, are absolutely certain have to be amazing. When these films disappoint, there can be no worst feeling in the world: a massive buildup to nothing at all, months (or even years) of anticipation flushed down the can. When these films meet (or even surpass) our expectations, however, there is a very specific thing that is created: magic. I’ve been lucky enough to experience plenty of movie magic in my life and Adam Wingard’s You’re Next wears the wizard cloak loudly and proudly.
Quality films don’t just appear out of thin air, gift-wrapped and ready to blow our minds. Rather, they emerge organically, composed of quality ingredients, in the same way that a chef might prepare a gourmet meal. You have to have a great script, for thing, and an original (or, at least, semi-original) idea. You need great camera and sound work and an interesting production design. You, of course, will need good actors (extra points for great actors). Most importantly, however, you will need a unified vision to tie everything together. You can have a really good, fun, interesting film with only a few of these ingredients, don’t get me wrong: I’ve seen plenty of ’em. You cannot, however, have a magical film with any of the above mentioned items missing: it just can’t happen.
As far as individual pieces go, You’re Next is already looking like prep-time in a five-star restaurant. We have director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, the lethal team responsible (either together or apart) for Pop Skull, A Horrible Way to Die, segments in V/H/S, V/H/S 2, The ABCs of Death and Dead Birds. We get a pretty original idea: a bitchy, backstabbing family are celebrating a wedding anniversary when be-masked home invaders begin to slaughter them, only to have the tables turned as the hunters become the hunted. We have gorgeous cinematography by Andrew Palermo (according to his CV, You’re Next is one of only three features he’s worked on…someone get this guy some consistent work!) and excellent sound design. There’s a wicked sense of humor that permeates the proceedings but this is no horror-comedy. The violence is intense, memorable and visceral while avoiding the pornographic tendencies of films like Saw or Hostel: it also appears to be largely practical effects, which warms my heart.
At the risk of sounding like a swooning fanboy, there really isn’t much I can ding You’re Next for. In fact, there are several scenes in the film that have actually rocketed to the upper echelons of my “Baddest Ass Scenes Ever” list, including the one where Lamb Face takes a seat next to Larry Fessenden’s corpse on the couch: everything about the scene, from the lighting, to the score, to the slight way that Lamb Face cocks his head to the side are purely magical, a bracing example that the true power of cinema will always rely on the image.
The cast, featuring a quadrilogy of modern indie/horror mainstays (directors Ti West, Joe Swanberg, Larry Fessenden and writer Simon Barrett), is exquisite, with special praise due lead Sharni Vinson and Swanberg. Vinson is pitch-perfect in the role of, ostensibly, the clichéd “final girl.” She brings such an amazing sense of reality to the role, however, that she kicks the character up into high gear. Even better, Vinson’s Erin is not posited as some sort of invincible ass-kicker: she’s vulnerable, feels fear and is frequently unsure of herself. It’s just that, in times of strife, Erin can pull together the fortitude to stick a knife through someone’s skull: we’d all like to think we’d be so handy in a crisis. Swanberg, on the other hand, is an acid-etched delight as Drake. Playing the character as the height of crude, obnoxious, sarcastic, privileged assholery, Drake might seem like a refugee from The Comedy. Luckily, Swanberg is way to good an actor (and Barrett is way too good a writer) to let that happen. Hard as it is to believe, I found myself grudgingly liking this dickhead, over time: truth be told, I found myself liking almost all of the characters, including the masked killers. Swanberg, however, attacks his character with such lustful zeal that it truly is a joy to behold.
I won’t reveal any actual details of the film, since its many twists, turns and surprises are all part of its endless joys. Suffice to say that the opening is awesome, the ending is a stunner and everything in between is as hardy and robust as Charles Atlas on a good day. There’s even a great gag that pays homage to the “window trap” scene in Death Wish 3 (if you’ve seen DW3, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about). This is the kind of film that upends every genre convention it comes across, from the obligatory “pot of water boiling on the stove” bit to the reveal of the true nature of the killers. In some ways, You’re Next is like a bizarro-world mashup of The Strangers (masked intruders trying to get in) and Funny Games (unmasked intruders are already in), although this leap-frogs way over The Strangers.
Endlessly inventive, exceptionally well-made and infinitely fun, You’re Next isn’t just the best genre film I’ve seen since Stitches, it’s also one of the best films of 2013, even if I didn’t manage to see it until this year. Time to go make room on the shelf for a new classic: Wingard and Barrett did it again.
And then we have Curdled. Perhaps there’s no way that this film could grab my attention (and heart) after the phenomenal experience that was You’re Next. By the same token, I’m pretty sure there was no way this could be nearly as odious as The Comedy. Turns out I was right on both counts: this was nowhere near the quality of You’re Next and too (relatively) inoffensive and meek to be anywhere near as obnoxious as The Comedy.
Curdled begins in 1977, in Columbia, with young Gabriela. She’s a child who’s just witnessed the aftermath of a gory crime, beginning her life-long obsession with death. Flash-forward several years and Gabriela is now living in Miami and working for a forensic-cleaning crew: the folks who get to go into a crime scene and clean up the blood (and other bodily fluids) left over after the bodies are removed. She enjoys her job but becomes obsessed with a serial killer known as The Blue Blood Killer (he only kills wealthy women), especially after she finds a clue at a scene she’s cleaning. This all leads to a conclusion that seeks to answer the previously asked question: can a head talk after it’s been severed? The answer may (but probably won’t) surprise you.
Here’s the thing: Curdled, at least on paper, has a lot going for it. The film was discovered by Quentin Tarantino during a promotional tour for Reservoir Dogs and he was so taken with it that he decided to release it under his A Band Apart production company. The film actually features a couple of references to QT’s cinematic world (Gabriela is played by Angela Jones, the cab driver who picked up Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction; a TV news report mentions the Gecko Brothers of From Dusk Till Dawn fame): unless these were added post-QT’s involvement, it seems fairly safe to say that writer/director Reb Braddock is a fan. There’s a decent turn by William Baldwin as the serial killer (no spoiler here since we learn this pretty early in the film) and a pretty great performance by character-actor-extraordinaire Barry Corbin as the owner of the forensics-cleaning company. The score is great and the opening credits sequence (various grisly deaths depicted as children’s sketches) is pretty genius.
Unfortunately, Curdled takes all of these various elements and doesn’t find much to do with them. The film is slow-paced, almost to the point of seeming inert, and wastes way to much time focusing on Angela Jones and her (admittedly) very expressive eyes. While Jones, Baldwin and Corbin are good, the rest of the cast really isn’t, with one of the most obnoxious characterizations courtesy of Mel Gorham as Gabriela’s cleaning partner, Elena. Gorham has a particular ability to make any line she delivers as flat as a pancake and I found myself wishing she would end up a victim awfully fast: alas, she survives.
There are certain elements and scenes that seem completely unnecessary, such as Gabriela’s reenactment of a murder scene via salsa dance. Let’s ponder that for just a moment. In a similar film/TV show, the reenactment would be a way for the investigator to gain new insight into the case (think Crossing Jordan). In Curdled, however, Gabriela learns nothing by dancing her way through the various positions of the body: it’s simply an excuse to have her twirl and flounce around for a bit. This idea, the notion of style for style’s sake, is the film’s fatal flaw: everything in Curdled is weak artifice and the entire film seems as substantial as cotton candy. By the time we reach the end and realize that the film has actually just been one long setup for a punch-line (remember the question earlier about the talking head? That’s the joke that the film spends almost 90 minutes answering).
At the end of the day, aside from some serious pacing issues and some questionable style choices (cutting back and forth between The Blue Blood Killer’s storylines and Gabriela’s tends to short-sheet both, to be honest), there isn’t much discernibly wrong with Curdled. It’s pretty much the definition of an average, middle-of-the-road indie flick, a film that probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day in 1996 without the support of Quentin. As it stands, you could watch worse films (like The Comedy or The Last Rites of Ransom Pride) but why don’t you just go watch You’re Next, instead?