Tuesday 31 July 2012

It's in the Blood (2012)

Director: Scooter Downey
Stars: Lance Henriksen and Sean Elliot
This film was an official selection at the 8th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
Of the three Lance Henriksen movies shown at this year's International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival, this was the key one and it took home the Best Horror Film award. It's an indie feature from Monomyth Films, far from the usual schlock horror, yet it landed such a prestigious name. Henriksen's co-star and screen son is Sean Elliot, who precious few had heard of until this film. He started his career in 2008 in a bit part in a sequel shot for TV, then played a little further up the credits in a couple of features. Here, he's half of what's close to being a two man cast in a film that calls for serious depth of performance, playing opposite a major actor with major experience and being responsible for half the depth. As if that wasn't enough, he co-wrote and co-produced the picture too. Given that it's a notable success, it's clear that where Elliot goes next will only depend on how far he wants to reach. His future should be very open indeed.

Elliot plays October, a man with eidetic memory who reads a medical book while hitchhiking his way home to go on a hiking trip with his dad. It's fortuitous because when he gets there, he has to put his newfound knowledge to use pretty quickly, as his father's dog, Cairo, was caught in a trap. Dad is Russell, a fourth generation Texan sheriff, but October not being the fifth is only one reason why they're apparently not very close. He hasn't lived up to his father's expectations, that's clear, but there's a more specific history between them, one obviously tied to a girl named Iris, but the details aren't immediately forthcoming. They're revealed gradually, in keeping with the psychological nature of the story. We wonder how much is external plot and how much just their history, but really it's the latter manifested onto the former. When you fight your demons, how real can they be? Here, they're very real indeed.

Initially, at least, it's clearly about the relationship. It took October a year to answer his father's call and he still isn't really sure why he did. He calls him Russell or Old Man, never Dad, and the back and forth editing as they argue ably emphasises the distance between them. Yet at points, they're still able to find common ground and connect. They can even pee together. The first long scene they share has Russell teaching October how to drive stick and it's a joyous scene, set up as a sexual metaphor. Driving stick is one of those things Russell never got round to teaching him, like shooting a rifle or drinking 150 proof, though as we soon discover, the clock is ticking. This works well. Russell, who has nothing left of substance in his life, wants to start teaching his kid the things he should have done long ago. October, who has wandered the country trying to escape from his past, is on board with that, but not one skill he uses here came from his dad.

The two sides of the film merge quickly, as they reach the woods where they're planning to hike together. Their history starts to appear in their first argument. 'Are we going to talk about what happened,' asks October, 'or are we going to keep pretending there's nothing wrong?' Russell is sure of his side. 'What's done is done,' he states. Rather tellingly, it's as this clash really begins that Russell sees something in the woods that shocks him, fires his rifle in reaction and falls off a bluff, breaking his leg very badly. Now, instead of hiking together, they share in the aftermath of this event and the one that won't stay in their past. We don't really know what that something is that's out there in the woods, because it surely isn't what we see. We're shown what Russell and October see, visions shaped by their personal demons and shrouded in metaphorical fog. 'See what you want to see,' one vision tells October late in the film and that's meant for us too.
While It's in the Blood felt very fresh on a first viewing, it didn't gel the way it did on a second, where it played far more consistently for me. The writing has depth that doesn't all surface the first time through. Certainly though, the two leads do justice to substantial, well nuanced parts. Henriksen is sorely underrated, undeservedly slighted by being perceived as a genre actor, but I've never seen him quite so deep as here. He gets a lot of opportunity to be tough, hardly a stretch for him, but a lot more to be weak too and it demonstrates how broad his range truly is. Sean Elliot may well have this part because he wrote it, but if he wasn't worthy, Henriksen would have stolen this whole thing out from under him. That he fought hard enough for the two to be seen on equal terms speaks volumes. Rose Sima and Jimmy Gonzales only exist in the back story that we see in flashback but they do fine work nonetheless.

A perennial question at film festivals asks the size of the budget, especially with indie pictures. While the revelation of a tiny sum can lead to astonishment at how much was achieved with it, it often becomes an albatross. How can a film that cost X dollars be fairly compared with a movie that cost ten times or ten thousand times as much? This is one of those films where I don't want to know, because it stands up on its own merits. Sure, I can see how nothing we see here would warrant a sizable cost, beyond Henriksen's salary, but it doesn't matter. This isn't a Corman film where we can see the limits and focus on how well he avoided spending money. This didn't need any more budget unless it was spent on a camera with a better steadicam. In fact, more money would likely mean more effects and that wouldn't have helped. This is a monster movie where the monster is even more of a McGuffin than usual. We don't need to know what it is.

It's a frequently dark film, but the lighting (or the lack of it) fits the tone. We see everything we need to see. The camerawork is annoyingly handheld at points for a non-handheld movie, but the composition of frame is very careful and artistically set, starting at the very first shot, which is of an upside down stick insect. Many subsequent shots would work well as photographs, even before movement is factored in. The effects are appropriate, whether they're the impressionistic monsters, part Bigfoot and part Grey and all freaky weird, or Russell's rapidly deteriorating leg. Elliot's cohort as writer and producer, Scooter Downey, also served as director and editor and is capable in all those roles, even though he has even less experience than Elliot. Amazingly, this is his first feature outside of an internship on a Frank Langella movie in 2005. The maturity of the film, given the lack of experience of its key players, is truly astonishing.

Psychological overlay of internal demons with an external threat isn't your usual sort of horror movie, let alone a debut. To see it superbly handled is more than refreshing. I found myself less consistently impressed by the use of October's eidetic memory though. Initially it felt like a deus ex machina, a convenient way for him to have the knowledge needed later on, but as the story evolved, it became more substantial. Russell explains to him that 'everything fades' but it won't if you have photographic memory. From that angle, trauma is a powerful thing indeed and this story an excellent framework to explore that concept. Yet October is a cutter, like someone who needs marks as memories. Why would a man who can't forget cut himself to remember? Maybe I'm not reading that imagery as it was intended, but I can't see another way to read it. It just looks cool? Surely not. Maybe there's more waiting for me in a third viewing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

maybe elliot cuts himself to forget what happened and the fact that he cant forget is maybe why he is troubled and sees things that probably isn't there. great review by the way, some things make sense now after watching film and getting confused.