Sunday 5 August 2012

Below Zero (2011)

Director: Justin Thomas Ostensen
Stars: Edward Furlong, Michael Berryman and Kristin Booth
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.
This is a Twilight Picture, apparently, but not a Twilight picture. Let me make that clear right off the bat. You'd really think they'd change their name. More promising is the setting, the middle of Canadian nowhere, and the cast, which isn't big but is impressive. Kristin Booth is Penny, a small town single mother who's desperately trying to be Frances McDormand in Fargo and doing a pretty decent job of it. She picks up Edward Furlong, who's a screenwriter from California known as Jack the Hack. He's suffering from writer's block and his agent is going to drop him if he can't produce a script in a week, so perhaps locking him inside an Alberta meat freezer might do the trick. Jack tries to pass it off as method writing, but he really doesn't have a choice: Penny isn't to let him out until he's done. I get the concept. So does the screenwriter of this film, Signe Olynyk, who apparently did for real what Jack gets to do, and in the same meat freezer to boot.

Given that we can't fail to merge the two of them in our imaginations as we watch the product of theirs, it seems surprising that Jack is pretty much a waste of space. Sure, he wrote a successful movie, but that was four years ago and Penny saw it. 'But I'm sure this one'll be good,' she tells him. The cleverest thing he says is the tagline to the movie: 'There's nothing scarier than a blank page.' It sounds like he's said it many times before; his nickname is presumably a lot truer than he'd like it to be. He's as lacking outside of work too. While Penny is taking good care of her son, the silent Cole who's 'a good kid, just different', Jack hasn't seen his son in three years, a shock when he realises it. I was shocked to realise that this marks a full two decades since Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but Furlong has worked through American History X, The Crow: Wicked Prayer and Detroit Rock City to end up looking somewhat like a young Sam Raimi.

And so off we go. Penny has set everything up as per his agent's instructions. He gets a bed, a set of books and a school desk to put his laptop on. There's food, of course, but no toilet, just a bucket. There's no internet and the phone is broken. A cork board, a goldfish in a bowl and Elvis the dead pig hanging from the roof ought to be less distracting. He does get a ball, which is all Steve McQueen needed in The Great Escape. There's also a screenplay Penny wrote, just in case he gets bored. He may well need it, because without it he starts out with, 'What if someone was accidentally locked in a meat freezer by a serial killer... who doesn't know he's in there?' That's all the setup we get. She locks him in and we're ready to be stuck with Jack and his writer's block for five full days. That isn't promising, as it sounds a lot cooler than it's likely to look, something that feels more like a novel than a feature length film. Clocks ticking in movies are annoying.

What we get instead is a neat blurring of reality and imagination, as we see what Jack starts to conjure up. I was reminded of a Tom Waits interview. 'Some songs come out of the ground just like a potato,' he explained about his inspirations. 'Others you have to make out of things you've found: like your mother's pool cue, your dad's army buddy, your sister's wristwatch.' Waits has the luxury of time, of course, while Jack the Hack is stuck in a meat freezer with Elvis the dead pig and the most important deadline of his life. There's not a lot to find, by design, so he builds his screenplay out of the things he, and we, saw in the first twenty minutes: hooks, cows, a tarp, a silent little kid and a locking door. Of course, he imagines a decor that's dirtier, grittier, darker, more horror movie. The walls are bloody, with partial skeletons on those hooks, a woman hung from the ceiling along with the pigs. Oh, and Michael Berryman, of course. Let's not forget him.
It's an interesting approach, especially when you factor in the real life layer. Just as Signe Olynyk apparently imagined herself into Jack the Hack, Jack in turn imagines himself into Frank, a tow truck driver who's a take on Cole's mysterious and absent father. It's relatively predictable, but it's capable enough. Of course the silent kid is a fictionalised version of Cole, called Golem. The woman hanging from the ceiling is Paige, a social worker investigating him. Just as Furlong plays both Jack and Frank, Kristin Booth plays both Penny and Paige and Sadie Madu plays both Cole and Golem. She's an Edmonton local, only nine years old, cast because she knew this location well, having visited the slaughterhouse for Hallowe'en parties. The film's website suggests that appearing in this film inspired her to join a youth theatre group. It's a pretty cool way to start a career. Now I need to be shocked to realise it's 2031 so I can look back at her achievements.

There are a couple of new characters. Michael Eisner (no, not the billionaire former Disney CEO) gets a little screen time as Morty, Frank's colleague in the towing business. Michael Berryman gets much more, of course. He channels a Karloff as the Mummy vibe as Gunnar, a completely cuckoo serial killer in a leather butcher's apron. He's worth watching whatever the material, but Berryman can do freaky in his sleep. To stand out against anything else in his filmography, this would need substance, much more than just Jack rewinding the footage he imagines to slip in new plot devices. Some substance arrives the moment we shift back to reality, only to discover that Jack is his own worst enemy because he's not there alone. He's been locked into this meat freezer with his inner demons, which blur the line between reality and his imagination as they torment him. They also seriously boost Jack the Hack as a character.

What follows is less a horror movie and more an exploration of the writing process and how hard it is to write. It's not just about writer's block, it's about doubt, motivation, integrity and a special brand of insanity which only writers will recognise. It's this last third of the film that will matter most when people determine what they think of it, as the first two acts are pretty accessible and straightforward. The first is all setup, played entirely straight, while the second reimagines the reality as fiction and begins to blur the two together. The third ratchets it all up a notch, as you might expect, but it also convolutes the story and makes us unsure whether what we see is real or not. When a fictional version of the film's writer imagines a fictional version of a character real to him and she tells him that a further fictional version of herself who has been interacting with a fictional version of himself could really be fictional to his fictional self, it may be a little too far.

I felt that the last act started out well but lost itself and I watched the film twice to be sure. It got to the point where I started to wonder whether any of this was real or whether the key to it all is Jack's T-shirt, which reads 'Insanity'. I see the cues that tell us what's real and what's not, but I'm not convinced that they're the only ones. That second viewing did help and I won't discount the possibility that a third might clear up the rest, but somehow I doubt it. I think I may now have got out what was put in. I wonder how much of an idea Signe Olynyk had about what she was going to write before getting locked in that real meat freezer, but maybe she took a journey inside her head, just like Jack does, and found herself a good story, only to lose it again before wrapping it up. At least it isn't BOSH, the term Penny uses to highlight how Jack's work is the same ol' same ol'. It stands for Bunch Of Shit Happens. Whatever else it is, at least this isn't BOSH.

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