Saturday 19 January 2013

Beyond the Grave (2010)

Director: Davi de Oliveira Pinheiro
Stars: Rafael Tombini, Alvaro Rosacosta, Ricardo Seffner, Amanda Grimaldi, Leandro Lefa, Luciana Verch, Tatiana Paganella and Adriano Basegio

The first time I saw Beyond the Grave, the DVD was a workprint submitted for festival review with temporary visual effects and sound design. I was impressed and rated it highly, but it didn't make it past the selection committee for that particular festival. What I liked most was the film's feel, a far cry from the usual. Built from horror movie imagery, it felt more like a spaghetti western and not only because of the whistling, the coats and the hats. It's in the iconography and sparseness, the lyrical philosophy of the piece. I liked the music and the silence, the sets and the costumes. I didn't like the jump cuts at all. I was on the fence about the fight scenes, which unfold slowly and with very deliberate choreography. I really liked its genre hopping nature, as it seemed to cover a host of battles (cop vs serial killer, angels vs demons and Heaven vs Hell), all wrapped up within a post apocalyptic, spaghetti western, zombie infested road movie setting. It was surely different.

Watching afresh on Netflix with completed visuals and sound, I found that it played out in a very similar way to before. Netflix ratings seem to be either really low or really high, which may well have to do with the terrible start. An eighties style hero enters a building containing what appear to be hillbilly cannibals. He shoots them dead, slowly enough to demonstrate how incompetent or stupid they are. For some reason, the room also contains a swordsman with burns, though their gun vs sword battle quickly becomes a kung fu fight. The choreography is bizarre and, frankly, I hated it. It's jerky, stagy and unrealistic, though I presume it aimed to be stylish and archetypal. Most of those low Netflix ratings may tie to viewers not making it to the opening credits, missing out on the joys that are to come, and I can understand that. It doesn't bode well, but even as the film improves, it never plays to expectations. Those who know what they want may still hate it.

For me, it improved immediately afterwards. Instead of a stupid looking Turkish action hero, our lead turns out to be a grim cop, hunting villains with his souped up police car. He's half Mad Max and half William Petersen, an overly serious anti-hero with a heavy weight on his shoulders. He totally needs to loosen up, but here's where his car radio points out that the world has already ended. I guess we can accept some issues, then! He's more adjusted than the DJ, who talks about being the last man on Earth, happy to be alone. Being alone only risks his sanity, he tells us, while being with someone else risks his life. He broadcasts to an empty world anyway, just because. And here's where we focus on the opening text. We're nowhere in particular, in 'another time, another place'. The key is in a quote from Nietzche: 'No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.' I wondered about that throughout, but never really quite felt it gel.
Davi de Oliveira Pinheiro, who wrote and directed, is clearly a genre fan who knows what he wants to take from the work of others, not only from films but books too. It's no surprise to find that his three favourite movies, as listed at IMDb, are combinations of influences with psychological depth: Once Upon a Time in the West, Big Trouble in Little China and Blow Out. Beyond the Grave doesn't approach the heights of those films but it sits well with them on those terms, an ambitious journey through new material often constructed from old influence, less overt than a Tarantino picture but still clear nonetheless. He's obviously both well read and connected, as his career is full of movies about films and filmmakers, whether they're pure documentaries or not. I get the impression that he's an experimental soul who wants to dabble in popular culture and be recognised for his work, but never stop experimenting and never go mainstream. Think Jodorowsky, not Tarantino.

So the opening credits unfold to the yellow lines our cop's car travels along. This may come from The Road Warrior, as that film is referenced later through a music box and some of the costumes, not to mention the empty post-apocalyptic setting, but here it feels more like the early seventies driving movies like Vanishing Point or Two-Lane Blacktop. As the credits end, the cop confronts a young couple breaking into a store, before taking them under his wing. Outside are zombies, but not remotely standard zombies, perhaps explaining why they're never called that, like Cemetery Man. They're slow and mindless, but mostly ignored, even though at least one can fire a gun. The make up is varied, with one looking like an alien from They Live. Perhaps this is where Nietzche comes in: the survivors of this apocalypse own themselves, while the zombies don't. The young man from the store certainly philosophises like he's Coffin Joe, who surely owns himself.

The main influence that I didn't initially recognise comes as we find out what these folk are up to. The kids are after revenge, on someone they only know from a photograph. The cop is hunting a serial killer, the Dark Rider, who he's been chasing since before the end of the world, before the seven gateways of Hell opened up. I took this as a reference to Italian horror, perhaps an homage to Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento, but a little research highlighted a connection to Stephen King that grows stronger as the film moves on, with even graffiti being lifted from his novels. I haven't read The Dark Tower, unfortunately, so I can't know whether the cop we're following is a take on Roland Deschain, the hero of that series, or Randall Flagg, one of its villains. Deschain was partly inspired by Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name, which fits here, and he's on a quest that is both physical and metaphorical. Flagg appears in that series as the Man in Black, which also fits.
Certainly Beyond the Grave seems far more of a journey than a destination, as such a voluminous influence would surely inspire. The cop is clearly our general focus of attention but he frequently vanishes from the film, as if he's less a protagonist and more the bus driver on our ride through the apocalypse. For all the car shots, we don't move much physically, more through time, which here, as in the world of The Dark Tower, is unreliable. This presumably explains the jump cuts I didn't like, as well as some of the DJ's monologue, which I had initially written off as merely his madness. For all the zombies we see, whatever name they go by, and for all the gore scenes, this isn't a Fulci picture. It's the moments of life that are the magic ones here, not those of death, the latter pictured as pointless and wasteful. So we linger on a dance at night, the gift of a music box, the rumble of a powerful engine, the empty road.

The characters that populate this world are colourful. At one point the cop explores a house full of black magic paraphernalia: a magic circle, candles, severed ears, the works. He leaves to find his young companions threatened by an Indian with a bow, a woman in a gas mask and a harmonica player whose playing incapacitates those around him. Like most of the rest of the cast, they don't have names, and they function as icons more than characters. They're obstacles to be overcome or challenges to be met, the owners of roles that have meaning to the key players, as links from the past to the future. Even peripheral characters have meaning, such as a zombie who enjoys the cop's protection because he used to work for him, or the obese zombie in a bathtub who is unable to move but who can still eat. Each of these provides a slice of insight to a major character, and it's in doing this, rather than following a story, that we find meaning.

I'm still not sure how to place this picture. It's not the sort of film that can be easily recommended to someone based on anything other than itself. It certainly won't appeal to fans of zombie flicks. For all the iconography of horror, it's really a metaphysical western, though the metaphysics are more important than the western tropes. Its audience is likely to be filmgoers who look inside as much as out, who care less about genres than they do they about about film and technique. The fight scenes that I still dislike may highlight that. They unfold slowly and technically, almost as a turn based game, hardly an approach that works as action but perhaps one that works as insight. For my part, I loved the art of this film, the dreamlike lyricism, the hallucinatory philosophy and the audiovisual poetry, but I feel sure that I'm still missing out on the insight with which it seems to want to gift me. Perhaps a third viewing, after reading The Dark Tower, might help with that.

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