Monday 24 December 2018

P2 (2007)

Director: Franck Khalfoun
Writers: Alexandra Aja, Grégory Levasseur and Franck Khalfoun
Stars: Wes Bentley and Rachel Nichols

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Sometimes the simplest stories are the best and P2 really doesn't have much more plot than an elevator pitch. IMDb suggests that, "A businesswoman is pursued by a psychopath after being locked in a parking garage on Christmas Eve" and, really, that's about it, but it kept me paying attention for an hour and a half and, crucially, it didn't piss me off. It had plenty of opportunity for stupidity and cliché, but it successfully avoided the former and mostly avoided the latter. It didn't go with the obvious cheap ending, partly because it had no interest in setting up P3 for a 2008 release. It set up its story, it told it with some style, it wrapped it all up and it went on home to spend Christmas with family, just like our businesswoman wants to do from moment one. Even though it spends almost its entire running time in a parking garage (hence P2 and why there wasn't a P1), it has as much claim, if not more, than Die Hard to be a Christmas movie. How's that for a controversial statement to start this review? Friendships have been lost over less!

The businesswoman in that description is Angela Bridges, who works in downtown Manhattan, where she finds herself stuck in the office late into Christmas Eve, and the season is completely obvious. The first thing we hear is Santa Baby played over the PA system down in the parking levels. Upstairs, Carl the security guard tells Angela that the building will be closed for the next three days; we hear subdued carols floating around the big Christmas tree in the empty lobby; and Angela has a bunch of presents with her to give to her sister's kids. If a future version cuts the scene later on when she explains to police on the phone that she's being held captive in the Arcadia Building on Park Avenue, we might believe that she works at the Nakatomi Tower where it will be Christmas forever. By the way, that isn't a spoiler. While Santa Baby plays over the opening credits, we follow a roaming camera through that almost empty parking level to a BMW just in time for a distraught young lady to burst out of its boot. Oh, we know where we're going!

What we don't know is how we'll get there and, one obvious red herring excepted, there's little to let us in on that secret until we get to the point where we don't have to guess any more. We don't even know why she's working so late, though we do know that it means that she isn't likely to make it over to her sister Lorraine's in New Jersey any time soon, even though she has the Santa suit! Given that she's played by the delightful Rachel Nichols, coming off seasons of The Inside and Alias, I really can't say I wasn't looking forward to that image. I've seen her grow on television since this feature, with stints on Criminal Minds and The Librarians (I missed out on Continuum and Chicago Fire), but somehow haven't seen most of her movies. I've tried to forget Star Trek and I avoided Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd. I think I've only seen her on the big screen in the Conan the Barbarian reboot, which was oddly forgettable given that she was up there at the top of the bill with Jason Momoa, Stephen Lang and Ron Perlman.

I ought to remedy that state of affairs, because she's very good indeed here. She's believable as a driven businesswoman willing to sacrifice her personal life for the sake of her career, she's believable as an object of obsession and she's believable as a tough young lady who fights back even though she isn't trained to do so. When she's forced to ring family to say she won't make it for Christmas at all, her mother isn't remotely surprised. When she raises her boyfriend to her kidnapper as a potential saviour, it's obviously an empty threat because she doesn't have any time for one; the only relationship we're aware of is an inappropriate drunken overture a colleague makes to her in a lift that doesn't get him anywhere and for which he later apologises. Clued-in horror fans will hazard a guess that she'll survive this movie because virgins make good final girls—maybe Angela's name is deliberate—but this is far from a slasher, we're not in the woods (though Nichols was in The Woods a year earlier) and I don't see any other girls around.
So, if we're going to get a final girl in P2, it's going to be Angela for no better reason than she's the only girl. This is a horror thriller and the question we have to ask is whether she'll survive it. Our first hint that she might not comes after she loads presents into the boot and discovers that her reliable BMW won't start. She's a practical girl, so she just retrieves them and heads for the elevator to call a cab, but the universe seems to be dead set on her staying. The elevator won't open. The parking attendant tries to jump start her car but it won't play along. And, while he's handsome—Wes Bentley was the neighbour in American Beauty and is sexy enough to join the cast of The Hunger Games—he's also rather awkward. He actually suggests that she join him for Christmas dinner in the Security office and that's a fantastic mixture of a polite and well-meaning offer in a tough situation, an artless and utterly botched come on and a hesitant beginning to a stalker movie. It's a good scene, but we can extrapolate the rest of the movie from it!

We aren't surprised when his assistance in getting her cab doesn't work out because the front doors are locked. And, when she fails at the parking garage exit, all the lights go out. This is a very believable opening and, while it's obvious where we're going, it's done well and without clichés. With no lights, Angela has to use her posh flip phone—it's 2007, remember, and nothing dates films within the recent past better than personal technology—to light her way through the parking garage and we just know that's going to eat the battery and provide opportunities for jump scares. Even here, though, it's done with style. She trips over something and, as she stands back up, there's the parking attendant right behind her with a chloroformed rag and Lorraine's isn't going to happen. She'll wake up in a slinky white number, seated at a table in the Security office, with wine glasses, roses and romantic decorations in front of her, and Thomas, for that's his name, dressed in her Santa suit wishing her a Merry Christmas. Oh, and she's chained to a pipe.
I'm not going any further than this scene, because this is where everything really begins, with Thomas polite and apologetic but in no way understanding of just how freaky a situation he's just set up. Even when Angela gets upset with him, he remains cocooned inside a fantasy world where the two of them are involved in a romantic relationship. He references The Sun Always Rises to her, as he's one of those men who forgives everything his woman does, even her infidelities. "It's what love's supposed to be, right?" Yes, he sees her as "his woman". Yes, he's completely delusional. Yes, we have a whole movie to watch her try to figure out how to get out of his clutches, out of his office and out of the building. What makes this film work surprisingly well is that Angela isn't stupid. You can conjure up in your head a checklist of all the mistakes she's going to make and you'd usually be spot on, but she's not your usual victim and she doesn't do all that stupid crap. My growing realisation of that is when I really started to appreciate P2.

There are other people in this film, but 95% of it is carried by Rachel Nichols and Wes Bentley, and emphatically in that order, even if the billing doesn't echo it. It's her film and he's her nemesis, even if he thinks he's her romantic lead. The few other members of the cast are props, sometimes literally, there for the two leads to interact with and react to. One in particular is given a particularly hard time of it, Thomas seeing him as a threat and dealing with him far more brutally than we ever expected. The gore is superbly handled but it's really not the point. We're digging deep into Thomas's delusions to understand who he is and what makes him tick and we're pointing out to Angela just how frickin' dangerous this dude is and how important it is to get the heck out of Dodge. He's not someone she can sweet talk out of whatever he has planned. Frankly, the busiest supporting character is Thomas's Rottweiler, Rocky, and you can imagine how many lines he gets. He's a prop too but an important one who leads to some great dialogue.
My problem with Die Hard being categorised as a Christmas movie is that it's hard to conjure the season into being the point. Sure, it's set at Christmas and there's Christmas music and a Christmas party but it's never really about Christmas, all the way down to John McClane's motivations. He's flown to LA to reconcile with his estranged wife and he really doesn't give a monkey's what day it happens to be. Here, Thomas, who is clearly not new in his job, has deliberately chosen Christmas as the time to let the young lady he's watched for however long in on the fact that he's madly in love with her. He sees Christmas as a time of togetherness and, of course, she'll fall madly in love with him when she sees the Christmas present he has for her, because how could she not? I won't tell you what it is, but it's very special and it leads directly to that brutal scene I mentioned in the last paragraph. It's a present of serious power and import. It dedicates Thomas to Angela irredeemably and, naturally, he thinks it's romantic as all get out.

That it isn't romantic in the slightest is why we have a movie. The 'madly in love' is accurate, because he's batshit crazy and there are scenes here that demonstrate that with glorious style. My favourite is an exercise in contrast and his sheer disconnection from reality. Angela's somewhere out there in P2 and she arms herself with a fire axe, takes out all the security cameras so he can't tell where she is and then comes looking for him. Thomas is in his Security office, dancing with a teddy bear that she'd bought for one of her sister's kids and serenading her over the PA system by singing along to an Elvis record. Yes, he's unrealistically confident in his control of the situation he's contrived but that's because he's delusional. He has no conception that his love might be planning to kill him to escape. All the best writers see their stories from the perspective of all their characters. These writers are well aware that this is a light hearted romantic comedy to Thomas, even if it's a horror/thriller to Angela.
Those writers are Alexandra Aja, Grégory Levasseur and the film's director, Franck Khalfoun. A year earlier, the former two wrote the remake of Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes, which Aja also directed. More importantly, three years before that, they co-wrote a pivotal French movie called Haute Tension or High Tension, whose success at TIFF, where it screened in the famed Midnight Madness track, was arguably the beginning of international success for extreme French horror, a scene later labelled by critic James Quandt as New French Extremity. This film isn't remotely as extreme as that one but it does follow on in some ways. Haute Tension is a love story in its way and Mark Holcomb suggested Steven Spielberg's Duel as an obvious influence in his review for The Village Voice. It's still an obvious influence here, because the whole story is a deadly dance between two characters, one of whom is presumably sane but the other certainly not. This is Duel reworked as a mad love story.

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