December 17, 2008

Seen Between Fingers -- The Castration Revenge Fantasy With A Thin Candy Shell

In this regular feature, wimp and noted horror non-enthusiast Chris Kelly reports back with his first-impressions of memorable scary movies. After spending so much time in the spooky 1970's, I decided to jolt us back to the present day and test Chris's appetite for this 2005 indie hit in which a pedophile's prey also becomes his predator (spoilers ahead!):


In keeping with the hopeful spirit of the season, I'll start by saying that Hard Candy could have been so much worse. A movie with an interesting concept and riveting lead actors is not exactly easy to come by, and even if this production completely loses control of itself by the end, we can be thankful that the people involved were striving for something ambitious. So I'm going to keep up the holiday cheer by giving the film credit for all the parts that scared me.

Like I said, the actors deserve serious praise here. Ellen Page, giving an angsty, too-witty performance that she would later scrub and refine to create Juno, makes a more effective monster than you would think. Even when she's not saying anything worth listening to (and this becomes more frequent as things carry on), she looks intelligent and calculating. Her remorseless conviction unnerved me and created real tension: I never doubted that she intended, and could figure out how, to make her prey hurt in creative ways.

Patrick Wilson seems similarly sure of his own fate, and his best moments come when he is reacting to veiled (and later not-so-veiled) threats. His mounting horror and varied ways of expressing it gave me goosebumps. There's nothing worse than sharing someone's anticipation of something horrible. As the movie crawls toward its forewarned violent emasculation, Wilson writhes, reddens, howls, and contorts, adopting the bristling physicality of a bound animal. Watching gave me deeply unpleasant sympathy pains.

The pacing of the movie's first half is also pretty perfect. We're given just enough time to worry about the helpless teenager before the tables turn, and then it's a long slog to the promised at-home surgery. The only thing worse than having your arm cut off is being told that you're going to have your arm cut off in an hour, and Brian Nelson clearly knew this when he penned the script. My insides were tied in endless knots while I waited for them to just get it over with already.

[Editor's note: My own insides were tied in knots holding back laughter. From the whimpering sounds coming from the seat next to me, you'd think Chris was being led through age-regression child abuse therapy.]

Then Ellen Page cuts Patrick Wilson's balls off and the movie entirely loses its mind. It's as if the choice was made to actively and deliberately avoid continuity, because everything we are told is systematically thrown out the window as we proceed. Those balls? Still attached. The murdered girl from the useless subplot? He did kill her after all. The lumbering suspense? Replaced with knife chases. Witty dialogue? Nah, let's throw in some clumsy exposition. And remember when Sandra Oh made a random cameo with the sole purpose of revealing that the roof is not a safe place to hide? How about we end things with an extended showdown on... yep, the roof.

Clearly, nobody knew what to do after carting out the notion of a tabletop castration. Not that they didn't make the effort; there was so much visible trying going on that my DVD player practically broke a sweat. Sadly, all that trouble was wasted, because the end result is half watchable and half pitiable. To continue an earlier metaphor, it's tough to feel menaced when the dude who cut your arm off is now threatening to drive a staple into your leg. Particularly when it's revealed that he didn't cut your arm off after all. And still he stands there, waving the stapler and screaming as loud as he can.

Essentially, by failing to follow through on its promises, the film neuters itself. The final scenes just dangle there, flaccid. The audience, seeing the story's impotence, no longer feels any sense of danger. I started out feeling genuinely afraid, but got over it once I realized that everyone was shooting blanks.

As an aside, I will say that Tom and I had a blast wondering what would have happened if this movie had fulfilled its B-grade destiny by casting other, less skilled performers. Seriously, imagining just about anyone else saying those lines makes for hilarity. What if this had been a breakout for Miley Cyrus and another Oscar bait from Robin Williams? Or a '90s classic starring Gary Sinise and Alicia Silverstone (with a surprise cameo by Rosie O'Donnell)? It's a fun game, you should play along at home. You pretty much can't go wrong.

[Editor's note: Sean Connery, Chris Crocker, surprise cameo by Zelda Rubinstein]

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