Showing posts with label bates motel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label bates motel. Show all posts

Sep 18, 2020

Z (2019)

[Contains minor spoilers.]

When I was a kid, I had an imaginary friend named Mr. Suit. I called him that because of the old looking clothes that hung from his tall and lanky body, completed by a matching bowler hat and a beard so thick that Grizzly Adams would’ve felt genetically deficient. I never told my parents about Mr. Suit, and I made sure never to “play” with or talk to him when they were around, because, by that time, I was already feeling a little ostracized by the other kids at school and I didn’t want to engage in any further behavior that might seem weird. You see, I somehow knew Mr. Suit was imaginary, and no one else could see or hear him, so why complicate my life even more? Still, he was my only friend, so I almost always did the things he’d tell me to – most of which were pranks, and fairly harmless. He used to make me pinch clothespins around the tail of a neighborhood cat that often wandered my small town’s backyards looking for food, or he told me to dig up large shrubs from the neighbor’s garden and plop them down in the middle of the busy road so cars would come along and plow into them in the dark. One night, very late, Mr. Suit told me to go stand next to my mother and stare at her as she slept; eventually, he said, I’d know what to do, because he would guide me. I did what he said, but after a while, no epiphany came, so I merely stood at her bedside and stared at her in the dark until she’d woken up on her own and, upon seeing me, let out a half scream of surprise. This was the most dramatic show of influence Mr. Suit ever perpetrated over me, and as time went by, he visited less and less until he never came again; I assumed he’d dismissed me as a disappointing protégé and moved onto a more promising kid. For a long time after, I questioned what Mr. Suit wanted from me until the day came when I finally understood that I was Mr. Suit, and I was the one telling myself to do these things. I wrote it off as childhood nonsense and eventually forgot about the whole thing. A few years ago, I was reading online about area serial killers and that was when I first learned about H.H. Holmes, known, infamously, as the first serial killer discovered in the United States and subject of the non-fiction book The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (the adaption of which is allegedly coming from Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way production company and possibly director Martin Scorsese). Upon seeing the last photograph taken of this murderer of 27 people before he was hung in 1896 in Philadelphia, roughly fifteen minutes away from my childhood home, I would’ve told you, without a moment’s hesitation, that this H.H. Holmes had been my childhood friend, only his name back then was Mr. Suit, and he’d slept standing up behind the curtains in my room at night while softly laughing at the funny dreams I assumed he was having, or maybe at all the weird, dangerous things he was conjuring in his imagination for me to do.

I’m obviously kidding. My point is: imaginary friends are creepy, aren’t they? And in horror, they are typically one of two things: the devilish, dangerous side of a child’s personality, or a walking entity masquerading as childhood fancy. The imaginary friend is an under-explored concept in horror, generally utilized in haunted house movies (The Conjuring, The Grudge) where it ceases being referred to as such after the first act, because by then it’s revealed that said imaginary friend is actually a trapped spirit or something much worse. Rarely does the imaginary friend concept stick around for the duration; the closest exception I can drop is, hilariously, Drop Dead Fred.

And that’s what makes co-writer/director Brandon Christensen’s Z so refreshing. Elizabeth (Keegan Connor Tracy) is one of many parents in the world who accepts the fact that her son, Josh (Jett Klyne), has an imaginary friend, this one named “Z.” Over time, however, Elizabeth begins to realize that “Z” has an unhealthy hold over her son, and may be persuading him into doing increasingly dangerous things. “Z,” also, becomes much more than imaginary, in that she begins to see him in the flesh, and with everyone else in her life, including Josh’s father, Kevin (Sean Rogerson), not experiencing the same things she is, her battle against “Z” soon becomes one she has to fight on her own.

Z seems to have picked the bones of the last ten years of supernatural fright flicks, including Lights Out, Sinister, and especially Insidious, but that’s not necessarily a complaint. The horror genre has always been cannibalistic, perpetuating itself by living off previously explored ideas. Ironically, even Insidious is a perfect example, in that it’s story of ghostly events leading a scared family to obtain the services of mystics and paranormal investigators has been lovingly borrowed from Poltergeist. On the surface level, Z is familiar territory – the peculiarly acting child and his creepy drawings, the lone parent who begins to question her sanity – but as Z plays on, it begins to forge its own identity. There’s a genuine attempt at establishing histories for our characters, which not only help us to sympathize with them, but which also provide just enough personal trauma to make us wonder if the creepy goings-on are actually the result of our lead character’s psychological break with reality instead of a surface-level supernatural infestation. 

The titular boogeyman is only spotted a handful of times, and only for a few frames. All told, “Z” appears on screen for less than three seconds across its entire running time, but what you see is genuinely unnerving. The golden rule in the haunted house sub-genre is the more you see the specter, the less effective it becomes. In that regard, Z presents its creepy figure in just the right way. (Resist all temptation to press pause on the figure, believe me.)

As a horror fan, I’m glad to see Keegan Connor Tracy enjoy a lead role, as she’s been a constant part of the genre since the 2000s, with turns in White Noise, the loony Final Destination 2, Bates Motel, and a handful of appearances on the CW’s never-ending Supernatural. (Amusingly, she was also in the direct-to-video sequel The Net 2.0, where she played a character named Z.Z.) As such, she’s well practiced as someone playing against a horrifying threat, which makes her turn as a beleaguered mother an easy and effective sell. Though she plays a familiar archetype, Z imbues Elizabeth with a history that moves the story into a more mythical and emotional direction, and thankfully, she doesn’t just play “the mother” or “the wife” – a bystander observing the action and offering a zero-hour nugget of advice that guides the hero to victory. She’s the hero, or at least she’s the only one who can vie for that role because she’s the only one who can, and when she descends into pure mania before film’s end, Tracy throws everything she has into the role with impressive dedication. That she spends the first act of the flick caring for a terminally ill mother alongside her sister, Jenna (Sara Canning), helps to both ground the movie’s wackier events and add an additional twist on the concept. In genre films, someone always dies, but in Z, someone is already in the process of dying, which helps it to feel different and poignant while basking in the cemetery of other films that came before it.

If you don’t expect a reinvention of the wheel, then give Z a fair chance. Though it makes a few of the same mistakes that its brethren often do, depending on visual effects it can’t quite afford, and with an ambiguous ending that borders on mean-spirited, Z still manages to offer a fair amount of creepy imagery, dense atmosphere, and a fresh twist on an old concept. 

[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Mar 14, 2013


Like it or not, Bates Motel is back in business. Based on the four-film Psycho series beginning with Alfred Hitchcock's legendary original, itself based on the novel by Robert Bloch, Norman Bates is about to go off his rocker...again.

"Bates Motel" explores the early years with Norman (Freddie Highmore) and his domineering, over-protective mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga). After the untimely death of his father, mother and son pack up their car and head to the prime piece of California real estate Norma was able to buy at a steal. It's not long before the Bates begin to meet the locals...including one Keith Summers (W. Earl Brown), whose family had built and then subsequently owned the Bates' new property for generations, and is none too happy to see it under the care of outsiders. Couple this with the girls at school showing Norman a sudden interest, and Norma begins to feel like she is losing control. Her plan for a fresh start is threatened by the unhinged Keith and her control over Norman looks as if it's slipping.

This being a prequel to the prequel to the original Psycho, naturally the blood starts flowing...before Bates Motel checks in its first guest.

This was tried once 1987 (between the third and fourth Psycho entries.) Starring Bud Cort and Tank Girl from Tank Girl, Bates Motel tried its hand as a pilot but ended up being a one-off TV movie due to audiences' sheer disinterest in the subject matter. In the movie, a fellow inmate from Norman's insane asylum (Cort) apparently inherits the former Bates Motel and accompanying house from his crazy friend and attempts to re-open it for business. Who knows why. Murders happen. Blood flows. Moses Gunn is there, having an awesome name. I guess other stuff. Attempts to watch the 58th generation VHS rip posted on Youtube is a Herculean task of patience, so I can't say I was ever able to sit through the whole thing.

But that's all moot, seeing as how "Bates Motel" is being tried again...only we're going back in the present(?).

I chose to call this a "reaction" rather than a review because it's tough to review the very first chapter of what has been planned as an ongoing series. Not a miniseries, mind you, but an honest-to-gosh television show. We've barely scratched the surface of where the show-runners plan to go, so it's tough to pass judgment on what's essentially a nugget of an idea soon to materialize.

So, what was my reaction?

I was hesitant upon realizing the show was being set in modern times. It's strange to see a modern-day prequel to a film made - and which very much reeks of its year - in 1960. But already I can see what the show-runners are attempting: with Norma's collection of somewhat antiquated dresses, Norman's rather drab ensemble and outdated puffy haircut, and with all the very old house furnishings that came with the house, and which Norma claims they'll toss as soon as they can afford to get some other things (but will likely be sticking around), there is going to be more to this show than a fish-out-of-water, the boy-next-door-is-a-killer pulp tale. It's going to be the old culture clashing with the new. Hitchcock's original film played up the isolation of Norman and his mother, especially after "they moved away the highway." So since we're technically not at that point yet, we need to find another way to isolate the Bates - and if not geographically, than culturally. Oh, sure, Norman already has an iPhone upon moving to their new home (a mistake, if you ask me), but beyond his own mother, who also has one, who do you think he ever called with it? Because of this culture clash, I find the modern updating a little more forgivable  The Bates exist in the modern world, but in their own time. It's too early to tell how this will play out, but it's an interesting choice.

Vera Farmiga is one of her generation's most unfairly uncelebrated actresses. The Departed likely put her on the map, as well it should have, because she's great in the Boston-set crime piece, but she's been holding her own since and struggling somewhat to be re-recognized. She's certainly not a stranger to playing the mother of a somewhat...aloof child (see Joshua and Orphan), but this time she gets to show off her own brand of crazy. Not that we've yet to see any of this craziness per se - this is, after all, only the pilot episode - but something is there, simmering just under the surface. It's handled perfectly subtly, and Farmiga seems to be doing a good job of playing her role right down the middle - she's not all there, and you can somewhat tell, but we're not rooting against her yet (if we're ever meant to.)

The jury is still out on Freddie Highmore as Norman. He seems, at best, adequate for the time being. This might be the most high-profile project he's been a part of since 2005's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That coupled with the jump to television has made the struggling thespian a little too willing to show off his chops. Some of it works, but some of it borders on embarrassment. Not helping him any is the sometimes awkward dialogue (ie, "There's a man on the floor lying in a lake of blood! What do we do, mother? We have no idea what to do!") 

Confessing my ignorance on details of the actual production, the show creators have either opted to film exteriors on the original Universal black lot to include the infamous house and motel, or they have done an admirable job of recreating it - including the house and motel interiors. Either way, good on them. The mere idea of updating the Bates house, forever sitting atop its perch, is blasphemous, and I'll definitely cop to some movie geek chills seeing the Bates house and motel again after all these years.

Oh, and for the record, does Norman seriously meet five gorgeous girls and is taken out for a night on the town by simply sitting on a bench and listening to classical music? The fuck?

Only in the world of make-believe...

Surprisingly, A&E seems to be going ahead with the suggestive incestuous undertones that were only alluded to in the original film, and which became more and more direct in each successive sequel. Nothing too obnoxious - at least so far - just a mixture of slightly unnatural mother/son closeness and a couple suggestive glances... although the soliloquy Norman delivers to his mother to close out the episode might blow the lid off my usage of "nothing too obnoxious."

And that is where my main point of contention comes into play: The relationship between Norman and his mother is essential - it is the driving force to both of their madnesses, and it will make or break how the show plays out moving forward. All during this pilot episode, Norman has made it a point to act out, defy his mother's wishes (and orders), and attempt to forge his own identity. He meets new people rather easily considering the show wants us to buy he is an outcast, and for the most part, the girls swoon to him like crazy (which will likely rile up the "jealous and angry boyfriend" character trope we've seen so many times before). And yet...after Norman experiences a taste of this new life, in which gorgeous girls give him the time of day and he effortlessly makes friends and nothing remotely traumatic happens to him...why does he just opt to leave it all behind for his mother? There's no catalyst - no clear reason why he does so. There's no reason present why this new life just isn't for him. Arcs like this hinge on a moment for a character to realize they were wrong to think they could leave it all behind, but we just never understand why Norman does, and it was a rather weak way for the episode to end.

So what would Alfred Hitchcock think?

Hitch, who is back in a big way recently with this, his titular bio pic, and his less than flattering portrayal as a misogynistic prick in HBO/BBC's The Girl, would appreciate the casting of Highmore - at least in theory. Like Anthony Perkins in the original, Highmore is a handsome if somewhat awkward looking kid; rather unassuming and least on the surface. For anyone familiar with Robert Bloch's original novel (it's been ten years since I last read it), Norman Bates was not a primp, skinny, and handsome fellow, but rather described as fat and hideous - a man who no woman would ever consider a feasible partner in any sense. It was Hitch who decided to cast the handsome but plain Tony Perkins in the role, changing not just the character's face, but his dynamism and his drawing power. (As an aside, while the novel does contain a motel room shower murder, it's not dozens of stabs as depicted in the film's iconic scene, but just the one - in which Marion Crane is decapitated by Norman's blade.)

Additionally, citing one particular scene featuring a urinating cop, let's just say Hitch would appreciate the black humor as well, of which he was a master. From a director's standpoint, however, he would appreciate nothing. (Granted, we're in television, here - not film - but even "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" showed a little creative flair from time to time.) Nor would he appreciate the pilot hitting the ground running without taking time to build the Bates' madness. If anyone could milk the inevitable, it was him, and he would call the show's attempt to get right into it cheap and unsatisfying.

As a show free from its lineage and judged on its own merits, it's a decent first trek into scripted narrative for A&E. There's already enough ongoing drama to engage viewers not looking for growth to a previously established character, and there's enough grue to keep horror fans satiated, along with some not-so-subtle shout-outs (Coach Carpenter! Sheriff Romero!), and, of course, plenty of pretty faces. As for me, I'll tune in from time to time to see what's going on with Norman and his mother, but regardless of where they take this show, and regardless of how realistic or fantastic they make it, there's one thought that will always be looming in the back of my mind: Norman Bates' monologue to Marion Crane in the original film is all the back story we ever really needed - summed up neatly and effectively in just a matter of minutes. Because of that, I fear that "Bates Motel" was already irrelevant before the opening credits ever rolled.

Make up your own mind when "Bates Motel" premieres this Monday on A&E