Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Superstition (1982)

**Possible Spoilers Ahead**

There is a fear that I, as a cinephile, have deep down in my heart.  It’s not that the classics will be forgotten, per se.  It’s that the tactility that came with the cinematic experience is becoming outmoded.  There is a visceral connection between a film and a viewer when the grain is noticeable, or when the film goes out of register for a few seconds, or when the ambient hiss of the soundtrack dominates over the image on screen.  Today, digital film is so meticulously perfect it produces a feeling of falseness in the same way that robots who are designed to resemble humans perfectly don’t (aka the uncanny valley).  For the level of control that has been given to filmmakers, I would suggest that not only have they succeeded in producing work less and less distinguishable from each other (pay attention to the way certain types of film genres are color-corrected to within an inch of their lives), but they have also moved further and further away from the illusion of reality film was created to instill (even at its most fantastic, the point of a narrative film is generally to make the watcher believe what they are watching in that moment).  This is not an indictment of modern moviemaking technology nor is it meant to apply as a blanket statement about every filmmaker working and every film made today.  Plus, there will always be those who keep the fires burning for the more obscure movies and methods of exhibition (I’m sure there are audiophiles who live for reel-to-reel, too).  But I do believe that the numbers are shrinking, and eventually physical film will go the way of cuneiform tablets.  

Maybe on some level what this all boils down to is a fear of obsolescence, even while embracing parts of newer technologies (a dichotomy, to be sure).  It’s a strong possibility.  If the old cinematic ways can be tossed aside, so can the old cinema lovers.  Nevertheless, there is also the desire of the older set to share their appreciation with the new blood (sometimes to the point of trying to cram it down their throats, I admit).  However, I would argue that people who only ever read digital books will likely never understand the firing in the mind that physical paper’s texture or the smell of print and glue ignites, and similarly, people who only watch digitally produced and exhibited films will likely never understand how physical film’s imperfections form a major part of the attraction.  Just as you can admire the specific look of a particular artist’s brush stroke, each film shot on film stock had a look that was inherent in its materials, before even getting into the stylistic flourishes of individual filmmakers.  All of this is not to say that we need to be slavish to history, to eschew progress at all costs.  It’s possible there were once people bemoaning the waning popularity of the Vitascope.  The point here is to share the longing for a more rounded regard of this form I love so much.  And if the characters in James W. Roberson’s Superstition (aka The Witch) had a better understanding of history, they likely could have avoided a hell of a lot of headaches.

The old house on Mill Road is haunted, and, by all accounts, it has been since the late seventeenth century.  This doesn’t stop youthful minister David (James Houghton) from fixing the place up and moving old alcoholic minister George (Larry Pennell) and his family into the place.  The murders kick off almost immediately, thus giving Inspector Sturgess (Albert Salmi) an excuse to hang out at the house like he were a boarder and dole out both exposition and faux wisdom.  But the real question is, can anyone halt the evil that has been resurrected and stop it from spreading?  Well, can they?!

This is predominantly a Slasher film (we can’t really label it a Dead Teenager film, since there are only four characters that are teenagers, and two of those are only around for the [overlong at ten minutes] introduction scene), and the thing that distinguishes it from others of its type is that the monster is not some hulking, mute slasher murdering kids who just want to get liquored up and bump uglies.  No, what we have here is some hulking, mute witch.  And yet for me, that’s really all it needs, and I think it’s a kind of statement on the Slasher genre in general, when all that’s required for some semblance of individuality is to change the villain’s nature.  There are still all of the norms we’ve come to expect from Slasher films in here.  The kills are inventive, gory, and plentiful (and I have to say that the speed with which they occur is also a mark in the plus column for this movie).  Killer’s POV shots are used fairly often, but they’re also edited with omniscient POV shots in such a way that they do actually generate some tension.  The creature is unmotivated outside of being evil and needing to kill anyone who comes within spitting distance of her.  There are jump scares galore, accompanied by loud musical stings (and yet no cat dancing across a piano keyboard).  The witch is very wisely kept offscreen with the exception of her black, taloned hands, and unlike the Friday the 13th series, we’re never given even a fleeting glimpse of her horrible visage.  But it works, and I think the reason why these things work is because of the other influence on this film.

Outside of being Canadian, Superstition could very easily fit into the Eurohorror genre alongside such films as Dario Argento’s Suspiria or Michele Soavi’s The Church or Lamberto Bava’s Demons.  There is a definite ambience in the film, combining gothic and modern aesthetics.  For as much as this is a Slasher film, it’s a Haunted House film, to boot.  Still, there is so much under and undeveloped material, it could make your head spin.  The story is as simple as simple gets with leaps in logic no sober person would ever take.  The characters are as flat as pancakes and just as interesting to watch as the actors struggle to not bring them to life.  There are, thankfully, no characters who are safe in this filmic universe, whether they be men, women, or children.  What we would assume would be major narrative aspects are brought up and then forgotten about entirely.  For example, daughter Sheryl (Maylo McCaslin) has major problems with her souse dad.  Mute simpleton Arlen (Joshua Cadman) was somehow made thrall of the witch at some point in the past.  David takes a shine to Sheryl after catching an eyeful of her in a bikini.  Notice how none of these goes any further than one quick sentence?  That’s because they don’t go any further in the film either.  When I said earlier that Inspector Sturgess just hangs around the house, I wasn’t kidding.  The man is actively investigating disappearances and murders, but he’s as blasé about it as someone waiting in line at the local Department of Motor Vehicles.  The film is disconnected from reality in many of the same ways as the aforementioned Eurohorror titles, but if it mirrors any movie specifically, it would have to be Lucio Fulci’s master class in what-the-fuckery, The House By The Cemetery, a movie about a diabolical monster literally living and performing horrific experiments in a family’s basement (yes, really), as if they would have discovered him had they simply bothered to look behind that old chaise lounge chair in the corner.  Superstition is dumb in that same way.  It is also equally entertaining in that same way.  If you like that one, I highly doubt you won’t like this one.

MVT:  The kills are the name of the game, and when they happen, they are brutal and eyebrow-raising.  The film delivers what it promises in this respect.

Make or Break:  There is a scene involving an improbable circular saw blade that is utterly astonishing in what happens and in how this is received by the other characters.

Score:  6.5/10                      

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