29 May 2012

YEAR OF BLOOD: MEMENTO MORI

Ironically, because there is no mail on U.S. Memorial Day, I didn't get Memorial Day in time for a Memorial Day review. But what's one day between friends, especially when the net result is celebrating the sacrifice of our brave men and women of uniform with fucking and killing, just the way they'd have wanted it.

Let us start by conceding the reality of the situation: the reason Memorial Day exists is that no horror film with that title had yet been produced, and since the raison d'ĂȘtre of both the U.S. Memorial Day holiday and the slasher film subgenre is to send young people into the woods to get drunk, this was an oversight that could not be stomached. It is shocking that it made it so far into the direct-to-video horror boom as it did without one smart filmmaker realising that he (or she; it would be possible, but I think, wildly unlikely) could get plenty of free attention just for giving his movie that title; that, for example, some time in the future, he might be able to sucker a film blogger into reviewing the movie on the last Monday in May just because there was no other option.

Second concession: I don't know how far into the direct-to-video horror boom Memorial Day was made. The IMDb page, and I am certain that it refers to the same feature, every single name is correct - tells us that it was 1999, but the copyright date in the end credits is 2004, and every single reference I can find to it begins in 2005. This doesn't sound like much of a controversy at all, then, except that for the IMDb to be off by five or six years in the case of a movie less than 15 years old, wherein the filmmakers would presumably be keen on having the most accurate possible information out there, seems at least a bit unlikely. Presumably there is a story behind all of this. Presumably, it is not very interesting. It's still probably more interesting than the story presented within Memorial Day itself.

What we have here, is director Christopher Alender and writer Marcos Gabriel (both of whom did multiple other things to get the movie made, including editing) making the most unabashedly typical slasher movie that they possibly could manage, perhaps as a way of showing off nothing more than the fact that they were able to, sort of like writing a spec script for a television sitcom entirely because it shows that you can work entirely within somebody else's very strict rules. If that's the case, I regret the wasted effort.

Memorial Day begins with (sit down, I don't want to shock you), a young couple fooling around - Trevor (John Haydon) and Tyra (Martine Shandles), though we won't know their names until after they're dead. Both of them are shirtless, giving us the obligatory boob shot for the feature (and at the risk of sound just awful, Ms. Shandles has unusually photogenic breasts), and just before they're about to Do It, Trevor realises that he has no condom on his person. Tyra makes him go to the car and get one - and yes, I think little safe sex PSAs never hurt anybody in a movie aimed at teens, particularly the undiscerning ones likeliest to enjoy Memorial Day - and there, naturally, he ends up dead. Tyra, waiting for him, doesn't observe that the figure in black who arrives is of a rather different build, and since he - it? - he almost immediately blindfolds her (the couple had been arguing about getting into light BDSM just before, so she views this as her victory), and binds her to the bed, and then waits a bit, feeding her pieces of fruit for what feels like several hours, before shoving a knife down her throat. And here we have, by the eight-minute mark, one of the most distinctive things about Memorial Day: while it does not do very much to challenge any of the common horror tropes, the one it is absolutely head-over-heels in love with is "Boys die in shock cuts, girls get stalked". At the risk of giving anything away - though I am genuinely sure that anybody who would give a shit could pick out exactly who lives and dies long before the living and dying starts - eight people die before the Final Girl sequence starts, three of them women and five of them men, and all three of the women die in protracted, three or four sequences that just linger and are agonising and one of them in particular feels very much like a torture film sequence (a hot iron bar and crawling over razor blades are involved), which is part of why the question of when, exactly, this movie was made seems so important to me. Meanwhile, three of the five men die in the amount of time it takes to snap your fingers, without even knowing they're in imminent danger; one dies pretty suddenly; only one is given any kind of lingering death at all. Boys die in shock cuts, girls get stalked and tortured a bit first. Lovely sexual politic, and present in just about every slasher film worthy of the name; but Memorial Day is so extraordinarily forthright about it, and it's enough to make what was already a rough, hard-to-like movie just vicious enough for me to vaguely hate it.

But hating Memorial Day is more work than it's worth. Picking up after the opening titles end: there are nine college-age friends all headed to Memorial Lake for the first time in three years, to reconnect and get hugely drunk. These are, in the order we meet them, Reagan (Jasmine Trice), a snippy complainer, and her boyfriend Seth (Derek Nieves), who has bleach-blond hair and the worst attitude imaginable; Leo (writer Marcos Gabriel! Hi, Marcos! Nice star role you made for yourself!), who is kind of affable and also kind of bullying, and seems to be the prime mover of this trip; his cousin, Rachel (Therese Fretwell), whose brother died at Memorial Lake three years ago, leaving her with a hefty case of survivor's guilt; Mickey (Andrew Williams), who waggles his hands in the air and shouts at odd moments and acts in general like Quentin Tarantino's kid brother; his girlfriend Cindy (Erin Gallagher), who gets to be the inevitable person in a cast this size who was looking the other way when they handed out personality traits; and Jeremy (Adam Sterritt), Mickey's friend, who has never met any of these other people and thus permits Cindy to give us a much-welcome exposition dump in which she just straight-up rattles off character names without even pretending it's for any other reason than so we in the audience can keep track of everyone. Sadly, since she and Jeremy already know each other, she never has cause to say, "And I'm Cindy!" and that is why we don't hear her name until about ten minutes before the end of the movie. Tyra and Trevor are meant to be the last of their group, but nobody knows where Trevor and Tyra are...

So they all end up in a cabin in the woods that doesn't really look the part - large red EXIT signs are quite prominent, and the whole thing has a distinctly civic center vibe - and Someone is stalking around, and at the 36-minute mark, just less than half of the 80-minute movie's running time, He She Or It starts killing the kids, and this has to do with Rachel's dead brother. Eventually, everyone is dead except for Rachel and the killer - I have spoiled nothing, it's obvious before Rachel even appears onscreen that she's the Final Girl - and we learn what's going on. As it turns out, what's going on requires that the most obvious choice be the killer, because of how the first death scene was blocked (they all but say, "Hey why isn't [Character] here, where all the rest of us are watching our friend bleed to death?", so Gabriel and Alender are obliged to fabricate a secondary twist ending which is much harder to predict, on account of making absolutely not even the slightest hint of sense.

The best parts of the film anyway, are not the slasher bits, but the various attempts to stretch the running time as far as it will go: a length argument about how Seth won't stop to let Reagan pee, or Seth's short, pointless story about passing a kidney stone, or Mickey's long, pointless joke about picking up a hitchhiker. And by "best", I certainly don't mean "best". "Strangest" and "Most atypical", maybe, and that has to make do. I mean, when was the last time a slasher film came out with a fixation on urine? Answer: not long enough.

This is, at the risk of being too hard on a movie clearly made for very little money, a bitterly unimaginative slasher film; not a single story beat and not a single death scene and not a single character detail is playing by any rule that hadn't been set in stone by, oh, 1983. And frankly, if I were counseling microbudget filmmakers on how they could best raise their profile, "make a shlocky genre movie in the least imaginative way you can" would not be my advice. Isn't the whole point of a tiny crew making a tiny movie to do things that are imaginative enough to draw attention? Or is that why the whole Memorial Day title gambit was conceived? Because obviously, from the fact that I watched it and you're reading this essay, it worked.

That said, there's nothing out-and-out bad about the movie, though Williams and Nieves are truly awful actors who should never have gotten out of the rehearsal stage without their aggressively douche tics heavily stamped down. It was shot on prosumer video, and that puts a very definite ceiling on how competent the cinematography and audio can be; I suppose there was little time for multiple takes or re-shoots, and this probably why things like the giant fly buzzing right by the camera lens during the requisite campfire scene was allowed to stay in there, despite being more energetic and interesting than any of the performances. The makeup is solid enough, and there are a handful of shots that work better than the "this is the angle things like this are shot from" mentality throughout most of it (a particularly nifty example: a handgun on a bedspring, looking down at Rachel fumbling with a door; not John Ford or anything, but it's a nice example of driving the narrative through focal depth).

It's just so hells boring - indistinguishable in any meaningful way from a thousand other crummy horror movies in the woods, except this one looks like it was made for $5, and they frequently look to have cost $20 or even $30. That's enough to buy Memorial Day a tiny bit of an excuse; but not at all enough to justify anyone but the most deranged and desperate slasher buff ever seeking it out and wasting even just 80 minutes on the thing.

Body Count: 9, as has previously been discussed.

2 comments:

james1511 said...

IMDB could be wrong, but in this case it seems too wrong to be the case. I suspect it's probably been entered by the filmmakers back in 1999, at which time it may have been given some sort of preview screening, maybe as a work in progress, then for whatever reason it may have taken that many years to actually be finished (or reshot?) and get into general circulation. This is supposition on my part, but such a situation would hardly be without precedent. (In the unlikely event you ever come across an Australian documentary from about ten years ago called Making Venus, you will see just such a scenario played out.)

Tim said...

That's more or less what I guessed, and I imagine a sufficiently dedicated person could even find out for certain. I am not. At any rate, it's "officially" 2004 on this blog's index by year of release.