|Sylvia and Jen Soska, promoting their new film before they could say what it was.|
I'll say it straight up: I think the Soska sisters - Jen and Sylvia, the Twisted Twins - are the most positive and energizing creative force the horror and exploitation genres have seen in some time. Their two previous features, DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK (2009) and AMERICAN MARY (2012), respectively represent a victory over budget and a triumph over expectation that left any number of possible roads open to them. The latter - a black comic, feminist fable that, among other things, uses the genre to describe how contemporary society has made criminality too profitable to deny - warrants recognition as one of the best horror films of the last decade. In addition to being talented filmmakers who have already forged a voice of their own within the genre, they have also proven themselves to be self-promoters with few peers. With their matching hairstyles, distinct personalities and personal charisma, they are the Beatles of Blood.
The Soskas have been keeping busy since completing AMERICAN MARY - making two features almost back-to-back for WWE Studios, as well as a segment for THE ABC'S OF DEATH 2 - but only now is this fund of finished work beginning to surface with the imminent release of SEE NO EVIL 2, a direct sequel to a 2006 film that introduced wrestling star Glenn "Kane" Jacobs as Jacob Goodnight, a seven-foot-tall, 400-pound mountain of muscle dedicated to collecting the eyeballs of all those who have sinned in his eyes.
The original SEE NO EVIL was nothing to write home about. Directed by Gregory Dark - a.k.a. Gregory Brown, Gregory Hippolyte, Alexander Gregory Hippolyte, and Jon Valentine, depending on whether the format was music video, softcore or hardcore porn - from a script by Dan Madigan, it followed the misfortunes of a group of arrogant teenage coed delinquents bussed to the burned-out Blackwell Hotel, where they have been promised that some months will be knocked off their sentences if they help to fix the place up. Unknown to them and their prison supervisors, the hotel is being used as an elaborate spider web of sorts for the lumbering Jacob and his diminutive, nattering, Bible-crazed mother (Nancy Bell). The only remarkable thing about SEE NO EVIL - a film covered in grime and slime and generally awash in misery - is not its evident misogyny but rather its misanthropy; it shows an absolute non-partisan loathing for all humanity. The most likeable characters suffer the most and the worst, while the most loathsome character ultimately leads the final exodus to safety. When you watch the film, you can see the germ of an idea that might have worked - wherein the derelict hotel becomes an onscreen variety of Halloween haunted house - but the camera is on permanent throttle and it is not an enjoyable ride.
It's no surprise that this oppressive, unpleasant franchise bid didn't spawn any immediate return trips - eight years passed between its two chapters, which is virtually the distance between HALLOWEEN and HALLOWEEN IV (which, by coincidence, introduced Danielle Harris, the star of the film I'm on the point of getting to). What is surprising is that the WWE approached the Soska Sisters to helm a sequel, and that they accepted - it seems they are wrestling fans and, making no secret of their disappointment with the earlier picture, were eager to demonstrate what they could achieve with a fixer-upper. It seems they could do quite a bit.
|Glenn "Kane" Jacobs as Jacob Goodnight.|
In its skill and cleverness, in its playfulness and bawdiness, SEE NO EVIL 2 reminds me very much of John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN, though it is set in an environment closer to that of the hospital in HALLOWEEN 2 - a perpetuation, perhaps, of the Soskas' evident misgivings about the medical establishment. Unlike its oppressively heavy predecessor, it is something of a rare bird among today's horror fare in that it is a horror film that intends its audience to enjoy it. Though Lionsgate has sadly made the decision to deny it this, SEE NO EVIL 2 was clearly built to be enjoyed on the big screen, in the dark (into which it plunges us occasionally with great glee), in the company of a lot of other like-minded people who want to have fun with it. It sets its tone of tongue-in-cheek irony right away with loving details of numerous tools of death which are gradually revealed to be the forensic instruments in a mortuary, not the savage tools of Jacob's workshop, which are then followed by what may be the most delightful director's screen credit in movie history.
|Danielle Harris and Kaj-Erik Eriksen.|
Working from a script by first-timers Nathan Brooks and Bobby Lee Darby, the Soskas immediately set about fixing the original's most faulty carpentry by establishing a core group of characters that we come to quickly care about. Our heroine is Amy (Danielle Harris), a pretty morgue attendant who, we learn, surrendered her dream of becoming a doctor because "we all end up here eventually" - meaning the morgue. There are hints that life has disappointed her, and it is also passing her by - it's her birthday, which she planned to spend partying with a group of friends, until she, her infatuated pathologist co-worker Seth (Kaj-Erik Eriksen) and paraplegic boss Holden (BATES MOTEL's Michael Eklund) are suddenly inundated with the incoming from the previous film's slaughterfest. But some friends don't take "no" for an answer and the birthday party finds its way to Amy at the morgue, led by her best friend Tamara (AMERICAN MARY lead Katharine Isabelle). Dragged along in Tamara's undeniable wake are her boyfriend Carter (Lee Majdoub), another girlfriend named Kayla (Chelon Simmons), and Amy's brother Will (Greyston Holt), who intuits Seth's interest in Amy and advises him that his sister deserves better. There is a lot of sublimated, frustrated attraction going on - between Amy and Seth, also between Will and Kayla (who manages to overturn Will's tendency to see her "as a sister" with a hot kiss), and Tamara sits on Holden's numb lap to coerce some grisly details out of him. Anxious, fascinated by weird crime details, and feeling up for some dangerous drama, Tamara feigns a need to pee to seek out the remains of Jacob Goodnight, which she ends up straddling and teasing with an apparently effective kiss of life - it's the only explanation we get of his imminent resurrection, but better a sexy kiss than a lame deus ex machina.
|Raising Kane: Katharine Isabelle and Glenn Jacobs.|
SPOILER AHEAD: Once Jacob's cold carcass vanishes from his slab, the movie is off and running and the next half hour or so is fresher than anything the American slasher genre has seen since the 1970s. The Soskas delight in their morgue's haunted house possibilities, turning out the lights, letting us see just a little, and startling us with sudden bursts of violence and volume. The film becomes a thrill-ride not solely through their expert modulation of their suspense pieces and shock effects, but thanks to the fine ensemble work of the cast, who invest the film with a lot of life before the machinations of death take over. Danielle Harris and Kaj-Erik Eriksen make a resourceful and touching screen duo, so much so that one is almost reluctant to praise them individually; together, they invest the film with that charge of pending life, pending disclosure, pending passion that is placed in perpetual peril. Katharine Isabelle steals the first third of the film as Tamara, one of those characters who get under our skin as an uncontrollable and not especially likeable force of nature, making her an unexpectedly dear price to pay. I don't think it will come as too much of a spoiler to mention there comes a time when we must kiss Tamara goodbye (there must have been jokes on the set), and when this happens, the whole tone of the picture shifts with startling gravity, the galloping good time settling down to keep its promised body count. If the film's first half is unexpectedly playful and buoyant, it is the second half that is most surprising and lingering in the mind, building to a spent and sobering conclusion that looks to me, unless I'm very much mistaken, like a conscious nod to Antonioni.
The problem with most slasher films is that they are designed without the necessary sense of mischief that characterized the capital works of Hitchcock, Mario Bava and John Carpenter in this area. By consigning their artistry to their makeup effects departments, these films often default to tedious exercises in nihilism. This was the fault with SEE NO EVIL, which indicated no value to the lives it was designed to mow down. What is exceptional about SEE NO EVIL 2 is that it uses the genre to celebrate life in all its variety, in laughter and shyness and moments of resolve, and the dance of love whether tentative or careless, until its story must finally keep its promises to the franchise and the genre - at which point we are made to feel something, repeatedly - in the final tally, perhaps something more than the genre has traditionally taught us to expect. Not everyone will approve of where this film ultimately goes, but its final port is, I think, a courageous one and wholly consistent with the Soskas' previous work. It is bound to provoke discussion.
SEE NO EVIL 2 comes to View On Demand outlets this Friday, October 17, and will then be released on BD/DVD by Lionsgate on October 21. It is a shame that a horror film so obviously designed to be enjoyed on the big screen is being denied a full theatrical release - that said, it is having its World Premiere theatrical screening tonight (October 15) at the Screamfest Horror Film Festival in Los Angeles.
I envy the experience that crowd will be having as they sit together in the dark, and the talk that will inevitably follow.