Friday, October 26, 2012

Halloween Havoc: THALE (2012)

When it comes to shot on video productions I am, as a general rule, not a fan. Part of it is the lack of atmosphere, another major part seems to be a lack of ambition in execution. It's as if the filmmakers feel that since they are not spending the money to buy filmstock and paying the lab fees to have it processed, then they don't really feel the pressing need to put forward the effort into creating something impressive. I mean, it's just video anyway, why bother getting all worked up about quality production values and that script thing? Who cares? Just get me a machete with a half-moon cut out of it. Some, like the wannabe American Swedish movie BLOOD RUNS COLD (2011), make some good attempts and ultimately fail, but once in a while something comes along that completely shakes the foundation of my little Anti-SOV belief system.

Two average schmoes who are working for the "No Shit" crime-scene cleaning service find themselves sopping up blood and bits in a remote, dilapidated house in the woods. Well, one of them, Leo (Jon Sigve Skard) is cleaning. The other, Elvis (Erlend Nervold), is retching in a bucket. We are never told what exactly their orders are, but we find out that they are not only cleaning up the mess, but are trying to find parts of another person. While digging around the house and unearthing bones, they discover a short tunnel leading to  underground rooms. In-spite of Leo's protests that they were told not to enter, Elvis breaks into the cellar and finds what appears to be some sort of makeshift lab with bizarre medical books, weird illustrations, strange machinery, a bathtub filled with milky water and a tape recorder. Leo, trying to maintain a level head and a short leash on his impetuous and vomitous friend, tells Elvis not to touch anything, but of course  Elvis just has to touch things and that's when things start spiraling downward.

While listening to some of the strange recordings, a naked woman connected to the strange machinery bursts from the bathtub, disoriented, starving and feral. Finding this whole series of events a bit disturbing Leo makes a phone call and is told to wait. This waiting game is where the filmmakers and actors really get to show us what they can do. Borrowing a few subtle cues from EVIL DEAD (1981) and recent torture porn movies, but without feeling like they've cribbed anything, writer-director Aleksander Nordaas creates an exceptionally solid little chiller that packs twists and excellent character moments into three small rooms. Maybe not the scariest movie you've ever seen, but then again, I'm not sure that Nordaas is even trying to create a horror film, in the traditional sense. If you haven't seen the trailer, or read anything about the movie and plan on seeing it, you should probably skip the next paragraph. This thale is in the telling. No major spoilers, but it's hard to even talk about this movie without a few minor ones.

The woman in the tub is in fact a bizarre medical experiment derived from the capture of a mythological woodland creature that is "different from her sisters". A wild animal in human form with a tale. As it turns out the unnamed owner of the house had captured her as a small girl and spent decades trying to domesticate her in the tiny cellar rooms, going even so far as to surgically remove one of her appendages. Most of this is told in highly stylized flashback that gives a weird, acid-trip atmosphere to the story that shows some really sophisticated technique on the part of Nordaas, who also edited the film. Contrasting with that, while stuck in the rooms, actors Skard and Nervold are given a lot of room to portray their characters through minimal dialogue. Sure, there are plenty of low-rent flicks that don't have a lot of dialogue, but this is different. The dialogue is sparing, but important and allows the actors to act through their eyes and facial expressions. You know, real acting. If I made it sound like MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1981) in a crime scene, not to worry, the creep-factor slowly turns into outright nastiness as it gets closer to the finale. In addition to smart scripting, Nordaas has a really sharp eye for the visuals. Bathed in hues of green and yellow, with occasional splashes of red, Nordaas creates some very dramatic images that beautifully contrast with the lush colors of his somewhat surrealistic flashback sequences.

Loosely based on Norwegian mythology, Nordaas has crafted a smart, stylish little film with minimal resources and a talented cast and crew. The obligatory CG effects are very effective and used only in a few important places where mechanical effects would be far too labor intensive for such a small production. Nordaas wisely avoids the trap that many amateur movie makers fall into and thankfully at no point do we have to suffer through anything as irritating as CG breath effects. The last time I was blown away by a SOV movie was the Turkish thriller DRAGON TRAP (2010) and the "best of breed" Lovecraft opus WHISPERER IN DARKNESS (2011). This is a completely different animal compared to those two, but caught me off guard in a similar kind of way. Even in the first few minutes of the film, I did not expect it to be such a slow-burn, captivating actor's movie (and writer's movie and director's movie) that just so happens to be shot on video. Granted it's probably not saying much, since I not a big fan of modern, remake/plagerism-intensive horror filmmaking, but so far this is a strong contender for Best Horror Movie of 2012 in our annual recap.

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