Sunday, December 28, 2008

THE WITCHING HOUR (2006) d. Francois Merlin

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Hey film fans, it’s that time again! It’s another opportunity to meet with the rest of the class of Film Language 101 where we learn profoundly important terminology and how it applies to making a motion picture. The last time we met, I taught you about the word appalling and applied that expression to a film that had many appalling characteristics. Today we are going to get double our pleasure and tackle two indispensable vocabulary terms in one lesson. First up is the word pointless, which means having no use, of no value, meaningless. Following right after that is the term monotonous, which means tedious, repeated over and over, boring. Does bringing up these two adjectives mean we are going to explore how to make a pointless and monotonous movie? You bet your life we are and I’ve got the perfect pointless and monotonous flick to explore. It’s called THE WITCHING HOUR and after carefully examining this cinematic sampling of soured sludge, you too will have attained the essential knowledge allowing you to make a pointless and monotonous film, if you dare.

THE WITCHING HOUR is the story of Ulrick and Alexandre Santoro (no relation to Santoro the Honduran Grappler), who are charged by their father to steal a priceless gem called the Eye of Sloveig. The Santoro brothers gather their friends/cohorts Nico, Sam and Michael and the five urban warriors take the fight to the House of Marcucci to wrest the jewel from this crime lord and exact a little vengeance at the same time. Unfortunately, their initially successful attempts bring them in contact with an unsuspected world of cannibals, zombies, succubae and the Demon Sloveig himself, whose eye IS the gemstone. Guns, knives, punches and kicks, as well as all many of human and demonic weapons are brought to bear in an orgy of blood to gain control of the stone and the Powers of Darkness that the Five Witches and Sloveig wish to direct.

THE WITCHING HOUR suffers from many problems right from the start and never relinquishes it hold on crappiness throughout the entirety of the film. To begin with, the general story seems promising, but it is exceedingly simplistic and to make the story pad out to feature length, everything about this flick is extended to the point that you think you are watching a Stretch Armstrong action figure being horrifically elongated while being heated over an open flame. When it is a dialogue scene, the plot comes to a screeching halt and useless verbiage spills onto the screen in torrents that inundate the viewer in verbal exercises of dreadful futility. Beyond being absolutely pointless most of the time, much of the dialogue is ridiculously obscene, as if the film maker wanted to see how much filthy language he could cram into a 106 minute motion picture, whether it made sense or not. To add to the pointlessness, most of the fight scenes, whether you are talking about martial arts, gunplay, knife work, chainsaw action or what not was overdone to the point where each scene got tiresome. Fights are not necessarily better if they are longer. It isn’t about how much punishment a human body can endure that creates tension and makes the story compelling, it is how much drama and conflict is created as a part of the narrative. Once again, most of the action didn’t seem to have a reason to exist other than to intensify the “action” element of the movie and throw punctuation marks of testosterone in between the muddy rivers of dialogue. To make matters worse, there were miserably long stretches of grotesquely dull gore scenes that made Lucio Fulci’s propensity for “probing the wound” look like a brief and jaunty romantic dalliance in a Walt Disney film. Entrails and blood are spread across the last two-thirds of the movie in ever increasing quantities but with no purpose beyond creating shock value. At least when you watched BLOOD FEAST, you knew that the gore scenes were all part of the Sacred Rites of Ishtar and served a plot purpose. So many of the gore scenes in THE WITCHING HOUR existed simply to raise the disgusting bar to the same level as the testosterone bar and be as “edgy” as possible, because being “edgy” means you are “cool”! In the end though, all the violence and gore just became horrendously monotonous and made THE WITCHING HOUR seem like it was 1006 minutes in length and not 106.

Had the action scenes and set pieces been of superior quality like so many of the modern Thai films made by or with Tony Jaa, I could have looked past the pointless and monotonous plot and may have enjoyed it for its choreography, but it was not to be. I didn’t like Jackie Chan’s GORGEOUS for many reasons, but I was able to appreciate the beauty of the fight scenes. Such was even more the case with the great Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao slugfest WHEELS ON MEALS, which really doesn’t have much of a story but is one of the greatest fight films of all time. THE WITCHING HOUR played more like a student film version of YAMAKASI, a film I hated for the way it was shot and edited. At least that train-wreck was well lit and used real film stock, whereas THE WITCHING HOUR is dark, grainy, shot on video, poorly focused and faux-avant garde in style so that it can be “edgy” and therefore “cool”. Every singly type of fight scene was shot like the camera had been strapped to a Tilt-a-Whirl that could pitch, roll and yaw at 750 miles per hour. Every possible angle which the camera lens could be utilized was exploited and then all the relentlessly scavenged clips were edited as rapidly as could be done so that no amount of visual pleasure from the fight scenes could be extracted, and remember, each scene is dark and grainy, making it even harder to see what the HELL was happening. When you can’t see or enjoy what is occurring AND each one of these scenes is egregiously too long, then the test of endurance becomes an exercise in pain management. The only interesting visual characteristics of THE WITCHING HOUR were that most of the scenes were filtered and/or treated in post production to be monochromatic. While many of these single color applications didn’t add much to the appeal for they were gray, brown or other dull shades, there were some icy blues, baleful greens and bright green/yellows that made for some compelling mood shifts at times. Later in the film when a “cauldron” was mentioned and that story element “developed” there were some moments of mixed media and animation coupled with even brighter jewel tones that also had an attractive quality. Had more of this kind of film making been attempted and some real atmosphere been developed, THE WITCHING HOUR could have really been “edgy” and therefore “cool”.

When you’ve got a film that has a pointless and monotonous story and visual imagery that only adds to how meaningless and dull a film is, the problems with THE WITCHING HOUR become absolutely metaphysical when you take into account that between the acting and the way the characters were written, no one is anything but plastic at best, but at worst the characters are miserable pustules of puerile putrescence. The family of cannibals may be the most infuriating collection of benighted souls ever created and then chained to a scene that was almost completely unwatchable and made infinitely more unpleasant by its pointlessness and monotonous nature. None of the principal five characters was anything more than a fighting and swearing machine and had little about them that was engaging. Even when humor was ham-handedly injected into the mix, it fell flat and no character was made to be more interesting or could be related to. What could have been an addition to the story that may have added complexity, mood, attitude and sex appeal were The Five Witches, but none of the them were anything more than vehicles for fight scenes, gore scenes and one reasonably interesting nude scene that was not nearly enough impressive pulchritude to turn around the plummeting gravity dung ball that was THE WITCHING HOUR. Finally, this film even had some audio issues that made it even quirkier than it should have been. It is a French film with English subtitles, the subs being truly English in nature that is done by Brits. This combination of English colloquialisms in word form juxtaposed with French language being spoken by the characters was awkward to say the least. In addition, there was some eclectic modern music laid down over the film that may have fit the tone of the movie better had it been a little less frenetically edited. One moment, a lighter and bouncier set of strains can be heard backing an action sequence, only to be replaced in a flash by the crunching chords of speed metal. This only strengthened the feeling that THE WITCHING HOUR was made by people who desperately needed sizable doses of psychotropic drugs but not only had their medications withheld, but they were given cane sugar laced with crystal meth instead.

Even the extras menu of THE WITCHING HOUR was plebeian at best. There was a small Stills Gallery that was actually its own menu option instead of actually being part of the bonus features. While small, the Stills Gallery was true to its name, for the images were “behind the scenes” or “promotional” in nature. There was a 19 minute “Deleted and Extended Scenes” segment which was problematic for the fact that the comments made by the “director” were not subtitled. Beyond that, why would I want to see anymore scenes that would add to the pointless and monotonous experience of this movie? I do not have nor do I try to cultivate a masochistic side, so enduring more of the imagery of THE WITCHING HOUR was clearly one of the braver actions of my life. Finally, there is the Redemption Films extras section with three trailers and a book teaser. I didn’t expect that the extras would save my viewing of THE WITCHING HOUR, but it certainly didn’t add anything to it either, engendering further reason to hate myself for having any dealings with this disc.

I hope that you have paid close attention during this extended section of Film Language 101 for it is to be hoped that the astute scholar will have gleaned enough wisdom from this lecture to avoid foisting upon the world another such offering that is so unrelentingly pointless and monotonous. Let us briefly review the main points of the lesson though so that the most essential cognitive growth can be retained. The plot of your motion picture must be cohesive and relevant; otherwise you will have a WITCHING HOUR disaster on your hands. You must film all of the sequences of your movie so that people can enjoy watching them or else you will be compared to THE WITCHING HOUR. Lastly, there must be quality acting and carefully scripted characters so that viewers feel connected to the story; otherwise the Curse of THE WITCHING HOUR will befall your creative efforts. There are few things worse than being pointless and monotonous and it is to be hoped that painstaking analysis of this monograph will make it so that no more films of this ilk will ever be made.

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