Sunday, March 8, 2009

WALLED IN (2007) d. Gilles Paquet-Brenner

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Eerie abodes, creepy castles and dreadful dwellings have long been a deep and extremely rich well from which film makers have been able to draw when trying to create an atmospheric and disturbing set of images for a motion picture. Whether it is the cob-webby corridors, the blackened basements or the asphyxiating attics, a fright-filled structure can be the centerpiece upon which a great horror movie is built. Architecture in and of itself is a very interesting study and domiciles can tell us a lot about the history of a town and/or a family when you study the original plan for the structure and then explore any additions. While additions to the primary blueprints can sometimes improve the appearance and function of a house, too often there are excessive changes that are made and the fundamental plan is lost in a swell of attempts to “do better” than the first design, subverting the artistry and ruining the final outcome. Films can be a lot like that. What starts out as a promising tale winds in unforeseen directions and then the narrative ends up somewhere you’d rather not have gone. WALLED IN is a perfect example of a motion picture that started out with all kinds of strengths and seemed to be driving towards a degree of cinematic success, but like a crazed contractor slapping on all kinds of “improvements” to a house’s design, WALLED IN veered away from its blueprints and ended up being a bit disappointing.

WALLED IN is the story of Sam Walczak, a beautiful young woman who is given her first job as a structural engineer, the task being the demolition of a building with a very compelling past. The Malestrazza Building is an architectural marvel, but it is also the scene of terrifying events. Fifteen years earlier, a large number of people were entombed within the walls of the building, Mr. Malestrazza among them. Sam’s commission takes her inside the structure where she is suppose to determine the best way to bring it down safely, but against her better judgment Sam is drawn into the story of the building’s genius architect, his bizarre beliefs and how they affected his plans and the last few tenants living there. Sam’s curiosity leads her to a series of fascinating discoveries and even more frightening revelations, proving the old saw, “there is more than meets the eye”, especially when it comes to a building with the anomalies like the one that Sam almost becomes a part of.

WALLED IN starts off with some of the most eye-catching photography, set utilization and set construction I have had the opportunity to enjoy in some time. Whether it is the bleak but still attractive winter panoramas of the Canadian prairies and wetlands, the stark and forbidding exterior scenes of the “Malestrazza Building” (which is a model and a CGI construct, but a damn good-looking one) or the fabulously beautiful and atmospheric interior sets of the structure, WALLED IN is wonderfully shot. Particular attention is paid during the first half of the film to the internal architecture and d├ęcor and when moody lighting is exploited, mixing colors, shades, tints and tones, one is strongly reminded of a non-supernatural version of SUSPIRIA or INFERNO, for those fine Dario Argento films focused heavily on the power and profundity of architectural psychology. There are harsh and strident lines mixed with fanciful designs and accents, textured backgrounds and sleek characteristics, monochromatic scenes as well as hues that highlight visual elements and a chiaroscuro that is palpable and sometimes astonishingly opulent. Sadly, this level of artistry is not maintained throughout the movie and as the story shifts its focus, so too does the imagery and the painstaking beauty and power of WALLED IN sluices away like so much water running through a dam.

The director and many of the crew members of WALLED IN are French and for many people who like Euro-cinema, this could be considered a blessing. The French have a penchant and a reputation for leisurely paced cinema and for the first half of this film the patient nature of the plot is a positive. The story starts off as a mystery punctuated with some bizarre character interplay that stems from the quirky nature of each persona. The awkwardness of these interactions and the strange motivations for each character help to establish an overarching sense of suspense and occasional menace that keeps the story moving. During this stretch of the rising action, the striking and sinister imagery of the building and the patiently unfolding nature of its secrets make WALLED IN gripping and intriguing despite is unhurried cadence. As the story develops though, a whole new side to the narrative begins to open up, to the detriment of the final product. What started as a mystery with horror elements and some sleight of hand trying to trick the unwary viewer into thinking there might be some supernatural components becomes a tale about obsession/control mixed with revenge, and drama takes over the reigns of the plot. The onus is taken away from the house and all its secrets, all the strangeness of the characters wafts away and they are simply pawns in a psychological and physical torture/endurance saga. WALLED IN is certainly not “torture porn”, but it borrows from that misbegotten subgenre, taking away the wonderfully thoughtful color scheme and replacing it with sepia tones, removing the marvelous architecture and putting in sweaty and grimy or loathsome bodies, and slicing out any sense of mysterious apprehension and substituting grimness and grisly events. WALLED IN is restrained and we are not treated to brutal gore or miserable machinations, but what started so promisingly and had a feel so very like THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (the original and the remake), went more in the direction of SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY and other films about insane fixation and cruel compulsion.

The performances in WALLED IN were also nothing to write home about. Mischa Barton plays the character of Sam Walczak and there are certain qualities to her portrayal worth mentioning. Miss Barton has a wonderfully expressive face and her eyes are especially emotive, so that with the help of the fairly strong camera work, we are treated to the best part of her performance, her facial expressions and the intensity of her countenance. Whether it is the nature of her voice or issues of her talents, Miss Barton’s delivery of her lines often feels forced, not terribly engaging and while her eyes radiate emotion, there is a flatness to her speech that keeps her character from really being one we can relate to. There is a small degree of chemistry that develops between Sam and Jimmy (played by Cameron Bright) and the creepy motivations of Jimmy’s character are very suggestive of the film WHAT THE PEEPER SAW, but Cameron Bright’s performance is even more wooden that that of Mischa Barton and he is not able to sell his “mania” to viewers in the kind of convincing manner that was necessary. For fans of the pretty and willowy Mischa Barton, I am certain that the sizable number of scenes where she is “nude” will come across as a complete and total tease. While there is no question that what we can’t see is almost always more enticing than what we can see, in this case using “implied nudity” scenes was a mistake. To create a sense of vulnerability and defenselessness in the character of Sam as the screenwriters were trying to do and intensify the titillation factor, actual nudity would have carried far more impact. Either Miss Barton needed to bite the bullet and get naked, or the producers needed to find an attractive body-double for those scenes or another actress needed to be cast who was unafraid to shed her clothes. Teasing viewers works under the right set of circumstances, but this wasn’t that time. In the end though, it seemed to be part of the second half decline of WALLED IN. If the writers really wanted to go down the path of being a gritty “modern horror” flick, then they needed to grab the bull by the horns. If they’d rather have stuck with a more Gothic approach, then restraint would have been fine, but the original scheme of the film needed to be maintained, and that didn’t happen.

WALLED IN has a small but interesting set of supplements. In addition to the trailer, there is a 14 ½ minute “Making of Walled In” documentary that really feels like a scholarly mini-feature. There is a voice over that seems almost like an instructional video, as we are treated to “behind the scenes” footage of the production as well as cast and crew anecdotes and interviews. While this featurette is a little too clip heavy, at least the informational voice over helps to thin the impact of the heavy number of clips. The crew recollections and comments did a fine job of shedding light on the technical processes and left me with a slightly higher degree of respect for the efforts of those involved. While WALLED IN wasn’t the finest film I’ve ever seen, the bonus features did what all extras should do, soften my heart to a small degree so that the razor-sharpness of my word-processing pen was not unleashed with reckless abandon.

WALLED IN should stand as a gentle cautionary example to filmmakers to remember lines like “To thine own self be true” and the like. Had this movie stuck to its original guns and kept blazing away at the target it started with, it might have ended up as a complete and total joy about which I could sing its praises heartily. The praise will now be blended with criticism and the chorus of cheers will be muted. Just as mixing Federalist architecture and Greek Revival styles generally doesn’t work, mixing two tones of tales and two sides of different stories kept WALLED IN locked in a closet and did not allow it to burst forth into a lighted room with a big “BOO”, savoring the resultant reaction.

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