Friday, August 10, 2018

Past Misdeeds: The Black Door (2001)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Steven (Sergio Gallinaro) is found covered with deep, peculiar lacerations all over his body after a nightly visit to an abandoned house. Following his wishes, his girlfriend Meg (Staci Tara Moore) calls in a friendly documentary crew to film what is happening to him. The doctors can find neither the cause of Steven's wounds nor can they prevent his health from further deteriorating (might have something to do with seemingly no attempts being made to close or dress those wounds but hey, what do I know about medicine?).

While Steven is on what is fastly becoming his death bed, the documentary crew and Meg are retracing the steps that led him into the old dark house. During his research into completely harmless economical history, Steven became fascinated by a man named Fuentes-Balsameda (Carlos Parra) who disappeared in 1932. His investigations finally led Steven to an old film reel that shows Balsameda's death (and short-time resurrection) during a satanic ritual. That's probably the point where most people would have stopped and dropped the film reel off at the next police station for them to sort it out, but Steven continued his investigation (and contacted the Vatican, of all things). He managed to get into contact with the only person connected to that ritual who did not die a violent death, a (as he will later turn out to be) creepy old man named Morgen (John Hainsworth). Morgen then lured Steven to the house where the young man was attacked by something.

Parallel to the documentary crew finding out about these occurrences, a perpetually pissed-off priest (Kevin Blatch) appears and tries to help Steven come through his paranormal encounter alive. Too bad he's as ineffectual as a puppy.

The Black Door (a HK/Canadian co-production - I think - with a director from Hong Kong, screenwriters from France who predominantly worked in Hong Kong, and filmed in British Columbia) belongs to the post-Blair Witch era of POV horror, but was made before the film law mandating all POV horror to be about people running through the woods went into effect.

The film's construction as a documentary generally makes sense, and - as the filmmakers seemingly are supposed to be professionals - allows director Kit Wong to use rather more elaborate camera set-ups and to shoot scenes from angles from which you're actually allowed to have a good view of what's happening. Thanks to a script that is rather clever in this regard, Wong can also dip into other shooting styles for a few scenes. There's the calm and mostly disturbingly unmoving camera in the 1932 ritual footage that gives the film's strongest horror sequence an especially realistic feel. Then there's Steven's traditionally difficult to parse shots from his doomed expedition into the old, dark (he's going in by night, just like the horror movie character he is) house that actually manage to make long minutes of a guy mumbling and filming stuff in a dark house look rather tense.

Some of the "normal" documentary footage is also very strong, going for that documentary style where the camera lingers so closely on people's most emotional moments the viewer - and of course the crew shooting - becomes something of a voyeur. In one of the small flashes of genius that make me love the film showing them, this aspect even becomes a plot point that is vaguely yet effectively connected with the way the film's initial ceremony was worked, the camera - and therefore the audience watching what it films - becoming accomplices in the perpetuation of something quite dark.

Wong is really good at distracting a viewer from the deficiencies of a script that is full of great ideas, yet also seems awfully disinterested in real world logic even in situations where real world logic should apply. Still, thanks to Wong's direction, it was no problem at all for me to believe in a world where people meet with someone they know to be involved in at least one ritual murder alone, in an empty house, by night, or where people learning about a ritual murder in the past contact the Vatican (probably their well-known ritual murder hotline 666-EXORCIST) instead of the police for most of the film's running time.

Wong is able to keep a mood of high tension up through large parts of a film where not much is happening the audience doesn't know will happen after its first thirty minutes or so are over, dropping little hints of further complexities and some quite horrifying details (if you don't overlook them) that kept me watching with more attention as I usually have for scenes of people getting melodramatic in front of a camera.

And melodramatic people get, there's no doubt about it, for the acting is of that slightly grating indie horror movie type where every line delivery seems slightly off, and where all outbreaks of larger emotions become scenery-chewing and mugging; especially Blatch and Hainsworth are guilty of the latter. Ironically, I feel that in The Black Door's particular case the slight to heavy wrongness of the acting actually enhances the film's effect. The artificiality of the acting and the perfectly believable documentary style of its filmic surroundings rub against each other and produce a friction that makes the film a more uncomfortable experience. I also can't help but notice that an acting style that emphasises the actors playing roles is a neat parallel to the fact that the characters they are playing are also unwillingly filling roles in the continuation of a decade old ceremony. Of course, I don't believe the actors are doing this on purpose for one second. As a rule, I don't think it's important if effective elements of a work of art are included on purpose or by accident; it's just important they are there.

The Black Door is one of those films where I can't say at all if anyone other than me will get as much out of watching it as I have, for the things I took to most about the film (that friction and that feeling of wrongness) are also the things most dependent on a given viewer's susceptibility to the very specific way a happy combination of creepy details and happy accidents creates a mood here. However, I can say it's worth trying to watch the film to find out.

No comments: