starring Kane, Christina Vidal, Luke Pegler, Samantha Noble
screenplay by Dan Madigan
directed by Gregory Dark
by Alex Jackson SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Gregory Dark started out directing adult films--I've been told that his award-winning Let Me Tell Ya 'Bout White Chicks is a classic of the miscegenation genre--and had moved up to music videos when he was offered See No Evil, his first feature film (as well as the first film produced under the WWE banner). The idea that Dark sees this movie as his ticket to the big leagues is as good an explanation as any for its smarmy tone. Still embarrassed about making a slasher picture (and, by extension, his stigmatic beginnings), he distances himself from the material by condescending to it: If he's better than B-movie claptrap, then that means he's an A-list filmmaker, right? I have no idea where Dark wants to be near the end of his career, but the attitude he brings to See No Evil is that of a climber and not of a serious artist who happens to be relegated to the periphery of the mainstream.
The film's general premise unabashedly rips-off Se7en, working explicitly from the tired notion that the slashers in slasher movies are punishing their victims for "sinning." The victims are a motley crew of juvenile offenders assigned to clean a ransacked hotel in order to shave a few months off their sentences; all of them wind up having their respective "sin" turned against them. The black kid searching for a safe full of riches is crushed by it shortly after finding it. The vegetarian who broke into a dog pound and released the animals before they could be gassed is eaten alive by a pack of strays. The hot blonde shoplifter has a cell phone she pilfered pushed down her throat until she chokes. (I admit that this was an effective bit of Guignol--it literally had me dry-heaving.) And so on.
The killer is Jacob Goodnight, a scowling giant who was trained by his fanatical Christian mother to recognize sin and execute those who possess it. We're treated to flashbacks in which she puts porno magazines in pre-teen Jacob's cage (?!) so he can study the faces within: You see, you can tell which people have sin by looking into their eyes. Eyes are the windows to the soul. Jacob cuts them out of his victims and this is supposed to be his trademark, though I was never quite clear as to why he does this and the film, alas, is more interested in simple sadism than in exploring the psychology of its bogeyman. Jacob collects the eyeballs in jars in his room, implying that they're significant as trophies of his kills and that he is blinding his victims mainly to acquire them. I have to wonder why anybody thought this would be the ideal star vehicle for WWE wrestler Kane. We are given few hints as to how the boy in the cage came to look like a professional wrestler, but--I dunno, maybe it's a joke at our expense.
I tend to view the slasher genre as having two distinct modes: anti-teenager (Friday the 13th) and pro-teenager (A Nightmare on Elm Street). The anti-teenager genre is what we mean when we say that sex is equated with death. This dictum fits John Carpenter's Halloween fairly well, but it's overly specific when dealing with the Friday the 13th films. In a Friday the 13th movie, Jason slays everybody and anybody, more or less. It isn't that they're having sex, it's more that having sex represents the extent of their existence. Their hedonism speaks to a fundamental bankruptcy of spirituality and intellect; they've reached the end of the line, and so it is only natural that they're executed. In the pro-teenager movies, the killer represents not death incarnate, but rather the corruption of the adult world--they're all about kids creating a future that's better than their present. While Jason is never really defeated, Freddy Krueger is for all intents and purposes vanquished every time out and the Nightmare on Elm Street films generally conclude on a positive note.
This isn't a hard-lined binary system: Some films, like Manny Coto's underrated Dr. Giggles, or the Final Destination trilogy, manage to have pro- and anti-teenager elements alike. But the general idea is that a slasher movie consists of an attitude towards its potential victims and an antagonistic villain, something See No Evil doesn't get. It never develops a perspective towards the victims, and with no perspective towards the victims it cannot have a perspective towards the killer. I'm pretty broad-minded, I guess--I don't believe that movies need to be populated by flesh-and-blood human beings, nor do I believe that movies need to be particularly healthy or ethical. This lack of conflict between the two worlds is fundamentally alienating, though. It doesn't matter if it's the killer or the victim(s), even a slasher movie must give us somebody with whom we can identify.
In the slasher genre, humour is OK as long as it stays on any one side of the fence. In a movie like Jason X, the world of the victims is kind of jokey and plastic, but Jason is a sincere creation. The silliness of the victims' environment translates well into a view that their lives are spiritually bankrupt and that Jason is justified in offing them. In A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Master, Freddy Krueger spears and eats a screaming teen who's trapped in the form of a pizza topping. In this instance, it's Krueger who is ironically detached, and this attitude helps to accentuate his omnipotence, as well as the idea that he has defined the way the world will operate until these guys change it. To that piece of sausage on the pizza, this isn't a laughing matter; the sincerity lies with the victims and that is the heart and soul of those films.
Not getting the basics of the genre right, Dark misapplies the humour. It should come organically from within the film, with the killer laughing at the victims or the victims laughing at themselves. In See No Evil, the humour comes from without, as Dark calls attention away from the characters and onto himself with cutesy visual gags. During the opening credits, there's a high-angle shot of the protagonist (Steven Vidler) waking up in his bedroom. The ceiling fan is running in the foreground and its blades overlap the credits with every swoop. Neat! He also uses a lot of elaborate, tonally-inappropriate camera movements such as having his actors wear a camera rig with the lens pointed directly at them while they move around. The idea is to convey panic and paranoia, but as soon as you see it you know why it's a technique rarely employed. His use of reverse- and fast-motion is yet another thing you should never see in a horror film--or anything outside of "Dead Like Me", for that matter.
I'm a Kubrick kid, all right? I like long, unbroken shots. This is indicative of a filmmaker not only totally confident and in control of his medium, but also interested in economy and eloquence. With Kubrick, especially, you get the impression that he is using as few shots as possible because he wants to make each one count. And indeed, each shot does. See No Evil is hyper-edited in a way that suggests a filmmaker with nothing to say and far too many toys with which to say it. In the supplemental DVD feature "Do You See The Sin?", Dark defends his "style" thusly: "Having been a music-video director for so long, and I still am, my movies are not very slow-moving. They are very contemporary. I understand the MTV audience, which is the audience for horror movies. The movie is fast-paced, fast-cut..." Wow, there is so much wrong with that statement. First of all, it should go without saying that editing your movie to best reach your target market is beneath contempt and turns film, an art form, into a product undifferentiated from toothpaste.
Secondly, he appears to buy into the clichés and generalizations about music-video directors and their audiences. Music-video directors, and their styles of filmmaking, are diverse. Spike Jonze (Wax's "California"), Michel Gondry (The White Stripes' "The Denial Twist"), and Jonathan Glazer (Jamiroquoi's "Virtual Insanity") have all made one-shot videos. Of course, it's possible that Dark is stressing a distinctly "music video" style of editing in order to differentiate himself from his past as an adult filmmaker. (He's not coming from porn, you see, he's coming from the music-video world.) Third, assuming that the "MTV audience" is the primary audience for music videos and horror films, it does not necessarily follow that horror films should resemble music videos. Horror films tend to be "slow-paced" for good reason: Deliberate pacing is often the secret to suspense. The Shining, Alien, The Exorcist--these are classics for a reason, non? Dark says he's paying homage to the slasher films of the late-Seventies and early-Eighties. Has he actually seen the slasher films of the late-seventies and early-Eighties? Halloween and the Friday the 13th films are not action-packed by any stretch of the imagination. What a poser!
Dark delivers on the grue but refrains from giving the audience much in terms of T&A, a disingenuous move for an adult filmmaker, to say the least. Like Dark's aesthetic flourishes, however, the gore effects themselves feel self-consciously cute. In addition to sharing the tidy motif of "turning the sin against the sinner," the murders are so violent that their sheer tastelessness becomes its own joke. When an axe severs an arm, Dark cuts to a close-up of the fingers convulsing from the death twitch. When a character is impaled by a hook and chain, he makes sure that we see it going through the guy's mouth. Jacob eventually plummets to his death--he crashes through an atrium thereby impaling his heart on his own ribcage. Dark rapidly zooms into Jacob's body for a terrible CGI rendering of his heart being punctured. It's smug and stupid to the point where I felt like throwing my shoe at the screen. Then it gets worse. The closing stinger has a dog pissing into Jacob's vacant eye-socket. One of the picture's ominpresent flies ends this scene by flying into the camera. Ugh!
Easily the most intolerable part of it all is Dark's buying into the "sex is death" mythos and then talking down to us about it. Through the film's high-concept premise, the alleged subtext is purged to the surface, ineffectually establishing Dark's artistic cred while feeding the ravaging masses eye-for-an-eye justice and knee-jerk anti-Christian sentiment. He's grossly underestimated the artistic potential for the genre and he has grossly underestimated the audience for slasher films. I'm sorry, but there's more to it than sexual repression and elaborate death scenes. One can only wonder: is there any experience more insufferable than being condescended to by somebody who doesn't even know what he's talking about?
Lionsgate (Maple in Canada--the discs are identical) brings See No Evil to DVD in a purposefully inky 1.78:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer sporting excellent detail amid opaque shadows; the image is not exactly filmlike but its chic digital sheen certainly conforms to Dark's MTV manifesto. (It's not immaculate, mind you, thanks to some combing artifacts.) While I couldn't find much fault with the deafening Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, the mix proper is very typical of today's horror films in that it only cares about the jump scares--the sound design rarely exploits See No Evil's dungeon-like setting, with the exception of those damn flies. On another track, Dark and screenwriter Dan Madigan contribute a perfectly serviceable and dull feature-length commentary, the former explaining how the various special effects and self-indulgent camera work were achieved while the latter constantly plugs his novelization of the screenplay (?!), which he says delves into the characters' pasts in greater depth. Aside from a couple of "Lassie" jokes during the man-eating dog scene, the two men show remarkable restraint in not taking a superior position on the material.
That said, a second yakker featuring Kane and co-executive producer Jed Blaugrund is a slight improvement. While Blaugrund seems quite proud of the film, he's detached enough from it to be modestly critical. He describes, with tongue apparently in cheek, the ubiquitous flies as the "fly motif," praises the elimination of a lesbian relationship as toning down the exploitation factor before qualifying it with "not that this movie needs any help being exploitative," and quotes Outlaw Vern's (?!) observation regarding the arty out-of-focus POV shots: that it's ironic that a serial killer who collects eyes would need glasses. It's a delicate balancing act, but Blaugrund convinced me that he's smarter than the movies he makes yet not so smart that he knows better. Kane, meanwhile, is an amiable enough presence--his pretensions regarding his character's motivations and boneheaded observations about how making movies is different from professional wrestling are too genuine to grate.
"Do You See the Sin?" (13 mins.) contains the aforementioned damning comments by Dark and actually goes into more detail than do the commentaries regarding the genesis of the project. (Come to think of it, crossover is kept to a minimum.) The highlight of this featurette is a deconstruction of Jacob's ridiculous death scene, pointing out how he had to hit a ledge mid-fall in order land in the atrium face down. "Kane: Journey into Darkness" (3 mins.) is a highlight reel of Kane's greatest hits from pro wrestling. It's not exactly worthless--I did learn that Kane is the Undertaker's brother. Ten 90-second promotional spots for the WWE, a nifty storyboard-to-film comparison for the dog scene, a theatrical trailer, a theatrical trailer, and an endless block of forced trailers for The Descent, the Saw II DVD, Dark Harvest 3: Skarecrow, Jekyll + Hyde, and Bug round out the platter. Originally published: January 12, 2007.