Tuesday, September 1, 2009

I'll buy that for a dollar: Feeders & Among Us - Part II

As they say, “Let the fungus be among us”.

So, anyway, at the end of our last very lengthy installment, I said that I was interested in seeing Among Us so that I could gauge the progress made by SOV horror filmmakers the Polonia brothers between the time of making the frankly laughable Feeders in 1996 and Among Us’ production date of 2004. Well, it turns out that the most noticeable special ingredient that the brothers have added to the mix this time around is a sense of ironic self awareness and a willingness to parody themselves. Of course, these are far from unique attributes for a horror film to have in this snarky, post modern age, given that such postures are an ideal refuge for the lazy or simply incompetent filmmaker, of which there are sadly quite many. (Hey, don’t you get it? It was meant to be bad, dude.)

Interestingly (there’s that word again), given these qualities, Among Us’ pairing with Feeders on the same disc has the (interesting) effect of making the later film seem like an apology for the earlier one. It’s an apology that renders itself moot, however. For Among Us spends so much of its time trying to preemptively deflect criticism that it forgets to be a movie, and. as a result, has the paradoxical effect of leaving us pining for the earnest dopeyness of Feeders.

And to be honest, I feel kind of bad about this. Don’t get me wrong, though. Feeders is a movie that is absolutely impossible not to make fun of. And, furthermore, I think that to make fun of it is the appropriate reaction -- certainly more in the spirit of things than to solemnly condemn it for its shortcomings. But the thing is, Among Us gives me the impression that, somewhere along the line, all of the mockery and criticism somehow got to John and Mark Polonia, leading them to adopt the chitinous shell of irony that we see here. Fortunately, they muck that up a bit, too, which allows for a few faint glimmers of the fun that could be gleaned from the earlier film.

Among Us begins with a series of laughably executed scare sequences in which a fellow in a clumsy Bigfoot costume attacks various campers. This instantly ceases to be laughable once it is revealed that what we are seeing are meant to be clips from the works of B Horror film director Billy D’Amato (Bob Dennis). You see, they’re supposed to be bad. Among Us repeats this same fake out over and over throughout its first hour, to the extent that every one of its potential horror movie moments is ultimately revealed to be ersatz. As a result, audience goodwill is totally exhausted by the time, during the movie’s final third, when D’Amato and his film crew travel into the woods and encounter Bigfoot for reals. The Polonias don’t help matters much by including among their party a fey crypto-zoologist played for broad comedy by co-director Jon McBride. Combined with all of the shaky POV camera work employed during this section, McBride’s performance has the odd effect of forcing you to contemplate what Blair Witch might have been like had its cast included an over-the-top comic relief character of the type found in a Mexican wrestling movie.

I remember Keith, in one of his Teleport City reviews, mentioning how one of the cardinal – and frequent – sins of these SOV movies is how they try to compensate for their glaring artificiality by having characters constantly say things like, “This isn’t a movie man. This is real!” Hey, he was right! I honestly lost count of how many times characters in Among Us said things like, “This isn’t a fucking set! This is life.” Or, “Isn’t that what they say in the movies?” On the other hand, I must say that Among Us’ script, in terms of its attention to character and attempts at believable dialog, is indeed a vast improvement over that of Feeders – even if that only results in it achieving the kind of serviceable blandness that ultimately makes it less entertaining than its lovably off-base predecessor.

In the end, Among Us is an uncomfortable watch due to the way that it so violently wrestles with its own limitations. The problem with these type of films is that, even at their most technically refined, the best they can hope for is to look like a Korean soap opera, and no amount of screaming at the audience that they are, in fact, a real movie – or, more poignantly, real effin’ life, man – will change that. What’s more, the relentlessly knowing, self-referential tone of the film comes across as an attempt by its makers to dictate what their audience’s response to it should be. And that strikes me as being something of an imbalanced exchange. The audience of a film like Among Us should be as free in responding to it as the film’s creators were in making it. Working well outside the restraints of the studio system, the Polonias presumably made exactly the movie that they wanted to make – within their limitations, of course – and hopefully with little regard for what others might think. We who choose to watch that film should in turn be free to make of it whatever we want, without having to feel the filmmakers’ over-controlling fingers all up in our brain pans.

That said, I was saddened to learn that John Polonia passed away suddenly last year, the victim of a heart aneurysm at the young age of 39. Given some of the things I’ve said above, I sincerely hope that I don’t come across as disingenuous when I say that his death represents a real loss to the world of film.

After all, if we are strangely transfixed by a movie like Feeders, it is not just because of the ineptitude of its makers, but also their audacity. The vast majority of people in the Polonia brothers’ place would, despite their enthusiasms, consider their combined lack of means and ability and – granted that they even indulged themselves in contemplating the possibility at all – turn their backs on the project of making their own films. In deciding otherwise and following their desires, the Polonias stuck their heads up out of the foxhole of conformity, effectively making themselves targets for derision and the condescending judgment of those many who took the easier path. In judging them myself, am I really going to fall down on the side of conformity? Of risk aversion? Of catering to mainstream opinion?

Naw. Flaws aside, the Polonias rock. The rest are all wimps.


memsaab said...

"chitinous shell of irony"---this is why I love reading your reviews :) so much of literacy! new words!

But seriously, I am sure the Polonias would consider this a compliment. I'll never see these films probably, but I'm glad to have read about them here and to know they exist :-)

Todd said...

Thanks, Memsaab! Yes, the Polonias, like Dara and Harinam Singh, contribute their own unique texture to this rich tapestry that we call world cinema. And I want you to imagine me saying that in a snooty English accent while daintily sipping tea from a china cup in a well appointed, antique-book-lined study.

memsaab said...

I completely do.

Chitinous, old chap!