Black Rock (2012)

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I must admit I had some misgivings during the credits of Black Rock when I saw that it was written by Mark Duplass (Jeff Who Lives at Home, The Mindy Project, Safety Not Guaranteed) and directed by his wife Katie Aselton (The League). I happen to love all of the above, but I was worried that a movie billed as an escape and survive thriller about three childhood friends camping on a secluded Maine island would evolve into some kind of lightly comic, ironic commentary on the genre. As it turns out, I was in good hands all along.

Sure, a camping trip! Nothing bad ever happens on camping trips! Sarah (Kate Bosworth) is attempting to reconnect with her lifelong chums Abby (Aselton) and Lou (Lake Bell) by arranging a weekend of drinking and roughing it on Black Rock, a remote island that served as their idyllic childhood playground—which is an important plot point. Lo and behold, the gals bump into a trio of poachers, one of whom (Will Bouvier) is a distant acquaintance from their youth. Not wishing to appear standoffish, Abby invites the hunters to share their campfire since they have “a shitload of booze.” A series of unfortunate events take place, and soon the ladies are fleeing for their lives.

Make no mistake, there are jarring scenes of naked brutality in Black Rock. But Aselton and Duplass avoid the well-trodden path to mere exploitation taken by so many in the “trespassing strangers” genre. The hunters here are not a bunch of degenerate hillbillies who want to take the women home and make ’em squeal like pigs. The events leading up to one group in pursuit of the other are a combination of misunderstandings and bad luck, as was the case in Eden Lake, another contemporary thriller that got a rave review here.

Black Rock is fascinating, fraught with tension, and not lacking in white-knuckle moments. It also manages to be, um, uplifting thanks to the desperate heroism displayed by some very flawed characters whose survival depends on burying longstanding enmity and banding together in the face of a common enemy.

 

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The Fields (2011)

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Cloris Leachman is so awesome. My heavens, what a hardworking professional! Maybe you remember her Academy Award-winning turn in The Last Picture Show. Or the time she won an Emmy for her portrayal of Mary Tyler Moore’s nosy neighbor, Phyllis. How about the two Emmys she took home as the weirdest granny of all time in Malcolm in the Middle?

At age 85, she is the best thing about The Fields, an eerie slow-burner co-directed by Tom Mattera and Dave Mazzoni. Based on an occurrence from writer Harrison Smith’s childhood, the movie is set in 1973, and follows Steven (Joshua Ormond)—an angelic kid with hair like Robert Plant—as he’s shipped off to live with his grandparents in the sticks, after he witnesses Dad (Faust Checho) point a rifle at Mom’s (Tara Reid in an awful wig) noggin.

Enter Grandma Gladys (Leachmen) and Grandpa Hiney (Bev Appleton), who welcome the lad to their decrepit farm, surrounded on three sides by enormous (and dead) cornfields. Gladys tells young Steven to avoid the fields (“We’ll never find ya in there, at least till you’re all black and swollen,” she warns.) but kids never listen. On the other side of the cornfields is an abandoned amusement park currently occupied by a Manson-like cult of evil hippie girls. On the other side is a milk farm where Eugene (Louis Morabito), a dead ringer for Manson, works as a hired hand. Slowly, and with the inevitability of a bad dream, Steven finds himself surrounded by sinister forces.

If The Fields had just a smidgen more action or frights, I would be shouting my praises from the rooftops. As it stands, it’s a very watchable feature with an assortment vividly haunting touches. Directors Mattera and Mazzoni deftly capture the dread of being a child in an unfamiliar environment and without parents to explain life’s little mysteries: For instance, why is there a dead girl in the cornfield, and how come my cousins are deformed lunatics?

And through it all, there’s Steven’s protector, Cloris Leachman, as a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking matriarch who likes to watch horror movies. The Fields is planted on a firm foundation of truth, which makes it all the creepier.

Rubber (2010)

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Oh, France! What a nation of jolly, irreverent provocateurs you are! Why did writer/director Quentin Dupieux make a “horror” movie about a sentient car tire with terrifying telekinetic powers? As Lieutenant Chad (Steve Spinella) says many times during the film’s introduction, “No reason.”

In the middle of desert nowhere, a tire comes to life and uses its psychic ability to make heads explode. Nearby, an audience of nitwits watches the action through binoculars. The tire becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman (Roxane Mezquida) in a Volkswagen and trails her to a decrepit motel.

To his credit, Dupieux has made a marvelously intricate and witty movie that poses a passel of burning questions to its audience. (That would be you and me. The audience with the binoculars has been poisoned with bad turkey—except for the guy in the wheelchair played  by Wings Hauser.) It would be easy to dismiss Rubber as absurdist twaddle with a side of pretension, but it’s filmed so cunningly through low-angle cameras that roll us right along with the murderous tire, that it becomes a brutally hypnotic experience. And by then, it’s too late.

Unlike similar exercises in reflexive filmmaking by Dupieux’s highbrow cinematic forebears (Godard and Wenders come to mind), Rubber maintains a much-needed sense of its own playfulness that keeps the whole business from sinking under the weight of its concept.

Even while some of the characters ponder the reality of the situation as if they were in a staged reading of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Dupieux seems to be more interested in why we’re still watching this nonsense. You see, Monsieur Director, as nonsense goes, Rubber is hard to ignore. Will there be a sequel with the tricycle?