Saturday, July 14, 2012

Daylight: Why Hemingway Didn't Write Horror

Yesterday being Friday the 13th, I thought it apt to scan my instant queue for a horror movie. It would probably have been more apt to work on my composition syllabus, speaking of terrifying, but we all know that's not going to happen until the first day of class is hours, not days, and certainly not weeks, away. I came across Daylight, a "psychological thriller" from 2011. My other choice was A Horrible Way to Die. I chose poorly, which should be obvious from the titles alone.

Daylight is like a Michael Haneke movie in that evil inexplicably explodes into the lives of an upper-middle-class couple (Daniel and Irene) with shocking brutality. What's missing is Haneke's ability to make that very unknowability of suffering and punishment, though graphic and stomach-churning in its intimate visitation on a handful of human bodies, indicative of the human condition. There also aren't any animal mutilations in this film, which is actually a Haneke trademark that I didn't miss. The kidnappers in Daylight are polite and even affable, even as one calmly explains that he will be slitting Daniel's throat in four seconds. That's not a spoiler--Daniel manages to convince one of his captors that his father-in-law will pay millions for the safety of himself and his very pregnant wife. They leave to arrange the ransom, leaving Irene alone with the other two kidnappers, Renny and Leo, in a country house with a rather ominous bloodstain on the wall. (Is there any other kind?)

It's in the interplay of this triangle that the movie lives and dies, pun intended. As Renny and Leo alternately bully, seduce, console, and terrorize Irene, they do the same to each other. It's like if Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote a horror movie, but left out all the subtlety and strangeness that makes her theory interesting. So really, she would have done a better job. The positive reviews of this film, including one from the New York Times to which I've linked above, laud its tendency to withhold--to suggest rather than illustrate the troubled relationship between Irene and Daniel, the ambiguous and ambivalent relationship between Renny and Leo, and the motivation behind the abduction in the first place.

But the problem is, a horror movie has to either tell or show you something. It's a genre that depends upon, and I'm paraphrasing Stephen King's great "Why We Crave Horror Movies," our capacity to emotionally empathize with the emperiled characters. If you go for the Hemingway-esque compression and extraction of pathos, as writer-director David Barker seems to, it makes such a connection difficult. In fact, the conceptual rhyme of Irene's pregnancy with the threat of impending death (the tagline is "Things die . . . new things are born") also smacks of Hemingway, but again, without the depth. Basically, what I'm suggesting is a Haneke adaptation of A Farewell to Arms. You're welcome, Hollywood.

The film is beautifully shot and had violent moments so shocking that they made me gasp, but it also felt overlong at an hour and fourteen minutes. Oh well. I have it on good authority that Daylight was  better than the 1996 Sylvester Stallone movie of the same title in which he battles concrete, so at least there's that.

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