Monday, August 31, 2009

While She Was Out (2008, Susan Montford)

It all starts with that title.

While She Was Out masquerades as potent potboiler, or perhaps as homage to '80s b-horror or any number of low-grade rape-revenge flicks, and it all starts with the title, an evocative, mysterious mouthful akin to wonderfully wordy titles like When a Stranger Calls-- it's here that the first seeds of dread are sown. That title-- along with a few gushing recommendations from unreputable sources-- led me to this movie, a corking disappointment in which a harangued housewife FIGHTS FOR HER LIFE OMG against a diverse foursome of ambiguously gay wayward teenagers.

To be fair, it starts strong, albeit cheesy-- you can practically smell the cheddar as a quivery Kim Basinger cowers in the shadow of her caricature of an abusive husband-- but takes it's time applying an ominous atmosphere to the tensest of activities: last-minute Christmas shopping. These scenes are imbued with an inexplicable tension, perhaps brought about by the viewer's knowledge from the dvd box that she'll soon be antagonized by high-school dropouts, or by the ghostly, ominous Christmas carols floating through the soundtrack. Whatever the case, these early scenes ramp up the tension rather effectively.

And then, it derails. Pissed that Ms. Basinger left an indignant note under his windshield on the way in, Lukas Haas, clearly angry at women for a lifetime of rejected prom invitations, waves around a gun with his ethnically-diverse posse of retards. We know he's bad news, because he has a gun and yells the word "bitch" a whole bunch. Whatever the case, one dead security guard and one hasty getaway later, our heroine, armed with a toolbox (seriously), finds herself in a DEADLY GAME OF CAT AND MOUSE, scurrying her way through a heavily wooded building site.

I dunno. While She Was Out seems like such a hodgepodge to me. There's the familiar wayward youth storyline, where a band of screwy adolescents are failed by society and commence the killin'; unfortunately, this lacks the societal implications of, say, Eden Lake-- a similar storyline that seems stunning after watching this one-- or the cold-sweat thrills of Them. (Hell, Lucky McKee's Red has a wellspring of depth on this disarmingly superficial thriller.) And then, of course, there's the tried-and-true "woman gains strength in anger, wages war on attackers" angle most prevalent in grindhouse shocker I Spit On Your Grave, perfected in Neil Jordan's surprisingly lyrical Jodie Foster vehicle The Brave One. But, of course, to aspire to the rape-revenge subgenre would require a lot more ingenuity-- it requries a certain pulpy violence to truly attain uplift in this depressing field, and it must be inventive. Something like Grave climaxes in a male-nightmare of a bloodbath, and it's not that I want to excuse a film like I Spit on Your Grave-- it's just that it has the foresight to make its bloodthirsty audience approve of its revenge. At a breezy 80 minutes, a solid 30 of which are spent on prologue and epilogue, there's no real room to develop the necessary hatred for our bad guys to pull this off, and the deaths are all quick and ho-hum, save for one reasonably gory bludgeoning. When we dwell on our villains, though, the film reveals its emptiness, choosing to have the guys debate the finer points of female colognes (they track their prey, in one guffaw-worthy sequence, by sniffing out her Chanel No. 5), and holding a ridiculous death ceremony for their fallen comrade. Haas spends more time saying "I'm gonna get this bitch" than actually trying to do so. I don't know, it's just... it's sloppy, all around.

The performances are all right, if better served by a superior script. Kim Basinger dials down the shrill a little bit from the shrieking rednecks she played in 8 Mile and Cellular (although the screaming comes back near the end), and she's reasonably effective; Haas seems deserving of better material, but he's really kind of bad in his most crucial sequences, translating his explosive outbursts into dog-whistle hysterics. The less said of the other performances, the better-- this thing looks like a play put on by the Dangerous Minds students-- but Haas and Basinger are the only ones that matter anyway. And they are completely and wholly okay.

What While She Was Out lacks in.... well, everything, it makes up for with a rousing finale. The end of Basinger's ordeal is rather anticlimactic-- there's some misdirection, some sexual diversion, and it's all over pretty swiftly-- but that last five minutes or so of movie are pure gold. This thing ends with a beast of a final shot, a great 11th-hour twist that's as amoral, over-the-top, and pulpy as any number of grindy b-flicks it should've been emulating the whole time. (I dunno, I'm starting to feel like we'd all be more kind to this movie if it were made in 1982.)

So the bookends are terrific. We've established this. But the film's simply... pedestrian. It's blase. Nothing happens, except a horrifying affront to the English language courtesy of director-scribe Susan Montford. But if we're talking about the opening and closing scenes as bookends, well... it's kind of like seeing gorgeous, ornate bookends-- and finding nothing but Dan Brown books and Sean Hannity books and the shooting script for Battlefield Earth between them. Ashame, that. One day, someone will expose Christmas-eve shopping for the creepy curio it is; unfortunately, that's not today.

Rating: ** (out of five)

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