Monday, November 5, 2007


Altered cover
2006; directed by Eduardo Sanchez; written by Jamie Nash

I was curious about Altered upon seeing that it was Eduardo Sanchez's first directorial effort since 1999's The Blair Witch Project. I love TBWP. Not only because it stays with you long after that classic final shot, but because Sanchez and his co-director, Daniel Myrick did so much -- cinematically and culturally -- with such a miniscule budget.

Altered uses a technique that fiction writing teachers have been sharing with their students for years: "start at the middle." Doing so prevents a writer from front-loading a story with too much exposition and instead forces him or her to work the explanations into the action. It almost guarantees a tale that kicks off when the action has already started and the audience is already hooked.

The film opens on an unnamed group of three men hunting in the woods at night. Where a lesser movie would spoon-feed the audience who these guys are and what they're after, Altered takes the opposite course. In doing so, the film forces us to pay attention to every detail and line of dialog in an effort to catch up with the action and makes the opening -- already fast-paced -- seem that much more frenzied. It also creates a fair amount of confusion and disorientation, putting us on equal footing with the hunters when all hell breaks look and they finally do track down, but don't kill, their mysterious prey.

The right questions can be more interesting than answers, and Altered uses this bit of wisdom to its advantage when the guys bring their quarry to the house of their friend, Wyatt. What exactly is that humanoid shaped wrapped in the tarp, a welding mask bizarrely duct-taped over its head? Why is it so important to keep it alive? Why is Wyatt so pissed that they've brought it to him? And why should no one ever look it in the eye?

As the answers surface (and it would be a disservice to reveal them here) Altered gradually unearths the mysterious 15-year-old tragedy that's deeply buried in the pasts of all four men. Sanchez and writer Jamie Nash deserve credit for deftly coordinating the Q&A so that by the time the film starts ramping up to its climax we're completely caught up and ready for the rest of the ride.

Too many contemporary horror films seem to assume a lack of attention or intelligence on the part of their audience. Altered does neither, and the result is a film that thrusts viewers into an off-balance world that feels as dangerous and alien to them as it is for its characters. This could be behind the iffy, but undeserved, reception some viewers have given this film. Sorry guys, but a horror film that's built for familiarity is a like a roller-coaster built for comfort. Neither one is very much fun.

Why "Frightening Films and Fiction"?

I've been an enthusiastic reader and watcher of horror since I was a kid. I was the only fourth-grader in my class reading H.P. Lovecraft. (Reading it, not necessarily understanding it, but that's another post.) I bugged the man who ran the only movie theater in my small town to tell me the exact date "Carrie" would start playing, and dutifully showed up on opening night. I became giddy upon discovering Clive Barker's "Books of Blood" in the mid-eighties.

I love horror.

I just don't love horror any more.

At least not what passes for it these days.

I browse the horror section of any bookstore and I'm by turns bored or embarrassed by all the sexy vampires and lurid covers. I look for something out of the ordinary at the video store but can only find the latest torture porns and horror-comedies.

A friend of mine who's a successful crime novelist once told me that horror is now the second lowest-selling genre of fiction next to Westerns. Think about that for a moment. At the bottom of the barrel, cowboy-and-indian sagas that have lost their relevance, followed by monsters who no longer have to power to scare us.

These are dark days for horror aficionados who miss the pleasure of a genuine scare or the lingering unease that follows you to bed after the last page is turned or the TV is turned off.

Consequently, I've had to branch out into other genres looking for my scares. I find them, but they're almost never clothed in the putrefied tatters of the grave.

This blog is for those books and movies, the hidden gems that deserve a second look. And for those like me who are out there looking for them.