There's nothing new under the marquee. And how much do we really crave the unfamiliar anyway? Last weekend a terrible sequel to a terrible comedy delivered a spanking to a much-anticipated non-sequel blockbuster — and an uncommonly good blockbuster at that. Familiarity doesn't breed contempt at the movies; it breeds box office.
Then again, even if Pacific Rim had come in ahead of Grown Ups 2 in the opening-weekend cash derby, would that really have been a victory for originality? Guillermo Del Toro's film is itself a collection of homages, references and new takes on well-worn ideas — just newly and skillfully packaged. It's Picasso setting up shop at the flea market and trying his hand at Elvis on velvet.
In fact innovation can be a square wheel — new, unfamiliar and totally useless — when it comes to genre filmmaking, which thrives on the manipulation of well-worn formulas. Three horror movies out this week, none of which attempt to reinvent the horror wheel, provide a case study in different approaches to formula:
* Olatunde Osunsanmi's Evidence is the sort of film that lends support to the argument that found footage, as a format, isn't inspiring many new ideas. But the problem isn't the genre; it's the lazy way that Osunsanmi checks off boxes as he pages through the found-footage-for-dummies instruction manual. Annoying but pretty young protagonists? Check! Flashlit tour through spooky abandoned building? Check! Night vision? Check! Flimsy excuses for the characters to continue filming while in mortal danger? Checkcheckcheck!
Evidence does attempt some innovation by way of a framing story that finds a pair of detectives (Red Widow's Radha Mitchell and True Blood's Stephen Moyer) examining that purportedly evidentiary footage in the wake of a mysterious mass murder in the Nevada desert. Unfortunately, these sequences play as if the film's producers could book the movie's two biggest stars for only a couple of days' worth of filming, so they stuck them in a room and shot a bunch of reaction shots of them watching the tapes. Moyer, in particular, plays scenes as if he'd rolled out of bed at noon after a long night of shooting in Bon Temps and had his script pages shoved into his hands five minutes before the director called "Action."
* Grabbers, an Irish horror comedy from director Jon Wright, fits comfortably in a long tradition of tongue-in-cheek scary movies, from An American Werewolf in London to Gremlins to Critters to the more recent Attack the Block. You know the drill: Aggressive, gross-but-kinda-cute beasties, usually alien, take aim at a small town or quirky community.
In this case, that community is a tiny Irish island served by a police force of two. One of them is a drunk, and the other is a rookie on loan from Dublin while the island's usual chief is on vacation. You're groaning already, right? But Grabbers doubles down on its cliches, not just satisfying the usual genre expectations but also riffing playfully on stereotypes about Irish alcoholism, salty old fishermen and small-town camaraderie. Wright may be checking off boxes just as surely as Osunsanmi has, but he does it with the gleeful mischief of a gremlin trashing a plane engine.
* With The Conjuring, director James Wan proves he's neither a tinkering gremlin nor merely a bored hack. What he does with his latest genre entry is more like Hendrix covering "All Along the Watchtower": The melody may be familiar and well-loved, but here's an artist with his own style, demonstrating mastery of the material and making it very much his own.
The familiar melody, in this case, is the gloomy '70s-style haunted house-possession flick. The Conjuring looks at the story of real-life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) — the couple who investigated a certain house in a New York town called Amityville -- and the case of a perfect storm of ghostly hauntings and demonic activity in a Rhode Island farmhouse occupied by a family of seven.
Elements of The Amityville Horror, The Omen, Poltergeist and The Exorcist abound, but Wan is no mere mimic. As a director, he excels at exactly the sort of tinkering with the familiar that makes for the best genre cinema, from the way he grafts the industrial grime of early David Fincher onto Twilight Zone contrivances in the original Saw to his fresh take on exploitation-vengeance films in Death Sentence.
He nails the foreboding tone of those films in The Conjuring, adding in a chaotic, armrest-clenching intensity for good measure. There are no cheap scares here, and Wan is just as dedicated as Del Toro to letting his intense love for his influences inspire him rather than corral his creativity.
He's following recipes out of dog-eared cookbooks just as surely as the other filmmakers. It's just that some chefs are more gifted — and some souffles come out of the oven in better shape than others.