This is a remarkably good film! It’s very-faithfully adapted (if Richard Matheson is credible) from a Richard Matheson novel by David Koepp, who also directed it. The special effects are almost-entirely not digital, but practical, and the commentary is phenomenally transparent. Keopp explains, lucidly, insightfully, humorously and with considerable eloquence, almost everything I wanted to know about everything I wanted to know about lenses, shutterspeeds, sounds, intents, contexts and sensibilities — often going out of his way to be uncommonly clear about tricks, failures, prostheses and gimmicks. Like Tony Gilroy, he seems to think the old line separating filmmakers from audiences is imaginary, stale, and counterproductive of better audiences and filmmakers.
The most interesting aspect of the film, for me, is the way it opens. A 5year-old boy named Jake is taking a bath while his father sits fixedly noodling on a guitar several feet away. The kid is talking directly to the camera as titles roll and the father ignores the child’s blather, BUT I CAN’T because the kid seems to be talking directly at the completely bewildered ME who isn’t particularly comfortable with this strangely-intimate, 3dimensional approach to the start of a horror movie. The father’s more mundane reality intrudes for several seconds as he asserts the bath is done, so father and son negotiate which pajamas are to be worn, but the moment the father (Kevin Bacon) leaves the room, the kid’s talking to me again, asking me if it hurts to be dead.
Jake’s actually not talking to me but to an inaudible Samantha, an adolescent who disappeard six months earlier — and Koepp maintains a respectable pace of continual contextual bewilderment throughout the course of the film that moves briskly between significant moments that very clearly explain all of the disquieting stuff that made bizarro-negative sense from the moment the film began. Koepp’s commentary, however, doesn’t even allude to the tremendously-impressive violation of the fourth wall with which the story starts. He mentions that (the almost-uncredited) Brian De Palma was a wonderful consultant, offering a torrent of excellent ideas. So it looks like I’d do well to leap headfirst into a pile of De Palma, while poring over the hugely-successful writing and directorial work of David Koepp. It’s an interesting way (not unlike The Social Network) to jack up the viewer’s head and overcrank it into your movie: “What the fuck just happened?!”
I don’t know that the subjective-camera effect could have been advantageously employed beyond that first scene, but I think it worked brilliantly to announce the presence of an unusually-organized movie that just might be a great film. As I cruise through the commentary, I’ll be looking for opportunities to envision the camera’s point of view as belonging to Samantha — with no real expectation that Koepp intended the disembodied observer to be instrumental to the tale beyond the initial moments of the film — still, that’s the approach I really wanted to discover in Rope, in which the (generally-invisible) dead person’s perspective adds several invaluable layers of meaningful interaction to the presentation of events that unfold before the viewer (who is [just like a dead person] intimately disconnected to those events). Samantha’s POV is used as a plot device to move the story forward, but an ice-blue gel (for example) might have been used to differentiate it from every other camera angle in the film, providing an immensly powerful accelerant/detonator/visual-shorcut. The counter-revolution (of “the lost art of the master-shot”) against the disorienting jiggle-cam and MTV-style rapid cutting might have begun in 1999, when this film was released. What the Neil character (the black cop in the cemetary) adds to the story is a verbal explanation of Samantha’s agenda and an impression of its urgency (which would have been [according to Koepp] communicated far more memorably and efficienty visually). Neil’s second appearance contributes an impression that the psychic community in Chicago like a kind of gay underworld in which everybody’s closeted, paranoid, cranky and warped.
Koepp surprised me with Ghost Town by bringing an unexpected depth of humanity to the incisively-comic, witty tale of a shockingly-sympathetic lifelong misanthrope. He brought Kevin Bacon’s character into the real world the moment the father confesses that he never expected his life to be so…ordinary. That line is delivered in the second scene. And it only gets better.
Yesterday was my inadvertant Richard Matheson Day. I cruised through the Twilight Zone movie, hit What Dreams May Come and went to sleep during the Stir of Echoes commentary. Some days you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting something written, ghosted or influenced by that guy; most days, actually.