Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Cinema File #32: "The Harsh Light Of Day" Review

Well, its got vampires, and its not a Twilight parody, so there's that at least.

This is the first of three vampire-centric movies I intend to review in succession for this site in the coming days, in an attempt to cleanse my palette after the soul crushing experience that was Breaking Wind, Part 1. I haven't watched the other two movies yet, so I don't know quite how I'm going to feel by the end of this, though I can't imagine it will be any worse than I felt at the start. As for today's film, I have to say that while it has its flaws, mostly on the directorial side, I think I'm off to a pretty good start so far.

The Harsh Light Of Day is an independent British import about a man who seeks out supernatural powers to heal his paralyzed body and take revenge on the men who crippled him and murdered the woman he loves. Its a great concept first of all, basically Death Wish with vampires but with a lot more depth than that simplistic construction implies, and from a story perspective its handled very well. The movie throws us right in following the brutal assault and then builds with an ominous tone as you watch the main character realize what he's becoming after an ambiguous deal with a mysterious stranger. Once he's fully on board with everything, the final act has his mission coming to a somewhat anti-climactic, but mostly satisfying conclusion.

The biggest problem with this movie is not with the story, which is simple but effective, but rather with the visual style. I don't mean the low budget look, which I'll get to later, but more the deliberate stylistic touches interspersed throughout. The best way to describe it is bad film school graduate experimentation. Its like they want to try something different in every scene regardless of whether it fits the tone of that moment. Some of it works, amounting to some clever ways of depicting a vampire's abilities and in particular his enhanced senses and sense memory. There's an extended sequence of the main character walking through his house for example, where he uses these senses to pick up on clues the forensic technicians missed, which worked very well.

Unfortunately, these moments are diminished by the flood of quick cuts and camera tricks that seem to be meant to create a sense that reality and nightmares are merging, but just come off as the director arbitrarily playing around with different kinds of shots. If they had toned down the quick flashes and confined the weird imagery to key scenes where it made sense, showing the changing perspective of a man turning into a monster in real time, it would have worked to separate the normal life we see him start in with the strange new world he enters half way through. Instead, these flourishes are just placed throughout the film at random intervals whenever we haven't had one in a few minutes, and it just gets infuriating after a while. The movie even turns into a found footage horror chase at one point, then shifts back to normal a few minutes later.

I have the feeling that the look of this movie will instantly turn many people away. Its shot on digital video rather than on film, almost like a daytime soap opera. Its not something I had a problem with, especially in light of all the other problems I had on the stylistic front, but I suspect the "cheap" feel might bother some people and keep them from being able to appreciate the good parts of the film. Still, this is probably just on the edge of what I'm willing to tolerate as far as poor production values, even in a low budget movie like this. I've always said that straight to DVD movies get a bad rap for things they can't control, and many great stories are ignored because of poor special effects, but when its so bad that I can't understand what the bad guys are saying half the time because the sound quality is so poor, even I can't get behind that.

The protagonist's physical and psychological transformation comes full circle in the end as he uses what he's become to accomplish what he set out to do, only to find that once his mission is over, he's had to give up everything he was and everything he had left that his enemies didn't take from him. Much of the movie hinges on the interplay between him and his vampiric mentor, and they both deftly pull off very subtle performances that compliment one another throughout their scenes together. The villains aren't nearly as engaging to watch, revealed to be little more than thugs with a rather strange motive for committing violent crimes. They attack people, mostly women it would seem, and film it so as to sell the videos as what is implied to be online porn. It comes across as a little more complicated than it needed to be, and seemed like just an excuse to have a camera for the incredibly unnecessary found footage sequence.

If you're as much a fan of vampire movies as I am, its a pretty safe bet that you won't be disappointed with The Harsh Light Of Day. The more casual viewer might be put off by some of the technical limitations, but the story is strong enough that even then, I'd recommend giving it a chance. It ends on the perfect note for this kind of story and largely does justice to vampire lore in a way many movies I've seen just this year haven't even tried to do. It captures the inherent sadness and emotional depth of this classic creature of the night without succumbing to Lestalt-esque romanticism or forgetting that they are still bloodthirsty monsters at heart. If you get the chance, I definitely say check it out.

Next up, a movie that the trailer suggests can best be described as Emo Vampire Road Trip: The Movie. Stay Tuned.
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