Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Chronicle of the Raven, or Jennifer's Shadow

I can’t even tell you why I chose this movie, mostly I think it had Gina Phillips in it, and since Jeepers Creepers I have been hoping she would make a fantastic movie.  Still hasn’t happened, and I guess at this point she probably won’t.  I actually thought it was just called “The Raven” until it started, had I realized it had the word “chronicle” in the title I would never have willingly watched it.  I’ll refrain from a rant on just how overexposed that word is in all the various fantasy / sci-fi subgenres.  I have to assume that Chronicle of the Raven was deemed more likely to gather attention than the non descript Jennifer’s Shadow.

The film starts in an obviously haunted house with a woman in a night shirt trying her best to escape her raven stalkers.  This predictably moves out to show the house again with her screams in the background.  This leads us to a pretty decent title sequence of Gina Phillips in an old fashioned taxi rolling down an obviously foreign boulevard, one that feels like Spain, but turns out is somewhere in South America.  It is shot in a close up style reminiscent of the late seventies, interspersing black title cards with close ups of the wheels, Gina Phillps’ lips, the car, etc.  This is about as good as the movie gets.  It feels like the whole thing is shot on video, using dated equipment, possibly with the intention of capturing the feel of the seventies.  I’m really not sue if this choice is nostalgia, artistic vision, or merely budget.  The Netflix version is also in a 4:3 aspect ratio, and I didn’t see anything that led me to believe it was adapted to pan and scan, it actually looks like it was shot in that format.

We get a tour of the house and the main cast in the first couple of minutes.  We meet the pretty boy friend of the family, who seems to be a lawyer or in some way attached in a business capacity.  He tells us that the sister died of the same mysterious illness as her parents.  We meet her Aunt Emma, nearly unable to speak or walk, and bound to a wheelchair.  We see a lovely painting of Mary Ellen, the grandmother, a depiction Faye Dunaway in her prime.  When we finally meet the woman herself she is in the mausoleum incanting some prayer over the casket of the dead sister.  The most enlightening part of the scene:

            Mary Ellen:     How did you know?
            Jennifer:          The lawyers contacted me.
            Mary Ellen:     Lawyers, I have no use for them.

So, her beloved grandmother did not even bother to tell her that her sister died, and acted like a bitch that she ever found out.  Gina Phillips character Jennifer has come to claim her inheritance from her sister, recently deceased from some unknown wasting disease. Mary Ellen will hear nothing of it.  She just cannot bear to discuss selling the house.  She feigns illness and retires to her chambers.  This leaves Jennifer to wander the house, eventually finding some pretty disturbing Conte crayon paintings of ravens and blood.  The most disturbing of which shows blood pouring out from the female form’s thighs with ravens supping on the discharge. 

Mary Ellen is obviously insane; enough to lock Jennifer in her room that night where she has nightmares of being eaten by a raven.
The next morning there is some family drama because Gina, who lives in the States and is apparently an actress, wants to sell the house.  Her grandmother, who as I said is insane, demands that nothing change.  This all comes across rather flatly, with Faye Dunaway relying on her crazy eyes and Gina Phillips just looking pouty.    

The coolest character is introduced as a potential buyer of the house, an older Spanish speaking gentleman who only comes as a ruse to tell Jennifer that she is in great danger.  We eventually learn he was once a doctor, but has chosen “a more gratifying profession”.   He asks her about the birds and eventually her dreams, she treats him like a madman, and kicks him out.  Undeterred he offers to help her anyway, inviting her to find him at the cemetery, the only place “they cannot hear (them)”.   

The dreams continue to see her eaten alive by ravens and suddenly Jennifer is rushed off to the hospital, where she is diagnosed with the same mysterious, unexplained disease as her sister, one that apparently means she is losing her organs, as if they were being eaten from within.  Like the birds.  Woooo big stretch there guys.

Eventually she has to seek out the old doctor, and we get some glimpses into a pretty decent little mythology called the Malam Rites, where in  old forgotten gods, called the Malam can be used to grant power and immortality, at a cost of course. We learn that the victims are never allowed to die.  They lay, unmoving, even after death, an eternal meal for the Malam.  This is what happened to Jennifer’s sister, and her parents.  It is what turned the good doctor to some kind of South American Van Helsing.  This eventually leads us to a sort of showdown between the old man, Jennifer and the malam itself, which is a bird.  That’s right, just a bird.  No crazy half bird half man thing.  No demon bird., just a little black raven.  Faye Dunaway is significantly scarier than the monster behind it all.  This is done by sanctifying the house and declaring it a cemetery.  This is enough to turn the malam aside, it seems. 

Of course, now we have to go confront the real villain, Mary Ellen., the kindly old psychotic that has been feeding her bird gods to stay eternally creepy looking.  The acting in this scene, especially from Dunaway, is really melodramatic.  Jennifer actually locks her grandmother into a coffin and tosses the bitch into the furnace, where Mary Ellen proclaims that Jennifer will never be free of her.  The denounment leaves us watching Jennifer lock the place up, saying a prayer to her dead sister and leaving with her Spanish boy toy, whose name is apparently Roberto.  The single worst line of the movie comes now.  “Nevermore,” whispered just before she drives off to get laid.  Seriously, nevermore? 

The sex scene is incredibly tame, by the way.  Lots of sheets rustling and tender kisses.  Of course she dreams again, of birds and them eating their way out of her this time.  She dies, blood pouring out between her thighs, just like in the art earlier in the movie. 

So, here we are seeing through Jennifer’s eyes, looking up, unmoving, supposedly dead as that bitch Mary Ellen says the same damn prayer from when we first met her.  Fuck!  Bitch won!

This movie never quite found it's way.  The acting is lame all around.  The sets are basic and predictable.  The mythology could have been cool, but instead feels half conceived and badly executed.  The hero is unsympathetic, the villain dialed in, and the Van Helsing analog just never quite works.  Despite their simplicity the effects are probably one of the better features.  They do not go overboard, instead focussed on giving the viewer an impression rather than concrete details.  Camera work is solid, actually all around.  The music is well executed, but again predictable, a slow sonorous violin and cello theme that drones on.  It is a decidedly two star movie.  Not bad enough to really entertain, and not good enough to entertain either.    

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