Opus (2011)

SEPTEMBER 30, 2011


In the past I have always missed the opening night movies at Shriekfest due to work, but this year I had the early shift, allowing me to see what sort of movies they think are worth leading the festival off with. As I no longer have time/energy to write up full reviews of every movie I see at a festival, I decided whichever of the three opening night films I liked the most would get the review; as it turns out, Opus - the first of the three - was my favorite.

Right off the bat I was on board, because while I knew it was a "7 people trapped in an isolated location" movie (i.e. a theoretical Saw ripoff), it didn't START with them already there, not knowing how they got there or who the others were. No, as we learn via reality show style testimonials, our seven heroes have agreed to star in a mysterious horror film, and are driven there on their own free will. It's only after they enter the house and sit around for a while that they realize something is amiss, as there's no director, no lights, and seemingly no cameras.

Of course, that's not actually the case. The entire film is shot through cameras that seem to be placed inside wall vents and lighting fixtures, all placed perfectly symmetrical (no annoying high quarter angle shots like Bryan Loves You). It gives the film a very unnerving atmosphere that kept my interest throughout the runtime, at least until the final 10 minutes when the movie shoots itself in the foot with a dragged out setpiece featuring a character that we had assumed was dead.

Spoilers ahead!

Now, what might bug people about the climax is that we never get the answers (i.e. who is the director, how is the mistress of one character involved, etc), but that didn't bother me at all - any answer they come up with out of nowhere is likely to disappoint anyway. The problem is that they had a perfectly good ending but kept the movie going, showing us what this thought-dead character was doing the whole time. If they revealed he was the killer, fine, but instead we just see him doing the same sort of shit the other characters were doing throughout the rest of the film, albeit by himself, and ultimately it doesn't provide any more insight. Hell, it doesn't even set up a sequel! Essentially it's just a clunky, pace-killing way to tie up a loose end, one that was already more or less addressed by one of the characters earlier.

See, the hook of the movie is that they seem to be "acting out" a pre-existing script for a traditional horror movie, which leads to some minor Scream style meta humor (the resident horror movie expert* points out that the only black guy was the first to be taken out). Well, most slashers have a character that disappears only to either turn up dead or as the killer, so all we would need is a quick shot of this guy's corpse at some point in the final reel to be satisfied. For the life of me I cannot fathom why they chose to dedicate the entire last 5-10 minutes of the film to this character's non-journey.

(Also, instead of the "we're acting out a script" thing, I would have reversed it - having someone write down everything that happens as they turn on each other and fashion it into a "based on a true story" script. We need more cynical endings in horror!)

Production-wise, it was by far the most professional of the films I saw tonight. None of the actors were particularly great (one's performance was intentionally terrible, I guess, but even when his true colors show through he's still bad), but it looked terrific and had a very atmospheric sound design, with the whirring motors and fluttering of the auto-iris (I think some of the cameras were meant to be motion activated?) constantly reminding us of what we were seeing the movie through without keeping annoying camera graphics on-screen (i.e. the battery icon and "REC") - those are used sparingly more to keep track of how much time has passed. The score is also quite good (if a bit "Hello Zepp"ish at times; if intentional it was a poor choice since the scenario alone is already recalling Saw II), and director Micah Levin (plus DP Elie Smolkin) should be commended at keeping the movie visually interesting despite rarely even having the opportunity to move the camera beyond minor zooms.

And after the third film, Millennium Bug, what I really appreciated about Opus was that they kept the story within the confines of what was probably not a particularly big budget. Bug was fun, but throughout the movie I was sort of kept at arm's length from it as they clearly shot the entire thing on a set and didn't have the dough to show the monster doing much (or the ability to go into a wide shot - they later explained their set was only 600 square feet). With a few million this could have been a really kick ass movie (the script was pretty great; a blend of Wrong Turn/Hills Have Eyes type horror and a 50s monster movie), but instead it felt like the world's longest pre-vis; a demo in order to secure the necessary budget. Opus, on the other hand, never felt hampered by its budget or resources; any more money probably would/should have just gone toward hiring better actors (I should note that the film was largely improvised, which was likely the intention from the start - another reason why hiring better performers could have improved things).

So even while not perfect, it at least proves that there is still some life in the "let's trap a bunch of strangers somewhere" sub-genre, and even though it dips into torture territory briefly, anytime I can watch one of these things without constantly being reminded of Saw (not counting the score), especially now that we're coming up on Halloween and there's no new entry (boooo!) I am satisfied.

What say you?

*Who has a framed Dead Pit poster in his room. Brett Leonard was an executive producer here, and while the homage is cute, it seriously undermines his credibility as a horror expert, especially since it's the only really horror thing we can clearly see in there (looks like he has some Living Dead Dolls or something way in the background too).


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