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Monday, March 7, 2011

Me vs The Tonight or Another Look At SA Horror Movie, Night Drive.


Now, here's a brand new bit of content for the site. And I do, of course, use "bit" very, very lightly. Sorry if I go on even more than usual here but I am talking about a movie that I hated to much, I had an actual physical reaction to. When I say that it caused me to shake with rage, I don't mean that figuratively. And here's the thing though, I'm still not 100% sure why I did hate it so much. Still, I think the following million words should give you at least some understanding of why I hated it so much. 

Or as the critics (well, me) have it: "The worst film of the year!" - some bloke walking out of the screening. In January.

Oh and I submitted this article to Artslink.co.za as well. Check it out here



The new South African horror film, Night Drive, is hands down and quite easily my least favourite film I've seen this year. I saw it way back in January but as I walked out of the film, literally - and I do mean literally - shaking with anger, I exclaimed that there was no way in hell that there would be a film released in 2011 that I would hate more. Two months and one Big Mommas movie later, my prediction is still firmly set to come true.


Imagine my shock, bewilderment and - to be honest - amusement when I opened up the Tonight section (that's the entertainment bit, for all you foreigners) of The Star newspaper of Friday 4 March 2011 to find that the film had received a whopping 5-star rating and a positively glowing review from reviewer Munyradzi Vomo. Now, of course, I don't mean to cast dispersions on Mr Vomo's abilities as a film critic - there simply is no accounting for taste, as they say - but I feel the need to respond to his review. Even if just to try and understand just why I had such an extreme reaction to the film. 

First, it has to be said, however little I cared for the film, it does have some merit on a purely technical level. Not so much in the script, which is genuinely abominable, but in terms of the film's production values. It has an admirably grungy look, yet Night Drive looks every bit as professionally put together as just about any similar Hollywood film. The acting too is solid enough - if a bit on the variable side. 

Where Night Drive does fall down, though, is that it is an absolute failure as a horror film, boasting some of the most cringe-worthy "tough-guy" dialogue you'll hear all year; shoddy ADD-riddled camera-work and a genuinely nasty, malicious undertone that does nothing but regurgitate typically harmful African stereotypes. Oh and it's lit in such a way that even if you do get used to the headache-inducing camera work, you probably still won't be able to see what's going on. Not that you'll care at that point anyway. 

Look, I may not measure up to critics like Kim Newman and Mark Kermode when it comes to the horror genre, but I know enough about horror to know when it works and when, as in this case, it really, really doesn't. In the same way that comedies are meant to make you laugh and action thrillers are meant to thrill you, horror films are meant to scare. Failing that, it needs to at the very least unnerve you, unsettle you or leave you feeling ever so slightly creeped out.     

Good horror is NOT, as Vomo puts it, "only as good as its gory scenes". This might be true of the creative wasteland of the so-called "torture porn" genre. It might even be true of silly exploitation films, of which Piranha 3D and Drive Angry 3D are two recent examples. Though even the latter is far more about humour and a self-conscious silliness than it is about the blood and guts. 

What it's certainly not true about, though, is proper horror. Think back to classics of the genre like Psycho, The Exorcist and The Shining and to modern European classics like The Devil's Backbone and Let The Right One In. If any of these films did have gore in them, it was simply used as a means to accentuate the parts of the film that were already frightening - not as an end in and of itself. 

And that's the mistake that Night Drive makes. It has loads of gore but precious little in the way of true scares. Even the grimy look of the film, something that should so easily have at least contributed to creating an atmosphere of terror, is a let down: coming across more as irritating and depressing than chilling and hair-raising. 

What's worse, is that it doesn't even work if you treat it as part of the somewhat lesser horror tradition of the slasher flick. Aside for the fact that Wes Craven's ironic ode to the slasher film, Scream, was basically the last word on the slasher film (which was made even more ironic when you consider that it effectively resurrected the long-dormant genre), Night Drive relies far too much on your typical action movie shoot-em-up action to work on even that level.    

Hell, it's not even twisted enough or sadistic enough to work as "torture porn"! How sad is that?

Still, that it doesn't work on even the most basic levels can be forgiven up to a point. As a wet-behind-the-ears rookie film critic, I do take great care to see every movie that comes out and while it is, lets not kid, a pretty damn cool job, it does mean that I have to sit through loads of bad movies. This year already, I've seen a boatload of films that fail entirely to accomplish what they set out to do. None of them though have elicited in me quite the same averse - physically averse, at that - reactions that I had to Night Drive.

That Night Drive is bad, I can accept. That it is so relentlessly cruel, so hateful, so utterly mean-spirited, well, that is something else all together.            

Now, I do realize that as a horror film, a certain amount of nastiness can often be expected. It's horror, after all. At least, in theory it is, anyway. This is not the genre of rainbows, hugs and a spoonful of sugar. It's the realm of nightmares, darkness and things that go bump in the night. Why then should I so take against it for, basically, not being nice?   

This isn't actually a rhetorical question and it is, indeed, one that I have grappled with even as I write this review/ debate/ treatise/ ramble (delete where applicable). The answer that I have come up with - and it's certainly not a new one - is that, unlike most good horror films, the nasty undercurrent running through Night Drive doesn't have any point to it beyond being nasty.

Traditionally, horror that really pushes at the bounds of good taste and decency, does so with a greater purpose in mind. On a purely textual level, Shaun of the Dead, for example, used its most gruesome and obscene moments either as a source of comedy or, better yet, as driving forces towards greater emotional heights. And then, of course, there are those that use the brutality and unpleasantness of their horror to make an allegorical point. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes and Dawn of the Dead are all notorious for their full-on horror but are as beloved and enduring as they are because of what they say about the society in which they were made.

Night Drive, on the other hand, could so easily have funneled its nasty excesses into something interesting, something with a point. Instead, it constantly gestures towards the negative aspects of living in our "New South Africa" without ever really saying anything about it. If anything, it seems more concerned with exploiting and exaggerating the most loaded and stereotypical beliefs about the state of South Africa today. 

While it could so easily have explored the real conflict between Western culture and traditional African culture (old  vs new and urban vs rural are classic concerns of the horror genre), Night Drive seems far more interested in simply using lazy African stereotypes as boring plot devices. It's not quite racist though: the film hates all of its characters equally. 

Almost as much, in fact, as it appears to hate its audience. 

But then again what do I know?  Maybe I just don't "get"horror. I'm sure all you true blue horror fans will be sure to tell me just how wrong I am. 

Well, bring it on I say!   

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