15 Days Until Halloween, 2013: I SAW WHAT YOU DID (1988) and VISITORS OF THE NIGHT (1995)

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In the face of much evidence pointing to my lack of discernment, I’ve never doubted my own taste.  Today I’m sharing two movies which have not yet, as far as I know, been categorized into a micro-genre and so I’m going to recommend the term “Lifetime Channel Horror”.  I’ve shared a lot of TV movies during my October horror orgies, but I think you’d agree that all of them quite clearly transcend their humble context and provide entertainment that is unusual and provocative.  I’m just not sure that is true of these two films, but I have a hunch it is.  Somewhere deep inside I believe it is true, but I have a strange psychic block that says, “No, Nathan!  You may love these films, you may find something of value in them, but you KNOW they are absolute TRASH!”

No.  I know nothing of the sort.  Fortunately I’m able to cut myself off from the emotional associations I’ve made with previous aesthetic norms and can approach the familiar as an alien.  In fact, that is my preferred mode of consumption. I was once told I have a “mediocrity fetish”.  In fact, mediocrity is always dependent upon context and the context is always shifting, always evolving.  Redemption is always a possibility for fallen art.

If I was not intimately familiar with the aesthetic qualities of these two films, if they were not a part of my living memory, I would likely have no problem being completely gung-ho about today’s recommendation.  Unfortunately, I was already a fully opinionated cultural critic when Lifetime was showing “Attitudes” with Linda Dano and Nancy Glass, well before Hallmark started presenting narrative versions of Thomas Kinkade paintings.  It took me years to shake off my disgust with what represented, to me, everything that is most superficial and sick about the entertainment culture of the late 80s and early 90s.  In fact I’m still only ALMOST there.  I’ve got to the point where I can appreciate a Thomas Kinkade painting, at least.

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I don’t think either of these films actually appeared on the Lifetime Channel but, note, they both spend an inordinate amount of time showing how the characters care about each other and how much they are concerned with being better people in this world.  They face trials and tribulations which ultimately make them stronger.  They focus on women and their particular emotional, domestic concerns within female centered families.  Men are either demons or possible saviors who must be kept at a distance due to well justified suspicions.  The primary fear expressed is that innocent, healthy exploration can lead to real danger from the outside.  All very Lifetime Channel…

The aesthetic of I SAW WHAT YOU DID (1988) perfectly epitomizes the late 80s.  Pastels and neutrals blend with mall hair in a soft but threatening world.  It is both sweet and seedy.  Imagine “Full House” crossed with CAPE FEAR.  Surprisingly, for a television movie, there is also quite a bit of visual experimentation going on.  For example, there is one dissolve (a gradual transition from one image to another) involving a shadow that I’m not sure I’ve seen before, though I’m sure it’s been done.  The orthodoxy of the imagery, and even the narrative, make these moments of deviance stand out and, in return, these experimental touches cast a kinder light upon the rest of the film.

Though that still sounds like mediocrity, doesn’t it?

I’m not sure how to explain what makes it special.  I can only say that the whole is more powerful than the parts, and that it creates a mood, accidently or by design, that is unique to itself.  Hell, the fact that it “creates a mood” at all is a fine accomplishment!

Throughout the movie the sound of crickets and softly whistling wind is heard.  This is a summer movie.  It is the feeling of being inside a freshly cleaned house, designed to your liking, early in the evening of a warm summer day.  All the windows are open and there is a soft breeze.  You’re watching something nostalgic on television, maybe an old horror movie, and as the light turns dusky  and the breeze is lightly tossing the curtains, possibly a sign of a storm coming, you feel awfully damn content with the world.

I SAW WHAT YOU DID can be that sort of movie, but you have to LET it happen…

The aesthetic of VISITORS OF THE NIGHT (1995) is a slightly amped up version of the post “Twin Peaks”, post “X-Files” early to mid-nineties television orthodoxy.  I have to say that I love it.  All golden light in raw wood colored rooms and lamp lit emerald leaves in blue-gelled evenings.  I would have taken it for granted at the time, but this movie is damned COLORFUL and, I’ve got to admit, I was seduced by the nostalgia of this kind of visual coziness.  It’s the same reason I religiously watched “Ghost Whisperer” when it was on TV.  It had such a 90s aesthetic.  Jennifer Love Hewitt just couldn’t get herself a cup of coffee on a sunny or rainy day, it HAD to be a sunny day with a RAIN SLICKED STREET!  Thomas Kinkade would have it no other way.  And why not?  It FEELS good!

The story is strictly familiar alien abduction nonsense and I thought I’d be bored, but I was captivated by the pretty colors and comfortable lighting (these people leave every damned light on in their house during the evening) for long enough to be hypnotized by the Lifetime Channel style emotional outpourings and, before you know it, I started realizing that I was feeling a little tension, a little fear for the cardboard cut-out people in this pretty, pretty doll house universe and, in fact, they’re not so cardboard after all.  There are a lot of little touches that reveal a psychological sensitivity to characterization that isn’t immediately evident.  For example, the main character’s house is constantly under renovation.  This has metaphorical meaning, but it can also be seen as a symptom of her alien abduction.  Perhaps she wants to feel as if there are always people around?  Nothing big is made of it, it’s just a small bit of the background, but it is certainly one of many cohesive details that shed personality (a warm light) on what might otherwise seem like cliche automatons.

Both films are not much more than an hour and a half long but, I have to be honest, they FEEL much longer.  It’s not that things aren’t happening, it’s just that the familiarity makes the films into people you know, possibly even family, talking about subjects you’ve already discussed in the past.  That sounds like a negative but it is, in fact, a strong positive.  These films are perhaps best viewed while you are half involved with other things not too distracting.  They sit in the room with you and keep good company while you are knitting, perhaps, or clipping pictures out of magazines to make a pop-star themed collage for your bedroom wall.

Plus they go well with hot cocoa and cookies!

I SAW WHAT YOU DID (1988)

VISITORS OF THE NIGHT (1995)

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