MFF review: Seventh Moon takes terror to China

20 May

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Seventh Moon(2009) 87 min. directed by: Eduardo Sanchez. written by: Jamie Nash and Eduardo Sanchez. cast: Amy Smart, Tim Chiou, Dennis Chan. cinematography: Wah-Chuen Lam.  Original music by: Kent Sparling and Tony Cora.

cinemagrade b Horror is an interesting thing. Like comedy, it’s difficult to pinpoint what will make one person laugh or one person scream. It can be a tighrope walk trying to determine whats going to creep out an audience and what might just end up getting giggles. I imagine this is the reason so many current horror films tend towards the comedic or silly. It’s easier to be successful when there are always two given choices for audience response.

The filmmakers who just want to scare you, unnerve you, and send you home a little unsettled–their job is much harder. Eduardo Sanchez happens to be one of those directors. That isn’t to say that his films are always completely successful at what they attempt, or that he doesn’t sprinkle humor throughout his work. However, his approach has been the same since The Blair Witch Project, his film debut with co-director Daniel Myrick; scare the heck out of ’em and send ’em home shaken. His latest, Seventh Moon, sets out on this mission and though it doesn’t arrive at its destination it gives fans of the genre a whole lot to admire on the way.

 Sanchez’ third directorial effort, Seventh Moon follows the unfortunate adventures of Yul and Melissa, newlyweds traveling through China for their honeymoon. Melissa wanted to go someplace tropical but they settled on China because Yul’s relatives live there. On the last leg of the trip, the couples’ guide, Ping, stops their car while they sleep and disappears, leaving them alone in a rural area.In the middle of the night. During the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts. 

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Yul and Mel bicker, set out from the car to look for Ping and find a small cluster of homes with animals set outside in cages–offerings made to God only knows what. There are unearthly screeches coming from the woods, and Yul almost runs down something that looks like a pale, naked man darting across the dirt road. On the radio all is static, save for a strange voice reciting incantations. Yul understands a little of it–It’s an invitation of sorts and it’s the same thing that was being spoken at the site with the animal sacrifices.

As the night wears on, Mel and Yul find themselves lost in the coutryside and in the company of someone else also on the run; a man who has been brutally attacked and seems to be in the same situation. And then, THEY come; from out of the shadows in numbers hard to discern because of the dim moonlight. They walk like men, but are not. They claw and tear at the car, slink through the undergrowth and leap from behind darkened corners. They seem bent on the singular purpose of devouring these three people in their path and the locals are intent on helping them.

 Thats the basic hook and once the “ghosts” of the piece show up, the movie becomes a fast-paced jaunt through hell on earth as Yul and Melissa fight against one another and their relentless pursuers in a desperate bid to survive the night. And, as a tightly paced and crisply crafted thriller I think it works really well. Sanchez sidesteps the usual pitfalls of the genre: dopey dialogue, vague, unlikable characters and excessive, meaningless violence. Instead of trying to find out how many organs can be pulled out of the human body through the chest cavity, Seventh Moon is more interested in tearing away the metaphorical skin of it’s protagonists-stripping them of their sense of security, protection, and shattering their delicate understanding of things.

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That isn’t to say, however, that the film is tame or afraid to get graphic when it needs to. There are scenes of mutilated remains, people being yanked brutally through the darkened forest, and in one scene, grasping clawed hands tear and rend victims who have been imprisoned inside of bamboo cages. None of it is gratuitous and the director and his team take great pride in making the most tension filled sequences the ones where characters sit in the dark, trying to talk their way out of their fears and forget the monstrosities lurking only a few feet away. And though we get to see the actual creatures this time around, Seventh Moon shares some very obvious similarities with The Blair Witch Project.

To begin with, Seventh Moon employs that hand-held feel of live footage. It isn’t as amateurish or as stylized as Blair Witch, but that isn’t the point here. In some ways it might be even more frenetic in its movements because of the sheer amount of running , dodging and hiding that occurs. Where Blair Witch documented the breakdown of gentility and western assuredness in the face of the unknown, Seventh Moon does the same and adds a veneer of eastern mystery–suggesting a disconnect between the american Melissa and the asian-american Yul (who has no real sense of his own heritage) and the country they find themselves lost in.

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Sanchez describing some of the pitfalls of filming in rural China, including scorpions

The opening portion of the film is focused on the married couple wandering the streets of China and interacting as consumers amidst old and sacred festivals and customs. The cinematography by Wah-Chuen Lam,who also helmed the Donnie Yen/Sammo Hung action flick Killzone, is very atmospheric and captures plenty of unique cultural details as it roves back and forth over city streets and rural enclaves. The helter skelter nature of the film’s second half is also handled well; Lam who only utlizies his sick-inducing camera work when it is necessary to evoke hysteria, dread and shuffling horrors advancing through the night-shrouded landscape. There is even room for a few, subtle pieces of fx work, including a quite haunting visual that occurs right at the break of dawn.

The film boasts only three major speaking parts, and they are all handled well. Amy Smart and Tim Chiou don’t overdo it as the couple who might be facing their first married scuffle amidst a life threatening event. In the face of possible death, they clambor over 15 years worth of marital strife and get right down to the worse part of “for better or…” Smart is really an unknown for me, though I know she has done other stuff, and I think she manages her role as Melissa quite well. She doesn’t really set it apart as something memorable or iconic but she has the job of carrying the last third of the picture almost completely by herself and she makes it work.

Chiou, as Yul, gets to play the meek husband and clueless foreigner to his own country. To his credit, Yul doesn’t come off as an ugly american or a whipped pansy. He’s just a young man facing unforseen threats in the face of what he probably presumed was the  “beginning of the rest of his life.” Dennis Chan has a thankless role as Ping, the mysterious guide who seems like a friend, and then perhaps an enemy, while the truth is somewhere more in the middle.

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All of the films’ pieces belong to Sanchez’s overarching vision of  human beings placed into no-win scenarios where all boundaries fall away. Thats probably the thing I’ve liked most about his work thus far-it’s horror based off a very simple fear: the fear of being lost.  In Blair Witch, as well as Seventh Moon, part of that “lost” is literal, but in Sanchez’s second feature Altered,where a group of  backwater buddies capture and hold hostage an alien lifeform that murdered their friend, the lost referred to what happens to our dearly held comfort when something unexpected unearths it. Seventh Moon is more immediate and more efffective than Altered, but it never really gets into the psychological headspace of being adrift from civilization that Blair Witch Project captured so beautifully. In that movie we marveled at the idea of a younger generation being collectively lost in the woods. Here, the americans run away from creepy monsters in a foreign land, made all the less frightening by creatures that seem a little too familiar.

I know many didn’t care for The Blair Witch Project, but I find that it is a movie I can still watch to this day. The inventive work on the part of the directors to stage horrors that exist solely in the mind, outside of the camera really worked for me and utilized unspoken dread. Ed has learned a number of useful tricks since that first film, and Seventh Moon is a far more polished and technically accomplished piece than that freshman outing. In fact, I think there will be many out there who really dig this. It has some basic similarities to a film like The Descent, but I find it lacks what both that film and Blair Witch had: a palpable sense of dread. Seventh Moon is always pitched at a shivery but enjoyable level, never going into areas we feel unsafe in; it stays within secure borders and achieves a little less as a result. Still, it’s quite an entertainment and another stepping stone for a director I’ve come to be really intrigued by. Whatever you attempt next Ed, I’m there.

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Ed Sanchez discussing Seventh Moon after the MFF Friday night screening

As of right now Seventh Moon doesn’t have a release date but I believe it’s been picked up and is headed to dvd. Here’s hoping it arrives in time for a Halloween themed movie night.

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4 Responses to “MFF review: Seventh Moon takes terror to China”

  1. The Great Fatsby May 20, 2009 at 7:20 pm #

    I went into this film not a huge fan of Mr. Sanchez, partly because I waited too long to see the Blair Witch Project (somehow I managed to see that craptacular film, Blair Witch II: Book of Shadows first), so that basically all the plot points had been hammered out for me ahead of time by my peers, and there were no real surprises left in the movie for me. I didn’t much care for Altered either, even though I love a good joke at a hillbilly’s expense.

    I will give this movie credit for the things I did enjoy, such as the cinematography and the feelings of helplessness, which were heightened to an uncomfortable pitch through both being lost in rural China, and not being able to understand anyone, be it radio, or the local townspeople screaming through the doors at the foreigners.

    However, much like The Village, a few quality aspects do not a whole movie make, and I left the screening feeling just a little disappointed. Most of the scares that a large portion of the audience reacted to were the 6-7 “jump” moments, where something would lunge from seemingly out of nowhere on the screen, in an attempt to give the audience a coronary. In today’s “OH-MY-GAWD-SAW-IS-SO-SCARY” and “OH-MY-GAWD-SAW-IS-SO-INTELLIGENT” society, that’s all most horror hounds want. Don’t challenge the brain too much, please, you will spoil the movie. Unfortunately, the movie never fully swings in that direction, keeping it from being a real jol

    Lest I sound like a snob who thinks he has the Khan-like superior intellect, I will inform you that I will catch the occasional (okay, every weekend) Sci-Fi original movie. So yeah, I like crap too. But I don’t care for the film that thinks it can go above and beyond the level of entertaining schlock (good ol’ ghoulies looking for a quick bite), only to rise to the level of befuddled mediocrity (Lets throw some newlyweds in the mix to get some emotional response, that’s new ground for horror, right guys?).

    OK, I realize I am rambling and getting away from the main point, so I’ll try and reel it in. If you want a scary movie with some depth, good luck, there isn’t a whole lot out there like that right now. But if you want to sit there watching the main character get chased by something horrific, go spend your money on a DVD copy of the last movie Gary Busey was in. Because, despite a few good elements, this film is neither fully satisfying as a semi-cerebral indie horror movie, or as a full-fledged shocker known for despoiling the pants of the masses.

  2. Herb May 22, 2009 at 1:04 am #

    This is interesting. For one thing, I always thought that there is a fine line between horror and comedy. Also, if this is more psychological horror, that’s great. The world need more smart horror films.

    I never realized that the same director did Blair Witch and Altered. I always think of Altered the same way as I do Fraility, as one of those incredible underrated low budget horror movies of the last 10 years. To me, the whole thing felt real, and I think it’s one of the best alien horror films ever made. That just sold me right there and I can’t wait to see this.

    Awesome review. You guys are lucky you were able to see this movie early. Let us know if you hear anything more about the release date.

  3. goregirl July 6, 2009 at 7:23 pm #

    I’m really looking forward to seeing this one! It’s too bad it is unlikely to find its way to theatres though.

  4. Jarv November 10, 2009 at 11:27 am #

    Not a fan of Blair Witch. I’ll probably give this a shot, but remain unconvinced

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