Monday, October 19, 2015

When A Twist Isn’t A Twist: Why You Should Plow Through Anyway

There’s a Portlandia sketch about spoilers: four people at a dinner party can’t mutually talk about TV shows for fear of “spoiling” the plot twists for the other guests. The sketch spirals further and further into ridiculousness, as each guest outlines exactly how far they are into various popular series, thus dictating what everyone else is allowed to talk about until no one can talk about anything at all.

This sketch came to mind back when I was watching Goodnight Mommy, a German horror film with a “twist” ending that everyone and his brother lamented for being too obvious, and again as I watched Suspension, part of the 8 Films to Die For released last Friday. The former is a fantastic film, but since I’ve written about it here before, I’m going to focus on the latter.

Emily MacNevin in Suspension.
Suspension is about a high school girl, Emily (Ellen MacNevin), whose father committed some heinous murders in their small town and is now locked up in a mental ward. Within the first scene we learn that Emily is attempting to deal with her tragic past by drawing a gruesome graphic novel of sorts, in which her father is the main character, on the loose and killing again. Unbeknownst to Emily, however, everything she draws in her sketchbook seems to be coming true in the real world.

Suspension telegraphs its “twist” ending within the first fifteen minutes with a single bit of clumsy dialogue. I can’t definitively say whether the filmmakers meant to make the endgame so clear from the beginning, but based on an interview I recently heard with one of them, I’d hazard to guess that they know it’s fairly obvious, but that making it obvious was not their original intention. With that in mind, I have to ask: Does it really matter?

Granted, we all love to be shocked by a truly great twist. I remember the first time I saw The Sixth Sense, back when twist endings weren’t nearly as abundant as they are now, and it seemed like the entire world was taken by surprise by Bruce Willis’s ghostly revelation. Didn’t we all go back through the movie, picking it apart for clues? In fact, the movie itself did a lot of the work for us, treating us like the babes in the twist-ending-woods we were and providing flashbacks of all the evidence we failed to notice the first time around. Today, however, audiences are much savvier and harder to fool. It’s been a long while since a movie has managed to pull the wool over my eyes until the very end.

So although I’m never not jonesing for a film with a truly unpredictable ending, it’s necessarily become far less important to me than the content and effectiveness of the film overall. Because even if a film surprises you with its finale, it’s never going to hold up to a second or third watch if the quality of story isn’t there. Which brings me back to Suspension.

As I said, I’d wager that Suspension gives its ending away for most seasoned horror watchers within a few minutes. For me, though, I kind of considered it a blessing that it was so apparent, because I didn’t have to waste all my energy looking for clues to bolster my hypothesis. While that can be fun, so many good movies get the guts of their stories glossed over and ignored by audiences doing just that. Then, when their theory turns out to be correct, they complain about it being too obvious and never bother to rewatch the movie for what it is – which is, hopefully, more than just a twist ending.

And Suspension is more than its twist: it’s a fun, nasty little horror movie with a lot of heart, some good acting, and some great campy moments. It caught my eye because of the graphic novel angle – which made for some cool scenes, especially at the beginning – and kept my attention throughout, regardless of the fact that I knew what was coming. Ellen MacNevin is excellent as the lead (she gave me some serious Angela Bettis vibes, which is definitely a compliment), and it’s her story that matters through the whole movie, not just where it ends up. The gore and effects are also on-point and a lot of fun, making for a movie that I’m not sorry to have paid to see (which is more than I can say for some of the other horror movies I’ve spent money on lately). It’s not a perfect film, and I might argue that it would have been better had the filmmakers not tried to conceal the ending at all, but its twist, or lack thereof, had little to nothing to do with my assessment or enjoyment of it.

Our culture’s obsession with spoilers - and the spoiler's mother, the twist - has become a bit of a detriment to film and television alike. Sure, we all love to be surprised (the exponential growth of the subscription box industry testifies to that – even as adults, we all clamor at the chance to pay for a shiny new package to open without knowing what’s inside), but relying solely on shock value to make a story interesting, or demanding a shocking ending above all else… seems childish, and beside the point. Good storytelling, period, should be the point. As audience members, it’s also our duty to recognize and reward that when we see it, rather than whine about the fact that we got exactly what we asked for on Christmas morning.

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