White Noise and Fear X (review)

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The Insignificance of Static

Set yourself in front of your VCR and rewind tapes for an hour and a half while your TV is tuned to a dead channel. There: You’ve just saved yourself the price of admission to White Noise, a limp attempt at scaring you with electronic static that’s about as frightening as coming home to discover that the clock on your answering machine is five minutes off.
There may be a horror film to be concocted from the daily harassment we face at the hands of modern communications appliances — answering machines, cell phones, boom boxes, televisions, and the like — but this is not it. Though, oh, how mightily it tries to make you jump out of your skin with radios that turn themselves on mysteriously and ghostly figures that emerge from TVs to toss apartments like rampaging kindergartners on a sugar high. But mostly, White Noise is 90 minutes of poor Michael Keaton (Jack Frost, Out of Sight), clearly atoning for some horrible sin, becoming increasingly obsessed with staring at the static on his TV, fiddling with the VCR, enhancing the recorded static on his computer, convinced that his dead wife is trying to communicate with him from beyond the beyond. If you think watching your own VCR tapes rewind is boring, you can only imagine how much more snooze-inducing it is to watch someone else rewind his tapes.

The beautiful young wife had to die, you see, because in the algebra of these kinds of bad movies, a happy, loving, handsome, privileged, wealthy white couple cannot be allowed to endure past the first reel, particularly not after they get the ecstatic news that she is pregnant. Though why anyone — specifically in this instance, director Geoffrey Sax (who also directed the blasphemous 1996 Fox Doctor Who TV movie) — would imagine that we might be entertained by the Hollywoodized mopings of a new widower is a mystery. This is this year’s Dragonfly, and really, one of those was more than enough.

Even the moping widower’s meddling in things in which Man Was Not Meant To Meddle cannot engage us, not when it results in just so much generic spookiness — funhouse stuff: sudden loud noises, random stuff jumping out at the camera, and the like — that rips off every good horror movie of the last decade, and many of the bad ones, too. “I see dead people… if I jiggle the antenna a little, that is,” no one says here, but they might as well.

Apparently, some of the ghosts don’t want people to listen, but why? Answers are not forthcoming — the awful script is from Niall Johnson, and let’s hope it’s his last — but there will be plenty more radios going BOO! as the incoherent mess of a story devolves into the sheerly incomprehensible, with anonymous new characters wandering into the movie and wifey’s ghost suddenly insisting that Keaton must “Go now! Go now!” by which she probably means “Go smack your agent for even sending this script your way!”

When these kinds of ooga-booga, the-dead-are-coming-to-kill-you movies work, they make you believe in the most ridiculous of conceits. Here, even the supposedly genuine “electronic voice phenomena,” wherein the voices of the dead can be heard in the static of devices like TVs and cell phones, is laughably absurd, and the movie must resort to a quote from Thomas Edison from 1928, in which he suggests that it simply must be possible to record the dead… because, I guess, if someone like Edison believed in this crap, you should too. How the dead managed before electricity is left unexplored: Morse code? telegraph? signal fire? semaphore? Perhaps today they’re just telling us to turn off the damn TV and go play outside while we have the corporeal bodies to do it with.

Making sense of the senseless
“I heard what I wanted to hear,” says a new believer in EVP in White Noise, by way of explanation of her conversion, after the voice of her dead fiancé “speaks” to her from the static with soothing reassurances of the agreeableness of the afterlife. But of course the volumes of import in her declaration go totally unexplored: the idea that the desire for relief from grief might combine with wishful thinking and the human capacity to see patterns everywhere might conflate to make us see and hear things that aren’t there simply isn’t within the worldview of an unsophisticated movie like White Noise.

It is within the purview, however, of Fear X, a thoroughly riveting slow-burn of a psychological thriller that bears some striking similarities to White Noise — this is the movie that White Noise should have been, could have been, if it recognized that, rather than a couple of radios turning themselves on, the far more frightening concept is that our own brains may lie to us, that we cannot trust even our own senses, that the things that we think are real may not be.

Like Keaton’s grieving widower, John Turturro’s Harry is mourning the untimely, violent loss of his own wife, who was also newly pregnant, and he copes by obsessively trying to solve her murder. As in Noise, Harry is glued to his television, watching grainy images over and over — he is hoping to find a clue to the identity of her killer, or at least an answer to the question Why? (she was an innocent bystander, in the wrong place at the wrong time). Harry’s fixation is a lot more prosaic, though: His wife’s murder was captured on the surveillance cameras of the mall in which Harry works as a security guard, and he watches those tapes over and over, pausing to take stills of shadowy figures that he arranges in a mosaic of uncertainty on his living room wall, a kind of anti-shrine, a seemingly unsolvable mystery in which all the clues, if they are clues, are muddled and cloudy.

Harry does not live in the shiny, upper-middle-class Pottery Barn of White Noise — his world is a spare, blue-collar one, one delineated with chilly, thrilling frugality by director Nicolas Winding Refn and cinematographer Larry Smith (Eyes Wide Shut), all harsh colors and bare environments, some the natural result of shooting in a rural Wisconsin winter, some an abstracted reflection of Harry’s stripped-down psyche. There is no pretty mourning for Harry — he sits in his neat but threadbare house transfixed by the ghostly, vaguely human shapes on pixilated videos: this all that’s holding him together, this quest, this necessity of finding what may not be there to find. Turturro, who has of late created some startlingly memorable larger-than-life caricatures (see Secret Window and O Brother, Where Art Thou?), here is so still and so focused that we are sucked right into him; it’s impossible not to identify with him. Turturro’s Harry is pent-up pile of psychic energy, a disaster waiting to happen… which we almost don’t realize until it does, in fact, happen.

And then, everything that’s come before that point — the marvelously twisted script is by Refn and novelist Hubert Selby Jr. — becomes suspect, and we become complicit in Harry’s delusions… if they are delusions. When Harry peered intently into those surveillance videos, desperate to see what he could see, you leaned forward, too, certain that sense could be made of the nebulous, that there was order in the chaos. In putting the pieces together, Harry sees what he wants to see, hears what he wants to hears, even if he has to invent it, even if we invented it along with him. Or is it all real after all?

It’s dangerous footing that Fear X leaves us upon, because we leave not knowing whether to trust our own senses, our own rationality. And that is far more authentically terrifying — and far more deeply haunting — than any actual spooks in the static of our lives could ever be.

White Noise
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and language
official site | IMDB

Fear X
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated PG-13 for intense thematic material

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