Netflix’ latest movie, Velvet Buzzsaw, has a great premise (basically, it is In the Mouth Of Madness replacing an author and his books with an artist and his paintings) but surprisingly, it pretty much fails dismally in its execution. One of its issues is its lack of focus- on the one hand it’s a satire on the artworld (similar parallels in how The Neon Demon was ostensibly about the world of fashion) and on the other hand, it’s a horror story about paintings, er, possessed by evil and about as hokey as some of the 1970s Amicus/Hammer horrors that might suggest.
Even the title suggests the messy state of the final film. Its a great title, sure, but there’s a sense they had the title before they had the film, shoehorning it in with an offhand reference to a character’s role in a 1980s counterculture band that has no further bearing upon the film at all, other than a tattoo featured in an awkward ‘obligatory because all horror films do it’ sting prior to the end credits.
There’s clearly a sense that the film-makers knew the story of a dead artist whose life’s work is possessed by his spirit, and that all who profit by it will die in horrible fashion, is a terribly unsophisticated premise and far below the talent involved. Its not the first horror film derailed by its talent thinking that the genre is beneath them. It does appear that to maintain the film-makers interest there’s all this artworld commentary about millionaire dealers profiting on high-society sophisticates investing in art not because of its beauty but because of its worth, and the shallowness that suggests. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and money corrupts all, those old tropes being the central theme of the film. One art dealer berates art critic (and film protagonist) Jake Gyllenhaal for a negative review thats costs him big money in a deal. The orbits of all these artists and dealers around the opinions of Gyllenhaal’s character is ironic, in the sense that Gyllenhaal himself, like most critics, has no apparent talent himself in the field upon which he is commentating (Gyllenhaal, by the way, is brilliant in this, and deserves to be in a better film) and that Gyllenhaal’s entire career is dependant upon the talents of those he can make or break. Indeed there’s no doubt a meta-irony here that I’m criticising a film when I have no film-making talent/training either, but what’s all us bloggers to do? The film doesn’t really explain why it is Gyllenhaal’s opinion, as opposed to any other art critic, that seems to be so important to everyone, but I suppose that’s true of most leading critics in whatever field they work in. In the end, it’s all ephemeral, except the money. Its all about the money, although everyone would deny it (except Rene Russo’s art dealer, maybe).
Its interesting how this satire commentary depicts the art world and its avarice and corruption- and then gets saddled with this strictly average horror film, in that this highbrow film-making team seems to be looking down on the horror genre as if it’s too easy and formulaic yet that’s what beats them. John Carpenter is no average film-maker; it takes a keen eye and surprisingly adept skill to succeed as he did in the horror genre and it’s foolish to under-appreciate the difficulty making a good horror film. This film is competently made; it’s got a great (largely wasted) cast and great cinematography (the HDR really sings) and in those respects it’s a far better film than Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, but as a horror film its woefully inferior.
Not a total waste, then, but distinctly a wasted opportunity considering the talent involved, and a salient reminder that Carpenter is some kind of genius and he should be making some Netflix movies of his own, if only someone, or some project, could get him interested again. In some ways, with Netflix giving filmmakers such apparent riches and creative control without the nemesis of cinema box-office, this is the perfect time for Carpenter to be making his brand of low-budget/high-concept horror, but his apparent indifference to directing again confounds all. A Velvet Buzzsaw with him at the helm, hell, that’s a film I would love to see. But maybe the Age of Netflix came just a decade or two too late.