LAFF 2007: Rural Places Are Scary

Remember in the movie version of Silent Hill, how the haunted town was a rural coal-mining community where coal fires burned non-stop underground? That was partially inspired by Centralia, Pennsylvania, subject of Chris Perkel and Georgie Roland’s documentary THE TOWN THAT WAS. In 1962, the townspeople started a “controlled” fire to burn up the local trash heap, but seams of anthracite coal down below caught fire, and have been burning ever since — all attempts to stop it failed when projects would run out of money, and the government ultimately calculated that it would be cheaper to pay for everyone’s relocation than to actually stop the fire.

Eleven people are left. Most are old men, but one is a 33-year-old named John who has a strong sense of tradition, and a pretty good sense of denial regarding the harm that living on top of a seeping bed of carbon monoxide can cause.


The ground that was once Centralia looks peaceful and nice, with occasional burned patches where steam has broken through the surface — there aren’t any faceless nurses or pyramid-headed giants roaming the former streets after dark, or anything like that, though the graveyard is still open for business, and former residents thereby “return” after death.

Paul Henning’s score is a little too relentlessly tragic, sledgehammering you with a sense of loss for the Norman Rockwell small-town life that once was; though that kind of thing is being lost anyway, regardless of coal fires. There’s enough of an actual haunting tone to the real ghost town that it speaks for itself. One question never asked is, can’t we find a way to generate power somehow off the heat of an eternally burning coal fire? If not, why not? That may be a stupid question to a scientist, but still one that comes to mind.

And on the subject of haunting rural spaces with sparse populations, we also have Ti West’s TRIGGER MAN. Ti is a friend, so take that for what it’s worth, but his follow-up to the killer bat movie The Roost is superior in almost every way, and cheaper, too! Give the man a quarter and he might be able to shoot something out of it.

Basically, three New York friends drive upstate to hunt deer in the woods. They don’t find much, or talk much…lots of pregnant pauses and long walks here. But someone finds them. When a sniper bullets zips through the air, everything changes.

There’s very little dialogue here, and at a certain point there is perhaps a little too much of just one guy walking around an empty factory. There are movies this slow that bug the crap out of me — am I going easy on Ti because he’s my friend? Maybe a little, but I’m fairly sure I’d like it regardless — the careful use of sound, and especially lack thereof, keeps things tense even when nothing is happening (which is often, admittedly). And I love that the actors are just a bunch of Ti’s buddies. They look like real people, with the kind of tattoos that Hollywood-created characters simply wouldn’t have (i.e. non-tribal!), and behave like real people. Unlike in some suspense movies, there’s never a moment where a character does something obviously stupid just to further the plot or get a cheap scare. And Ti’s HD cinematography is spot-on, beautiful and meditative when it needs to be, and frantic — without being incoherent — when the shit goes down.

I’m jealous of Ti for cranking out two great movies in two years, still in his 20s…and can’t wait to see what he’s done with Cabin Fever 2.

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