Quelle Horreur! Summer Fright Flicks are DOA

c rexwhatgoesuppicture 4 Quelle Horreur! Summer Fright Flicks are DOAWhat Goes Up
Running Time 104 minutes
Written by Jonathan Glatzer and Robert Lawson
Directed by Jonathan Glatzer
Starring Steve Coogan, Hilary Duff, Molly Shannon, Olivia Thirlby

Pontypool
Running time 95 minutes
Written by Tony Burgess
Directed by Bruce McDonald
Starring Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly, Rick Roberts

Desperate weeks produce disastrous results. Summer’s guarantee to send I.Q.’s plummeting is in full swing, so this week at the movies, the choices were robots running amok; Will Ferrell battling dinosaurs in an alternate universe called the Hollywood back lot; various wolverines, terminators and ossified Star Trek Xeroxes; and another night trapped in yet another museum with Ben Stiller. I’d rather take my chances exposed to swine flu.

So I looked elsewhere for what I hoped would be something different. What I found were What Goes Up, Pontypool and Drag Me to Hell (For Rex Reed’s review please visit observer.com)—three low-budget horrors bad enough to send a sane person searching for a bargain weekend in Romania overlooking a mudslide. Two of them I am lumping together, because frankly, I can’t make up my mind which one is worse. What Goes Up features a sub-mental script and paralytic direction (both by Jonathan Glatzer, a name to erase forever from your Facebook) about a cynical reporter named Babbitt (Steve Coogan) who becomes so obsessed writing columns about the fictional achievements of a girlfriend who committed suicide that to get rid of him, his exasperated editor exiles him to the frozen wastes of a hamlet in New Hampshire to get a human-interest story on Christa McAuliffe, the teacher-turned-astronaut in the fatal 1986 Challenger mission. (It is not clear whether she has already crashed and burned, or if she’s still waiting to launch, but it doesn’t seem to matter.) This hinge rusts instantly, since Babbitt is more interested in looking up an old school chum who also teaches in the same high school. Wouldn’t you know this popular professor-slash-priest has recently jumped to his death from the top of a building, leaving behind a homeroom full of the most dysfunctional students since Columbine.

Forgetting all about Christa McAuliffe, whose story might have been the basis of a movie worth making, Babbitt (the pun is probably intended) goes for the students instead, uncovering such juicy tidbits (and sharing them with whichever part of the audience is still awake) as a strange girl who was in love with the dead teacher; a randy boy whose mother catches him having anal sex with a crippled classmate; a sexually frustrated choir mistress–slash–volleyball coach; and a peeping Tom who masturbates while watching a woman breast-feeding a newborn baby. The only thing any of this has to do with Christa McAuliffe is that it takes place while the school is staging a musical called Blast Off! In the end, Babbitt, who shows no indication of talent throughout the entire film, wins the Pulitzer Prize. Mr. Glatzer and his writing partner, Robert Lawson, trap a nice cast in deadly material. Hilary Duff and Molly Shannon are the only recognizable names in the hapless supporting roll call. Too bad they’ve been given nothing of any consequence to do. Without a trace of tempo or one shred of narrative pacing, What Goes Up is not really a movie; it’s the cheapest kind of amateurishness that looks like it was shot with a cell phone.

It gets worse. Next to a fermented Canadian mess called Pontypool, the dismal What Goes Up begins to look like a classic. The title of this avant-garde fiasco refers to the name of a town in the middle of nowhere that means “something’s gonna happen.” Nothing ever does (it’s a Canadian movie, after all), but on this foul-weather day a sleazy early morning shock jock in a cowboy hat named Grant Mazzy (played by Stephen McHattie, who looks like moldy rye bread) includes in his usual marathon babble a police report about a shootout with a group of ice fishermen who are all drunk and reportedly talking gibberish, running around stark naked waving dismembered body parts. In “major breaking news,” traumatized people riot outside a doctor’s office only five kilometers away from the radio station, which broadcasts from a church basement. The local populace seems to be going mad and killing each other, contaminating each other with some mysterious flesh-eating virus and then committing suicide. It’s only a matter of time before they attack the radio station while the pretty production assistant slams her head against the glass control-room partition and sprays the walls with a jet spray of blood and pus. Clearly, maverick director Bruce McDonald thinks he’s making a new-wave zombie movie, but none of the elements add up to anything more than pretentious confusion. For one thing, the virus is spread through words, resulting in the kind of jabberwocky that makes experimental ninth-grade creative writing classes sound like The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. “Should we be talking about this? What are we talking about? Should we be talking at all?” If it wasn’t so boring, the dialogue would be a laugh a minute. The acting is so abominable that the cast is better off unmentioned. Like most Canadian movies (this is a rude generalization that I have learned, through time and experience, is worth making), it has no tension, meter or structure, and is utterly pointless. Worse, as the vandalism, looting, mass panic and chewing of human livers spreads across Canada, the movie never shows anything it describes. It just focuses on the endless blabber of the people inside the radio station experiencing seizures. Leaving, I overheard one head-scratching viewer moan, “That’s another hour and a half of my life I’m never going to get back.” One man calls it genocide with elevator music, but to me Pontypool is nothing more than a creepy way to get even with Don Imus.

rreed@observer.com