Monday, May 2, 2011

Appetite for Deconstruction: "Appetite" (1999)

You pick up the video box to this film in the horror section of the store, and you prepare yourself for a good old fashioned British hotel haunting that will have you forgetting "The Shining" and promising never to visit England. You watch the film, and feel like you should sue the video company for false advertising.

Trevor Eve is Jay, a quiet but noble hotel owner. An assortment of weird guests are staying at his out of the way hotel, which is located in the middle of Chinatown. Greta (Ute Lemper) is a former beauty who cannot seem to finish her suicide note so she can kill herself. Arthur (George Harris, remember Captain Katanga from "Raiders of the Lost Ark"?) is searching for the heroin dealer who made his son overdose. That dealer is the chef Wim (George Lentz), who works with the simple minded Godfrey (Detlef Bothe), who is saving his money in a box in the kitchen vent system. Susie (Yse Tran) is an adopted woman who plans to kill herself if her birth mother does not show up by an appointed time. Jonathan (Edward Hardwicke) is a middle aged man obsessed with Susie, and final judgments. Nelson (Christien Anholt) is an angry Navy sailor who stirs up trouble as soon as he is thrown into this den of misfits.

Everyone here has a history, and everyone's history is going to culminate in this hotel. A card game's loser, Susie, must spend the night in the haunted room of the hotel, where she has weird dreams that tell us a little bit about her. She survives the stay, more determined in her self destructive decision. Greta and Jay draw closer, and she leaves him a girlie magazine she was in years before. Someone steals Godfrey's money, and Nelson steals the magazine. What follows are many scenes of accusations, and characters confronting other characters who have no idea what is going on. I soon realized the horror angle had been a dupe, and I watched as the haunted room took a back seat to the psychological torture these characters are going through. The ending cannot be revealed, but the deaths of many of these troubled people is obvious, with the haunted room playing the smallest of roles.

Every character here has a personality quirk, and they have this flaw when they arrive at the hotel. The hotel is not driving people crazy, the people are driving the hotel crazy. The entire haunted room subplot could have been removed and the film would not have been adversely affected.

The whole film takes place in the hotel, and the set is very natural looking. Director Milton recalls Kubrick's "The Shining," right down to copying that film's fundamental flaw- characters who go nuts much too quickly. I was also reminded of Alan Parker's gliding shots in "Angel Heart," I would be interested to see Milton tackle straight horror with this kind of panache. Instead, we have a film that cannot decide if it is a character study or a suspenser. It does not work at either level.

The cast is excellent across the board. Standouts are Eve as Jay, Lemper, and especially Anholt as Nelson. His part is not villainous so much as he is a first class jerk of the highest caliber, and one of the most unlikable characters in recent memory.

The film is light on plot, relying on the characters to keep interest from flagging. Things really do not get going until the bloody finale, and the hopeful coda tacked on to the end feels as forced as it plays.

I was disappointed with "Appetite." I went into it with the wrong expectations, and by the time I tried to understand what the film makers were trying to do, I found that did not work either. Aside from the acting, lose this "Appetite." (* *) out of five stars.