Sunday, January 20, 2013

Chiller

In my review of Deadly Blessing, I wrote that director Wes Craven could be a hit-or-miss filmmaker, either making something superb like A Nightmare on Elm Street or dreck like Deadly Friend. Unfortunately, Chiller (1985), a made-for-TV thriller, falls right on its ass in the latter category. While it contains some potentially interesting thematic ideas common throughout Craven's oeuvre, Chiller is mostly a weak, visually static enterprise.

Miles Creighton (Michael Beck) has been cryogenically frozen for ten years when his containment unit malfunctions, and he's thawed out. Fortunately, the condition that killed him is now treatable, much to the delight of his mother Marion (Beatrice Straight), who sees it all as a miracle (what was she waiting for if the cure was available?). But something seems off about Miles. When he returns to his late father's company, he cruelly fires the family friend who kept it running in his absence and orders the company to halt any charitable contributions; anything that isn't making money must go, he decrees. Before long, Revered Penny (Paul Sorvino), the family's pastor, becomes convinced that Miles has returned from the afterlife without his soul, but Marion refuses to believe her son might be evil.

Only in the eighties, I suppose, could a man return from the grave not as a zombie but something even more terrifying: a corporate yuppie, ruthlessly squeezing profit out of anything he can and stomping on anyone who gets in his way. At one point, Miles taunts Reverend Penny by telling him there's no afterlife, no heavenly choirs or angels, so the only thing to do is to live it up while you're alive. Craven seems to be taking a shot at the indulgent "greed is good" generation of the eighties, but he also would go on to explore this territory much more successfully in The People Under the Stairs. That movie would have inbred, psycho cannibals and mutants literally devouring the impoverished, but Miles is not so much a monster as he is an emotionless businessman; nothing he does is really all that scary, and compared to Craven's other output, it all feels watered down for the networks.

Craven also returns to territory he explored in A Nightmare on Elm Street: the sins of the father. In Nightmare, the parent vigilantes who killed Freddy Kruger live in denial about what they've done, and it's up to their children  to "wake up" to the threat if they're going to survive. In Chiller, Marion is in complete denial about Miles' new behavior, coming up with a different rationalizations each time someone tries to tell her the truth. She's an enabler. However, Nightmare also had the strong, resourceful character of Nancy Thompson who sought the truth about Kruger, but here, there isn't any particularly strong protagonist to root for.

The movie also glosses over several potentially interesting story elements. It's never firmly established why Miles becomes evil; has he really lost his soul, is he telling the truth about being dead and wanting to indulge himself, or is he possessed by some force that's using his body? The last item is not even hinted at, but it might have been a chance for the movie to push itself into more ghoulish territory. The cryogenic angle is dropped as soon as Miles is thawed out and revived, which is really the only thing separating this story from any other bland, TV soap opera. What would it really be like to wake up after ten years on ice to find the world left you behind?

Most disappointing of all is Craven's direction. There's no style or tension, the imagery looks flat and uninteresting, and the pace drags. There's nothing on screen to suggest any passion for this project. This one leaves me cold.

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