Month of Horror 2017: Dealer’s Choice – TV Movies: The Plumber

10/01/2017 – TV Movies: The Plumber (1979)
Directed by Peter Weir

Welcome to the another month of horror films and more. If you missed my intro to this project you can check it out here but this is my fourth year of these write ups. I would have probably started with this year off with Dead Silence or the final Resident Evil film but I figured I should at least try to start the year off on a good note. On the surface, most wouldn’t think that picking a TV movie over the work of new genre stalwart or the planned conclusion of a long running and consistently successful (monetarily anyway) series is the way to go about that and for good reason.

Movies made for television date back to 1964’s See How They Run (though a remake of The Killers was made first) and since then their reputation has been… suspect. The notion of TV being something that can rival or exceed movies in quality is something recent and even then is usually chalked up to the advantages of long form storytelling with no real consideration of the TV movie. When they are great they are frequently documentaries (of which there are too many to count and even Hoop Dreams was originally intended as such) or stagey dramas (such as the recent remake of The Dresser. These are genres able to which work well on the lower budget TV movies are usually provided as well as the content restrictions that exist. The former leads to plenty a special effect failure while the latter especially hurts horror as even PG-13 horror films, which are the butt of many a horror fan’s joke, are often edited for TV due to content restrictions. While these restrictions and budgets have loosened a bit over the years, it was too late to capitalize on the boom in production of these title.

That’s not to say that this system can’t produce great horror, but even the best tend to have major qualifiers attached. The early Spielberg film Duel is debatably horror, movies like Salem’s Lot straddle the line between miniseries and movie, the Films to Keep You Awake were both generally mediocre (To Let is the one rising above the others) and made for a more permitting Spanish television, and other well received ones such as The Night StalkerThe Woman in Black, and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark are usually introduced with the qualifiers of “at the time” and “scary to kids of who saw it growing up”. So let’s go abroad with a film that was a television film in its native country but viewed as good enough to be released as a theatrical film internationally.

Peter Weir is one of the defining directors of the Australian New Wave and one of the few (along with George Miller and Phillip Noyce) to break big internationally. With films such as GallipoliThe Year of Living DangerouslyWitnessDead Poets SocietyThe Truman ShowMaster and Commander, and The Way Back, he’s managed a fairly diverse and great career spanning decades. In 1979 when The Plumber was released, he was coming off a pair of critically acclaimed (certainly not by me though) films in the meandering Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave. Before that though, he had made one of the most famous, if hardly successful, Ozploitation films in the horror-comedy The Cars That Ate Paris.

A plumber arrives unannounced saying he has been sent by the university where the husband in a very stereotypical late 70s, early 80s liberal couple teaches ostensibly to check the pipes and SPOILERS he does not fix the plumbing. This is the kind of couple that is not nearly as enlightened as they think they are and horror movies love to teach a “lesson” about their true beliefs or satirize. Sometimes this works great (Get Out) but frequently it comes off as mean spirited (The Green Inferno) or silly. I think we as the viewer are supposed to just naturally be annoyed by this couple but they seemed pretty tame by horror standards. The plumber on the hand is a bogan and considering the casually condescending view of the couple towards Africans, the movie either forgets to or doesn’t bother to extend that to him too, making his actions seem far more random. The movie seems to want to say that the couple (namely the wife) are just suppressing that belief but considering he lies, tears up there house, and generally acts like a giant disgusting ass, it renders any of the social content kind of flat.

As can be immediately gleaned by his suspicious arrival, the plumber basically inserts himself into the lives of this couple, causing more and more issues while he pretends to fix them. The problem with this is that these movies need some kind of buildup and the buildup doesn’t feel natural at all. The plumber doesn’t build any trust with either and almost immediately acts in a way which would get the cops called on him while the movie wastes no time pretending he’s not suspicious as hell. The fact that this takes place over a week or so kind of reduces the threat as well since there is no reason given why he would ever be let in again, nor any indication he is the only option for them. The movie even tries to make it seem like he is gaslighting the wife and making it seem like the husband trusts him, but this just makes the husband seem like an idiot. He immediately sees the plumber is an pushy, suspicious jerk, and when his wife corroborates this, he instead just believes nothing is off and that she just doesn’t like him.

It’s tempting to call The Plumber a home invasion film and in a way it is but it lacks any sense that they can’t do anything about his presence. The seeming randomness behind the plumber’s actions (best I can tell there is never a reason given for his acts) reminds me a bit of Them but it lacks that film’s horrifying nature that was able to excuse it’s mishandling of its social satire. I will give the movie credit though for being quick moving and while the cuts to black clearly indicate where the commercial breaks were, it otherwise felt like it wasn’t betrayed by being a TV film. While it is clear it has to rely more on thrills than visceral violence, it’s the fact that it doesn’t actually thrill that causes the movie to falter, not anything that could have been fixed by throwing money at it. I’ll also give the film credit for the ending which SPOILERS sees the plumber get his comeuppance by being set up for robbery and hinted at a much more interesting version of the story that wishes to be told. Granted the husband gets no comeuppance for not believing his wife and his presence in the film probably should have been severely cut down considering how his arc is largely a shaggy dog story, but it’s an evocative final shot of her staring down coldly as he walks away. END OF SPOILERS

In the end all that needs to be said about the movie is the fact that the only memorable thing about it and my favorite part is when the wife serves a candlelit dinner consisting of water (maybe it is white wine but it sure looked like water) and half an avocado per person.

Bonus Episode #1 – Found Footage: Devil’s Pass (2013)
Directed by Renny Harlin

For those new to these, merely doing 31 films is not enough for me in this month as last year I did 78 films, 12 shorts, and 1 TV episode. I’m not even going to try to approach that total this time out and will try to mix in other things but I still do plan to offer plenty of these shorter “unofficial” bonus reviews. Also for those interested in my discussion of found footage titles, head on down to here.

Renny Harlin will never be someone whose career is held in high esteem. Starting in horror (well discounting a little regarded action film starring the son of Chuck Norris) with the forgettable yet poor Prison and amusing enough horror title A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, he made his mark in the 1990s directing mediocre action titles such as Die Hard 2 and The Long Kiss Goodnight as well as the enjoyable if stretching the word good Deep Blue Seaand Cliffhanger. Even Cutthroat Island, one of the biggest bombs of all time, didn’t kill off his career. 2001’s Driven did though as he retreated from the spotlight making little regarded horror titles (the crappy Exorcist: The Beginning, the much derided The Convenant, and the immediately forgotten Mindhunters) and DTV level action titles. I remember Devil’s Pass being hyped for a bit before debuting to mediocre reviews and left to time.

Presented as a documentary, first by those that disappeared, then about those that did, then back to their footage that they recorded, the film is a higher budgeted Blair Witch Project wannabe. The The Blair Witch HD Project if you will. I have to give Harlin credit for heading back to the film that popularized the concept at a time where the found footage boom was drawing more from the superior Paranormal Activity and indirectly from [REC] (through its remake Quarantine). We get students, plenty of talk with locals, and an investigation of some mysterious event in the past but this time IN RUSSIA. The inspiration this time is the Dyatlov Pass incident which would have made a far more interesting film then following these idiots around. It feels like a combination of two movies, horror movie attempting to ascribe the supernatural to a historical mystery and survival movie about a bunch of unprepared hikers who die from their own hubris and does neither a service.

The question of why they are filming certain things (a common found footage complaint) is very noticeable here with the film raising questions of “why leave the camera running outdoors, at night, in Siberia for personal conversations?”, “who spliced in a sex scene from another video source when this is supposed to be raw footage?”, “why does this look so professional?”, etc. Normally I am pretty forgiving of these things but this is where my mind goes when it gets bored and there’s nothing original or interesting going on onscreen. The inevitable slow build to get us to know these characters reveals little distinguishing about them and is just a way to kill an hour of my time.

SPOILERS By the time they get to the plot about teleporting bad CGI creatures or some shit which are eventually revealed to be mutated time-traveling members of the 2013 group, which I give the movie credit for being out of fucking nowhere, I’m completely lost in terms of engagement. END OF SPOILERS It’s a shame because there is real if well-trodden SPOILERS at least in terms of closed loop time travel stories END OF SPOILERS potential in plenty of the basic ideas here but by trying to do too much, the films just feels aimless and generic. If you are a horror fan, you’ve already seen this movie whether you realized it or not and the head-scratching ending which raises more questions than it answers serving as a mental reminder that this film existed.

Next up: We take a trip to the wilderness of James Wan’s initial post-Saw career with Dead Silence and his career as a whole, especially to how influential his work has proven to be.

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