Old Nightmare

08/07/2009 4:00 AM |

A Perfect Getaway
Directed by David Twohy

Had A Perfect Getaway, a romping, cheeky, self-conscious and crowd-pleasing horror-mystery, been released in the 80s, we might herald it as a lost masterpiece. But coming out now, as it does, the movie feels derivative — even if, otherwise, it’s a gas. American horror got self-referential in the 90s, after Wes Craven went nuts with his New Nightmare and Scream, films that adopted Tarantino’s then de rigueur genre fluency; they played with the conventional horror structures by openly calling them out, placing a po-mo focus on the text. Some more recent horror movies have moved on to investigate the horror movie’s formal aspects: each in their own way, to varying degrees of success, Vacancy, Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead and Quarantine have handled the relationship between the camera and the viewer, between screen and spectator.

A Perfect Getaway starts down that road — its main character captures everything on a camcorder — but soon abandons it. Rumor has it that the 90s, as they drift further and further into history, are coming back in a big way; this movie, then, is the first throwback to that Kevin Williamson era of winking genre pieces too smart for their own structural strictures — though this one abandons the slasher playbook for a more classical whodunit model. A Natural Born Killers-style couple has just murdered another couple on a Hawaiian island; Steve Zahn, pitch-perfect as ever, plays a Hollywood screenwriter (or does he?), on his honeymoon with his new wife (or is she?) on a different Hawaiian island, who hook up with one couple — an Iraq vet (or is he?) and his adoring girlfriend (or is she?) — while they’re shadowed by a far more sinister (or are they?) couple.

Are the killers among our set of central couples? Of course they are! (The title is totally sarcastic when it’s not a double entendre.) And though there’s a Big Twist in the third act, as promised, the (predictable) plotting isn’t the point: it’s how the movie plays with that formula — as in, who’s a red herring and who’s not? Writer-director Twohy, best known for helming a couple of Riddick pictures, has a goofy sense of the genre’s tropes, maintaining a tone that’s just jokey enough to eschew self-seriousness, but straight enough to avoid a descent into camp. In the third act, some excessive expositional flashbacks disturb this careful balancing act (before a guffawsome finale unloads), but Twohy may be aiming to make a larger point about horror movies. His killers are, in effect, the audience surrogates, in a vaguely Funny Games sort of way, without Haneke’s schoolmarmishness: they murder others to co-opt their victims’ identities, whereas we live vicariously through our screen heroes, stealing their identities through identification. If our stories make us who we are, then taking them is a sort of metaphorical murder. Here, that’s made literal.

Opens August 7