“Horror.” The label instantly reminds us of the twisted creations filmmakers have whipped up to terrify audiences from the early days of cinema. Vampires, torture chambers, Jason Voorhees, creepy blob creatures — the genre opens the door for a director’s imagination to run wild. In turn, the creations do the same to the audience. What’s in the closet of that abandoned cabin in the woods? Whatever you’re afraid of.
After a scary horror movie, when the spine finally settles from all that tingling, there’s a moment of relief. The hey-no-one-really-died-at-the-hands-of-a-knife-fingered-dream-ghost-killer-guy deep breath is the reason why slasher movies, gore fests, and spooky supernatural tales are fun, as opposed to truly terrifying. Genuine horror is achieved when there is no deep breath, which is exactly what makes Compliance 2012’s most disturbing, shocking, and gratifying “horror” movie of the year. Craig Zobel sent a shockwave through Sundance when his latest feature played for the first time, evoking such a stirring emotion in its mild-mannered crowd that most write-ups of the film could, initially, only focus on the walkouts and violent criticisms during the Q&A. The immediate response shouted from the crowd was indicative of the general reaction: “Sundance, you can do better!” Compliance doesn’t slap audiences with over-the-top, jaw-dropping shocks. Instead, it sticks to ugly truth, forcing people to ask questions about themselves. Really, really, really scary questions.
Based on actual events, Zobel’s film chronicles one night at a midwestern fast food joint. The perfect place for a serial killer to trap his victims and pick them off one by one, no? Actually, no. In the case of Zobel’s psychological docudrama, the mastermind behind the real life horrors never even steps foot in the restaurant. To work his evil, he just picks up the phone and dials. The film was adapted from a 2004 report in which 18-year-old girl was the victim of several acts of sexual abuse in the backroom of the the Kentucky McDonald’s where she worked. The perpetrators were her manager and the manager’s fiancee, both acting out orders from a policeman who told them that the teenager reportedly stole money from a customer. The twist: the policeman was no policeman, instead a prankster who called the manager in hopes of convincing her to enact his twisted plan. One would think logic (or better yet, the desperate cries of the teenage victim) would make the manager or fiancee question the “policeman” caller’s identity, especially when strip searching becomes involved, but there was never a thought in either person’s mind. Obeying the law — no matter how ludicrous — was the number one priority.
Horror films are often an exercise in style, invigorating simple material with flashy camera work or innovative production design to reap the feeling of freshness from viewers all-too-familiar with the tropes. Those recognizable attributes make Compliance difficult to categorize as a horror movie, but that’s what it is at its core, albeit one stripped of theatrics. Zobel shoots his adaptation of the events (changing names, places and minor details) like a surgeon; every choice is deeply cinematic, but his restraint never allows it to creep into conventional horror territory. The fear grows organically as the darkest side of human nature is pulled back in three tremendous performers by the film’s core trio. Ann Dowd, as the sweet, aging manager Sandra, who just wants to do the right thing from beginning to end. She’s blinded by “Officer Daniels'” calm demeanor, the voice of actor Pat Healy, who plays a monster with a soothing voice. The assault on the teenage Becky is a slow, painful burn, actress Dreama Walker (Don’t Trust the B) rightfully showing the character’s attempts to also comply with the bizarre orders. She’s eventually pushed to the tipping point, and the result is devastating.
No one wants to believe that human’s possess the ability to do horrible things. In his infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo unearthed the potential for regular joes to become instinctually violent, putting 24 university students in the roles of “prisoners” and “guards” and watching their hot-headed personalities culture like ravenous bacteria. The Abu Ghraib torture scandal raised similar questions about the potential of human action, including blunt, big picture inquiries like, “why?” and “how?” Compliance provokes that same line of thinking. It’s a challenging film, but an example of the horror film at its best.
The next few months have a lot of potential gems in store for horror buffs, with the wild ghost tale The Possession right around the corner, the haunted house pic Sinister and a fourth Paranormal Activity scheduled for October. But Compliance is a true taste of horror outside-the-box, where that abandoned cabin closet is a real life person, and the terrifying mystery behind what lies behind the door is pure human emotion.