I don’t generally like “scary” movies for the same reason I don’t generally like comedies. Fear, like humor, is not a universal constant, and what’s scary for one man isn’t for the next. Hitchcock, for instance, was reputed to have said that Psycho was the funniest movie he ever made (which may prove or disprove my point, I’m not sure which). Regardless of how many reviews I may read for an example of either genre, I still feel it’s a shot in the dark as to whether I’ll like it. Because just as a movie like Porky’s isn’t universally renowned among comedies, neither is Knowing acclaimed among suspense films. The difference is that Knowing deserves more credit than it gets, while Porky’s is, let’s face it, still Porky’s.
The movie begins with a flashback to 1955, where a typical ‘50s grade school class out of A Christmas Story has been tasked with drawing pictures to be put into a time capsule. A scary little Wednesday Addams clone, rather than drawing a picture, fills her page with a series of numbers. Flash forward 50 years, and Nicolas Cage’s Fright Wig is an MIT physics professor with an eye for number patterns. His son is the lucky recipient of this paper, along with the eerie whispering and trenchcoated stalkers that go with it. Later that night, when Cage is cleaning a Wild Turkey 101 ring off the page (like a coffee ring, but for Nicolas Cage characters), he realizes that it isn’t a random set of numbers at all, but is instead a MacGuffin that portends the end of the plot as we know it.
Let me get something out of the way here. As pertains to thrillers, I am not generally concerned with stalkers, being particularly unlovely, and serial killers and murder cults generally leave me unfazed. As regards the occult, devilry and witchcraft bother me not, and I ain’t afraid of no ghosts. This is not to say that I giggle my way through such films. I jumped just as high as anyone when the puking girl popped out from the shadows in The Sixth Sense. It’s just that I don’t carry them with me past the roll of the end credits.
What does get to me, as a child of the ‘80s that watched too many hours of Unsolved Mysteries, is alien abductions. For a week after seeing Signs I was literally seeing signs. And while Knowing doesn’t quite reach the mastery over the pucker factor that film did, it is the closest of any I’ve yet seen. The director, Alex Proyas of the also-excellent Dark City, is particularly skilled at showing you just enough to make you wonder what’s going on behind the camera, or just off screen. Throughout the movie he uses a very smooth steadicam rather than an actual dolly or tripod. The impression this gives is that the scene isn’t being filmed, but instead is being watched by some third party. As the movie progresses he adds a slight one- or two-degree dutch angle to this, so that some scenes, particularly dealing with the Wednesday Addams chickie and the clues she left behind, feel just off, like you’re looking through a funhouse mirror. It’s all very subtle, and all very skilled. I was impressed with the craft of filmmaking in this movie.
The acting is top notch throughout. I suppose Nicolas Cage’s Fright Wig is no longer thought of as a “good” actor by the reviewing public, Ghost Rider having sealed that fate. My personal feeling is that he’s a very good actor who needs to learn how to say “no”, both to scripts and the big bowl of cocaine that gets passed around at his house. Here, he’s understated when he needs to be understated, and he’s big when he needs to be big. If this movie had come out in 1996, when he was coming off an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, I think that both he and the director would have gotten Oscar buzz.
I found this movie incredibly enjoyable. While I thought it started to go off the tracks at the very end, the first 9/10ths of the movie is easily worth the price of admission. And while I didn’t wake up in the middle of the night and leap out of bed to confront the alien aggressors, as I did the night after seeing Signs, I did go to bed clutching the stuffed monkey I’ve had since I was 9. If that’s not a gauge of a successful thriller, I don’t know what is.
Tags: 4-star, A Christmas Story, Alex Proyas, Dark City, Ghost Rider, Hitchcock, MacGuffin, MIT, Nicolas Cage's Fright Wig, Porky's, Psycho, Signs, The Sixth Sense, Unsolved Mysteries, Wednesday Addams, Wild Turkey 101