The golden age of horror: Triangle (2009)

Bill: I can’t possibly discuss the Australian film Triangle without bringing up Timecrimes, a Spanish sci fi/thriller made two years earlier in 2007. And that’s not only because of the similarity of their stories, but also because Timecrimes is a much better film overall. Triangle starts strong, sets up an interesting story, then falls down and spends the last hour of its run time trying to figure out what kind of film it wants to be. Timecrimes, on the other hand, knows what it is, knows what it needs to do, and does it with an eye towards detail that Triangle is frequently missing.

After the Jump: Carnival (Cruise) of Souls

Bill: Triangle was one of only about 4 films on this list that I hadn’t already watched. I’m a horror fan, obviously. So I was happy that I was going to be exposed to something new. And at first, Triangle gave me a great mystery full of questions that intrigued me. Heck, they even placed it in one of my favorite horror film settings: a haunted ship. Stories about The Flying Dutchman were a favorite of mine as a child. But as it went on, I realized I was getting a story that I’d seen numerous times before. One in which a spirit (or otherwise damned person) is doomed to relive events over and over again in a twisted version of Groundhog’s Day.

Chris: Wait. Oh dear, an unreliable narrator movie. Well, the last one of these we covered in A Tale Of Two Sisters was really well-done, played fair, and rewarded repeat viewings and re-watching. Maybe Triangle will be just as good?

Bill: The movie hits the ground running, I’ll give it that. The credits are riddled with scenes that throw up some red flags. Why is Jess (our heroine) so confused and obviously disoriented in the opening scenes? Why is her son so distraught? Where is she going in such a hurry? They try to explain all this as the result of her autistic child reacting to a change in his scheduled routine (a spilled juice box, in this case), and subsequently interfering with his mother’s much needed vacation plans. But as the scene continues it becomes readily apparent that there’s more at play in Jess’ life.

Chris: OK, here’s my first problem with Triangle. Melissa George makes the decision–one imagines fully supported by director Christopher Smith–to play Jess completely disoriented and dreamlike from the beginning and then all through the first half of the movie. Since we know going in, even without spoilers, that this is going to be a movie related to horror, we’ve already guessed something terrible about the little boy based on her answer to Victor’s question. That’s how movies work, and here we are at 10 minutes and we know how this ends, kind of. That she keeps up the space cadet thing throughout helps us guess the rest of this jumbled, messy story long before she does, and way before we ought to.

Bill: When Jess finally arrives at the boat of her friend Greg, she’s still stumbling around like she’s in a dream. She seems strangely intent on boarding the ship in spite of being “so tired”. Also on board is about a half dozen other Australian actors pretending to be Americans. I will say I wasn’t even aware they weren’t American actors until the credits rolled and the filming location was listed. The acting in this film is solid throughout, with Melissa George’s Jess taking up the bulk of the heavy lifting. Her confused and confounded performance isn’t exactly a master’s class, but she does a good job of never going over the top and turning things silly.

Chris: Ugh. Here’s where we’ll have to respectfully disagree with one another, though not about the ability of the cast to seem realistically American. That was good. What wasn’t was how George plays Jess here. Her glassy-eyed portrayal made it almost impossible for me to feel like I was getting to know her and sympathize with her. That’s a problem, because the movie needs me to care about her, and other than the empathy I’d have for any mother of a special needs child I just felt nothing. Ditto that for the actors who turn Sally and Downey into caricatures. They had me rooting for the shooter.

Bill: I use the CDSA (Claire Danes’ Scale of Agitation) when measuring a thespian’s overwrought performances, so my threshold for such things is probably just higher. George didn’t bug out her eyes and sob hysterically whenever she saw a flat surface, so that’s a successful performance by comparison.

The ship soon runs into an ominous electrical storm that leaves them adrift and sans one passenger. But lo and behold, here comes a hulking cruise liner which they hastily board. And this is where the film falls apart for me. We soon learn that Jess is stuck in a time loop in which she relives the entire day, from start to finish, over and over again. The reset button seems to be the death of the last survivor on the cruise ship. So Jess dons a hood, grabs a shotgun and begins blowing people away. But she’s obviously unaware that she’s stuck in this loop when we join the story, so why would she immediately accept the advice of some scrawled notes in her handwriting that she finds in the engine room that she needs to kill everyone? Why wouldn’t she just walk up to the arriving time doppelgangers and try to warn them away? My first reaction to strange events isn’t going to be “start shooting”. And I hardly think it would be the first reaction out of the majority of humans on Earth not raised in a war zone.


Chris: If this movie hadn’t lost me already, the discussion revolving around the name of the ocean liner certainly did. It’s the Aeolus. One character smartly informs us that Aeolus was the father of Sisyphus in Greek mythology. We’re further told that Sisyphus was the fellow condemned to roll a stone up a hill, only to have it roll back. When one character asks what poor Sisyphus did to deserve such a lousy punishment, Sally tells us: “He cheated death.” Now, this is all supposed to resonate with the viewer and make us feel like “A ha! Cheating death, that’s a piece of the puzzle!” The problem is, it’s freaking Sisyphus that cheated death, not Aeolus. The boat might as well be named after Sisyphus’s paperboy or podiatrist for all it has to do with the tenuous point this empty-headed bit of dialogue is trying to impart. That kind of negligent audience contempt runs rampant through Triangle.

I really want to talk about the gun, too. It is a magic and marvelous gun. We first encounter it when first Downey, and then Sally are shot dead from the balcony in the theater. They are clearly struck with bullets, based upon the wounds they suffer. The shooter fires at Jess twice and misses. We see the bullets (not buckshot) strike a seat in the theater, and also a door jamb. Later, we see Jess pick up this magical gun, and it’s actually a pump shotgun. We even see her load .12 gauge shells into it. An unreliable narrator movie needs attention to detail. Christopher Smith can’t be bothered. (We won’t even mention her Zaytsev-like prowess with the thing.)

Bill: The way she takes to that gun like a seasoned game hunter does stand out. My other big issue with the film is that it presents us with what could be a fun part of the mystery in this haunted ship at sea…and then decides to downplay all of that. The ship becomes completely irrelevant to the story rather quickly. Yet writer/director Christopher Smith tries to make it seem more important at first by intimating that it holds some significance. Empty rooms with signs of everyday use, a banquet that has been set out with fresh food…that suddenly turns rotten in a later scene, it’s all quite creepy. How did this ship get here? Why does it keep appearing? What happened to the crew? None of these questions are answered. Nor is there even an attempt to answer them. This could’ve been set on a Megabus on State Route 65 outside Evansville, Indiana and it would’ve held the same significance to the story.

Chris: I do consider this to be an unreliable narrator story, precisely because it takes a while for the character to figure out what’s going on. I think that applies here. To do that technique correctly requires an incredibly taut script and an unswerving attention to detail. That’s what made a film like A Tale Of Two Sisters work so well for me–in that movie director Kim Jee-woon is so deliberate and careful with everything that happens and every interaction we see. Christopher Smith isn’t. His overlapping time story here in which one character exists outside the loop but can participate in it is full of ridiculous inconsistencies. It feels as if the first plot point he thought of was the final bit with the body in the duffel bag for the car accident scene. He patted himself on the back for his cleverness, and just blithely ignored the rest of the screenplay.

Bill: Towards the end of the film we’re given a cheesy personification of death in the guise of a cab driver who shows up after Jess’ car accident. He offers to take her to her destination in a way that makes it clear that this is supposed to be either death himself, or the ferryman who delivers souls to the afterlife. By that time, most folks are probably aware that Jess is in a purgatory of some type. Adding in the somber cabbie is just there to make it perfectly clear, I guess.

Chris: Maybe he’s supposed to be Thanatos, come looking for Sisyphus, who was the son of the mythical Aeolus, who the ocean liner was named after, which is the ship that picked up Jess and her friends, where she decided to start running around with a sniper shotgun. Or, maybe by this point I just didn’t care.

Bill: He reminded me of Droopy Dog. Our supernatural courier had all the charisma of a slice of ham. But that seems to be a standard trope for films like this. I admit that I find stories set in dreams, or realms of the afterlife, to be a toothless form of horror. Knowing the characters aren’t really bound by any laws, or that they’re past the point where any danger to themselves is real, lessens the tension for me. I was on board (pardon the pun) when I thought we were getting a ghost story involving a haunted ship, but the moment they made it clear they were making a Carnival of Souls type film they lost me. And that moment came when Jess wakes up on a beach after dying on the ship…and then proceeds to simply run home. Ridiculous proximity to your heart’s desire is a hallmark of this type of horror movie.

Chris: By the beach scene, I was in MST3K mode. I didn’t care about Jess. I didn’t care about whatever nonsense time loop she was in. I was more curious to see what further goofy shit that Triangle was going to take a shot at. I should’ve known really. The movie’s title gives away the haphazard “We’ll fix it in post” attitude of this film. I think this thing was originally supposed to be set in the Bermuda Triangle, but there’s no mention of it in the film at all, and other than the sailing yacht that sinks 20 minutes into the film, there’s no other physical or metaphysical reference to anything triangle in the movie.

Bill: Ha, good point, Chris! I had forgotten about the title. It could’ve been a reference to the musical instrument and still been as contextually relevant.

Chris: I do want to say this, since I feel like we’ve bagged on this film rather hard. Christopher Smith does have a pretty tremendous camera eye. Many of the scenes–especially at sea–are gorgeous. The storm looks amazing. The match-cuts he does with seagulls flying is really neat. He shoots a striking movie, and deserves some kudos for it. I’m also glad this movie is in this group–I really am. There’s just no way that even 31 films chosen as being great by a group of folks is possibly going to appeal to everyone. This one didn’t appeal to me, or I think, to Bill, but for all the fun we’ve had, I can see why other folks like this. I will add that it made me appreciate the intricate care and detail poured into a film like a Tale Of Two Sisters even more for having watched this.

Bill: I know that the director of Triangle has said he wasn’t influenced by Timecrimes, but I really wish he had been. Triangle suffers from confusion about what it wants to be. Is it a supernatural thriller? Sometimes. Is it a time travel thriller? At first. Is it yet another “dead person not aware they’re really dead” film? That’s what we eventually come to learn. I almost wish I’d turned it off right after Jess left the ship. I would’ve preferred that as an ending.

So yeah…go watch Timecrimes.

(Triangle is available to rent or purchase from the usual VOD outlets.)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)