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I’m a critic, not a reviewer. I don’t want to waste a lot of time covering films that don’t matter. Identity (2003) is not a film that I love, and in my re-watch this month, I’m not entirely sure it’s even a film I really like. However, as a critic, I feel it’s my job to look at films that encapsulate a genre and a time period. Identity is all concept, derivative, and by-the-numbers. But as a horror film made at the start of the new millennium, it matters.
Little Substance, Lots of Style
Horror at the end of the 21st century made a highly conceptual turn (Scream, The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense, Urban Legend). Less character, more execution of idea, these films rely on seeing a particular situation through to the end. The days of slow build psychological horror put on hold.
What’s apparent in Identity is just how much that concept, and its execution by style points, is what fuels the genre in the early aughts.
Case in point:
- Twist ending (thanks, M. Night)
- Choppy, fast edits with a certain “flair” (the dreaded canted angle)
- Freeze frames (don’t want a narrative track distracting from the story but still need a cast intro? Just do it with editing.)
- An honest-to-God obsession with that William Hughes Means poem Antigonish. This is at least the tenth film I’ve seen that relies on “I saw a man who wasn’t there” for creep factor.
- That one scene from I Know What You Did Last Summer where Jennifer Love Hewitt screams at the sky with her arms wide open and asks the killer and/or God, What are you waiting for?! (Don’t shoot me – but I think Amanda Peet does it better here. Judge for yourself.)
- Oh, and FX. Maximum CGI FX. TIMES 1000.
Other films of the era that reflect this laundry list of pure style, elegance, and grace? Saw, Final Destination, Thir13een Ghosts, Ghost Ship, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (remake), Wrong Turn, etc. Some are better than others (lest you think I’d hate on Thir13een Ghosts, because I would never).
The Ensemble Cast
This was also the decade of the ensemble cast. Usually a bunch of teenage unknowns, sometimes with an actor of some clout thrown in the mix (Fucking F. Murray Abraham is in Thir13een Ghosts – I can’t say enough about this movie, guys).
Identity has the unique quality of being rather established in its casting. These aren’t teens, but more of the “adult contemporary” crowd. John Cusack, Ray Liotta, and Alfred Molina would have been the stand-outs in 2003. Also, notice an early career (and really wonderful) Amanda Peet, Clea Duvall, John Hawkes, and even a pre-Scrubs Dr. Cox (John C. McGinley).
Hell, Pruitt Taylor Vince, who plays Malcolm Reynolds, has been a mainstay in films and television since the late eighties – his characteristic dancing eyes (a condition called nystagmus) makes him one of the most distinguishable character actors around. And despite having approximately ten minutes on film, he sells the show.
Why ensemble? For fun, to get people to the theatre, but mostly because more people equals more kills. And kills (like 80s slashers on uppers) were quickly becoming the point of mainstream horror movies in the 2000s. How many? How are they gonna do it? A mystery… with very little actual mystery.
Other films of the era that took part in the great “knock-off the giant cast” trend:
Halloween Resurrection, House on Haunted Hill (The ’99 remake, but I’m counting it), Cabin Fever, Jason X, Freddy v. Jason, The Descent, Hellraiser: Hellworld, Saw II
And yes – we were really into sequels and remakes. But we were also really into horror. This was a renaissance, good or bad – that’s your personal call.
And Then There Was One
The crux of Identity (and others like it) is a countdown. The ensemble cast makes that kind of thing possible. Identity takes the concept quite literally, marking each death with a motel key and a number. I appreciate the honesty: as stated, these movies are about kills.
Ginny, resident abused woman (problem with concept movies – characters get reduced to whores, rednecks, bad cops, and whatever existential leading man type John Cusack is), makes direct reference to the 1945 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None – set on an island, knocking its characters off one by one.
Then, much like Agatha Christie’s novel (a high concept work on its own), the characters realize their own connection to one another. Because you can’t just have kills for kills sake – it’s gotta be motivated. In this case, an uncanny number of shared birthdays is enough to enlighten the group to their plight.
Which is, of course, gross, over-the-top, inventive death.
Kinda, Sorta, Graphic Violence
After Scream, Wes Craven’s blood bath of a meta-slasher pic, it seems as though Hollywood felt the urge to gore up its horror offerings. PG-13 simply wasn’t going to cut it (though The Ring and an obsession with remaking Japanese horror would prove that very wrong). Hard R was where it was at.
But does Identity really earn its R-rating? Sure, it’s bloody. It’s got a lot of cursing. The number of times they throw around the word “whore” is pretty impressive. There’s that body in the dryer. So, maybe?
In my opinion – a lot of show for little effect.
EXCEPT that baseball bat down Jake Busey’s throat. That’s pretty hardcore. I’m down for that. I will not leave a picture here. That seems like something you should search for all on your own (maybe not at work).
The Fun Stuff
Doesn’t Gary Busey’s son look just like him? (Yeah, that’s Jake Busey with the Louisville slugger down his throat) All teeth.
First kill Caroline Suzanne is played by none other than Rebecca De Mornay (Risky Business) in a red wig. Truly just realized that this time around. Her bad attitude’s a highlight.
Cell phones, man. Horror movies were so much easier when you couldn’t find a cell phone. Or god forbid, your Nokia couldn’t get more than one bar.
If You Like It, Watch:
Lord of the Flies – If you want to watch people get taken out one by one, there is no better film than Peter Brook’s adaptation of William Golding’s classic novel. Black and white, brutal, and scary children (what more could you ask for?).
Thirteen Ghosts – I told you I have strong feelings for this one. A remake of William Castle’s gimmicky haunted house classic (it involved “ghost goggles” to be worn in the theatre) that’s mostly fluff, but lots of fun. Embeth Davidtz, Matthew Lillard, Tony Shalhoub, and yes, Oscar Winner F. Murray Abraham give it some extra style.
The Eclipse (Click for trailer)