Sunday, 24 December 2017

The Vault (2017, dir Dan Bush)

This is going to be the last post for the year, and I want to round off 2017 by taking a failed idea and playing with it: The Vault, a recent horror release. A desperate band of robbers try to take millions from what ought to be an easy target, only to discover that this vault is the last one they ought to have broken into.

It's not good. It's not truly awful either, though that's mainly down to the three leads. Taryn Manning's good as the crazed, strung-out robber, Francesca Eastwood keeps the plot moving forward as the clued-in, grounded one, and James Franco as the bank manager with a secret is the rock holding all this together.

There are several problems here. The first is the plot, which is bloody awful from about the midway point onwards. If you can't guess what's going to happen next, you haven't seen many horror films since, say, 1970. It explains too much, which is a ridiculous mistake to make. Even the music conspires against it, being the same collection of bland, obvious TA-DAAH! horror stings you can buy for $0.99 from a sound effects collection.  The only standout is Crimson and Clover, a 1968 single, and I couldn't tell you why it's there.

Well, maybe I can. While looking up this song's Wiki entry I notice that it's also featured on the Bates Motel series, Sons of Anarchy, In Plain Sight, crime drama Blood Ties (which went to Cannes), and a few other 2000-era film & television references. I suspect it's become one of those go-to songs that sound editors desperate for something vaguely spooky and evocative reach for. I'm guessing it's cheap, too.

I fell asleep sporadically for the last 40-odd minutes of the film, which meant I stopped keeping track of who was doing what to whom - not that it mattered much. It was obvious who was going to live to see the final reel and who was not.

I knew absolutely nothing about this film before deciding to see it, not even the trailer. However the puff line accompanying the Netflix entry reminded me of a much better film, R-Point, a K-horror war movie in which an army unit is sent to rescue a group of soldiers lost behind enemy lines, only to find that very little is as it seems.

It's the phone message that caught me. R-Point starts when the Korean top brass hears a radio SOS, from soldiers who've been dead for months - or are they? Whereas in The Vault everything goes to hell for the robbers when someone calls the police, again and again and again - but who is it?

Kim Newman, in his review for Empire, says that The Vault is 'too timid to go all-out weird,' which definitely is not R-Point's problem. That one's weird almost from the get-go. If you're looking for a horror film to round out your year, R-Point is the one I'd heartily recommend.

However I started this by saying I wanted to play with The Vault, so with that in mind, let's start playing. Assume this is a one-shot, say for Fear Itself. What happens next?

There are some things The Vault gets very right. One is anchoring the nasty in a particular mismatched time period, in this case the 1980s. There aren't many 2017-period tags until about ten minutes in, and everything looked suitably pastel and old-fashioned, so at the start I was almost convinced the film was set in the 1980s. That allows a Keeper to start laying pipe with period-specific material. If ever you're going to use music in the background, now's the time. If the session is set in the 2000s, the players are going to get freaked if all they get on the radio or TV is period material. You can swipe old radio stings and other audio from YouTube and similar places, but the key here is to keep it subtle at first, with something that might not be noticed - like one of those radio stings. Then hit them with something obviously out of place later.

The players, in a one-off, can be a mix of robbers and hostages. This is one of those hotbeds of suspicion concepts that's crying out for a Trust mechanic of some kind, which is the one thing Fear Itself lacks, but it shouldn't be difficult to import one from another source - say, Night's Black Agents.

In R-Point, one of the earliest scares comes when the platoon takes a photo of the group early on, only to discover later that one of the people in that photo wasn't really there at all. That's what you should be aiming for with this scenario seed. Imagine what it would be like to go into the vault with a five-person crew, only to discover later that there were only four of you all along. At least one of the team ought to be on the Enemy's side, but what that means exactly is up to the Keeper. Has this person been suborned, or were they always this way?

With all that in mind, let's have a scenario seed:

This bank is being robbed. Armed thieves have locked the place down, taken the customers and tellers hostage, and are making their way to the vault. Except there isn't any money there, and the cops are closing in ...

1) The Bank never existed in the first place. There was a Bank in that location back in 1983, but during a botched robbery someone set off an explosion that took out everyone inside, and the building's been vacant ever since. Only the most desperate homeless live in that eerie, bombed-out structure. The robbers are from out of town, which is why they don't know that - or at least, most of them don't know that, though their man on the inside might. Once inside, the robbers can't leave; the only way out is through the vault, but it's anyone's guess as to where that door leads.

2) The Bank's vault safeguards something incredibly dangerous, like the Devil, or impossibly valuable, like a jar with someone's soul in it. One of the robbers knows this, and has persuaded the others to help him get in there. What the other robbers and bank staff don't appreciate is, the closer the robbers get to their goal, the more elaborate and deadly the defenses become. Doors become hungry mouths, electrical cords reach out and strangle, and the wall of Most Valuable Employee pictures just gets longer and longer with each death.

3) The security cameras see everything, everywhere, and record every move. Some of the footage is from the 1980s, some from the 1990s, some from the 2000s - but that doesn't matter. Some is from a bank in San Francisco, some from San Antonio, and some from Paris, France - but that doesn't matter. This is an amalgam of robberies, faithfully recorded by all the cameras, and the feed is playing into the Security Room, where it's all spliced together. Who is in that room? Why are these five robbers and a handful of customers and tellers trapped here, and how will it end?

That's it for 2017. See you soon!

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