Please join Judge Kerry Birmingham as he becomes the 3,927,381st reviewer to think "P2? I never saw P1!" is somehow a clever joke.
A New Level of Terror
Ah, "torture porn," the sub-genre considered distasteful even among other horror movies! After an unexpected rise in popularity thanks to the advent of movies like Saw and Hostel, the imitators came out in full force, knowing full well that a lack of critical plaudits or even a reason to exist wouldn't have any effect on the profitability of these traditionally low-budget features. By the time of P2 and the similarly dismissed Captivity, overexposure and the inexplicable endurance of the Saw movies left mass audiences cold to the idea of graphic, onscreen sadism for its own sake. Even gore junkies can get bored. The backlash was in full effect by the time P2 was listlessly, somewhat embarrassingly ushered in and out of theaters in record time, unable to parlay the horror cachet of producers Gregory Levasseur and Alexandre Aja, responsible for High Tension and the Hills Have Eyes remake, into something audiences would embrace. Torture porn may be dead, or at least momentarily moribund, but P2 does show some flickers of life even if the best (and way too many Saws) is behind us.
Facts of the Case
New York workaholic Angela (Rachel Nichols, Alias) stays as late as she needs to get the job done, even on Christmas Eve with her family waiting for her. The last person out of her building as it is deserted for the holidays, Angela is further waylaid by engine trouble. Stuck in the underground parking garage on P2, Angela enlists the help of friendly security guard, Tom (Wes Bentley, American Beauty). Tom, however, appears to have a little crush on Angela, and a little bit of chloroform and a chain around her ankle ensures both will have an unforgettable Christmas Eve.
As a horror fan, I found watching P2 something of a conflicted experience. Novice director Franck Khalfoun, in the supplemental material, rightly points out that there's something inherently and universally creepy about underground parking garages that taps into a modern sense of urban dread, and Khalfoun does display a certain amount of grace behind the camera. It's a clever concept, even if the advent of modern technology does make it a bit hard to get all the plot contrivances in place; the film spends a great deal of time eliminating cell phones, security cameras, intercoms, and other enemies of the modern slasher from play. Why, then, with such an exploitable premise, do such huge portions of the film play as laughable, typical slasher schtick? The movie veers between psychological showdown and psychotic slasher chase, female empowerment screed and sadistic male domination. The scenario boils down to two actors in a single set, and the movie lives or dies on how well these two can sell the sillier aspects the scenario. The actors, for their part, take their roles seriously and play up the tension. Nichols is called upon, at various points, to run, cry, scream, get tied up, vomit, get soaking wet, and run some more, and she lends a credible air of believability to Angela's gradual breakdown. She's a far cry from her waxen, inauspicious, clearly-used-to-be-a-model debut in Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd; clearly some time working in the episodic TV mines with J.J. Abrams refined her skills to the point where it's at least believable she's just this beautiful, beleaguered businesswoman (unlike, say, Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist in The World is Not Enough). Bentley has been eternally slumming since American Beauty, and you could argue that his only smart career move since has been not starring in Queen of the Damned, but as the square-jawed psychopath he brings the role some gravity in the midst of some unfortunate one-liners and standard killer-misogynist ranting (he drops the C-word on Angela at a pivotal moment of the plot). Practically a character unto itself is Nichols's cleavage, which gets so much screen time it probably should have gotten billing over Bentley.
The movie was masterminded by Levasseur and Aja, who produced and co-wrote the script with Khalfoun, presumably under the steam of their previous successful horror credits. Levasseur and Aja are undoubtedly students of the genre and respectable contributors to it, as demonstrated in their thoroughly disturbing The Hills Have Eyes remake, though their twist to High Tension ruined a perfectly good slasher film. That sense of excess is present here as well, wanting all the psychological tension of a thriller—witness the long dinner scene as Tom and Angela try to mentally outmaneuver one another—but craving the blood and torment that's become part and parcel of the horror movie hostage scenario. It's in wanting it both ways that the movie fails: they want the cheesy slasher tropes, but they also want us to buy into Tom as a psychologically complex character whose loneliness and social isolation make him sympathetic. How can we accept Tom as a truly disturbed killer when he's hamming it up lip-synching to an Elvis tune? We're meant to root for Angela's late-story turn into an Ellen Ripley-esque victim-turned-ass-kicker, but we're also meant to revel in the ghastliness of her predicament and the blood and maiming that follows. That's the contradiction of P2: at turns creepy and funny, sometimes even intentionally so, it somehow never amounts to more than the sum of its parts.
Sound and picture are both fine, though the music, by the generally underused tomandandy, frequently threatens to overwhelm the dialogue. Of the special features, Khalfoun, Aja, and Levasseur participate in an amiable, heavily accented commentary, while the featurette "Tension Nouveau: Presenting Franck Khalfoun" reveals that Khalfoun is a likeable film enthusiast who dresses like a Sacha Baron Cohen character. Two making-of featurettes, "Designing Terror" and "A New Level of Fear: The Making of P2," offer standard studio-approved mutual appreciation. The theatrical trailer completes the extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
So you don't want to consider genre applications, feminist overtones, contradictory misogynist overtones, and all that film school crap. So does it deliver as a mindless slasher film? In a lot of ways, yes: the body count is low but memorably gruesome, and the costume designer should get some sort of award for Nichols's dress, as should whichever writer thought up the idea of getting it soaking wet. The T&A is strictly PG-13 and the blood flows pretty freely from Nichols, Bentley, and a few unfortunate passers-by. There's a game cast and crew being put through some capably mounted horror-movie paces. Nothing about P2 is particularly innovative, but Khalfoun ekes out what tension he can from the scenario. There's a pretty girl with an axe squaring off against a crazy guy with a pit bull. What's not to like?
P2 is a slicker product than a lot of the latter-day sado-horror that has emerged in recent years, but coming at a lull in the genre's interest. After a slew of inferior, like-minded films, it's easy to see why P2 failed to capture a lot of interest, and why it's bound to gain a few fans from the Fangoria crowd on DVD. It's derivative and confused, but it's a competently made horror film with a modicum of jumps and gross-outs, and that's about all that can be asked of a horror movie these days.
I must unfortunately pronounce P2 guilty, though all involved are free to go on their own recognizance with the hope that they'll apply their powers for good instead of evil next time…or at least evil I can stand behind.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Summit Entertainment
• Commentary by Writers/Producers Gregory Levasseur and Alexandre Aja and Writer/Director Franck Khalfoun
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