Sunday, October 25, 2009
Truly frightening horror movies scare people by creating a familiar situation that the audience can relate to, putting characters in positions of vulnerability, building suspense and delivering.
There is a short list of movies people people have, from time to time, considered the most frightening:
-- Halloween: Great movie, not particularly frightening, but easily one of the most innovative horror flicks. The original Halloween was particularly good at establishing familiar surroundings and playing on common real-life fears.
-- Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Basically a more raw, visceral version of Halloween. It had the added element of being set in Texas, which is terrifying in and of itself. By pioneering the low-budget horror film, TCM is in many ways the grandfather of Blair Witch Project and, ultimately, Paranormal Activity.
-- The Blair Witch Project: This movie did many things right: it put viewers directly into a situation they could relate to, built a ton of suspense, and like Halloween, played on common fears (though not as common). But it never delivered. You don't see the witch, you don't see anything, and that's the problem. Anything from feet running past the camera to a full on witch sighting in the final frames would have made this movie great--or at least moderately satisfying. As is, it's just stupid. Ultimately, Blair Witch Project is remembered more for the hype that surrounded it and the disappointment that inevitably followed it than anything actually in the movie.
-- The Exorcist: Do you believe that the devil can and would possess the body of a 13-year-old girl? If so, then you might think that The Exorcist is deeply disturbing. If not, all you're left with is an image of the devil as a potty-mouthed 13-year-old girl whose most pronounced power is to beat a priest at the dozens.
Over the last few weeks, we've been hearing reports of a movie so scary that it has moviegoers rushing from the theater with a combination or shit, piss and vomit flowing from their various orifices. So, colostomy bags in hand, we set out to find Paranormal Activity.
First, a note on the marketing of Paranormal Activity. Regardless of the quality of the film, the marketing is a clear success. The TV campaign shows little to no footage from the movie itself, instead relying on night-vision shots of a shocked audience, and the promise that it's so frightening that it might not even be at a theater near you, unless you go to their website and "demand" it. It's all a throwback to the William Castle-era horror movies which made outlandish claims that "doctors trained in the treatment of fear will be present in the lobby during all showings." The fact that this movie went from being independently released in 2007, to topping the box office in 2009 is a success.
So after all the hype and stories of people unable to watch the end, "Paranormal Activity" had built some lofty expectations. What we got was evidence of how -- without the suspenseful music and jump cuts -- ghost stories are pretty mundane. But we'll come back to that.
We meet Micah and Katie, the young couple who make up half of the cast (and 90% of the screen time). Actually, perhaps that's unfair: Katie's cleavage spends enough time on screen that it might as well get billed on the marquee. Micah has decided that it would be fun to bring a camera into the bedroom; sounds good so far. Oh, he wants to film the ghost his girlfriend thinks has been haunting her since she was eight? Okay, we're here anyway, we may as well keep watching. The preceding paragraph accounts for the first 40 minutes of the movie.
Micah, we soon find out, is a deeply unsympathetic douchebag. Not that either character is particularly relatable, living opulently in a palatial San Diego mansion without any visible means of income. Micah claims to be a day-trader, who spent half of what he made in one day on a high quality movie camera to film the supposed paranormal events happening in the vast upstairs. He sincerely believes that filming his girlfriend's encounters will be fun, and openly taunts the demon, in hopes of capturing some cool video. He does all this despite Katie's growing fright, and the escalating intensity of the encounters. In fact, he regularly takes steps to get Katie to draw out the ghosts--which she refuses--and to ensure that the events will continue happening with greater theatricality. It's reasonably assumed that he plans to sell his footage, which may explain his repeated attempts to get Katie to have sex with him on film. One way or another, he would cash in--either on the public's fascination with lame ghost hunting videos, or on the increasingly expansive definition of "celebrity" in the term "celebrity sex tape." Katie is apparently on to his schemes, and so never sleeps in fewer than two shirts and an underwire.
Katie looks a bit like the love child of Zooey Deschanel and Rachel Dratch, and claims to be an English major. Despite a supposed literary background, the only book we ever see her reading is a "For Dummies" book with a blurred-out cover, which she treats like a textbook. Micah claims to be a day trader, though he never actually day trades anything, or appears to have any kind of job or friends outside of the house. This is probably an accurate depiction of life for a day trader. Katie has one friend, who comes over to lend a credulous ear and make bead jewelry with her (the main source of income of most English majors). A psychic who dresses like Carl Sagan rounds out the cast.
The demon joins, seemingly gladly, in an arms race of douchebaggery with Micah, escalating from stomping around the couple's stately four-bedroom Xanadu-esque pleasure dome, loudly thumping up the far too many stairs, slamming and knocking on their bedroom door, flipping lights on and off, and turning on their TV, all in the middle of the night, whenever the 3:00 a.m. freight train passes through their backyard.
As circumstances dictate, Micah is either an enthusiastic ghost hunter, or an avowed skeptic. He taunts Katie for her attempts to call in a demonologist and generally makes fun of the psychic, while he himself runs around the house experimenting with Electronic Voice Phenomena and spends his days dissecting the previous night's ghost videos like an even dopier John Madden.
"See Katie, the demon is going to send his cornerback on a zone blitz from the hallway. He's been beating our left tackle all night and when that happens you're going that leaves you vulnerable on the blind side. Boom! We need to shift our strong-side set if we're going to give you enough time in the pocket to not get possessed. The demon is going after the girl, because the only way he's going to get possession of the girls' soul is by going after the girl. What? Maybe I should sleep by the door? Yeah, I don't think that's going to help."
The movie bravely tries to eschew typical horror movie character archetypes. Our heroine, rather than being tough-as-nails and pure as the driven snow, is emotionally abused and utterly powerless. Our hero, rather than being a dashing crusader who rushes in to save his girl from mortal peril, instead always takes two steps toward rushing in to save her, then stops, returns for the camera, and meanders toward our intrepid heroine. And our psychic, who in any other film would be an endless font of information about the spirit world and how to combat its inhabitants, is more like a marriage counselor who exists primarily as a reason for the couple to relate their backstory. His only useful contribution to the story is the explanation that the haunting is due not to a ghost, but to a demon. Demons being outside his "expertise," he refers them to a Demonologist, then leaves. Later on, when it turns out his recommended Demonologist is out of the country (something he was apparently aware of), and since there are apparently no other Demonologists or Psychics or Exorcists within driving distance of San Diego, he returns. It's a short-lived return, wherein he gets really scared and runs away.
The demon and the douchebag's war of attrition continues throughout the film. The demon indecisively moves the door a few inches, so the douchebag conducts an EVP interview where he asks the Bridgekeeper's questions from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The douchebag gets a Ouija Board to communicate with the demon, so the demon spells out "Diane" then starts a fire that it looks like the planchette is hitting 88 miles per hour. The douchebag spreads baby powder on the floor so that the demon's chicken-like footprints show up, so the demon punches a portrait of the douchebag that's hanging on the wall. At that point, we decided to side with the demon.
During all this, the demon is continuing his assault on Katie, which includes such terrible torment as "making her stand staring at the bed for an hour, then making her go outside and sleep on a swing" and "pulling the sheet off her foot." If this had gone on much longer, we'd expect him to resort to drawing on her face in permanent marker and putting her hand in a dish of warm water. Perhaps she's just being haunted by the ghost of her douchebag boyfriend.
Ultimately, the demon has had enough (which shows a lot of patience, we'd had more than enough by the time the movie was half an hour over). He drags Katie out of bed and down the hall, where he bites her in the side, demonstrating (among other things) that he needs some serious dental work. Things ramp quickly up to the conclusion--and by quickly, I mean mind-numbingly slowly. Micah finally wants to leave the house and tries to convince Katie, but she strangely thinks everything is going to be fine, and (in an auto-tuned voice) says "I think I'd rather stay here, shaw-ty-ee." T-Pain would be proud.
The film ends with another bout of Katie's Ambien-induced sleep-standing-and-staring. She walks down the hall and screams, and Micah comes to her rescue. After some distant screaming and shouting, there's silence, until Micah's body is thrown against the camera by a blood-stained Katie, who crouches down to sniff at him, then looks at the camera and smiles with teeth taken from Jennifer's Body.
There are a couple of unimportant subplots we ignored, like the fire which consumed Katie's old house and the girl named Diane that this demon apparently haunted in the '60s, but if the movie didn't care enough to tie those up, then neither do we.
Did you think "Groundhog Day" was scary? If so, then maybe you'd find Paranormal Activity's habit of showing a ghost scene, then replaying the scene on Micah's computer the next morning absolutely terrifying. The rest of us realize why the trailer didn't show any scenes from the movie. The only two scenes the filmmakers could have shown would have shot their load before anyone bought a ticket, and why demand the cow when you get the milk for free. The filmmakers seemingly couldn't decide whether they wanted a shaky-cam "real footage" film like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, or a polished horror movie. Consequently, there are obvious cuts that somehow fail to interrupt the flow of scripted dialogue, and quite a bit of editing that makes one wonder who--since our principal characters are dead and missing respectively at the end--bothered to try to pare it down to a moderately dramatic narrative. Despite some kind of professional editing, a good 50% of the movie is spent on shots of two people sleeping with very little happening. The other 50% is spent on shots of two people arguing with very little happening.
By the end, "something happening" would have been a godsend. There aren't many movies that would benefit from someone in a big, fake, rubbery demon costume walking through a doorway and saying "hey, um...boo," but this is one of them. A horned devil, a creepy clown, a long-haired Japanese girl--basically any Tim Curry character would have been effective. When the footsteps were ascending the (far too many) stairs at the end, there were people in the audience who were quivering; they could have literally revealed anything and people would have screamed. Instead, they forgot the principal rule established by Blair Witch: the unseen is only scary if eventually it becomes the seen. Being a visual medium, movies require a visual payoff. Lacking that, you're left with a weak stage play, or a 1940s radio drama.
Don't get us wrong, we're glad to see a movie that values suspense over shock, but if the work of Rob Zombie and Eli Roth is waterboarding, this movie is solitary confinement. Sure, it's a different kind of torture, but it's still torture, and while it may qualify us to be Republican Presidential candidates, it's not enjoyable.
The Cold War spawned horror movies about invasions of outsiders and the threats of military science. Suburban anxiety in the '70s and '80s spawned horror movies about the dangers at home--psychos calling from inside the house, escaped mental patients on Halloween, Satanic cults everywhere. The '90s and early 2000s brought us J-horror and torture porn, an extreme dichotomy between bizarre and possibly symbolic, and bloody but mindless. Paranormal Activity is the inevitable result of a culture that supports innumerable shows like "Ghost Hunters," "Paranormal State," "A Haunting," and so forth, making mountains of ratings out of the molehills of mundane "paranormal" encounters. PA tries to skirt a line between "realistic"--inasmuch as any of these series about plumbers exploring hypnagogic hallucinations with EMF meters is realistic--and theatrical, but never commits to either one.
See, what this really shows is that, if these "real-life" hauntings were real, and if they could be documented, they'd be boring as all hell. The reason people watch shows like "A Haunting" is not (just) because of the "true" stories of ghostly encounters, but because of all the mood-setting music, dramatizations, jump-cuts and creative editing, and other elements designed to dress up otherwise boring night-vision and people telling stories. Remember, most of these events are the sort of things that reasonable people sleep through. That doesn't make for good drama or excitement.
All told, Paranormal Activity is very much the spiritual successor to The Blair Witch Project, and consequently it's a lot like the paranormal events it's meant to explore: talked about by many, scary to those inclined to believe, but in the light of day and reason, completely without scare or substance.
In two weeks, The Fourth Kind will hit theaters, apparently exchanging aliens for ghosts. It seems like it'll be four times as scary as Paranormal Activity...what's four times zero again?
Join us next time when we review the award-winning shaky-cam exploration of oft-unexplored pleasure centers, Perineal Activity. Damned if it taint the best film we've seen all year.