Friday, January 22, 2010

Domestic Demons I Have Known: This Year In Chaos

One of the advantages that today's filmmakers had over yesterday's is that if you've got a little film that wants to be big, there are ways of achieving the illusion. Imagine what William Castle would have done with internet marketing and flash mobs and a budget for faux-live appearances comparable to that lavished on The Dark Knight. Well today relatively inexpensive movies like Cloverfield (relatively. I SAID RELATIVELY!) can make full use of every avenue for tricksy marketing strategies. The other thing that the internet provides in spades is hype. I've spoken here before about the fact that so many of the opinions one generally finds on here are just opinions from regular people (I'll come clean now and say I don't actually have a Ph.D., a doctorate or a degree and I can't give you college credit for Honors Zombie) and though they can't provide qualified expert advice, they sure know when to get together mob-style and tell you when to pay attention. At the end of last year all anyone wanted to talk about what was that a little film called Paranormal Activity did or didn't scare them. I had never heard of the film so couldn't enter into the discourse but I will say that when a gauntlet like that is thrown down everyone has something to say. You don't want to be the one guy on the internet who was terrified by the film all the other kids say didn't scare them, do you? Well I've never really believed the majority so it was with some reservations that I approached this movie. When The Blair Witch Project came out at the start of the decade you couldn't talk about film without someone wanting to tell you that it was either the scariest or stupidest thing they'd ever seen. Like Blair Witch, Paranormal is told in faux-verite style and gives us twenty-something protagonists and has forums alight with discussion. It seems fitting to finish out the decade the same way it started, though I can say that at least one thing is different - today's film is pretty scary.

Paranormal Activity
by Oren Peli
Katie and Micah are two dense rich kids who've just moved in together; I feel like if they were smarter and a little older you could call them yuppies. Micah commemorates the event by buying an expensive digital camera. Katie is a little miffed at first but thinks she has a practical use for her dipshit boyfriend's new hobby. Katie has, for months now, been visited by microscopic evidence of something otherworldly. She's heard whispering voices and footsteps and felt like someone or something has been watching her. Well Micah thinks for the most part that she's full of shit (I'm right there with him, incidentally) but he's looking for a reason to combine girlfriend and camera and as Katie won't sleep with him on film, he agrees to film them while they sleep. The first night's footage appears normal until 3:09 in the morning when the door to their room moves a few inches on its own. Micah examines it the next day and notices that nothing else in the room is affected by a draft and had locked all the windows and doors. He still views it as more or less a practical joke but that's proof enough for Katie who calls in a psychic called Dr. Fredrichs to talk shop. Of course Fredrichs believes her but Micah remains unconvinced of the gravity of the situation even as it becomes creepier and creepier.

Night after night some minute occurence will occur scaring Katie but only exciting Micah. One night Katie steps out of bed and simply stands looking at the bed for an hour then sleepwalks downstairs to the swing on the porch where Micah finds her when he wakes up alone. She refuses to come upstairs and then when he confronts her about it later she has no recollection of the incident - creepier still the television in their bedroom spontaneously turns on while both are downstairs. On other nights there are loud banging sounds and lights turn on. Katie grows increasingly worried but Micah just gets confrontational. Being the alpha-male type, he views the presence as more a threat to his pride than a real danger to himself or his girlfriend. His insistence on pissing off the entity bugs her almost as much as his perpetually filming their problems with the malevolent entity. Some research into the subject convinces them it's a demon, not a ghost, that's hiding in the house but what finally convinces them that they're in over their heads is two-fold. Micah puts powder on the floor one night to trace the beast's footsteps; this leads them to the attic where they find a picture of Katie as a girl. When Micah decides to disobey Katie's wishes and buys a Ouija board, there's no denying that the beast wants something.
Let's start with the good, shall we? You may recall in my Drag Me To Hell review that I said something along the lines of "nothing much scares me anymore." Well, this is not strictly true and I said it more to bolster my sentiments about Raimi's film. I still do find things scary, in fact probably more so than your average genre junkie, but it takes a little more than flesh and blood or a few garden variety scare moments. I'll let potential filmmakers and/or people looking to frighten me for the sake of a practical joke in on something. Something that invariably scares me is when someone with human features but an inhuman expression stares right through the camera. It works just about everytime. Works in both version of The Grudge (despite the remake being a far less interesting film), works in The Exorcist, works in X, Y and Z. Well I approached Paranormal with something like reserved skepticism. My best friend, who is a little more susceptible to the tricks in horror films than I am (which is not her fault, I've just grown up with scary shit and routinely seek out the most frightening and depraved things in the history of film), said that it was terrifying and I can't tell you how anxious I was to prove immune to it as so many other snarky internet horror buffs claimed to be. Sadly, even with my problems with the film as a piece, it did in fact do a sound job terrifying me to the point that I actually wanted to cover my eyes.

I watched Paranormal alone in my room at around one or so in the morning with the lights, which I think we can agree are ideal circumstances (opening night would have had a lot of chatter and probably would have just distracted you). So I was able to pay full attention to the bedroom stuff. I greatly enjoyed the anticipation provided by the leaps ahead in time in fast motion as they built an atmosphere of expectation broken masterfully by the great sound effects. I found myself quite terrified by the big things as well as the little, like Katie's final attacks by the beast and the conclusion had me by the hair. I even liked the wierdly compelling stuff with the Ouija Board. The effects were all nicely executed and the performances believable for the most part (Katie Featherston has a little trouble conveying surprise at having been caught out of bed, but that's more writer/director Oren Peli's fault than hers as it is a slightly overused device). The problem was that though just about everything the film wanted to carry off as a horror film was convincing, the film around the effects feels conspicuously like the set-up to shock scenes and not like a proper movie.

Ok, it's time for a truncated film school class. Ever see Annie Hall? Remember when Marshall Mcluhan shows up in that fantasy sequence while they're queued up for a film? Ok, so his deal was that the medium by which you see something contains a message. If you watch reality TV, it isn't really important what you get out of that episode, it's that you're watching something that purports to be reality that matters. That's what's going to effect ratings, demographics, etc. etc. etc. I couldn't shake the feeling that this was an internet phenomena, a really thin showcasing for a few effective scares rather than a movie with characters and a plot. I mean, yes, the characters are believable but they're also one-note and rather unlikable. They do things that put them in the most amount of trouble, they buy into the idea of the demon almost immediately, they hang around longer than they should and they do what's most advantageous to get them to the next scare. They, like the plot, are a bit like the house they inhabit: unfurnished and flat. The film quickly becomes about wanting to get to the next bedroom scene because you don't care in the slightest how they spend their days. The editing is mostly arbitrary and the film's aspirations to realism dissappear whenever a cut happens. The effects are good but they also feel like the bare minimum, like Peli figured out what he could pull off, then built a paper-thin film around it. So really the effect is like watching the world's longest and scariest youtube video and only manages to shake its flimsiness in the final fifteen minutes. It's certainly to Peli's credit that he manages those solid fifteen minutes but the film still feels like something that made its way to theatres by virtue of its popularity rather than its cinematic qualities. Now there's nothing inherently wrong with that but it just sits with me awkwardly. I don't know why, exactly; most of AIP's and Monogram's films did roughly the same thing for most of their early history, so its not as though it's unprecedented for a film to feature two or three characters in a house setting, I just...I don't know I can't put my finger on it. It's just to me there are films as good as this made every day that never get the attention they deserve yet this has so captivated people. I would have loved to see I Sell The Dead or Cairo or [Rec] get this kind of attention when they were new.
I won't ruin the ending on the off chance that you still haven't heard of or seen Paranormal Activity, but I will say that at two in the morning with the lights out, I was nearly catatonic and was afraid to go into the hallway to use the bathroom after watching it (my apartment and every door in it creaks like a motherfucker). So there you go, my reservations aside, it does what it sets out to do and that's indeed something worthy of praise. And for once all the hype has pointed out something deserving of discussion (I would, however, like the ten bucks I spent on The Dark Knight back). Now in spite of all that, here's what I suggest you do. Ignore everything anyone has said about the movie (myself included) find it on DVD and watch it for yourself. No one's going to be able to predict your reaction to it and I think the beauty of a film like this is that it is so small and will definitely provoke something from you, if only the acknowledgement of tiny films with big hearts. The more you hear about a film, the more your reaction's going to be colored by the things you hear. So, ignore the hype and see the movie and maybe in future we can all talk more about some little movie made for no money at all.

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