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Thursday, October 14, 2010

First-Person Horror

As I've mentioned before, I always cast a cold eye on films that are being massively hyped, so I refrained from seeing Paranormal Activity when it played in theaters, and I am so glad I did. I finally watched it on DVD a couple of days ago, and it boggles my mind that this $11,000 quickie made over a hundred million dollars in the U.S.

Folks, it's a home movie. I know—it's supposed to resemble one—but there's not particularly any distinguished talent on display or an innovative story. Instead, as the "plot" develops, it falls back on creaky haunted house tropes and absurd character shifts that the filmmakers and actors don't have the depth to support.

Like 1999's The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity became an internet sensation and drove audiences into the theaters. Unlike Blair, this one stinks. The set-up is preposterous. Katie (Katie Featherstone) and her live-in fiance Micah (Micah Sloat) have moved into a new home in suburban San Diego, and the otherworldly being that has been haunting Katie since childhood has followed them there. Mikah buys a video camera and sets it up in the bedroom to try to capture the disturbances that have been plaguing them.

The film actually begins rather promisingly. The actors are naturalistic, and the paranormal activities are at first teasingly subtle, gradually increasing in intensity. But Katie drags in a psychic (Mark Fredrichs, obviously from the local community theater) to check out the joint, but he is unable to help; he's merely an expert on hauntings, so he gives her the name of a demonologist.

As the plot sickens—er, thickens—the film just falls apart. The performers just aren't competent enough to handle the character shifts. Katie alternates between comatose and hostile, and Micah becomes increasingly macho. As the dialogue becomes more intense, the actors' shortcomings really come out.

For example, when Katie is unable to reach the demonologist, she calls the psychic back. The minute he enters the house, he can sense how strong the demonic force has become, and he wants to leave immediately. The actor's "performance" in this scene is hilarious.

The plot developments are simultaneously cliched and absurd. A Ouija board bursts into flames; Katie is suddenly yanked out of bed and dragged out of the room; Micah puts baby powder on the floor to reveal the demon's footprints and—shock horror!—an old snapshot of Katie is found in the attic. "YAAAGGHH!!! How did it get there?" As I slipped in and out of consciousness, I kept thinking, "Well, everyone talks about the brain-melting conclusion, so I guess I should hold out until then." When it finally arrived, I said, "Oh, brother." And it looks like the "surprise" came courtesy of distributor Paramount's digital effects department. There are actually three endings to the film available, and all of them sound pretty lame.

First-time director Oren Peli shot the film in his own house and has said that he's been afraid of ghosts his entire life, even fearing Ghostbusters. That would explain the squealing teen girl-level "scares" offered in this turkey. I love the descriptions on Wikipedia explaining away the director's cost-cutting choices: "a stationary camera on a tripod adds plausibility" (cheap); and the actors were not given dialogue scripts but rather plot outlines so they could feel free to improvise (cheap, cheap).

Now, don't get me wrong. I've enjoyed a lot of the first-person horror films of recent years. Matt Reeves' Cloverfield gave me sweaty palms and Quarantine was tense. Granted, they were operating with far, far bigger budgets, but I think limited resources should motivate filmmakers to stretch their imaginations even more.

The success of such an incompetent piece of rubbish as this is unfair to those current and future filmmakers who may take the same low-budget approach and truly have something original to say. Just as lousy 3D movies will eventually cause audiences to turn away from all 3D, getting theatrical release for this kind of sub-par junk will eventually poison the well.

So Paranormal Activity 2 is coming up later this month. The brief synopsis sounds ridiculous, but I enjoy this column speculating on what the plot could be. Hey! Maybe it'll be as awful as Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows and ruin the franchise!

I wonder if Paranormal Entity, the ripoff released by The Asylum, the low-budget distributor specializing in films "inspired" by other films, is any better? Hey, anybody who distributes the Mega Shark franchise is okay in my book!

1 comment:

Russell Adams said...

I am old enough to remember the 'golden age' of independent filmmaking, when taking the camera OFF the tripod made a film more plausible. It was a sign of freedom in cinema. I expect these guys used the tripod, so they could walk away, with the camera still rolling, to get snacks.

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