Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Paranormal Activity: Hyperbolic Nonsense

Today, I had a choice of four movies that I wanted to see at the local cinema. Where The Wild Things Are, 2012, The New Moon and Paranormal Activity. Actually I really wanted to see Lars von Triers's Antichrist, but I couldn't be bothered travelling to the city for it (it's on limited release at the the art-house kinos in the trendy Chardonnay socialist inner suburbs where such fare is more welcome than out here in the povo western burbs).

Anyway, I ended up choosing Paranormal Activity, mainly because the reviews for 2012 were very bad and it goes for 160 minutes and I was feeling tired, even though I quite enjoy big, bland CGI SFX movies, 160 minutes is a long time without a cigarette. Where The Wild Things Are wasn't a goer because I just wasn't in the mood for deep, possibly heart-tugging emotionally laden brilliance. I want to be bright, chirpy and alert when I go see that one, as no doubt it will be a very special movie. The New Moon is getting pretty good reviews here, but, I dunno, I'm not convinced about it yet. I'm a 37 year old male, not a 17 year old female, so I might be rather disappointed, although a good vampire flick I've always liked.

That left Paranormal Activity which got the short straw as it has 82% on Rotten Tomatoes and Margaret  gave it 4 stars (though David only 1 - which should have sounded a big warning; but Margaret's such a nice, bubbly person, while David strikes me as bit of a killjoy, I always want to follow her movie advice, against my better judgement). From what I could gather it looked like a kewl little horror flick that delivered the goods.

Boy, was I wrong.

I wish I'd also bothered to check what Jim Schembri  had to say about it, as I have never ever disagreed with one of his movie reviews, not in 15 years. I would have saved myself 11 wasted dollars and 90 wasted minutes of my life.

This movie is utter rubbish. It didn't even slightly jar me even once. I didn't even feel the faintest tingle or tremor of fright. The premise of the film is pretty tired anyway and that should have been enough not to see it. In the end, story concerned, it's basically The Exorcist with all the logic, drama, existentialism, humanity, theology, fear, horror, ontological dread, acting, scripting, soundtrack, screenplay, gore and horror drained out of it. Instead of a fight to the death by way of the mystery of the  Roman Rite of Exorcism backed up by the awesomeness of the Roman Catholic Church we end up with a "psychic" who says "it's gonna be ok", when you just know it's not, and a "demonologist" who runs away like a frightened chicken because he senses bad aura. Blah. What remains, pretty much, is the familiar Ouija board as a bad cliche and a lifeless corpse of a film, where instead we are being promised a shocker demon that will frighten us out of our wits.

It might have been scary but for three things that totally wreck the film:

1.) The "home movie" found footage style of shooting - as in Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project. It worked enough of the time in Cloverfield to convince me, because the drama and action often enough made me forget who was supposed to have shot the footage and how it was supposed to have been shot. For a film to work you need to be drawn into it, to forget that you're watching a screen filmed through a lens: the whole concept of "suspension of disbelief" functions around that idea. The problem with this film is that we are constantly, obviously, painfully, in every way imaginable reminded that we are watching home movie footage filmed on the two main characters' video camera. The character Micah also (literally) does most of the shooting. He's actor and cameraman, two in one. We see him more than once vainly shooting himself in the bathroom mirror. He's forever playing with his camera and both he and Katie, his possessed girlfriend, constantly refer to it. When Katie has a total breakdown and ends up curled up on the hallway floor, sobbing hysterically, does Micah drop the camera and rush to her aid? No way: he moves up to her and films her close-up while she's wailing away and then takes time out to place the camera on the ground and position it correctly before attempting to console her. It's infuriating and you just feel like screaming at this character (even as you again become conscious of the artificial narrative device): For God's sake, forget the frigging camera for 5 seconds and go look after your beloved girlfriend!


There are moments early on when the camera work, and hence screenplay and script become totally indulgent, if only because they have nothing at all to do with whatever story there is. Micah tries to get Katie to striptease for the camera. She flat-out refuses even though he promises he'll do anything she wants. Just as well Katie refused. Would have been more embarrassing than any demon possession. Micah later lies to her that the camera is switched off when they are just about to have sex so that he can try to film them "doing it". You start to wonder if this an exercise in cheap sexual voyeurism rather than a horror movie before shit happens. If it was supposed to get some laughs, it didn't work in my cinema. If it was supposed to set up Micah's ugly selfish narcissism, I guess it works.

More than once Katie begs and pleads with Micah to turn the damned thing off, but does he? No of course not, because then there wouldn't be any movie for us to watch any more. It all comes over as very, very contrived.

The constant referencing of the fact that this is meant to be home movie footage is convincing in that you end up being constantly aware that you are supposed to be believing this is home movie footage - but refuses to let you be drawn in to the film in any way that lets you forget that you're watching video tape whatsoever. You cannot help but be a totally self-conscious spectator for 90 long minutes to a couple's mundane domestic dramas, even if it involves the lure of a three-some with a demon.

2. For whatever reason, any suspense is totally destroyed because every time something "scary" happens, the film loudly and proudly announces 20 seconds beforehand that something "scary" is just about to happen, which totally and utterly destroys any fright factor the movie might have had. This is the worst thing about the film - mainly because even on the limited budget there was no reason to do this. It's just not horror when you are (again) literally warned loudly to expect something to jump out at you. Every single time a paranormal event occurs, it occurs in exactly the same way. The couple go to bed and we are treated to some sped up video tape, as we obviously don't want to hang around watching three hours of them sleeping before the demon decides to make its presence known. Suddenly, at 2.34am or 3.36 am or 4.15am the tape slows to normal speed and we all know something "scary" is going to occur in exactly 15 seconds. To make it worse, at these very points the movie makers decide every time to insert the only "soundtrack" of the movie - every bloody time! This consists of an ominous low rumbling from the subwoofers, practically telling the audience: Show's starting right now! Do not go for a toilet break!! So whatever does happen - pretty lame stuff by the way: like slamming doors, footprints in talcum powder, knocking sounds, a scream, meh, whatever - is loudly and clearly pre-announced, destroying any and all cinematic tension there might have remained. And it all happens in the same location at the same time of day. Yawn! There's only one incident, the one with the Ouija board where the setting is changed but so what, we still have the subwoofers sounding like a fire alarm telling us to get ready for a "fright", and then anyway, of course something, anything is going to happen when there are Ouija boards involved.

3. There's no script. Literally (again). The whole movie is "retroscripted" which means the actors were given an outline of the scene and told to make up the dialogue on the spot while the scene was being shot. As far as I'm concerned this makes for half-rate acting of totally forced and fake emotions and dialogue. It's more or less the stake in the heart of the movie. The acting's crap and forced. The actors' reactions are overdone and cliched. Micah is more concerned with whether his camera is running or not than whatever hell his girlfriend's going through. Frankly, if my partner was as insensitive as he is, I would have stabbed him too. "Retroscript" is exactly why our Grade 12 Film & TV group got a C+ for our final movie project - because we were just too lazy  to write a real script, meaning we had to make it up on the spot.

Yes you can absolutely tell this was a film made for $15,000 because it's total crap. The lack of a script, the need to loudly announce every significant moment and constant, incessant, extremely irritating references to the mode of viewing: home movie camera, turns this film into drivel. Compared to such wrenching horror classics as The Exorcist (which this film basically tries to be a variation on), this is positively the worst film I have ever seen.


Then again, perhaps this film could be read as a kind of early 21st century The Exorcist. It has that kind of sensibility about it. In an age where filming the demon, possibly so you can upload it to YouTube is more important than getting rid of the demon, it's perhaps little wonder PA's demon is rather camera shy. Perhaps PA does have something to say about our times: 



  • In The Exorcist everything was very monumental; theologically and existentitally definitive: Regan was clearly possessed by a demon, a spiritual agent of the devil and the clear-cut and only final solution was to cast out the demon by invoking the awe-inspiring power of Jesus Christ (some of the most horrific scenes occurred when the name and blood of Jesus Christ were invoked against the demon) through the rites and liturgy of the Catholic Church, on the agency of an experienced and qualified priest.
  • In PA nothing is clear or explained; the word "demon" has little if any theological or any other significance at all apart from a vague reference to some pictures in a book that looked like it was picked up in a New Age shop. We absolutely have no idea what it is or why it's there. The self-styled psychic and demonologist have no power, are weak and useless in the face of an unseen and unexplained evil presence. The demonologist runs a mile in fear as soon as he gets near Kate and Micah's place. What a waif. Compare that to old Fr. Merrin in Exorcist, who has a determination and heart of steel and knows exactly what he's dealing with. He's so inspiring, you just wish he'd been your parish priest.
  • In The Exorcist there are no home video cameras, no "firewires", no laptop computers, no pre-occupation with recording everything for whatever reason. The only recording device employed is a tape recording of the demon speaking backwards to see what it is saying. There is good narrative reason to bring in the tape recorder here because it's the only way to understand what the demon is going on about. The demon, in the safe knowledge no else is watching is extremely visual and very demonstrative.
  • In PA everything is recorded by Micah, but for no apparent purpose or reason other than as a cinematic device; so that we as an audience can watch the movie as "found footage". But that doesn't explain why he had to make all that footage, all day long every day, except if you make up the narrative fact the guy's just another camera freak who would have probably posted every demonic moment up on YouTube as soon as it had happened so all his online friends could follow it. The demon, knowing the whole world will be watching it, suddenly becomes very camera shy.
  • In The Exorcist there is narrative depth: it is made clear why Regan becomes afflicted and possessed by a demon. She messed around with a Ouija board which acted as an opening, a kind of gateway for the demon to possess her. As the demon is clearly cast in a Judaeo-Christian mould, this makes sense, as the Bible, OT & NT, clearly says that messing around with the occult opens you up to affliction and possible possession by evil. Hence the reason for the exorcist. It all makes narrative sense.
  • In PA there isn't anything really. Why does Katie get possessed? There's no narrative "opening". She hasn't done anything. People don't just get  possessed for nothing in the essentially Christian literary tradition of the West. (Take Faust as a template for example, or Christ Himself for that matter - tempted by the devil.) Why not Micah? After all, he's the one messing around with Ouija boards and  cameras and microphones and waveforms, challenging the demon in just about every way possible.  He's the one who should get possessed then as he's the one flirting with danger. Katie doesn't even want anything to do with it. Or is it only girls who can get possessed by demons in the 21st century?
  • In The Exorcist there is a wrenchingly existentialist ending, as the doubting and lost Fr. Karras, in despair of how to cast the demon out, offers his own soul as a hostage to the devil (an actual practice in RC exorcism, though not with such dramatic consequences), in order to free Regan and tragically sacrifices his own life.
  • In PA there is existential nothing. We can't even be sure if Katie's just totally had enough of Micah's obsession with his precious camera and has taken drastic revenge, or if the demon is having its day. There is literally no ending except that the footage has run out because Micah is no more. There's no rationale, no meaning, no resolution and no reason. 
Welcome to 21st century postmodernism then? LOL. Nah, I just think the film makers even though they claim to have done lots of research on demonology before shooting the film, actually have little understanding of the rather more important concept of narrative logic & flow. 


It's not a take on  media-hyped 21st century culture at all. It's just a really badly conceived film.

What really, totally confounds me though is why people everywhere have been so taken in by the hype and how on earth this piece of sub-standard nonsense got 82% on Rotten Tomatoes. Really. In any case in the Sunshine cinema I was in, no one jumped out of their seats or left in fear. Not even once. There was a hell of a lot of sniggering and giggling happening though. 

No stars.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey nice review Daniel
Another film that uses the video camera device is Lost Highway by David Lynch, although admittedly its not done in quite the same way. I remember seeing this with you and Mark at the Metro cinemas when it came out. Still one of my favourites.
Brad