Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Movies: Three's company.



I think I dropped the ball on Paranormal Activity. I suspect that you had to see it in the theaters to truly get what this movie was about. You had to be sitting in an audience of a hundred and fifty or more willing participants, all hyped and eager to get scared. That's what the movie was meant for.


In fact, the formal and visual elements of the movie seem tailor built for mass participation. Last time I was in a social group and the title Paranormal Activity was dropped, the title was greeted with a collective "hunh" of unknowing. Outside of the horror fancy and their loved ones, it doesn't seem to have made much of an impact. On the assumption that there are readers of this blog who are not here for the horror but rather the comedy of watching me ramble on about cannibals and the like, I'll briefly spoil the plot. Micah, a day trader (back when that "profession" didn't sound like a slang term for sucker), and Katie, a student pursuing her education degree, live in an absurdly large home: Two floors, three bedrooms, two + plus baths, kitchen, dining room, I live in New York so it's important to me, living room, large yard with pool. Oh, and a functional fireplace. Kidding aside, we're going to discuss their house later, so this isn't just an apartment renter getting a rubbery one over some choice housing pron.

Now, given their level of affluence, Micah must be a wiz at choosing stocks, predicting fluctuations in futures markets, and sniffing out poor folks who won't be able to pay off their housing loans. But he's an absolute bonehead when it comes to choosing a female companion. Turns out Katie has been ground zero for freaky deaky demonic possession style activity for like forever. Since she's been eight, an supernatural entity with no respect for the property or sleep habits of others has been stalking her on and off. Micah and Katie attempt to take proactive action to rid themselves of this infernal pest guest, but that sparks an escalation of activity that eventually leads to fatal consequences. Like these things do. Truly a child of the Girls Gone Wild and YouTube age, Micah captures the whole downward spiral on camera. In essence, the flick alternates between day time scenes, in which Katie and Micah stress about what they should do, and nighttime scenes, in which Katie and Micah find themselves pretty much at the mercy of their invisible tormentor.

The alternating day/night scenes - the pattern of theater illuminating sun-kissed full color shots and stretches of pale grey and green porny night vision - gets everybody in the audience working the same groove as reliably as the animated bouncing ball used to do in theater sing-along shorts. (What a sad day it was for popular culture when we crew to cynical for that. Even that horrible "Citizen Soldier" song from Nickleblind 182 would be tolerable if, throughout the add, a little bouncing animated smiling National Guardsman's face encouraged the entire audience to sing along.) It gives the audience a breather to laugh and make fun of the reactions of others, throws in some chatter for the bloggers to theorize about later, and then focuses everybody's attention again by dimming the lights. The transition from day to night in this flick works not unlike the dimming of lights in a movie theater: "Alright people, time to pay attention." In a gentler era, William Castle would have dubbed the night vision effect Demon-O-Vision and audience members would have all slid "Vatican-designed protective goggles" on to prevent demonic possession via the eyes. Even without the Castle-isms, it's a brilliant use of a simple visual pattern to marshal viewer expectations. The film quickly trains the viewer to watch it. It's nearly a Pavlovian reaction: As soon as the lights dim, viewers find themselves scrutinizing the nearly static image of Katie and Micah's room, searching for the slightest hint of supernatural shinanigans. Who knew you could make a nicely effective fright flick out of Warhol's Sleep? Go fig.

Not that such intense scrutiny is necessary; when the baddie does act, it isn't anything you'd miss. In fact, its the viewers tendency to subject the screen to hyperscrutiny whenever the lights are dimmed that makes the low-fi scares director/writer Oren Peli deploys so effective. When you're scrutinizing every inch of the screen for the slightest tell-tale twitch of activity, suddenly moving the door to the bedroom a few inches seems like a monumental shift in what you're seeing. This is how a flick that, for most of its running time, threatens its characters with nothing more sinister than the inexplicable flicking of light switches managed to land such high spots on so many best-of lists last year. The film knows how to prep the willing viewer. This is also, coincidentally, why there's so much bad data in so many reviews of this flick. Not only have reviewers consistently overstated the amount of ruckus the invisible stalker commits - a single light flicked on and off becomes a tour of the house with lights going on and off as the demon moves from room to room - but have overstated elements of the flick that occur during the daylight scenes - transforming the milquetoast Micah into the equivalent of an abusive spouse. This is the oddest critical transformation since Micah's biggest sin seems to be that he's a bit of a tech geek and slightly overconfident. In the relationship, he's the weaker of the pair. He capitulates to nearly every whim of Katie's, apologizes for the one time he doesn't, and never even tries to force an apology out of her for knowingly bringing this monster into his life. Honestly, who is more at fault here: Micah, who can sometimes be insensitive about what he's recording, or Katie, who neglected to mention her superpowered, unstoppable demon stalker before Micah moved in with her? People are so keyed up that they lose sense of perspective, both visually and thematically.

Since I missed out on what I think it the quintessential Paranormal Activity experience, I'm going to just share some observations in lieu of the standard review.

Size does matter, but in the opposite way.

Micah and Katie live in a huge house. One that, honestly, doesn't really seem like theirs. They have three bedrooms, all of them done up with queen-sized beds. No junky storage room. No office for Micah, though he supposedly spends most of his days there "at the office." The middling efforts to disguise the set aside, the real issue is that their house is too big for them keep an eye on what's going on. The demon can play with their heads for so long because there's so much unsupervised room for the demon to roam around in.

In contrast, if the movie featured my wife and I in our apartment, we would have reached the do or die moment with our tormentor in the first 10 minutes of the film. We wouldn't have any "Did you see those lights go on?" moments. No slamming doors, no need to have one person wait vulnerable in the bedroom while the other explores the attic or whatever. Nope. We can pretty much do the whole sweep for demonoid phenomenon from our bed.

That saved time is something to consider if you're demon haunted and looking for new digs.

Don't negotiate with terrorists from beyond.

Depending on which ending you see, either Katie and Micah end up dead or Micah ends up dead and Katie gets demonified. Variable details aside, it's fair to say that they get royally screwed regardless of the ending you prefer.

I bring this up because Micah and Katie regularly fail to pull the trigger on getting outside help because they fear that bringing in exorcists or the Ghostbusters or whatever will upset the demon. And if they upset the demon, the demon might kill them both. Or kill one of them and demonify the other. Better not risk upsetting the spirit of evil that dwells in their house and wishes to harm them. After all, the demon might get so mad it will wish to harm them even more harmfully.

This would also be an opportune time to mention that their fears of what might happen if they upset the demon that wants to eat their souls or whatever are crystalized by an account of a similar case of possession that ended with the death of the demon-haunted woman involved. When the woman sought outside help, the demon killed her. It's worth noting that they find the story following a clue the demon left them. That's right. Essentially the demon sends them to "proof" that they'll die if they try to get help. Why the demon might be trying to scare them away from getting outside help doesn't seem to cross the collective mind of Katie and Micah.

What's the take home? Don't hesitate. Don't listen to the soul-craving embodiment of all that's unholy. Get help immediately. Get a bunch of collar-wearing pros to hit this mammer jammer with the smells and bells and take the fight to him. Don't let the demon set the agenda and don't play by his rules. He's pure evil. Nothing you are going to do will make him eviler.

The alternate ending isn't all that.

Though much has been made of the clumsy CGI at the end of the theatrical release, less has been made of the narrative opacity of the original ending. In the original, despite the fact that we've spent the whole movie learning that the demon "wants" Katie for some reason - presumably possession, I guess - the demon uses his handful of minutes within her to make he commit suicide. Which means that really the demon just wanted to kill her, I guess. But he's been inexplicably waiting 20 odd years for just the right night for it. Maybe demons are just really picky about when they off somebody or maybe it took more than two decades for the demon's bad-emotion-o-meter to fill up to it Finishing Move threshold. I dunno.

Honestly, the original ending strikes me as if it belonged to a film in which we were never clear whether or not Katie was haunted by an invisible monster or whether she was just crazy. Then the last image of her cutting her own throat would be ambiguous. Was she under demonic possession? Is she insane? (In fact, if we have to allegorize this flick, I propose we ditch the untenable domestic violence allegory for an allegory of what a resurfacing mental condition can do to a household. It's like The Metamorphosis, but being haunted by a demon replaces turning into a bug as your symbol for mental illness. The rest falls loosely into place: fears that treatment might be worse than the disease, her significant other's powerlessness, getting dire news but no real help from specialists who pass you on to other non-helpful specialists, etc. It's a start.) But since the filmmakers firmly establish the reality of the supernatural threat, it forces you to wonder why the demon didn't just drop a magic piano on Katie's head years ago.

Awkward as the visuals may be, the theatrical ending at least makes sense with the film's own established narrative. Between the two, I found it the more satisfying.

9 comments:

zoe said...

!
you made my day, again..
not to gush, but you're the best reviewer, these are so much fun. and i want some of those goggles you were talking about?
thanks!

Jessilyn said...

I really enjoyed the movie if just for the night vision scenes where something makes ya jump. I agree though the theatrical ending went better with the movie and the plot they laid out for it. Great Review!!

The Frog Queen said...

Love your review....well said and entertaining. Perfect.

Cheers!

Sean T. Collins said...

I know what you mean about Micah not being an abuser--he's just kind of annoying--but you forgot his major dick move, the one that enabled the existence of the whole movie: He kept filming, and thus provoking the demon, despite Katie repeatedly telling him not to do it. That's one whim he definitely didn't cave on, and they paid for it.

Matthew said...

I actually enjoyed paranormal activity. I saw it with the original festival ending, which is neither of the two you mentioned. I have seen all three and i believe the original ending is the best. Katie does not die by her own hands or ridiculously trying to eat the camera...but..I can't bring myself to spoil it. If you haven't seen it, see it.
Oh, yeah. I enjoy your blog.

CRwM said...

Sean,

I guess I wouldn't characterize Micah and Katie's issues regarding filming the way you would. I don't see that she ever seriously objects - except once - and he remains mostly respectful of her wishes throughout.

Certainly filming is Micah's bag and Katie could do without it, but I only recall one instance where she objects to the idea of filming. All the other times, she's telling Micah not to film a specific thing. She tells him not to film them having sex, which he does not do. He jokingly threatens to film her taking a dump, but she protests and he does not. She complains when he interrupts arts and crafts time - demons hate homemade jewelry - and when he interrupts her conversation with her friend, but she doesn't tell him to stop. And she questions him on whether he delayed in rushing to her aid during the spider scene because he had to get the camera, but does not tell him to stop filming.

Otherwise, when she doesn't want to be filmed, she just walks away from him and tells him to go away, which he usually does.

The only time she says no more filming in general is after the ouija board incident. After she declares there will be no more filming, there's a break in the film. The next time the camera is on, it is focused on Micah giving a prepared video apology and a promise not to violate the privacy or trust of Katie. After that, Katie quits objecting to filming.

Maybe I'm not remembering the film well enough, but I don't recall him constantly overriding Katie's objections about filming.

CRwM said...

Matt,

I enjoyed it too. Sometimes I joke too much about films I like, so it seems dismissive. It's a bad critical habit I have. I liked it just fine. Though I suspect you have to see it in the right conditions to really get the full joy of the thing.

Wikipedia already spoiled the original ending (and lead me to revise that last bit so it says "alternate" and not "original" as I'd erroneously assumed).

The original ending sounds interesting, but not having seen it, I don't have any opinion on it.

David said...

I guess I have to get this off my chest somewhere. No film, no matter if you see it on the big or small screen, is going to be "scary" if you know when the "scare" is going to happen. Everything in this film is telegraphed a mile away. They go to sleep, the camera fast forwards and then STOPS when they are going to show you a scare. You even know where it is coming from (the bed room door/hallway) because of the budgetary limitations. It's all a matter of what is going to happen at that point. Yawn.

Sadly, the success of this movie was built up on industry hype. I was really surprised how most of the larger horror mags and sites bought into this, given the lathering of praise of "Paranormal Activity".

CRwM said...

David,

I see your point and certainly the "scares" in Paranormal Activity seem more like funhouse scares, releases of tension because you and the filmmaker are playing a game, rather than horror or fear, where the filmmaker taps in some primal anxiety and throws it at your face. It isn't that horrific a horror film.

I also share some of your reservations about this movie being more hype than substance.

That said, I went in skeptical and managed to enjoy myself. I do scratch my head whenever I see somebody discuss it as a truly great film. But it was lightly likable in a way that isn't disagreeable in genre fiction.

Also, the drag from the room genuinely got my pulse quickened and I would rate Katie's finale scream as one of the greatest screams in horror history. So I can't honestly say it never hit the ol' fright button.

But, heck, they make so many damn movies because so few of us like the same stuff. More power to you and thanks for sounding off. The Interweb Para Act love fest needs some counterbalance, if only for perspective.