Monday, November 2, 2009

Phantom menace

Look, honey - there's nothing scary over there!

If you, like me, were suckered into Paranormal Activity by the marketing tease - well, I wish I had a plan to get our money back, but I don't. And as we both know, we certainly can't look back on any satisfying scares for our combined $20. Indeed, all I can admire about the movie is its marketing campaign, and how it hooked me with a line perfectly tailored to my demographic. Was I dumb enough to fall for Blair Witch Project, the Yuppie Edition? Yes, I was.

Not because I believed Paranormal Activity was, indeed, some lost video of ghouls gone wild. But I did believe, as so many reviewers (and even acquaintances) assured me, that it was a clever vehicle for several good scares, done entirely through suggestion. It scared me silly, went the refrain, and there wasn't even any gore at all! Indeed, some critics (like the Globe's semi-evil Ty Burr) claimed that the growing chorus of complaint that the movie just wasn't scary was the result of a fanboy sensibility so blunted by Saw and its ilk that it was unable to appreciate a good, old-fashioned yarn.

If only. Oh, sure, the premise was great - hubby sets up video cameras when something wicked starts t-t-tapping at the bedroom door - but unfortunately, that premise is all the movie really has to offer. And sure, there are some fun, spine-tingling moments at the beginning, when a door squeaks a few inches open, or an overhead fixture begins to swing all by itself.

But to be blunt, we're not squealing at those moments because of any skill in storytelling or direction (much less indirection); we're squealing because we've been primed to squeal, and are happy to do so, and then giggle to ourselves afterward. We've been told to expect the best ghost story since The Sixth Sense, only this time told entirely through suggestion, with only the simplest of effects. And we are so ready.

Slowly, however, our squeals and giggles grow fewer and farther between, as we realize that writer/director Oren Peli doesn't really have any narrative cards up his sleeve after all. All he has are a pretty-good bedroom set (above), with shadowy hall running off to a classically dark staircase - and refs to other movies: the shower from The Shining, the attic from The Exorcist et. al., all do cameos to fill up Peli's 90 minutes or so of running time. The references are, in effect, his plot. Because not only could Peli not afford any effects, he couldn't afford many actors, either (even though his central pair are appealing), much less such luxuries as exterior shooting. The claim was that he was clever enough to work within those admittedly tight constraints. The truth is that he wasn't.

Oh, well. Can anyone tell me when we last had a hit movie that was actually any good? In the meantime, what's scary is that Paranormal Activity II is already in the works. In which, I guess, we follow the terrifying exploits (spoiler alert!!!) of a demon terrorizing San Diego in a tank top and shorts. Oh, yeah, be afraid. Be very afraid.


  1. Mmmm. I'm beginning to think that we are all looking at a film like this throught the wrong lens.

    Shouldn't we be contextualizing Paranormal Activity as some type of meta-ironic comedy rather than a horror film.

    Of course, in the case of PA this would not be an intentional aesthetic, but I could argue this for Funny Games, no?

    Perhaps Dana Stevens in Slate said it best when reviewing Paranormal Activity.

    Stevens joked that if we really wanted to project some contemporary social commentary on the film ,it could be that the boyfriend is a "day trader" and we are watching in horror as he arrogantly keeps trying to handle something way beyond his control.

    As you like to say...I think I feel a post coming on.

  2. Oh, dear. You're not really going to compare Paranormal Activity to Funny Games, are you Art? I guess it's a good thing then that you used the word "contextualize," because that always makes me stick my fingers in my ears and start singing "La la la" to myself.

  3. I thought I was pretty clear that there is a big separation between Paranormal Activity and Funny Games, and that is directorial artistry and skill.

    However, the idea of this type of meta-horror experience as more comedy than horror is what intrigues me.

    I would, of course, have to get around some of the bleakness of Haneke "anti-climax" - the casual offing of the "heroine."

    I have some more thinking to do, so you can take your fingers out for now. ;)

  4. Okay, okay. But no, I don't think Funny Games can be considered meta-ironic comedy. If anything, it's meta-horror - Haneke is most horrified by horror itself, and what it says about us.