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Things that go bump in the night

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Horror movies. I love ’em. It’s rare for me to be genuinely scared by one, granted, but I love them nonetheless. From the camp shennanigans of Hammer films to extreme Asian torture porn and everything inbetween I always have time for a decent horror flick. I’ve always been particularly fond of films that use a subtle build up of atmoshpere and mood to freak out the viewer rather than relying on carnival ghost train shocks and gore. The original 1963 version of The Haunting, The Wicker Man, The Exorcist even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre all use this concept to varying degrees in order to terrorise the viewer, manipulating your imagination to make you feel like you’ve witnessed more than you have and set you up for the real shocks by building your sense of foreboding.

So it was then, that the thought of a film based around a couple who set up a video camera in their home in order to get to the bottom of strange noises and phenomena appealed to me. The critical and public opinion of the film all supported the notion it was a tense and terrifying experience. Despite my reservations about “found footage” horror films (due largely to the somewhat annoying Blair Witch Project) I finally decided it was time I watched Paranormal Activity to see what the fuss was all about. If you haven’t seen it already it’s only fair to warn you that there are spoilers ahead. If indeed it is possible to spoil the film more than it’s makers managed to do!

Being naturally sceptical and a rational thinker it takes a lot for a film to scare me. It has been done in the past. I remember watching the original Japanese version of The Ring when it just came out (it was on VHS!!) and it freaking me out, largely due to the creepy, surreal atmospherics and perfect timing on the shocks. The walk home afterwards, from my friend’s house to my own house in the dark, was taken at a slightly quicker pace than normal. The lights went on as quickly as possible when I got in. Not because I thought a dead Japanese schoolgirl was going to leap out of my telly and kill me but because my buttons had been pushed and my senses and imagination were tingling.

With this in mind I thought I would give Paranormal Activity every possible advantage. I (contrary to the advice on the cover) watched it alone. Lights down, volume up. Due to recent developments in my life I was also at the most physically and emotionally strained I have been in a while. I tried to clear my mind of any reservations I had and resolved myself to approaching it with an open mind. Then and only then did I press play.

It started sort of promisingly. Already experiencing some strange occurences the guy (Micah) has purchased a high end video camera, planning on recording them during the night to establish the cause. He is the sceptic. The girl (Katie) is the believer. She has suffered from paranormal disturbances since she was a little girl. There is a bit of backstory about her old house burning down under mysterious circumstances. The scene is pretty much set. It’s worth pointing out all of this is told via the couple’s video camera in a Blair Witch style. Herein lies one of the films main flaws, more on this later.

Initially the buildup is slow. A couple of weird noises. A lot of “did you hear that” moments. A door moving “by itself”. Footsteps. You get the idea. Katie wants to phone a demonologist for advice. Micah wants to be a man and get to the bottom of it himself. He uses the phrase “I’ve done some research” about a million times in this film. His scepticism is understandable. After all there are perfectly reasonable explanations for strange noises and wobbly doors. This leads to some tension between the couple. Quite early on they were warned by a psychic that negative energy can make it worse. He also told them under no circumstances use a Ouija baord in the house. Can you guess what’s coming?

Now quite how a Victorian parlour game is supposed to act as an invitation to a demonic entity is a little bit beyond my reasoning but its a horror film so lets roll with it. It was good enough for The Exorcist so I’ll let it slide. Micah tries the Ouija board (or Weegee board as he calls it) against Katies wishes and gets nothing from it. He coincidentally leaves the camera recording the board as the pair go on a night out. While they are out the cursor moves about on the board and then spontaneously combusts. This is the first conclusive evidence that there is something genuinely supernatural going on. Frankly its evidence that something pretty malevolent and supernatural is going on. Micah’s response? “This is cool, I’m gonna do some research!”

And so it goes on. Talc on the floor reveals demonic footprints (all caught on camera), these lead them to a charred photo of Katie as a child believed burned to ash 15 years prior. Crashing and banging, doors slamming, photos being damaged. It’s all pretty conclusive. Even I, a hardcore dyed in the wool sceptic, would be prepared to accept that something pretty scary was going on and professional help was required. I’d phone the demonologist myself. Not Micah. With his “Research! Research! Research!” refrain he soldiers on.

This is where the film lost my support. I had imagined a slow burning story with the various disturbances growing in intensity as the film unfolded but remaining ambiguous, the lack of real evidence leaving Katie and Micah at odds. Him thinking her insane, her losing her trust and faith in him. This could intensify right up to a shocking finale and give everyone a good fright. I’ve always found the collapse of people’s mental state the most effective form of horror. As soon as the film shows a genuinely inexplicable demonic event (pretty much the burning Ouija board) it tips it’s hand and ruins the tension. Here is the limitation of the found footage format. An hour and a half of banging and groaning would be dull as dishwater in this context. Once there was a definitive demonic presence my inner sceptic scoffed and my suspension of disbelief was destroyed.

The atmosphere is shattered completely by the “dragging down the hall” scene, where Katie is yanked out of bed by an invisible force and dragged down the hall, much to everyone’s consternation. Left terrified and with a vicious bite mark on her back (which is clearly demonic in origin – I would have made it look more human and put it on her arm or something, again for ambiguity) what should be a tense moment of desperate terror on the behalf of the couple just shatters the illusion even more. “I’ll do more research” says Micah. Yeah, ’cause that worked.

Then of course is the ending. Now, the DVD has two endings, the one from the theatrical cut and an “alternative” (read as “original”) ending that I believe they were made to change at the behest of Steven Spielberg no less. The theatrical cut ending is a complete and total joke. Katie, intent on leaving the house moments earlier, calms down and decides she wants to stay. She does a demon voice to indicate that she is now in the thrall of the spirit (in case the sudden change of plan and demeanour didn’t give it away). During the night, Katie gets out of bed and spends some time watching Micah sleep. She goes downstairs and out of sight she screams a terrifying scream. Woken abruptly by this Micah runs downstairs to help her. There’s more screaming and shouting and they reappear at the bedroom door. Micah is flung (by Katie) with supernatural strength at the camera which falls over. She then crawls over to the camera and undergoes a “surprising”, “horrifying”, “shocking” transformation into a demon faced woman before everything goes black. There is a shit postscript message on screen about Micah’s body being found by police and Katie never being seen again.

It is seriously on a par with those crap internet things that have an image or video clip and they go “watch for the ghostly shape at the window” and after a little while there’s a jump cut to a scream and a scary face. It completely dissipates any sinister atmosphere that remains. Laughable doesn’t cover it.

The original ending is far superior (although it still has the stupid demon voice, WHY?!). It is more or less the same up until the point when Micah runs downstairs to help Katie. After the screaming and shouting all goes quiet until Katie appears at the bedroom door covered in blood and holding a kitchen knife. She walks up to the camera and cuts her own throat. Cut to black.
Much more sinister. The look in her eyes as she ends her own life is rather chilling and this scenario fits much better with a concept of ambiguity between paranormal or psychological.

In short, I’ve done scarier farts. For it to have worked properly it would have to proceed as follows: The start is fine, we join the couple after they have started to experience the weird goings on. Micah the sceptic is determined to disprove a supernatural cause, Katie is convinced due to her past that she is being haunted by something. As the phenomena increase in intensity the relationship between them disintegrates, Micah increasingly convinced she is to blame and her increasingly enraged by his disbelief. Keep the psychic in, his support for Katie’s viewpoint being a source of tension between them as Micah writes him off as a charlatan. As the film continues their nerves are shredded by tiredness and arguments and stress. Lose the demon voice but keep the original ending. Avoid any explicitly supernatural occurences. Certainly ditch the “found footage” style, although keep it as an element as Micah fruitlessly attempts to catch something on camera. Build the tension over 80 minutes and then batter the audience with the gruesome conclusion. The ambiguity adds to the horror as you can’t be sure whether a demon is at work or a disturbed person. That means it could happen to you and that makes it scarier.

I think the one thing that is definitely true is that you shouldn’t watch it alone. I would imagine I would have got more out of the experience had I seen it in the cinema. There are fewer more powerful factors in being scared than group hysteria. A cinemaload of people sitting there, not breathing, jumping at the shocks, covering their eyes, etc, etc can add to your own personal tension and heighten the experience. Having said that I would probably have been laughing too hard at them for it to have an effect.

Anyway. Rant over. If you have seen it and agree or disagree I’d be interested to hear your opinions. If you haven’t seen it and read on past the spoiler alert anyway then congratulations, you’ve just saved yourself a lot of time and energy. Go watch The Haunting instead.

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