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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Paranormal Activities--a Little Too Normal

As someone who will probably never own a monster-size TV, I make a point of getting to the theater at least once every October for a scary movie on the big screen. I've watched the likes of "Frailty," "Skeleton Key," "Event Horizon," and "Slither" at home, but there's nothing like the sound and the fury of being in a theater for the full experience.

This year the movie to see is "Paranormal Activity," which has been called a "Blair Witch" in suburbia. The intended effect is definitely verisimilitude, as the film opens and ends with nary a credit, and consists entirely of the high-tech home camera recordings of Micah, the boyfriend of the demonically haunted Katie. (Micah and Katie are the real names of the actors.)

The couple are entirely believable--I feel like I know people just like them--if not altogether likable. And the plot unfolds gradually in an effort to maintain credibility by easing into the crazier scenes. (Spoiler alert!) It turns out Micah has bought the camera because some weird noises have been waking them up, and it emerges that Katie has been dealing with hauntings since she was eight years old. This latter tidbit affords Micah the leverage he needs to convince her he has a right to keep filming when she'd just as soon stop trying to catch the phenomena on tape. Micah's experimental attitude becomes a source of tension, especially when he brings home a Ouija Board, a course of action specifically mentioned by a psychic as one to be avoided, as it would just further provoke the entity.

The psychic is an interesting element. Katie calls him to the house, despite Micah's skepticism, because she is genuinely frightened by the strange occurrences. During his first visit, he establishes that the entity is not a ghost, as in the spirit of a dead human, but rather a demon. Because his specialty is ghosts, he refers the couple to another expert. Psychics referring out to specialists strikes me as a novel idea, and in the event it probably would about scare the piss out of me. Unfortunately, the demonologist is out of town.

The nighttime occurrences get more outrageous, the tension between the couple gets worse, and no one gets any sleep. The film-makers use a foreshadowing approach to making the supernatural scenes credible, so one night the camera records the blanket being pulled off of Katie's foot in preparation for the next night in which she's pulled off the bed by that same foot and dragged down the hall. As things are at this point completely out of hand, the psychic is called back. This time however he barely sets foot inside the door, so overwhelming is the demonic presence. He flees explaining that his being there will only make the demon angry.

"Paranormal Activity" had me for a while--I was in suspense and startle-ready. But over time the foreshadowing technique, which had the intensity of the demon's machinations increasing night-by-night, got tedious, so that by the final few night vision scenes my heart rate was back to normal. The height of the movie's effectiveness for me was when Micah poured baby powder all over the top of the stairs, and this allowed the couple to discover that the demon, which had three-toes like a bird or a dinosaur, had entered their room--but never left. Soon after this scene though the movie got into some very familiar territory.

The Ouija board, on its own, spelled out the name of a woman who was possessed, apparently by the same demon haunting Katie. Micah discovered her story on the Internet. This woman, Diane, died in the course of an attempted exorcism. I don't need to mention the name of the movie this brought to mind. Up to this point, there's been little by way of special effects too. But by the end we get a look at the possessed Katie making jerky motions, her face demonically distorted, and inhuman sounds coming from her. At every use of these digital effects, I was cast further out of the story. When the demonic Katie eventually screams to lure Micah downstairs, where she murders him, and the audience is allowed to discover what's happened only when his body flies back up the stairs and collides with the camera, well, I shook my head and thought about how unfortunate it was that a movie that could have been great had it exercised the discipline to maintain its subtlety throughout went too far and ruined the effect.

There was a lot of to-do about "The Blair Witch Project" for the back story, the Sci-Fi channel documentary and the website, all of which had many viewers believing they were seeing real footage of the actors' demise. I think these bells and whistles over time have diminished what is actually a really good movie; people forgot how good it was because it was "disproved." But I compare the ending of that movie with "Paranormal Activity" and find the latter wanting.

Of course, then I get home, find my girlfriend asleep on the couch, go into our bedroom, which is lit by these damn energy-saving green nightlights she bought so it looks exactly like the night vision scenes in the movie, and try to sleep as I notice a clicking noise under my bed. A cord? No. A cat? Both are on the bed. Wtf?


caynazzo said...

Random Thoughts:

I remember thinking "Jews and demons?" when I heard the names Dena (you seem to remember Diane) and Micah (the name of the Jewish guy whom the Dena I know recently married). Until I watched "The Unborn," with Gary Oldman as the rabbi, I always considered demons good Christian fun.

Ouija board bit, bad.
Absence of an exorcism scene, good.

We're both in a position to judge the believability of late twentysomething's nesting behavior. This movie did it justice.

Both this and Blair Witch use to great affect the transformation of the mundane into the disturbing, a trope in which I credit Stephen King in absence of a better historical figure.

And it's good to see some praise for Blair Witch. I find it fascinating the interest generated in debunking the film and then the backlash. The History Channel has this hit-and-miss Halloween series on searching for the "real wolfman" and vampire. Humans are curious but credulous over answers. So why do we hate being duped?

The girlfriend was out of town the night I watched Paranormal. I woke completely exhausted the next morning despite my usual 6 hours. I've been told I grind my teeth while asleep and that night I had a very vivid dream I ground most of my teeth down to my gums. I think I need a mouth guard.

Dennis said...

Of course, Blair Witch is better, too, because it makes sense to use a camera in the woods--because it has a light on it--but not in a home with no electrical problems. Seriously, there's obviously an intruder, natural or supernatural, so you might wanna rethink lugging the equipment around. You may even want to get a weapon, call over some friends--anything but go back to sleep peacefully after your girlfriend got dragged down the hall.

caynazzo said...

That is a very good point. I heard the same complaint of incredulity when the character in The Blair Witch tossed their only map into the river. Do we really lose our decision-making capability while under duress to such extents?