For the first time in a long while, Halloween was a real event at Shades of Caruso HQ. Sure, we’ve had pumpkins and decorations before, which were fun, and absolutely no Trick-or-Treaters, which was even better, but this year I was hit with the sense that the day was imbued with some kind of unholy significance, far more so than usual. A pumpkin was carved…
…and horror movies were watched. Twitter greatly helped. Scary videos, photos of costumes, and blog articles celebrating Samhain were linked to, creating a real sense of event. Twitter does a few things really well, and being a sort of mini-aggregator of topical observations and relevant information is top of that list. It really tied the night together.
The one thing that let the whole experience down were the movies we decided to watch, which were either thoroughly awful or distractingly inconsistent. The best of them was the insane mega-hit Paranormal Activity, which has become the most profitable movie of all time after grossing $85m on a $15000 budget. It’s a terribly flawed movie, filled with banal dialogue and repetitive arguments, not to mention tortuous plot contrivances that keep the conceit floating. Some of the best moments are punctured by the behaviour of Micah, whose defiantly obnoxious confidence — a plot requisite, sadly — doesn’t sit well with the really quite terrifying events surrounding him. Special mention here to the amusement he greets an EVP recording of his girlfriend’s demon. As someone who has long been utterly terrified of the sound of unearthly events captured on tape (this book fucked me up as a kid), the moment should have been chilling, but having this doofy jerkbag giggling and goading the demon on ruined the moment.
And yet, and yet… Let’s just say that there are several moments in the film that gave me the fear, and one in particular nearly made me give up on the film entirely, it was so scary. Writer-director Oren Peli has hit on a magic formula that is effective and durable enough to survive the distracting necessities of the plot mechanics that hobble the movie, with help from committed performers Katie Featherston (this year’s Scream Queen for sure) and Micah Sloat. Who cares about the contrivance, or the unpleasant behaviour of Micah, or the late-movie YouTube exorcism silliness that complicates the hair-thin plot? None of that matters. When Micah’s camera switches on at night, and the creaking starts, you forget every annoying thing that you had to go through to get there, and you instantly put yourself in their position. You’re going to be asleep later, and you’re going to be unaware of what’s going on. The scares in the movie — manifested with absolute mastery of the craft — are one thing. What makes the movie so terrifying is knowing that you are going to bed later. It’s impossible not to imagine yourself in the same situation, and that’s the scariest thing of all.
Luckily for my sanity, the resolution of the film is more mundane than the build-up, which blunted the effect of the film. For most of the running time we can’t understand the motives of the demon haunting Katie. Terrorising her from childhood is one thing, and the thought that Katie will never be able to escape her psychic torture is more upsetting than the actual resolution, but as this is a movie with a finite running time, we have to have a resolution. I’m not sure what Peli could have done to fix this problem, and the fact that the movie has three different endings suggests he wasn’t sure either. A disappointment, then, but a disappointment that touches greatness at times, and lingers in the mind far longer than you would like.
Though Paranormal Activity invites comparison with 1999′s The Blair Witch Project, it’s still very much of its time. When considered alongside Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield and Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s magnificent [Rec], this kind of faux-subjective horror — with the line between onscreen participant and viewer blurred — has become one of the most significant innovations in horror cinema of the past twenty years, and has surprisingly been used rarely enough to still feel fresh. Certainly, though the genre seemed to be in a rut during that period, Blair Witch and [Rec] are two of the most effective horror movies around, arguably more so than almost all others, and have revitalised the traditional horror sub-genres (ghost story, zombie movie, monster attack).
That’s not to say the genre has been completely moribund. The other horror movies that have stood out – certainly in my view — are partially most effective for playing off real-world fears that have been ignored by numerous tedious slasher films, remakes of Japanese techno-ghost stories or “torture” movies. In a world where increasing automation and computerised interaction has made us less likely to wander out of our comfort zones, the best horror movies of recent times have worked on our fear of other people, where stressful situations make us turn on each other. While a lot of horror concerns the Fear of the Other, as the groups we ally ourselves with shrink in size we find The Other is not that alien any more. The Descent, The Ruins and The Mist all feature characters trapped in horrific environments, surrounded by unthinkable horror, but ultimately these movies are upsetting because of the way the protagonists react to these threats. In all three the most dangerous thing you can encounter is the person standing next to you, who is probably someone you have known all your life.
The thought that it is not the Other that could provide the horror, but maybe even you yourself if pushed the wrong way — by betrayal in the case of The Descent, politics and religious intolerance in The Mist, and allegorical Idiocracy-style selfishness and ignorance in The Ruins — is where the real horror lies. My other favourite horror movie of the past few years — James Watkins’ gut-wrenching Eden Lake — is as topical as The Ruins or The Mist, with two well-to-do UK city-folk undone by their inability to respect their countrified brethren. Their fate is sealed when they antagonise some children — The Other — but protagonist Jenny’s ultimate doom is provided by people who should be on her side. Hell really is other people. As we increasingly use the Internet to interact, and often realise that being physically present with other people is a mixed blessing, it’s tempting to think that the current popularity of the zombie genre is down to the cathartic pleasure of seeing hordes of “people” mown down. It’s the most misanthropic of horror sub-genres, and increasingly the one where the appeal of it seems to be watching the violence we can perpetrate upon surrogate humans without worrying about morality getting in the way as much as it is the thrill of being menaced by something unpleasant.
During our weekend of horror we also watched some endearing throwbacks to previous horror eras, though sadly they left us even more cold. Ti West’s House of The Devil has been attracting attention and rave reviews for its intentionally retrograde approach. Set in the 80s, West fills his movie with period detail: feathered haircuts, synth soundtrack, clunky Walkman etc. He also spends much time setting up an atmosphere instead of throwing a bunch of youngsters into a rusty basement to have their teeth pulled out. About 75% of the movie shows college student Samantha (played by Saffron Burrows lookalike Jocelyn Donahue) walking around a creepily deserted campus and an even creepier isolated house, as she babysits an old woman for Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov. We’re talking about half an hour of walking around a campus, and then half an hour of walking around a house, with as little plot as a short movie expanded to feature length.
Though I certainly didn’t take against West’s movie, and though it had several pleasurable things to recommend it (casting Noonan and Woronov certainly makes up for a lot of the movie’s flaws), I suspect a lot of the praise heaped on House of the Devil is for what it isn’t, rather than for what it is. It’s not torture porn. It’s not a shitty remake of a slasher classic. It’s not edited into an incomprehensible, staccato mess. It generates atmosphere instead of relying too much on turning the volume up to jolt the viewer. It’s paying its respects to the horror movies adored by a certain sub-set of movie critics. It has charm and is made with reverent love, and never once feels like a cheap cash-in. For those reasons, it is to be applauded.
For the most part there is little dialogue and a couple of shock jump moments (in their defence, they’re earned), but also lots and lots of longueurs. West goes the extra mile in setting up an atmosphere of eerie stillness before things kick off in the final act, but as with a lot of average horror movies from the past, that involves having very little happen very slowly. The 95 minute running time feels a lot longer, and by the time the scares arrive, there’s a good chance you’ll be bored. Is this a result of eroded attention spans? Or has West balanced the film wrong? It doesn’t help that the finale is overplayed to the point of not being that scary after all, shooting past “effectively scary” to settle at the total opposite end of the horror spectrum.
As for West’s influences, sometimes they seem to have inspired him too literally. Like the runty child of Rosemary’s Baby and The Dunwich Horror (with a pinch of The Medusa Touch), it serves up something we’ve seen a million times before which, after the long wait to get there, is just not enough. I’d even argue that it’s got its eras mixed up. While the film goes out of its way to add 80s period details, the pace and subject matter of the movie feel more suited to the 70s, like something Roger Corman and Samuel Z. Arkoff would have made before The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre came along and changed the rules of the genre. 80s horror movies were pacier and often sillier than this, and if you’re going to pay homage to that era, you need to have more going on.
As in Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat, which was a proper 80s horror homage right down to its bones. Ostensibly an anthology of tales linked by a couple of common threads, Dougherty pays tribute to numerous horror classics while playfully subverting expectations. Hoary horror conventions that are given a sprucing up include the sexuality of the vampire, the vulnerability of young virgins, townsfolk trying to kill a group of undesirables who then come back from the grave, the pillar of the community who has a terrible secret, the Bad Seed, and the unstoppable killing machine seemingly intent on enforcing some bizarre rules. By the end of the film, the nods to other films were keeping me more entertained than the narrative tricks or the lacklustre scares: The Howling, The Thing, Fright Night, Pumpkinhead, The Evil Dead, Nightmare on Elm Street 1 and 2, Creepshow, Pet Sematery, The Company of Wolves, Halloween (obviously)… There’s almost too many to count. While House of the Devil serves up the familiar and hopes it will still scare us, here Dougherty simply tries to pay respectful homage.
This approach has its pros and cons. On the plus side Dougherty captures the look of 80s cinema with images full of rich golds, reds and oranges, not to mention leaf-strewn suburban streets, Bacchanalian fire-lit orgies of violence, and use of the frame that calls to mind vintage Carpenter and Dante. It’s a gorgeous movie, despite its low-budget, but as with House of the Devil it’s low on scares. The balance of the movie falls too heavily on the lighter side, which wouldn’t really be a problem at any other time of the year, but after seeing something as soil-yourself-scary as Paranormal Activity it couldn’t help but feel like a bit of a letdown. While the intertwined stories and narrative surprises are cleverly unravelled by the end, all four tales (and the two linking arcs) feel underdeveloped, even taking into account the bigger picture. It’s Love Actually Syndrome. Four two-act tales linked together do not replace one tale with three acts. As much fun as Trick ‘R Treat is (and it is a lot of fun), it can leave the viewer unsatisfied. Consider it recommended, however, especially if you grew up loving any of the movies listed above.
All three movies feel like throwbacks in one way or another (if you’re ungenerous and take Paranormal Activity to be a straight rip of Blair Witch), but the fourth movie we watched over the Halloween weekend was very much a modern mainstream horror movie. Jaume Collet-Serra’s demented Orphan was probably more thriller than horror movie, but with the various Catholic orphanages, wintery settings, bloody carnage and concerned nuns — not to mention that it is a Dark Castle Entertainment picture — it felt very much of a piece with everything else we had seen. Except terrible. Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard (resembling a pudgy, effeminate Keifer Sutherland with a bad case of narcolepsy) adopt a Russian child after Farmiga’s third pregnancy ends in disaster. Haunted by this, a previous alcohol dependence, and an accident that left her second child deaf, Farmiga puts all her hopes of recovering from her past on the new child, who sadly turns out to be a murderous psychopath who tears the family apart with psychological games, a can of lighter fluid, and a big hammer.
The movie starts unpleasant and stupid, and gets more unpleasant and stupid than you can possibly imagine. During its initial theatrical release, an internet meme appeared that claimed the murderous child (Esther, played with astonishing eerie skill by 12-year old Isabelle Fuhrman) was actually a Lithuanian hooker born with dwarfism. This rendered the movie impossible to take seriously, though the actual reveal at the end is just as silly and possibly even tackier, especially when taken with some absurd third-act loose-end-tying of breathtaking clunkiness (I’m thinking of the frozen pond, here).
It certainly seems odd… nay, depressing that something this catastrophic and tasteless can be made with a cast of talented actors such as Farmiga, Sarsgaard (in a career-worst performance filled with drowsy histrionics), Margo Martindale and poor CCH Pounder. What’s worse is that a far superior movie with a similar plot was released in 2007 to massive indifference. George Ratliff’s Joshua starred Hott Sam Rockwell and Farmiga as — again — parents dealing with the psychological manipulations of a devious child, and again hamstrung by their inability to deal with this threat due to the perceived vulnerability of their nemesis (echoes of Watkins’ Eden Lake there). Ratliff created an atmospheric and disturbing tale with almost no tricksiness, relying instead on talented actors portraying people at the end of their tether. Collet-Serra — who, let us not forget, is part of the Pointless Remake Brigade thanks to his astonishingly tedious Paris Hilton vehicle House of Wax — has no interest in creating something as challenging as this, despite his excellent cast, relying instead on cheap shock tricks, over-direction, gothic lighting and unsubtle musical cues. Luckily, it’s hilariously wrong, and littered with bizarre tonal and directorial mistakes. It’s not quite a failure along the lines of, say, Shyamalan’s The Happening, but it’s damn close.
When critics praise House of the Devil for being a breath of fresh air, it is garish, tawdry nonsense like Orphan that they’re comparing it to. After seeing it the other movies of the weekend seemed much better by comparison. It was particularly amusing to note that the frenetically edited Orphan generated not even a fraction of the tension created by Paranormal Activity which contains hardly any cuts at all, in defiance of Hitchcock’s theories on editing. Sadly none of these Halloween movies thrilled me as much as the movies I linked to a horror renaissance in this post (scroll down). Pastiche can be fun, but unless it has something else there, it can be little more than an empty exercise in playing off nostalgic feelings, and suggests a lack of imagination in the filmmaker. A working knowledge of the various developmental stages of a genre, allied with a vivid imagination, can give us something as respectfully constructed as Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage – which is a classic ghost story in the mold of The Haunting and The Innocents that pays homage to its forebears and then becomes its own thing — or something that bursts conventions like Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In. This year, pastiche had its pleasures, but didn’t take the next step. The closest we got was seeing Sam Raimi return to what he does best with Drag Me To Hell. It was pure joy, yet another wonderful amalgam of disturbing comedy and silly horror from the man who gave us Evil Dead II. Of course, when you’re making a pastiche of a sub-sub-genre of horror that you yourself invented, it’s going to be hard to fuck it up.
So is there cause for concern? I’d argue no. This year the only completely satisfying straight horror movie I’ve experienced is Lars Von Trier’s harrowing Antichrist, which is one of the most astonishing sensory assaults in recent memory. Doused in unpleasant atmosphere and featuring imagery that will probably haunt me for years to come, even if Von Trier’s intent was not to make a great horror movie — he’s more interested in parsing his recent depression, and exploring recurrent themes like violent misogyny and humanity’s destructive urges — he managed to create something that disturbs more than anything else released this year. That’s not just because of the now-notorious genital mutilation scene. That one moment — which is utterly horrifying but not exploitative — would not be anywhere near as effective if it were not for Von Trier’s command of mood up to that point.
While it certainly doesn’t look or feel like anything in the mainstream of the genre, there’s the hope that other filmmakers will see what Von Trier has done with the conventions of the genre, mixing fairy tale imagery, nightmarish atmospherics a la David Lynch, sustained suspense, extreme body horror, and an oppressive, Hideo-Nakata-esque dread to create something new, something chilling and unforgettable. Maybe Von Trier, who operates outside the sometimes claustrophobic and relentlessly self-referential confines of the world of horror cinema, will accidentally influence other horror filmmakers and bring about another evolution in the genre. It’s that or someone very very smart comes up with a new approach, just like Carpenter once did with Halloween. One can only hope.
Note: This blogpost was not written in an attempt to exorcise the memory of Paranormal Activity from my branes so I can get a decent night’s sleep. Anyone suggesting this is the case is dead wrong. ::whimpers::