‘Paranormal’ experience and thoughts on horror

Posted by · 9:48 am · October 3rd, 2009

Paranormal ActivityI finally got around to “Paranormal Activity” last night, which has been scaring audiences nationwide for about a week now.  The film sat on a shelf for two years, terrifying Steven Spielberg, awaiting a release of some sort, primed for a remake at one point, and finally made its way into the marketplace last week with an innovative, experimental distribution strategy.  All the inside baseball was covered well in this 9/20 John Horn piece in the Los Angeles Times.

I wasn’t going to write about it.  It’s certainly not an awards film, of course, but I just kind of wanted to have a good time at a midnight screening and let it be that.  But I was still wide awake at 3:45am last night, demanding my girlfriend to stay awake with me on Skype (which actually made things creepier given the cinematographic composition of a Skype video chat).

The film is repetitive on one hand, but that repetition lulls the viewer into a sense of foreboding that’s hard to measure.  I’m interested in seeing the alternate endings, especially the original, which seems more in keeping with the film’s insistence on a grounded scare.  But the Spielberg-suggested denouement (unfortunately featured in the trailer, leaving its truly jarring moment something to be anticipated rather than freshly experienced) is incredibly unsettling.

I wouldn’t say filmmaker Oren Peli fully capitalized on the potential of his concept.  Like “The Blair Witch Project” (a film to which “Paranormal Activity” often finds itself compared), there are elements (specifically a moment involving a charred photograph) that feel forced and even betray a sense of anxiety on the part of the filmmakers (who do a remarkable job of letting practicality serve as visceral terrorist for the most part).  But for $20,000, it’s an impressive accomplishment all around.  And it got me thinking on the genre.

We put together a list of the 20 greatest horror films of all time around this time last year.  It’s the only collective list we’ve done here at In Contention (as in, the only list built on the collective opinion of all our contributors), which is interesting when you consider how subjective horror is.

Horror movies are a strange bird for me.  I don’t obsessively devour the genre looking for a good scare because the fact remains a “good scare” is perhaps the most personal element of filmed entertainment there is.  It’s why pegging a universally accepted “scariest movie ever” can be such a chore because, in a more specific nature than anything else, different things do it for different folks.

“The Exorcist” is generally high on these lists (and certainly rests at the top of mine), but still, it’s not difficult to find people who think that film a laughable entry.  “The Shining” is also up there for me, largely for the atmosphere it conjures, while I’ll freely admit there are elements of the considerably lesser “Event Horizon” and “Candyman” that have tickled my scarybone.

Other films don’t really do it for me like they do others.  I felt the aforementioned “The Blair Witch Project” was infuriatingly beside-the-point upon exiting a screening in 1999.  “Rosemary’s Baby” is fine, acute filmmaking, but it doesn’t conjure the anxious cold sweat of the best horror for me.

Cronenberg horror also doesn’t hit my scare button.  There are certainly some viscerally gripping elements in “The Fly,” “Videodrome” and “Scanners,” and I haven’t yet seen “The Brood” (I should), but I’m generally more interested in the ideas of Cronenberg’s films than the way they might capitalize on my fears.

I was always a bit unsettled by the matter-of-fact violence of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” still a top-tier horror film in my book, and there are elements of “Jacob’s Ladder” and “The Ring” that were undeniable, but nothing has ever been as complete as it could.

And finally, “The Descent,” which works, and when it’s clicking it’s clicking, knowing exactly how to use the frame for the maximum emotional reaction.  But the horrific elements of that film are somewhat contained and don’t penetrate the entirety of the piece, which is what “Paranormal Activity” does incredibly well.  As you’re preparing yourself for the inevitable scare, you find yourself anxious along the way, making that final moment all the more affecting.

The only film that could potentially hit me just right is “[REC],” which I’ve yet to see (nor have I seen the remake, “Quarantine,” and I probably won’t).  But on the whole, the point I’m trying to make is that, if you ask another guy, you’ll probably come across a different slew of titles that provide the ultimate scare.

Horror is the most personal of genres, which is kind of what makes it beautiful.  I just long for another film to come along as a nearly universally agreed-upon scare fest.  I don’t think “Paranormal Activity” is that film (after all, one of the first comments I overheard last night was, “That was one of the stupidest movies I’ve seen”), but I sense that whatever I’m looking for might be on the horizon.

Or have we come to a point where horror is rendered almost moot?  Are we so desensitized that an “Exorcist” experience isn’t likely to hit us socially ever again?  God I hope not.

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18 responses so far

  • 1 10-03-2009 at 10:17 am

    anne thompson said...

    If you look at the horror genre subset of fear of things unseen–that go bump in the night–try John Carpenter’s original Halloween, Robert Wise’s The Haunting and yes, The Shining. Psychological horror. Fear of the unknown right around the corner.

  • 2 10-03-2009 at 11:30 am

    Gustavo said...

    Scariest film ever?


  • 3 10-03-2009 at 12:03 pm

    R.J. said...

    I’m 21 years old and still cannot watch Candyman, maybe I saw it too young but it’s the one horror film that I can’t even talk about without getting the chills. It’s sad in a way, because that means it’s a really effective film (and even sadder because I’m a grown ass man afraid of a movie). Rosemary’s Baby and The Others are two of my favorites and so is The Exorcist to a lesser extent, but I will never understand all the love for The Descent, I was so disappointed by that film.

  • 4 10-03-2009 at 1:53 pm

    RJNeb2 said...

    You’ve got to include Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” in this list, surely? I remember seeing it years ago on a sunny afternoon and it scared the crap out of me.

    The less said about the remake, the better.

  • 5 10-03-2009 at 2:06 pm

    AmericanRequiem said...

    the ring is pretty agreed upon, also if we want to count pans labyrinth, but i wouldnt, let the right one in? the orphanage? the shining still takes the cake for me, great combination of talent

  • 6 10-03-2009 at 2:17 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Meh, The Ring didn’t do it for me beyond two scenes. Well, three. The horse thing is nuts.

  • 7 10-03-2009 at 2:21 pm

    Joel said...

    Kris, have you ever seen “The Descent”? If not, check it out. Unnerving movie. Trust me.

  • 8 10-03-2009 at 2:33 pm

    Tyler Foster said...

    I’m droidguy1119 on Twitter, I mentioned the alternate ending. Someone described it in more detail on the DVDTalk boards, and it sounds good, but I read that the ending was the sticking point that kept the film on the shelf for two years, so it seems like there must have been SOMETHING about it that just didn’t work. I guess Micah doesn’t hit the camera in that version, either.

    Its repetition is really effective. I think most specifically, the speeding of the timer really is a huge moment. The first time, my audience took a second before murmuring nervously, but at the end, they just went nuts.

    It’s strange, though, after seeing it I watched the trailer and I was baffled at how frightened I had been by a sheet lifting and whatnot. I think it’s only going to play in packed theaters with a like-minded audience or with three or less people, at home, at 1 in the morning, in dead silence and darkness.

  • 9 10-03-2009 at 3:18 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Joel: I have and it’s mentioned in this piece.

    Tyler: It seems there are two alternate endings. The one you described is, I feel, probably the better one. The other one involves the police. But the one they have now is still…yeesh.

  • 10 10-03-2009 at 3:21 pm

    Chris138 said...

    I’m sort of picky with horror films, I don’t watch them as much as I used to (at one point a few years back, horror was my favorite genre). However, I do tend to watch horror movies more often in October and early November, just because it’s the right season. My personal favorite horror movie is a toss up between John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”.

    I also like Kubrick’s adaptation of “The Shining” but it’s not one of those movies that has a whole lot of replay value, in my opinion. Last time I watched it I felt it was twice as long as it actually is.

  • 11 10-03-2009 at 3:25 pm

    Joel said...

    Oh. Ha. Woops. Ignore me. Somehow my brain didn’t process that sentence, lol. Good, glad you liked it.

  • 12 10-03-2009 at 8:16 pm

    Sound Designer Dan said...

    Amped to see this. It’s great to see Candyman mentioned here because I lived only a few miles away from Cabrini Green when I was younger. I saw that film when I was 10 (at summer camp of all places) and I begged my mom to remove the mirrors from the walls. I saw the film again a year ago and while it’s still unsettling, I no longer found it terrifying. I found it even less terrifying after I saw it’s two horrible sequels.

    It’s nice you mention REC because I found that to be one of the most terrifying films of the last decade. It’s brilliance comes down to its ending. Throughout most of its running time, REC is a complete thrill ride but never scary. When the ending comes the religious aspect is introduced and things go from thrilling to absolutely terrifying.

    I think Netflix has REC. I do know that the Region 1 version was released months ago.

  • 13 10-03-2009 at 8:34 pm

    Andrew Webb said...

    I agree with Dan, [REC] is perhaps the scariest film I’ve ever seen and it’s all to do with the insane turn the film takes in the last 15 minutes or so (basically from a first person 28 Days Later to… I don’t even know). It certainly did not help me sleep the following week.

    I don’t know why exactly but it’s those handicam horror flicks that really get my pulse pounding.

  • 14 10-03-2009 at 10:07 pm

    david said...

    I agree that [Rec] offers some good scares.

    Alien hasn’t been mentioned (the chest bursting scene alone places it among the all-time horror greats).

    I’ve always like Jack Clayton’s The Innocents and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now as well.

  • 15 10-03-2009 at 10:37 pm

    Sound Designer Dan said...

    About Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now,” I LOVE Landis’ line about the ending (it’s at the ending of the video): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pUlASfXWiGA

  • 16 10-04-2009 at 8:09 am

    Chase Kahn said...

    Outside of the ending and a few scenes (charred photograph, convoluted backstory), I thought it was extremely effective.

    If nothing else, it proves that a time-lapse can be scary.

  • 17 10-04-2009 at 9:21 pm

    Michael said...

    Paranormal Activity in my mind is an epic achievement at one person can do when they set their mind to it. I know that sounds cheesy as hell but seriously, Oren Peli made a movie by himself with some of his friends in his own home and spent $11,000 to work on post production work so you couldn’t see any of his “special effects” (i.e. wires, fans, etc.) and there isn’t a moment in the film that you cannot feel the passion that went into the whole project. There is nothing remotely artificial about the film (except for the ending which is scary as balls but as was mentioned was a creation of the studio) and that was such a pleasant thing, especially for the horror genre. With all the slew of remakes and rehashes and reboots, it was nice to see something completely original (that was inspired by The Blair Witch Project for sure, but still) that had the power to completely entertain and (for the most part) scare the entire audience with images and sounds that felt so authentic, it was hard to deny its impressiveness. Not the best horror film of all time, but it was a lot more entertaining than The Blair Witch Project ever could dream of being, and in my opinion totally deserving of all the hype it has created. Even the marketing and release schedule ideas are interesting (if a little frustrating for people that don’t live in big enough cities), I was not let down at all and I had been interested in the movie since I heard about it on bloody-disgusting.com back in 2007 when it premiered at Slamdance. I had to drive two hours to DC from Richmond, VA (which I have never done before to see a movie) but there was such a great feeling in the audience about discovering something special that added another level of enjoyment for the entire experience. And honestly, there aren’t that many other movies I see coming out soon that can do that. Certainly not any “Oscar” movies coming out. Which is something that only really good genre films, especially horror, can do that very few other films can do: and that is to create something that many people enjoy but at the same can create a feeling in a person that they are the only kid on the block that knows about it, even if it has made millions at the box office.

    Woah, sorry for this insanely long comment, but as you can tell I am a very passionate fan of horror films. And, I just had to put my two cents in for a film that I think really needs to be seen everywhere, because I do think that Paranormal Activity is the real deal and something that true horror fans have really been hoping for for many years.

  • 18 10-04-2009 at 9:22 pm

    Michael said...

    *yikes, sorry about the grammar errors, if I could edit my comment I would but that’s how it goes.