No one likes getting cheated. It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you hate yourself for being stupid enough, or gullible enough, to overlook some obvious manipulation. You can’t stand the fact that something you should have seen coming 800 miles away somehow tricked you into averting your attention, just so it could steamroll over you with its obviousness. And then there’s the public perception, the knowledge that others around you are falling for this calculated carnival barking, unaware that when they actually walk into the filmic freak show tent, they’re not getting genetic mutations, but pickling jars filled with low rent medical refuse gussied up to resemble two-headed horrors.
Ten years ago, The Blair Witch Project was touted as the most horrifying film ever, a motion picture experience that rivaled then recognized fright night champions as Psycho, The Exorcist, Dawn of the Dead, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Initially sold as a feature made out of real found footage (the actors were not allowed to do publicity during its initial festival run in order to further the “they really died” dynamic of the narrative), websites and Sci-Fi Channel specials pushed the boundaries of purposeful PR ballyhoo. By the time the movie arrived in general release during the Summer 1999, audiences were amped to see a compilation of scenes from a failed documentary, the filmmakers finding themselves way over their heads inside a particularly sinister local legend.
Of course, none of it was true. The stars sat back and laughed, eventually coming out to prove they were still “alive”, while the websites and TV shows that fed the furor over the reality of the Witch mythos also revealed their fictional foundation. By the time the movie hit video several months later, no one still believed that three kids disappeared in the Massachusetts woods looking for a fabled female devil. Even worse, the movie played like a passing fancy, effective initially before devolving into a Borat like case of overkill. Today, it gets half the respect it once earned. And then there were some, like yours truly, who walked into the cinema with expectations the size of Suspiria, only to have the next 90 minutes play out like a bad case of Blind Man’s Bluff. Indeed, when the final shot settled over the audience that warm July day, a voice in the very back shouted out “Is that it???” Truer words have never been blasted at a blank film screen before.
Now we’re facing a repeat of that ridiculous mega-hype, an artistic situation that threatens to turn this Halloween into another case of huckster hokum. For the last few weeks, Paramount and Dreamworks have been “sneaking” the spook show thriller Paranormal Activity to eager audiences ready to experience “the scariest movie of all time” (hmm…where have we heard that before?). Internet addresses geared specifically toward dread are heavily quoted in said advertisements, suggesting that a new kind of creepshow classic awaits those who dare to enter their local Bijou. Campaigns have requested that fans in places where the movie had yet to open “demand” it be brought to their town, and a recent Twitter/Facebook faced strategy had the studios releasing the movie “wide” if one million people signed up for said strategy.
Apparently, every generation needs one of these experiences to remind them that William Castle and Kroger Babb did it bigger and better half a century ago. Since we no longer live in an era where movies are “roadshowed” (show in selected areas for long engagements before moving on to the next market), it’s hard to build such a potent head of spectacle steam. Word of mouth is now instantaneous, not passed over the backyard fence. Besides, modern crowds just won’t cotton to having actresses dressed like nurses in the lobby, ready to administer “emergency treatment” should a movie patron actually pass out or be “frightened to death”. It’s the old carny con man trick - promise them one thing, deliver something quite different - and in this case, what Paranormal Activity
pledges is almost impossible to provide, given the material that makes up the storyline.
We are introduced to a young couple who’ve decided to set up a camera in their bedroom, the better to document the strange goings on that have plagued their restless nights as of late. The woman is convinced that it is a reoccurrence of a “haunting” that happened to her when she was a child. The man is drawn to the possible notoriety and fame that might come from their documenting real live paranormal activity. Over the course of several nights witness strange noises and see unusual sights. By the end, the presence of something far more menacing has made itself known and our subjects are desperate to escape. But as we have learned throughout the course of this frequently unfocused film, rational human thought and the cinematic shell game can’t creatively co-exist. Naturally, logic loses out.
Because of its low budget trappings, so-so performances, and incredibly long slowburn set-up before anything remotely interesting happenings, some will have a hard time with this film. It’s an exercise in anticlimactic bait and switch that prepares for something it never plans of providing. Red herrings abound, from the entire exorcism angle (including mandatory webpage exposition), a psychic who’s too scared to stick around, and a creepy Ouija board sequence that draws some initial intrigue and then is simply tossed aside. The main scenes feature our couple sleeping as unseen footsteps plod along, doors open and close, lights flicker on and off, and other random noises disturb their slumber. There is a definite “seen one, seen them all” vibe to these night terror takes, a sense that given the small scale of the production, this was the best scares that could be achieved.
Others will feel like the riders on a shriek specked rollercoaster, their inexperience and quick ability to lapse into the contrivances of the narrative guaranteeing that the minute something minutely unusual happens, they’ll be losing their liquids in a quasi-cathartic recognition of the movie’s manipulative power. Director Oren Peli suffers from the constant camera movement shtick that more or less renders any attempt at suspense pointless, and the ending feels like a cop-out, an attempt to offer the patient viewer with the kind of slam bang selling point the rest of the movie lacks. Those long schooled in the ways of horror will see most of Paranormal Activity‘s gimmicks quite clearly. For others, this will be there monster movie war story for years to come.
Perhaps the saddest part of all the PR pandering is that we are so easily able to fall for it - AGAIN! It’s as if the Blair Witch never happened. Thirty years ago, people paying to see Last House on the Left were told to remind themselves “It was only a movie.” For many, that advertising tagline was more imaginative than the obvious exploitation effort on the screen. John Carpenter’s Thing was heavily promoted as a “double dare” title around specific adolescent demographics, a splatter showcase so nasty you were basically belittled into taking the potentially nauseating risk. When Witch was hailed as ‘the scariest movie ever’, it was doing so from a place of obvious novelty. Few films had used the POV perspective to tell their tale, and with the surrounding company gag order, many were still convinced the final film was actually real. Today, we see hundred of examples of this style.
No one will think Paranormal Activity is real. Even though it’s being sold that way (the film opens with the studio thanking the San Diego Police Department), it is an obvious ruse. The script doesn’t try to sound true to life. Instead, it follows the same haunted house elements that exasperate audiences who want the victims to wise up and get the Hell out of harms way. It’s funny to watch the studio sell it as a “group” experience, the hope being that by seeing it with a whole bunch of potential marks, a few of their jitters will rub off on you. Odd that they don’t use the same strategy for comedies or dramas (see “Precious” with someone whose shoulder you can cry on…). So the hyperbole’s been turned up to 11, pundit after macabre know-it-all arguing that William Friedkin’s Oscar nominated look at demonic possession is a fair comparison to this low rent clap trap. Right.
Of course, opinions are just judgments based on personal and collective outlook. But in a genre that’s more mocked than embraced, that sees so many shoddy examples of same that studios now longer screen them for cocksure critical cynics, Paranormal Activity is bucking the trend. It’s still being sold as a Mount Everest of eerie when its probably a Pike’s Peak of unfulfilled possibilities. Like the old cliché claims - fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice, shame on you. With the rare exception of the Spanish sensation [REC] , which actually used the fact that a patron actually soiled themselves watching the brilliant zombie effort, expectations rarely lead to realizations (it’s a great film - seek it out on DVD). Paranormal Activity will be the cause du jour for the next few weeks until Award Season proper kicks in. By the time Santa is sliding down the chimney, it will be in the same place The Blair Witch Project was post-release. Here’s betting that 10 years from now, something else will come along to render this cheat chuckle worthy. Until then, as Public Enemy would argue, don’t believe the hype.