[3 March 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Brian DePalma deserves better. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that the legacy of Brian DePalma deserves better. If Internet rumors are to be believed, and Paramount has pegged the former member of the post-modern moviemaking b-Rat Pack (along with pals Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas) to helm the sequel to their gimmick laden hit, Paranormal Activity, than a clichéd sentiment like “how the once mighty have fallen” might not be strong enough. No, in this case, a more telling phrase like “you must be f**king kidding me” seems more apropos. True, the man has not made a ‘great’ film in nearly two decades (the last being, arguably, Casualties of War), but does that mean he has to play stupid second fiddle to an artistically inert found footage stunt?
While the report that began the speculation does cite that DePalma is simply “in the mix” (along with Wolf Creek‘s Greg McLean and Transsiberian‘s Brad Anderson), the notion that a filmmaker who was once at the cutting edge of onscreen suspense - borrowing heavily from one Alfred Hitchcock, mind you - would be part of said conversation is crazy. It’s like pointed to David Lynch and saying he’d be perfect for the Alvin and the Chipmunks tre-quel (which will surely be in 3D, one imagines). No one doubts that there are legitimate reasons for Paramount to pursue DePalma, and surely the aging auteur is looking to relaunch his name brand. But with an effort as artistically weak as Paranormal Activity, it seems like Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 all over again (and we all know how well that went…).
Besides, DePalma is no Joe Berlinger. From 1973 to 1984, the maverick unleashed a string of significant films that literally redefined old school Hollywood thrillers and moved them kicking and screaming into the fast-paced paradigm of the modern world. With Sisters, Obsession, Carrie, The Fury, Dressed to Kill, and Blow Out, he deconstructed the concept of dread, playing with and paying homage to the directors and archetypes that came before. Even when his experiments went a bit wacky - 1974’s musical mayhem Phantom of the Paradise, 1980’s one-off film school experiment Home Movies - he could be deeply satisfying. He reached a kind of cultural pinnacle with Scarface, a film that continues to resonate (albeit for reasons mostly outside what DePalma placed onscreen), and since then has been shuttling between mainstream hits (The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible) and outright disasters (the heralded flop The Bonfire of the Vanities).
Since the start of the new millennium, however, he’s been insignificant, his failures flying from personal (the awful attempted ‘comeback” Femme Fatale) to the big and broad (the equally unwatchable take on James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia). With his first person POV perversion of the Iraq War, Redacted, DePalma fell into the trap most high minded moviemakers find themselves in when dealing with the current military mindset - he turned the soldiers into psychos…and the audience into angry patrons. The results were amateurish and repugnant, proposed “guerilla” cinema at its most groan-inducing. While some saw it as brave and upfront about the atrocities happening with America in the Middle East, many wisely dismissed it as wrongheaded and hateful.
So at this point, DePalma needs some commercial brownie points. He’s been trying to bring the true story of The Boston Strangler to theaters, as well as developing a prequel to the Untouchables focusing on Al Capone’s rise to power. There’s even talk of a Phantom of the Paradise remake with updated musical scoring (poor Paul Williams). Looking over this shortlist of projects, one can easily see DePalma sitting back behind the lens and letting his knack for thrills and inventive borrowed action take over. The minute you throw Paranormal Activity into the mix, it’s like suggesting that Scorsese should helm the next Shrek. There’s a bizarre disconnect between subject, source, and supposed behind the scenes guide that makes little to no sense.
If DePalma is actively campaigning for the job, that’s one thing. Maybe he wants to take his time in Redacted even further, experimenting with the whole found footage ideal a bit more before abandoning it all together. Maybe he just wants to make a really intense and low key ghost story, Oren Peli’s haunted/possession premise loaded with what he sees as numerous expansive possibilities. Perhaps DePalma will be crafting the prequel, taking Katie’s crazed childhood and fleshing it out into a full blown Amityville-style spook show. There could be an entirely new idea on the horizon, something to do with the former couple’s now abandoned home, a new family, and a Poltergeist-esque run in with the resident demon.
Whatever the set up, DePalma could do a decent job - nay, even a good/great one. Why he would want to remains a whole other topic for discussion. At 70, he seems too old to be worried about his lasting legacy. He already has enough credibility from his work in the ‘70s and ‘80s to walk away a well remembered part of film’s grand growing pains. He’s been the subject of both ridicule and reverence, so it can’t be about his sense of celebrity. If he sees a real challenge here, something that speaks to his own look at the genre, why do so many in tune with his muse find it hard to decipher his intent? And if we are really going to see a Paranormal Activity title without the video camera conceit that spawned a mass hysteria media hype over how “scary” and “real” the experience was, is allowing a man who is known for his over the top mannerisms and often stylized approach really the right way to go?
We will have to wait and see how things pan out. Paramount wants their sequel in theaters in time to take on Saw for control of the Halloween horror movie moneymaking machinery, and this may present a problem for someone like DePalma. Unlike McLean or Anderson, who have tossed off low budget efforts in a matter of weeks, there’s a slow old school drive that comes from being in the business since the late ‘60s. DePalma might not be capable of a quick turnaround and there is a distinct possibility that such a short production time could hinder whatever ideas he brings to the mix. For the most part, his movies are carefully crafted and meticulous. Tossing off a Paranormal Activity redux may not be something he’s able to cheaply and efficiently accomplish. Whatever happens, as least Messageboard nation is talking about Brian DePalma again. That’s more than any of his recent movies have managed.