Green Room

Bumping In The Night

posted at 5:38 pm on October 23, 2010 by

It’s almost Halloween, which means it’s time to harvest the fall crop of horror movies.  The most memorable scary movies are those which echo the fears of the moment.  The Exorcist arrived at a time of tension between science and spirituality, pitting a very modern single mom and her daughter against an ancient terror.  Halloween unleashed a faceless, unstoppable evil into the backyards and living rooms of a comfortable suburb.  Jaws reminded audiences that overcrowded beaches full of overfed tourists are but the top layer of some very deep waters.  The Blair Witch Project used creepy little twig dolls to teach a high-tech, know-it-all generation that old-growth forests still exist, and you can still get lost forever in their shadowy embrace.

The latest films to tickle our collective anxieties belong to the Paranormal Activity series.  The first is available on DVD, while second opened in theaters this weekend.  Our homes have become castles, fortified with giant plasma screens and high-speed internet, but the malevolent spirit haunting these movies walks right through our best electronic defenses.  It doesn’t even bother knocking until it’s already inside.

The central conceit of Paranormal Activity is brilliant in its simplicity: an average suburban family uses video equipment to capture the increasingly disturbing late-night adventures of a presence they initially believe to be a ghost… but which turns out to be something far more terrifying.  The first movie is filmed largely with a camcorder, set up to record the weird things that happen around a young couple while they sleep.  The sequel, which is actually more of a prequel, widens the scope to include footage from multiple security cameras, and ups the ante by placing a larger family in peril… including a baby boy who proves to be the main interest of the phantom intruder.

The goosebump factor of these movies should not be underestimated.  I saw the original on DVD, and the sequel in theaters.  It’s a lot more fun to see them in theaters.  Even if you have a little difficulty finding the chills in a door that slowly opens itself, you can surf the waves of tension rolling through the audience.

The reason so many people find Paranormal Activity scary is that it presents a familiar situation, which they can easily relate to.  You won’t have trouble replacing the sketchy characters with your own friends and family.  Everyone knows how unsettling it can be to hear sudden loud noises at three A.M.  Everyone has seen a baby or animal stare into empty space, and wondered what they were looking at.

We pride ourselves on the comfort and security of our carefully wired homes, and shiver at the thought of our privacy being violently invaded.  Paranormal Activity 2 begins with the family discovering an act of vandalism, which probably isn’t the work of the evil spirit – it’s too weak to trash the whole house at the beginning of the story.  It’s still a creepy scene.  I could see many members of the audience shifting uncomfortably in their seats.  A lot of us have been there.  The supernatural invasion of privacy which follows is a fantastic extension of a very understandable anxiety.

There isn’t a lot of plot or characterization in these movies, but the two husbands are interesting.  The male protagonist of the first movie is a man-child who attempts to appear courageous by taunting and provoking something he should be running away from.  The husband in Paranormal Activity 2 appears more capable at first, and has an engaging sense of humor… but when the situation deteriorates, he responds with an act of callous selfishness, a human evil to match the inhuman hunger of the demonic spirit.  Sure, he’s scared and worried about his family, but he’s still a complete bastard.  Not only are the two sisters at the heart of the story haunted by a creature of the pit, but they have lousy taste in men.

Part Two has some important differences from the first movie.  It takes a lot longer to get going, but once the spirit starts feeling its oats, things spiral out of control more quickly.  The new movie pushes a lot of buttons designed to manipulate fans of the original film, including a brief encore by the oh-crap-here-we-go video fast forward.  The multiple cameras allow for more elaborate storytelling, an opportunity not fully exploited by the director, but used quite effectively in a few scenes.  The conclusion seems rushed, and I found myself expecting a teaser for Paranormal Activity 3 after the credits.  Apparently, this evil spirit is only subtle when it has to be.

I liked the slow build of the first movie, but Paranormal Activity 2 may work better for some, because the climax feels so wild and out of control.  Like all horror films, it won’t work for everyone, but the popularity of the Paranormal Activity series testifies to a certain commonality of the horror it offers.  No matter how sophisticated and sturdy your home might be, you may still find yourself wondering what happens in the darkness around you while you sleep… or what your dog is barking at, three hours before sunrise… or why your baby is suddenly crying like he’s scared out of his wits.  The normal adult response is to tell the baby everything is all right.  Paranormal Activity thrives on the icy suspicion that you might be wrong.

Cross-posted at www.doczero.org.

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It doesn’t even bother knocking until it’s already inside.

Love that line. Great review, Doctor Zero.

Disturb the Universe on October 23, 2010 at 6:57 PM

What the hell? Every time I try to read this post I get this purple ad for Bloomberg that blocks the text, and you can’t get rid of it, for if you click on it you get a full page ad of Bloomberg shit. Well that’s one way to lose readers!

Dhuka on October 24, 2010 at 4:55 PM

I haven’t seen PA2 yet because, well, I have no one to go to it with. But I will say this about the first film: forget how predictably it played out, strictly as a movie. For anyone who has had any level of real-life experience with the supernatural at all, by far the most disturbing thing about Paranormal Activity was how accurate it was.

@Dhuka: Depending on what browser you’re using, NoScript or a similar plugin might be helpful.

Cylor on October 25, 2010 at 1:41 AM