Horror movies don't really scare me. They can be tense or gross, funny or creepy, but it's rare when I lose much sleep over them. Paranormal Activity is different. Paranormal Activity is scary. Even if you don't believe in the supernatural, the film's brutally slow accumulation of suspense is enough to put even the most hardened movie goer on edge.
Another entry into the surprisingly fertile found-footage genre, Paranormal Activity follows the exploits of a young couple settling in to their new house. When lights start to flicker and the kitchen sink begins turning on by itself, day trader boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat) buys a camera to record he and his girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherston) while they sleep. What follows is an almost flawlessly executed accumulation of suspense. The camera never cuts away from Micah and Katie as they sleep (with their bedroom door open, who does that?). The clock ticks away the hours in fast motion, only slowing to the moments in the bedroom when something happens. The structure of the shot alone is enough to twist your stomach. On the right Micah and Katie lay asleep with the bedroom door on the left, with the open door and long hallway behind it making the composition structurally uneven. That void on the left opens up for nearly endless dreadful possibilities. The static image lingers to the point where even the slightest creak of the door or flick of a light switch is enough to send a shiver up your spine--and it only gets worse from there.
Paranormal Activity will likely never surpass "The Blair Witch Project" in terms of infamy or financial success, but it's by far a much more frightening experience. The movie doesn't have remarkable depth, and there is the occasional misstep (there's a scene involving a Ouiji board early on that goes comically overboard, and the movie would be better suited if it ended about 15 seconds sooner), but for the most part it stands out as a fun in-theater experience that creeps up the back of your neck like icy fingers.
On the opposite side of the horror spectrum comes the newly released direct-to-DVD feature "Trick 'r Treat." Originally slated for theatrical release in October 2007, director Michael Dougherty's feature length debut had trouble picking up a distributor despite receiving wild praise festival circuit. If "Paranormal Activity" is like spending the night in a haunted house, "Trick 'r Treat" is the equivalent to a high budget funhouse--or at least a kick ass Halloween kegger. The movie follows five interwoven stories that take place in a kind of Halloween dream-town where no one is without a costume and the trick 'r treaters stay out way past curfew. That is, it would be ideal the ideal Halloween town were it not for all the monsters and apparent gigantic murder rate.
In spite of the gore, nudity, and language, Trick 'r Treat almost feels like a kids movie. Sure it's violent and has the highest body count of children I've come across in a while, but its good natured vibe and EC Comics influence imbues the film with a childlike morbidity that captures the ghoulish spirit of the holiday.
It's common knowledge that killing a child is generally frowned upon, so coming up with an answer to Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's 1976 horror film "Who Can Kill a Child?" should be pretty easy. A psychopath, or a demon, or maybe an evil clown. But after seeing the movie, and understanding the characters' situation of being stranded on a small island filled with homicidal children, I found myself wanting to snatch the machine gun from the film's indecisive husband and show these fence sitting ninnies how to do child murder right.
Despite a rather odd extended opening highlight reel of the 20th centuries greatest tragedies, "Who Can Kill a Child?" is an excellent thriller that plays on the adult sensibility that children are incapable of holding evil in their hearts. The children hide behind the image of innocence. They may hang an old man up by his heels like a piñata and swat at him with a scythe, but what can you do to them? Punish them? After witnessing the twisted nature of the town's children, unlucky vacationers Tom and Evelyn still refuse to defend themselves. The children constantly dare the tormented couple to lash out against them, knowing that even under threat of death, killing a child, even homicidal ones that use human flesh for fishing bait, is an unforgivable sin. It may be the only movie in existence where plowing a Jeep through a group of 12 year-olds may the morally sound option.
The title for "Who Can Kill a Child" does the movie a disservice. I went in expecting an exploitation movie that revels in the death of innocent children, when it's really more in line with moody seventies fair like "The Wicker Man" or "Don't Look Now."
I've always liked Bill Paxton. He consistently shows great versatility, and is an agreeable presence even when starring in less than agreeable movies. His 2001 directorial debut, "Frailty," lets Paxton's talent really shine. It's a moody picture, with a brewing sense of dread that builds as the story unfolds. The film follows two boys (Matt O'Leary and Jeremy Sumpter) as they deal with their widowed father's (Paxton) apparent total mental breakdown. One night, their spooked father comes to them and admits that he's received a vision from an angel. The war between Heaven and Hell has bubbled over onto the mortal plane, and the Lord has chosen their family to take up the righteous cause of finding demons masquerading as humans and kill them with a holy axe. As their father starts bringing demons home to destroy, older brother Fenton starts to get worried when his father's demons actually seem more like perfectly innocent people dragged out of their homes by an axe wielding lunatic.
Paxton shines in "Frailty," as his earnest sense of duty to the Lord undermines any thoughts that he's completely cracked. But the story falls apart in its frame work. It's narrated by an older version of one of the brothers (Matthew Mcconaughey) as he confesses his father's crimes to an FBI agent. Realizing that viewers tend to be inherently skeptical of a man that chops people up with an axe, Paxton loads the framework with clues to push us into thinking that God actually had spoken to the boys' father. It strips away the carefully crafted ambiguity of the first part of the film, and, with the help of the kind of dubious plot twist that plagued thrillers of this era, made an otherwise affecting movie stumble over the finish line.
"Spider-Man" director Sam Raimi cut his teeth on the horror genre. Because of his early success with the "Evil Dead: Regeneration" trilogy, Raimi boasts an immensely dedicated, untapped fan base of horror nerds eager to eat up whatever bits of genre the director may drop. But since "Army of Darkness," Raimi had gone straight, only offering up his production company Ghost House Pictures and its catalog of crappy low budget horror. "Drag Me To Hell" brings Raimi back to his roots, and it's nice to see that he hasn't lost his eye for kinetic camerawork (Raimi brought back Director of Photography Peter Deming, who worked on "Evil Dead 2,") and ghoulish comedy.
After rejecting an elderly woman's request for a third extension on her mortgage, innocuous loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) finds herself with an ancient hex on her head. For the next three days, she'll be at the mercy of the goat demon Lamia before being carted off to Hell for the rest of eternity. Lohman endures a thorough Raimi treatment. She gets slammed around, covered in goop, haunted by a handkerchief, and called a whore by a talking goat. It's about as close as Raimi fans will get to an "Evil Dead 4," and after the ho-hum "Spider-Man 3," it reaffirms that Raimi hasn't lost his touch. Did I mention there was a talking goat?
Now. Onto some spoiler business.
I couldn't help but feel sorry for Christine. Getting pulled into the depths of perdition by the twisted, fiery arms of the damned for rejecting a mortgage extension seems way harsh. Sure, she tries to pin her curse on her boss, attempts to pass condemnation onto others and sacrifices her kitten to a goat demon, but you can't help but feel that she got the shaft as her bloodshot eyes bulge from her face while being pulled into a burning pit of never ending suffering. In interviews, Raimi reveals that he meant for viewers to identify with Christine, but firmly believes that she got what was coming to her. I can follow his logic to an extent. While, in the end, she recognizes that she had slighted Mrs. Ganush for her own gain, Christine only says this after she thought her soul was in the clear. Still, somebody needed to get dragged to Hell, and Christine's fire and brimstone fate makes for some potentially hilarious third-wave feminist arguments about women being condemned for having ambition at work. I look forward to your intelligent discourse on the gender politics of a movie called "Drag Me to Hell" in the comments section.
I originally intended to watch the Dutch film "The Vanishing" for this entry, but ran into complications when my copy of the film lacked subtitles. So rather than watching a taught, critically lauded thriller about a man's quest to find his missing wife, I ended up watching the schlocky, critically despised Tom Atkins/Bruce Campbell vehicle "Maniac Cop," a movie about a cop that kills people.
The film was produced by Larry Cohen, the man behind such highfalutin titles as "Q: The Winged Serpent" (about a winged serpent that kills people), "It's Alive" (about a baby that kills people), and "The Stuff" (about some stuff that kills people). Needless to say, it doesn't come as a shock that "Maniac Cop" comes across as a bit high concept. The problem, really, lies in everything being so middle-of -the-road. Cohen's movies have a reputation for their use of B-movie tastelessness to mask punchy political commentary, but "Maniac Cop" is about as subversive as a TNT movie. There's a death of the three B-movie essentials of violence, sex and humor in "Maniac Cop," which is a shame considering its potentially magical double billing of Tom Atkins and Bruce Campbell.
October 14 - The Mummy (1932)
Wrapping up this week (I am so, so sorry) is the Universal monster movie "The Mummy." Likely the most misrepresented Universal monster, Imhotep goes against the classic mummy image of an enshrouded figure shambling towards its victim with arms extended. Karloff's Imhotep sheds his pall quite early in the movie, opting for the more contemporary fez, which is, admittedly, quite dapper. After being accidentally awakened by a witless archeological assistant, Imhotep dedicates himself to bringing his former lover back from the grave. A conniving, deceitful character, Imhotep, like the rest of us, just wants to be loved, and damned if he won't kill a bitch to do it.
The brainless, shuffling mummy most people identify with doesn't appear until 1940 remake "The Mummy's Hand," and its subsequent sequels. Imhotep comes across as less of a monster and more of a deceitful plotter. Karloff plays Imhotep with a cool demeanor and his creepy glowing eyes undermines the necessity for a rotting appearance. For the brief period that does show Karloff in the mummy outfit, its craftsmanship stands out, and is impressive even by today's standards. According to Wikipedia, an extremely reliable, if not infallible resource, the make-up took over seven hours to apply, and the process involved setting fire to the cloth and treating it with acid. The results are probably the most successful thing about the film--a shame considering it's only seen once.
I'm tempted to call the 50s Hammer remake of The Mummy the superior of the two films. But for the life of me I can't remember what that one's about, what the mummy looks like, and how it ends. So maybe that qualifies for a tie.