Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Cure for The Common Gore Flick

Paranormal Activity is a good horror movie.

It is the best horror movie I've seen since The Ring, and it's scares did not only quench my thirst for terror, but restored my faith in the Horror genre. My faith in general is a rather withered and neglected organ, and the section of it dedicated to horror movies has grown particularly coarse and scarred thanks to Hollywood's recent offerings: uninspired remakes and torture porn. If you like sadistic, visceral scenes of mutilation, you do not only want another movie, you want a different website. Or rather, I want you to go to a different website. Now.

Torture porn fans are grossly unwelcome here because as far as I am concerned, their fetish flicks are the cancer that is killing Horror. Sadistic violence and gore certainly have a place in the genre, but I believe they are best administered in doses that have been carefully measured to provoke as much fear as possible. When violence and gore are taken to excess, we are no longer dealing with Horror, but it's daffy little brother, Camp, which I would argue is a sub-genre in and of itself. Planet Terror and Evil Dead are not Horror films for example, because they do not only invoke humor through horror, but prioritize humor above horror. There may be a few quick scares and gross-out moments, but on the whole the tone is light.

In torture porn, Brutality is the exaggerated element that brings us outside Horror's typical boundaries. The violence can be very innovative (the subgenre's sole virtue), but it is designed to invoke revulsion and disgust rather than fear. There is something of value in fear. It provides a test of ones' mental mettle that makes one aware of the presumptions which support his sense of security and how he copes when said presumptions are challenged. Put simply, it is coming to terms with uncertainty and the unknown. Disgust, by contrast, is the recognition of something that is familiar but unpleasant, and conquering one's sense of disgust simply means putting up with its unpleasantness. The difference between the two processes can be crudely illustrated by exploring a dark cave vs. learning to enjoy the smell of dogshit. I don't like the smell of dogshit, and I'm fine with not liking it. It's dogshit. There is no nutrition or rewarding stimulation to be derived from it, much like Hostel and any SAW title with a roman numeral in it.

Which brings me back to Paranormal Activity, a film at the opposite end of Horror's spectrum. It was made on a budget of nothing, with a cast of nobody, and it still manages to instill curiosity and fear in a delightfuly vicious cycle.

As you may have heard, the film follows a young couple who have recently moved in together, only to be bothered by things- or thing- going bump in the night, and the entire affair is presented as if it were declassified footage of a real-life incident, inevitably begging comparisons to The Blair Witch Project. I trust you good people to parse out the similarities between these two handy-cam horror shows for yourselves, though Paranormal Activity improves on it's predecessor in a number of subtle ways; most notably, it's use of stationary camera work. Almost all of the scary stuff goes down at night while the couple is asleep and we watch them atop a tri-pod in the corner of their bedroom. It may not sound like much, but the immobile perspective shifts our role from mere 'voyeur' to 'prisoner', or even 'victim'. We are not only forced to watch, but forced to watch from a fixed perspective. This sort of immobility creates the perfect climate for claustrophobia to fester and dread to take root in audiences.

Another substantial area of improvement is that the characters are very aware of the camera at all times, and they make you aware of the camera's presence too. In Blair Witch, I frequently found myself wondering, "Why is this being shot?" or "Who is controlling the camera?" and in PA, such queries are never an issue. Most scenes begin with a brief explanation of what we are watching, or about to be watching, and give way to either scares or an interlude between the couple. These interludes run the gamut from mundane and mildly humorous to wrenching shouting matches where we can feel the young lovers' union breaking apart like a limb that is slowly, but insistently being bent against its joint. The initial tension exists within the camera itself, as the young belle is exasperated by her beau's desire to film her at all times. This conflict is the emotional core of the movie, and one gets a clear impression that even if the haunting were to suddenly cease, the young couple would have a few demons yet to face.

And at the expense of a mild spoiler, I will tell you that this is a movie about demons as opposed to a movie about a haunted house. Fortunately, it is a very good movie about demons. In fact I would go so far as to declare Paranormal Activity the natural heir to The Exorcist's dark lineage. You'll have to pardon my purple prose; that film made an impression on me which has yet to fade, despite countless re-watchings and horrendous sequels. The thing that links both movies is not their similar subject matter, or even their sense of claustrophobia, but the way they draw from deep-seated belief to instill fear. There is an impressive legacy of fear surrounding the concept of possession that reflects something primal in human nature. By tapping into that heritage, the superficial details of the haunting gain the rumbling momentum and cold impact of a snowball that has been rolled down a glacier.

Having extolled such high praise, I must confess that I wanted a little more from Paranormal Activity. Ever since the original Exorcist scarred me as a child, I have been waiting for another film to surpass it. This film held such promise, as did The Ring before it, but it did not escalate quite enough to seal the deal. Once again, you will need to excuse my personal fascination, and keep in mind, I have already met people who found PA far more terrifying than The Exorcist. If your looking for a scare this Halloween Season, why not give it a watch and make up your own mind?

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