Tuesday, October 20, 2009
The Best Part of Believe Is Belie
When viewed primarily as a horror film about a modern-day demon possession, Paranormal Activity is satisfactorily thrilling. It is not exceptionally novel; nor could it be--not in the post-Blair Witch, post-Cloverfield era--but it is inventive and engaging enough on its own merits to warrant the $9 or $10 dollars of admission the recession-weary, Halloween-seasoned adult filmgoer will likely hand over.
To the credit of the director and the ultra-slim cast-turned-crew involved, the film consistently achieves a tone of impending, genuinely disturbing disaster. It is an escalating tone of hysteria that one too often expects of, but fails to find in horror films: a tone that begins measured and allows for sufficient levity along the dark, twisting, path of increasing psychological unease; with choice moments of comic relief, and at least one or two self-reflexive references to the inherent foolishness of the situation, all while staying well clear of obvious parody. (More inter-genre comparisons to follow below)
It's a first-rate directing job by newcomer Oren Peli, a former video game programmer who was, according to the IMDB boards, responsible for some super old-school stuff and the 1998 NFL Blitz-wannabe NFL Xtreme. Sufficed to say he has probably, hopefully, found his true calling with this movie. It is an enormous accomplishment to have created, as your first film, a work that is so broadly acclaimed, that has received enormous credit on all three primary fronts: commercial, critical, and indie--not to mention the fact that is falls in such an easily-dismissed genre. It will be especially difficult for him to follow up on such a culturally resonant movie even with the fuller budget and higher-production value that his next film has been allotted, but make no mistake, he's riding on a wave of goodwill right now, and well deserved it is.
According to interviews he's given, Peli's inspiration for Paranormal Activity came about when he moved into his first house from an apartment. The would-be director's imagination soon got the better of him, and he became suspicious of the unfamiliar noises he was hearing throughout the house at night, regular moans and creeks and wind and the ordinary big house noises, accented by the relative quiet of his suburban neighborhood and his unfamiliarity with the situation.. As he is quoted by Cinematical: " That's kind of what made me think how I would go about trying to figure out what's going on and being the techno-geek that I am, my initial inclination would be to get video cameras and set them up around the house to see what was going on. I didn't actually go ahead and do that, but that's what started making me think how freaky it would be if you had cameras running at home while you sleep and actually did catch something."
Thus, the premise that the movie--or the way it is being marketed, that it is instrumentally about demon-possession--is challenged, compounded by Peli's admission that it stemmed from his idea to construct a kind of CCTV security feed in his own home. The conception of the supernatural source behind the noises came about after Peli thought of setting up cameras everywhere.
The film's male-lead, Micah (pronounced Meeka, named for the actor who portrays him) is probably read by some audience members as a director-surrogate anyway, but that the film literally begins with the director's first thought should serve to highlight the similarity further.
The basic idea behind the surveillance experiment itself can be-read several ways:
Either Micah is compunding his girlfriend Katie's (and later his anxieties) by creating a de-facto "reality show" within their own home, replete with narcissistic self-examination and over-dramatization of otherwise mundane activities, which the liberal use of the camera for non-surveillance purposes would suggest.
OR he is using Kate's anxiety as an excuse to gain what he perceives to be more control over his "domain, Katie, which is evidenced by his reluctance to turn to outsiders for help and his possessive comments in the film, e.g. 'This is my house, you're my girlfriend, I'm gonna deal with this,'
OR he is adopting a position of modern, skeptical, quasi-scientific arrogance (indicated by his reliance on technology and the various pseudo-scientific experiments he conducts) in an attempt first to disprove, then later fight, an ancient, undeniably powerful supernatural entity.
OR some combination of the above, which you patient reader have probably already concluded on your own.
The second-to-last point is of special interest to me--One of the most persistent questions I found himself asking as the film drew to its close was why didn't Katie or Micah get ahold of a priest? Where was Father Damien?
The question is too-readily and unsatisfactorily brushed away by deferring to the two psychic-professionals in the film, one who appears on-screen twice and the other who is only mentioned. Of course, neither of these individuals proves particularly helpful, which would seem to support my initial conclusion that our doomed couple are atheists, equating organized religion to parapsychology: why turn to a priest why a psychic couldn't get the job done?
But as I mentioned to my friend Niraj, if our heroes are supposed to be modernists, then they would undoubtedly be acquainted with The Exorcist, or less probably Constantine (Hellblazer), or any number of other pop-cultural references to demon exorcisms wherein Christian religious rites prove at least moderately effective in dispelling demons. Few things bother me as much in movies as when characters conspicuously display lack of cinematic knowledge of the very genre used to categorize their own story. It is especially prominent in zombie films, very few of which even contain the term "zombie" at all. (Shaun of the Dead famously spoofed this tradition.)
Even if the characters are meant to be anti-religious, one would think that their worsening paranormal experiences would finally compel them to reconsider the merits of a man (or woman) of the cloth, or of any organized religious tradition for that matter. Plus, one of the film's penultimate scenes prominently features Katie clutching that overtly Christian symbol and exorcist-tool, the crucifix, indicating exactly the kind of desperate appeal to the protectorate-God I have been advocating.
Let's assume the movie isn't nominally an existential crisis or crisis-of-faith though. Accepting the miniscule budget, Paranormal Activity is not your standard horror-fare, to be certain. The obnoxious hyperactive, jump-cut editing of many modern horror successes (and I implicate the excellent High Tension alongside the atrocious Saw franchise in this regard) is nowhere to be found. But it doesn't exhibit much of the mythology of The Exorcist either, which Peli also cites as an inspiration, or even that of it's modern cousins The Blair Witch or Cloverfield, although it shares their shaky (some [old people] find it nauseating) camera-work.
Most useful to me is the fairly transparent but perhaps overlooked comparison to Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell, another movie about a demon pursuing a young woman's soul that came out in theaters earlier this year only to be forgotten all-too quickly.
Now, I'm not the biggest Sam Raimi fan, but I am a vocal defender of the guy's talents. I am proud to say I loved The Quick and The Dead and Spiderman 3, so maybe an uber-fan designation is warranted.
That being said, I wasn't particularly excited for Drag Me to Hell, and the film about met my expectations. But one thing the film did well is something Raimi has been known for since his earliest directing days- establishing and building upon a mythology of evil. Some would argue that it is the actually same meta-mythology across all his films, or at least all of his horror pictures; a mythology where possession, dehumanization, physical deformity and general mortal peril occur with startling regularity.
If that's the case Drag Me to Hell certainly ticks most of, if not all the boxes: The film begins with a seemingly bizarre but undeniably thrilling flashback in which we are first introduced to the film's antagonist, the Lamia. Later revealed to be a goat-like demon, the dark presence of the Lamia is immediately established as a powerful, capable threat; literally pulling its first victim, a small boy, through fissures in the earth down into a fiery hell. After the film's heroine is cursed with the demon, she desires the help of a psychic, much to the chagrin of her skeptical, philosophy professor boyfriend.
It's easy to draw the parallel here to Paranormal Activity, and tempting to go even further still: equating the message of both films as some sort of post-feminist critique of modern heterosexual relationships in which the woman feels so trapped by her surroundings, obligations and her patronizing mate that she is literally driven to a self-destructive mental breakdown. It is an undoubtedly interesting thought, and one that could warrant it's own blog post, but I'll spare you and leave that up to a more capable writer.
What I'm trying to get at it is that Drag Me To Hell exceeds Paranormal Activity in terms of it's commitment to developing a backstory, a compelling mythology. The former film's psychic, Rham Jas, is more than just a throwaway plot-mechanism; he's actually a really enigmatic guy who happens to have a lot of information and skill when it comes to battling psychic evil. Also eventually proven ineffective, his presence still makes the film more complete and in my mind, more authentic than the faux-documentarian gimmick of Paranormal Activity.
The world as most people know it, even atheists, is not irreligious. There is much folklore and superstition built up behind some of the most thoughtless of gestures, e.g. saying "bless you" when someone sneezes. Albeit, modern variants of archaic rituals don't function in the same way as they originally began, but my point is that it is a mistake not to play this up this mystical undercurrent in horror films, a point in which Drag Me to Hell actually does markedly better than most.
People make up backstories for everything in their lives. "Why the fuck did the elevator doors have to close on methis time, when I was running late to the goddamn presentation?! It must not be my day." It's called patternicity; the brain seeks to make order of arbitrariness. Especially in our reality-TV-obsessed world, the most ordinary occurrences take on a mythical quality. Everyone's relationship is Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra etc. etc. Everyone's worst day is the worst day in history, and now, more than ever they can and want to tell you about it.
But maybe this is why the demon in Paranormal Activity is so undeveloped. It's Micah's and Katie's story, after all--the story of their relationship--that should be most important to viewers. But what does it say about their story that they are so unwilling to look to others for help? To get rid of a fucking demon, no less. It's not like they have a bed bug-infestation or something. Although having experienced that myself, I might select the demon.
But there's a case to be made that the demon functions to some degree more like the shark in Jaws, as an evil presence rather than a fully-formed character. It too is both reviled and sought-after. Unlike Drag Me to Hell, where the Lamia was a clear menace from the get-go, Paranormal Activity's demon proves strangely enticing to the young couple, especially the brash Micah, who relishes baiting it, observing it, communicating with it, at least up until a certain point-of-no-return.
This, in-turn, raises a host of other spiritual questions: Why such an attraction to evil supernatural forces rather than "good?" Why would anyone entertain a dark non-entity for so long while denying even the slightest-possibility of salvation promised by the Christian faith? Or any other faith?
Perhaps that is the true dark genius of Paranormal Activity after all: the couple does believe in the presence of organized evil. The irony is that the force feeds off their belief and fear and eventually pulls itself together to horrific effect. If they were true atheists or non-believers, they'd be able to will the demon away by ignoring it, excusing it with other natural phenomena, and generallly not giving it the attention it craves. Thus, I think the movie suffers for a lack of definition when it comes to its own supernatural underpinnings.
Which leads me to my final, tantalizing observation: I think if you want to read Paranormal Activity as a metaphor for anything, it's not relationships or a lack of faith. In the vein of Requiem for a Dream, the movie really seems to be a dramatization of the dangers of chronic drug addiction. Think about it: Micah blames Katie for keeping her "demon" a "secret" from him and pulling him into her web of darkness and paranoia. Why does Katie get up so much in middle of the night? Insomnia is a common side-effect of rampant drug-use. Why is Katie so upset that Micah is filming them? Why doesn't Micah want them to "get help?" We hardly ever see them leaving the house, let alone going to work or visiting with friends. Katie's lone friend seems wain, pallid, and similarly mentally fuzzy. Could she be their dealer? The ending, of course, a tragic OD. And what about the white powder Micah throws all over the ground at one point? That's gotta be... OK-- that last one is a stretch ;-)
In Sum: A surprisingly taut, artistic and visceral film, with a disappointingly undeveloped backstory and unintellectual plot. Recommended, but with a note of caution--it can't possibly live up to it's marketing hype.