Saturday, June 25, 2011

Boo! Guess Who

TS Eliot's line that any revolution in poetry must be a return to the ordinary applies to many other things. Take the horror genre. At the end of the 90s mainstream had become so self-ironic, its characters so self aware that an extended shot of a tapeworm of celluloid being sucked into a camera's arsehole seemed like the only new direction it could take. Then came the Blair Witch Project.

The BWP stripped the elements back until all that was left was darkness and unknowing. A trio of film students venture into a huge wood in pursuit of a local supernatural legend. They get lost. After the frustration of this, panic and infighting, the mysterious abduction of one of them, and the unyielding threat of the forest and all it might hide, they meet their doom. Are they being herded to it by forces unseen? Are they just driven to self-destruction by their own exhausted psyches? No answer from the film's abrupt ending. It haunts me to this day.

Fast forward to 2009 and Paranormal Activity appears with the promise of salvation for the genre from point-missing remakes, anodyne Dark Castle showbiz, and the safe sleaze of torture porn. One location, constant point of view camera by the actors. Darkness and offscreen sound. Simple elements handled well. It works a a point.

Young couple in a new house buy a video camera to pick up what they can of undisclosed weirdness that has been happening to them lately. The woman has already been haunted by an entity which is supposed by a visiting psychic to be a demon rather than a ghost and is associated with her rather than the house (ie moving out won't fix it). Well, the entity is back in town and the more attention they give it the more powerful it gets, from the padding down the stairs and swishing the keys from the table (which my cat could do) to the heavy metal thuds of a determined force of evil at the end. All the while the relationship between the couple is increasingly strained as they fight this thing they seem to know less and less about the more it reveals itself. This is good spooky stuff.

And the execution is expert. The diurnal scenes and any night scenes when the pair are talking more rationally are given rich DV home movie colour and feel safe and familiar. The real deal, though, is the blue and white of the night vision camera as it records the couple sleeping as the entity makes its presence known. The lower right hand corner of the screen during these sequences plays an increasingly important role in the evidence given the viewer as the vision speeds through the uneventful parts and slows to normal when something is about to happen. This and a title on the footage numbering the night of recording instil a sense of real dread.

The diabolical acts are also well conceived. What makes a demon scary? A flame festooned costumed and a pair of joke shop horns? How about a series of tiny acts that might be the normal sounds of people in the house if we didn't know we were looking at the entire household and they're fast asleep? How about the sense that each of these unthreatening deeds are the work of an entity testing its strength in the dimension of the living, getting more and more skilled in the world of its intended victims? All that from a few off screen sounds and a view through the bedroom door to the undetailed murk beyond it. There are some more sophisticated effects and they, too, are kept under tight aesthetic control. The sense is strong that you might never see the demon doing this but one slight glance of it would draw a scream or a gasp. I got a lot of real shivers down the spine during this film. I began watching it on a night when the winds outside raged and the hundred tiny sounds of an old house took voice. I stopped at a safe point and watched the rest during the day.

So that's all good, isn't it? Well, it would be but then the film ended. Without spoilers, this film's ending, a sudden jab of action, negates the effectiveness of the rest of it. It went from a genuinely eerie haunter with the added bonus of substance from the downward development of the couple's relationship (including an intriguing convergence of the two). All solid stuff and then it throws all of that away with the same kind of bullshit with which creatively impoverished writing teams have been stuffing the assembly line horror movies of the past twenty years. This film that, for almost its entire length, stuck to its very confidently loaded guns and successfully straddled the mainstream and guerilla filmmaking threw that admirable achievement into the s-bend in its final ten seconds. It turns every shiver and chill of the previous eighty or so minutes into waterlogged cheese.

Well, the dvd featured an alternative ending which was better but not much. Yet another described in the director's commentary which was better still but overdrawn. The commentary revealed something else that was spookier than anything in the entire film and it had to do with the film's fortunes as an independent feature doing the market festival rounds in its first release cut. Some very big names saw it and immediately mentally recast it with big name stars and higher production values which would have made it little more than a brushed off retread of Poltergeist. Wisely, this was defeated by another very big name who recognised the obvious value of a pair of unknowns in a verite horror (ie he had seen the Blair Witch Project). So it went ahead....except for that ending. No, that had to change. No numbing slow fuse like the anti-conclusion of Blair Witch which haunts across the decades. No, for this genuinely creative entry into a weary genre we get a big loud BOO! Roll credits.

Who was this force, this big name that engineered this creative gelding? Stephen Bloody Spielberg, that's who; the man who had already pillowed the breath out of every one of his proteges in the 80s (does Poltergeist look like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre to you?) so that their every film looked and behaved like one of his; the man who made JG Ballard into a Disney matinee, drained each drop of Alice Walker's power and rendered the Holocaust cartoony, goofy, cute and then washed himself with a vat of tears bought from Walmart. The director of Paranormal Activity thanks Speilberg in the commentary for his suggested ending and it is the sound of someone taking Satan's voucher, good for one career in movies, no unsightly low spots, no bothersome originality to clean up. The great moloch man at the end of the Hollywood foodchain who can turn inspiration into bubblewrap has struck again. I hate Stephen Spielberg.

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