Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity proved a point that I always try to make in my creative writing classes: form must have function, form is not the same thing as story, and (finally) form should be used in service of story and not the other way around.

Here’s what I mean by that. Paranormal Activity is an extremely frightening movie that (much like Blair Witch Project) uses the gimmick/form of hand-held camcorders to tell the story of a young couple terrorized at night by some sort of paranormal activity. They set up cameras in the house to observe what happens when they fall asleep. The result is absolutely chilling, and the movie is brilliant in how it develops each of its scares. We watch minute after minute of…well…nothing. People sleeping. But the dread comes from a sense of inevitability, that something will happen to this couple, and that they (asleep) are powerless to prevent it or even to act upon it. Even when it’s just a door closing, the use of silence, build-up, and character vulnerability are all exploited to amazing results. The format of camcorder footage also prevents the audience from ever leaving the scene, too, so we can’t go outside and catch a breather; we’re stuck in the bedroom, or in the house, at all times.

But there also comes a time in this film when form is no longer necessary, and when it actually prevents us from concluding the story in a satisfying way. The same was true of Blair Witch. At some point, if we are to resolve the conflict and we are to come to a non-manipulative and honest conclusion to the story being told, we need to put the cameras down. But this film makes the stubborn choice of putting form over function in the last five minutes, continuing to use the camcorders when it would be more helpful for the story if they hadn’t. The result is a terrible ending (like Blair Witch) that doesn’t seem true to the story that came before. It changes or ignores the rules set earlier in the movie about the paranormal activity itself, and concocts a cheap final scare to simply distract us from questioning the internal logic. (If you’ve seen the movie, answer this question: if “possession” and death were the ultimate goals for the demon, why spend a full month working up to that point? Hell, why spend an entire lifetime haunting someone only to possess them one random night, out of the blue?)

The same was also true of Cloverfield, which killed its characters in the final frame. It’s a lazy ending to an otherwise skilled and scary movie.

To see how someone uses form in service of story, but then changes form when the story demands it, see Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, which begins with the same camcorder gimmick, then zooms out in the final act to show all the things that the camcorders wouldn’t pick up. Brilliant.

Mirrors, Internal Logic, and the Desires of Ghosts

There are two types of horror films currently being produced in Hollywood. The first is the gritty and violent “torture flick,” a sort of pornography that asks viewers to squirm and cover their eyes as it devises increasingly painful and creative methods of maiming, injuring, and killing the on-screen victims. This type of film is best exemplified by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Saw franchise, but includes such other films as The Devil’s Rejects and Hostel and Wolf Creek, movies that (for the most part) offer us about twenty minutes of solid character development, then forgo any further story or character development to instead plunge into gruesome violence.

The other type of horror movie in Hollywood, this one likely nearing the end of its run, is the “Japanese-inspired haunting mystery,” and is best exemplified by movies such as The Ring and Dark Water and The Grudge. These movies are usually intensely dark and dreary, open with a frightening sequence in which some character is killed in a strange and intriguing supernatural way, and then follow a different character as he/she slowly enters into the same horrifying world that consumed that now-dead character with whom the film opened. The movie functions as a mystery, also, with the protagonist besieged by strange events that all ultimately add together as clues and reveal some person wronged, killed, and now “out to get” certain other persons in the aforementioned supernatural way. The movie usually ends without a happy ending.

The reason that this type of movie is about ready to fizzle out is this: the formula is not only obvious, but the flaws are becoming increasingly obvious, as evidenced by Mirrors.

First, Mirrors introduces us to a frightening concept and pulls us in: the images in mirrors are not out own, and can physically harm us! Pretty creepy, right? Except that (just as in the best movies of this sort, like The Ring) there is no internal logic to the concept. At some points, the images harm the characters. At others, they simply communicate. Sometimes, they can harm the character even while the character isn’t looking, or isn’t in the mirror’s reflection. Other times, they can be stopped when a character walks away from a mirror, or covers it. Sometimes, they can reach out of a mirror and grab someone. Other times, not so lucky. And then there’s the problem of “reflections.” Sometimes the movie asks us to believe that mirrors are the sole source of danger, and other times, reflections (glass, water, metal) are also deadly. The movie is built around creating scary scenes (as if the director simply brainstormed ways that mirrors could be scary), not around any established particulars or rules of the haunting at the movie’s center. This is like a space travel movie that sometimes asks us to believe people can breathe in space, or that there is gravity in space, only when it is appropriate to create an interesting scene, then changes its mind when it wants to put its astronaut characters in danger.

The other major problem with this type of film is this: the ghosts (or demons, or spirits, or whatever is the cause behind all the hauntings and mysteries) always want something, but their actions do not match their desires. For instance, in The Ring, the little girl wanted to escape the well, right? So why did she keep killing all the people who could potentially solve the mystery? And in Mirrors, the demons in the mirrors keep writing “Esseker” in the glass, prompting victims to search for something or someone named Esseker. If they can’t find this person or thing, the mirrors kill them and their families, etc. Kiefer Sutherland is able to deduce that Esseker is a person, and finally finds her, and we learn why this person is important to the mirrors. But…if the mirrors truly wanted this woman, why couldn’t they have been more specific? They have the power and ability to write a last name, but not a first name? And not to give just a hint of direction (Hey Kiefer, “Esseker” is a woman, and you can find her at this location!)? Do they really want to accomplish their mission, or would they rather just kill and cause mischief among the people who can help? If this was a frat boy ghost, I can see the appeal of committing pranks…otherwise, though, once you ask “What does the haunting want?” in a movie like this, you start to realize how ridiculous the entire premise really is.

Mirrors provides a few scary moments, but it’s so convoluted and stupid that you forget about those scary moments, or laugh immediately afterward, because you realize how pointless the whole thing is. Wow. Never thought I’d say this, but this film makes torture flicks look good.

The Strangers, Tension, and Dead Protagonists

The Strangers is an absolutely terrifying film for about an hour, but it also created an almost unbearable experience in the theater: people laughing during quiet and frightening scenes, audience members shouting comments.

It was annoying and rude, sure, but regardless of what any of these idiots would tell you about why they were laughing or shouting comments, the reason behind the stupid behavior is simple: tension relief. You crack a joke because you can’t handle the unbearable tension that the director has created. Someone shouts “Turn around!” when the protagonist doesn’t notice the killer creeping up…not because the protagonist is stupid, but because you want the tension to be relieved. You can’t handle the feeling of powerlessness. You need to do something.

This film is like the ascent in a roller-coaster. It sounded like a good idea before you got on. Then you were strapped in, and now there’s no getting out. So you scream to pretend that you’re not scared.

Of course, that’s just the first hour. Then (spoiler alert) the characters are killed. After a torturous experience, they die.

Um. All right?

This film was expertly crafted, and was amazingly scary…but when a horror movie kills off its main characters, it is essentially telling us that all is for naught. We just witnessed an hour and a half of mindless torture for no redemptive reason.

This, consequently, is the reason why Hostel, despite its flaws and its gratuitous violence, was so successful. The protagonist suffered, certainly, but lived to tell about it. If the protagonist does not live to tell about it, then all we’ve watched is a murder. It might have been terrifying twenty minutes prior to the murder, but now it’s just sad and pointless. Good stories show us characters who get the shit kicked out of them, but somehow come out of it all. Changed, yes, but still alive at least. When a horror movie kills its main character, it is taking the easy way out, and it is not as successful as it could have been. Think, for instance, if the characters in The Strangers had both survived, and the killers had escaped…we can picture the ongoing fear of the rest of their lives…always looking over their shoulders, always afraid to be alone. At least The Mist, despite a contrived ending, allowed its protagonist to survive so that he could confront his horrible personal choices after the terrible experiences were over.

When all of the characters are dead, we just sort of shrug. Pointless.

I understand there’s a question at the end of this film as to whether the characters actually survive. This is a frustrating question to ask for the following reason: if they don’t survive, the whole experience was pointless (as I’ve said). If they do survive, then the story isn’t over. Why keep us in the dark when there’s more story to tell?

The Strangers is definitely worth seeing, though, despite an unsatisfying ending. I haven’t seen cinema so frightening in many years, and it’s a case study in the creation of tension.

The Dark Knight, and a Conflict: Realism vs. Escapism

You can’t have it both ways.

While I really fell into this movie as I was watching it, and I still appreciate Nolan’s amazing direction (and the effort and energy each actor brought to the film, from Bale’s goofy playboy, to Ledger’s darker and more twisted Joker) and the sharp cinematography and exciting action sequences, there’s a strange cinematic conflict at the heart of The Dark Knight. It wants to be a superhero movie, but it also wants to be a dark and realistic piece of art that critics and audiences take seriously.

But you can’t be both. If you make it a point to be a superhero movie, you can’t be realistic. You can be dark, sure, but not so dark that–as each character dies–we stop having fun. This is not a story intended to capture the dark spirit of our times. This is a movie based on a comic book. At its heart, there is a dude wearing a fucking costume.

In one scene, we’re expected to believe that Bruce Wayne has programmed every phone in a 20-million-person metro area to act as a sort of Bat sonar. We’re in the realm of the fantastic; we’re in a superhero movie, where anything is possible. In the next scene, though, cops are dying in bloody, gruesome, and overly realistic ways. In a movie where Batman can fly from a high-rise in Hong Kong, or can fall fifteen floors without so much as a scratch, we shouldn’t have such feelings of depression and despair. We can’t switch from escapism to realism and expect the viewer to take it all seriously.

Consider this: in a movie where the realism is sometimes so brutally tight, where characters are so very capable of dying, the entire city should not be exploding…the entire population should not be cowering indoors. Who, seriously, would ever live in Gotham City? Even the black tie galas, full of millionaires, are infiltrated by gun-toting thugs! Including the events from Batman Begins, there’s a 9/11-style terrorist act in this city every week! It’s just too much darkness, and the darkness is too realistic. And it’s unremitting, unbearable.

Like I said, I thought this was a well-made and exciting film. But it’s also deeply flawed. Call me crazy, but I found Iron Man and Spider-Man to be perfect superhero films…they realized that their subject material was anything but realistic, and they didn’t try to make it realistic. (In the process, also, I think both of those films even captured the spirit of the times much better, too!)

The Dark Knight, though, wants to enjoy the benefits of escapism and “suspended disbelief” that superhero films offer, while also enjoying the emotional benefits of dark, highly realistic crime and war movies. And sorry, you can’t do both. After it was all over, this movie just left me with a strange sort of hang-over: the realism is devalued by the escapism, and you just start to wonder what it was all hoping to accomplish.