The Convenient Coincidence

Most movies begin with a convenient coincidence. And as long as it doesn’t completely insult our intelligence, we as audience members will accept just about any inciting incident. A lonely boy befriends a gentle alien who didn’t make it back to the spaceship in time. An ordinary businessman raises his hand at exactly the wrong moment and gets mistaken for a spy. A down-at-heel boxer just happens to live in the city where the reigning champ is searching for his next opponent. This is what sets the story in motion. You don’t need a degree in film theory to instinctively know the conventions of storytelling. But subsequent coincidences, even just one, will test our goodwill. They are cheats, pure and simple. Deployed by the writer to get out of a tricky spot. Every movie gets one free pass, because that’s how it has to be. One should suffice. One is plenty.

Argh! You're breaking the fourth wall!

When I recently watched Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage again, after enough time had passed for me to forget some of the salient points, the same pesky conclusions came back to haunt me. For one thing, the story progresses too smoothly. Now, a sense of simplicity and orderliness is good. The many clunky flicks out there suggest that it is a difficult effect to achieve. But the advancement of a movie’s plot shouldn’t feel this unchallenged or easy. Well, that’s my opinion, anyway. The Orphanage really runs into trouble about halfway through, when main character Laura (Belén Rueda) just happens to see an old woman she’s been searching for right in front of her car, crossing the street. And this is in some snowy mountain hamlet, far from the seaside where Laura lives. Dude, what are the odds? Things aren’t helped by the abrupt and arbitrary nature of the sequence either.

Everything is spookier in night vision.

As has become customary when I dump on a movie here at OP-dEaD, I now come running to its defense. Because I really like The Orphanage. Rueda gives a superb performance, and the director skillfully utilizes the creepy setting. Also, Óscar Faura’s cinematography is really good. Few, if any, haunted house movies have ever looked better. Besides, if faced with a choice, I’ll usually take subtle chills and a mounting atmosphere of dread over blood and guts. The Orphanage is pleasantly slow, infused with affection and about as vulgar as a glass of milk. But a tasteful presentation doesn’t automatically bestow more free passes. The rules apply. The rules always apply. Want a haunted house movie that sticks to them? I’d recommend The Others or The Devil’s Backbone, both of which are splendido.

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Cheap Creeps

It’s possible that my recent dissection of Paranormal Activity came across as a tad harsh. Although I tempered the review with praise, the general impression was probably negative. I didn’t mean to imply that Paranormal Activity is a bad movie, because it isn’t. But even a brief inspection of proceedings reveals the forced plot mechanics cranking away underneath. As a consequence, Oren Peli’s debut doesn’t feel genuine. It’s a work of palpable fiction, slave to the same story conventions as a more traditional narrative. Unless you’re making anti-cinema that only people seeking refuge from the rain will see, that’s the tried and true way to do it.

But despite the touch of artificiality that all fake documentaries possess, Paranormal Activity is still creepy as hell. Though not the best new movie I saw this year, it was certainly the eeriest. Peli makes effective use of simple elements like a door, a light switch and a billowing blanket. (More “cinematic” ingredients, like the demonic footprints and Ouija board, aren’t quite as effective.) Additionally, the mundane setting heightens the tension. Many people, after viewing the film, go home to houses that look not unlike the one in the movie (Peli’s own). In the dead of night, do they wake up for no apparent reason, dreading the innocuous click of a light switch?

Peli is currently at work on an Area 51 movie, once again comprised of “found” footage but this time with a bigger budget ($5 million). I can picture it now—lab technicians ensconced in dark laboratories, panicked soldiers, shadowy hallways and a sinister, barely-glimpsed alien or two. Or perhaps something completely different. At any rate, on the basis of his debut, I’m looking forward to Peli’s next project. I just hope he doesn’t shake the camera too much, as that gives me motion sickness. Fat chance, right?

An Open Door is an Invitation

There are with every man at least two evil spirits.

– “Grean Tea” (1869) by Sheridan Le Fanu

Sometimes, however, one evil spirit is more than enough! But if you know that it likes to hang around in the hallway just outside your bedroom, why would you sleep with the door open at night? Oh yeah, because it looks nicer on the movie screen …

Close the door, I feel a (first) draft.

I finally saw Paranormal Activity a few days ago, and I can sort of understand what all the fuss is about. For one thing, it’s roughly a gazillion times better than The Blair Witch Project. The concept is creepier—not just closer to home but actually in the home. The acting is good, if a bit repetitious. The sound mix is less obtrusive. And there aren’t any close-ups of snotty nostrils, which is always a big plus. But Oren Peli’s $15,000 breakout hit is not above sabotaging itself, and we’ll get to all that in a mo. First, some good points.

Sensibly, Paranormal Activity begins after the supernatural disturbance has already been established in the suburban home of Katie and Micah (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat). There isn’t a lengthy buildup where the characters wonder what’s going on. They don’t try to rationalize the strange events that have already taken place. As Micah explains immediately, there’s a ghost in the house, and he has bought a camera to document the supernatural shenanigans. Sadly for the young couple, his inability to leave well enough alone will eventually lead to some serious unpleasantness.

Micah and Katie knew how to appreciate a good bedroom ceiling.

The first half of the movie is better than the second by a wide margin. By inserting important information in subtle ways, Peli establishes an early foundation from which to take proceedings into darker territory. I especially liked the visit from a levelheaded medium, played with calm sincerity by Mark Fredrichs. In this scene, Katie explains that a strange presence has followed her all through life, creating an occasional sense of unease but little else. At this point, Fredrichs drops a bombshell. He explains that the presence isn’t a ghost at all, but a demon, and since demonology isn’t his field, he doesn’t want to get involved. But he gives them the name of an expert, as well as a strict warning not to communicate with the presence. So far so good, both for viewer and characters. But the young couple never get a hold of the expert, and that creates a distracting expectation vacuum that’s never filled.

The presence of the camera is in itself a sort of invitation for the demon to become more active. Matters aren’t helped much by Micah’s propensity to shout out defiant challenges to their invisible lodger, along the lines of “Show yourself!” and “Is that all you got?” If Paranormal Activity has one chief liability, it’s Micah. He is a moron, and morons are commonplace in real life, but he’s just so conveniently moronic. In more ways than one, he’s a tool. At one point, when the disturbances are still fairly benign, he tells Katie about an anomaly that he’s recorded. Fair enough, only it’s about 1:30 in the morning, they’re in bed, and Katie is clearly nervous. Would someone, even a jerk like Micah, pick such a tense moment to announce that things might be getting worse? This is the exact point where the movie is hijacked by contrivance. Soon enough, narrative momentum is lost and never really regained.

She had a point ...

Some would probably argue that “narrative momentum” isn’t necessary in a “found” movie. As viewers, we pretend that these are actual events, compiled by the participants before things went horribly bad. Micah isn’t concerned with constructing a narrative, he just wants to capture some juicy footage. And he gets it. But a story must be shaped, because story creates emotional involvement, and that just doesn’t happen in Paranormal Activity. The events escalate, which is a kind of progression, but they escalate thanks to the writer/director’s labored methods. For instance, Micah’s commitment to his camcorder becomes hard to swallow. His dedication to documenting everything is at odds with his casual air. It’s just never established that he cares enough about the disturbance to merit such involvement. Even when a night’s recording yields some evidence of ghostly activity, he doesn’t seem particularly excited. (Sorry to be grumbling about him again, but Micah and the strained storytelling are two sides of the same coin.) His childish defense when Katie berates him for getting a spirit board, as well as the ridiculously comprehensive website he just happens to stumble upon, also stretch credibility beyond breaking point. So, is he a poorly conceived character, or is his inertia a deliberate ruse? I’m feeling diplomatic, so let’s say it’s a little of both.

I do like the reshot ending, which just so happens to be the brainchild of one Steven Spielberg. The very final image, however, is too Hollywood-y. It breaks with the general feel of what we’ve already seen. I’ve read descriptions of two alternate endings, and they both strike me as more true to the spirit of the movie. But in due course, I’m sure we’ll get a chance to see them on shiny disc. Perhaps the newest conclusion is the better one after all.

An alternate ending can be glimpsed in the trailer.

Sorry about the lengthy post, but I haven’t “OP-dEaDed” the blog in a week, so I thought I’d provide more bang for your buck. I’ll just wrap things up by saying that in its efforts to appear authentic, Paranormal Activity ironically becomes just as forced as the competition. Believability suffers for the sake of handy solutions. But I’d still recommend it to horror fans, as there are memorable moments and nice, disturbing ideas to enjoy. I did get motion sickness from the shaky camerawork, but that’s something that doesn’t seem to bother most people.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s Friday night and I want to watch a movie!

“Let … me … in!”

When I recently watched Poltergeist II: The Other Side, a childhood favorite that I’ve probably seen more times than the original, I was a little disappointed. I hadn’t seen it in 15 years or so, but I seemed to remember that Brian Gibson’s effort from 1986 was better than its predecessor. This impression was primarily based on Julian Beck’s outstanding performance as the nefarious Reverend Henry Kane. But my memory was wrong. While Poltergeist II is amiably ramshackle, it’s still pretty run of the mill, albeit marked by short bursts of Beck-related brilliance.

kane_mall

"Are you lost, sweetheart?"

A great performance can save an otherwise mediocre movie, and that’s exactly what happens in Poltergeist II: The Other Side. Although the rest of the cast is more than decent, Julian Beck almost singlehandedly salvages the movie. In only two scenes! There would have been more, I suppose, but he died during production, eight months before the finished product premiered. Oh well, lasting legacies have been built on less.

kane_freelings

The Beast makes a house call.

Kane is clumsily introduced. The very first time we see him, at an outdoor mall, he walks straight through somebody! It would have served the story better if there were some early doubt as to who or what he is. But no matter. Beck rescues the scene with his intense eyes, too-wide smile and oily charm. And of course, he sings that hymn: “God is in his holy temple. Earthly thoughts be silent now.” For some reason, it doesn’t take much to infuse religious music with a sense of wrongness. Beck’s delivery, however, is positively evil. You can tell that he’s enjoying himself, but there’s not a hint of ham. The menace is pure.

kane_screams

"You're gonna die in there! All of you! You are gonna DIE!"

In his second major scene, Kane turns up on the Freeling family doorstep, intent on wheedling his way into the house. And this is great stuff, undoubtedly the greatest scene in the entire Poltergeist trilogy. Beck, gaunt from the stomach cancer that would soon end his life, runs an impressive gamut of emotions. At first, he’s friendly and chatty. Too friendly. But once he’s left alone with Steven (Craig T. Nelson), Kane begins to prey on Steven’s insecurities. With feigned concern, he undermines the other man’s role as head of the family. Simultaneously pushy, incisively cruel, and persuasive, Kane gets under Steven’s skin with ease. Only the voice of Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) manages to break the spell, at which point strained civility loses out to the Beast. Thwarted, right hand pressed to the screen door, Kane screams that everyone inside will die, his face contorted in fury. Then, in a heartbeat, he is calm once again. With weary condescension, he places his black hat over his wispy hair and takes his leave. In the driveway, with a final wave, Kane fades and is gone. A fitting exit for both character and actor.

kane_waves

Farewell.

Note: Julian Beck wasn’t just the most memorable movie ghost of the 1980s. Read his Wikipedia entry, and you’ll see that fact is stranger than fiction. Much, much stranger! If ever a life cried out for a biography …

Pissed-Off Nazi Ghosts in Limbo

Yeah, I thought that headline might grab your attention. It’s been over a week since Halloween, and I still haven’t blogged about what I watched that night. Usually, for me, Halloween is a time for getting reacquainted with an old favorite, like the holiday’s namesake from 1978. The evening’s viewing, whatever it may be, functions a bit like a security blanket. Comfortable. Dependable. Guaranteed to please. Only this year, I did something different. I unwrapped the crinkly cellophane from the jewel case and popped a movie that I’d never seen before into the player—a movie that’s like a cross between Predator and The Fog.

a_shadowy_soldier1

Behind you!

Outpost is an ambitious little British title from 2008, about an international cadre of mercenaries in some unnamed Eastern Europe warzone. Ray Stevenson, fresh from Rome, is the steely leader of the bunch. Julian Wadham, meanwhile, plays the shifty engineer who hired them. Ostensibly, he’s looking for minerals. Actually, he’s looking for an old SS bunker—on behalf of some shady and very wealthy backers, naturally. The bunker houses a wartime experiment designed to produce invulnerable soldiers, and when the ragtag mercenaries find it, messy deaths follow.

a_shadowy_soldier2

And you!

I enjoyed Outpost very much, due in no small part to the impressively dank set design and lighting. The story doesn’t stand up to too much scrutiny, though. For one thing, the bunker seems to be located a short walk from a well-maintained country road. In all the years since 1945, no one stumbled across it and disturbed the ethereal Nazis who reside in the area? And the ending, in which the survivors decide to draw the undead troops into the bunker, makes no sense, since we’ve seen the specters in the grimy halls and quarters many times already. But these are minor quibbles if the viewer, like me, is just looking for some decent, well-made entertainment. With an orchestral score, no less. How often do you hear that in a low budget horror movie?

forest_silhouettes

The undead Nazis come out to play.

The characters are underwritten at the expense of story progression, but the acting is solid. And all the actors are British, which came as a surprise—Brett Fancy and Enoch Frost, playing Russian and African respectively, are quite convincing. And while the hulking Stevenson is an effective central presence, Paul Blair’s Jordan, the only soldier who dares to occasionally drop the tough guy act, makes a bigger impression. Thankfully, he makes it to the end …  almost. Jordan also has the creepiest scene I’ve seen in ages, when he goes, all alone, to check out a room full of German corpses. They are dead, right? Hey, get your mitts on Outpost and see for yourself. It’s got the OP-dEaD blood-spattered seal of approval.

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