Monday, November 09, 2009
It was an independent film made for a reputed $10,000 and it has so far raked in around 90 million dollars. Of course, it helps when you are receiving a boost from Steven Spielberg and the Dreamworks group. I saw the film, often compared to "The Blair Witch Project", mostly because both are horror films told in a crude cinema verite' style and both were commercially successful after being made for a pittance. Both films also were successful thanks to viral advertising as well as a lively adolescent audience who latched on to the storyline and let their imaginations provide what the filmmakers were unable to.
The British newspaper The Times, in an article by Kevin Maher, describes the initial screening of the film in Santa Monica, where teens were behaving in an hysteric manner. According to the article the audience screamed, some paced the aisles and others cried uncontrollably in terror. At the preview screening, according to the Chicago Tribune, several audience members left before the film was over. When the studio people interviewed them, they were told by those exiting that they weren't leaving because they were bored, but rather because they were scared.
When I saw the film this weekend, there were only a handful of people present, mostly teens. And listening to their comments afterward, they found the film horrifying. I stopped one of them and asked: "Why?"
"Because it's so real," she said. Her friends, two boys and another girl, nodded agreement. "It's like something that could happen. It scared me."
An adult who had watched the film shook his head as he left and said to his wife: "That was stupid. How boring."
Wow. I love when there is disagreement in response, but talk about opposite ends of a spectrum!
I found the film worthwhile. It wasn't especially horrifying, although there were creepy moments that had me on the edge of the seat. The story is about a couple who live in a suburban home and are experiencing supernatural events which, it turns out, are the result of a demon that has haunted the female protagonist since childhood. The skeptical boyfriend, who videotapes everything, tends to antagonize the entity until the nightly visits take a more horrifying turn.
What gives me hope is that the teens here were responding to storytelling and not to gore. They were responding to the elements of horror that should be part of every horror writer's bag of tricks: foreshadowing, the use of little things to imply the greater horror at play, the use of darkness as opposed to gore for the sake of gore.
Great film? No. Good film? No. Interesting film? Yes, if one pauses to consider what is at work sociologically and psychologically between the film maker and the audience.
Finally, let me suggest other horror films where no or little blood is shed and where the same elements are at work to scare an audience, and to leave a sense of disturbance long after the closing credits.
The Haunting--directed by Wise and based on a novel by Shirley Jackson, this original black and white version remains the most horrifying. Its use of shadow and camera angle are memorable and the acting is believable with real characters.
The Innocents-- The Turn of the Screw has been done many times, but the black and white version with Deborah Kerr remains the most effective. I still see the ghost on the island in the middle of the lake, a gray blob among the shadows, chilling because she isn't clearly visible and we're not sure what we are looking at.
The Exorcist-- While the shock value is there, the story itself remains effective. The idea of the corruption of innocence and the challenge to fate of the priest is psychologically compelling. And I'll add a vote here for The Exorcist III with George C. Scott.
Night of the Living Dead--- This started the zombie thing, but what works is the grainy film and the claustrophobia as the characters try to stave off the inevitable. George Romero has never been able to reproduce the effectiveness of the low budget production. Again, there is gore, but the gore is secondary or even tertiary to what is really grabbing the audience and scaring the heck out of it.