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.


SQT said...

I've notice the "Paranormal Activity" on the net, but it's not the sort of thing that interests me. My sister-in-law saw it and kept saying how scary it was. I was skeptical then-- and even more so now.

Charles Gramlich said...

So the teens were buying it. They're still closer to the bone, still living with an imagination that hasn't partially atrophied. Good point about the storytelling. I think you're right.

Akasha Savage said...

Mmmm...a good post.

Did you know that there is no blood seen in the shower scene of Psycho, altough most people swear afterwards they've seen the original Chain Saw Massacre, if I rememeber correctly.

Akasha Savage said...

...or, even, remember correctly!!

Rick said...

Crap, we've got to get a camera, write a thin storyline, and start filming. I'm thinking "Supermodel Zombies" might be a winner. Maybe not.

Avery DeBow said...

I do enjoy horror movies where you never see/barely see the villain. I remember how badly The Entity messed with my head when I was younger--imagining a foe I couldn't can't shoot, stab, electrocute... That was what made the movie horrifying for me. Not being able to fight back taps into most people's darkest fears.

As for the husband, that's what he gets for provoking a demon. You just don't do it.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I would be skeptical. It's watchable and provides some scares. It's just not all that and a bag of chips. But then few horror films are.
It's interesting to see what teens are working with. I love them.
I knew that about Psycho. Great film, isn't it?
This is like the ninth time I've seen you mention this title, either on blog or in email. I'm a bit concerned now. It makes you sound a little like a Mr. Sawyer we know.
Clearly, justice is a core value in our country and in many countries around the world. However, asking students to write about such a complex concept while participating in a high-stakes test is a questionable approach to teaching, testing and learning.
When you see this film, you definitely come away with the feeling that he got what he deserved.

L.A. Mitchell said...

The Haunting sounds great. I'll have to see if I can find that one.

I haven't seen PA yet, but wanted to. Thanks for the review :)

Anonymous said...

I heard an interview on the radio with the lead actors. Apparently, when the film came out a few years ago, it was marketed as being real. I guess Spielberg was having none of that. He also allegedly chose the ending. There were supposedly two endings that were being alternated when the movie first came out, according to the interviewer (I don't know how reliable radio hosts are).

Anne Spollen said...

Responding to the story telling? I LOVE that idea.

This movie is all over myspace -- and the cafeteria. Best advertising on the planetl

Vesper said...

Interesting review and also interesting the difference in reactions. I wonder if it's just the age difference or if it's more of a difference in conceptions, that occurs regardless of physical age.

I too prefer horror that's more in the suggestion than in the actual gore... I find it more likely to haunt you even after you've stepped outside of the film's world.

Stephen Thor said...

"Night of the Living Dead" came out the same year as "2001," "Planet of the Apes" and "Rosemary's Baby." Despite my deep, deep fondness for "Apes," no movie on that list has had the cinematic impact of "Night."

(Don't get me started on "2001.")

Stewart Sternberg said...

When watching The Haunting, keep in mind that it was done in the early sixties. Its approach is more subtle and careful than the blast it and blow it up sequels and stuff we see today.

I have been writing gore recently, although I prefer a subtle approach. I sometimes think there's this interesting continuum where we're catching a net to sweep in a broad audience.

Now that New Moon is out, the teen population will soon forget Paranormal Activity.

I'm not sure I would agree. I think each has had its affect. 2001 opened the door for science fiction to appeal to an adult and intellectual audience. Its effects, thanks to Trumball were astonishing and they obviously influenced the likes of George Lucas, who influenced science fiction and fantasy like a tsunami, regardless of the obnoxious prequels.

Bernita said...

I saw The Haunting years ago while at university and I agree.