Paranormal Activity

The 5 films which (most) ruined found-footage horror


the devil inside

Found-footage is a much loved and much used technique in horror cinema. Done right, it can be hugely immersive and really add atmosphere to a story. In the same way as video games, it puts the viewer in the story.

Unfortunately, it isn’t always done right.

The recent ubiquity of the format has led to a bit of “found-footage fatigue“. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the technique, but some filmmakers have hit upon it as a rubber stamp for a good film, or — worse — a cheap-and-cheerful get-rich-quick scheme.

So here is my rundown of five of the worst, which have played a larger part than most in the wrecking of the genre.

Read on…

Heresy of the Week: In defence of endings


money fort unfinished peter jackson CAD

Heresy of the Week is a (mostly) weekly spot in which I entertain some of the unthinkable notions of geek-culture. The arguments I put forward are not always things I personally agree with, but often rhetorical devices designed to force myself (and maybe readers) out of the boxes which fan discussions can get caught in. But that aside, feel free to get yourselves worked up and your knickers in a twist if you really want to.

This week’s heresy:

With series increasingly in vogue in film, TV, books and games, the value of a satisfactory sense of finality has gotten lost in the mix. Branding and marketing weight wins over story, meaning that ideas get flogged well past the point where they should be laid to rest.

Read on…

Insidious: Chapter 2 – A Review


insidious-chapter-2-poster

So here we go again. “From the makers of Paranormal Activity. As introductory legends go, it’s up there with “Based on a true story” for ability to make me sigh and roll my eyes like the weary old cynic I am.

Insidious: Chapter 2 is also from the makers of The Conjuring — which I haven’t seen, but is going to have to be fairly outstanding to blot out the stain of the Paranormal Activity behemoth — and, of course, Insidious.

I did actually see the first film, and had fairly mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it built tension quickly and effectively with some neat tricks involving suggestion only of the big bad. It then went and spoilt it all by forgetting that subtlety in a sequence I tend to think of as “escape from wacky warehouse”.

So did the sequel do a better job?

Read on…

Heresy of the Week: Mainstream cinematic horror has stalled


American-Horror-Story-Asylum-S2-Poster-2

Heresy of the Week is a (mostly) weekly spot in which I entertain some of the unthinkable notions of geek-culture. The arguments I put forward are not always things I personally agree with, but often rhetorical devices designed to force myself (and maybe readers) out of the boxes which fan discussions can get caught in. But that aside, feel free to get yourselves worked up and your knickers in a twist if you really want to.

This week’s heresy:

Horror is one of the longest lived and most popular genres of creative work, but in recent years it’s film branch has started to atrophy. Tropes which formed a basis have become a crutch, and the horror film industry has lost its traditionally innovative flare, favouring the familiar and missing the point of what horror is — bequeathing its legacy to the smaller screen.

Read on…

Silent Hill Revelation – A Review


The problem with adapting things like Silent Hill to cinema, is that you’re never going to get it really right. The Silent Hill games (SH2 and SH3) are some of the best horror experiences that I’ve had, and part of that is down to the immersive and claustrophobic atmosphere. It’s something which is always going to be less effective on film, and whilst I’m sure that in the minds of filmmakers 3D is meant to address that problem, it really really doesn’t.

So whilst I sincerely hoped that Silent Hill Revelation would capture the true spirit of the games, I had mentally prepared myself for extreme disappointment.

I think it’s for that reason that Silent Hill Revelation got off fairly lightly. It was a long way from perfect, and certainly wasn’t the Silent Hill that used to terrify and excite me in equal measures. But I left the cinema a lot happier than I had expected to be, which is about as much of a win as it’s going to get.

Following on from the first Silent Hill film, SHR adapts the video game Silent Hill 3, and sees Heather/Sharon/Alessa/you get the idea (Adelaide Clemens) return to the eponymous town to save her father Harry/Christopher (Sean Bean), kidnapped by the creepy cultists who weren’t quite gotten rid of in the first instalment. Along the way she’s joined by Vincent (Kit “Jon Snow” Harrington), and pursued by all the traditional horrors of the franchise (and Carrie-Anne Moss).

The names thing is a touch confusing, prompting a tongue-in-cheek admission from Heather:

Names don’t really matter.

There are some major drawbacks to the film, which seriously damage its enjoyability. Chief of these is the script. I don’t know what happened to all the horror scriptwriters who can actually write good dialogue (maybe they got really drunk at a party and annoyed everybody?), but this stuff is dreadful. There’s hardly a line which didn’t make me cringe, and the best sequences were the silent ones.

Linked to that, there were two other points. Firstly, don’t make Sean Bean do an American accent. He can’t — it comes out as butchered Scottish. Let him do his thing in full-bodied Yorkshire, and be bloody well happy with that. Secondly, nobody does good exposition any more. I get that some people will be confused if you don’t have the characters laboriously explain everything which happens, but really? The whole scene with Harry and the mirror (not to mention the woeful conclusion speech)  was unnecesary, and clunked like an old man with two wooden legs.

Finally, the mannequin creature. Picture, if you will, General Grievous from Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith by way of the robot from I, Robot, and you have a sense of how ridiculous this was. I personally find mannequins quite scary, but this was just daft. Added to the fact that it didn’t fit with a compendium of fleshy and organic monsters, and it felt like a Lego construction squatting on the film like…well, a giant mannequin spider.

But as I said at the start, it didn’t disappoint as much as I’d feared. Part of that was that someone had clearly actually played the games beforehand, and it was peppered with little references for fans. Pyramid Head is a long way from his original purpose, but they gave him a new one and he was at once scary and sympathetic, which is quite impressive. He’s a different beast to his one initial incarnation.

And the end makes mentions of some of the other Silent Hill games, which is sort of nice, but also like erecting a sign saying “Look, we’re based on something!” And still nothing of the best of the lot.

In summary, it was a distinctly average film to me. It avoided some of the potholes it could have fallen into, but only succumbed to even more obvious ones. It could have been better, but so too it could have been much, much worse. And I’d still far rather see this than yet-another-bloody Paranormal Activity film.

Sinister – A Review


Sinister [2012]

Sinister. In many ways, it seems almost arrogant for a horror film to title itself after an attribute it aspires to. I get that it’s trying to evoke something, but if it is Sinister then surely the film itself should demonstrate that, not some haphazard and heavy-handed marketing label slapped on the front like a “May Contain Nuts” sticker.

So is it, in fact, Sinister? Well…no.

That might be a touch cruel, as it wasn’t a complete car crash of a horror film (it wasn’t, for example, part of the Paranormal Activity franchise). And, in fact, there were a lot of things that it did rather well. But the fundamental feeling I was left with was one of disappointment.

Part of that might have been the circumstances in which I saw it. It’s truly great, in these austere times, to see a cinema packed out. But really, when Satre said that hell is other people, he was onto something. A cinema packed with the sort of people who find everything frightening simply because it’s in a horror film, is not conducive to a good film experience. They were screaming at the name of the studio, for God’s sake!

But as for the film itself; it follows true-crime writer Ellison Osborne (Ethan Hawke), who moves to a small town with wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and children Trevor and Ashley, in order to write his new book. They’ve moved into a house where the previous resident family was found hung from a tree, and the youngest daughter vanished — something which he hasn’t told Juliet. He then finds some Super 8 films depicting that same murder, as well as a series of others back over a period of decades. His attempts to solve the mystery then lead to various spooky and supernatural goings on.

It’s a pretty innovative approach to reinvigorating the whole “found footage” genre of horror, which has grown someone stale and overworked lately. And, actually, the murder films are genuinely creepy and unsettling — the one labelled “Lawn Work” in particular. And Ellison, as a character, feels believable the whole way through, with the jittery nervousness familiar to me and probably to all writers.

In that way, it feels almost like Stephen King could have written it.

But where it lets the side down is in some of the resolution. It plays off the is it/isn’t it tension between supernatural and conventional crime for most of the film, with the audience never quite sure until about the final third, whether there is something paranormal going on or whether Ellison is simply cracking up. But once it is clear and answers are surfacing, they seem…disappointing.

It takes the easy way out. And in many cases it kills the horror — for example, that the bad guy is a death metal singer with anger problems (the baddie IS NOT a death metal singer with anger problems, but if you watch it you’ll see what I mean). Horror is a difficult line to tread, and Sinister was so nearly there. But sadly it fell short of its name, like previous film Insideous — which is actually by the same producers. And like Insideous, it all fell apart when the big bad was revealed as something laughable rather than creepy.

You know what, I’m going to make my own generic horror film. Utter by the numbers stuff, with every cliche of the genre you can think of. And I’ll call it…Scary Movie.

…What? Wait…what do you mean that already a thing?!

There’s Something About Rosemary


Despite it's vaunted classic status, Rosemary's Baby is far from the perfect horror film.

Roman Polanski’s 1970s horror film Rosemary’s Baby is one of those films in the genre which is widely considered to be a staple. One of the essentials, in the same way as 2001: A Space Odyssey is for science-fiction cinema, or Lord of the Rings is for fantasy. So it’s a bit odd, perhaps, that I hadn’t seen it until a few weeks ago.

It wasn’t a conscious thing, exactly. I’d tried a few times to watch it, but had never been able to get through it. The first hour or so tended to bore me, and I’d find myself falling asleep by the point of the trippy dream sequence, leaving me with little impression of the film in general other than just how strange Mia Farrow’s nipples are.

But having forced myself to watch the whole film through, I was pleasantly surprised by the last hour and a bit. It picked up, and I can see why it’s considered such a classic. But there’s still the problem of the hour or so on the beginning which bored me so much.

Now, I like slow-paced horror. I like a film which will take the time to build an atmosphere before it lets the kraken out of the net. The kind of balls-to-the-wall running around screaming from the word go films which seem to account for the vast majority of horror films made today aren’t scary, and don’t entertain me.

True horror stems more from atmosphere than plot, which is a much tougher thing to construct. In both film and literature, it requires careful foreshadowing and scene setting, and resisting an urge to plunge straight in.

But sometimes, the scales can tip too far the other way. With Rosemary’s Baby, there was too much foreshadowing. The backstory was so overdone that it disconnected from any significance of and identification with the story. A good deal of it could have been cut out in order to streamline the narrative and make it more effective.

It’s something I’ve seen before, with the best example being the Paranormal Activity films. I’m convinced that there is a great film in each of the two volumes so far (I won’t comment on the third yet, but it does feel like flogging a dead horse), but they’re short films, not feature films. If they were stripped down to somewhere between 30-60 minutes, then they could have some punch. As it is, they seem like the ramblings of some self-absorbed director.

With horror, less is very much more. You’re both at once trying to set a tense atmosphere, and asking audiences to suspend their disbelief. The shorter you can make it, the less likely it is that either of those requirements will collapse under their own weight. There are, of course, exceptions (there is to everything), but when you watch a film, or read a book, and think that large parts didn’t need to be there, someone has gotten it wrong.

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself


 

Happy Halloween to everyone! Have yourselves a very creepy night.

Happy Halloween, to all and sundry.

 

I have plenty of issues with Halloween as a celebratory occasion (Americanisation of the UK, not being genuinely sure what people are celebrating, the fact that it seems to be a free licence from society for little shits to engage in acts of vandalism, etc, etc), I’m not anti-Halloween. Horror as a genre- whether in film, television, literature or wherever else- tends to be much maligned in today’s society, and those of us who really enjoy it are sometimes looked upon as dangerous aberrations.

Except on one day a year, when the TV channels roll out the classic films, costume shops justify their existence, and even the supermarkets deck themselves out for the occasion. So to celebrate, I’m going to have a go at explaining why I’m a horror fan.

It boils down, at its simplest level, to the fact that I enjoy feeling scared. When you get right down to the core of it, that’s what horror is always about. The fear is the core of it, and the very reason why we love it. There’s an excitement in being afraid that very little else matches.

For me, horror films have always been a part of a larger experience. From horror films as a child, sat in my bed or on the sofa in the dark, flinching at every noise, to the present day with the walk back from the cinema in the dark and wet night. A true horror film will have your hackles up until the first light of the new morning. A good horror story will worm its way into your mind, and somehow even dawn won’t bring relief.

But the real power in horror, to me, is to go beyond the obvious. Recently, films such as the Saw franchise and the Paranormal Activity films have relied on gore and shock to scare the audience. Anyone familiar with me will know that I’m not a fan of either. For me, that’s the easy way out. Real horror should be about more than being grotesque or loud. Real horror should about getting into your head and frightening you to your very core.

Now, that’s going to be different for each individual, but often I find it’s the most understated films that really frighten me, in a way that an abundance of splatter and sudden noises don’t. Often, they aren’t even strictly horror films; for example Robin William’s downright creepy photo technician in One Hour Photo.

So if you’re not going trick or treating tonight, or going out somewhere to get drunk (as all holidays these days seem to be celebrated by some people), then why not have yourself a creepy night in? Have a think about what frightens you, what you’re really afraid of. Then hunt down a horror film about it, I’m sure someone has thought to make one.

And then, afterwards, just try to remember that it’s all fictional. There’s nothing to fear, but fear itself. Probably.

Paranormal Activity 2 – A Review


 

Paranormal Activity 2

 

This is, obviously, a sequel to the low-budget, high-profile horror film of last year, Paranormal Activity. For those of you who didn’t see it or don’t know what it was about, it was a supernatural horror film about a couple being haunted by a demon, filmed with a hand-cam, amateur, The Blair Witch Project feel. It received a lot of praise from various quarters.

I wasn’t a fan. I’m sorry, I know many will disagree with me, but it just fell down as an entertaining film. It started off strongly, and the last thirty seconds were absolutely sterling as far as this sort of thing goes. But from about thirty minutes/an hour in, it dragged. It repeated set-pieces, and made us watch the confused couple watching the very footage of nocturnal demoning arseings-around we just watched ourselves. It got tedious.

So when I heard that they were doing a sequel, I wasn’t overly optimistic about it. But, to its credit, it wasn’t the same as its predecessor. I actually think it might have been worse.

This time we’re treated to a full family, being harassed by a mischievous demonic force, as observed by a host of CCTV cameras. Eventually. The amount of back story we get is incredible, and I really was looking at my watch by about the half-hour point wondering when we were going to get to the horror. Most of the introduction, showing us the family, their new son, their bloody house, could have been cut. We could have figured out who they were and where they were for ourselves, thanks.

Once the haunting does get started, it takes an equally leisurely pace. Now, as a disclaimer, a lot of the stuff here relied on fairly quiet noises to alert the audience to the creepyness. That wasn’t altogether helpful from my perspective, as I seemed to have chosen a showing populated by people utterly uninterested in the film. The level of ambient noise in the theatre was awful, and I suspect I missed a lot of the subtleties.

But that aside, the haunting progresses very slowly. I suspect they’re trying to build atmosphere, but it didn’t work. It might have, had they not wasted my time with an irrelevant intro, but by then I was bored and wanted it to get to the point already. Once it does kick off, it had some fairly impressive moments, chief amongst them being the scene I can describe only as the “full kitchen sneeze”. Seriously, if you watch it, you’ll see what I mean.

The ending was fairly good, too. It was better, I think, than the end of the first film. It had more story to wrap itself in, rather than being purely a shock-based ending, and the way it interplayed with the first film was well-written, and took me a while to see coming.

But in the end, Paranormal Activity 2 was let down by the same thing as the first film. There just wasn’t enough material there to fill its hour-and-a-half length. With both of them, if they had been short films (somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour) then I’d probably be singing their praises. But my guess is that short films don’t make the money, so they padded them out to feature films, and as a result spoilt what could have been brilliantly atmospheric films.

Low-budget, hand camera based horror films can work very well. The Spanish zombie/demon film [Rec] was great, primarily because it wasn’t padded out. Everything that was there felt that it needed to be there. And at no point did it bore me. The same can be said of more recent, more American offering The Last Exorcism, which despite Eli Roth’s involvement I also enjoyed.

So it can be done. I don’t know, maybe for a spot of irony the Swedish film company who made Let The Right One In wants to have a go at remaking them?