From Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity’s Modern Hauntings

Paranormal Activity. 2007. Directed & Written by Oren Peli.
Starring Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs, Amber Armstrong, and Ashley Palmer. Solana Films/Blumhouse Productions.
Rated 14A. 86 minutes.
Horror

★★★★
paranormalactivity_posterWhen done correctly, I am a huge fan of found footage. Whether it’s using the thriller style, as I recently enjoyed in the film 419, or horror (The Blair Witch Project, Cannibal HolocaustHome Movie, and many more), I believe that if a director uses the sub-genre appropriately then it can be extremely effective. Particularly, horror movies using found footage can end up having a huge impact if it isn’t simply a gimmick, or a wasted tool in the director’s arsenal.
Even further than that, a writer (or writers) needs to know the limitations of the sub-genre, as well as where it can go. Too many writers seem to let the screenplay of a found footage film fall by the wayside, like it isn’t an important aspect so much as the visuals prove to be. Very bad way to look at ANY genre or sub-genre; you always need a good script, or at least an impressive idea to work from.
There are things I do love about Paranormal Activity, while I’ve got a gripe or two, as well. Mostly, I think Oren Peli really did an excellent job as director in cultivating an impressive piece of modern horror. He singlehandedly changed the found footage game, in my mind, after the originals left their highly impressive (and better) mark – like The Blair Witch Project and the infamous, controversial Cannibal Holocaust. Now there are plenty of others, since this film’s release in 2007, trying to work off the simple yet excellent format Peli landmarked.
This is not a perfect horror, nor is it my favourite found footage film. However, I’ve got to say that when I first saw Paranormal Activity – and to this day – there were elements and scenes which really unsettled me greatly and left a lasting impression on me. I don’t think, as a veteran in watching films and TONS of horror, that I’m easily frightened. But genuinely, at times, I found myself clenching up. Not to say I wept in terror or curled into a ball. Though, I can readily admit my muscles tightened and my heart rate pumped fast in several scenes, which is all due to the acting of the two leads and the good work of writer-director Oren Peli.
paranormalactivity1I won’t waste time relating the plot. This is one of those movies we ALL know about; if not, head over to IMDB or Wikipedia and it’s laid out pretty well. I’d like to just move into the things I liked/disliked about the movie.
An aspect of the screenplay I truly do love is how the character of Micah antagonizes the presence in their home. Starting early on, within the first fifteen minutes even, Micah begins to make fun of the whole concept of some spirit (or whatever) in the house; he plays creepy music, saying he’d like to make the presence feel at home. I always like when a story incorporates scepticism in an interesting way; Micah is a part of that, as he pretty much riles up the thing in their house.
Otherwise, one of the greatest parts in my mind about Peli’s Paranormal Activity is that the effects really started to push the envelope for found footage. Since 2007 there have been plenty more found footage films which used effects to a greater degree, but at the time this came as sort of revolutionary for the sub-genre. Before this movie, and those which followed it (both sequels and other films imitating this style), most found footage horror tended to go for the lost in the woods scenario, adding in tons of shaky cam and screaming and blood/gore here or there. Peli came along and decided to keep the camera stationary almost all of the time, which really helped, and on top of that he tried as best he could to do as much practically as possible, as well as the great majority of the film is centred so much on the relationship between Katie and Micah.
Keeping the camera in one place the way he does, Peli is able to let us relax a bit and get more into the characters and the story/plot than other found footage allows us. As I said, the shaky cam is prevalent in many other films similar to this. Even the amazing Blair Witch Project, there are a couple nearly nausea inducing sequences where the characters are running, screaming, and the camera is jostling around along with their movements; to the point where it’s tough to follow anything. Luckily, that was one of the first real found footage horror movies where shaky cam became a thing, so at the time it wasn’t really overdone.
Paranormal-Activity-3Nowadays with so many less exciting films than that trying to read in its huge footsteps, we get too many horrors using found footage and throwing in the shaky cam as a legitimate portion of the film when in fact it only detracts from the end product; we’re tired and sick of the shakiness, it’s not simply low budget and realistic it makes things look lazy. In Paranormal Activity, Peli foregoes that nonsense and allows us to get into the relationship between Katie and Micah, watching their lives unfold instead of constantly having one of them manipulate the camera, moving it around, and so on. Though Micah absolutely holds the camera at times, it’s not him running around and catching nothing except blurs. Whenever he does move it, the moment is brief, or at the least Micah is usually standing in one place. I think, albeit probably an obvious touch, Peli does his film a great service by allowing the camera to stay still a lot of the time. That way, his story comes out further, the characters are more interesting, and the plot is able to move along without the audience becoming totally unnerved (not in the right way) by the camera movement constantly shaking us out of touch with what’s happening in the film.
For this reason, as well as the fact effects are incorporated in a fresh way (not saying they’re spectacular; merely they were slightly new to this sub-genre), I truly feel Peli broke new, interesting ground with his found footage horror movie. Not only did it spawn a series of sequels, a whole franchise, Paranormal Activity – in a different way from its predecessors – had other filmmakers looking to do a low-budget horror almost copycatting everything about it.
They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery; in this case, I think it’s mostly about cashing in.
still-of-katie-featherston-in-paranormal-activity-(2007)-large-pictureFinally, it’s the acting from Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston which truly got to me. I think Sloat did a good enough job, especially in terms of being the sceptical and doubting boyfriend; he isn’t completely ignorant and arrogant in his speech, mostly he brings this aspect across through his coy, annoyingly playful demeanour. He certainly acts like a bit of a douchebag, but I think that’s almost definitely the right way for Micah to seem, as a character – it brings out that doubt very clearly for all to see.
Above all else, it’s Featherston who sells this film from start to finish. I like the character herself; she’s been followed all her life, basically, by some kind of spirit, an entity. Not that it’s a new idea. It’s how Featherston plays the character, the innocence she always seems to display and this naive but concerned nature in her. While Katie is the one who believes in it all, there’s still this naivety about her in that she’s holding onto the innocent part of herself, even while this demon/spirit/entity has latched onto her and won’t leave her, or Micah, alone. The way Featherston performs is incredible, unbelievably actually in the final half hour. Once things start getting very intense and claustrophobic in their little house, Featherston does a perfect job portraying all the terror Katie is feeling; there’s one moment where she tells Micah she feels something in the hallway, and I honestly got a fright just out of the urgency in her voice, the look in her eyes. Amazing job and makes Paranormal Activity all the better for it; anyone else would probably not have been enough. Featherston pushed this film above a ton of other found footage out there with subpar acting and lazy characters.
Paranormal-ActivityWith an undeniably horrifying final 15 minutes, I can definitely say this is a 4 out of 5 star film. There could’ve been a little more in certain parts, but overall this is an excellent modern horror. I’m not saying this will send you to bed cowering under the covers like when we were children. What I am saying is that Oren Peli did a good job directing this, as opposed to so many shaky useless found footage efforts, and he tried to instil the film with as much practicality (from plot to effects) as possible.
This is a slow burn type of horror film, in my opinion. It does well building up tension, in part that’s due to excellent actors, and in the end there’s a massively satisfying and creepy conclusion. Love the end and watching this for the first time since its release 8 years ago, I must admit I like the film more than I’d originally thought.

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Mark Duplass is CREEP(y)

Creep. 2015. Directed by Patrick Brice. Written by Patrick Brice & Mark Duplass.
Starring Patrick Brice & Mark Duplass.
Blumhouse Productions.
Rated R. 82 minutes.
Comedy/Horror


★★★★★creep-posterI know Mark Duplass mainly from two sources – his amazing portrayal of Pete on FX’s raunchy fantasy-football comedy The League, and the film Baghead which he co-directed with his brother Jay Duplass. He’s a great talent, and of course I’ve seen his other work; another film he wrote and directed with his brother I love is the acerbically funny Jeff, Who Lives at Home. But it’s his performance on The League I love most.
In Creep, Mark Duplass channels brief spots of Pete, which I think are mostly culled from his own personality anyways, and yet there is a real childish gentle quality to the character he plays – at least in the beginning. This, above all else, drives Creep into terrifying territory.
The film starts with Aaron (Brice) who is heading to meet someone he has contacted through Craiglist that wants to be filmed, of course in exchange for money. Aaron arrives at a cabin in the hills where he meets Josef (Duplass) who explains he is dying, and about to be a father, so he wants the video of him to reflect the good & bad of him; later to give to his son. Josef wants to be filmed constantly. Even as he strips naked for a bath, what he calls “a tubby“, which is recorded all for his yet-to-be-born son, Josef asks Aaron “are you okay?“, and seems to want him to be at ease during the process. Uncomfortable, yet harmless, the conversation and relationship develops between Josef and Aaron, but all is just not as it seems.

For those who don’t want a small portion of the film spoiled – turn away. I think when I really started to finally become unsettled is partway through the film as Aaron shuts off the video on his camera, but leaves the audio recording, and Josef reveals something he’d never told anyone before. It starts off like a weird animal porn story, evolving into a quasi-rape Josef says he perpetrated on his wife while wearing a wolf mask. This comes only awhile after we first see the mask – Josef tells Aaron initially the thing was a mask his dad had, a character named Peach Fuzz that he’d developed. But once the story is told, which worked well only as audio because it ratcheted up the suspense, the wolf mask takes on a new terror.
creep-mark-duplassWhat I love most about Creep is that the found footage sub-genre is used appropriately. Maybe there are a few minor nitpicks, but for the most part this film really follows the unwritten rules of the sub-genre to perfection. Best of all, the premise of the story fits in very organically with found footage.
Even further I think the idea of the whole thing initiating from a Craiglist ad is a great post-modern twist on the genre; while scary and enjoyable as a movie, it actually makes you re-think the whole idea of the online communities such as Craiglist where people anonymously perform transactions on everything from professional jobs to the unprofessional world of buy, sell, trade, and online prostitution. But most of all, the fact it’s just two guys, two characters, for the most part in one remote setting the greater portion of the film really works for the whole story. The found footage sub-genre often fails and seems beyond stale when the style is being forced inorganically into a situation where there’s disparity between how a camera should or shouldn’t play into each scene, and so on. This in turn stirs the nitpickers who will tear a film apart, sometimes rightfully so, to say ‘this doesn’t follow the “rules”‘ or what not. The sparse setting, characters, and basic plot really help the environment remain controlled and helps showcase the found footage style without too much going on.
Picture 1The moment that got me most is the phone call from Angela, when Aaron picks up the phone. A real great reveal, so to speak. It sort of peels away Josef’s facade slow with each sentence until you sort of gasp to yourself – not terror, but the feeling of the moments before a terror strikes – and from that moment on the creepiness descends upon us in torrents, waves, scene after scene, up to the end.
The mask really creeps me out. At first it wasn’t so scary, but in the final half hour it becomes the thing of nightmares; one scene, as Josef wears the mask and stands blocking a doorway, is spectacularly weird and creeped me out wholly.
There’s a genuine amount of suspense going on throughout the closing fifteen minutes or so, an air of dead, which ultimately leads to a real shocking conclusion. I thought it was about to go one way, yet still the finale was surprising, and didn’t come exactly as I’d expected it to. Duplass really makes the last couple scenes pop with the creep factor he puts out, and you should freeze frame it if you can right before the credits roll – a very dark, suggestive shot, brief and yet long enough to get under the skin. Then the title appears, the credits go, and you’re left to ponder. Great stuff.

I’ve got to give this a full 5 stars. Going into any Blumhouse film I’m honestly weary. There are a couple films I don’t mind, a couple I like, and then several I hate. Creep delivers the goods. Sure, it’s a very contained and limited film, but that’s not to say those are negative commentary. As I said earlier, I think found footage can be terrible if it tries to put in too much, this is exactly why Brice’s film is directed so well in my mind, why the shots all work and things seem to flow naturally without being forced. This is one of the most efficient uses of the sub-genre in horror. Along the way there are some excellent comedic moments, mostly dark I think, and they come in little bursts. I honestly found myself dropping my jaw a few times, amazed at the way things were going in the awkward relationship between Aaron and Josef – I watch a ton of horror, I’ve seen a ridiculous amount of gore and shock horror and all that, but regardless, Creep has so much tension, suspense, and the performance Duplass gives is creepy beyond belief, that the film goes over perfectly.
See this, ASAP. It’s on VOD via iTunes, and I would assume other platforms, today. Real great little watch. It isn’t an outrageous horror with elaborate plot, it doesn’t have any blood in it, or monsters, or supernatural entities – it is a straight up, balls to the wall psychological horror, and it melted me. I loved it. I can’t say that enough. And not to ruin anything, but I hope that they’ll expand and go for a sequel. No doubt Blumhouse is already champing at the bit for a sequel, or two, or three. This is one film I wouldn’t mind seeing more of, maybe even a prequel to see Josef before he arrived to his relationship with Aaron.
This is a creeper of a movie. I can’t wait to watch it again.

WE ARE STILL HERE Channels Fulci

We Are Still Here. 2015. Directed by Ted Geoghegan. Written by Ted Geoghegan & based on a concept by Richard Griffin. Starring Barbara Crampton, Andrew Sensenig, Lisa Marie, and Larry Fessenden. Dark Sky Films. Unrated. 84 minutes. Horror.

3.5 out of 5 stars
we-are-still-here_poster
I’m a big fan of horror, big fan of Barbara Crampton, so naturally I was excited when I heard We Are Still Here would be an old school haunted house style outing with her as a main character. And while it isn’t the best thing I’ve ever seen, it’s a head above most modern horror. Not to mention there are excellent moments of horror and also fun, interesting characters, which help remind us of the 1980s without trying too hard for nostalgia.

Paul (Andrew Sensenig) and Anne (Barbara Crampton) are moving into the countryside of New England to an old house where they plan on starting over. The move is brought on by the death of their teenage son. Unfortunately, once they arrive at the house things begin to get strange. An old couple seem to have more than just genuine interest in them, and the house makes Anne feel as if there are spirits living there, as if she can feel their son within the walls. As the house’s history literally haunts the new tenants, Paul and Anne must figure out how to stop it, or at the least – how to make it out alive.

In general, I thought this was a fairly solid horror effort. The directing is sharp. Ted Geoghegan has done a fine job crafting the film into something partly fresh, partly old, but one that is certainly full of atmosphere and packs a nice little jab in some of the creepier moments.
Immediately I’ll start with the two small pieces of We Are Still Here I did not particularly enjoy.
First, there’s a death that I found beyond tired and played out – I won’t describe it fully, but it comes once the house starts taking victims. A character gets out of the house, into a car, and seemingly away from the evil… only to be surprised down the road, as a ghost is hiding in the backseat. My initial problem is that once the character got out, I thought “okay this is going to go a different way than most other films that use this type of scene”. It went exactly how I expected. That’s fine sometimes, my problem with this is that it sort of tosses the movie’s own ghost logic out the window – if the ghosts can leave the house, why do they need to wait until someone moves in to wake up every 30 years and take souls? This made me wonder.
Second, I didn’t like how the ghosts looked. They were kind of generic, the look wasn’t too terrifying or anything. Maybe that’s the way they needed to look because of the story, I get that. There are just certain films, which aren’t necessarily bad, where the ghosts or monsters [or whatever they are] don’t look scary like they ought to, but again – this look was mostly in part due to how the people died that eventually show up as ghosts, so I can’t exactly fault the effects. I just didn’t find them super effective in the end.
WE-ARE-STILL-HERE_Andrew-Sensenig-and-Barbara-CramptonNow, on to what I did enjoy. The performances were fantastic. You can pretty much bet your ass Barbara Crampton will give a good performance if she’s given a good script. I thought Crampton did a spectacular job ranging between the normal grief we feel and then all those supernatural feelings some get when confronted with death. I thought Crampton and Andrew Sensenig had great chemistry. Sensenig played an excellent character; little bits of his old-fashionedness came out with his remarks about women drivers and all those foolish yet harmless jabs. This really set up the idea that the husband was a much more skeptical type of person, very old-fashioned and set in his ways, which contrasted with Crampton. Then of course there’s the wonderful pairing of Lisa Marie and Larry Fessenden as the New Age couple May and Jacob Lewis. They each did well, but Fessenden is always a treat. I love him as a director and even more as an actor – he always has a fun little part to play whether it’s in his own movies, someone else’s, or even on the FX comedy Louie. Marie and Fessenden were perfect as the binary opposite of Crampton and Sensenig. And once the story gets crazier, Fessenden really has a few good scenes to chew apart. Overall, if the acting were bad this film would not have succeeded. However, these four really were great, and the supporting characters were also played nicely.
WE-ARE-STILL-HERE_Larry-FessendenThe best part of We Are Still Here, for me, is the atmosphere and general feel Geoghegan conjures up with a lot of well-crafted cinematography, editing, and tone. Even the final shot of the film, as one character stands in a doorway looking to the basement, reminds me of an older movie. The atmosphere definitely has that retro-feel, but as opposed to other movies which try hard to get that across I think Geoghegan’s is a much more natural feel. The house itself has a lot to do with that, it’s a great little place in the country and there’s an ever-present nostalgia in it; reminds me of a cabin in the rural part of Newfoundland where I’m from, a lot of those places almost feel like houses out of time, stuck in the 1970s and 1980s when they were first built. So I think some of the throwback feel Geoghegan wrings out of the film comes organically.
Another of my favourite parts is how the film centers on an older couple. There are a couple younger characters in the film, but this is almost entirely about the characters of Anne and Paul, and what they were going through after their son’s death. So many modern horrors, even the ones trying to pose as retro, are entirely based on characters who are millenials – I’m one myself, born just after the end of the so-called Generation X – and that is honestly tiring. Young people aren’t the only ones who love horror; plenty of horror fans out there grew up in the ’70s/’80s when horror really had some balls, innovation, and a hell of a lot of ideas. So, I think Geoghegan’s film is great on that level because we get to see a story, while typical, yet instead of a bunch of young people in their late teens/early twenties being killed for 84 minutes we’ve got more of a mature look at something so familiar. It doesn’t offer much new, but does give a different perspective on the haunted house for a generation getting so used to drivel like Paranormal Activity.
we-are-still-here-imageThis is definitely a 3.5 out of 5 star film. It was refreshing to watch. Like I said, it isn’t necessarily a brand new take on the haunted house sub-genre of horror. However – I really enjoyed it. The couple small beefs I had with the movie aren’t enough to ruin the whole experience. Crampton and Sensenig did a solid job together, and Fessenden really livened things up during the middle part of the film. Geoghegan has a knack for creating atmosphere and setting a specific tone, so I hope to see something new from him sooner than later. We Are Still Here is, for all its faults, one of the better haunted house films to come along in the last decade. I can confidently say that, even with the problems I had. Check it out on VOD, or if it’s in theatre anywhere near you get out and take the chance. I don’t think you’ll regret spending the time to watch it, and you might find a creep or two just for you lurking in there somewhere.