One Good Scare? Whoop-doo!
/movie/poltergeist/BOOS! and WHOOP-DOOS!Rydell the Golden Weiner (a 10 month half lab-half dachshund), has spent the better part of an hour barking at an old Doritos bag drifting in the dark, wet field behind my house. A gust of wind just blew this weird cellophane creature over the fence, giving my poor pooch a terrifying holiday fright.
It's Halloween weekend and I want to be that scared. It's been far too long since something jumped out from behind the closet door, filling me with night terrors. I thought Paranormal Activity would do the trick. But seriously? I saw scarier shit in the shoebox apartment I used to rent out in Burbank. The film gets a Boo! from The Whoop-Doo Nation elite. It's well made for what it is. Sure. But its four good (tiny) scares are all given away in the trailer. There is nothing in the film that makes me want to ever see it again. It's one of those in-the-moment types of deals that may have been more affective before the hype. As it stands now, in my memory, it's just some average couple that forgets to turn on the lights when things get crazy in the middle of the night. It could be a metaphor for living with Bi-Polar disorder. Walking out of the theater, which was packed on a school night, I had to agree with the hostile black man in the bathroom stall who kept yelling, "That shit was whack!"
I'll admit, I was a little disappointed at having lost ten dollars to the trials and domestic tribulations of Katie and Micha. I didn't walk away from the experience feeling exhilarated or giddy. I was actually quite emotionless. The lack of sweat trickling down my neck was a great indication that this film had failed to achieve any sort of resonance within my soul. I understand how Paranormal Activity is technically proficient. I get the "less is more" nature of its creeping scares. In my own stated view, it supports an incredible lack of creativity on the part of the filmmaker. We've become so accustomed to youtube and reality television that we, as consumers, simply don't demand that much when it comes to screaming jolts of electrified juice. We'll sit and watch an hour and ten minutes worth of boring home video footage just for one good moment of terror.
I went to the theater hoping for some Halloween fun. I left disappointed. But our current state of lameness didn't really start bothering me until the next day. I watched both Poltergeist and The Blob on TCM, and was quite literally blown away. First, there is the original 1958 The Blob. This is a film I hadn't seen since I was a very small child (and I only ever saw bits and pieces of it at that). I stayed away from it in later years because the premise is so goofy. A glob of jelly from outer space consumes small town America? In the 50s? How good could that actually be? Right? Quite good, in fact. I was mesmerized by its sheer audacity. The blob itself proves to be quite effective, and it's a fast, fun little movie that never fails in its quest to entertain. Each moment is crafted with loving perfection, and I don't really see how a second remake from Rob Zombie is necessary (heck, the film was also remade in 1988 with Johnny Drama, and look how that turned out). If Rob places his story in the 50s, it certainly won't have the stated charm of the original. According to that silver haired fox introducing movies on TCM, Rob doesn't even plan on utilizing the Blob's original shape and structure.
Why mess with that?
Why not make something new and original? Because it's hard to get funding, that's why! Zombie is a pretty cool dude. He knows film history in genre spades. And he can be quite spooky. The Devil's Rejects is one of the best original horror films of this current decade. A nation is yearning to be scared. He could achieve that goal cinematically if he just put a little more effort into it. But no, he is delving into another lame retread of something that still stands up on its own more than fifty years later. Boo! That just plain sucks.
I had ten times as much fun watching the original The Blob as I did sifting through the bore stew that is Paranormal Activity. But what really got my goat was how super-duper lame it seems compared to the first Poltergeist. It's essentially the same storyline. And both have been manipulated, changed, and rearranged by Steven Spielberg. The difference is, Poltergeist still holds up exceptionally well. It is a classic. The best spook house picture ever made. And its special effects are still quite mesmerizing at this late date. Twenty-seven years later, I have to marvel in awe at the achievements made here. Especially with the horned demon that comes shooting out of the bedroom door towards Craig T. Nelson, and the wispy white bone hag that terrorizes the family near the climax. In 2036, I doubt we will be watching Paranormal Activity via digital brain injections thinking its still the shit. Heck, I doubt we'll think twice about it come December.
In recent years, there have zero horror movies that have achieved the level of spookiness Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg reached with Poltergeist in 1982. Neither director has been as terrifying since. When Paranormal Activity first came on the scene, it wracked up a little sweat in the hands of those that saw it first. Because they didn't know what they were dealing with. It's the type of lofty project that becomes less proficient the more people talk about it. And the trailer did it no favors. It's not a bad movie in light of what its trying to achieve on its own terms. In the long run, it's just not scary. At all. Not like Poltergeist. I thought it would be. Maybe my expectations were too high (with out a doubt). Maybe I was subconsciously telling myself to remain pessimistic throughout its run time. Or maybe the ordinariness of that first bland hour dulled my senses into not caring once Steven Spielberg's new fangled ending flashed itself across the screen.
Poltergeist is a succession of awesome moments. The tree. The clown. The TV. The Incredible Meco Hulk riding a plastic horse. The swimming pool full of corpses. The steak. The bathroom face removal. Zelda Rubinstein. "They're heeeerrrrrrreeeeeee!!!!!" The list goes on and on. From start to finish, there is always something incredible happening. And these moments stick in your throat like a catfish bone. There is none of that in Paranormal Activity. There's not one scare that lingers past the moment it happens. Nor is there one single bit of memorable dialogue. Poltergeist also manages to have a lot of heart. We get the before-its-time scene of the parents smoking pot before they go to bed (in a PG rated film, none the less). We get the sense that this family truly loves each other. We're treated to those special little moments. Like the chubby guy getting tripped up by remote control cars on his way to deliver beer at a football party. The TV remote war. There's none of that in this new ghost story. The young San Diego couple appearing in Oren Peli's debut smash hit are quite convincing. There is never any hint that this is being staged. There's just no spark to their relationship. They don't seem any more extraordinary than the rest of the married fiends living around my cul-de-sac. They're duds, and this is dullsville.
Maybe that's my downfall as a lover of fun cinema. When I go to the movies, I want to be transported (at least partially) out of this world. I want to see things I've never seen in a horror movie. Not some bickering dandersons with an invisible spook running circles around their static, stationary bed. It just all seems very uneventful to me. I waited and waited for something, anything to happen. And when it did, it was the goose bump money shot I saw for free on my laptop when the "undercover audience" trailer debuted. Don't get me wrong. Its not just Paranormal Activity. It's every horror movie out there at the moment. I haven't been given a good scare in a long, long time.
Directors have long replaced genuine terror with gore. That's why Oren's videotaped thriller is making such a mark at the moment. It goes about its business with black and white blood and invisible three-toed monsters. It never gives the audience anything to really see. Which, sad to say, is far more enthralling then the health care message being thrust home in Saw VI. I know a lot of you will claim to have been scared by Paranormal Activity but were you really? Or did you let the out of control hype brainwash you into feeling some sort of emotion that never truly peaked inside your ribcage?
Sitting here on All Hallow's Eve, I wonder if it's possible to truly scare an audience with a piece of celluloid ever again. Or have we become too desensitized as a culture to truly be frightened by the atrocities shown on any given theater screen? Maybe this is a personal problem? Maybe you were petrified while watching Paranormal Activity. Maybe it wasn't just hype. Either way, it failed to move me. And thus, I deem it personally ineffective. So I sit here again, on another cold, cloudy Halloween weekend, disappointed that I won't find my needed scares hidden away at the Cineplex for the umpteenth year in a row.
I guess that's why I must venture out into the deep, dark woods of upper middle America. Without a tent or a flashlight. And wait for the unknown to engulf my terrified screams in the pitch-black night. Otherwise, I will never find that one truly scary moment I seek, here at the ass end of October. Have a safe and happy Halloween. Don't run over any kids, cause it's a Saturday night. Eat food! Kill Grandma! Whoop-Doo!