WHY AREN'T YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE?
: A series of points about Paranormal Activity
, in no order I can quite discern.
1) I really liked the dynamic between the lead actors--they reflected two different kinds of awful interaction I've seen in real couples, so their arguments felt totally relatable. First there's the hysteria narrative, where the woman has actual concerns but they're dismissed by the man because he assumes she's hormonal. I was initially shocked, but on reflection not even surprised, by the degree to which Katie has to beg for her boyfriend to take her seriously. (The "take a pill" line got a perfect reaction from the actress, humiliatingly understated and raw... and also a strong reaction from the ladies in the audience when I saw the film.) And it's pretty clear that this hetero-dynamic is driving the film, from Katie's careful nonreaction to the boyfriend's line about how they're "engaged to be engaged" all the way to the end.
Then there's the philosophical/theological issue: What most people consider to be "rational" is defined by their culture. So how on earth can you formulate a culturally-rational response to a culturally-irrational experience?
2) I liked that the film let these two dynamics interact without
conflating them: Mika, the boyfriend, isn't positioned as either the rational male or the patriarch oppressing women's deeper knowledge... but rather as a regular guy, in a frequently misogynist culture, who's placed in a position where his territorial, rationalist, and sexist instincts conflict
with his genuine love of and tenderness for his girl. The film wouldn't work at all if Mika didn't seem to look up
to Katie in some ways, even as he simultaneously looks down on her in others.
He has a very familiar heterosexual reverence for her physical beauty, for example. This is well-exploited by the director by having her get more haggard as he basically stays quite good-looking--he comes across as the kind of guy who will pet your sweat-soaked hair while you're shaking and stinking with fever and still think you're beautiful. (I may be influenced by the fact that I thought Mika's actor was more attractive than Katie's actress from the get-go, but they're both shot in ways which make them look pretty but not stunning.) But the movie also completely captures how unsatisfying this physical protectiveness is for actual women, who want to be listened to and loved as individuals rather than (or at least, in addition to!) icons. The astonished gratitude straight men bring to their relationships is real, and I liked how this movie conveyed it without ever glossing over the gross parts where a) he thinks his worldview is normative and hers is suspect, and relatedly b) He tries to prove himself as a champion of She even against her wishes and her greater understanding of the world.
3) Now to what didn't work for me. I think this is where you should definitely stop reading if you're avoiding spoilers. This movie did not scare me. I mean... it almost didn't scare me at all
I will note that approximately 90% of the audience seemed much more scared than I was. They'd gasp, they'd exclaim, and I'd be completely all, "...Is that it?"
I honestly don't know why. The audience seemed truly freaked out. And I was... is the horror equivalent of "left cold," "left warm"? I was left lukewarm.
I totally agree with Kindertrauma's
comments about really wanting to get scared by this movie. (And his later comments, in the... boxes for the commenting of the comments.) In terms of personal psychoanalysis, I agree with some of his points and not others: I startle like crazy at small noises. I jump and gasp when a car horn honks. I've woken up the Rattus in the middle of the night due to my shock at, like, a venetian-blind cord thwacking against a window or some such, and never even remembered it in the morning.
But I'm really
hard to scare at the movies, if you distinguish "frighten" from "chill." I'm chilled by all kinds of flicks, left traumatized and pondering them for a long time. But the only two movies I can remember which specifically kept me up at night or gave me nightmares are Misery
(I know--I think it was Sean Collins who pinpointed the way Kathy Bates's character is completely
dehumanized here, and though I can't find the link now I agree with the criticism--but it's scary!) and Ringu
And with Ringu
, the specific thing which kept me up was, I think, the soundtrack. I watched the movie, and went to bed... and every time a moth batted against the window, or a car rushed by on 16th Street, I'd gasp and shudder and turn on the light.
So you can guess that I was hugely intrigued to read that the big draw for Paranormal
was its soundtrack. But... what? What is so scary about what happens here?
OKAY NO REALLY STOP READING HERE IF YOU'RE AVOIDING SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING.
4) I think part of my problem is that it's all one storyline. There are exactly zero subplots. So it's really boy meets girl... girl has ghoul... boy wants to taunt ghoul... girl says no... boy taunts anyway... they die.
There's some suspense in that. When Mika promises not to "buy" the Ouija board, I knew he'd borrow one... but that act was so deeply embedded in his character, as he'd been portrayed up to that point, that I totally bought it and just wanted to see how this action of girlfriend-betrayal would ultimately lead to their doom. The movie does keep to Hitchcock's distinction between shock and suspense, where suspense is when you know more than the characters know, you know what will and must
happen, and so you're even more thoroughly on tenterhooks waiting to see if it will really
happen or be headed off at the pass, and how the characters will respond.
The weird thing is that this movie is suspense without any shocks! It tells you what it will do, and then does it. Which... I honestly think maybe I could be terrified by, in a movie more firmly embedded in naturalistic horror. Seven
might be an example of that?--although even there, of course there are final twists. But I'm pretty sure that I can be horrified by "I'm going to kill you--I'm killing you--I've killed you."
But in a supernatural horror movie, even though I in fact believe that demons exist
, I think I need more complexity.
Partly, maybe this is because I think that God moves in more mysterious ways than this movie does, so why shouldn't the Adversary?? I'm not sure. For whatever reason, this felt overly straightforward. Maybe, in fact, because I've heard people discuss what they perceive to be encounters with the demonic, and it sounds a lot scarier than thumping floorboards--and, even, a lot scarier than murder! Maybe part of my problem here is that I didn't think Paranormal Activity
made... paranormal activity... any more frightening or "other" or even flatly inhuman
than gang violence. I was vastly more scared by the penultimate episode of s2 of The Wire
, which I watched the same night, is what I'm saying. There was (for me) no sense of the eldritch or the uncanny, the out-of-time.
5) And that impression might be reinforced by the fact that the past really plays no role in this movie. There is no real detective element--that's a red herring. The burnt photograph is a ploy at best. I had no sense that old actions are alive, still wreaking vengeance. I had only the sense that some critter
was still out and about and doing harm.
6) I'll also note, although this isn't a criticism, that the religious elements of this movie are... sketched but never committed to. This film is engaged to be engaged to Christ. Its metaphysics never reach the incoherence of (for example) Buffy the Vampire Slayer
, but that's basically because Christianity is merely alluded to and then swiftly shied away from.
I was totally okay with that, actually, since I think horror movies should get to more or less make their own rules. But after the movie I was walking behind a couple where the woman, at least, seemed to think that Katie and Mika's reluctance to just try
exorcism was the supernatural-horror equivalent of the slasher-flick "Let's split up and look for the killer ourselves!"--a level of stupidity which makes it hard for the audience to identify with the characters. I hope my first couple points make it clear that I don't share her perspective... but I did find it interesting.
7) All that said... I should reiterate that while I saw this movie with a very small audience, almost everyone else seemed more scared by it than I was. And I certainly didn't regret seeing it... though I guess I wish I'd been able to pay matinee prices. B-, you know?