There are few things that scare me in movies. Filmmakers tend to try to frighten an audience with loud, unexpected bangs or a loud chord of music at the right moment. That may make me jump but it doesn’t scare me. As a matter of fact I tend to resent when a director inflicts that on his audience. How can even the most scare-free customer not at least flinch at that? It’s a cheap ploy and I end up losing respect for the director and his movie.
In the course of my movie going life I would say just a handful of movies have truly scared me. The Exorcist tops that list because of the skillful filmmaking of its director, William Friedkin. Halloween is still the only movie to scare me with scenes in daylight. Director John Carpenter was so skilled he knew how to play his audience like a piano.
The one thing that scares me most in movies and it’s a device that is so rarely used it amazes me, is the terrifying things you hear but do not see. Robert Wise’s classic haunted house movie, The Haunting, still chills me. If you have seen the movie you know what I mean. Loud banging, voices talking in a language foreign to everyone, a locked door that bends in and, most effectively, the suggestion of a ghostly encounter simply through dialogue. The Blair Witch Project, like it or not (and I loved it) did the exact same thing. We heard a lot of things in those woods that simply didn’t belong there and each time darkness came we had to prepare ourselves for something more terrifying than the night before. It was an unnerving experience so much so that I was still on edge during a second viewing.
I had the same experience last year with Paranormal Activity, the sleeper hit about the young couple recently moved into a new house that also houses an entity, perhaps even a demon, which begins terrorizing them at night. As each new night came I became more and more uncomfortable so much so that at one point I literally turned around to see if anyone was sitting behind me. It was that kind of movie and I absolutely loved it.
The movie went on to be a smash success so I suppose it comes as no surprise that this weekend came the opening of Paranormal Activity 2. I had absolutely no hope for this film so I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only did I not hate it, but I rather enjoyed it – especially the last half hour.
Much like the original this movie shows a family living in a nice home in the California suburbs near San Diego. There is a father, mother, teenage sister and newborn son. Oh, there is also a Hispanic maid who senses the dark presence (why is it in movies people always ignore foreigners fully aware of the lore and old people who just know better?) and the family dog, who will be used to sense the presence far before any of its owners.
Soon odd things begin to happen. At first it all seems benign or coincidental. A swimming pool cleaning tube ends up each morning out of the pool, lights flicker, pots fall. But soon enough things begin to intensify much to the delight of the teenage daughter, who proudly proclaims how cool it would be to have a ghost in the house. She will change her tune soon enough.
The film follows the same structure as the original only with one twist. As the film opens the homeowners come home to find the place disheveled as if it has been burglarized; only nothing is missing. The father has surveillance cameras placed throughout the house and lucky for us they are placed in vital areas where we, the viewers, won’t miss a thing. It’s a conceit to move the story forward and that was fine by me. A hand held camera is also employed due to the arrival of the new baby and it always seems handy when you need it to be when the ghostly happenings begin.
For the first hour I found myself intrigued but not totally connected to the story. I think it’s because the film follows the blueprint of the original thus the night time occurrences are less stressful. If you walk into a dark room absolutely terrified chances are the next time you walk in there you will either be less frightened or laughing at all for being frightened in the first place. That’s what happens here. Then the last thirty minutes of the film come and the events intensify and, I must admit, I was on edge. I didn’t look behind me but I got the urge once or twice.
The film doesn’t bog down in explanations though there are a few moments where we get demonic explanations that don’t really fit. We don’t want explanations we want scares. Not long after the daughter brings a boyfriend over and they play with a Ouija board. This brought an unexpected response from the audience I saw it with. They were rightfully disturbed. You NEVER use a Ouija board, much less in a house where demonic occupancy is suspected. It’s an effective scene because it is eerie but doesn’t go over the top.
The film was directed by Tod Williams and he is an interesting choice. His last film was the wonderful The Door in the Floor with Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger that told the story of a teenager’s coming of age when he goes to work for a washed up writer and has an affair with his soon to be (and much older) ex-wife. That was six years ago so I was more than a little surprised that Williams chose this as his follow up project. One because of the six year break and two because of the subject matter. Williams is obviously a talented director and I look forward to him delivering more challenging material in the future. Here Williams is gifted (or perhaps burdened) with a higher budget, if you can call $2 million higher. But you have to remember the original filmmakers (who serve as producers here) only had a budget of $15,000 and that made the original even more amazing. With that money Williams is able to employ the multiple cameras and a scant few special effects that were similar to the original anyway.
I was delightfully surprised to find that this film does have a connection to the original so if you haven’t seen it I urge you to do so. There are certain elements you won’t be able to follow otherwise.
In the end I liked this film enough to recommend it, especially to those looking for a few scares at this time of year. It’s familiar but still effective in its most intense moments. And we all need at least one good scare at Halloween.