Despite its use of time-worn horror conventions and tropes, Paranormal Activity (2007) manages to instill the creeps and dish out the scares.
Director Oren Peli’s ultra-low-budget film features a supernatural haunting by a demon in a home footage/amateur documentary format. Originally shot for $15,000, it’s “the most profitable film ever made, based on return on investment” (“Paranormal Activity”).
This movie touches all the bases for a supernatural horror flick and checks off a number of what many consider are tired genre tropes. Yet it still scares the crap out of viewers.
Tropes and conventions
Here are a few conventions and tropes in this first of the Paranormal Activity series.
Boyfriend who’s a jerk
Micah and Katie live together in his nice two-story house. She’s still a student; he’s a day trader with a thing for electronics.
Throughout the story, Micah demonstrates his dickishness by scorning Katie’s caution (respect) for the supernatural presence, her trust in experts (a psychic and a demonologist), and her disdain for contacting the presence using a spirit board. Later, he throws in her face that she’s the one who’s brought the malevolent presence into his house, using it as leverage to get his way in dealing with the spirit.
Throughout, he pooh-poohs the experts and instead wants to “take care of it,” “solve the problem” himself, but exhausts his plans to deal with the menace.
His disregard of Katie’s wishes by bringing home a spirit board shows his disrespect for his girlfriend and the demonic presence. His bravado makes the situation worse.
Micah’s character does double duty in also playing the part of the “over-reacher” who pursues occult knowledge to destruction (Carroll).
Making contact with a forbidden spirit board
This trope appears in many stories. Most notably in Blatty’s The Exorcist, where “the Ouija board was depicted as a mystical device that lured the demon Pazuzu to possess and otherwise plague Regan McNeil” (“Ouija Board”).
So, this has been done before (see “Horror Movies Featuring the Ouija Board”). But it does its job in Paranormal Activity in an omniscient scene where the camera is left running while no characters are present to witness the planchette moving and the board spontaneously catching fire. Micah’s obstinance about using the board—despite Katie’s fear and insistence against it—produces the negative energy that Dr. Fredrichs cautioned them about.
Occult experts and book research
We’ve got both in Paranormal Activity. Dr. Fredrichs is a psychic who’s not particularly woo-woo but instead asks questions to eliminate natural causes for the phenomena the young couple is experiencing.
Dr. Averies is a demonologist who, because of Katie’s hesitation in contacting him (due to Micah’s recalcitrance), is unable to help them because he’s out of the country.
Wanting to tackle the problem himself, Micah does research from books about ghosts and demons. We see shots of their pages with lurid etchings and drawings of demonic entities. Standard fare in many movies about the occult. These authorities provide “expert” information about what’s going on and constrict the parameters of Micah and Katie’s situation: “Leaving the house won’t help” (thus locking them into the setting where the spirit rules).
Carroll’s over-reacher plot
As mentioned above, Micah plays the part of the over-reacher, whom Noël Carroll describes as a “central character… in search of forbidden knowledge—scientific, magical, or occult” (Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror, 118).
Paranormal Activity employs the over-reacher plot in which this “discovered knowledge is tested by an experiment or incantation of evil forces” (118). It progresses through these stages:
Preparing for the experiment:
Practical preparation: Micah buys the camera and other equipment needed to capture the paranormal activity so that it can be analyzed.
Philosophical preparation: Dr. Fredrichs’ explanation and Micah’s research (through books and Diane’s website) provide background information and justification for the experiment.
Preparations provide time and coverage to include setting, other characters (Katie’s sister), and Micah and Katie’s relationship dynamics. Carroll notes that during this stage, characters may resist the experiment. Katie does this with her disgust over the camera and the Ouija board.
Conducting the experiment:
Early attempts may fail. This happens when Katie finds her keys on the kitchen floor. And early footage of their sleep provides nothing conclusive.
The experiment succeeds and makes things worse. It unleashes dangerous, uncontrollable forces which usually destroy those nearest and dearest to the experimenter (Carroll). This happens after Micah brings the spirit board home. Katie is dragged out of bed. Inhuman, three-toed footprints show up on the powdered floor.
The entity’s destruction leads the experimenter to come to his senses and recant. Or not. Micah finds himself in too deep to fix things. Instead of coming to his senses, he doubles down by burning the cross Katie has cut herself with.
Confronting the supernatural entity:
First attempt(s) may fail. Micah tries to get Katie away from the house to a hotel, but she no longer wants to. They remain in the house for the…
“All-or-nothing battle with a climax.” Katie becomes possessed. I won’t spoil the ending. But I will say the climax is effective.
This plot demonstrates the theme that some knowledge is better left unpursued (Carroll 118).
Despite its use of time-worn conventions and tropes, Paranormal Activity manages to depict characters you can care about and creates suspense, horror, and terror to carry a series still making installments fifteen years later. I enjoyed the flick. Gave me a good scare.
Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror. Routledge, 1990.
In both Ghostbusters (1984) and Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (2016), four wacky characters find themselves out of jobs and band together to form a supernatural pest-removal business, where paranormal investigation meets high-tech extermination. They’re called “ghostbusters.”
I can say little of depth about either of the films—especially the first one. The four male characters are sophomoric, and the comedy—characteristic of Saturday Night Live of that era—is bad and stupid. (Director Ivan Reitman, who died in February, also directed such gems as Meatballs and Stripes. Blech.) The special effects are so terrible they’re laughable.
Despite its coarse execution, Ghostbusters managed to tell a decent story that starred Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, Sigourney Weaver, and Rick Moranis.
Yet, the story got way better when it was reinterpreted and recast with four women: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones. (And I didn’t mind screen time with the big, dumb receptionist, played by Chris Hemsworth.)
The 2016 version basically tells the original story with some freshening. The ladies are still sophomoric, but they are way funnier, the writing is better, and the special effects are much improved.
The remake contained lots of fun references to the 1984 version: the Ecto-1 mobile, the slime, the gluttonous ghosts, the Stay Puft marshmallow man, Hook & Ladder #8, and cameos my Murray, Aykroyd, Potts, Hudson, and Weaver.
The National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York, where I live, was dedicated a few years back, and I saw (and touched—don’t tell anyone) the original Ecto-1 mobile. Maybe someday it will visit your town too.
William Peter Blatty’s 1971 blockbuster, The Exorcist, recounts the demonic possession of adolescent Regan “Rags” MacNeil in Georgetown, D.C., and how a beleaguered Catholic priest deals with it.
Regan becomes involved with a spirit entity known as Captain Howdy by using an Ouija board. She receives seemingly cogent answers from him. But spiritualistic manifestations soon commence: rapping at night, temperature changes, noxious smells.
As her physical and mental condition worsens, she’s briefly left in the care of director Burke Dennings, a jerk who ends up dead with his head turned halfway around. This demon means business.
When medical and psychiatric evaluations are depleted, Regan’s mother Chris turns to a Jesuit priest and psychiatrist, Damien Karras. Karras, who’s undergoing a crisis of faith, also exhausts his medical and psychiatric excuses for not acknowledging demonic interference nor wanting to perform an exorcism. Where The Exorcism of Emily Rose fails in its due diligence, Blatty covers all the bases. We learn much about psychiatric maladies and the history of Catholic exorcism. By examining and eliminating each possible earthly cause, we’re left with demon possession as the root of Regan’s deterioration.
Although Karras still doesn’t trust this diagnosis, he goes through the process of gaining permission from the Bishop, who calls in missionary priest Father Merrin as exorcist.
After a grueling days-long rite, Merrin dies of heart failure, leaving Karras to finish the job. Finally fueled by compassionate and righteous anger, Karras challenges the demon to infest him instead—then immediately leaps out the window (like Emily Rose will do) to his death, gaining faith and absolution before he passes.
By approaching a spiritual and religious solution from the POV of a man who’s seemingly lost his faith, Blatty avoids over-simplification, self-righteousness, and propaganda—the damning faults of Emily Rose. When Karras is forced to consider the demon’s unfair cruelty causing Regan’s plight and imminent demise, he becomes truly human and thus salvific, willing to offer all he has to deliver her. Despite the utter vulgarity of the demon’s speech, actions, and underhanded tactics throughout act two, the climax brought me to an inspiring catharsis. I caught a glimpse of Christ’s victory (Col. 2:15).
I found this novel to be thoughtful and thorough. Although the dialogue at times is insipid and could have been cleared of the countless “ohs” and “wells” and exclamation points, Blatty knows how to tell an ironclad story. And his employment of omniscient viewpoint (I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow analysis this time) is flawless. It’s no wonder this book is still in print.
Source: Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist. Harper Paperbacks, 2011.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose
Director Scott Derrickson’s 2005 film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, also deals with exorcism from a Catholic viewpoint but its ham-handed treatment amounts to little more than religious propaganda.
In the opening scene, we see shots of a crucifix on the wall and a figurine of a nun; the Rose family are devout Catholics. They’ve just lost their daughter Emily to a battle with demonic possession, and the attending exorcist, Father Moore, is accused of her death.
Moore’s goal is to validate possession in a court of law. The movie focuses on the trial and testimony of various experts, pitting materialistic science, including education and medicine, against faith, which in this case means Catholicism.
Although also a so-called man of faith, prosecutor Ethan Thomas isn’t Catholic. “Methodist, I think,” says Erin, Moore’s defense attorney. Between the lines: Thomas is a Protestant, which amounts to being an unbeliever. During the trial, attorney Thomas harasses a witness (showing how Protestants mock the true faith).
Emily was happy before she “went away to university” (read: beware the dangers of higher education, which will shipwreck your faith and open you to demons). She also went to a dance, a worldly activity of which her mother disapproved. A presence enters Emily’s dorm room and attacks her, but possession actually occurs at the hospital (a place of demonic infestation?). A neurologist examines her and suspects epilepsy. Emily discontinues medical treatment because she believes the cause is spiritual and consults exclusively with her priest. Moore advises her to stop taking the (fictional) medication Gambutrol (perhaps because medicine is a gamble?).
Erin calls an “expert” witness to the stand, although I would seriously question the expertise of anyone who appeals to Carlos Castenada… Why did the demons invade Emily? Dr. Adani believes it was because Emily was a “hypersensitive.” And why did the exorcism fail? Because of her medical treatment—specifically, taking medication. Gambutrol, it seems, locked her into the possessed state.
It turns out that Moore wasn’t as negligent as we were led to believe. He invited Cartwright, a medical doctor, to attend the exorcism. However, to meliorate any reliance on science or medicine, Cartwright is a Catholic and former parishioner of Moore’s. This doctor claims that Emily wasn’t schizophrenic or epileptic. And the horrors he witnessed during the exorcism started him praying again (science and medicine bow to faith). Cartwright says he’ll testify and gives Erin a cassette tape from Fr. Moore of the exorcism.
During a struggle with doubt, Erin finds a locket engraved with the initials “ECB,” which happen to be hers—Erin Christine Bruner. Despite her previously professed agnosticism, Christ is in the center of her name. She takes the locket as a sign she’s where she’s supposed to be at this time.
As soon as she accepts faith, she wakes at 3:00 a.m. (the “demonic witching hour”—I rolled my eyes like Regan MacNeil) to Emily screaming on tape, the recorder having started on its own. (Note that it’s a “Realistic” recorder, underscoring the reality of demons and the supernatural.) Erin detects the smell of something burning. In the film, several shots of smoke alarms are used—indicating technology (science) that fails to warn about the dangers of smoke and fire (the dark denizens of hell).
Fr. Moore recorded the ritual to authenticate it and provide a record for later review. He warns attendants during the exorcism, “Above all, do whatever I ask without question.” This is the film’s Catholic propaganda in a nutshell.
Moore admits the exorcism was “a complete failure” and that Emily refused to undergo another. He never told her to stop seeing her doctor. But he did tell her to stop taking Gambutrol: “She had to see this through to the end by faith alone.” Not science, not medicine, but faith.
Emily spoke in foreign languages during the exorcism. She may have been exposed to them earlier in life. If not, speaking in tongues—which evidenced the early Christian disciples’ baptism in the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:2)—is instead treated as demonic.
When Dr. Cartwright reneges to testify (loses faith to fear), he’s immediately struck and killed by a car. Without the doctor’s medical testimony, they’ve lost. Moore insists on testifying to tell Emily’s story.
The Virgin Mary delivers the Bad News to Emily: “The demons will stay where they are. You can choose to come with me in peace and leave your body, or stay and suffer.” The reason: “Through you, many will come to see that the realm of the spirit is real. The choice is yours.” “I choose to stay,” Emily says, in essence sealing her fate as a martyr, albeit for the wrong cause.
In her final letter to Fr. Moore, Emily writes, “God will triumph over evil. People will know that demons are real. … People say that God is dead. But how can they think that if I show them the devil?” This is nonsensical reasoning.
If a true believer (here meaning a devout Catholic) remains in demonic bondage by no fault of her own, even after crying out to God for deliverance, and it eventually causes her death, people will actually say that God is powerless and uncaring because God chose not to deliver an innocent, faithful servant.
It seems (according to the screenwriter Paul Harris Boardman, at least) that Mary is advocating for the devil instead of her Son, who never failed to cast out unclean spirits. The Apostle Peter says, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, and because God was with him, he went around doing good and healing everyone who was oppressed by the Devil” (Acts 10:38 ISV).
Thomas’s closing argument pins a natural explanation on Emily’s stigmata (and all things Catholic); Fr. Moore’s beliefs are based on archaic and irrational superstition. “Facts are what must matter,” says Thomas. “It wasn’t the devil that did this to Emily Rose, it was the defendant.”
Erin counters with: “Sincere belief is what determined her [Emily’s] choices and his [Moore’s]. … Facts leave no room for possibilities.” This sounds like “alternative facts” and “fake news” we’ve heard so much about in recent years…
By the end of the movie, I was weary of the propagandistic treatment and hackneyed tropes of Catholic exorcism. What Blatty’s book examines jesuitically (pun may apply here), Derrickson’s film ruins. The only thing that redeemed the movie was its ironic ending: Fr. Moore is found guilty of negligent homicide and is immediately sentenced, the jury recommending a sentence of time served. He’s guilty, but free to go.
Antichrist (2009), by controversial director Lars von Trier, is the most disturbing horror film I’ve ever seen.
It opens with one of the most horrifying scenes in any movie I’ve watched. The ending scenes are even more excruciating. I won’t go into details to avoid blunting the shock factor, but consider yourself forewarned.
After the death of their toddler (“Nic,” played by Storm Acheche Sahlstrom), a couple who remain unnamed throughout the movie (Willem Dafoe as “He” and Charlotte Gainsbourg as “She”) deal with Her atypical grief over this heartbreaking loss. After She is hospitalized for a month, He, a psychotherapist, transports Her to their wilderness cabin, which harks back to the Garden of Eden and is in fact named “Eden.” There, they embark on psychotherapeutic exercises to help Her overcome Her grief and fear.
They seem to make progress, but His strange encounters with dead and dying animals—the Three Beggars: Grief, Pain, and Despair—coincide with Her descent into madness. He discovers Her thesis notes on “gynocide” that have degenerated over time into incoherent scribbles. He realizes She’s not as good a mother as He supposed.
She tells Him at one point, “Women do not control their own bodies; Nature does. … Nature is Satan’s church.” She demonstrates when she begins to terrorize him.
Fearing He will leave Her, She’s convinced He has become the enemy and intervenes violently to prevent abandonment. These climactic scenes are unbearably intense, gory, and sexually explicit. (Several scenes should have earned the movie an NC-17 rating, so beware.)
Von Trier’s perverse film is not for the squeamish. He developed it during a severe depression (which I admire because I’ve been unable to write while depressed), and his mental and emotional state during the writing and filming leach through to infect the mind and soul of viewers.
At the cabin, She renounces Her thesis and tells Him She believes that women are evil. Is the movie misogynistic? That depends on your point of view. Von Trier’s female characters are often abused, and NPR paints Him like male characters in von Trier’s other works as “a smug, sententious fool.”
While this film is sinister and unpleasant, Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is gorgeous—especially the black-and-white scenes, the close-ups, and out-of-focus shots.
The acting is exceptional. Dafoe, who played Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), always gives a good performance, and Gainsbourg (Claire in von Trier’s Melancholia ) is stellar.
The movie deals with biblical themes about Satan, the Fall, and the nature of evil. But I couldn’t understand why the film was titled “Antichrist”; it had nothing to do with the man of lawlessness. When the handwritten credits rolled, I found out why: the director is billed as “Lars von Trier Antichrist.”
You will either love or hate this film. But as a study in dramatic horror, it’s a must-see for film students and enthusiasts alike. 4.7 stars.
I’m a little late to the show for this one, but if a movie fuels my imagination, even if it’s eight years old, I’ll review it. I felt this way about HOUSE OF WAX, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and released in 2005.
Synopsis: Six friends are traveling to a football game. They camp out for the night and plan to continue driving the next morning. But after discovering car trouble, two of them accept a stranger’s ride into the small, out-of-the-way town of Ambrose, where the main attraction is the House of Wax. But something’s strange about this town. Save for the wax figures, the town is deserted—except for two serial-killing twin brothers. The friends must fight to survive and escape from being the next exhibits. (Adapted from IMDB.)
I’ve always loved wax museums and think they’re fascinating as well as creepy. (A great combination for me.) I love the concept of not just a wax museum, not just a house, but an entire town made of wax. This village is cut off from everything and full of wax figures—any of which could be one of the deadly brothers—a situation that generates plenty of suspense. The awesome set makes for some genuinely creepy moments. And there are plenty of adrenaline-jolting scares from loud sound effects (cheap thrills, nonetheless effective).
The twins are the perfect killing franchise: one is the artist, the entertainer, and the other is the businessman, the salesman. Their only redeeming quality may be that they love their mother. The artist twin works with flesh, wax—and cutlery.
Protagonists are fraternal twins Carly and Nick Jones, played by spunky Elisha Cuthbert and brooding hottie Chad Michael Murray. The acting is unexceptional, but it’s not terrible either, except perhaps for Paris Hilton, who plays part of Paige Edwards. And other than the roadkill picker-upper (Damon Herriman), none of them is hard to look at. Even the mangled twin keeps himself hid behind a nice wax mask (Brian Van Holt). He’s a scary sonofabitch, this vicious killing artist.
There’s loads of violence and gore in this flick, but the set and cinematography are visually rich and satisfying, something I like in horror, although these can’t redeem bad logic or shitty plotting.
HOUSE OF WAX suffers from some typical stupid horror movie moments. Why chase after the smell of rotting flesh? Why split up to search in a dangerous place? Must we have an explanatory info dump at the end? And gas at the filling station is $1.19—totally threw me out of the story. (Was it ever that cheap?) 😉
Favorite parts: Paris Hilton getting pegged. (It was her finest scene.) Catching a clip of Bette Davis crooning to Victor Buono’s ivory tickling in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, which plays nightly to a theater full of wax-covered corpses. And how the film used symbolism and tied in thematic elements at the climax.
HOUSE OF WAX isn’t as brilliant as CHAINED, but all in all, it’s not a bad view. The biggest problem with a house made of wax? Like an enormous candle, it melts. I’ll leave a few surprises for your viewing pleasure.
HOUSE OF WAX was written by Charles Belden (writer credited for the original story of the 1954 Vincent Price version) and TWIN brothers Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes (screenplay). 113 minutes. Rated R.
“Brilliant!” That was my exclamation after watching CHAINED (2012), dark crime thriller directed by Jennifer Lynch (daughter of David Lynch).
Bob is a taxi-driving serial killer who abducts women, rapes and kills them, and buries them on his property. But one day he picks up Sarah and her nine-year-old son Tim. After doing his schtick on Mom, Bob raises the boy as his own. “Rabbit,” as Bob calls him, must do as he says: eat his leftovers, clean the house, and bury the dead.
Although the house is inescapable, Rabbit is chained to the daybed in the kitchen. As he grows older, “Dad” assigns an anatomy textbook for his protegé’s education, expecting Rabbit to follow in his footsteps whether he wants to or not.
Shot in just 14 days, there are no spectacular special effects in this film. Just intense drama, keen suspense, and fascinating characterization.
Although I don’t like looking at Vincent D’Onofrio, he’s an incredible actor and, like his performance in THE CELL, delivers a convincing—and chilling—performance as Bob. The lovely Eamon Farren portrays Rabbit with sympathy. I hope to see more of him in coming years.
While this movie is not for the faint of heart because of its violence, it’s worth studying for its writing and characterization. And there are shocking surprises you won’t want to miss.
John is down on his luck, so he moves into grimy little apartment house #24 where the paint is stained, the water drips, and all the tenants share a bathroom. But his situation is only temporary, until he finds a job and gets back on his feet.
The landlord says the place is fully occupied, but the only neighbor John sees is a wanton old woman who counsels him to accept that he cannot leave. All the other tenants, she says, are dead. “They’re all dead. Simple as that.”
When John’s ex-girlfriend Veronica disappears into the little black and white television from which only hostile faces stare, John realizes he cannot escape the building or his fate. There’s a grave in the backyard with a stone engraved with “Lie Still.” And the man in the photo he cannot destroy is the man in the basement, the original owner of the house, who eventually comes to visit him.
There’s no all-star cast, no fantastic makeup, no dazzling special effects in #24. But what this British horror flick does have is loads of atmosphere, disquieting despair, and a mounting level of apprehension reminiscent of David Lynch’s Eraserhead.
Is apartment #24 real, or is John mad? What he comes to realize is just what the old woman tells him: “There’s no help here. No friendly neighbors. No one at all. No one lives here. No one to help you. No one. Why fight it?”
This movie disturbed me like the short stories of Ramsey Campbell. Its ghosts will stalk the corridors of my mind for some time. 3.7/5.0 stars.
The Haunting of 24 was originally release in the UK as Lie Still in 2005. Written and directed by Sean Hogan. Starring Stuart Laing, Nina Sosanya, Robert Blythe, Susan Engel, and Granville Saxton.