This week Paranormal activity 4 continues the story of an extended American family whose members own numerous surveillance cameras, camcorders, smartphones, baby monitors, webcams, Talkboys and other consumer electronics with which they record the haunting of their beautiful suburban homes by one entity terrifying demonic.
The original Paranormal activity, from 2007, owes its remarkable naturalism to the improvisation and chemistry of its stars, Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, and to its “found footage” presentation shot by the couple with a Sony camera. Four of those movies might sound like overkill, but it makes sense. All most viewers want is an immersive sensory experience, and once you get older and your bones hurt, it takes real willpower to suspend all your accumulated disbelief. And good horror movies – like the really scary ones – are five times more plentiful on Netflix than two-star hack jobs: “Scream Blacula Scream: Our best guess for Chris – 1.5 stars.
Immersive naturalism is therefore difficult to achieve. The lazy method – hiring Jay Leno to play himself by making monologue jokes during a chain change edit – hasn’t worked since, say, Walk the dog. Done well, the Fake Found-Footage Frame (now F4) is still as effective as when it was new, and Paranormal activity is one of the scariest movies of the past decade.
Try to imagine a standard Hollywood horror movie in which one of the big scares is a long silence followed by a creaking door. It’s Nickelodeon Goose bumps shit right there, son.
But it works in Paranormal activity – and, to a lesser extent, by V / H / S and Sinister and the rest – because the static camera and everyday bland look puts you right in the room. Your identification with the characters is almost inevitable, for, indeed, you are one of them. Compare that to something like Dario Argento’s Suspiria, with its expertly composed shots, stylized dialogues, thick color palette and general atmosphere of premeditated strangeness – the total effect of this film is practically the opposite of Paranormal activity, alienating the audience from the characters and the setting.
Removing elements like style, technique, and artistry entirely can bring the viewer closer to the story, an approach particularly effective in horror films, where the desired emotional response is visceral. And the irony? Nothing kills the immediacy of a horror movie faster than a storyline littered with sly references for movie nerds who’ve seen it all. Filmmakers, you ask: Will any particular reference make Harry Knowles and Kevin Smith turn and nod their heads at each other in their big Dumbledore hats in a professorial way? If the answer is yes, your movie is probably not scary.
At this point, even the most pioneering elements of cinematic grammar have been fully absorbed into the culture. The same angles, plans and assembly principles that inform The Godfather are present in Walker, Texas Ranger, advertisements for term life insurance and the training videos they show to new Wendy’s employees. As a result, viewers take a special stance towards traditionally constructed films. There is a low level awareness of the experience, the awareness that “this is just a movie”. This voice is ignorable when watching effective movies, but careless directors, bad acting, cheesy CG, awkward editing, the presence of Kevin James or any of the 1,000 mistakes can elevate it to a. conscious level.
In contrast, homemade YouTube videos of cute puppies and trampoline accidents evoke a completely different answer: On some cognitive level, you are the person behind the camera. It is a first person experience. Paranormal activity and other F4 films exploit this unconscious posture to arouse fear. Unstable camera work, passive autofocus, and low-quality video artifacts virtually characterize genre cinema of the past decade. See Cloverfield (2008), The inner demon (2012), [REC] (2007), V / H / S (2012), The last exorcism (2010), as well as numerous smaller films of the “Best Guess for Chris: One Star” variety on Netflix.
The action drama End of the guard tour and teen comedy Project X are rare exceptions, deploying the F4 for purposes other than horror. But it’s hard to think of many established genres where camcorders aren’t totally out of harmony. Period costume dramas are out of the question – “I say, Disraeli, what’s going on with the camcorder?” An F4 shot by Lloyd Dobler holding a boom box in one hand and pointing a camera at Diane’s window with the other would be creepy in the “help me put that chair in my van” genre. Romantic comedies certainly need the distance from the traditional third-person visual storytelling.
Making a fictional film look like Zapruder’s film is a remarkably delicate balancing act. The artifices to advance the plot and the forced dialogue stand out. The same goes for appearances by recognizable actors, like Chris Mulkey’s four seconds of screen time in Cloverfield, just before Lizzy Caplan exploded. “Hey I saw this guy on Friday night lights“Said the audience, and under the sudden and unexpected weight of the Dillon Panthers, disbelief erupts from the great outdoors and smashes his head against the frame of the trampoline.
F4 films also have the burden of explaining the constant presence of the camera: “We have to document this monster attack” or “My security system has surveillance cameras all over the house. And microphones, for some reason. ” This is a necessary excuse to suspend the narrative conventions of the film in favor of a character with a diegetic camera, and it has become a kind of convention, like the title card informing us that the subjects of the following film have never been found and are presumed dead.
The adoption of a “found document”, the first person position goes back a long way. Both Frankenstein and the original Blacula, Dracula, are written as first-person frames made up of extracts from letters and newspapers – narrative formats with which TB and bedridden readers of the time were already familiar. For them, those layers of voyeurism and voyeurism probably added to the thrill of sexy and sexy horror and danger evoked, respectively, by Shelley and Stoker.
But for all the emotional immediacy, a first person cameraman / narrator is also an inherently bounding and circumscribing device. Like the first-person narrator in written fiction, she is only aware of circumstances in the immediate vicinity, depending on the exhibition angels to descend into the frame and tell her about the great outside world. the Paranormal activity the films have no metaphysical ambitions beyond the interior of a suburban home, and ultimately, for all its apocalyptic scale, obliterating Manhattan, Cloverfield is really just a story about a bunch of trust fund morons having a bad night.