Paranormal Activity (2007) written and directed by Oren Peli
There’s a good reason not to see (or review) a film when it first comes out; it’s easy to get caught up in the popular response to the movie, be it positive or negative. I can’t even begin to list the movies that have been wildly popular but left me, at best, scratching my head. (Ok, I’ll mention one: Happy Feet, a horrific, in the bad sense, movie that was a top grossing film for that year.)
On the other hand, I missed Blade Runner in its first release because so many people I knew didn’t care for it.
Paranormal Activity had so much hype during its initial run that I passed on it. Watching it now, two years after the fact, it is one tremendously creepy, in the good sense, movie, far scarier on a deep level than any number of gore films. The plot is nothing special, a couple in a modern home think they are being haunted and decide to video tape the proceedings. There are no great twists to speak of. It continues the tradition of found footage movies started by Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project. But it is a masterfully paced and conceived film that relies more on suggestion than in your face gore.
Not that it is all passive. The scene where Katie, the focal point of the haunting, is dragged from her bed by an unseen force is more effective than any similar scene I can recall. There are demonic footprints, strange noises, lights going on and off when the couple are in bed. Katie stands by the bed and stares at boyfriend Micah for two hours is unsettling and a great example of how well thought out this film is, as it obviously doesn’t take two hours of screen time, yet there is no cutting.
What makes it all work is the exquisite timing, and writer/director/cameraman, Oren Peli’s choice to film a good two-thirds of the movie from a single stationary camera position. The wide angle framing adds an enormous amount of tension by NOT cutting to close-ups of every single action. The action is never unclear; you just can’t see all the details, which adds to the otherworldly feeling. It’s a great technique, not used often enough. The 1951 The Thing from Another World uses similar techniques for suspense. Close-ups are frankly overused in modern movies.
There are the brief moments where I found myself thinking any rational person would turn on the lights instead of stumbling around in a dark house by the light from a video camera, but those are few and far between, and it does indeed add to the eerie atmosphere without being cheesy.
The ending doesn’t quite work for me, but I now know that it was studio imposed. The original ending sounds far more interesting, but it wasn’t available on the DVD I had.
For once in a shoe-string budget movie, the acting is believable and effective. Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat are natural, and the improvisation is convincing. The fact that it was shot in seven days and cost something like $15,000 is proof that a well-conceived idea by a talented film-maker doesn’t need to cost $100+ million and feature ‘star’ talent. You can take chances and be successful. It’s a lesson Hollywood is never going to learn, so we can all look forward to more remakes and unnecessary sequels and half-bake safe ideas from the mainstream studios.
Quarantine (2008) Directed by John Dowdle , written by John and Drew Dowdle
To see two excellent horror films in one weekend is almost a unique experience for me, at least in the last ten years. I honestly didn’t expect much from Quarantine, another ‘found footage’ genre pic, but the tension, scares and outright unsettling creepiness even manages to overcome the presence of Jennifer Carpenter, the most annoying actress on the face of the planet.
My enthusiasm for the picture has diminished somewhat in light of the knowledge that it is basically a shot-for-shot remake of a Spanish horror film, REC. Still, without having seen the original, Quarantine works at every level.
Once again, the effectiveness of the film is in the telling rather than the story told. Structure-wise, it’s the same movie as Alien: a group of people trapped in a confined space with a killer enemy.
A news reporter and cameraman, Angela and Steve, are shooting a light feature story on local firemen when a call comes in. Seeing an opportunity, the duo tags along to a dilapidated apartment building where an elderly woman is apparently trapped in her apartment.
Breaking in, the fire crew finds the old woman covered in blood, stumbling about in a daze…until she leaps on a fire-fighter and rips his neck out with her teeth.
Trying to leave the building, the camera records the fact that the building has been surrounded by police and sealed off, with no immediate explanation. The doors and windows are blocked; all communication with the outside world has been cut off; snipers are posted around the building with the orders to shoot on sight. Which they do.
From that point on you have your basic zombie film, with everyone who gets bit turning into a ravenous beast. They’re not really zombies; they’re infected with a super-rabies virus, source unknown.
As the old woman is staying up on her floor, all the other tenants are herded down to the lobby, the only exception being a man from Boston who lives in the top floor apartment. He’s been gone for weeks.
The situation degenerates quickly and it’s to director Dowdle’s credit that he keeps the camera movement interesting and germane. As the fire and police crews and the tenants fall prey to the infection, Angela and Steve are forced upstairs. Finding the master keys in the landlord’s apartment, they retreat to the top floor apartment for what is, in my opinion, the piece-de-resistance of the film, a crude, home-made lab worthy of Herbert West.
By this time of course, the light is supplied solely by the light on the camera, so details are only glimpsed. I’ve said before that I prefer suggestion to overt display, and I would submit the last fifteen minutes of Quarantine as one of my prime exhibits.
Despite the general high quality of the film in all respects, cinematographer Ken Sing and an art director whose name I can’t locate may be the real stars of this movie. The amount of planning for all the lighting set-ups, even with a template, is an immensely complex job; and if I’d seen the film before I started Lovecraft is Missing, I likely would have lifted some of the cool, decaying details of the set design.
There are some dumb moments in the movie: the one person who may know a way out just happens to stand in front of a French door through which we have just seen one of the monsters. Oops! He just starts to reveal his knowledge when the monster, who still retains its sense of dramatic timing, bursts through the glass and delivers the Big Bite. And a few too many ‘scares’ come from gory-faced monsters jumping out of the dark.
But all in all, I liked this movie a lot, felt the suspense down to my toe-bones and found the ending truly unsettling. I can’t wait to see the original Spanish version, but until then, Quarantine will remain one of the best horror films in recent memory. Even in spite of Jennifer Carpenter.