Peril in the Key of P

Watched ‘recently’ – three spooky movies whose titles begin with the letter P.

Paranormal Activity (2007)

Strange occurrences take place in the house of Katie and Micah, so he sets up a camera to record what takes place when they are sleeping. What they witness on the film – doors swinging open and shut, Katie getting out of bed and simply standing staring down at Micah, etc. – convince her that paranormal activity is occurring, which is confirmed by an expert in such matters who believes that a demon is present. Micah is not convinced, but things like inhuman footprints appearing in the talcum powder he sprinkles across the floor and a session with a Ouija board that ends in flames chip away at his doubt. It continues to escalate until the ‘twist’ ending, one that took me completely off guard. I caught this at the cinema when it first came out, and it’s one of the few horror films that I have found unsettling, a feeling that persisted when viewing it on DVD. What works and works so well is the low key nature of it all. The found footage aspect reinforces suspension of disbelief, while the understated effects gradually wear down viewer resistance in a way that something more overt wouldn’t achieve. There aren’t any grand special effects, no alarums and excursions of any great moment, just things taking place that are only a slight step away from reality, none of them significant in isolation, but with a cumulative effect that completely undermines our belief in a world of observable cause and effect, superseding it with one that allows room for the supernatural to exist, and once that is accepted then we are adrift on unknown seas.

Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)

I was a bit bemused by this. The home of Kristi and Dan is burgled, though the only thing taken is a necklace given to Kristi by sister Katie (the same Katie who appeared in the original “PA”, and who now guests in this along with partner Micah). Dan installs CCTV and a number of strange occurrences are recorded, with activity apparently focused on baby Hunter. Dan thinks there has to be a logical explanation, while the others lean towards the supernatural. And so it bubbles along nicely towards the explosive finale. Bigger budget equals bigger cast (including a baby and a guard dog), bigger house, even down to a swimming pool, and yet it’s still basically the same story, complete with enigmatic ending and note about a character being missing. Watching it at times I was reminded strongly of “Big Brother” (and how wonderful it would be if some sort of paranormal activity was caught by the camera on that show), with night vision and a disconnected feel to the action, so that we stumble from event to event rather than have a plot that flows. Where it does score is in the overarching narrative, so that gradually we come to realise that this is not a sequel as such but that rare thing a film that runs in parallel with another, events in “PA2” intercut with those in “PA” so you gain a wider perspective from watching both, with the back story of the demon gradually revealed. I liked it, even though it felt largely like a retread of what we’d seen before.

Poltergeist (1982)

I’m assuming everyone has seen this and knows the basic story – family move into a house where they are attacked by malevolent entities. Directed by Tobe Hooper, from an idea by Steven Spielberg, it regularly appears on lists of the scariest films ever, and there are some superb set pieces, as with the room filled with flying objects and the investigator whose face starts to peel, the scenes with the television set and the scary jack in the box. With children as the focus of many of the attacks it calculatingly tugs at our heart strings and plucks the taut nerve with skill. And yet some thirty years on it all seems rather dated and not quite as unsettling as it should be, with a heavy reliance on jump moments and special effects, culminating in the final showdown when coffins come heaving out of the muddy ground to disgorge their cadaverous contents. I love it from first scene to last and much prefer it to the “PA” movies, but in terms of unsettling it doesn’t work nearly as well. “PA” has a genuinely disturbing feel to it, but “Poltergeist” is just your usual horror hokum cranked up to eleven in the hands of a master, and we watch it not so much in dread but in eager anticipation of whatever piece of sfx grandstanding Hooper will pull out of his box of tricks next.

Right, that’s your lot. I’m off to have some yoghurt with spirit – Paranormal Activia, anyone?

No? Haunt yourselves.

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2 Responses to Peril in the Key of P

  1. Rolnikov says:

    I found the Paranormal Activity films quite terrifying, to the point that I have to remind myself to breath. We always have to watch them in the daytime.

    • petertennant says:

      The thing for me is that those movies contain stuff that you can actually believe might happen, rather than just eye boggling sfx. They are compellingly understated.
      Where my girlfriend lives the walls are so thin that a lot of noise filters through from the adjoining houses, and at times it feels like you’re living in a “PA” movie. She goes straight to sleep at night, while I lie in bed listening to all the sounds and staring hard at the bedroom door, half expecting the handle to start turning. One night a cupboard door yawned open and I nearly had a coronary, but it turned out to be a cat.

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