Dir. Oren Peli

(2009, R, 86 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

Dir. Tod Williams

(2010, R, 91 min)
★ ★

In my experience, the greatest fear comes from anticipation. That’s why I’ve never responded very strongly to horror films, which are usually games of show-and-tell: A monster or knife-wielding maniac pops into the frame out of nowhere and gives you a quick jolt. I think such “Gotcha!” scenes are prevalent because filmmakers and producers know what I know: that as soon as you see the monster on the screen, it’s not scary anymore. It becomes tangible, life-sized, something you can run from or fight. And what Hollywood can whip up in its makeup, wardrobe, or special effects departments is rarely the stuff of true nightmares. Just artifice.

Real fear is more like childhood fear. The monster in the closet or under the bed. You never see it, but you know it’s there. You swear you can hear it moving, but you can’t catch it and you never know when it will strike. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Bomb Theory” explains the difference between suspense and surprise, but I think it’s equally applicable to fear and gotcha!

Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat

Said Hitchcock, “Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

When a killer jumps into the frame to lunge at his victim, that’s surprise; the filmmaker has crept up behind us to yell “Boo!” and we feel terror for an instant. But if instead we know there is a threat, but don’t know where it will strike, or when, or how, the tension builds until we long for release from our anxiety. That’s fear. Few films, preoccupied as Hollywood is with sensory stimulation, allow real fear to develop. They just sneak up and say “Boo!” Try doing that to someone sometime. The first time he might find it fun. The fourth time he might tell you nicely to go away. By the tenth time, he’ll deck you.

That’s why The Blair Witch Project, ridiculed by too many, became my favorite horror film. The characters were powerless as they realized with increasing terror that they were at the mercy of those intractable woods. More importantly, the audience was powerless. That the characters are doomed we know from the beginning, and we’re trapped there with them, assuming their point of view through their own cameras, but we never see the witch, so we don’t know where, or when, or how. It’s scary for 87 minutes instead of in fits and starts, and it stuck with me. For the first time since childhood, there was a monster in the closet.

Last year came Paranormal Activity, and it’s the first film since The Blair Witch Project to really get under my skin. I didn’t see it when it was released. I watched it this week in anticipation of its sequel, alone in my living room, and was still thinking about it when I went to bed. For its duration it absorbed and unsettled me.

Like Blair Witch, it’s vérité horror with a found-footage conceit. It opens with Micah (Micah Sloat) filming his girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherston) with a brand new camera. She thinks their house is haunted and he wants to capture the evidence on tape, thinking her fears are just silly superstitions and creaky floorboards. Of course, he’s wrong.

"What was that!?"

The film works so well because of writer-director Oren Peli, who filmed in his own house and improvised the screenplay with the actors based on an outline. The resulting performances are natural and unaffected and create a sense of authenticity. To capture the frightening events, the couple positions the camera at the end of their bed as they sleep, through which Peli shows expert command of pacing and visual space. Our eyes are drawn to the open bedroom door, and he holds the shot to let suspense build. The mysterious events start slowly, with a swinging door, tricks of light, sounds in the background. Then it gets worse.

Peli taps into the fear of the mundane, things that go bump in the night, things that must have simple explanations … or do they? He walks a fine line, at risk of deflating the tension if he shows too much, losing our interest if he shows too little, or worse, making the whole thing seem silly. The camera footage keeps our perspective narrow, and we’re left to wonder what’s happening out of frame. The scariest things happen where we can’t see them.

Paranormal Activity 2, now in theaters, hopes to reproduce the low cost/high profit formula of the first film, which grossed almost $200 million worldwide on a budget of only $15,000. The reason it fails where the first succeeded can in large part be attributed to the absence of Oren Peli, who stays on as producer but neither writes nor directs. The screenplay this time is by Michael R. Perry, Christopher Landon, and Tom Pabst, and the director is Tod Williams, who made a very good dramatic film a few years back called The Door in the Floor. Maybe horror isn’t his strong suit.

The story follows Katie’s sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden) several weeks before the haunting from the original film. Kristi is married to Dan (Brian Boland) and the mother of a bouncing baby boy, Hunter. There’s also a stepdaughter and a faithful dog. After what they believe is a break-in, they install security cameras throughout the house, and those cameras record what happens over the next several days.

Baby Hunter

Surprise, surprise — the house is haunted! But Williams demonstrates no originality in trying to scare us, only borrows from the same bag of tricks Peli used in the original film: doors opening and closing, thumping noises, mysterious shadows. The difference this time is that the events feel like contrived callbacks instead of genuine frights. We’re meant to recognize what we’ve seen before, and having seen them we’re not as impressed.

In theory, I suppose, the same devices could elicit scares a second time around, but Williams doesn’t generate an atmosphere spooky enough to draw us in, and he never holds a shot for long enough to pique our curiosity, let alone dread. Front walkway. Cut to pool. Cut to kitchen. Cut to family room. Cut to baby’s room. Just a repetitive series of static shots without visual interest. Our eyes are given no time to explore, and the physical spaces are too open, too cluttered, and sometimes too bright to inspire fear. He then makes the mistake of showing too much, as in one shot of a baby that comes perilously close to self-parody.

The cast is overpopulated. The original was an insulated two-character drama, making the story frightfully claustrophobic. This film involves a family of four, along with the dog and guest appearances by good old Katie and Micah. It’s a comfort to have so many characters sharing a common fear, but in a horror film we don’t want to be comforted.

The script is perhaps the film’s greatest flaw. It bends over backwards to tie itself to the original plot, and in doing so mangles a good and simple premise with needless exposition and a lot of floofy mumbo-jumbo about demon transfers and the souls of firstborn sons. “Floofy” was a word I made up a couple of years ago to describe something so indescribably goofy that it requires a new word.

Paranormal Activity 2 includes a couple of effective scenes, but mostly it lays flat, settling for a few momentary jolts that interrupt the mundanity, giving us surprise where the original gave us suspense. It’s the difference between a parlor trick and good filmmaking.