Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Harried Halloween! (The Shining/Paranormal Activity)

So, yeah, I’ve already copped to the fact that this year’s pop culture Spooktoberfest got off to a belated start, and thanks to the aptly-named Frankenstorm it’s limping across the finish line. Under more ideal circumstances this past weekend might have been uneventful, leaving time for me to finally watch my new blu-ray of The Cabin in the Woods (and not incidentally introduce my wife to its charms). And over the course of Monday and Tuesday’s commutes I could have finished reading The Night Eternal and also watched the next Netflix horror flick on my programming schedule, Candyman. But the weekend was given over to storm-proofing and stocking up (and rightly so) and there have been no train rides at all this week, so here I am all out of sorts.

But! I’m never one to let something as arbitrary as the calendar deter me and/or my completist tendencies. So prepare for Spookvemberfest! Sometime in the early part of next month I will weigh in with an evaluation of Guillermo del Toro’s Strain trilogy in a Series: Completed post, and I will also get down some thoughts on both Candyman and, eventually, Cloverfield (which was written by Drew Goddard, who co-wrote Cabin in the Woods with Joss Whedon, so that may make for a handy segue into revisiting that film, as well). Now, though, before we bid Spooktoberfest farewell, I offer up the following double-feature of reviews. Spoilers!!!

This week, what with Halloween and all, the 1001 Movies Blog Club is turning its attentions to The Shining. I have a somewhat complicated relationship with that movie. There are really two very different stories which loom large on the American pop culture landscape which go under the same title. One is The Shining, a novel by Stephen King. The other is The Shining, a film by Stanley Kubrick. In theory, the film is an adaptation of the novel, and they do feature characters with the same names and the distinctive setting of the Overlook Hotel, and in both instances the shining referred to in the title is another word for little Danny Torrance’s psychic powers. But Kubrick’s version takes so many liberties with King’s source material that it really becomes its own narrative entity (not least because the respective endings of the book and movie are so very different).

By the time I got around to watching The Shining in high school, I was already a couple of years into my Stephen King obsession, and I took great offense at how unfaithful Kubrick was in capturing the story on celluloid. The movie version just struck me as misguided, and that impression was only underscored by various interviews with King that I read, in which he very much distanced himself from the film because, obviously, the story up on the screen was not the story he had written. The novel really presents Jack Torrance as a sympathetic character, a regular guy with a few (serious) flaws who is utterly corrupted by the disembodied, malevolent evil of the Overlook. The movie presents Jack Torrance as Jack Nicholson, fresh off One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and more or less makes the haunted hotel a mechanism giving him permission to be as deeply, terrifyingly crazy as he was all along. That’s a huge departure, and a hugely off-putting one to a purist, particularly one as zealous as only a teenage superfan can be.

Eventually, I came around on The Shining as a movie. I stopped seeing it as a personal affront to Stephen King and took it on its own merits as a different beast, and of course there’s no denying how amazing it is. Whether or not it’s telegraphed from the first frames, Nicholson unhinged is awesome to watch, and the entire movie is so visually sumptuous and stylish, and the hotel’s weirdness is disturbing in all the right ways. King’s The Shining is a tragedy, but Kubrick’s The Shining is a fever-pitch nightmare.

(Of course, another side effect of how soured I was on The Shining can still be seen in how little of Kubrick’s work I sought out after that bad introduction. Not to recapitulate my Scorsese post from the other week, but I’ve also never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey or Spartacus or Lolita or A Clockwork Orange. I KNOW.)

So I do respect and enjoy the audacity of the indelible imagery in Kubrick’s The Shining, and I’m reasonably sure that’s everyone’s major takeaway from the movie. Jack Nicholson leering through a shattered doorframe; Danny Lloyd riding his Big Wheel down the gaudily carpeted hallways; Shelly Duvall wide-eyed and gape-mouthed at the axe head biting into the shot, those are compositions from which you can take a still frame, put them up with virtually no context, and people will say, “Oh, right. The Shining.” And probably (and properly) feel a bit creeped out as well.

Compare that to Paranormal Activity, which is also on the list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, and which I just saw this past Friday. (Yes, I watched it on the VRE. I figured it was mostly tension-driven and unlikely to offend someone’s delicate sensibilities in their peripheral vision.) Paranormal Activity has almost no visual style whatsoever, by deliberate design, since it’s part of the “fictional found footage” trend in horror movies. Every sequence is either from a hand-held perspective or static mounted on a tripod. And half the movie is in green-blue low light nightvision.

That said? It is freaking brilliant.

The found footage aesthetic can be a lazy filmmaker’s crutch, putting a veneer of “this could have really happened” over every flaw from an unimaginative story to a woeful lack of budget. Or, it can actually enhance the story being told and make it much more affecting, and that’s where Paranormal Activity succeeds. One of the criticisms sometimes levied against Kubrick’s The Shining is that it’s a very cold movie. I do not dispute that at all. In some ways that’s entirely apt, given the snowed-in-during-a-blizzard setting (and plot resolution), but it also makes the scares offered by the film necessarily more unsettling and alienating. On the other hand, much of Paranormal Activity looks like a home movie, and Micah and Katie feel more like genuine people than actors, which makes the dread all the more visceral as their physical and mental well-being is continuously threatened.

What’s really amazing is how every scene looks like found footage but, if you stop and think about it, is clearly the product of a lot of thoughtful consideration. The living room light fixture swinging violently on its chain is scarier when captured by a tiny spotlight as Micah carries the camera on his shoulder through the otherwise pitch black house. And Katie getting dragged out of the master bedroom by an invisible force, chased after by Micah, leaves the tripod-mounted camera alone in the bedroom for a silent eternity, as all manner of horrors are supplied by the viewer’s imagination because absolutely nothing is happening on-screen. Before the movie’s climax, Katie’s demonic possession is really only indicated by her getting up in the middle of the night, standing next to the bed, and staring at Micah for hours. This is shown in its entirety, but sped up, with the timestamp counter in the corner of the screen accelerating and Katie swaying in slightly jerky fast forward. It’s such an obvious yet genius use of the premise, that this couple set up a camera to record themselves sleeping, and totally unnerving.

And then, that climax, quick but brutal, holy hell. (Pun slightly intended.) It’s not often that I see a movie on dvd and immediately wish I could have caught it in a theater full of people during its first run, but Paranormal Activity is up near the top of that list. I can only imagine the screams on opening night when Micah’s body came flying at the camera. It must have been exhilarating. I almost screamed, and I was watching on a teeny-tiny screen on a crowded train in broad damn daylight.

There are some books I read or shows I sit down to watch which I enjoy at the time and then forget about almost immediately, and there are ones where the enjoyment stays with me for a while, and Paranormal Activity is of the latter kind, which is fantastic. Except … it has three sequels and counting, and I am a completist by nature, even though I know sequels can never possibly be as good as originals! Will I seek out parts 2 through 4 (or 5 or whatever they end up reaching before flaming out) or will I leave my geeked-out memories of the one that started it all unsullied? I think we all know the answer to that one. Keep reading for my inevitable disappointment in diminishing returns in due time.

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