Saturday, October 17, 2009

Paranormal Activity, Blair Witch, and bad endings

Spoiler alert!

I watched Paranormal Activity on its opening night. Simply put, all of the comparisons to The Blair Witch Project are wholly justified. (Apropos of nothing, it's the first film I've seen in a theater since Penelope was born. There's no particular reason why this film was the first - it just worked out that way.)

The way that PA starts with subtle scares - creaks, lights turning on, gently moving doors - and gradually escalates - bangs, spontaneous combustion, slamming doors - is damned effective. By the time the sheets on the bed begin to move we're scared in part because, well, the scene is scary but moreso because we're already anticipating its escalation to... well, it's one thing to spoil the plot and another thing entirely to ruin one of the most terrifying scenes I've ever seen.

If PA improves on the BW model in any respect, it's with its rather rigid structure. It moves back and forth between what the stationary camera in the bedroom records in black-and-white at night and the characters' discussion of what's happening and what they should do about it in color during the day. And those breaks - knowing that the characters, and we, are safe when it's light out (that is, until the film nears the end, when even the day is no longer off-limits) - keeps us from feeling exhausted and keeps the film's scares from seeming arbitrary or, worse, dictated by the cliché structure of a genre exercise rather than the internal logic of the story.

And they also make the nights that much more frightening, the anticipation that much stronger, and the pay off feel that much better because it's deserved. I noticed that the audience would nervously, and collectively, shift in their seats as we transitioned to the stationary night cam near the beginning of the movie. By the end, people were gasping simply because the title for "Night 23" appeared on the screen and the picture faded to black. You know they're doing something right when we're scared by the expectation of being scared but still haven't any clue how it's going to happen. (As opposed a scene in a typical horror film where the scare is practically choreographed for us: If the perspective is over the hero's shoulder and a few feet behind, is there any way that it won't end with someone grabbing him/her from the back?)

But I didn't particularly like the last 20 seconds or so of the film. In Blair Witch, the ending is ambiguous but powerfully suggestive, harking back to one of the myths that we heard in the first 1o minutes and leaving us with little concrete evidence of the characters' fates even as it leaves us with a strong sense that we know what happened to them. (Even if we don't exactly know how it happened.)

Paranormal Activity missteps, though, and it starts with the day preceding the final night. It's implied that Katie might be possessed by the demon that's been haunting them, but this comes entirely out of nowhere. (She had been sleepwalking earlier in the film, yes, but that episode made seem fearful, not sinister.) When night falls, the scene unfolds incredibly alike the finale in Blair Witch - off screen screams, a character racing downstairs, a commotion in the dark, and silence. When we hear footsteps climbing up, it's not certain that things have gone wrong. And then Micah's body flies at the camera - which is terrifying, but wholly inconsistent with the more mundane scares that we've seen to this point. And if that weren't enough, the possessed Katie, who has presumably thrown Micah at the camera, shuffles into the room after him, bending over his body, and then roaring at the camera and breaking it. Roaring with a computer-enhanced demon-face. That's right. A movie that began by exploiting our all too real fears that creaking doors might not "just" be creaking doors resorts to bad CG and a demon-face. What. The. Fuck.

While I was writing this, I checked Wikipedia because I remembered hearing that there were alternate endings. And there are two, apparently: one in which only Katie returns from the ground floor, and she sits on the floor beside the bed; another in which, again, we only see Katie and enters the room only to slit her throat in front of the camera. I would have preferred either one. And then I read this on the same page: "The ending currently attached to the release of the film was suggested by Steven Spielberg." Spielberg, incidentally, wanted to remake this film and had to be convinced that this was far scarier than anything they could do with a bloated budget. Why am I not surprised that his one (ostensibly) contribution is the very worst of the bunch?

(And while no one asked, I would've gone with an ending quite unlike any of the three they made. I wouldn't have had Katie return from the ground floor at all - it would have been Micah. And if anyone cares to ask, I can try to explain what and why in the comments.)


Richard Melendez said...

I'm fond of thinking of alternate endings/scenes for movies I've just watched, so okay, I'll bite. I haven't seen PA and not sure I will, but I'd love to know how would you have ended it. By the by, the Spielberg ending does sound atrocious.

neilshyminsky said...

I think there would have been at least four good reasons to end the movie with an ostensibly possessed Micah killing Katie rather than Katie killing Micah. (And I would have gone with something 'surprising' but in a totally different way - with Micah calmly looking into the camera, maybe smiling just so that there's something characteristically creepy about it, and turning it off.)

The first relates to some ambiguous 'clues' that something is wrong with Micah. When he dusts the floor with baby powder, the demon leaves three-toed footprints behind; when we get a shot of Micah's foot as he holds Katie, we see that his three middle toes appear to naturally stick or group together, giving the visual effect of a three-toed foot. He's incredibly hostile to the ghost expert. He delays in consenting to contact the demonologist until he's out of the country and unreachable. He also antagonizes the demon even after they've been told it's a bad idea to try and communicate with it. It's a fine excuse to say that he was either skeptical or stupid, but I think it's far more interesting to suggest that he did it because he wanted to encourage or help the demon. Or at least to leave the possibility open to any of the three.

The second is about the surprise. There's something obvious about Katie becoming the demon's vessel. Not so with Micah - the demon goes out of its way to register its dislike of him (most pointedly when it smashes a picture of them, with the crack centered on his face). And so there's also something obvious about the demon wanting him dead, rather than wanting to replace him by inhabiting him. Or, even more sinister, it could have inhabited his body earlier in the film and be screwing with Katie - and with the people who would eventually "find" the tape.

Thirdly, it legitimately calls into question whether there was ever a demon. Or, at the very least it provides a less demonic option for otherwise implausible events - like when Micah finds a photograph that was supposedly lost in Katie's housefire when she was 8. We'd have to consider that the guy is just sadistic and somehow fabricated it. Or it could be that he's using some kind of demon power. But the fact that it could be either says something quite powerful about the evil of humanity, even without the aid of a demon.

Which leads me to the last reason - it would be, retrospectively, an even more unsettling film because Micah is our POV guy. If we're left with no certainty about when the demon possessed him and have to question every choice he made, then the entire exercise (of watching, of rewatching, of talking about it) becomes a lot creepier.

mithhunter55 said...

That sort of ending would have been more disturbing to the viewer. I think it would be more compelling or fun to watch too.

Anonymous said...

Honestly after seeing and reading abou tthe previoous two endings I am going to have to say I liked the theatrical one the best. Whether or not you liked the CGI worked. I and many others were freakin stunned at that point. I think the throat version with Katie would have been way too ....non-climatic...and would have made little sense. The longer rocking in a fetal postion is fine...but again...takes away from the supernatural aspect in many ways. The version in the theatre at least makes snese because Micha had been taunting to demon again and again......the demon...spoke back so to speak.

neilshyminsky said...

Anon: If "it worked" it worked in only the most banal and unsophisticated way. I think that "stunned" is appropriate, actually - it left me kinda numb. I was surprised, yes, but surprised because it was completely at odds with everything that came before, not because it was satisfying in the same way that the ending of Blair Witch was surprising and still, in retrospect, entirely logical.

Worst of all, Paranormal Activity's entire schtick was that it's supposed to feel like a documentary. And that bubble bursts into a million pieces with what is, in retrospect, a very silly ending. (Even if, admittedly, I jumped when it happened. But it only took me all of a second to follow that jump with 'What the fuck was that supposed to be?')

Anonymous said...

I saw it on my laptop and it was about midnight when i started the movie... from the start i knew it was about ghost or w/e like everyone... but then like you i saw that its small events to bigger one ( i saw some kind of censored movie version because i didnt see the part where the picture of them cracks. And i had the suckiest ending ( Katie bending on the side of the bed for half a day until the cops shows up at night to shot her down because she wont drop the knife ) i would of prefered your ending lol. But anyways it was a cool movie... but they still have to do some work to scare me with ghost movie