OK, let’s knock this stuff off before it becomes a thing

Posted: October 19, 2010 in crotchety ranting, Horror, Jeff Holland, monsters, October Horror, Threat Quality
Tags: , , ,

Except, given that Paranormal Activity 2 is already on the way, I guess it’s already a thing.

But horror movies, please hear me! You need to stop with the documentary-camera conceit. It is not helping you.

(And yes, this is me complaining about a movie that’s over a year old, but I just saw Paranormal Activity so just kind of go with me here.)

There are a few big problems with the stylistic choice, the first and most obvious being:

It murders suspension of disbelief. Not just because of the obvious “In real life this guy would’ve put the camera down,” though – yeah. The moment things get too crazy – and in a horror movie, things should keep getting more intense. Things need to go from bad to worse to HOLY FUCK! (for instance: there is no way Jokey Guy from Cloverfield would feel a general need to keep filming after Lizzy Kaplan [SPOILER REDACTION!]). And if the character’s still trying to film and narrate, he’s not valuing his own survival. Which means the audience stops recognizing him as a relatable human being, and starts seeing the filmmakers behind the curtain.

So, no. It’s no good for that reason. It also carries this side effect:

It drags down the level of dialogue. Cloverfield works against this as well as it can by having Jokey Guy hold the camera and do the most talking, but ultimately, trying to make it look verite means it also has to sound verite. People can’t be too witty, or expository – otherwise it becomes obvious that they’re reading from a screenplay. So they go in the other direction: faux-“real” dialogue.

Which can be goddamned excruciating.

Again, this one’s nothing new – find me a comedian in 1999 who didn’t have a bit about the Blair Witch Project’s tedious “JOSH!?” shouting – but again: it needs to be said because it keeps happening.

Because when less-than-brilliant actors try to ad-lib “realistic” dialogue? They say the same things, over and over, and it sounds less like two people talking than two people prefacing everything with “I just think….” (Because this buys them time for more off-the-cuff words to come out, is why.) And (in Paranormal Activity’s case) describing everything as “pretty cool.”

Which makes the characters sound kind of like morons. It’s okay that they’re not speaking Sorkin-ese or anything, but when they sound dumber than you, AND they can’t be counted on to value their own lives over filming shit, it…say it with me now…kills suspension of disbelief.

But there’s another problem that Paranormal Activity brought into focus for me:

It shifts the antagonist role. Now sure, maybe your movie is trying to play on the “The real monster…is man!” trope, but I’ve watched these things. They’re not, really. There is an external antagonist looking to do these people harm, and regardless of whether they’re dicks to each other, The real monster is usually The Monster.

But in the meantime…well, let’s take Paranormal Activity as my primary example since this is what’s stuck in my craw right now. Every time the boyfriend continues to film over his frightened girlfriend’s objections – sometimes lying, sometimes bulldozing over her with “I think it’s pretty cool” even though she looks about five seconds from eating her own hair – he is placing his own curiosity over not just his own safety, but his girlfriend’s too.

Which completely drains any sympathy the audience might have for a guy who is in as much danger as the girlfriend. Now, he is PART OF THAT DANGER. He could have brought the footage they had at the half-way point to the demonologist that their psychic consultant mentioned.* And every minute that he prefers to stay in the house, setting up cameras and mocking the demon that he BELIEVES IS IN THE HOUSE, makes him staggeringly stupid, without a shred of self-preservation, and completely disregarding his girlfriend’s near catatonic levels of fear. He is now hindering their survival.

He becomes the antagonist, the demon that’s been terrorizing them becomes something to root for, and ultimately the whole thing feels like we’re just waiting around for the last minute so this can all get wrapped up.

And if you BUILD to this, slowly but surely, OK, great, but this is a mood that set in for me about 15 minutes in: “This guy’s an asshole and I now I have no interest in him surviving.” And the audience can’t invest in a horror movie without caring about the potential survival of the characters.

I’ll say that again, since this seems to be such an afterthought for filmmakers sometimes: THE AUDIENCE CAN’T INVEST IN A HORROR MOVIE WITHOUT CARING ABOUT THE POTENTIAL SURVIVAL OF THE CHARACTERS.

And ultimately, that’s what filmmakers sacrifice by using the first-person documentary format. It stops being about telling a story with characters whose survival the audience is invested in, and inevitably becomes a filmmaking exercise.

*OK, let’s just get this tangent over with: Demons? ARE YOU KIDDING ME. The movie is not 10 minutes in when they bring in a psychic who quite matter-of-factly says, “Oh yeah. Could be a demon.” Without even a hint of, “…Look, I know ‘demons’ might be hard to swallow, and I understand your skepticism, but…” nope. Just “Might be a demon, OK bye!” and the rest of the movie expects us to sit with that.

It flies in the face of the “everyday reality” the movie tries to convey (with the everyman leads and the bland suburban home). Rational people don’t BELIEVE in demons. I’m a nonbeliever, but you can sell me on “ghost” if you do it the right way. But “demon” belongs to a whole different cosmology that rational people don’t subscribe to anymore. Yet these two buy into it fairly immediately, without discussing any deeper belief systems they might have.

Because they DON’T do this – instead preferring to film signs of haunting – again, they stop being people and start being props.

Now, none of this has to do with my “don’t do documentary-style, please” argument, but…goddamn it it bugged me, so I saved it for the end.


  1. Tommy Deelite says:

    Also, fuck Catfish.

  2. Jeff Holland says:

    Oh man, I only read the reviews of ‘Catfish’ and it was grating to me.

    Faux documentaries that put the audience on the hook to decode its level of truthiness should also knock it off. (Exception: Orson Welles’ bad-ass essay-film “F For Fake.” Everyone go watch that one. Preferably alone, with a couple glasses of red wine.)

  3. […] when am I going to stop with this?  Okay, so, Holland wrote his bit about Paranormal Activity, and he’s right in a lot of important ways.  But I think […]

  4. […] when am I going to stop with this?  Okay, so, Holland wrote his bit about Paranormal Activity, and he’s right in a lot of important ways.  But I think there’s […]

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