Friday, September 25, 2009

They Live (1988; John Carpenter)

When I am asked to sum up my opinion of cinema from the 1980's I always use the same two word answer. While it is a very biased answer, many people still agree with me that it seems to fit the mood of the genres it touched. Those words?

John Carpenter

A drifter finds his way into work and a temporary home while, well, drifting. While there he notices some mysterious activity that leads him into a whole new world of truth.

They Live continues a tradition that many other horror directors started years before. The political commentary in it is so obvious, yet unlike Romero, it never feels too forced or pushed down our throats. It very much feels natural with the flow of the rest of the film and our attention never waivers from the action at hand.

They Live also marks the end of Carpenter's fantastic eighties career and in a way feels like an appropriate summary of his previous works before falling into his downhill slide in the nineties (with the exception of In the Mouth of Madness). However, after all of this introduction, where does it leave the film itself?

The character Carpenter places before us are absurd. We focus around a drifter whom we know nothing about who is thrust into a terrifying situation and instead of panicking he pulls out some guns and some cheesy one-liners. He meets friends by beating them or holding guns to them. The point I am trying to make here is that this film is awesome. This movie continues the enjoyment we all had when we first watched Escape From New York years earlier.

If you have never seen Escape From New York, then there really is no way to convince you that the description above is more than just ridiculous garbage. I am not a proponent of saying that trash cinema is actually high quality in disguise, but with Carpenter's works it really is. Everything was sculpted to their degrees on purpose. It is obvious with pieces such as The Thing and Halloween that Carpenter is no stranger to serious cinema and this idea helps solidify that he wanted these movies to look this way for a reason.

They reflect the absurdity of the political ideas that the films are commenting on. The genius behind such a tool is that not only does it further drive the commentary home, it also gives what would have been a more "normal" piece a life of its own.

I suppose I should briefly touch on the more concrete elements. The camera is well instrumented here and the black & white actually adds to the feeling that we are trying to be controlled as if our artistic minds are being suppressed by the lack of color. The score is typical of eighties Carpenter with very simple melodies being effectively used. The drawbacks are that while it is an undeniably strong film, you can't help but feel some of his spark fade on all aspects of the piece. It is like asking a landscape artist to do a portrait. The portrait will look good, yes, but it will still lack some of the genius that pushes his landscapes past the point of good.

Score: 4.5/5

Notes: Obey this review. Consume Carpenter's products.

Paranormal Activity (2007; Oren Peli)

I learned one thing from my years as a movie fanatic, and that is that crowds are terrible. I usually skip out on most theatre screenings simply because the crowds can completely break the atmosphere of a movie if they are bad enough. So when I go to see the screening of this film in a packed theatre of 750 people and it still manages to scare me... well... we must have something going for us.

Young couple X and Y (easier than typing in names) move into a house and Y (the woman, clever huh?) starts hearing noises during the night. She then goes on to tell X she has had previous experiences with hauntings and they should get help from experts.

We all know here how much I love mockumentaries, so when I caught wind of this a few months back I couldn't resist getting sucked in. As more and more reviews popped up saying that this is the scariest film they've seen in years my interest had no where to go but up. Lucky for me, one of the screenings just so happened to be close by so my friends and I packed up and shipped off (not that we really packed anything, it was only an hour drive, but whatever).

The problem with many modern day horror films is they try too hard to focus on flat out thrills and jumps and lose out on atmosphere. That or they are just terrible at all of it, but just roll with me for this. The situation is that more often than not, it is easier to craft some cheap thrills that can win over most common movie goers than it is to craft an atmosphere so dense that the ceiling might as well be two feet off the ground. This is where I find the greatest strength of mockumentary film making. When you design your piece into a form of first person perspective and amateur film making, you no longer have to carefully craft tense scores to match your inspired landscapes. The power of the first person perspective is its ability to push atmosphere through its own momentum.

This is of course assuming you can keep us wrapped into the films reality which can be the toughest part. Mockumentary film making is so barren of components relative to traditional film making that a lot more stress is put on what is there. The acting has to be top grade or else their characters fail to reflect what most of us would do. The lighting has to be perfect, neither showing us too much nor too little. The use of extravagancies such as CGI has to be justified to such an intense degree as its presence can abruptly rip you right out of an otherwise perfectly constructed piece.

After all of that, where does it leave our main topic, Paranormal Activity? If there was ever another mockumentary to continue Blair Witch Project's thrown (and to a lesser degree, Noroi's thrown) it would be this one. Many of the strengths that made Blair Witch so successful are what push Paranormal Activity forward. The day/night sequences that appeared in Blair Witch show up much stronger in Paranormal Activity. They train your body to react to the time of day without having to really lift a finger. It came to the point where the audience I was with started screaming as soon as realized a night sequence was beginning.

To make even more connections, the use of CGI in Paranormal Activity was almost non-existent. The concept was to use simple tricks to propel what would otherwise be a normal ghost story to scarily realistic proportions. The characters, while not perfect, still thrust the story forward with enough charisma to keep us interested.

While films like Cloverfield have shown us once again the unlimited possibilities we have access to using the mockumentary style, it is films like Paranormal Activity with their seemingly average subject matter that truly frighten us. This portrayal of events could have easily been anyone. It could have been you. That, my friends, is scary.

Score: 4.5/5

Notes: I know the still I used wasn't in the screening, which is exactly why I used it. It doesn't spoil anything and makes a clear statement at what you can expect.