Paranormal Activity and Horror Film as Event

24 September 2009 at 07:05 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

A friend (thanks Kristen!) recently clued me in on the indie horror release, Paranormal Activity. The premise: a couple that believes their house to be haunted sets up cameras to record the ghosts during the night. Eerie stirrings occur throughout the night, gradually escalating over the course of the film. According to Dennis Harvey’s review in Variety the film lacks “explicit violence” and never fully resolves the mysteries it explores.

These elements–the pseudo documentary, the open-ending, and the emphasis on atmospheric chills over graphic violence–have become relatively common for indie horror in the past decade. In fact, it’s been about ten years since The Blair Witch Project’s phenomenal success with the concept. Here’s the trailer:

By now, we should all know the film’s Cinderella story. A low-budget project, the filmmakers cleverly marketed the film as if the events it portrayed actually occurred. For instance, websites emerged that seemed to document the history of the legends explored in the film. Supposedly, some fans believed the footage (described as found in the trailer above as well is the film) to be real, as exemplified by FAQs such as this one that address the question of whether BWP was fiction or non-fiction. Not only did the campaign draw fan interest, but media-attention as well. The result was major distribution and one of the most profitable films per dollar invested in history.

I remember seeing the film in the theater. My dad, brother, and I traveled to the next town over, we had such a hankering to see it. While I knew going into the film that the events depicted were fake, the buzz impacted my experience nonetheless. More than anything, the media discussion of the film made the film-going experience an event as did the newness of the concept and the time my family invested to see it.

Paranormal Activity is striving for a similar event status. The New York Times (again, props to Kristen) reports that the film will be released this Friday in a select number of smaller, genre-savvy markets (i.e. college towns) like Austin, Texas, and Ann Arbor, Michigan. From there, the film will be screened in subsequent cities based on an online vote through the film’s website. Online trailers, such as the one below, also point viewers to this site where they can “demand it!”

Notice the trailer also plays up the event by showing the audience’s reactions to the film. The critics’ quotes reinforce the audience’s responses with statements like “people were physically shaken.” Again, the marketers from Paranormal Activity use an old trick of horror film advertising, exemplified by the tv spot for When a Stranger Calls (1979) below:

And, of course, there’s the standard tactic of waiting for audience members to exit the screening so you can get their first reactions to the film. Here’s some footage from screenings of The Exorcist (1973):

Because the experience of viewing horror ideally provokes a bodily reaction (i.e. screaming, shaking, jumping, crying), this marketing proves effective by showing actual viewers in a state of terror. This contrasts the marketing tactics of BWP, which instead blur the line between narrative fiction and documentary. Paranormal Activity’s use of both ploys cleverly heightens the sense that attending a screening of the film is both a special and visceral experience.

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The Young Ladies of Toronto

17 September 2009 at 17:01 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Surveying the press on the Toronto International Film Festival, buzz-worthy projects centered around young female characters appear to be more common than usual this year. I welcome the emphasis on this typically neglected group! More often than not, men tend to dominate narratives, pushing women out of the frame and leaving little room for their stories. Even more unusual, these female-centered features seem largely geared around sexuality and explore hefty themes.

The most obviously gynocentric project, Jennifer’s Body, has already been discussed at length on this blog; a lesser-known film with many of JB’s players will also be screening at Toronto. The film, Chloe, stars Amanda Seyfried in the title role, along with Julianne Moore and Liam Neeson as a middle-aged married couple while Atom Egoyan directs and Jason Reitman produces. Moore’s Catherine hire’s Chloe, a high-priced escort played by Seyfried, to seduce her husband David in order to test his fidelity to their marriage. According to the TIFF synopsis, “Catherine finds herself ‘directing’ Chloe’s encounters with David, and Chloe’s end of the bargain is to report back, the descriptions becoming increasingly graphic as the meetings multiply.” The premise sounds promising, to say the least, with a capable cast to realize these fascinating scenarios.

Director Atom Egoyan interacts with Amanda Seyfried who plays the title role in his new film Chloe.

Director Atom Egoyan interacts with Amanda Seyfried who plays the title role in his new film Chloe.

I’m also heartened by the folks behind the camera. The writer, Erin Cressida Wilson, previously ventured into such dark erotic territory as the scriptor of Secretary and Fur, and while I found fault with the former (haven’t seen the latter), I admired Wilson’s gumption in taking on such taboo subject-matter. Similarly, Egoyan’s films have explored uncomfortable sexual subjects. Here are a few trailers to give you a sense of his work:

Notice that both films feature smart young female characters (Sarah Polley as Nicole in The Sweet Hereafter and Elaine Cassidy in Felicia’s Journey). Both characters also face difficult choices, with Nicole being asked to testify in a liability case and Felicia facing an unanticipated pregnancy. Each acts with differing degrees of agency, but both characters provide rich material and prove resilient despite their setbacks. Most interestingly, they both have complex sexual lives that play an important role in the plot. These themes tend to occur rarely, and I admire Egoyan for incorporating them so consistently.

Another TIFF film exploring issues of teenage girlhood sexuality is the Lone Scherfig directed An Education. Here’s the trailer for that one:

I’m interested to see how the film handles the age difference between its two protagonists; generational difference appears to be the primary tension motivating the narrative. Refreshingly, it appears that the film gives the protagonist, Jenny (played by Carey Mulligan), a great deal of agency.

In short, some filmmakers have come a long way from Lolita in conveying the sexual and psychological lives of young women.

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Medical Horrors on Small and Large Screens

11 September 2009 at 19:59 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

My husband and I recently completed the first season of Lost (yes, we are WAY behind on that trend!) and it occurred to me as I watched the series that one of its scariest elements of the show happens to be medicine–how appropriate considering the national discussion in the United States about healthcare! The debates about rationing health care come to mind as I watch the castaways of Lost struggle to keep their injured companions alive with the limited resources available to them. Of course, Lost would not be the first example of representations in which diagnosing, curing, or repairing an illness or injury can be just as terrifying as the illness itself, as the examples described below demonstrate.

The Exorcist stands out as one of the most grueling representations of how diagnostics can prove to be almost as painful as the ailment. When young Regan (Linda Blair) starts to behave strangely, her mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) turns to medical doctors for answers. Through editing and framing, these scenes portray the testing as painful, drawn out, and isolating. After several of these attempts to pinpoint the problem fail, Chris first tries psychiatric treatment before finally hiring an exorcist. The scenes of diagnosis, however, suggest that medical technologies meant to further wellness necessarily objectify the patient, leading to discomfort, pain, and frustration when they do not produce answers.

After conventional medicine fails her, Chris (Ellen Burstyn) turns to an exorcist (Max Von Sydow) for assistance with her possessed daughter.  Image taken from

After conventional medicine fails her, Chris (Ellen Burstyn) turns to an exorcist (Max Von Sydow) for assistance with her possessed daughter. Image taken from

The series House, M.D. also portrays diagnostics as a pained process. Episodes typically revolve around one patient’s mysterious illness and the effors of title character Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) and his team of diagnosticians to determine the cause of the illness. While much of the horror in the show derives from the body’s malfunction, depicting symptoms in graphic detail, the means by which House attempts to determine the illness generate the most tension. House’s extreme methods often include letting the patient get sicker in order to determine the cuase of the disease based on additional symptoms. These methods generally ruffle the feathers of his supervisor, Dr. Cuddy, and his insistence on obtaining information and samples often leads to violations of the patient that range from rummaging through the patient’s residence to find clues to forcibly obtaining samples of body fluids. In, House sometimes portrays the diagnostic process as violent, and always presents the body as
vulnerable and complex.

Where The Exorcist and House differ are in the outcomes they present. Western Medicine fails Regan due to the supernatural causes of her behavior. In House, medicine rarely fails to cure the illness and always succeeds in determining the cause. In other words, the body is entirely knowable with access to the right technology.

It makes sense, then, that other texts derive their medical horrors from a lack of access to this very technology. Several films and television shows from various genres use scenes of surgery to demonstrate how a character’s (or characters’) removal from civilization leads to a heightened vulnerability. Lost qualifies as one such example. For those unfamiliar with the series, it follows a group of plane crash survivors on a remote Pacific island. From among the ensemble of characters, Dr. Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox) emerges as one of the strongest leaders in the group, in part as a result of his knowledge of medicine. Medical emergencies occur frequently, and without the proper medical equipment, Jack must use primitive techniques to save those in danger.

Dr. Jack Shephard (portrayed by Matthew Fox) of Lost.  Image taken from

Dr. Jack Shephard of Lost.

In the episode “Do No Harm,” for instance, Jack performs various operations on an injured character. When several attempts do not work, Jack considers amputating the patient’s crushed leg, but at the last minute the patient pleas with Jack to let him die rather than prolong his life through a violent procedure. The episode, with its titular reference to the physician’s maxim “first do no harm,” raises questions about the definition of harm–can prolonging a life through surgery be “harm”? Is saving a patient by any means necessary really to his benefit? Does utilizing scarce medical resources on a patient with no hope of survival put the larger group at risk? Obama adviser Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel ponders such “moral medical dilemmas” in his book The Ends of Human Life: Medical Ethics in a Liberal Polity. His serious discussions of these issues have led conservative reactionaries to falsely depict him as a death panel proponent in spite of his past efforts against assisted suicide. But what critics fail to understand and what “Do No Harm” illustrates is that when certain resources (e.g. organs for transplant) become limited, difficult choices must be made for the benefit of the greater good. Far from the black and white characterizations of Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter, and others, these ethical quandaries tend to muddle distinctions into gray.

Aside from the difficult questions presented by “Do No Harm,” the mere presentation of medical procedures such as transfusing blood, setting broken bones, and amputating legs provides terrifying moments to the audience much in the vein of House. Though such injuries result from accidents rather than psychopathic killers, these gory, graphic depictions of the body in pain share much in common with the violence of the contemporary horror film. A similar (though far more graphic) scene occurs in the 2005 horror film The Descent when one member of a group of trapped cavers falls into a cavern and breaks her leg. The severed bone protrudes through the skin and must be put back into place, resulting in one of the film’s more sickening moments. Again, this depiction of the body’s fragility heightens the tension in an already suspenseful film that plays on the characters’ entrapment underground and subsequent isolation from medical tools and technology that could assist them. (Here’s the scene–IT’S NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART)

Of course, many such tools resulted from modern advances, so films and television shows set prior to the twentieth century can also draw upon the horrors of medicine. I think specifically here of the HBO miniseries John Adams about the life of the second American president, on the face of it an odd choice for such a scene. In the final episode of the miniseries, John Adams’ (the excellent Paul Giammatti) daughter Nabby (Sarah Polley in all her terrificness) receives a breast cancer diagnosis. Not surprisingly, the scene of surgery shows very little in terms of the actual procedure, yet it proves to be no less affecting in its portrayal of the violence that surgery does to the body. The episode shows Nabby steeling herself for the painful surgery (anesthetics were not administered) and her parents on the floor below send out her children for a walk with the knowledge that the kids might hear their mother’s cries. Sadly, the tumor returns and Nabby decides to forgo treatment preferring to die rather than undergo another excruciating (and possibly ineffective) surgery. Certainly, Nabby’s story reminds us of how far medicine has advanced in the past two hundred years, but patients today continue to face similar choices she regarding cancer treatment.

Sarah Polley as Nabby Adams in the John Adams Miniseries.  Image taken from

Sarah Polley as Nabby Adams in the John Adams Miniseries.

In summary, these films and television series demonstrate that the body and its malfunctions play an important role in generating terror and suspense and will continue to do so for years to come. What’s more, the cure for illnesses and injuries can generate just as much fear as the ailment itself. But what might be more disturbing these days is the breakdown of the health care system which compounds the damage with bureaucratic mazes and discriminatory practices. For that reason, I leave you with the trailer for perhaps the most horrifying medical horror film of all: Sicko.

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Brief Brief

8 September 2009 at 21:28 (Uncategorized)

Apologies once again for the lack of posts of late. The spouse and I took the GRE on Saturday, so that all-consuming endeavor ate up much of last week. Luckily, we both scored well, reaching our goals for the test. We’re hoping to never take the GRE again, but in this wintry economic climate, it’s difficult to know what to expect. I have a few ideas percolating for more substantial entries, but for the time being, I thought I’d point everyone to some interesting news items in the world of cinema.

First, my predictions about The Road (discussed in a previous post) appear to be confirmed by the Variety review of the film, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last week. Reviewer Todd McCarthy derides the film, and more specifically, the direction of John Hillcoat of The Proposition fame. Of course, with over a month between now and the US release, the film could undergo changes to improve it. McCarthy could also turn out to be plain wrong in his assessment. Nevertheless, that McCarthy confirms my suspicions based on the trailer does not bode well for the final product.

Speaking of Venice, the same aforementioned reviewer gave writer/director Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime a glowing review. I welcome this news, given the uneven results of Solondz’s two previous films, Palindromes and Storytelling. In Life in Wartime, Solondz returns to the intertwined narratives from Happiness, recasting the characters with completely different actors a la Palindromes (though somehow, Rich Pecci remains as the one constant in the Solondzverse as Mark Weiner). McCarthy states that Life During Wartime “reels off one riveting scene after another” and “stands as both a unique sort-of sequel and a film that requires no prior reference points; it’s entirely satisfying either way, though even richer if you recall the antecedent.” What more could one ask for from a sequel?

One more news item (completely unrelated to the previous two): the New York Times featured a piece about Jennifer’s Body and the rise of horror viewership among women (thanks, Annie, for the head’s up!). Of course, the marketing folks in the industry figured out this demographic long ago as a 2006 article in Variety demonstrates, making the Times piece a bit out of step with the trend, but I appreciate the serious consideration that the writer gives to the possibility that girls and women may see something feminist in these slasher films (the obligatory mention of Carol Clover awkwardly supports this point). Still, I find the piece frustrating in that it ponders the mystery of girls’ fandom of horror films without ever bothering to ask any actual girls why they like Saw (Diablo Cody and Karyn Kusama as adult women cannot speak for the present-day fans). I guess it’s more fun to speculate on the mystery of the fickle teenage girl fan than to actually interview a flesh-and-blood one.

As I said, I promise something a more substantial soon! ‘Til then, check out these items and of course, peruse the archives. Cheers!

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District 9 in South Africa

1 September 2009 at 17:15 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , )

NPR did an interesting piece on the reception of District 9 by some moviegoers in South Africa where it opened over the weekend. As those who’ve followed this blog know, I previously posted on the film upon first seeing its trailer and after viewing it in its entirety, so my ears perked up when I heard the intro to this story.

A shot of the alien spaceship in District 9 also highlights the Johannesburg landscape.

A shot of the alien spaceship in District 9 also highlights the Johannesburg landscape.

My views on the film were mixed as were the opinions of those surveyed by NPR’s reporters outside a Cape Town movie theater. Not surprisingly, race and nationality influenced each individual’s interpretation, as is clear from the following quote:

“In some ways, it was shocking,” says Cape Town resident Christo Schutte, stopping to talk outside a local theater. “I’m a young South African, thinking of District Six.”

District Six was a historically interracial Cape Town neighborhood that the government deemed a slum — and from which more than 60,000 residents were forcibly removed — in the 1970s, under apartheid laws. Apartheid was the system of legal racial separation enforced by South Africa’s white minority government from 1948 to 1994.

Schutte, who’s white, said watching South African security forces violently evict aliens from their homes in the fictional slum that gives the film its title made him reflect on the real-life forced removals in District Six.

“What happened there … I never understood, because I never really experienced that,” Schutte says. “So for me, that was a shock, as a white South African, to see that.”

Other viewers critiqued the film as racist in spite of its message of tolerance:

[Fortune] Sibanda [a 33-year-old South African resident originally from Zimbabwe] says he thinks the film is undermined by its liberal use of what he sees as racial and ethnic stereotypes.

He points to the masses of impoverished blacks and aliens living in the film’s shantytowns, and to the crime that filmmaker Neill Blomkamp depicts as flourishing there. One particularly vicious District 9 kingpin — a Nigerian, heavily armed and attended by a traditional healer — schemes to master the aliens’ technology, going to great lengths to do it.

“I think what it does, it shows South Africa from white eyes — the fear that the African is a cannibal who wants to eat others to assimilate their power,” Sibanda says. “So in trying to do all that, I think the movie totally failed at the end of the day.”

It’s a piece well worth the read or listen because it reminds us of the specificity of the viewing experience and the importance of bringing in a diversity of voices when discussing a film’s meaning(s). Check it out and feel free to post your opinions also.

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