Cinematic Scares

‘PARANORMAL ACTIVITY,’ ‘THE STEPFATHER,’ ‘WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE,’ ‘SAW VI’

I’ve enjoyed being scared witless in movies ever since 1967, when I was eight and jumped screaming from my seat as a murderous Alan Arkin, kitchen knife flashing, hunted the blind Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark. To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy movies are all alike, but every scary movie is scary in its own way. There are stalker movies, like Halloween, that turn you into prey; harrowing studies of twisted family relationships, as in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?; mind-bending forays into paranoia, such as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion or The Tenant. A large body of films chronicles nature gone awry (The Birds, Jaws) or the devil in lusty action, à la The Omen or The Exorcist. The varieties of cinematic dread are endless. Yet all these movies depend, at key moments, on the anticipation of something terrible about to happen. The witty insight of 1999’s low-budget blockbuster The Blair Witch Project was its recognition that the scariest part of a scary movie is the buildup—the not-seeing, the not-knowing. By keeping evil invisible from start to finish, by never revealing it, Blair Witch was all foreplay and no consummation: the scary movie both pastiched and perfected.

Hewing closely to the same model is this season’s surprise box-office colossus, Paranormal Activity. Made for a bargain-basement $10,000, and publicized through a guerrilla campaign of Web competitions and midnight showings in college towns, the film has racked up $70 million and still counting. Its plot couldn’t be simpler. Katie (Katie Featherston) and her fiancé Micah (Micah Sloat) live in a suburban San Diego house visited in the dead of night by a weird (and noisy) presence. When Katie insists she’s being haunted, Micah, skeptical, sets up a video camera to tape their room while they sleep. The resulting footage, plus additional handheld sequences filmed around the house during waking hours, constitute the movie.

Shot in mere days at the home of writer-director Oren Peli, Paranormal Activity, like Blair Witch, succeeds not despite its primitive quality but because of it. This is digital video that looks exactly like what you or I might shoot. (Warning: those intolerant of the visual jitteriness of amateur video should stay away.) Nothing about this film seems edited or improved in any way. It is the opposite of cinematic, just as the couple’s house, with its banal contemporary glossiness, is the opposite of the cinematic haunted house. Unconsciously, we credit such artlessness with a high quotient of reality, implicitly accepting the film as “found footage”; and as the malevolent presence afflicting Katie and Micah grows bolder, and the couple’s youthful good humor dissolves into dread, this reality amplifies the scares immeasurably, turning a simple home movie into a concerted assault on our sense of safety.

My next stop on the Halloween fright train was The Stepfather, a remake of the 1987 cult thriller. Adapted from a story by the mystery writer Donald E. Westlake (who died last year), the movie follows a psychotic serial killer, a handsome and seemingly mild-mannered man who attaches himself to needy young middle-class widows or divorcées with children. To these stressed-out single moms, he offers himself as an uxorious husband and ready father-figure, eager to “keep this family together.” Beneath the smiling exterior, however, churns a murderous rage; and when stresses arise, in the form of a rebellious or rude stepchild, the happy façade begins to crack. Those suspicious of the new man’s intentions fare poorly. A nosy neighbor has an unfortunate fall down her cellar stairs. Accidents in swimming pools proliferate. One should not disturb the stepfather and his frenzied pursuit of the perfect family.

The original Stepfather graced its efficient storytelling with sparkles of kitschy irony, and the new version retains some classic one-liners. But it misses the perfectly tuned delivery of actor Terry O’Quinn (currently the mysterious Locke on the hit TV series Lost). And it misses the earlier film’s topical subtext, its mid-1980s critique of American sunniness. In its campy way, The Stepfather satirized the Reagan-era ideology of pious family values, cheerful salesmanship, and rigid optimism. Its protagonist was an over-the-top deconstruction of the same mythic American figure, the rootless self-created man, that Reagan himself so genially embodied. A smiling faker whose bromides about family belie a deep need for order at any cost, the stepfather turns out to be driven by puritanical sexual mores, a fetish of male authority, and a furious romanticization of “the traditional family.” He is Ward Cleaver with a cleaver. In 1987, this played like the hilarious SNL skit on the secret, “evil” Reagan, adding a welcome subliminal chortle and showing us how even a thriller, which would seem to operate in a zone of timeless terror, can sink roots into the social and political soil of our lives.

The psychic dislocations caused by absent fathers also inform director Spike Jonze and writer Dave Eggers’s adaptation of Maurice Sen­dak’s children’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are. Sendak made his mark by insisting, against the modern parenting regime of supportive empathy, on the validity of tales that appeal to the darker side of a child’s imagination. Such a commitment makes “beloved” an awkward word to apply to his books. But children respond in a deep way to the story of Max, a mischief-making boy sent to his room without dinner, only to find himself mysteriously transported across the sea to a distant land populated by colossal, gap-toothed beasts who make him their king...yet are half-inclined to devour him.

A lot can go wrong when the simplicity of a children’s book (Sendak’s tale plays out in just ten sentences) goes Hollywood—for example, Ron Howard’s 2001 desecration of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Jonze and Eggers avoid most of the traps, but of necessity they expand Sendak’s bare-bones story, and in the process change it. In giving Max’s disaffection a familiar American grounding—divorced parents, overworked mom with an intrusive boyfriend—they lessen the timelessness of his predicament. Their Max is both angrier and needier than Sendak’s; and the roiling dangers represented by the wild things figure not as free-floating existential or psychological forces, but rather as a consequence of family chaos and filial helplessness. Tempered by Eggers’s solicitous view of a child’s vulnerability, the story gets humanized and softened. And despite their terrible claws and terrible eyes, the wild things themselves (created through a seamless mix of animatronics, digital animation, and live-actor costumes) exude a friendly, big-bottomed, Barney-like cuddliness.

Merry and menacing in equal parts, Sendak’s tale possessed an austere and impersonal quality, deriving from the volatility of wild things, their animal capacity to turn from companionable obedience to harm. The movie stays much closer to the warming campfire of civilization, and transforms “We’ll eat you up, we love you so,” a line of fathomless ambiguity and threat, into a canoodling endearment. As a result, it proves curiously less scary than the book. My three-year-old, at any rate, didn’t even blink. She ate it up, she loved it so.

Final note: With a half-hour to spare between two movies, I watched the opening sequence of Saw VI, the latest installment in a series of horror movies showcasing bloody mutilations. By now the stakes of this ghoulish game have been sufficiently racheted up, and the audience sufficiently inured, that each new film is forced to hit the ground running—or dripping, one should say. Saw VI begins with a blood-drenched farrago of terror. Two captives stand chained to cages in a subterranean torture chamber, wearing helmets equipped with steel screw prongs set into their temples, operated by a masked torturer. In a gruesome competition, each receives a set of cleavers, saws, and knives; whoever manages to cut off more of his own body (by weight) in one minute will live, while the other gets the prongs screwed into his brain. And so we watch two human beings mutilate themselves, screaming in abject agony as they toss bloody body parts out of their cages onto a butcher’s scale.

Who in God’s name watches this kind of thing? Who likes it? Popular mass-audience films presumably catch some prevailing element of the zeitgeist, the collective mindset as we experience it at any given time. Is this true for the howling abattoir nightmare that is Saw? If so, that is—by far—the scariest thing of all this Halloween.

Published in the 2009-11-20 issue: 
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Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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