The Paranormal Activity franchise is like the Ikea furniture of film: they’re minimalist, functional, and completely disposable. Even when it’s not the greatest thing in the world, it works. My former roommate and I went to see the 4th installment last night at the Alamo Drafthouse. Back when we lived together, we watched the 2nd and 3rd in the series, and now that she’s visiting town for Halloween, we saw the latest for old time’s sake.
There’s a big difference between watching these movies at home and watching them in the theater. Watching at home, I was hyper-aware of the movie’s generic, domestic interiors because we were also surrounded by drab walls, cabinets, closet doors, the cookie-cutter accoutrements of modern living. My roommate and I huddled on the sofa, covering our faces with blankets when we knew something scary was going to happen.
Watching the movie in the theater was scarier in some ways; the big screen is more immersive, but when surrounded by other movie-goers, you also have your pride to consider. I will not jump, cry out, or cower, so I steel myself extra hard. On the other hand, in the theater I lost that sense of identification between my home and the home on the screen. Also, it’s hard to be too scared when you’re eating pizza. That’s just science, folks.
Architecture has always been an important component of horror movies and fear itself. I grew up in a very old house (pre-Civil War era), and as a girl who was often afraid of her own shadow, it was like living in a real-life horror movie sometimes. So many dark corners and hidden spaces: attics, chimneys, crawl spaces, hollow walls. It makes sense that the traditional haunted house is a very old one that creaks at night. The older a home is, the more likely that someone died there. It also makes sense that ghosts, demons and evil forces would attach themselves to older structures, that ancient beings would feel a kinship to homes with history.
So it’s interesting, then, that so much horror of the last few decades has been set in shiny, anonymous suburban homes. I have a weakness for movies that play with this juxtaposition of the old (evil forces) and the new (tract housing) even though I have never lived in the suburbs, myself. This is part of the reason why I liked Ringu and Ju-on so much; there wasn’t anything inherently creepy about the plain and modern-looking Japanese homes, but the setting threw the horrific images of the ghosts into sharp relief. (As a side note on effective juxtapositions, I also have mad respect for films that set their scariest sequences in broad daylight.) As I’ve mentioned before, Poltergeist was my favorite movie when I was a kid. Maybe it wasn’t the first house-built-on-an-Indian-burial-ground film, but I think it’s had a large influence on how horror films deal with the tension between modernity and antiquity.
I just watched The Gate, a 1987 movie about a couple of kids who discover a portal to hell when their favorite tree is cut down. It ticks off all the Poltergeist boxes: suburban home, underground evil, magic tree, creature under the bed, people trapped in the walls. I liked the movie a lot. People have complained about how cheesy-looking the demons are, and they are somewhat comical but the movie was still unnerving due to a weird dream-logic that pervades every scene.
Another movie that’s a blatant rip-off of Poltergeist is the 2010 movie Insidious, although it seems to be more loving and knowing homage than shameless forgery. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series also belongs on a list of suburban horror; Joss Whedon went to great lengths to contrast the sunny California neighborhoods and the typical American high school against the torments unleashed by the underground Hellmouth.
In suburban horror, we see the uncanny at work. The dilapidated old mansion is scary because of its otherness; we don’t necessarily recognize our lives or routines in its vaulted ceilings, hardwood floors, or vintage wallpaper. But when evil spirits invade our modern houses, the cozy and familiar places we call home suddenly become unfamiliar.
Home is where Hell is.
It’s October, which means I’ve been watching horror movies almost non-stop for the last three weeks. In fact, I think my Netflix account is starting to judge me a little, each day coming closer to the conclusion that I’m a psychopath. Everyone’s familiar with horror tropes by now, but those genre conventions are brought into even sharper relief when you watch movies back to back to back. I’ve put together a few suggested double features based on the noticeable parallels.
The “She’s a Real Sweet Girl” Double Feature: May and Audition
The female leads in both films are shy, sweet, soft spoken, and endearingly off-kilter. But you’d better run like hell, because they have a penchant for dismemberment.
The “Location, Location, Location” Double Feature: Session 9 and The Descent
The Danvers State Mental Hospital in Session 9 and the caverns in The Descent are both monsters in their own right, even before the spooky shit starts to happen. The characters, already damaged by personal trauma, begin to unravel in claustrophobic spaces. The Descent throws in literal monsters for good measure, but both films have a haunted, melancholy atmosphere that would have been frightening enough without things that go bump in the night.
The “You’re Not From Around Here” Double Feature: Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man
Donald Sutherland and Edward Woodward both search frantically for a lost little girl (one dead, the other imaginary) in unfamiliar places (Venice/Summerisle). Stymied at every turn by creepy old ladies and local authorities, they struggle to take power into their own hands. Little do they know that a mysterious plot is tightening its noose around them. See also: Antichrist vs. Don’t Look Now. Explicit married sex. Death of a child. Restorative vacation turned destructive.
The “Let’s Go to the Mall” Double Feature: Return of the Living Dead and Night of the Comet
Teenagers! 80s Music! 80s Fashion! Talking Zombies! The government ruins everything! See also: Dawn of the Dead.
The “My Girlfriend is a Corpse” Double Feature: Deadgirl and Make-Out with Violence
Make-Out with Violence is a much sweeter and more subdued film, but both are twisted coming of age tales about teenage boys and their friendships. Plus an undead girl tied to the bed. Deadgirl seems to be about impotence (or misogyny, or something), while Make-Out with Violence is more about coping with grief, but both films are creepy parables about playing house with a girl too zonked to even participate in the relationship. See also: Doghouse vs. Deadgirl, on the zombie chauvinism front. Alternately, Lake Mungo vs. Make-Out with Violence, from the “ghosts and zombies are a metaphor for not letting go of loved ones” angle.
The “Shit’s All Freaky” Double Feature: Poltergeist and Insidious
Haunted houses. Creepy children. Malevolent spirits. Objects that move around by themselves. Alternate dimensions. Psychics and hapless ghost hunters. Insidious even features a subtle homage to Poltergeist when one of the embattled ghost hunters soothes his bruises with a steak to the face. Sadly, the steak does not crawl across the table. See also: House of the Devil, another straight-faced modern film with a loving callback to spooky 80s movies.
The “Vampires Are So 2010” Double Feature: Cronos and Thirst
Two directors known for daring and originality: Guillermo Del Toro and Chan-Wook Park (Oldboy). Two takes on vampire mythology so radical that the classic creatures of the night are barely even recognizable.
Here are the other movies I’ve watched in the last few weeks, even though I couldn’t quite pair them up for an effective double feature:
Dario Argento’s Inferno (probably best with any other Argento film, especially Suspiria)
Peeping Tom (pair with another moody classic, like Eyes Without a Face, Diabolique, or something by Hitchcock)
Them (suggested with atmospheric European thrillers, like The Vanishing or another home invasion story, The Strangers.)
October isn’t over yet. More to come.