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October 29, 2010

Paranormal Activities


The other day, Ti West told me I needed to watch an Australian horror film called Lake Mungo, directed by Joel Anderson. I had a vague awareness of it - it played at SXSW the same year as St. Nick - but knew nothing as to the plot. Ti told me not to read anything more about it, but simply to watch it as soon as possible, preferably late at night with all the lights off. He claimed it was the first film to genuinely scare him in ages, which was all the instigation I needed. I called it up on Netflix that evening and began to watch it. Within fifteen minutes, I had to turn it off.

I am a tremendous scaredy cat. I love horror films, but in the best cases that love is not equivocal to enjoyment. The slightest provocation or hint of a stinger will have me peeking through my fingers. A recent viewing of Paranormal Activity 2 saw me sinking into my seat, using my knee to block the portion of the screen I thought most likely to offend before finally making a run for the safety of the restroom (not once but twice). Rest assured, I was fully aware just how dumb Paranormal Activity 2 was, but like its predecessor, it did what it was designed to do - and in so much as I will always willing subject myself to fright, I am its ideal audience. I will return home afterwards, go to bed with the lights on, lay awake for hours, afraid to close my eyes, angry that I've once again brought this dreadful torture down upon myself. And then I'll wake up again the next morning, ready for more.

This is particularly true around Halloween, the ideal celebration of which for me involves watching one scary movie after another. The pattern I favor is: kitsch in the afternoon, while working, and more serious stuff in the evening, with mornings reserved for finishing whatever I was too terrified to finish the night before. Such was the case with Lake Mungo, which cast such a fright over me in it's first half hour alone that I haven't had a good night's sleep since.

The film is purportedly a documentary, made up partially of surveillance cameras placed in the hallways of a house thought to be haunted. In several regards, it resembles Paranormal Activity and its sequel, right down to the psychic character whose assistance is sought by the spooked family. But this isn't a 'gotcha' picture, as Roger Ebert rightly categorized the Paranormal Activity films. It takes similar circumstances and the notion of a haunting and underlies them with serious consideration of the psychological and emotional affects of such events. This extends to the formal construct of the film, which does indeed contain a patchwork of found footage and surveillance video, but is made up mostly of interviews and exploratory B-roll. For example, in one scene the mother talks about a dream in which she goes into her dead daughter's bedroom and sees her sitting in a chair; the filmmakers cut from the interview to a beautifully photographed dolly shot set within the house, carrying us down the hall and into that very bedroom, finally coming to a rest in front of the chair the mother is speaking of, which of course is empty. It's the Errol Morris approach to a haunted house documentary.

And by nature of that form and our trust in the filmmakers' integrity, we can assume that nothing literally out of the ordinary can occur. It is the promise - and delivery - of this that traditionally scares us, be it the dead nanny standing on the other side of the lake in Jack Clayton's The Innocents or the bluntly unsubtle poltergeist of Paranormal Activity; the occurrence of something that shouldn't be there, that is perhaps outside our realm of explanation but, more importantly, is beyond our ability to control is the potent mixture from which the best horror films draw. Lake Mungo takes advantage of and ultimately relies on these tropes as well (although it effectively turns them on their head at various points throughout the film), but what is unique about the film is that, through fairly exquisite filmmaking, the tone is so precisely established that something as innocuous as a talking-head interview can be made almost unbearably terrifying.

It's through the little details that this mood is set; my favorite is early in the film when the dad describes how, in the midst of confusion over the disappearance of their teenage daughter, the family's car throws a gear and they're forced to drive home backwards. It's a pragmatic detail, an offhand detail, a minor frustration for the characters; but the re-enacted visual of a car driving backwards down a long country road as the sun sets is just enough to set us askew. A recent NY Times article on highbrow haunted houses describe how one of them demands that visitors remove one shoe before entering - a bit of oddness that messes with your equilibrium in subtle ways before the horrorshow begins. This movie plays the same trick, so that when the father subsequently describes his first run-in with what may be a spirit, and the camera simply holds on his face and hears him out, we're prone to react to the potential of what he's talking about in the same way that we would to an on-camera realization of it; likewise, those roaming interior shots of the house are scary in spite of the fact that they are overtly staged, all because we've been so effectively unnerved. And even when those scares move into the visual realm, they don't jump out at you; they seep in, creep forward and - in one case especially - take their sweet time approaching us.

After watching the first fifteen minutes, I told Ti that the film reminded me of Capturing The Friedmans by way of Paranormal Activity. My assessment was more spot-on than I anticipated, and if the film has any fault, it's that it attempts to have its cake and eat it too; to uncover more grounded horrors beneath the ghost story while still clinging to the phenomenonology of a haunted house. It's not airtight, in other words, but that's a small quibble in what is, indeed, a surprisingly unique horror and deeply unsettling ghost story.

So unsettling, in fact, that come nightfall I'm going to regret having written all of this and posting the image above, which will fester in my imagination into something far more frightening than it actually is. Scary movies are fun, both in the communal sense and as the endurance test that watching them alone can sometimes become, and my pleasure is tempered with admiration for the filmmaking necessary to elicit these reactions from me. It's that technical aspect I cling to when all the lights are out and objectivity fading; I let myself take vicarious pride in the fact that the movie has scared the shit out of me. It's a small comfort.

Posted by David Lowery at October 29, 2010 11:40 AM


Your experience is inspiring. I am looking forward to not sleeping tonight, netflix cue here I come.

Posted by: karl jacob at October 31, 2010 5:54 PM