Every locality has an old house or hotel – dilapidated and empty in which strange happenings were rumored to occur. When I was growing up, it was the old converted mansion that served as our local library. Never would want to be caught in there after closing time, let me tell you.
Haunted houses like that are great. You can drive by them and get a shiver, or be stupid teens and try and one-up one another by seeing who can spend the longest time in it before getting the willies and fleeing. You can go visit the otherworldly inhabitants, but leave them there when you’re ready to go.
But what happens when the ghosts come to you?
Two of this week’s ANOKS movies (“Poltergeist” and “Paranormal Activity”) share this basic premise: nice suburban family is beset by a series of unexplained occurrences. They try to figure out what’s going on. They call in mediums and investigators. Bad Things start to escalate, threatening the family.
Now I will easily call “Poltergeist” one of my favorite movies of my teenage years. Earlier in the summer of 1982, Steven Spielberg had released “E.T.” – to near-universal praise. One of the things that worked so well in that story was that the family in it didn’t look like a “movie” family; they looked like a normal suburban family. Their house was a mess. The kids bickered. There was a “naturalness” to them. Spielberg and Tobe Hooper channeled that same suburban-reality into “Poltergeist”, where a typical suburban California family finds out they’re living in the wrong house.
I mean, I know this movie’s been copied and spoofed so many times that it’s hard to disassociate it and remember how good (and scary) the original is. Man – a static-snowfield on a tv STILL creeps me out. The tree, the horrible creepy clown doll, the moving-steak-maggots, JoBeth Williams being tossed around like a ragdoll. Still these days, when I want to express manic incredulous faux-anger (which happens more often than you might think…) I will rage, “YOU ONLY MOVED THE HEAD STONES! YOU ONLY MOVED THE HEAD STONES!” Great movie. 9 stars.
Almost 30 years later, evil spirits again descended on a suburban California home. In “Paranormal Activity”, a young couple starts hearing strange things and sets up video cameras to see if they can catch what’s going on. As you might guess, things begin to get worse. A lot worse. In “Poltergeist”, the evil spirits wanted to steal and use the daughter in their other dimension. Here, they seem bent on using the home (and the couple) to manifest themselves in this dimension. Now, “Paranormal Activity” utilizes the same conventions as “The Blair Witch Project” – low budget, handheld cameras, actors you don’t know, and the plot device of “here’s the footage we found afterward”. At least since the cameras were mounted, they didn’t shake around the whole time.
The film does a really good job of building tension, even without explicit effects and really any “action”. The horror and tension are all built in the viewer’s imagination. For me, I was a little extra creeped out because the house that “Paranormal Activity” was filmed in is about a mile and half from our home and looks pretty darn similar. So yeah, sometimes I get a little spooked if I hear something from somewhere else in the house. 8 stars.