The Mechanisms of Horror Films.


This post contains a very few minor spoilers.  Consider yourselves warned.

Of the two low-budget horror films I’ve seen in the last few weeks – Paranormal Activity and The House of the Devil – the latter was better, and scarier.  But both films were top-notch, tense and surprisingly confident in their command of the horror film genre.

Paranormal Activity is about Micah and Katie, a young couple whose San Diego house is haunted by a malevolent entity.  The film was made for $15,000 by director Oren Peli, a former software engineer who had no prior film experience.  It was also shot entirely on a single camera, operated mostly by Micah; like The Blair Witch Project, this is supposed to be found footage. The House of the Devil, written and directed by Ti West, is set in 1982 and tells the story of Samantha Hughes, a college student who – mostly out of desperation – takes a babysitting job at a very creepy house.

Both films are scary – not in a Hostel-style gorefest way, but in a chilling, growing-sense-of-dread way.  But the films went about scaring the audience in very different ways.  Paranormal Activity is scary because it takes a setting that we think of as safe – the bedroom – and suggests that evil lurks within.  There are daylight scenes in PA, sure, but the acting and the story aren’t strong enough to make these very compelling.  But each night, Micah sets the camera up on a tripod, the couple goes to sleep, and the camera captures – in lime-green nightvision – the events that go on around them.  Paranormal Activity is scary because it makes us wonder: what happens around us while we’re asleep?  And if something were to happen – if a door were open, or if a voice, disembodied, were to whisper our names – would we wake?

Paranormal Activity is scary because its setting – the bedroom – is innocuous.  The House of the Devil takes a completely opposite tack: it takes a likeable protagonist and dumps her into the scariest place imaginable.  From the moment we see the titular house, looming out of the forest, we know it’s a place where bad things happen, and that those bad things take so long to occur only makes the atmosphere more tense; the whole movie is basically an exercise in for Christ’s sakes, don’t go in there! There’s a lot of horror-film shorthand in The House of the Devil – a haunted house, a dim-witted coed, a conveniently-timed eclipse – and it’s to West’s credit that the movie never slips into cliche.  (West is helped by creepily great performances, particularly from Tom Noonan.)

Where both films fall short is in establishing any deeper meaning.  Horror is a genre that already requires such a suspension of disbelief that it has a remarkable capacity to carry weighty symbolism without seeming ham-handed.   Rosemary’s Baby, for example, is about a woman’s right to choose, while The Shining is actually about alcoholism.  But these films keep things pretty superficial: the take-away lesson from Paranormal Activity seems to be that some people are just plain doomed, while The House of the Devil can be boiled down to satanic cults are bad.  I’m not saying, of course, that each and every film needs to have a deeper message, but there’s obviously a big difference between a horror film that’s great because it scares you, and a horror film that’s great because of what it says about society.