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The Rise of the ‘crockumentary’: notes on Paranormal Activity, The Fourth Kind

2010/06/15

The reason for the post about these two not incredibly recent films is twofold.  First, they have pushed me toward acknowledging the rise of a horror subgenre initiated in large part by The Blair Witch Project (1999), consisting of films that present themselves as documentaries with a big, whole-side-of-the-face wink.  I say this to differentiate films in this subgenre from the large pool of other horror films that claim to be “inspired by actual events,” whatever that means – sometimes it means they’re offering a version of events, the truth of which can never be known; sometimes it means they have particularly nervous lawyers;  and sometimes it means nothing at all.  (I’m talking to you, The Strangers).  To the contrary, these films consist in part or in entirety of creatively produced fictional film that mimics documentary footage.  I know there’s already a potential label for these films, but when I hear the term “mockumentary,” I think of Christopher Guest films.  The label in my title more accurately captures the tendency of these films to increasingly cast off the old model of equivocating about the factual basis in favor of bald-faced lying.   

So, with BWP as the baseline, albeit a baseline of suck, further offerings have presented us with a range of competency, scariness, and motion-sickness. It is against these films I believe you must consider Paranormal Activity and The Fourth Kind (both from 2009), especially because they aren’t really noteworthy otherwise.  Spoilers will be present, people.   

The Fourth Kind goes further into playing with fake and faker texts than the others.  The plot is abduction, the “fourth kind” of alien encounters.    The substance of the film is what holds itself out to be a dramatic reenactment of real events interwoven with the faux “real footage” on which the reenactment is based.  In my opinion, it’s a brilliant effect.   We can rely heavily on the reenactment:  it has exposition; it’s edited like a traditional film; and the actors are far easier on the eyes than real people.   Beyond that, the reenactment portion is let off the hook for most of the issues we would have with a normal fictional film, such as acting.  We don’t need to believe the star actress here (Milla, it’s fine; it’s fine this time) but like any other dramatic reenactment labeled as such, you just watch it to find out what happened, to get information that we can’t get out of whatever raw footage exists.  For example, the reenactment allows us to be in the house at the same moment we’ve seen through “real” footage outside.  Added to that, cutting to brief installments of this fake-documentary footage – the kind that has to carry the whole story for Blair Witch – has much greater impact.  Either because of that technique or in addition to it, the film had some of the best fake footage I’ve ever seen; also, it was always interesting to see the sets of the reenactment against the faux-real sets.  There’s an attention to detail and to the above-board dramatization that I think indicates substantial enjoyment was had by the art department.  Although there were a couple of mildly scary moments, that isn’t a strength of the movie.  The point of interest, for me, was in the technique;  I think the film could have been great if the story had a real hook.   

My other reason for writing is I think Paranormal Activity offers a useful watermark for film characters who exhibit supreme unintelligence.  PA is about a young couple, Kate and Micah, who discover that a demon Kate apparently picked up during her childhood is still with her, and the more aggressively Micah investigates and attempts to confront it, the nastier the demon gets in return.  Now, admittedly, horror movies have long relied on the use of characters whose failure to mentally grasp the circumstances allows the horror to unfold.  That is applicable here, but I am happy to report that the subhuman intelligence level that completely defines Micah is more than a plot device; it has been affirmatively written into the text of the film. This film doesn’t present demonic possession as a metaphor for childhood trauma or personal baggage, or a cautionary tale for the godless.  Instead, it is simply and elegantly a film about exorcising a complete idiot douchebag boyfriend from your life.   This doesn’t end well for Micah, and some may disagree that it ended well for Kate, who is completely possessed by film’s end – granted, not ideal, but personally, my response to the question begged by the (standard DVD) ending, “what is this demon going to do with Kate’s body?” is “who cares, as long as it’s not dating a mouthbreathing daytrader incapable of processing very basic cause/effect logic or some of the most primal sense data on the emotional well-being of one’s partner?”  Now, don’t get me wrong; Kate’s level of self-awareness is unimpressive, and she’s certainly got a credibility deficit from the beginning, owing to her not having given her partner the opportunity to rethink moving in with her based on this whole personal-demon issue.  At least she has an understanding of what isn’t going to help the situation – that is, everything that has ever crossed Micah’s mind to do about it.  And who can avoid feeling sorry for her when psychic Dr. Friedrich visits, only to immediately observe with everyday, non-psychic common sense that he cannot help because his presence is only making the demon angrier.  Unfortunately for Micah, he doesn’t add, “and that’s not a good thing.”   And so, hope is lost.   

Other things I enjoyed about the film, which btw was not really scary, compelling, truly novel, or anything else that may characterize it as “good” – were  1) they went with demon over ghost, and 2) still went with the almost total absence of all the usual religious tropes, characters (e.g., personally troubled priest), and paraphernalia.  That Micah finds Kate, near the end, catatonic and holding a cross, and responding by burning the cross was the final signpost toward:  “ok, even now he has NO CLUE what’s going on or what the effect is of anything on anything else. Got it. Let’s proceed to the him getting killed forthwith.”   

And, while  it’s certainly not original to situate ancient evil in otherwise tranquil, secular modern suburbia (e.g. Poltergeist), here Kate and Micah are so young (Kate is still finishing college), and their house so new, and so suburban Cali and Pier 1/Pottery Barn’ed to the skies, that it surely missed the chance to be scarier.  It is strange and comical that a demon would be manipulating a place like that.  I give them props for going with a personal haunting over the usual haunted house business, but the setting could still have been a little less benign.   As it was, I couldn’t help thinking of the demon doing things like opening and slamming the door of one of those countertop wine cellars to torment them, or violently rifling through an Anthropologie catalog. Then I start thinking of the demon in entirely different terms, almost feeling sorry for it for being semi-corporeal in this incredibly bourgeois setting.   

Is this Kate scrapbooking, or the DEVIL?

 

He doesn’t really want to be here, he’s just following Kate.  That?  Is not scary.   Not like this.  Take the picture of young Kate they found in the attic, burned around the edges.  We were supposed to understand that the demon kept a souvenir he salvaged from the fire he started at her childhood home, and perhaps be disturbed by that?  But that’s so cute!  He kept a picture of her all these years?  And he obviously pulled it from the fire before it could burn completely.  What if he didn’t mean to set the fire at all?  What if he accidentally sets things on fire all the time because he’s a hell beast?  Really, what are we supposed to think when they find the picture in the attic, half buried in insulation: that he planted it there to freak them out?  Isn’t it more likely that he panicked when he saw the picture singeing around the edges and stuffed it in that insulation to put it out?  Also, Kate repeatedly and in simple language, firmly vetoes Micah’s idea to bring a Ouija board into the house.  Why?  Because it will open a dialogue of evil, maybe – or maybe because she knows the demon will accidentally set it on fire if he tries to communicate with them, which, observe – is exactly what happens.   I can almost hear his frustrated grunts of surprise when the board erupts in flame, and, well, the film clearly wanted us rooting for the demon anyway or they wouldn’t have faced it off against such a tumbling dickweed.   

May I stimulate some evil for you?

 

Beyond that, I could have done with a little more mystery in Kate’s interaction with the demon, not so much narrating, i.e. “SEE MY HAIR BLOWING? HE IS BREATHING ON ME. RIGHT THERE. ON MY NECK.” A little more psychological control or transfixing while she was awake could have made better use of the idea that she was experiencing a lot more than we were.   

Unfortunately, this hasn’t been made available on Instant Watch; but I was happy to get it from Redbox for $1 – if I had paid even five bucks for it, this review would have been harsher.  Quarantine is still in first place for me in the genre.  Fourth Kind crosses the line a nose ahead of Paranormal Activity, but well behind Quarantine, still as safely in first place as Blair Witch is in last.   

Final rating:  3 stars each. Now, to decide if I can sit through the family –unfriendly Home Movie (2008); and long may Micah Sloat reign as king of the logically challenged.

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