Taking Over The Asylum
Today, I'm here to review 2009's Paranormal Entity, not 2009's Paranormal Activity.
I already did that.
If you thought there was a typo in this post's movie title, you may be unfamiliar with The Asylum--which, simply put, is the coolest film studio on the planet. For years, the company's executives have used their psychic abilities and funding from neighborhood lemonade stands* to produce direct-to-landfill knock-offs of Hollywood blockbusters.
Their catalogue features such notable titles as Snakes on a Train, The Day the Earth Stopped, and the Transmorphers films (not to mention the upcoming Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies and American Warships), and can be counted on for mind-blowing(ly crappy) special effects; acting that proves the existence of malevolent, supernatural forces; and production values best described as "Liquidation Days".
The eye of this awesome hurricane is one Mr. Shane Van Dyke, who has written, produced, starred in, and probably catered some of The Asylum's best features.** Van Dyke is the Ed Wood of our day: an enthusiastic, ambitious filmmaker who (I hope) has zero clue that many of his films are not good. You haven't laughed until you've laughed at an SVD picture.
Which is why Paranormal Entity, like A Haunting in Salem before it, is so troubling. It's technically a Shane Van Dyke Asylum movie, but all the hallmarks are absent. Aside from a mild brain-chuckle at a continuity gaffe,*** I found nothing funny about this Paranormal Activity rip-off. Worse yet, I was engrossed and legitimately entertained.
Van Dyke stars as Thomas Finley, an unemployed something-or-other who takes to filming everything in the house he shares with his mother, Ellen (Fia Perera), and sister, Samantha (Erin Marie Hogan). Samantha has been victimized by scary noises, slamming doors, and the like, and Thomas desperately wants to capture this real-life ghost story. Things get a bit twisty when it is suggested that the evil spirit may or may not have a connection to the family's deceased patriarch--who may or may not have had a thing for his own daughter.
Like the film that inspired it, Paranormal Entity is comprised entirely of "home video" shots. Lots of people hastily grab the camera to run into the next room and investigate a loud noise--thus taking the audience on a disorienting ride of nausea and blurred focus; in other scenes, the camera is simply mounted on a tripod, and it's up to us to figure out what object will be the first to move in a room whose occupants are fast asleep.
The key difference is that Van Dyke and cinematographer Akis Konstantakopoulos spruce up their night-vision scenes to give the film a slightly unreal take on reality filmmaking. This doesn't look like footage you'd see in an off-the-shelf camera. The scenes are deliberately lit and shot in ways that give every subject unnatural style. Thomas' living room, for example, has a vibrant, eerie green cast that at once took me out of the movie and then dropped me right back in once I realized Van Dyke and company were trying their best to make a tacky, upscale recreational space visually interesting.
There's a similar quality to the acting. With Thomas mostly behind the camera throughout, this is Samantha and Ellen's show. And I love the faux naturalism that Perera and Hogan bring to their roles. I never lost sight of the fact that I was watching a fake documentary inside of a horror movie, but both actresses bring enough unexpected nuance to their delivery that I almost forgot I was watching a horror movie. The Finleys are tender, sympathetic people--even when they fall into the inevitable trap of not leaving the house at the first sign of trouble.
I can't say I was scared watching Paranormal Entity (Activity has a leg up there), but I was definitely unnerved. The ashen footsteps on the ceiling was a nice touch, as was a later bathtub scene. But I was also unnerved, at times, in the bad way--in the "did we really need to spend three minutes walking from the front of the house, through the back yard, and into another doorway with absolutely nothing frightening or interesting happening?" way. The padding here is minimal, but oh-so-noticeable.
I've written before about Van Dyke's disturbing pursuit of becoming a quality filmmaker. Unlike most of the Asylum pictures I've seen, Paranormal Entity doesn't feel like a cash-brained knock-off. I can't be sure, but this plays like the writer/director's reaction to a ridiculously popular horror movie: "Okay, Paranormal Activity, I see what ya got. Lemme show you a thing or two!" Amazingly, Van Dyke's answer to the global horror phenomenon is worthy of comparison and, in some cases, much higher praise.
It's a sad day when Van Dyke's association with a movie no longer gives me an instant soul-boner. Instead of strapping in for easy laughs and methods of screwing up a movie I'd never dreamed possible, I actually have to care--on some level--lest I miss out on something genuinely terrific.
Speaking of asylums, who's gonna lock me up?
*Speculation, but probably true.
**I'm convinced that mandatory global screenings of Titanic 2 would defeat terrorism, end hunger, and render the Make a Wish Foundation unnecessary.
***SPOILER: The movie opens with a 9-11 call in which Thomas shrieks about something having killed his family. Ellen, who was out of the house by then, committed suicide after the events of the main story.