What Lies Beneath (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
After Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Norman (Harrison Ford) dropped their daughter (Katharine Towne) off to college, strange things started to occur in their lakeside Vermont home. After hearing her neighbor (Miranda Otto) cry while tending the garden and the woman suddenly disappeared the next day, Claire was convinced that the wife was murdered by her husband (James Remar). Claire concluded that she was being haunted by the wife’s ghost. But was there really a ghost or was it simply that were we watching a woman with a fractured mind? After all, there were some memories she didn’t have access to because she had been involved in a major car accident a year before. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, “White Lies Beneath” had a very suspenseful first half. The camera was almost always fixated on Claire as she moved about the house. We saw the story through her eyes so every time she turned a corner and someone (or something) happened to be there (or worse, when we saw some weird happenings behind her through a mirror), we, like her, couldn’t help but react. The scares were earned. There were some eerie scenes such as when the dog wouldn’t go into the water to fetch his favorite toy and when Claire decided to spy on the man of the house next door in order to gather some sort of evidence that he killed his wife. The scene with the Ouija board was also a stand-out because the characters acknowledged the ridiculousness of the situation. It was funny, but it generated uneasy laughs because perhaps there really was a ghost. Sadly, the second half was convoluted. Cheap false alarms were abound and the explanation regarding the supernatural left something more to be desired. I also had a big problem with Ford’s acting. When he expressed his many frustrations regarding his wife’s obsession, I felt like I was watching a play. Ford’s tendency to overact did not complement Pfeiffer’s more natural approach despite the fact that she felt like she was dealing with the paranormal. Thankfully, the movie was saved by the truly scary bathtub scene in which the paralyzed Claire awaited the water to rise until she could no longer breathe. The silence was menacing. We could hear every drop of water and feel Claire’s determination to survive. “What Lies Beneath” was eviscerated by critics upon its release. It may have its weak points but I stand by the picture because of its more classic approach to the scares and references to Alfred Hitchcock’s repertoire. Compared to most horror pictures of the mid- to late 2000s, which were mostly uninspired, this movie was able to deliver good scares without relying on blood.
Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
A family of four, led by Daniel and Kristi (Brian Boland and Sprague Grayden), decided to set up cameras all over the house because they believed someone vandalized their home while they were on vacation. Several days after the cameras were set up, the family reviewed the recorded images and started to notice strange things like objects moving by themselves. We observed baby Hunter (played by William Juan Prieto and Jackson Xenia Prieto) focused on something while in his crib in the middle of the night. Ali (Molly Ephraim), the eldest child, initially thought it was cool that the house was haunted so, along with her boyfiend (Seth Ginsberg), they tried to communicate with the spirits using a Ouija board. That’s never a good idea. “Paranormal Activity 2,” directed by Tod Williams, had a solid rising action. It was similar to its predecessor, directed by Oren Peli, because it managed to convey chilling images by showing very little. For instance, when the mother started hearing noises in the baby’s room and found that the weird noise wasn’t there, she headed to the connecting bathroom. Then something small would move near the crib. It obviously wasn’t the wind because the doors and windows were shut. When the mother returned to the room, the object ceased to move. It was scary because it defied physics. A moving object can’t abruptly stop moving without some force acting against it. Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie’s (Katie Featherston) return worked in some ways. Their appearance reminded me of why I enjoyed the first picture so much. They had good chemistry and their interactions were playful and amusing. But when the film started to weave in and explain how Micah and Katie’s story was related to the family in question, it felt forced. It began to feel like I was in a room watching a home movie and the writers were next to me as they attempted to write the script using a loud typewriter. It lacked believability. Once the kitchen cabinets and drawers were flung open at the same time, it was downhill from there because it wanted to increase the ante. But it didn’t need to. I missed the amusing scenes when Martine (Vivis Cortez), the family’s nanny, believed the house was haunted so she tried to let the good spirits inside using various incense and prayers. I also thought it was funny when Ali “researched” haunted houses and seemed to believe everything she read on the internet. The boyfriend just smiled because he knew how silly it was. It was simple, but I think it worked as a commentary for the young and not-so-young’s dependence on computers when we desperately need information. “Paranormal Activity 2” had some good scares and uncomfortable (but fun) chuckles as byproduct of stress (or fear) but it offered nothing new.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Oren Peli, “Paranormal Activity” claims to be real but it is far from it because, well, it was written and directed by someone. So save yourself the embarrassment and don’t yell out, “It’s real! It’s real!” in front of everyone. A couple from San Diego, Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, decided to record the paranormal happenings in their house from September to October 2006. Katie was apprehensive of the idea because she has a history of a ghost following her ever since she was a child. Micah went ahead anyway because, a typical guy that he was, he wanted to record something awesome instead of taking the safer route. The movie started off with funny moments between the couple but it became more grim the deeper we got into the film. I’m not talking about just scary noises in the hallway. I’m talking about footprints, shadows, Ouija boards, sleepwalking, possession, and exploring the idea of a possible exorcism.
Comparisons with the highly influential and effective horror film that everyone thought was real at the time of its release in 1999, “The Blair Witch Project,” is inevitable. (I wonder why suddenly most people nowadays really dislike that movie.) Both movies used a hand-held camera that was shaky and it played upon one of people’s greatest fears: the unknown. Both movies also used the technique of a continuous rising action and ending the movie during its climax for full effect (and discussions after walking out of the multiplex). Although I consider “The Blair Witch Project” to be a better movie, it’s really all a matter of personal taste. I believe “Paranormal Activity” more than held its own because it captured genuine thrills and chills that most movies with big budgets (and far better special and visual effects) cannot. That fact alone should make the actors and the director proud of their work.
Essentially, “Paranormal Activity” thrived on realism. If you believe in demons or ghosts (or even if you’re not sure they exist–a group of which I belong in), chances are you will be cowering in your seat. If you don’t believe it demons or ghosts at all, chances are you’re going to laugh at the whole thing and maybe you shouldn’t even spend money to watch it. (Maybe catch it on DVD because it really is quite impressive.) I thought the movie was scary because it’s a classic haunted house movie: we see shadows, noises, and the things they do to the objects around the couple. And yes, they eventually do something to our protagonists other than scaring them out of their minds and desperately wanting to call an exorcist for help. I loved the bedroom scenes because those are when things started to get very… interesting. Even though the setting was rendundant (the whole movie was shot in one house), the things that were happening (that shouldn’t happen in the first place) was not. With each bedroom scene, the level of scare factor was amplified exponentially–by the fourth of fifth bedroom scene, I really wanted to look away because I found myself imagining the “What Ifs” when I would be the one sleeping and all the lights would be off.
This is not the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. But it is one of those movies that I couldn’t help but think about afterwards. Despite what we know (or “understand” might be a better word) of science, and as a person who values science, we shouldn’t disregard certain possibilities just because we haven’t gathered enough support about them. If you’re tired of the same generic slasher films and remakes that Hollywood is spitting out every week, then do yourself a favor and see this one. Stop reading spoilers and hoping that the fear will wane after you’ve read a description. Because chances are, images are stronger than words. And even if you don’t end up liking it, at least you’re supporting a small movie. By doing so, perhaps big studio executives would stop being so elitist and support smaller films in the future–a movement that I strongly believe in because, in my experience as a young cinéphile, most of the time smaller films have great ideas and better execution than big Hollywood movies.