Posts Tagged ‘haunted house’

Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)

04/19/2011 1 comment

Some horror movies work because you don’t know why things are happening. Of course, humans are curious creatures, and when faced with terrifying, inexplicable phenomena, we try to figure out what is going on and why. This is both a minor failing and a major boon for the species, as it helps us understand the world when we risk getting eaten by it. A number of horror movie sequels try to explain what happened in the first one. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. How does this one fare? Let’s find out.

Paranormal Activity 2 is a supernatural horror film directed by Tod Williams, serving as both a prequel and a sequel to the original Paranormal Activity. It stars Brian Boland, Molly Ephraim, Katie Featherston, Seth Ginsberg, Sprague Grayden, and Micah Sloat.

In the year 2006, new parents Kristi and Dan Rey find themselves faced with a chilling event: their house has apparently been burglarized, with every single room ransacked save for the nursery. However, the only item that has been taken is a necklace belonging to Kristi’s sister Katie. Justifiably spooked, Dan installs a number of security cameras around the house, through whose neutral eyes we witness the events that unfold throughout the film. Over the next few days, Kristi and Ali, Dan’s daughter from a previous marriage, start to hear strange noises and see items moved by an unseen forces, and their housekeeper and nanny Martine is convinced that they are being tormented by evil spirits. Dan is skeptical, and fires Martine after her repeated attempts at spiritual cleansing. All the while, though, the security cameras continue to record, until it becomes apparent that the spooky activity is centered around baby Hunter, and it might be connected with a secret in Kristi’s family’s past…

I enjoyed this one about as much as I did the first movie. In haunted house franchises like this, too often the attempts to explain or justify the haunting makes it something lame, but not so here. While the collective plight of Katie and Micah from the first movie is given an explanation, the reason behind it makes their situation seem so much worse. This, paired with the stinger at the end, combines to chilling effect as you see the ultimate result of Dan’s final decision. Watching the first one along with this one helps a lot, especially as the timeframe of the second one is established relative to the first. The ending definitely leaves you with an “Aw, crap!” feeling that sticks with you.

As with the first, the characters here feel like real people. Dan’s attempts to reckon with the mysterious activity mirrors Micah’s from the first movie, but he’s less of a dick about it and he genuinely comes off as wanting to protect his new family. The role of poking the demon with a stick falls to older daughter Ali, who believes in the paranormal but doesn’t recognize the danger of the hauntings until much later, and her boyfriend Brad, who thinks the whole thing is a joke. Ali parses out a likely reason for the demon to torment their family through her research, and in the context of the tale it appears chillingly plausible. Her attempts to contact the thing with an Ouija board get half a pass here, as she had no psychic to warn her against such a thing, but even so she seems like she should know how stupid that would be. At least she doesn’t make their situation (much) worse with her messing around.

If you liked the first Paranormal Activity, you will likely enjoy Paranormal Activity 2. It expands on the overall story and explains some of the unseen spectre’s motives, without ruining the perceived menace. I do recommend watching the first movie before watching this one, so things make sense, but this one is a pretty spooky movie in its own right.


Poltergeist (1982)

For the longest time, haunted house movies took place in old, well-worn edifices – places with a long history of Bad Things happening, and generally places that looked haunted. You don’t expect your brand new house, built last summer, to have any sort of supernatural wonkiness going on. Then Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg got together and made a little movie and scared the crap out of people with a new brand of daylight terror.

They’re heeeere…

Poltergeist is a horror film directed by Tobe Hooper (the guy who made people afraid of chainsaws in 1974) and produced and written by Steven Spielberg (the guy who made people afraid of the beach in 1975). It stars Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Heather O’Rourke, and Zelda Rubenstein.

When the Freelings moved into their new home in the recently-built neighborhood of Cuesta Verde, they thought they’d found their dream home, the place where they would raise their family. When five-year-old Carol Anne begins conversing with the static on the TV after the end of the broadcast day, Steven and Diane think their daughter might just be sleepwalking, until one night an earthquake shakes the house during one such nocturnal conversation, prompting Carol Anne to spookily announce, “They’re here.” “They” start to manifest as strange phenomena, such as objects moving around in their own, or unattended items bending or breaking. The activity seems to be centering on little Carol Anne, and at first the Freelings think their spectral visitors or benign and sort of cute, until one night the spooky tree in the back yard attempts to eat middle child Robbie, and in the confusion Carol Anne disappears, sucked into another reality through her bedroom closet. Desperate to get her back, the Freelings enlist some unconventional help to unravel the terrifying secrets of their new home.

Drawing upon elements from real-world investigations, Poltergeist was one of the first haunted house movies to use paranormal investigative techniques as a significant plot point. A group of secondary characters brought in to help find Carol Anne use techniques still used today by ghost hunters, including the capturing of electronic interference on special devices, the videotaping of visual phenomena, and listening for supernatural communications through white noise. The investigators also make the distinction between a poltergeist and a haunting clear, such as the tendency for a poltergeist to focus on a single individual (in this case, Carol Anne). This, combined with the decision to use unknown actors, helped to root the film in “our” world, even when things start really going to hell.

Both the acting and directing in this film are exemplary. As with many effects-heavy films, the primary difficulty comes when live actors are reacting to special effects that will be added later – particularly when one of your principal actors is only five years old. Everyone did very well here, portraying both the initial excitement at their new “invisible friends” (even when they do alarming but harmless things like stacking chairs just off camera) as well as the growing terror as they learn about the evil presence Tangina identifies as the Beast, and the parental desperation and determination Steve and Diane find within themselves as the Beast goes after Carol Anne and tries to snatch her away from them again and again. While Spielberg was nominally the producer, he happily got his hands dirty in the filmmaking process, comforting Heather O’Rourke after she was frightened by an effects sequence and jumping into the half-completed pool surrounded by film equipment to demonstrate to JoBeth Williams that if it was not safe, then he was willing to take that risk. In the end, the mutual genius of Hooper and Spielberg combined to make a very tight, enjoyable little haunted house movie.

If you’re looking for a good, scary horror movie that doesn’t rely on people getting horribly murdered for its scares, absolutely watch Poltergeist. While it doesn’t feature scenes littered with slashed-up victims, it will take you just far enough outside your “safe” zones to have you checking your closets before you go to bed.

Ghostbusters (1984)

Number one rule of marketing: Find out what people want, and find a way to provide it. Waterborne plague? Sell bottled water. Zombie apocalypse? Shotguns, food, and ammo. Outbreak of hauntings? Paranormal extermination services. It’s simple, really, especially considering the growing market that three New York parapsychologists are about to discover…

Ghostbusters is a comedy film produced and directed by Ivan Reitman, and written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis. It stars Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, Rick Moranis, Sugourney Weaver, Annie Potts, and Ernie Hudson.

When three quirky parapsychologists – Drs. Peter Venkman (Murray), Ray Stantz (Aykroyd), and Egon Spengler (Ramis) – lose their jobs at Columbia University, they decide to use their knowledge of the supernatural in a slightly different field: extermination. After their first attempt ends in hilarity, they develop equipment to help them capture and contain the ghosts, and set themselves up for business, advertising themselves as “the Ghostbusters”. Things appear to be set for failure until they finally get their first call from a posh hotel with a recurring haunting; after they capture this one (destroying most of the ballroom in the process), the calls start rolling in, with more and more people in New York City finding themselves vexed by wayward spirits. Business is so good, in fact, that they must fire a fourth member of their team, Winston Zeddemore (Hudson) to help distribute the workload (and to have someone to explain the supernatural stuff to), but before long the boys starts to wonder if their newfound success might not be a symptom of a building menace that has the potential to endanger the world…

Ghostbusters is one of those old favorites that I first saw while growing up, and it still holds up well today. The core cast are all close friends of Ivan Reitman, and in fact a similar combination (Reitman-Murray-Ramis) can be seen in Stripes. The actors worked well together, and you could tell that they enjoyed the hell out of whemselves while filming. In addition, I have been assured that Aykroyd is that big of a paranormal nerd in real life. Of course, the best part about this movie is that it works as a comedic scare film for both kids and adults – it isn’t that bloody, and the sexual stuff is more suggested than shown (at least, I wasn’t sure what that female ghost was doing with Ray until years later when I first heard of the succubus).

The special effects were well-done for their day, with the proton pack effects and ghostly apparitions still holding up well. The stop-motion terror dogs are a bit dated, but this is only a minor nit is what is otherwise a well-made and well-acted movie. The Godzilla-ish miniature effects used in the Stay-Puft sequence were well-crafted (though that suit must have been stuffy as hell), and I could actually believe that there was a fifty-foot snack mascot walking down the street, no matter how absurd it would look in any other context. The cast reacted well to the spooks and monsters, and nothing felt forced or half-assed.

If you like supernatural comedies, I strongly recommend adding this one to your collection. It’s an old favorite that has lasted for years, and will continue to last for years to come.

Paranormal Activity (2007)

Ever since she was a girl, Katie has been harassed by an unseen supernatural presence, which has subsequently followed her to the new home she shares with her boyfriend Micah. Micah has just had the brilliant idea of setting up a video camera at night to record some of the nocturnal goings-on, hoping that if they can capture proof of the paranormal maybe they might get some help in getting rid of it. If not, at least they have some cool footage of the supernatural to sell. Simple, right?

They are about to learn that this is the parapsychology equivalent of poking it in the face with a stick.

Paranormal Activity is a supernatural horror film written, directed, and edited by Oren Peli, who also set up his own house to use as the movie’s setting. It stars Katie Featherstone, Micah Sloat, Mark Friedrichs, and Amber Armstrong.

It starts simply enough. Micah (Sloat) comes home with a video camera which, as it is explained, he plans to use to record the nocturnal shenanigans of an unseen entity that’s been plaguing his girlfriend Katie (Featherstone), in the hopes of identifying it and getting rid of it. Katie explains the backstory on camera, implicating the being in the fire that destroyed her family’s home when she was eight. It returned when she was thirteen, and has recently shown up again since moving in with Micah. She doesn’t care about the money-making potential of the footage; she just wants the thing gone. They also enlist the help of a psychic (Fredrichs), who informs them that this thing is actually a demon that has fixated on Katie – but his area of expertise is ghosts and not demons, so he gives them the number of a local demonologist to consult, and warns Micah both of them not to antagonize or try to communicate with it. Naturally, Micah decides to be a dumbass, and the incidents only escalate. NICE JOB, MORON.

Of course, the real meat of this movie (around which the plot-padding is arranged) is the footage of what the invisible demon gets up to at night. Yes, that’s right. Invisible. The demon is never recorded on camera. However, all the phenomena that one associates with haunting footage are there – odd noises and knocking sounds, an unattended door moving while the homeowners are asleep nearby. A spooky addition is Katie getting up at butt-thirty in the morning and standing, staring at the sleeping Micah without moving while the footage fast forwards through the next two and a half hours. These events soon escalate to a horrifying conclusion (of which there are apparently four; I have only seen the DVD release one)…

Originally conceived as an independent film, it was picked up by Paramount after studio representatives saw it at a screening and promptly crapped their pants were impressed by the minimalist approach. The film premiered at the Screamfest Film Festival, was shown at the Slamdance Film Festival, and was screened at the Telluride Film Festival. It is currently the most profitable film ever made, filmed on a shoestring budget of $10,000 and earning $194 million worldwide.

I saw this movie a while back, not really knowing what I was getting into. I enjoyed The Blair Witch Project, so I gave this one a shot. It scared the piss out of me. I watched it again recently, this time knowing exactly what I was getting into. Guess what? It still scared the piss out of me. There is something so vulnerable about having stuff like this happening in the dead of night while you’re sleeping and helpless, and the fact that you never see the demon just makes things worse. The effects were subtle and understated, and the setup made something as simple as a door moving six inches by itself incredibly eerie. The fact that the nighttime shenanigans were filmed by a single fixed handheld camera on a tripod didn’t detract from the effect at all; rather, the in-universe camera made it seem more genuine, like these were actually a couple of college students with weird shit happening to them for no goddamn reason at all.

That said, if you don’t like the found footage genre, and if you like seeing your monsters onscreen, you probably won’t like this movie. Most of the terror is largely implied, leaving it up to the audience to imagine what sort of being is harassing them and what could possibly be causing the weird noises at night, not to mention the bits where Katie is shrieking her head off in another part of the house. The terrifying spikes of fear when the weird stuff happens makes the other scenes seem like padding, and there were bits where I just wanted the demon to eat Micah and be done with it. The psychic seemed to know his limitations well enough to realize when he was over his head, but bailing on them at the eleventh hour really didn’t help them at all, even if it was an effective barometer of how real things had gotten by that point.

So, if you liked The Blair Witch Project and you like subtle haunted house movies, you will probably enjoy being scared spitless by this movie. Just don’t watch it immediately before you go to bed.

The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)

Before you move into your new home, there are few warning signs that you should check for. Is it:

  • Built on top of an improperly relocated cemetary?
  • The site of a multiple murder?
  • The site of dark Satanic rituals?
  • Talking to your youngest daughter through TV static?
  • Bleeding from the walls?

If so, the proper answer to your realtor is “thanks, but no”. Of course, these things are not likely to be disclosed to house hunters, making ample fodder for plenty of haunted house movies. Of these, a fair handful are “based on a true story” (the actual veracity of which is likely to be hotly debated). Here’s one of them.

The Haunting in Connecticut is an American psychological horror film produced by Gold Circle Films and directed by Peter Cornwell. Is stars Virginia “Candyman” Madsen, Kyle “A Remake on Elm Street” Gallner, Martin “Agent Cody Banks” Donovan, Amanda “She’s the Man” Crew, and Elias “The Prophecy” Koteas.

Presented as a true story, Connecticut focuses on the Campbells, whose oldest son Matthew (Gallner) has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, for which he is receiving treatment in a hospital in Connecticut. Seeing the effects the long commute has on him, his mother Sarah (Madsen) rents a nearby home to reduce the amount of time spent on the road. Matt moves into the room in the basement, which they soon discover is also home to a mortuary (strike 1). The family starts experiencing supernatural events that the family initially blame on stress and hallucinations from Matthew’s treatment (which appeared to be radiation of some sort), particularly when Matt starts having visions of a young boy from the 1920s named Jonah. As the events intensify, Matt contacts a minister he met at the hospital for assistance, and learns that his supernatural experiences are likely the result of the previous occupant’s occult activities (strike 2), including seances (strike 3) and necromantic rituals (strike 4). Jonah is discovered to be the spirit of a child medium who would call up spirits that another would then bind to the house to amplify Jonah’s powers (strike 5). It isn’t until the bound spirits start messing with the rest of the family – proving that it isn’t all in Matt’s head – that they become starkly aware that something has to give – but how do you get rid of a presence that you can’t see or touch?

Having grown up on fare like Ghostbusters and Poltergeist, I was starting to think I’d seen it all as far as haunted-house movies go. However, this movie combines traditional ghost story elements with metaphysical concepts and occurrences accepted as fact by those who believe in the paranormal, such as calling up spirits via seances, and the manifestation of ectoplasm, presenting photos from documented seances. It also adds another elements to explain why only one family member has paranormal visions and occurences: Matt has terminal cancer (it is not specified what sort) and therefore walks in a “border state” between the living and the dead, a condition that apparently attracts the angry dead. The minister he consults for help is likewise implied to be dying, allowing him greater insight into Matt’s problem. Overall the level of research and detail put into the paranormal aspects combined decently well into a spooky, atmospheric story, if a slightly derivative one. My only real complaint is that compared to the in-camera ghostly effects, the flashback where Jonah produces a column of CGI ectoplasm from his mouth seemed disappointingly fake.

Of the main cast, I’d seen two of them before in horror movies: Madsen in Candyman and Gallner in the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, and they both seem well-suited to the genre. Gallner had his work cut out for him, having to act like a kid undergoing what must have been exhausting and draining treatments for cancer, with his character having days to live by the end. Madsen, trying to wrangle her sick son and two younger healthy children, managed to convey the level of exhaustion and frustration one would expect in her situation, just holding on my her fingernails trying to keep her family together even without the suspicion that her son might be going crazy or hallucinating from the drugs on top of it – and she needs all he strength once things really start to blow up.

If you like your horror movies to have lots of gore, you will want to give this one a miss. However, if you want a well-designed haunting with roots in real-world parapsychology, I suggest renting this one.

Beetlejuice (1988)

Let’s face it – being dead can really suck. The living can’t see or hear you, no matter how hard you try, which is annoying because a family thereof has just movied into your house an renovated it beyond all recognition. The afterlife is no help because the Netherworld is an endless desert populated with sandworms, and your only hope of moving on is through a process of soul-crushing bureaucracy, and in any case you’re not ready to go on to your final reward. It almost makes you want to summon up that “bio-exorcist” who’s been advertising himself on TV…

Beetlejuice is a horror-comedy directed by Tim Burton and featuring a soundtrack by Danny Elfman, with contrbutions from Harry Belafonte. It stars Michael “Batman” Keaton, Alec “The Shadow” Baldwin, Geena “The Long Kiss Goodnight” Davis, Winona “Girl, Interrupted” Ryder, Catherine “Home Alone” O’Hara, Jeffrey “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” Jones, Sylvia “Mars Attacks!” Sidney, and Glenn “Demolition Man” Shadix.

Adam (Baldwin) and Barbara (Davis) Maitland were going to spend their vacation redecorating their country home, but these plans are derailed when they are both killed in a car accident. Returning to their house in spirit form, the notice that they have no reflection in the mirror, and a strange tome has appeared, The Handbook for the Recently Deceased which confirms their fears that they are dead. When Adam tries to leave their house, he finds himself in a bizarre, alien desert populated by huge sandworms, driving him back inside. So. They’re dead, and trapped in their own house. Great.

Complications arise when their home is sold to an obnoxious family from New York, the Deetzes, who transform the Maitlands’ county haven into a gaudy horror of modern art. The Maitlands seek help from their afterlife caseworker Juno (Sidney), who tells them that they are bound to their house for 125 years, and if they want the intruders to leave, they will have to scare them away. Problem: the living intruders can’t even see the ghosts trying to haunt them, except for their Goth daughter Lydia (Ryder), and an attempt to scare them away with an induced performance of “Day-O” during a dinner party (my favorite part) only makes the Deetzes want to stay and meet their hip dead neighbors. In desperation, and against the advice of Juno, they summon up self-styled bio-exorcist Beetlejuice (Keaton) to exorcise their house of the living, never realizing how much trouble they’ve just bought for themselves…

Beetlejuice was my first taste of Tim Burton, and I was pleasantly surprised by what I would soon come to recognize as his trademark quirky style of direction. His vision of the afterlife as mind-numbing drudgery similar to an unemployment office was a nice change from the fire-and-brimstone hells or angels-and-clouds heavens. The afterlife was just like the land of the living, two degrees off center, sprinkled with enough dark humor to have you giggling at the ghosts of people who clearly died from everything ranging from getting run over by a truck to a botched magic trick to falling asleep while smoking in bed. Beetlejuice’s introduction to the afterlife was less clear, but I suspected he was just a freelance poltergeist.

The makeup and other effects were well-done for the day, merrily portraying things like Barbara ripping off her face whilst hanging in a closet, a flattened road pizza of a ghost, the Maitlands transforming themselves into frightening apparitions, or huge stop-motion sandworms the size of a train rearing up in an otherworldly landscape. The stop-motion is dated now, of course, and could be done more smoothly with CGI today, but it doesn’t detract from the overall story too much.

If you want a quirky story about coping in the afterlife and a look at some of Tim Burton’s early work, I recommend picking up this older classic. It isn’t for everyone, but fans with a dark sense of humor will enjoy themselves throughout.

1408 (2007)

Ah, Stephen King.

In the thirty-mumble years he’s been writing horror, a lot of his work has naturally been adapted to the screen. The results have been… mixed. At the high end we find The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, and Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, the latter of which scared the everloving piss out of its audience and remains a classic in its genre. At the low end we have movies like Maximum Overdrive, The Langoliers, and Children of the Corn.

I am happy to say that 1408 is at the upper end of this spectrum.

Released in 2007, 1408 stars John “Say Anything” Cusack and Samuel L. “Snakes on a Plane” Jackson, with Tony “Hey It’s That Guy” Shalhoub in a minor role. It was directed by Mikael Håfström and adapted from King’s short story of the same name.

Mike Enslin (Cusack) is a horror writer who travels across the country investigating so-called “haunted” sites, documenting his experiences and rating each one on his “Shiver” scale from one to ten skulls. However, he has become cynical and jaded, failing to observe any genuine hauntings amid a lot of hype and atmosphere offered by otherwise unnoticed flyspecks wanting to drum up business. This changes when he receives in his usual pile of mailed suggestions one entry that piques his interest – a postcard from the Dolphin Hotel, inscribed with a warning: “Don’t stay in 1408.” Of course, this is the equivalent of saying to anyone in a horror movie “Don’t go in the woods,” “Don’t investigate that spooky house,” and especially “Don’t read the demon summoning spell in that book bound in human skin and then record it for the next bunch of unlucky campers to stumble across and start everything all over again. YOU. DUMBASS.” So naturally Mike wants to stay in 1408.

To his surprise, not only does the staff of the Dolphin not welcome the stay of a pseudo-famous writer in the infamous 1408, but the manager, Gerald Olin (Jackson) actively tries to discourage him, showing him photographs and news clippings of all the suicides (lots) and accidental deaths (fewer, but still statistically high) that occurred in the room, each one occurring within an hour of the victim’s arrival. Olin asserts that there is nothing in the room – the room itself is malevolent. Mike is impressed by all the trouble Olin is going through to warn him about this scary scary haunting, and decides to stay anyway. Finally, Olin acquiesces, and Mike gets his hotel room.

And Mike discovers that Olin was absolutely right.

This movie is unique amongst haunting stories in that there is, as Olin makes clear, no actual concrete presence in the room, no phantom or demon for the audience to hate. It’s just a hotel room, and so the audience rides along with Mike’s building frustration and fraying sanity as the room drags him kicking and screaming into the darkest corners of his own troubled psyche, forcing him to confront the death of his daughter Katie (of some unspecified illness) a year before, and his subsequent estrangement from his wife. The room’s visions are unbearably cruel, soon seizing on Mike’s powerlessness to save his family, and twist the knife over and over while Mike struggles to outwait an hour-long countdown (helpfully provided by the clock radio in the room), hoping against hope that when the hour is up, the room will be done with him, while intermittently being taunted by the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” as the leitmotif of unfathomable evil.

I haven’t seen many movies that manage to pull off the evil genius loci effectively, but 1408 manages pretty well. The idea of being trapped in a confined area that hates you shovels on the paranoia fuel in a way not seen since the Wall Monsters of early D&D. More than that, it can dig into your mind and conjure up the most traumatic memories you have, meaning you have no defense because it’s like being tortured by your own brain. More than that, 1408 will happily put you in an endless feedback loop of your own worst fears, but it won’t kill you. Oh no. That would be too easy. It makes you kill yourself, like the unholy spawn of Jigsaw and the Overlook Hotel.

John Cusack certainly had his work cut out for him, carrying the bulk of the action opposite an evil hotel room, but he pulled it off. As the room hits him with more and more nightmares, you really get a sense that rather than being the two-dimensional jerk he might have been in a lesser movie, Enslin is a real person, with a real history and genuine reasons for what he does. On some level he wants to believe in an afterlife, because then he has a chance to see Katie again, but as an atheist he can’t even allow himself this solace. And good old Sam Jackson, playing a character originally described as a white middle-aged British man, is comfortably no-nonsense in his relatively brief role as the guardian of his hotel guests and the last barrier between Mike and yet another boring stay in a not-haunted room monstrous, mind-bending psychological torture.

All in all, while the premise is very simple, the execution is brilliantly done, using little details to mess with the viewer’s mind just as the room messes with Mike’s. While the “haunted hotel” thing has already been done by King, here the scares are condensed to a single room, offering a more claustrophobic setting and tenser atmosphere as its hapless victim slowly goes maybe-crazy drowning in his own fears and anxieties. Just try not to rent it next time you’re traveling abroad.