MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Why Do They Keep Making Them Like They Used To?

There’s rarely anything new under the sun.  Every movie we see today is similar to something else we’ve already seen: the look of the film, or the theme of it, or the plot or the characters. It’s all been done before. We accept that when we walk into a theater, we’re probably going to see a story we’ve seen before; all that we ask is that it is done in a way that makes us forget that we’ve seen it already.

We want characters that are more fleshed out, effects that seem more realistic, dialogue that is richer, music that is more evocative.  Basically, all that we ask for is for cinema to have improved over the hundred years of its existence. And we want to be surprised even if it’s become harder to elicit that reaction.

A lot of modern films care little about entertaining an experienced film-going audience; many filmmakers simply recycle past ideas without even bothering to repackage them as something different. Although this phenomena crosses all genres, it seems especially prevalent in horror films. I’m not just talking about remakes (which can be effective or ineffective, depending on what new ingredients are added to the stew), but about films that are either carbon copies of things we’ve seen before or films that enjoy the “kitsch” of films from a certain era and try to reproduce it with modern means.

I saw two films in the past week that felt very familiar, and it made me wonder why the filmmakers would bother and why the audience would care. The directors of these films are clearly enormously talented, able to create so much while on limited budgets, but I wish that talent could have been used for something more original.  Both of these films have merit, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of déjà vu while watching both Paranormal Activity and The House of the Devil.

I know that Paranormal Activity is a huge sensation and it’s a great story about this young filmmaker Oren Peli and they made the film for two dollars in his house, etc. etc.  But we’ve seen this movie before, haven’t we?  If someone told you that this film was a sequel of sorts to The Blair Witch Project, would you even bat an eye?  The techniques used in this film, the non-pro actors over-emoting and the “strange” items found are almost completely lifted from the aforementioned film. I understand that audiences have short-term memories, but it’s only been ten years since we’ve seen almost entirely the same film; just substitute a house in San Diego for the woods.  If you were pitching this film, I’m pretty sure it would go something like, “It’s Blair Witch in a house in San Diego.”

That’s not to say the film is ineffective.  I actually enjoyed it for the most part and I think there are some really nice touches.  The character of Micah is unbelievably annoying, though, in a way that the characters from Blair Witch were not.  His irrational disbelief at every turn flies in the face of logic. At one point, after a bunch of irrefutable evidence has mounted, he puts powder on the floor. Why does he do this?  At this point, he is (and we are) well aware of the fact that there is something in this house, so what is he hoping to prove with this?  Any sentient being would have called the “demonologist” as soon as the Ouija board went aflame for no reason.  It’s great to have a “skeptic” character in any horror film, but this is just ridiculous.

I also don’t understand why they wouldn’t have tried moving out of the house for a night early on.  I get that the psychic told them that the demon would follow them wherever they went, but it seems to stay in the house for the most part.  The Ouija board set itself on fire even when they weren’t there and I’m assuming nothing happened at the restaurant.  At the very least, it would seem a good idea to sleep at a friend’s house or a motel for the night and see what happens. But that would have gotten in the way of the filmmaker telling his story with camcorders and it would mean paying for a different location; therefore, he has to create a contrivance to take away the possibility of them leaving the house. I understand that there were limited resources, but this was just unrealistic in a film that is trying to look like a documentary.

In Blair Witch it was possible to watch the film and believe for a moment that we were watching a documentary of found footage.  Is that even a thought in anybody’s head when watching Paranormal Activity?  Despite the grainy footage, there is no doubt that we are watching a “movie.”  The way the characters behave just isn’t realistic enough for us to believe that we are witnessing actual events that occurred.

I do think that the first-person, handheld camcorder genre can be exploited further and that we’ve only just scratched the surface on what is possible with this way of filmmaking.  It’s still effective because the idea of people filming themselves as they experience supernatural phenomena is creepy and suspenseful, but the only new thing that Paranormal Activity brings to the table is a tripod.

With The House of the Devil, despite everything else, director Ti West has shown himself to be a filmmaker who deserves to be watched and followed.  He is clearly working on another level than most indie horror directors. Watching The House of the Devil is like watching what would have happened if Terrence Malick was forced to direct a cheesy early ’80s horror flick.  And therein lies both the fascination and the downfall of the film; it is an unbelievably dead-on facsimile of an early ’80s horror movie, from the costumes to the music to the grain of the film to the tics of the characters.  And because West is such a talent, he is incredibly accurate with all of his details, but it makes me wonder why such an effort was put into crafting a film with the purpose of making the audience feel like they’d seen it before.

I felt much the same way when Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguezmade Grindhouse; it’s hard for me to understand why people would aim for “kitsch.”  It seems like being a kitschy, cheesy film is something that filmmakers usually don’t try for, but when that’s what happens, it becomes a cult fetish.  And when you actively try to be a cult film, it seems likely that you’ll fail; the joy of most cult films is that they are trying their hardest to be the best films that they can be with the talent and money they have.  Now, we have filmmakers using big budgets and lots of talent and energy into crafting a film whose purpose is to be bad.  Bad in a good way, sure, but still not aiming particularly high.

Like Grindhouse, The House of the Devil is a success in that it approximates the type of film that is trying to, but it fails on the level of being a genuinely good movie.  The storyline is familiar: young co-ed takes a job “babysitting” at a creepy mansion in the middle of nowhere and then things go bump in the night.  It seems that as a writer, West was trying to be as generic as possible so that West, the director, could have free reign to show off some of his technical prowess.  The film is deliberately paced, but beautifully shot with long takes and gorgeous tracking shots.  Each frame is perfect in the way it looks and feels, although sometimes West becomes too enamored with the pretty pictures and the film becomes bogged down, losing suspense and momentum.

The star of the film, Jocelin Donahue, is someone to watch as well.  She’s beautiful in that movie girl-next-door way, but she definitely has charisma.  So much of the film is just following her around this big house as she walks around or dances while listening to The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another.”  And, despite being the sole soul that we see for long stretches at a time, she keeps us captivated.  She does have some help, though, from Tom Noonan as the creepy owner of the house, his kindness and polite manner being way more terrifying than if someone were to yell or try to be menacing.

The film, though, is basically an hour and ten minutes of plodding and then followed by twenty minutes of “horror” that is not as scary as we would have anticipated.  But the measure of the film’s success in West’s eyes seems to be how much the film resembles its early 80s counterparts.  And the truth is that it’s way better technically, but falls short in terms of story and scares.  The film would have been much improved with a better writer and less of a reliance on early ’80s contrivances for the sake of irony.  But, West certainly has a promising career ahead of him if he decides to make something original.  The House of the Devil was surely enough to get me to see whatever he does next.

Ultimately, we can be satisfied by seeing things we’ve seen before, just as I was “satisfied” by the two films I’ve mentioned here.  But, we don’t go to movies to be merely sated; we want to be blown away, to be entertained, to see things that we think we haven’t seen before.  We want to see good stories told well, not just stories told the way we’ve enjoyed them before.

– Noah Forrest
November 2, 2009
Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writers and do not neccessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon