STUFF I WATCHED TODAY: Paranormal Activity 4, Community

Yesterday I watched the third Presidential Debate.  It would be nice if I could say watching the fourth in a series of popular horror movies was substantially less intellectually impressive than the debate.  Unfortunately, that's not the state of US politics right now. Anyway, into the reviews of stuff I watched on screens today.

Paranormal Activity 4

I saw the first three films in this series with my partner, after she bribed me with ice cream.  They are terrifying.  I am not good with horror, and each of the first three films left me deeply emotionally troubled for days, possibly weeks, following the experience.  In retrospect, ice cream should not have been enough to persuade me to watch them.

Fortunately, the new one sucked. (Spoilers start here.)  Each of the first three Paranormal Activity movies managed their deeply troubling atmosphere by building upon the inscrutability of the casts' circumstance (none of the characters being totally aware that their parents/partners' family entered into demonic pacts), whereas in this one it was just the fact that they adopted a demon-haunted kid.  It's not as scary, when the subject is already othered -- it's just kind of disappointing.

But they didn't even build on that otherness -- we don't find out that Wyatt is adopted until after it becomes useful as an element of foreshadowing.  That should have been dropped earlier.

More importantly, though, the demon in the series gets its power through building fear, and the demon's success always stems from the wrong decisions of the naive cast.  The structure of the cast's demise being brought on by their instinctual fear responses is terrifying because we mostly know, deep down, that we would react the same way.

In PA4, though, no one did anything irrational.  The only wrong acts were acts of compassion; they adopted the wrong child, and let another wrong child stay in their house.  Bad things happening to good people isn't scary -- because deep down, nobody in the audience sees bad things happening to people who've done kind things and thinks "Oh shit, I'm in trouble."  They think, "Well, that's one more excuse not to bother."

It's when bad things happen to normal people -- and especially when bad things happen to normal people as a result of their wrongdoing -- that we become afraid, because we all take shortcuts and practice small moral wrongs that are buried somewhere in our minds, eating away at us.

I present as a primary case argument, the scariest short story I know -- the first episode of Pseudopod, "Bag Man," by Scott Sigler.  Here it is, in free audio.

The other major problem with Paranormal Activity 4 is that the majority of the cast is never persuaded that anything terrifying is going on.  The demon is supposed to feed on fear -- why is it able to do anything remotely powerful before all the people in the house are terrified of it?  Everyone in the house, not just the teenage girl, should have been freaking the hell out before anyone died.  Instead, at the point in the movie where the skeptical characters would have just first been becoming shaken, those characters in PA4 were killed.  That's it.  One freaky thing happens, then it's death.  Not scary.


On a lighter note, and a better one, my partner got a free subscription to Hulu Plus today, so we're finally checking out Community.  It is very funny.

I have to say, though, I've heard a lot of people compare Community to the Big Bang Theory, as though Community is the good, positive version of what the Big Bang Theory is exploiting.  I don't see that.  They're obviously very different kinds of humor, and Community is definitely more complex, wittier, and probably has a higher bar for entry.  But the main character is a sociopath, which is a morally questionable narrative choice that's hard to get over.  Certainly comparable to the hard-to-get-over moral squickiness of a lot of the jokes and plot points in the Big Bang Theory -- which I also like.

Then again, I've only seen two episodes of Community so far.  Maybe it gets way geekier, way more positive, and generally way better, in exactly the way the Big Bang Theory never did.