Halloween Film Franchises

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 30th October 2012.

As All Hallows’ Eve approaches, it’s time to don your spookiest costume, carve a pumpkin and visit strangers’ houses demanding food, because I’m about to perform a scary autopsy on Halloween film franchises.

Last week I reviewed the original Halloween film series which introduced serial slasher and horror film icon Michael Myers to the world. Beginning with the original John Carpenter classic in 1978 and concluding with a whimper in 2002, a total of eight films were unleashed upon cinema audiences at around the same time of the year, Halloween.

Several years later, the torch was passed to a ventriloquist’s dummy named Billy with a penchant for riding tricycles. In 2003, Australian filmmakers James Wan and Leigh Wannell managed to convince American backers to fund a low budget horror film to be shot in just 18 days. On October 29 the following year, the movie grossed over $100 million at the box office from a budget of $1 million. Welcome to the Saw franchise.

The Saw films centre around John Cramer, a genius engineer who is dying from cancer. After an attempt at suicide fails, he reassesses his existence and finds a new purpose, testing others to value their own lives with deadly physical challenges. Cramer then takes on a new moniker, Jigsaw.

Just like the Halloween series, the original film is the best, with a killer (pun intended) twist at the end. The subsequent six sequels, including a final instalment in 3D and all released on the Friday before Halloween, vary in quality. What remains consistent throughout the series is the cleverness of the deadly challenges placed on unsuspecting (and not so innocent) victims which usually result in painful and bloody deaths. Most of the challenges involve lethal mechanical devices which are a testament to Jigsaw’s maniacal but brilliant mind. They also suggest he had a lot of time on his hands.

Also impressive is the layering of the storylines. With Jigsaw killed off in Saw III, the filmmakers had to come up with a smart way to keep his legacy alive. There are various apprentices, as well as a brilliant conceit which sees two of the sequels taking place simultaneously. This is not revealed until the end of Saw IV (oops, spoiler alert).

By the time Saw 3D was released in 2010, audience enthusiasm for the franchise had waned and producers announced that there would be no further entries (for now). Of course that paved the way for a new Halloween film franchise. Enter Paranormal Activity.

If you’ve ever harboured an ambition to be a security guard in a big building, then this is the series for you. Mostly consisting of security camera footage, the movies focus on the premise that setting up cameras when you suspect your house is inhabited by demons is a good idea, not getting the hell out.

Paranormal Activity 4 is currently in cinemas now, with a fifth instalment due next Halloween. I’m not a huge fan. I like my horror franchises to have an element of logic. I can accept Michael Myers surviving every attempt to send him back to Hell, and a genius Jigsaw who had the foresight to plan and build extra deadly challenges just in case he was killed, but investigating a haunting in your own house by installing video cameras and then editing the footage into a movie after you have been slain by your homely demon? Don’t be ridiculous.

Happy Halloween everyone!

Published in: on December 25, 2012 at 09:04  Leave a Comment  
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Found Footage Film Forage

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 22nd May 2012.

I still remember that night. The cinema was packed. The tension was palpable. I had prepared myself with a few motion sickness tablets. The lights finally dimmed and the crowd hushed, ready to be scared out of their wits. It was time to meet the Blair Witch.

The year was 1999, and after months of hype, The Blair Witch Project finally hit Australian cinema screens. One of the first examples of a worldwide internet marketing campaign, the movie was pitched as an edit of real footage found in the woods a year after its crew went missing whilst searching for the elusive Blair Witch.

The mystery surrounding the film didn’t last very long. How many real life encounters with the supernatural come with their own soundtrack album, tie-in books and comics? Of course, the hype worked and the film went on to be one of the most successful independent films ever.

My encounter with the Blair Witch wasn’t nearly as frightening as I would have hoped. The film is 78 minutes of tiresome wandering around and minor squabbles between the “filmmakers” followed by one minute of a shocking, and very memorable, ending.

I was right to take the motion sickness tablets. The nature of the film meant that the whole thing was shot handheld, and I don’t mean with a Steadicam. The continuous jerkiness of the onscreen action is amplified on the big screen and a little vomit inducing.

The success of The Blair Witch Project inevitably led to more entries in the found footage genre, all with varying levels of success.

In 2008, the zombie Godfather, director George A. Romero, added to his zombie apocalypse series with Diary of the Dead. Following a group of student filmmakers who stumble onto a real life zombie outbreak, they do what comes naturally and run. Actually they don’t run, they decide to document the incident on film.

Probably the weakest in Romero’s iconic series, my biggest complaint with the film is the tendency for the protagonists to keep filming in situations of danger rather than get the hell out of Dodge.

The same dilemma similarly handicaps Cloverfield. Also released in 2008, the movie benefitted from online hype particularly about the nature of the mysterious creature attacking New York. Minutes before the unnatural disaster, a farewell party is taking place for Rob, who is moving to Japan (I wonder if he was aware that Godzilla flattens Tokyo on a regular basis?).

Luckily for the audience, Rod’s mate Hud is filming farewell messages, and when the ultimately disappointing turtle-like creature emerges, he keeps recording, even when it would be more useful to say, save your friends.

The Paranormal Activity trilogy launched with the original film hitting cinemas in 2007. A series of bizarre happenings in the home of a young couple lead them to set up cameras to discover what might be responsible for the haunting. What follows is akin to watching a series of security camera videos. Things go bump in the night. Doors creak. Nobody thinks to move out. Two further sequels followed buoyed by strong social media campaigns, with a third on the way. So far the series has grossed US$700 million worldwide. That’s 700 millions reasons to keep churning them out.

My favourite found footage film is the 2007 Spanish horror entitled [Rec]. A television crew recording the fictional show, While You’re Asleep, are following a fire crew on night shift. A call to an apartment building sees them quarantined inside with the tenants during an outbreak of a mysterious virus which renders its victims into violent and angry zombies. When the power is cut, the night vision of the camera becomes the only way for the survivors to search for a way out.

[Rec] works because it makes sense for the camera to be in use despite horrible things happening. It’s an unrelenting roller coaster that is easily in my top five scary movies. So far it has spawned two more sequels and a US shot for shot remake under the title, Quarantine, which in turn spun off its own sequel, which was strangely not filmed in a found footage style.

So if you’re wandering through your local spooky woods, keep an eye out for stashes of film reels or video tapes left behind by missing filmmakers. There are fortunes to be made in those haunted hills.

Paranormal Profits

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 13th April 2010.

The most profitable motion picture ever recently hit retail shelves on DVD and blu-ray. And no, I’m not writing about Avatar. Paranormal Activity, a supernatural thriller made for a paltry US$15 000, has taken more than $100 million at the US box office.

Written and directed by Oren Peli, the film was shot over a week at the director’s own home. Similar to the Blair Witch Project, which also features on the most profitable movie list, the premise of the feature is the discovery of home videos belonging to a young couple investigating strange happenings inside their apartment.

Katie and Micah (these are actually the actors’ real names too) set up a video camera in their bedroom to capture the supernatural activity that occurs while they are sleeping. As things start to go bump (and worse) in the night, the movie taps into our innate fear of what may happen when we are at our most vulnerable, that is, when we’re asleep.

 Originally screened at horror film festival, Screamfest, in 2007, Paranormal Activity attracted interest from Hollywood, particularly Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks studio. With the intention of remaking the movie with a bigger budget and big name actors, Dreamworks agreed to one last test screening at the request of the director, who believed the original was potent enough for a general release.

The test screening was initially thought to be a failure, as patrons kept leaving the theatre, however, when the producers discovered that the reason for the departures was sheer terror, a viral marketing campaign was started. Coinciding with a very limited cinema release in US university towns, a website was set up where people could demand the US domestic release of Paranormal Activity. As word spread about this frightening flick, Paramount Pictures, which owns Dreamworks, promised to release the film when a million people requested the movie via the website.

In October 2009, as demanded, Paranormal Activity hit cinemas across the US and the rest is history.

Is it as frightening as the marketing campaign would have you believe? Put simply, no. Paranormal Activity works best in a darkened cinema with the sound up loud, or at home during the night with the lights off. The scares are pretty low-tech so don’t expect the Kraken to appear in 3D. The lead actors, who were unknowns before and likely to fade into obscurity after this film, remain believable throughout the film. The repetitive nature of the storyline which continuously returns to the bedtime surveillance camera makes the 86 minute running time seem longer.

Paranormal Activity is an effective supernatural thriller that is worth your time. I definitely recommend that you rent or buy it. This is mostly because I make an appearance in the fan featurette. At 5 minutes and 10 seconds, my spooky face can be seen. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

The top 5 most profitable movies ever:

1. Paranormal Activity

2. Tarnation

3. Mad Max

4. Super Size Me

5. The Blair Witch Project

Published in: on April 20, 2010 at 13:43  Leave a Comment  
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