Sunday, October 21, 2012

What I like and what I don't

Had an hour to watch the season opener for "American Horror Story" last night. I was very nearly blown away with the awesomeness of this series. Unapologetically, I decided to care about this show after an interview with its creator on NPR talked up Jessica Lange as an actress. She is awesome, so I thought I needed to give the show the five minute test.

Five minutes became the whole show very quickly. The character writing is top-notch, Jessica Lange plays a nun, Sister Jude, that showcases her talent for slipping around the edges of expectation. The second season of this show centers around a single story set in the 1960s in a Massachusetts Mental Asylum run by the Catholic Church. One concern I had about the show was whether or not Sister Jude would be another Nurse Ratchet type, a malevolent portrait of female abuse of power. I'm please to say the first episode obliterated those concerns. Sister Jude is a complicated monster, in one episode she ruthlessly commits a reporter with audacity to investigate the asylum; tries to get to the bottom of the disappearing patients of the alarmingly amoral Dr. Arthur Arden (played by James Cromwell with caustic zeal); fantasizes about becoming the Mother Superior to the Asylum's idealistic Monsignor; reluctantly accepts the apology of a subordinate nun and half-shaves the head of Chloe Sevigny. She fills every scene she's in with seething menace and turmoil. It's great TV.

As a sucker for a certain type of show that plays coy with hints and suggestions, there was a lot to keep me interested in the margins. We have hints aliens, werewolves, and ghosts might all make appearances during the show. That might prove too many dishes to keep spinning for one story but I am willing to give American Horror Story a chance to prove me wrong.

Then you've got Paranormal Activity 4. I'm not sure why I keep seeing these movies. The first movie got me interested primarily through the idea the monster in the movie was some sort of demon rather than a ghost. Somehow that seemed fresh and interesting. The conceit of a movie told through surveillance footage was novel in the first movie, well developed by the second and down-right innovative in the third. Now on the fourth movie the central weakness of trying to tell a story through 'found footage' becomes apparent. The movie flounders on the need to broaden the scope of the story: witch covens were introduced in the third film and now elaborated upon in this movie. The scant mythology built up through each movie requires some sort of exposition. There is an entire new family to introduce and develop before they inevitably start dying. All pretty standard stuff for a horror sequel. The problem is that all of these tasks have to be worked in around the edges of minutes of uneventful surveillance footage. One of this series' primary tricks is to set up a loop through several different cameras while you wait to be scared. You know some kind of shadow or inexplicable event is going to happen but you have to wait until it does. The point here is that the movie clears the deck, so to speak, for these set-pieces. No one is walking around, talking about their lives, while the scary stuff is dominating the screen. The family in the movie had a cat that suddenly appeared about 20 minutes into the movie. The cat never got a name, no one in the movie talks about it. It was just this random cat walking through the scenes making me wonder how much else the movie had to cut out just to get to the scary bits.

It doesn't help that this film's big trick in terms of camera work is also a product plug. Apparently the XBOX Kinect achieves its motion capture effect by spraying infrared dots through a room. So a ridiculous number of shots are filmed in low-light footage covered in green glowing polka dots. We know we're going to see some creepy invisible entity stroll through the neon pointillism and so when it  finally happens the anti-climax is deafening.

Anyway, two case studies about what I think works in horror and doesn't. More Jessica Lange and complicated menace, and less XBOX Kinect.  
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