I’m sick and tired of the found footage genre of horror films. They’re the lowest common denominator. Effortless, worthless piles of quickly forgotten trash that serve to make quick money (buy less, sell high!) returns in the most cynical possible manner, and that only serve to reconfirm the myth that horror films are without merit, have nothing to say and are lacking in imagination. Which is the complete opposite of the truth for what they once meant. As reactions to culture and social pressures, albeit with some directors and producers looking for quick returns themselves as exploitation cinema exploded, they had something to say whether in style or substance, even with the lashings of fake blood and soft smut. Paranormal takes influence from this new breed of cinema cynicism and looks to do something new with an already tired format.
To understand the inherent flaws its worth looking at the genre that has influenced Matt Cohen’s title. The first and best – the founder – was the infamous Italian film Cannibal Holocaust by director Ruggerto Deodato. Forever shocking and timeless, it made such an impact it’s ingrained deep into the genre, and held its own against Spielberg’s E.T. in Japan. It told the story of a reporter heading deep into the Amazonia jungle to try and find out what happened to a bunch of award winning reporters who went there. Along the way he finds out they’re not the heroes TV has purported them to be; quite the opposite. A clever twist sees the reporter return home safely with the remaining footage he’s ‘earned’ from the tribes people. As he puts it together with an editor we’re shown what happened to the documentary crew. It’s not pleasant.
“Quiet, quiet, shaky camera”Without going into too much detail, the reason it worked was that there the characters were believably repugnant, the story had purpose, its audiences believed what they were seeing and it did it first. It’s no easy task, and the difficulties of achieving this are exacerbated by introducing any supernatural elements. Now we’re stuck with the following formula: quiet, quiet, quiet, quiet, shaky camera, quiet, quiet, BANG!, quiet, quiet, boring, boring, WOMAN SCREAMS!, quiet, quiet, quiet, LOTS OF BANGS!, boring, boring, awful ending. Essentially, an overpriced and instantly forgettable rollercoaster ride. It’s a shame then that Paranormal takes all the wrong influences and falls head first into this spiked pit of cliché.
The plot starts with a voiceover introduction by the character in your control, seeing the world through his eyes. A little bit of exposition explains he’s using a camera to try and capture the weird things that have been happening at night, and why there are so many odd statues knocking about the place (he’s an artist). Through the camera we view the world via a fuzzy aesthetic. With a battery symbol visible time is limited before it’ll need to be recharged. Taking place entirely within the confines of the haunted house which you’re unable to leave, the plot begins to unravel as you explore the premises and uncover diary pages from a family that lived there before, and before long, in the first night to be exact, there’s a lot of quiet with the occasional loud bang.
As strange occurrences start to take place our character will panic and look around whilst you’re moving. This caused my first bout of video game motion sickness in a long time. Thankfully this can be disabled in the options menu. Here there are other additional options but many of them have a toggle feature which when pressed gives no indication of whether it’s on or off. There’s also no control explanation and by accident the console was brought up via Tab, showing all the commands to remove textures and other details. Whilst there’s no clear indicator – through highlighting or more intelligently awareness animation – to show if an object can be interacted with. I’m still not certain whether one door opened because I looked at exactly the right spot or if it was a scripted event.
“House itself is drab”The house itself is drab and ill proportioned. You’re about three and a half feet tall, struggling to look over the back of a sofa when stood up. Movement is sluggish and presumably influenced by the million and one Slender Man clones/rip-offs currently littering every possible store and device. Walking is some form of bizarre march that takes ages to get anywhere and creates unattractive sounds as you smash the carpet and other surfaces under your feet. As film maker Buddy Giovinazzo once said, “a film only looks as cheap as it sounds”. The same applies to this medium too.
Once the battery begins to run dry on the camera you need to get to bed and recharge the camera. Failure to do so leads to death by an apparition. Clearly it believes it unsportsmanlike to attack you when filming or asleep. As you snooze through the day and awake the next night, the haunting continues and escalates as signs are left by whatever dwells here and physical assaults start to increase. After two nights it’s pretty clear the house needs knocking down, with the captured footage providing enough detail for an encyclopaedia on the paranormal. More diary notes and messages written on the walls are found in the sequential nights, pointing to an evil that has occurred and the faint glimmer of a solution.
Paranormal feels like an alpha build of a final idea, weighted down by the worst horror movie genre nonsense and the current obsession with walking at a snail’s pace to build faux tension. Yet there was a morbid curiosity to see this through to the end, and I put this down to – at its core – a great idea screaming to be let loose. What does go so some way towards redemption is an ending that is discovered through clues and coalesces everything together in a satisfactory way. And, much to its credit, at least avoids the trope of a final jump scare in detriment to the narrative. Matt Cohen’s heart is in the right place, and with better inspiration and pacing could be one to watch rise through the indie ranks.