AUGUST 1, 2008
Sometimes, I wish I never saw Paranormal Activity. Not only did it scare the bejesus out of me and make me afraid of San Diego, but it also sort of ruined all similar movies for me. Haunting type movies are different than slashers, at least to me. I may never see a slasher as great as Halloween (hell at this rate I’m not sure if anything new will even top Friday the 13th Part 2), but I’ll always enjoy watching them, because they don’t frighten me in the least anymore, there will always be new kills, new villain disguises, new settings, etc. But with haunted house movies such as Death Of a Ghost Hunter, they are pretty limited, and actually SCARING the audience is goal number 1. Yet, they all do the same shtick: moving furniture, weird sounds, and now video footage. Zzzzzz.
There are two reasons why Paranormal worked as well as it did. One was the award-worthy acting of the two leads, Micah and Katie. Not only did I totally buy them as their characters, but I also never doubted for a second that they were truly a couple. Even watching the film again after learning that they had actually met for the first time right before shooting began, I still 100% believe them as real people. The other reason was the rather subtle approach to the proceedings, expertly paced by director Oren Peli. The low-key “occurrences” paved the way for truly unsettling things later on. No CGI, no monsters or visible ghosts, none of that crap. All real, all believable, and thus, all scary.
But Sean Tretta, who wrote, produced, edited, photographed, and directed Ghost Hunter, isn’t quite as skilled as Peli. Maybe the actors just suck, or maybe he’s like Lucas and incapable of getting good performances from talented actors, but either way, I never once believed any of the primary characters (one isn’t too bad, but more on her later) were anything but actors. Their delivery is wooden, none of them really look like what they are playing (how is the lead broad a legendary ghost hunter already? She looks my age!*), and they have zero chemistry with one another. This isn’t as damaging as it would have been for Paranormal, since they are playing people who have just met, but still, normal conversations about coffee or whatever still feel forced.
Another problem is the ridiculous breakneck narration/editing in the film’s first act. Our lead, a woman named Carter for some reason, narrates a lot of the early part of the film, and Tretta’s editing never gives her a chance to pause. I almost wanted to put the movie on a slower speed so I could digest the things she was saying. Not that any of it is particularly interesting (in a span of about 20 seconds she explains her travel route, where she is going and why, and who contacted her about it in the first place), but still, a pause of 2 or 3 seconds in between her lines would have been nice. On the film’s deleted scenes collection (the only extra), Tretta tells us that he wanted to move the film along because there was a lot of dialogue at the beginning; apparently his solution was to simply remove any portion of the film, however brief, in which there was no dialogue. The result is like listening to someone read the last episode of Joyce’s "Ulysses".
But then the biggest blunder occurs at the end of the film. Everyone dies (not a spoiler, they tell us as much in the film’s first minute – way to maintain suspense!), and then the movie pulls a Return of the King, as we are treated to a lengthy flashback, an epilogue, and finally a coda. For real, there is like another 20 minutes of the movie after the point where it should have logically ended. Ending it there would have left some unanswered questions, but with another swipe at the script, this material could have been introduced earlier in the narrative, so it’s a moot point. As it stands, it’s kind of like in Wild Things, when after the movie is over you watch a few scenes that explain possible plot holes. Just not as amusing.
Another problem is the instantaneously obvious “plot twist” in the form of a character who isn’t who she says she is. OK, let’s see if you can figure this out. The film opens with an Amityville style murder/suicide of a whole family. The killer’s final act before shooting herself is to place a baby in the tub (next to a crucifix) and turn the water on, but we never actually see the baby drown. Then 20 years later, when the investigators come to the house, they are suddenly joined by a 20 year old woman (they even make a point to tell us her age) with crazy religious beliefs. Hmm... who could she be? Now, not that I have any real problem with an obvious plot twist (and she’s the one I mentioned who can actually kind of act), but it’s not only presented as a shocking revelation, but it’s also part of the already annoying never-ending finale! So the filmmakers are keeping you around longer than necessary in order to explain something any viewer who was smart enough to hit play on the DVD player would have already known. Christ, it was so obvious I actually thought it was part of the assumed narrative. It’s like, if you show the Statue of Liberty at the beginning of a movie, everyone knows that it’s in New York, you don’t need a title saying so.
To be fair, there are a few creepy moments (subtle ghost images) and until the finale it never really drags. Also, there’s a bit that made me laugh out loud. I had to get up to grab my microwaved lunch, and as I came back I caught the tail end of a scene that looked like someone peeing on a suitcase. I didn’t think much of it; I assumed I was imagining things. But then like 20 minutes later, one of the girls brings her suitcase to Carter and she’s like “Someone peed on my suitcase!” This is a far more awesome ghostly act than simply throwing their clothes around like in Blair Witch (a movie that is incorrectly quoted, but I chuckled nonetheless at the reference), so well played.
Not appreciated as much are the obvious Amityville swipes (in addition to the backstory, check out the windows) and for some reason, theft of the Halloween 4/5 score (that very simple piano bit that plays in scenes like the one where Michael appears at the end of the hallway the deputy is guarding in 4, or before Rachel is killed in 5). When you reference other horror movies (Exorcist is also tossed in), I know you’re not a newbie to the genre, so you should know better than to rip from the ‘Ween!!!
For all my ranting, it’s not the worst movie. It’s merely lacking in the important areas. Its’ not particularly scary or original, and when you’re dealing with this sort of found footage/paranormal investigation type thing, you need to do something that makes it stick out from the others (well, besides having lousy acting and atrocious editing). I hate to bash an independent film, especially one where a guy tackled so many jobs on it, but none of the problems are the result of not having a lot of money, and in the end, it’s more impressive to see 5 guys make 1 good movie than 1 guy doing 5 jobs on a mediocre one.
What say you?
*I went to look up her age, and her Myspace page (IMDb didn’t have it) says that she is 68 years old. If so, I take it back, and also would like to commend her on her incredible aging.