The LA TIMES Movie blog tells us that Paramount has three directors in the running for PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 – which is still in the script development stage even though its target release date is this October. Who are the lucky 3?
Brad Anderson (who made a thriller called TRANSSIBERIAN with Woody Harrelson)
Greg McLean (WOLF CREEK and ROGUE)
The LA Times (and the folks at Film School Rejects) seem confused by the inclusion of DePalma, but if you have ever seen his earlier films like HI MOM and GREETINGS, you know he was doing the hand-help, you-are-there thing decades before BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. In fact, he seems like the perfect director for a PARARNOMAL sequel: he knows the genre, and despite his more recent work on big-budget studios movies, he knows how to pull of a little low-budget flick. If anything the return to a smaller film may act as an antidote to DePalma’s recent string of disappointments, such as THE BLACK DAHLIA.
What is more confusing than the possible choice of DePalma is the unanswered question of why Oren Peli, who wrote and directed the original, is not on board for the sequel. When Paramount originally snapped up rights to PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (when it was a popular title on the festival circuit a couple years ago), their announced intention was not to release it but to remake it on a bigger budget, with Peli at the helm. Instead, after letting the film gather dust for months, the studio took it off the shelf and used it to fill a hole in their distribution schedule, and the result was a major sleeper success, earning over $100-million at the box office. You would think that kind of performance would earn you a second shot in the director’s chair.
We truly are living in the Bizarro World. What brings this fact into sharp relief is the experience, over the course of the past week, of sitting through the After Dark Horrorfest and then watching Brian DePalma’s new film about the Iraq war, REDACTED. As hard as those supposedly edgy, independent films tried, they could not outmatch the horrific impact of the film from the established mainstream director who supposedly sold his soul to the Hollywood factory machine decades ago.
I am not saying this to pick on the After Dark “8 Films to Die For;” rather, I want to make a larger point about the state of the horror genre. In the post 9/11 world, with a bloody war in Iraq, one has reason to wonder how the fictional horrors of the screen can keep pace with real-life horrors of the battlefield. The answer, of course, is that this is not a new dilemma. David Skal, in his book The Horror Show, charts the way in which horror films reflect the cultural anxieties of their era, and points out that the early horror classics were (overtly or covertly) inspired by World War I. (For example, Skal sees a link between disfigured soldiers returning home and Lon Chaney’s silent-era portrayals of misshapen misfits like THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.) World War II and Vietnam also had an impact (whether intentional or not, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD certainly captures a sense of the latter conflict.)
It really seems almost inevitable that something as traumatic as war would impact our cultural artifacts, including cinema. What I find odd in the currently fashionable (though waning) wave of “torture porn” films is the curious disconnect between art and reality. Sure, horror movies are more violent and graphic than ever, presumably to jolt the jaded sensibilities of viewers who witnessed the deaths of thousands of fellow countrymen on television, but these movies do not seriously attempt to engage the underlying concerns related to the so-called “War on Terrorism.”
Films like HOSTEL, TURISTAS, and BORDERLAND exploit our fear that foreigners want to kill us for no good reason, but in a strange way, this is almost a comforting fantasy, because it absolves us of any responsibility. The bad guys are just plain evil, and we have done nothing to deserve their ire, so the only thing to do is kill them, preferably in ways that match their own savagery.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a little cinematic revenge fantasy – better on screen than in real life, after all. It is disturbing, however, to contemplate that this fantasy is, in a sense, playing out in real life, right at this moment, yet we were practically blind to it, thanks to what amounts to a media blackout. Unlike the Vietnam era, television is not bringing the horror of war home to Americans. We make expect this kind of reticence from the major corporate media, but why is the horror genre – supposedly the transgressive genre, unafraid of crossing boundaries and breaking taboos – so timid in this regard?
Go to any message board or website devoted to horror, and you will find your fair share of macho chest-thumping: hymns of praise for R-rated hardcore horror, mixed with derisive disdain for the PG-13 label. These are people who demand their horror unexpurgated, in all its gory glory, but how many of them are demanding that the media tell them the truth about the real bloodshed overseas? Not many, I’ll wager.
Of course there is a wide universe of difference between fictional depictions of horror and the real-life counterpart; interest in one is not necessarily an indicator of interest in the other. Viewers should not have their taste or mental health questioned simply because they enjoy onscreen carnage but eschew depictions of the real thing. After all, my big argument for the superiority of the horror genre to love stories is that fiction is the proper forum to enjoy the former; the latter are much better suited to real life.
My point here is that graphic horror is not evidence of some catastrophic moral decay; I simply think current films are not doing all they could to go beyond the superficial scares and delve into the dark depths that truly haunt us. You have to look at other genres to find films that touch on these topics: V IS FOR VEDETTA, CHILDREN OF MEN, and now REDACTED.
The later film grew out of Brian DePalma’s anger over the way the media, particularly television, has “white-washed” the reality of the Iraq conflict. (The title refers to removing sensitive information from documents prior to publication.) REDACTED is a deliberate slap in the face, a sort of wake-up call, in which the writer-director all but screams at the audience, “Don’t you see what’s going on over there!”
Although fictional, REDACTED is inspired by an unpleasant real-life incident in which U.S. soldiers raped and murdered a fourteen-year-old Iraqi girl. DePalma dealt with a similar true-life story in CASUALTIES OF WAR, which was set in Vietnam, but here he avoids movie star casting and Hollywood production values in favor of techniques that suggest a documentary. REDACTED is shot to look as if it were put together from bits and pieces of found footage: private handy-cams, surveillance cameras, a French documentary, terrorist websites.
The impact breaks the boundary between the film and the audience, putting you in the horror. And it is horrifying. Not that the film is non-stop blood-and-guts (it certainly is not). Rather, DePalma wants you to endure the trials and tribulations the wear down the soldiers’ moral sensibilities until they see Iraqi civilians as less than human. Day in and day, they sit and check points, their tour of duty indefinitely extended again and again; amidst the calm and boredom, they know an attack could erupt at any second, or a wrong step could set of an IED. After seeing comrades blown to pieces, they grow to suspect that all the locals are in on the conspiracy; after all, how do they avoid tramping on the explosives – unless they know where the bombs are hidden?
None of this is offered as a defense or justification of the soldiers actions; DePalma is simply spreading the blame around. The very situation is a breeding ground for “us versus them” thinking – and the behavior that follows. Those who put the soldiers in this position – and left them there for so long – have their own burden of responsibility to bear.
When the soldiers commit their crime (captured by a camera mounted on one of their helmets), it is as grueling as anything you will see in any current horror film. One upset female viewer at the screening I attended dismissed the result as “pornography,” but that designation seems precisely wrong to me. REDACTED is “anti-pornography.”
Rather than cheap thrills and sensational sadism, DePalma makes the scene hurt on a deeper, very human level. He’s not showing this for your entertainment; he’s not asking you to get off on the violence; he’s not even just expecting you to be scared. He wants to inspire moral outrage, to stir you up out of the apathy of comfortable existence, where you go about your daily life – eating, working, sleeping – with little or not thought for the horror happening every day in the Middle East.
REDACTED is not perfect. The faux French documentary seems to be intended as a parody of heavy-handed journalism, but it comes across too much like the thing is purports to depict. A final montage of real-life photos from the war is underscored with dramatic music, as if afraid that the images themselves are not strong enough to stand on their own; the underscoring lends a phony Hollywood sheen that undercuts the reality of the imagery.
Whatever its flaws, REDACTED is more effective than the majority of horror films being released these days. It is not itself a horror film, but its depiction of the wartime horrors is genuinely disturbing – and thought-provoking – in a way that few contemporary horror films are.
EPILOGUE: THE O’REILLY FACTOR
As a sort of post-script, here is one more piece of evidence in support of my contention that we are living in the Bizarro World: Bill O’Reilly has called for protests against REDACTED, on the grounds that it may incite violence against American soldiers. When producer Mark Cuban objected that O’Reilly had not even seen the film, the Fox News blowhard responded with self-righteous indignation: “I would never sit through a movie that shows American troops raping and murdering a 14-year-old girl.”
To me, this statement almost perfectly encapsulates my point. O’Reilly is virtually blind to the reality of the Iraq conflict, so for him it does not exist until it is depicted in the media. He will support a pointless, ill-advised conflict that leads to U.S. soldiers’ raping and murdering a fourteen-year-old girl, but he feels morally superior because he will not watch a film that tries to address the ugly issue. And for some reason, he is not concerned that the real incident will inspire a backlash against American troops, but he expresses concern that a fictional depiction will have dire consequences for U.S. servicemen.
In other words, O’Reilly takes the rather post-modern view that objective reality does not exist; there is only our perception of reality, which is created by the media. Hence, TV news should be filled with nice, positive stories about progress in Iraq, and movies should just keep us mindlessly anesthetized so that we do not question what is really going on.
This is exactly the sort of nonsense that inspired the anger so evident in REDACTED. I think O’Reilly and Eli Roth (HOSTEL) are like two sides of the same coin. The one wants to present a sanitized depiction that supports his political agenda; the other is content to distract us from the ugly truth with a good, sick horror story. Neither one wants to take the bold step of confronting the “elephant in the room.” We can be thankful that Brian DePalma did the job.