Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Bumps in the night

Don't trust those wacko kids who are good at music. It was true for The Bad Seed in 1956 and it's true for Orphan (2009) today. Young piano virtuosos are probably psycho killers.

We know the filmmakers meant to make something of substance, by casting Vera Famiga, Peter Saarsgard and CC Pounder. I'm not saying they thought they were making Last Year at Marienbad, but they probably intended a quality entertainment product, like the starrily-cast Omen, another predecessor to this film in the "evil kid" genre (which has degenerated into the Chucky films). And there is a very nice story twist which not only surprises, but it bends the genre and even suggests that the film would justify a second viewing.

Until that twist, however, the film is paint-by-numbers evil kid; after the twist, it goes into all-out action, so in a way, the film is never really completely itself. To keep it alive during the first hour, while it is purely character driven, there are a number of phony-suspense "jump" scares which mean nothing but are there evidently to remind the folks that it is a horror movie, and not a Lifetime story of a troubled adoption.

Personal complaint: The family is supposed to be intelligent, sensitive, articulate. The mom composes music and evidently once taught music at Yale. So how come there is not one picture, not one book not one magazine in the whole house (except the children's rooms)? What is it with these bully production designers that they put us in these dark sterile houses where no one lives, or at least thinks?

While Orphan is that rarest of things these days, a film actually produced by a major distributor/studio (Warner), Paranormal Activity (2007) is far more typical: a rock-bottom budgeted independent which was eventually picked up by a major (Paramount). The parallels with Blair Witch are too obvious to spend time and space on. The brief: weird unexplained stuff being captured on substandard equipment, to help make it spookier.

Where Blair Witch had some spooky woods for the kids to get lost in, and different agendas for the various characters, Paranormal gives us a dull suburban house and a dull couple given to small-change bickering from time to time. I was astonished to see a script credit, so dull is the chatter that this tiresome pair mouths throughout. They literally talk about nothing except the spooky doings--they don't even argue about breakfast cereal or cleaning the bathroom. Clearly they are not actual characters, but placeholders created by the filmmakers in order to be spooked.

And how are they and we to be spooked? Well, they lie in a dark bedroom at night and a couple of underpaid (or unpaid) production assistants kick over some boxes downstairs. Yup. That's it. There's some noise downstairs at night. Hell, I didn't hear as much noise downstairs in this movie as I do when my heavy-footed cat is stomping around in the middle of the night. There is literally one scare in the movie--when it is nearly over--and the Interwebs report that it was thought up by Steven Spielberg. I'm amazed he had the time to sit through this boring turkey.

This is exactly the kind of independent movie that would have been improved by MORE studio interference.

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