A good horror story is one thing, but is it ever two?

>> Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A friend of mine recently penned a spoilery review of Paraormal Activity 2. I went ahead and read it because, (a) he's a friend and (b) I don't really think I'll be seeing PA2: it strikes me as a pretty gratuitous sequel to start with, and, honestly, I felt kind of guilty for actually seeing Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 even though I watched it on cable and none of my money actually went into anyone's pockets; I dunno, maybe I'll watch PA2 on cable or Hulu if the opportunity ever arises, but probably not.

But I mention it because it did get me thinking about sequels and horror. See, the first, gut, reaction when you see that they're making something like PA2 is to think of it in terms of the gimmick: the first Paranormal Activity, in case you somehow missed this (whether you saw it or not), is set up as the found footage, purportedly, of a couple's last days in a haunted house as recorded by the husband on home video equipment and then assembled after some time after the fact. The same premise, in that regard, as the original Blair Witch Project; the temptation, I think, is to dismiss the sequel out of hand with the question, "Will the same gimmick work twice, if that's what they go for, or is there enough to support a story without the gimmick if they abandon it like the creators of Blair Witch 2 did (unsuccessfully)?"

The thing that's wrong with going that route, however, is that I think the so-called "gimmick" of the found footage or fake documentary is a pretty ideal way to tell a horror story on film. It may be the perfect way to do it, actually, because one of the key ways to create a horrific atmosphere is to focus on the banal, to create a sense of the ordinary into which the horrific intrudes. This is something that Stephen King, for instance, is just brilliant at doing; all those bits where he namedrops breakfast cereals and pop music are part of lulling the reader into thinking that he or she is reading something about a very ordinary, normal, quiet little world--until the serial-killing-clown-demons or zombie cats or man-eating automobiles show up (Plymouth or Buick) and all Hell invades Quiet Little Anytown. The found footage or documentary gimmick runs the same kind of game on the viewer.

The "reality" horror film also does something else, and this becomes important when we get around to the main point of this post: we watch documentaries (and home videos) differently from the way we watch "movies." That is, we've all been brought up and educated with this vocabulary of cinematic convention, which may have been novel and surprising (perhaps) when audiences were first exposed to King Kong in 1933 or Dracula in 1931, but these days we're used to lighting and camera angles and actors' tricks and the plot conventions of various genres. And there's a relationship between that last one and the former items on the list: we see a movie shot as a movie, and we semi-consciously start trying to game it, doing things like identifying the hero and villain, guessing (in a horror movie) who the next victim might be, etc., whereas in a documentary or a home video, that part of the viewing brain tends to shut down a bit because in "real life" there aren't necessarily heroes and villains and we've been taught to think that documentaries are objective and home videos artless--and therefore, anything might be captured by the innocent and wide-open-eye of the camera.1 Even if a "fauxcumentary" horror film in fact follows the conventions of a "cinematic" horror film (e.g. as in the mostly-good-not-great The Last Exorcism), it doesn't come off the same way because you're not watching it the same way.

And here we come to what I think is likely to be a major problem not just with Paranormal Activity 2, which, again, I haven't seen, and also with the vast majority of horror sequels on film and quite possibly any horror story in any format (prose, comic book, whatever). See, just as we watch a "cinematic" movie differently from a "documentary" movie or a "home" movie,2 we also watch sequels differently from any of these things. With a sequel, we're coming into the theatre with certain expectations--that the sequel will share characters, or setting, or events, or theme, or whatever it shares with its predecessor. It's not just that we compare the sequel with its predecessor--we do, of course--but that we have a sense of what a sequel is or ought to be when we sit down with our medium oiled "butter flavoring" popcorn and bladder-busting sixty-ounce soda.

Problem number one in the fake-footage/fake-documentary context is that these notions of "sequelness" rupture whatever illusion was created by the first movie. The mere existence of Blair Witch 2, for instance--even though BW2 isn't actually a fake documentary or fake found footage movie at all (it has a plot, albeit lousy, and characters, albeit awful ones, etc.)--is a reminder that the first Blair Witch movie was a hoax, a notion that was very easy to suspend sitting in a cold, dark theatre illuminated only by the vibrating silver light reflected from the dimly-lit screen. Even an obviously ridiculous science fiction giant monster fake-footage movie like Cloverfield has some capacity to gull us with its CGI monstrosities--"This looks real, though it can't be, New York was still there last time I checked Google Earth...." A Cloverfield 2, if they make one (as I sometimes hear they are) automatically starts without that--"Oh yeah, this is a follow-up to Cloverfield..."--while dispatching whatever residual suspension of disbelief you had left for the first one: "So Cloverfield wasn't real, either."

The thing is (problem number two), I suspect this extends out into any sort of horror sequel, even ones that aren't passed off as "true stories" of whatever sort. Horror without some kind of plausibility is, I think, merely the grotesque. I'm not saying there aren't good horror sequels out there (Romero's Dawn Of The Dead is exceptional, obviously). Nor do I mean to suggest that you shouldn't have a completely ridiculous thing as the object of horror, or that there's something inherently preferable, say for instance, in favor of a rabid dog as opposed to a feral undead cat.3 What I mean is that the horror artist (because I might be talking about a writer or a filmmaker or a graphic artist) has to make whatever the whatsit is a part of this world, or at least part of a world the audience believes in a hundred percent. And a sequel inherently lacks plausibility because it calls attention to itself as an artifact, because it only or primarily exists in relation to something else that was independent and on its own terms before this secondary creation was grafted onto it. An original exists only on its own terms; a sequel, done however well, tends to exist on the original's terms.

One notes, in that light, that not only are good horror sequels rare, but good horror actual sequels are practically unique, since most of the few good horror sequels out there only exist on some kind of attempt to reinvent themselves on their own self-referential terms. That is, Aliens is a good sequel to a horror movie that is actually a war movie, Bride Of Frankenstein is a good sequel to a horror movie that is actually a fantasy film, Evil Dead 2 is a good sequel to a horror movie that is actually a remake/parody, etc. Good horror sequels that are actually horror movies might be capable of being counted on one hand, several of them on one finger if you lump George Romero's first three sequels to Night Of The Living Dead together.4

I'm not going to take the next step and say a horror artist should never attempt a sequel. But I think it's a dangerous challenge and likely to fail. And I wonder if some media are more forgiving--e.g. does the fact that we've been wired over time to accept television as a serial form result in televised sequels being more palatable than cinematic ones (e.g. it took a long time for The X-Files to become more grating than chilling; ditto for Buffy, though we might wonder if Buffy was really that much "horror"--as opposed to fantasy--to start with). Any thoughts, anyone?

1This point is also why propaganda films in the guise of documentaries are so damned dangerous and effective (by the way).

2Quotes in place because we're trying to invent terms-of-art and because in a movie like Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity the movie isn't what it's pretending to be.

3If there is, it's only because King had better discipline over his story in the former, not because sick puppies are real and zombie kittens are unreal.

4As much as I like Day Of The Dead and Land Of The Dead, I can't argue that they at least deserve to share a finger when counting good sequels. And of course the only finger the execrable and unwatchable Diary Of The Dead deserves is the middle one, extended.


vince Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 8:14:00 AM EDT  

It's rare, I think, for a sequel in any genre to be all that good. Yes, some succeed (The Godfather Part II, The Empire Strikes Back, The Road Warrior, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Terminator 2 come to mind), but they don't happen all that often.

WendyB_09 Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 1:26:00 PM EDT  

The thing about the original Blair Witch Project was that nothing like that had been done before.

I don't normally go the horror route, but a couple friends were going to an early release show of BWP, and since the theater was around the corner from where I worked, gave me a call. I remember at one point I leaned over to one of the guys to tell him to breath and he nearly jumped out of the seat! Still wasn't a fan of horror films, but could appreciate what the creators did with the film.

I do agree that sequels are hard to pull off, remakes even harder.

and Vince - I own every one of those sequels in more than one format.

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