The Walking Dead

How does the old joke go? “What a terrible restaurant — the food sucks, and such small portions!” That seems to be the way a lot of people feel about AMC’s The Walking Dead: it’s an endless source of disappointment as well as the best damn zombie show on television.

Not that there’s much competition. Contemporary TV horror is a small playing field, nothing like the heyday of the 1970s, when Night GalleryKolchak, Ghost Story, and telefilms like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark fed home audiences a plentiful stream of dark and disturbing content, “channeling” a boom in horror cinema that began with demonic-possession blockbuster The Exorcist and morphed late in the decade, via Halloween and Friday the 13th, into the slasher genre. The only real competition for TWD is American Horror Story, a series whose unpleasantness is so expertly-wrought that I couldn’t make it past the third episode. Apart from this and an endless supply of genre-debasing quasi-reality shows on SyFy a la Paranormal Witness, there’s simply not a lot to choose from, and for this reason alone, The Walking Dead is far, far better than it needs to be.

But it’s still a frustrating show: like its zombies, slow-moving and unsure of its goals. (The guys at Penny Arcade, it should be pointed out, hold the opposite interpretation.) Following a phenomenal pilot episode that ended on one of the best cliffhangers I’ve seen since the closing shot of Best of Both Worlds, Part 1, the first season burned through four tense episodes, only to close with an implausible, shoehorned finale set in CDC control center. Season two, at twice the length, has moved at half the speed, and while I enjoyed the thoughtful pace of life at Herschel’s farm, I grew impatient — like many — with plots that seemed to circle compulsively around the same issues week after week, played out in arguments that reduced a formidable cast of characters (and likeable actors) into tiresomely broken records. (The death of Dale [Jeffrey DeMunn] in the antepenultimate episode came as a relief, signaling that the series was fed up with its own moral center.)

Too, there is simply a feeling that more should be happening on a show about the zombie apocalypse; events should play out on a larger scale, balancing the conflicts among characters with action sequences on the level of the firebombing of Atlanta that opens “Chupacabra.” Part of the problem, I suspect, is that the ZA has been visualized so thoroughly in the decades since George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead; books like Max Brooks’s Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, not to mention the many sequels, remakes, and ripoffs of Romero’s 1968 breakthrough, have fleshed out the undead plague on a planetary scale. The blessing of this most fecund of horror genres (second only, perhaps, to vampires) is also its curse: too much has been said, too many bottoms of barrels scraped, too many expectations raised. When the Centers for Disease Control put out preparedness warnings, it’s a safe bet the ante has been upped.

Of course, the most proximate source of raised expectations is the comic book and graphic novel series that originated The Walking Dead; Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard captured lightning in a bottle with their brisk yet methodical storytelling, whose black-and-white panels powerfully recall Romero’s foundational film, and whose pacing — in monthly bites of thirty pages — lends itself to a measured unfolding that has so far eluded the TV version. I’m less interested in discrepancies between the comic and the show than in the formal (indeed, ontological) problems of adaptation they illustrate: like Zack Snyder’s Watchmen movie, some fundamental, insurmountable obstruction seems to exist between the two forms of visual storytelling that otherwise seem so suited to mutual transcoding.

On a surface level, what works in the comic — the mise-en-scene of an emptied world, a uniquely American literalization of existential crisis through the metaphor of reanimated, cannibalistic corpses — works beautifully on screen. And person by person, the show brings the characters of the page to life (an artful act of reanimation itself, I suppose). But what it hasn’t done, and maybe never can do, is recreate the comic’s particular style of punctuation, doling out panels that closely attend to nuances of expression and shifts in lighting, then interleaving those orderly moments of psychological observation with big, raw shocks of splash pages that bring home the sickening spectacle of existence as eventual prey.

I’ll tune in tonight for the finale, and without question I will be there to devour season three. Furthermore, I’ll defend The Walking Dead — in both its incarnations — as some of the best horror that’s currently out there. But I’ll be watching the show out of a certain duty to the genre, whereas the comic, which I’m saving up to read in blocks of 10 and 12 issues at a go, I’ll savor as such stories are meant to be savored: late at night, alone in the quiet house, by a lamp whose glow might as well be the last light left in a world gone dark.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

It’s hard to pinpoint the primal potency of the original Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, the 1973 telefilm about a woman stalked by hideous little troll monsters in the shadowy old house where she lives with her husband. The story itself, a wisp of a thing, has the unexplained purity of a nightmare piped directly from a fevered mind: both circuitously mazelike and stiflingly linear, it’s like watching someone drown in a room slowly filling with water. As with contemporaries Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, it’s a parable of domestic disempowerment built around a woman whose isolation and vulnerability grow in nastily direct proportion to her suspicion that she is being hunted by dark forces. All three movies conclude in acts of spiritual (if not quite physical) devouring and rebirth: housewives eaten by houses. To the boy I was then, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark provoked a delicious, vertiginous sliding of identification, repulsion, and desire: the doomed protagonist, played by Kim Darby, merged the cute girl from the Star Trek episode “Miri” with the figure of my own mother, whose return to full-time work as a public-school librarian, I see now, had triggered tectonic shifts in my parents’ relationship and the continents of authority and affection on which I lived out my childhood. These half-repressed terrors came together in the beautiful, grotesque design of the telefim’s creatures: prunelike, whispery-voiced gnomes creeping behind walls and reaching from cupboards to slice with razors and switch off the lights that are their only weakness.

The 2011 remake, which has nothing of the original’s power, is nevertheless valuable as a lesson in the danger of upgrading, expanding, complicating, and detailing a text whose low-budget crudeness in fact constitutes televisual poetry. Produced by Guillermo del Toro, the movie reminds me of the dreadful watering-down that Steven Spielberg experienced when he shifted from directing to producing in the 1980s, draining the life from his own brand (and is there not a symmetry between this industrial outsourcing of artistry and the narrative’s concern with soul-sucking?). The story has been tampered with disastrously, introducing a little girl to whom the monsters (now framed as vaguely simian “tooth fairies”) are drawn; the wife, played by a bloodless Katie Holmes, still succumbs in the end to the house’s demonic sprites, but the addition of a maternal function forces us to read her demise as noble sacrifice rather than nihilistic defeat, and when husband (Guy Pearce) walks off with daughter in the closing beat, it comes unforgivably close to a happy ending. As for the monsters, now more infestation than insidiousness, they skitter and leap in weightless CGI balletics, demonstrating that, as with zombies, faster does not equal more frightening. But for all its evacuation of purpose and punch, the remake is useful in locating a certain undigestible blockage in Hollywood’s autocannibalistic churn, enshrining and immortalizing — through its very failure to reproduce it — the accidental artwork of the grainy, blunt, wholly sublime original.

Paranormal Activity 2

I was surprised to find myself eager, even impatient, to watch Paranormal Activity 2, the followup to 2007’s no-budget breakthrough in surveillance horror. I wrote of the first movie that it delivered a satisfactory double-action of filmic and commercial engineering, chambering and firing its purchased scares in a way that felt requisitely unexpected and, at the same time, reassuringly predictable. The bonus of seeing it in a theater (accompanied by my mom, and my therapist would like to know why I chose to omit that fact from the post) was a happy reminder that crowds can improve, rather than degrade, the movie experience.

PA2 I took in at home after my wife had gone to bed. I lay on a couch in a living room dark except for the low light of a small lamp: a setting well-suited to a drama that takes place largely in domestic spaces at night. My complete lack of fear or even the faint neck-tickle of eeriness probably just proves the truism that some movies work best with an audience — but let’s not forget that cinema does many kinds of work, and offers many varieties of pleasure. This is perhaps especially true of horror, whose glandular address of our viscera places it among the body genres of porn and grossout comedy (1), and whose narratives of inevitable peril and failed protection offer a plurality of identifications where X marks the intersection of the boy-girl lines of gender and the killer-victim lines of predation (2).

I’m not sure what Carol Clover would make of Paranormal Activity 2 or its predecessor (though see here for a nice discussion), built as they are on the conceit of a gaze so disinterested it has congealed into the pure alienness of technology. Shuffled among the mute witnesses of a bank of home-security cameras, we are not in the heads of Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, or even Gaspar Noe, but instead the sensorium — and sensibility — of HAL. A good part of the uncanniness, and hence the fun, comes from the way this setup eschews the typical constructions of cinematography: conventions of framing and phrasing that long ago (with the rise of classical film style) achieved their near-universal legibility at the cost of their willingness to truly disrupt and disturb. PA2 is grindhouse dogme, wringing chills from its formal obstructions.

Rather than situating us securely in narrative space through establishing shots and analytic closeups, shot-reverse-shot, and point-of-view editing, PA2 either suspends us outside the action, hovering at the ceiling over kitchens and family rooms rendered vast as landscapes by a wide-angle lens, or throws us into the action in handheld turmoil that even in mundane and friendly moments feels violent. The visuals and their corresponding “spatials” position viewers as ghosts themselves, alternately watching from afar in building frustration and hunger, then taking posession of bodies for brief bouts of hot corporality. Plotwise, we may remain fuzzy on what the spectral force in question (demon? haunted house? family curse?) finally wants, but on the level of spectatorial empathy, it is easy to grasp why it both hates and desires its victims.

Along with Von Trier, other arty analogs for PA2 might be Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman or Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s Riddles of the Sphinx, which similarly locate us both inside and outside domestic space to reveal how houses can be “haunted” by gender and power. They share, that is, a clinical interest in the social and ideological compartmentalization of women, though in the Paranormal Activity films the critique remains mostly dormant, waiting to be activated in the readings of brainy academics. (Certainly one could write a paper on PA2’s imbrication of marriage, maternity, and hysterical “madness,” or on the role of technological prophylaxis in protecting the white bourgeois from an Other coded not just as female but as ethnic.)

But for this brainy academic, what’s most interesting about PA2 is the way it weaves itself into the first film. Forming an alternate “flightpath” through the same set of events, the story establishes a tight set of linkages to the story of Micah and Katie, unfolding before, during, and after their own deadly misadventure of spirit photography gone wrong. It is simultaneously prequel, sequel, and expansion to Paranormal Activity, and hence an example — if a tightly conscribed one — of transmedia storytelling, in which a fictional world, its characters, and events can be visited and revisited in multiple tellings. In comments on my post on 2008’s Cloverfield, Martyn Pedler pointed out that film’s transmedia characteristics, and I suggested at the time that “Rather than continuing the story of Cloverfield, future installments might choose to tell parallel or simultaneous stories, i.e. the experiences of other people in the city during the attack.”

Paranormal Activity 2 does precisely that for its tiny, spooky universe. It may not be the scariest movie I’ve seen lately, but for what it implies about the evolving strategies of genre cinema in an age of new media, it’s one of the more intriguing.

Works Cited

1. Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Film Quarterly 44:4 (Summer 1991), 2-13.

2. Carol J. Clover, Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

Paranormal Activity


[Some broad spoilers below]

I’ve said it before: these days, seeing certain movies means coming to the endpoint of an experience, rather than its beginning; closing a door rather than opening it. Think of how something like Star Wars in 1977 seeded an entire universe of story (and franchise) possibilities, or how The Rocky Horror Picture Show ignited a subculture of ritual performance and camp remixes of genre chestnuts. By contrast, a new kind of movie, exemplified currently by Paranormal Activity, hits theaters with a conclusive thump, like the punchline of a joke or the ending of a whodunit. After you’ve watched it, there is little more to say.

Such movies sail toward us on a sea of buzz, phantom vessels that hang maddeningly at the horizon of visibility, of knowability. Experienced fannish spotters stand with their spyglasses, picking out details in the mist and relaying their interpretations back to the rest of us. Insiders leak morsels of information about the ship’s construction and configuration. Old salts grumble about the good old days. It’s the modern cinematic equivalent of augury: awaiting the movie’s arrival is like awaiting a predestined fate, and we gaze into the abyss of our own inevitable future with a mixture of horror and appetite.

It sounds like I didn’t care for Paranormal Activity, but in fact I did; it’s as spare and spooky as promised, with a core of unexpected sweetness (due mainly to the performance of Katie Featherston) and consequently a sense of loss, even tragedy, at the end. It occurs to me that we are seeing another phenomenon in low-budget, buzz-driven, scary filmmaking: a trend toward annihiliation narratives. The Blair Witch Project, Open Water, Cloverfield, now Paranormal Activity — these are stories in which no one survives, and their biggest twist is that they disobey a fundamental rule of horror and suspense storytelling by which we understand that no matter how bad things get, at least one person, the hero, will make it through the gauntlet. With this principle guiding our expectations, we can affix our identifications to one or more figures, trusting them to safely convey us through the charnelhouse, evading the claws of monsters or razor-edged deathtraps.

No such comfort in the annihilation narrative, which blends the downbeat endings of early-70s New Hollywood with the clinical finality of the snuff film or autopsy report. Such brutal endings are encouraged by the casting of unknown or non-actors, whose public and intertextual lives presumably won’t be harmed by seeing them dispatched onscreen — though the more important factor, I suspect, is the blurring of the line between the character’s ontological existence and their own.

The usual symptom of this is identical first names: Daniel Travis plays Daniel Kintner in Open Water; Heather, Josh, and Michael are all “themselves” in Blair Witch; Paranormal‘s Katie and Micah are played by actors named Katie and Micah. There is, in other words, no supervening celebrity identity, no star persona, to yank us out of the fiction, to remind us simply by gravitational necessity that there must be a reality outside the fiction. The collapse of actor and character corresponds to the mockumentary mode that all these films share — a mode that itself depends on handheld cameras, recognizable, nonexotic settings, and an absence of standard continuity editing and background scoring.

Taken together, these factors (no-name actors, conscientiously unadorned and “unprofessional” filmmaking) would seem to recall Italian neorealism. But this being Hollywood, the goal is to tell stories that fit into familiar genres while reinventing them: horror seems to be the order of the day. A more subtle point is that, with the exception of Cloverfield‘s sophisticated matchmoving of digital monsters into shakycammed cityscapes, movies in this emerging genre cost almost nothing to make. The budget for Paranormal Activity was $11,000, a datum I didn’t even have to look up, because it’s been foregrounded so relentlessly in the film’s publicity. Oddly, these facts of the film’s manufacture don’t seem to detract from the envelope of “reality” in which its thrills are delivered; for all the textual (non)labor that goes into assuring us this really happened, we are just as entertained by the saga of scrappy Oren Peli and his sudden success as by the thumpings and scarrings inflicted on poor Micah and Katie.

And we are entertained, I think, by our own entertainment — the way in which we willingly give ourselves over to a machine whose cold operations we understand very well. I certainly felt this way as I took my seat at one of the few remaining non-multiplexed moviehouses in Ann Arbor, the tawdry but venerable State Theater. The 7 p.m. crowd was a throng of University of Michigan students, a few clusters of friends packed in with lots and lots of couples. Paranormal Activity is the kind of movie where you want to be able to clutch somebody. More to the point, it’s a genuine group experience: scares are amplified by a factor of ten when people around you are screaming.

Which brings me back to my opening point: we all knew what we were there for, even as the movie’s central mysteries — from the exact nature of its big bad to the specific escalating sequence of its scares — awaited discovery like painted eggs on an Easter-day hunt. (The film’s discretely doled-out shocks, which get us watching the screen with hypnotic attentiveness, are reminiscent of the animated GIFs one finds on the /x/ board of 4chan.) We were there for the movie, certainly, but we were also there for each other, enjoying the echo chamber of each others’ emotions and performative displays of fear. And we were there for ourselves, reverberating happily within the layers of our knowing and not-knowing, our simultaneous awareness of the film as cunning construct and as rivetingly believable bedtime story, our innocence and cynicism so expertly shaped by months of hype and misdirection, viral marketing, rumors and debunkings, word of mouth.

All of which constitutes, of course, the real paranormal activity: a mediascape that haunts and taunts us, foreshadowing our worst fears as well as our fiercest pleasures.