Me, My Wife, and Brandon Sanderson

Me, My Wife, and Brandon Sanderson

He’s awesome. Be jealous.

Published in: on March 31, 2014 at 2:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

Paranormal Activities

Warning: This post contains spoilers.  I tried to keep plot points fairly light but found that I wasn’t saying anything interesting.  So, I’m going to delve into the plot a fair bit.  If you want just my general thoughts on the series, stop reading this post in two paragraphs.

A couple months ago I promised I’d write a comprehensive post on the Paranormal Activity series. Paranormal_Activity_poster  It’s one of the biggest horror franchises right now, and due to some surprisingly effective scares brought about from the earlier entries in the series, there is soon to be a sixth entry.

In very broad strokes, I quite enjoy this series.  No, it’s not a masterpiece of horror, but it’s very effective with its light, minimalistic approach to the genre.  Many successful horror films rely on a heavy budget for special effects and costuming, but this series features primarily ordinary people in situations that would genuinely scare anybody given they were in the same scenario.  For the most part, the found footage really works to the series’ advantage and brings very realistic scares to the screen.

The first film is very sharp.  The very small cast is very believable– Katie and Micah are very real-to-life and their reactions to the mysterious and frightening events are believable.  The story unfolds very organically– we see a couple in their 20s living together who start setting up cameras around their house when some weird things start happening.  My wife and I did something similar to figure out how our cat kept getting underneath a couch he shouldn’t fit under.  Then, the weirdness escalates.  It goes from weird noises and things being misplaced to more violent acts– furniture being thrown about by an unseen force, doors flying open.  There is clearly a malicious, angry incorporeal creature in the house.  Micah goes from curious– setting up the cameras and using an Ouija board– to angry– openly challenging the entity, which just worsens the problem.  Katie goes from curiosity to denial to fear.  I also like that the mystery is also very natural– for example, when we see the burned picture of young Katie and her sister, we are as confused as the characters, and their discussion of it isn’t campy “What does this mean in the context of this current situation” dialogue.

Because the film does so little to give the typical polish that most film has, the found footage style works very well.  I felt like I could believe that this would be real footage– there’s no subtle score, the dialogue flows naturally, awkward pauses and broken sentences and inappropriately timed outbursts.  But, as I’ve touched on, the terror is real.  We can see it in how the characters move, how they speak.  It’s visible in their faces.  We have the blind rejection of what happens, we have the stupid curiosity, we can see the desires to run and the desires to fight back.  That is what I feel elevates this film over many other horror films: I believed their reactions.  I almost never yelled at the screen, “Run, idiot!” or “Stab him!”  Admittedly, Micah’s challenges to the being are pretty stupid, but when as pissed off as practically anybody would be in that context, stupid tends to happen.

Paranormal_Activity_2_PosterI’m also just going to throw out there that one of the alternate endings (no, it obviously doesn’t work to continue the series) is just exceptional.  Watching Katie stare at the camera, slowly smile, then slit her own throat… Haunting.  For some reason the version of the film I first watched actually had that ending, and it still sticks with me.  If it had somehow worked in conjunction with the remainder of the series I would have loved for that ending to stay.  Instead, we have Katie’s possession and murder of Micah, followed by fleeing to do… something.

The second film was also quite good.  It isn’t nearly as scary as the first– we know what sorts of horrible things to expect, after all– and we spend most of the film wondering how on earth the story is going to connect properly.  After all, it’s the story of Katie’s sister’s family being haunted by a demonic presence, presumably the same one that haunts the first film.  The story is clearly a prequel, and even though I was satisfied by how the connection to the earlier film ended up working out– it’s quite clever, actually, and quite dark– I feel like my first viewing’s confusion resulted in me being distracted by what I thought was inconsistency (even though, it turns out, it wasn’t).  This film also just moved at a slower pace, which took away from some of the scariness.  The characters also just didn’t interest me quite as much.  The baby was really the only family member that made me care about them at all.  I didn’t love Katie and Micah, but I sympathized with them more than I did with Kristi, Daniel, and Ali.

Essentially, we have the same formula again.  This time, instead of just weirdness it appears that there was a break-in– something was angry and destroyed a bunch of the family’s stuff– that leads to the filming.  The filming this time is primarily through security cameras set throughout the house, so that really does work quite logically.  Then we have things slowly get weirder and weirder in the house, from strange noises to furniture being suspended on the ceiling and then being dropped all at once.  So, a few new tricks mixed in with the old ones.  We also have another affirmation that whatever is happening is demonic in nature as the Hispanic housekeeper is very superstitious and states that she senses the devil in the house before the bigoted Daniel fires her for lighting religious candles.

So, it’s not to say that the build-up is boring, just familiar and a bit slower than ideal.  It still is quite compelling, though.

The final act of the film is very good.  The scares quickly brought up to a higher level than we have in the first film.  Watching Kristi getting dragged away by an unseen force, her nails scraping against the walls, is truly frightening.  As with the first film, what happens off camera relative to demonic possession is terrifying because we don’t know what happened.  There is so much that is left unseen, but unlike Greek tragedies, this just makes the unseen things all the more disturbing.  And it makes it harder to stop thinking about.  Also, to see what the events of this films lead the characters to do (and to a member of their own family) is shudder-worthy: they move the demon that is possessing Kristi to the home of Katie and Micah, which leads to the events of the original film.  The final scene was very well done, definitely making me want to continue to follow the story, as we see weeks later the results of Katie’s possession as she walks in, swiftly kills Daniel and Kristi, and kidnaps baby Hunter.

That is an effective ending when there are sequels to be had.

Paranormal Activity 3 is my favorite of the series.  ParanormalActivity3PosterAdmittedly, the constant cameras does feel a little forced by this point in the series, but I felt that the inventiveness in how the cameras were used made up for that.  This was especially true of the camera attached to the rotating fan mount, which really made for some powerful scenes.  Also, the story significance of this addition to the series was particularly interesting and important.  Once again, we have a prequel film, this time set back in the childhood of the sisters.  We have a good deal more context provided to us as to why there are angry demons haunting this family throughout their lives, and the reason is refreshingly believable: a coven of witches.  Yes, the later films kind of make the coven less interesting, but to get just the snippets Paranormal 3 provides is pretty awesome.  Simply, as a deal to gain more evil power, the coven of witches made a deal with some demons that they would sacrifice the bodies (for possession, presumably) of the firstborn males in their lines.  There is a lot of implication that the daughters are raised to be brides and worshipers of the demons.  So, we have a lot there to work with.  We are given the context for why the demon needs to stay in the family and keeps getting involved, and we have why Katie, possessed by a demon, steals Hunter.

Part of what made the third film so great besides filling in interesting and important plot points is that everything about the production is true to the era in which it is set.  No, it’s not like the 80s is super difficult to reproduce, but I loved that the quality of film and the technology available and the clothing and toys the girls play with all are very much true to that decade.  Also great is that the involvement of children in the peril is really interesting.  How the girls react to the scares and to the imaginary friend persona the demon initially tries to perpetuate, Toby, is very compelling to watch because it is so different than how adults do.  Also, with this film you care about the family quite a bit more than the families in the predecessor films because we have the mom, Julie, who is trying to do her best for her children, a live-in boyfriend, Dennis, who genuinely cares about the girls as well, and of course Katie and Kristi, who have lovable personalities.  Dennis’s quirky friend is also pretty fun on-screen.

The “Bloody Mary” scene is the film’s biggest gem.

The only downside to the film is that it fails to fill in the fire that is referenced several times in 1 and 2 and the trailer for 3.  I wanted to get a little more context for that.

Unfortunately, after 3 came 4.Paranormal_Activity_4_Poster

Ugh, what an awful movie.  The film isn’t scary, interesting, or even consistent.  It makes the coven seem cheesy and makes the writers for these movies seem like drunken buffoons.  I was honestly bored through most of my watching of the movie.  I’m kind of surprised I managed to get through it.

The titular activity in the film was stale at best.  The scariest scene was when the audience knows there is a knife in the ceiling but the character in the room doesn’t so we think it’s going to drop on her and kill her.  Turns out, it falls when she isn’t under it.  Booooooring.

The found footage aspect kind of stopped working this time around as well.  Instead of normal video cameras, we have webcams and an Xbox Kinect.  Having most of the creepy things happening in the context of stupid Skype conversations of a teenage girl with her boyfriend was almost painful to watch.  The Kinect had a few cool ideas (night vision on it which let us see all of its projected dots which sometimes moved where nobody was) but overall just felt like an interesting gimmick rather than a believable method for capturing the events.

Oh, and the story?  We’re in for a turd!

Basically, seven or so years after the end of Paranormal 1 and 2 we have a family who has a lady (Katie) who moves across the street from them who has a weird little boy.  We are to assume this is Hunter until otherwise informed (which happens later in the film).  Said lady gets mysteriously ill and calls to ask if the family who has the annoying teenage girl and a young son of their own if they can keep an eye on the little boy for a few days.  Then, weirdness begins, but all of it is tame in comparison to the previous films.  Also, the weird boy teaches the family’s son to draw weird symbols and crap.  Then, the boys go to play across the street at Katie’s house, the teenage daughter follows (still Skyping for some reason– and presumably with long-range wi-fi) and Katie is home from the “hospital.”  The house is creepy and totally undecorated, which wouldn’t seem that weird were it not for the fact that it’s the size of most grocery stores.  Katie says something odd about the girl’s brother– that he looks just like his mother.  We quickly learn through forced revelatory dialogue that it’s weird for two reasons: one, because Katie never met the mom of the family, and two, because the boy is adopted.

Yeah, the boy in the family is Hunter.  Because apparently the demon’s course of action immediately after kidnapping the baby was to put him up for adoption, wait seven years, then put things into place to steal him again.  I guess it’s the thrill of the hunt that motivates it, not actually getting what it wants.

Head in Hands

Anyway, after a day or two Katie sneaks in, kills the mom and steals Hunter (deja vu?).  The dad and the teenager run across the street, dad gets killed and the film ends with the whole coven with demonic faces coming at the girl.

Notice I didn’t bother with names at all with that family?  That’s because I didn’t care.

Then finally we have Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones.  This film Paranormal_Activity_-_The_Marked_Ones_2014_posterwas overall pretty okay, definitely a step-up from number 4, but still nowhere in the league of 1-3.

This film is a spin-off of the main series.  The story follows an 18-year-old boy, Jesse, and his friends.  Jesse’s downstairs neighbor, who had long been rumored to be a bruja is murdered, presumably by a mild-mannered classmate.  Then, weird things start happening to Jesse and he starts to become darker in personality.  There is an unseen force that is protecting him– keeping him from falling, pushing away street thugs– as he gets more and more violent and meanspirited.  Then, after a couple of thrillseeking forays into the crime scene apartment, the family chihuahua disappears.  Somehow it gets into the trapdoor basement of the crime scene apartment, and Jesse follows the barking down to discover the chamber where there is pictures of both himself and the boy who killed the witch throughout their lives.  Suddenly, a dark figure appears and the film switches to focusing on Jesse’s friends, who are trying to make sense of Jesse, whose dark moods have intensified to the point of pushing everyone in his life away.  He then murders his grandmother, making it look like she fell down the stairs.  The friends do some research in the life of the boy who killed the witch, who I failed to mention later commits suicide, and see clues that lead them to get in contact with Ali, the daughter in Paranormal 2.  She tells them that the coven is making an army of possessed young men, and tells them where the final ritual takes place.  They get in contact with the witch-killer’s brother, a Mexican gangster, and head to the location Ali gave them.  It’s Kristie and Katie’s grandmother’s house, where the final act of 3 took place, where they proceed to look for Jesse.  The place appears empty, but they are quickly attacked by the witches who, disappointingly, show now sort of powers but instead just come at them with knives.  After taking out a number with shotguns Hector, who has done most of the filming, follows a demonic Jesse through a magical door that transports them through space and time to the final scene of Paranormal 1.  Presumably Hector is killed by Jesse.

Okay, so that’s a lot of stuff to take in.  In some ways, the idea of an army of possessed young men takes the edge off some of the more annoying plot elements from 4.  It appears that most of the young men are kidnapped as children and placed into families in close proximity to witches in the coven.  It still doesn’t fix the problems with 4, but it is moving things toward the right direction.  The last scene was a bit much, ending up in a different time, and for no apparent reason.

My biggest critique is that the entire film being found footage was quite forced.  The characters seemed to be filming for the sake of there being a spin-off to the series, not because they feel like filming is logical.

I did particularly like one element of the film– communicating with the demon via a Simon game.  Pretty good stuff.

I don’t know how I feel about what the future holds for the series.  They have announced Paranormal 5, which is coming out in October of this year, and I had some hope for it in the past (it had been stated that the director/writer of the first film was returning to the series for it, which later was amended to the series’ editor being the new director), but now I do not know how to feel about it.  I figure I’ll go see it, but set my expectations low.  I am glad that they’ve stated that there is an end-game coming, but it sounds like that’ll be in Paranormal 6 or 7.

Scrivener – An All-In-One Writing Tool

As a writer, there are many approaches to the actual writing itself.  Some people take pen to paper, some dig out an old typewriter, though definitely the most frequent method in this era is to make use of a word processor.  Obviously, Microsoft Word is a big one, though OpenOffice and others also have their proponents.

I wrote using these basic word processors for a long time– after all, they’ve served many writers well for the last couple decades, right?  I liked writing with them, though it felt like I either had to spend a long time scrolling and searching or had to break up my work into multiple documents, neither of which really were the best for my writing.  When I’m really in the writing zone but I need to pause to check a detail from previous work, I tend to get distracted and usually get much less done than I should.

Thankfully, a friend of mine once happened to have his book-in-progress open scriviconon his computer one day while I sat behind him in an English class.  He was using a program I hadn’t ever seen before.  I asked him what it was, and he replied “Scrivener!  Have you not seen it before?  It’s awesome!”

He was right.  Rather than the basic, all-purpose word processors I’ve spent most of my life using for everything from my books to essays to badly formatted birthday cards, I could see that Scrivener had a very specific sort of setup– one meant for writers, especially for long form fiction and nonfiction.

scrivenerFor starters, Scrivener is set up in a way that allows you to break up the writing of the story in any way you want.  You can have chapters, sub-chapters, whatever.  There is a note card view that allows you to look at all of the sections and lets you add notes that don’t show up in the text itself as to what is happening, or what you want to accomplish, et cetera.  It’s very easy for outline writers to thrown up a bunch of cards (which can be added to or re-organized as needed) and then write the text in each section without having to flip back and forth between the text and an outline document.  You can make a research section that is part of the Scrivener project to fill with notes, character sketches, photos, anything.  The whole writing process is streamlined wonderfully.  Also great is that if you jump to a different section of your text or notes, your cursor stays where it was in the section you were just working on, so no losing your place while editing or revising.

It’s honestly wonderful.  It’s made me more efficient, organized, and goal-oriented in my writing.  Plus, it’s like $40, and even less for students.  Check it out: if you are serious about your writing it’s much cheaper than MS Office and is much more helpful for your writing.

Locke & Key

I love the idea of horror in the comic book medium.  It used to be quite prevalent, but has in recent decades mostly faded to the backdrop of the industry, so it is quite refreshing to have recently read and enjoyed a horror comic series.  This is particularly the case with how disappointed one of the most popular horror comics made me.

I first caught wind of Locke & Key the way I Joehilllockekeyfind out about a lot of things– through Wikipedia, specifically on Joe Hill’s page.  I fairly recently read several of his books– to date, I’ve read all but his most recent book, N0S4A2— and really enjoyed the strong writing.  I was very pleased to see that his writing is very strong and was worthy of publishing on his own merits and not his father’s (Stephen King).  He was scary, funny, sad, and compelling.  His characters were vibrant, his plots unexpected and exciting.  As a side note, I particularly recommend his collection of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts, especially the titular story from that collection.  Anyway, I was curious if he had done even more good writing for me to enjoy, and when I saw that he had written a comic series, my interest was piqued.

A few months after that I stumbled upon the first four collections in the comics section at my local library.  I was looking for Batman (which the library satisfied my craving for) but also came home bearing a stack consisting of far more comic titles than The Dark Knight’s adventures.  Volume 1 of Locke & Key was actually the first graphic novel I picked up from the stack, and I consumed it very quickly and was glad that I had brought home the second volume as well.

The idea of the Locke & Key is fairly easy to explain without lockekey_vol4tpbany notable spoilers.  Basically, it’s the story of the Locke family who, in the wake of tragedy, move to their father’s childhood home where they find numerous keys with magical powers that can do everything from changing a person into an animal to lifting off the top of their head to put in knowledge or remove unwanted memories of character traits.  So, much of the story is the adventure of discovering more keys and their purposes.

But, as I said before, this is a horror comic, so it isn’t all a big whimsical fantasy adventure.  There  is also a dark force at work in Keyhouse, who seeks to serve their own vile purposes through manipulation and force and, of course, the keys.

Pretty much everything about the series is very strong.  All the characters are very well thought out, dynamic, with believable motivations and powerful action.  The story careens in unexpected ways at a breakneck pace.  The dialogue is strong and drives the story forward.  The art– well, actually, I didn’t care for the art while reading the first couple of volumes of the series, but over time it grew on me.  Gabriel Rodriguez definitely paid a great deal of attention to details, and it really shows while you read it.  He very meticulously planned out the house, the grounds, the appearance of the keys and characters.  He really filled the world and vividly breathed life into Joe Hill’s scripts.

One thing I also LockeKey_KeystotheKingdom05loved is that the details of the plot spanned over generations, and was presented very seamlessly– the storytelling and presentation of key concepts is subtle, and subtlety is a rare commodity in comics.   We have the magic explained historically and as the characters learn about it through trial and error.  Each character’s personality is shown through sections of the comic– for example, there was a tribute piece to Bill Watterson that showcased the perspective of the youngest member of the Locke family, Bode, flying around as a sparrow that was drawn in Calvin and Hobbes style.  We get a feel for Bode’s humor, innocence, personality, and vibrancy with how that piece was presented, all while it very interestingly furthered the plot.

To get to the point, I highly recommend the series.  It was recently completed and the first 4/5ths of the story is available in graphic novels.  It’s a great series for lovers of comic and/or horror fantasy.

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