Reel Rumbles #7: “Zombieland” vs. “Paranormal Activity”
In This Corner
Things get spooky this week for the Reel Rumbles Halloween Edition as two new hits burn up the screen at your local cinema and fight for supremacy over which deserves the first ever soon-to-be-coveted Golden Goblin Award. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, trick-or-treaters of all ages, get ready for a fabulous night at the frights with Zombieland vs. Paranormal Activity.
Round One: Story
The posters to Paranormal Activity warn, “Don’t see it alone.” I am instantly reminded of the clever trailer for “Don’t” in the Grindhouse experiment. Would this be another run of the mill, gory exercise in cheapness that was prevalent in those “Don’t…” movies of the seventies and eighties, or would it, for once, be a terror trip that lives up to its hype? There was only one way to find out. Buy a couple of tickets and see if anything could be gained by watching it with someone else. So that’s what I did. As the film began, two concerns immediately presented themselves to me: 1) That this would be another Blair Witch Project, where the promise of something uniquely terrifying alludes you for 75% of the film, only to have the brief build of suspense at the climax be cut short with an anti-climactic whimper; and 2) That if it escaped the failures of Blair Witch, it would succumb to the head-jarringly inept cinematography found in Cloverfield. Here is how Paranormal Activity fares in avoiding the pitfalls of #1 (with #2 to come in Round Four):
Paranormal Activity uses the same device as Blair Witch Project, yes. It begins with a simple disclaimer regarding the “footage you are about to see.” But Blair Witch, this film is not! It does a much better job of presenting a legitimate relationship between its players, and it is on that union that the chills find a home. Without Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat), and their convincing portrayals of an authentic relationship, Paranormal Activity has nowhere to go but south. Micah’s humor and Katie’s natural spunkiness make for an unarguably appealing pair. Nothing cringe-worthy at all in the way these two deal with one another. Katie is convinced she is being haunted by a poltergeist. Micah is skeptical, and sees the “haunting” as more of a fun challenge for himself and his trusted new camera. “How much did that thing cost you?” Katie asks. Micah responds, “About half of what I made today.” By day, Katie is a student and Micah is a day-trader. Judging from the beauty and the fresh newness of their San Diego home, they do all right. But at night, things are not all right, especially for Katie. She complains about being awakened sometimes seeing a dark specter watching over her. It is something that has followed her since she was a child. Sometimes it lies dormant. Other times it is active. At the beginning of the film, we learn one of these periods of activity is under way, and Micah is going to use his camera to film everything he can in an effort to catch the entity red-handed. His need to film everything gets on her nerves, but she tolerates it. And together the two set out on a fun, entertaining, and – yes, for once, the marketing previews do not lie – terrifying journey that will have your date admitting to you days after the fact, “You know that movie really did creep me out more than I thought.”
With everything that Paranormal Activity has going for it, it’s hard to imagine Zombieland as being any real competition. After all, it seems like the Frankenstein monster of zombie movies, taking parts from Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Army of Darkness, and even National Lampoon’s Vacation to retread what should be a tired formula in hopes of finding something new. But this is definitely not a retread. The characters keep it from being so. Like Paranormal Activity, it primarily uses only four actors in its entire runtime, but it develops each of them more fully. While the focus is mainly on Katie and Micah in the above, all four of the leads in Zombieland, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), have rich personalities, comedic timing, and surprising amounts of heart. Zombieland manages to succeed in reviving the old zombie formula, because it tempers the mandatory gut-munching with healthy doses of humor, such as Columbus’s rules for survival, Tallahassee’s quest for Twinkies, and Wichita and Little Rock’s wily deceptions frequently inflicted on their dumber male counterparts. There is something to remember and something to love about each of them. Together, they manage to find a spark of hope in a very hopeless situation, and likewise give viewers something fresh and interesting in a seemingly dried up sub-genre of horror (although, make no mistake, this is very much a comedy, too).
The winner of this round is a toss-up because they both do what they do so well. Problem is, what they do is incredibly different, so it really falls on what you are in the mood for come movie night.
In the spirit of the season, I have to pick chills over laughs and score this one 10-9, Paranormal Activity.
Round Two: Script
In Paranormal Activity, Oren Peli pulls double duty as both writer and director. Considering that this is his first film, and his only experience that comes close to being considered “within the industry” was as a programmer for the NFL Xtreme video game from 989 Studios over ten years ago, this is a remarkable accomplishment. The natural flow of dialog between Katie and Micah feels pure, heartfelt, and instinctual — in other words, unscripted in a good way. While the performances are to be credited for some of this, Peli’s script gives the players legitimate places to go to as a couple tested to the brink of sanity by an unseen and seemingly unstoppable force. His fright scenes accommodate a slender budget, but also build in small, subtle steps to a leap of dread that is anything but miniscule. The day-to-day interactions between Katie and Micah are also handled with care, giving audiences a reason to invest in the grief that is to come.
Centered more on laughs than scares, Zombieland is as effective in its motivations as its adversary. With the help of first-time screenwriter Paul Wernick, Rhett Reese is able to switch gears from his previous family entertainment fare (Tarzan II, Clifford’s Really Big Movie, Monsters, Inc.) to a relatively raunchy effort that pulls in the best elements from classic comedy and zombie films to create a world that is rich with originality, characterization, and bite. The dialog fits each performer like a glove. Columbus’s lines are thoughtful and funny, especially when laced with that quaint amount of sarcasm that says, “I want to be a smart-ass, but I don’t want you to hit me for it.” In fact, one scene highlights this very quality when Columbus’s mouth gets him in trouble with Tallahassee, to which the latter replies, “I’m only gonna hit you at 45%.” And on the subject of Tallahassee, his character is a blunt instrument, which brings with it a simple-minded charm that doesn’t quite prepare you for a touching revelation awaiting two-thirds into the film. Wichita and Little Rock, the con artists in this quartet, round things out with the right touch of craftiness and fun. Above all, the script keeps laughs coming at a furious pace and rewards viewers with an extremely clever cameo.
All of this creates a flurry of punches that ultimately capture a close round, 10-9 – Zombieland.
Round Three: Performances
Zombieland definitely has Paranormal Activity beat on star power. Eisenberg made a splash earlier in the year with the poignantly funny slice-of-life comedy Adventureland. Who knows what kind of “land” he will turn up in next? As long as his angst-ridden performances continue the successful balancing act between geek and leading man, it will be easy to follow him into whichever world he leads his audience in to. Harrelson, it is safe to assume, never turns in a bad performance, and he doesn’t start here. He is fantastic in comedy and drama modes. His confrontation with a truckload of Hostess Sno-Balls at the beginning of Zombieland makes me think back to a simpler Woody, from Cheers: “You know what I really like about Sno-Balls? They’re bite-sized.” Cheers fans – you know what comes next.
(Okay, enough Nick at Nite.)
But as good as these four are at keeping the laughs rolling and the action tight, it’s Featherston and Sloat, who really rise to the occasion. With no budget, only two supporting cast members (who don’t have ten minutes of screen time between them), and very few special effects, this dynamic duo is expected to take the script of a first-time director and make a mass audience care. No one at my screening had heard of these actors, so there was little chance of there being any predisposed affections, no built-in appeal whatsoever. For a wide release film to face this dilemma, much less overcome it, is rare. But overcome, Featherston and Sloat do. This is acting in its purest form: raw, stripped down, with genuine fear and emotion that literally infects the audience when the terror begins.
Advantage: too close to call.
Round Four: Direction
Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) and Peli (Paranormal Activity) have both accomplished the incredible. Each within a month of the other has managed to turn his theatrical feature debut into a career launching credit that has not only achieved critical praise, but also has won the hearts (or in PA’s case, stopped the hearts) of audiences everywhere. It’s a rare thing in Hollywood, yet these two talented directors have pulled it off. Fleischer’s film succeeds in part because of his sneakiness. His use of “the Rules” scores laughs throughout the film, and sometimes blends into the scenery so well that it could take repeat viewings to catch everything. And that cameo – if you don’t know, don’t seek out spoilers. It’s brilliant. In addition to these qualities, his action scenes are straight forward and easy to follow, and the pacing is dead on perfect. Fleischer even dabbles in drama some, but he sticks to his shotguns and never loses sight of the film he wants to make.
While Fleischer accomplishes something large on a small for Hollywood budget (around $24 million), Peli has his work even more cut out for him as he must use $15,000, one house, four actors, and limited special effects to his advantage. In so doing, Peli proves what Robert Rodriguez preaches in his Rebel Without a Crew book: you don’t need money to make a great movie. Peli’s direction succeeds because he knows unequivocally what scares us. For much of the film, the camera sits stationary (avoiding that Cloverfield hex), and simply films two characters sleeping. But it is what happens while they sleep that creates the terror. It starts with the slight movement of a door. It builds to audible sound and loud crashes before accelerating to something much worse. We all knew something was about to happen. But we were scared anyway, because Peli hacks into our collective imagination, as an audience looking for a good fright, and turns it into his greatest special effect. He even uses a clock on the camera display to tell us when he will scare us. As the seconds move slower, that’s when the fun begins. It’s a Halloween Haunted House of a film. Go to be scared. Take someone with you. And get ready for the clown with the chainsaw to chase you across the parking lot.
And the Winner Is…
Halloween is a holiday good for laughs and good for chills. In fact, it’s the laughs that make the scares tolerable. While Zombieland delivers plenty of the former, it isn’t the kind of movie that strives for the latter. Paranormal Activity, on the other hand, gives you just enough humor to care about what happens to Kate and Micah. And then, it kicks our fear into overdrive. Don’t see it alone. But do see it.
Winner by SPLIT DECISION – Paranormal Activity