Thursday, September 29, 2011

This house is haunted


"Dream House," a haunted house flick starring James Bond Daniel Craig opens Friday. If you surf the net, you'll find a lot of "top ten haunted house movies" lists.


I could do that, but I'm not going to. Instead, I'm going to talk about why haunted house movies are made for the PG-13 rating.


Don't get me wrong. I like my horror strong and scary. That usually brings an R rating. But haunted houses are a different kind of monster.

What I want from a haunted house movie isn't blood, sex and swearing. Yes, there are great R rated haunted house movies, with the two "Paranormal Activity" movies leading that bunch. Those movies follow the rules of what makes a good PG-13 haunted house movie, just with a fuckton of swearing.


Atmosphere, which "Paranormal Activity" is loaded with, is key to the great PG-13 haunted house movie. Atmosphere covers many aspects of a film. I include setting (old house or unexpectedly new house), sound (lack of a score, sounds with no visual reason for existing) and lighting (is it always dark or is scary shit happening in the bright of day, too?) as part of a film's atmosphere.


The classics of haunted house films were all brooding mansions. "Poltergeist" brought the haunted house into the suburbs. Coincidentally, "Poltergeist" was one of two films that made the MPAA adopt the PG-13 rating. The film took all the haunted house conventions audiences were used to seeing in drafty houses and put them smack in the middle of a two-story cookie cutter home. You could call it a rule-changer, but really, the rules stayed the same. Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper simply changed the playing field.



You are allowed to disagree, the "The Others," starring Nicole Kidman, is a successful haunted house movie. Forget the gimmick of the main characters being the ghosts (hope I didn't spoil that for you, but seriously, the movie is 10 years old) and just listen to it.

Kidman's character sits in the middle of a room and hears all sorts of things going on around her, but nothing moves and she doesn't see a thing. Try it at home. Slam a door at one end of your house and see if someone on the other end gets scared. Humans are visually oriented. The things you can't see are always worse than what you can. If you can hear something (or worse, smell something) but you can't see it, your tension level gets ramped up.


So let's go back to "Paranormal Activity" for a moment. What makes these films work? Is it the "found footage" trend and its added realism? That's a big part of it, sure. But what really makes "Paranormal Activity" pop is that weird shit will happen in the light of day, not just the dead of night.

It's easy to blame weirdness on being tired or tricks of the light when it's midnight. But what is your excuse when it's noon and all hell breaks loose in your kitchen? You have no excuse. You are forced to confront the fact that your house is haunted.

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