31 Days of Fright: Pet Sematary

This cat was robbed at the Golden Globes in 1989.

This cat was robbed at the Golden Globes in 1989.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s film is a movie often considered one of the better adaptations of Stephen King’s work, Pet Sematary (1989), directed by Mary Lambert (director of Madonna’s best music videos, like “Like a Prayer” and “Material Girl“). The film was requested by ECW Press Creative Director (and my books’ copyeditor), Crissy Calhoun. She’s also the author of numerous books on pop culture, like Love You to Death: The Unofficial Companion to The Vampire Diaries. The DVD was provided by my local video store, Queen Video.

What happens:

A young, white family drives their station wagon to their new home in the Maine countryside (this is Stephen King, after all), and we instantly know from the bumper sticker that one of them is a doctor. That doctor is Dr. Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff), and he and his wife, Rachel (Denise Crosby, a.k.a. Tasha Yar!), daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl), toddler, Gage (Miko Hughes), and the blue-gray family cat, Winston Churchill (or “Church”) have moved from Chicago so that Dr. Creed can work at the university hospital. This perfect new home is, unfortunately, right beside a very busy road frequented by many an eighteen-wheeler. “One mean road,” as a character later proclaims. In fact, toddler Gage nearly toddles right out onto the highway and it’s only new neighbour Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne – Herman Munster himself!) who prevents him from becoming road pizza.

Thankful for their helpful neighbour, Rachel asks the older man what the mysterious path behind their house leads to, and Jud, font of homespun wisdom, cryptically says, “That’s a good story. We’ll talk about it one day.” That day occurs one night soon after, when, over beers, Jud tells Louis the path leads to a pet cemetery, in which many of the four-legged residents met their dooms right on the roadway in front of his house. After the family meets their new housekeeper, Missy (Susan Blommaert), a perennially agitated woman with stomach problems who laments that she never met a doctor, they go with Jud on a field trip to the pet cemetery. Or “pet sematary,” as the sign reads. (“It’s misspelled,” Rachel says. Are we sure she’s not the doctor?)

Jud reveals his dog Spot (who died in 1924) is buried here, and this leads to a general discussion of pet mortality. One that Rachel is not prepared for her young kids to have. Jud, however, feels the need to expose the youngsters to the idea of finality, and waxes poetic on the pet cemetery, noting, “the graveyard is where the dead speak.” All the death talk affects young Ellie something fierce, and soon she’s complaining to her dad about her cat Church’s inevitable end. Louis tells his daughter that neutering Church will make him less likely to run into the road and get hit by a car. Upon Rachel’s urging, he literally promises Church won’t get run over by a truck. (Can you see where this is going?)

Cut to the university campus, where a bunch of students are hauling a gruesome car accident victim to Dr. Creed. Unfortunately, there’s nothing Louis can do for the young jogger, but after the victim flatlines, he seemingly springs momentarily to life and cryptically whispers to the doctor, “The soil of a man’s hear is stonier, Louis.” How did he know the doctor’s name? The dead jogger, Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist), soon visits Louis in his sleep. Death hasn’t improved his massive head wound any, and he beckons Louis to follow him to the pet sematary. He says he wants to help Louis because Louis tried to help him. Standing in the pet graveyard, he gestures to the hill beyond and warns him not to go to “the place where the dead walk,” for the barrier was not meant to be crossed. Louis awakes in the morning, convinced it was just a vivid dream, but when he pulls his sheets back, his feet are caked in dirt!

Thanksgiving looms on the horizon. Rachel is taking the kids to her parents’ place, but Louis (who starts to look more and more like Dr. Michael Mancini from Melrose Place) won’t be joining them. (Her dad isn’t a fan of Louis joining the family, for reasons not fully explored.) Promptly after his wife and kids leave, Louis discovers the cat, Church, has been hit by a car. He goes over the Jud’s front lawn to retrieve the corpse and pulls it from the frostbitten ground. (“Like a sticky note off a letter,” Jud remarks on the sound.) Louis frets over how he’ll break the news to Ellie, but Jud tells him there may be a better way.

 

You could probably already tell, but he’s a friendly ghost. Like Casper!

Jud and Louis, dead cat in hand, hike beyond the pet sematary and up that hill the ghost warned Louis about. They clamber over dangerous bramble and hear terrifying animal sounds until they reach a series of concentric circles and stones situated on the earth. The spot is a Mik’maq burial ground, Jud informs him, and it’s where Louis should bury Ellie’s cat. When Louis asks why, Jud mysteriously says he has his reasons. The process of burial takes well into the night – Jud can’t help Louis dig, he insists – and when they return to the Creed household, Jud suggests Louis not tell his family what they did. He then quotes Pascow’s line about stonier hearts and Louis is freaked right out. So much so that when he talks to his kids on the telephone, he can’t event respond when Gage says he loves him. Daddy can’t talk right now; his heart is all stony.

Working in the garage the next day, Louis hears a monstrous yowl. Church has returned, though his glowing eyes suggest he might not be exactly the same. Louis inspects the cat more thoroughly and it seems fine. He goes to Jud, assuming they accidentally buried the cat alive, but Jud knows better. Jud describes how he first buried his Spot in that Mik’maq burial ground, but when the dog came back, he was still cut up and wasn’t the same dog at all. When Spot died a second time, they buried him in the pet sematary. Louis asks the forbidden question – “Has anyone ever buried a person up there?” – and Jud is horrified by the mere suggestion.

Later that night, Dr. Creed draws a bath and indulges in some much-needed “me” time, but before long, the undead Church tosses a dead rat into his bath and begins to hiss at him. Chuch came back not quite all right, and Ellie already suspects something half the country away in Chicago. When Louis meets his family at the airpot, Ellie can’t believe her cat is okay. She’s been having dreams that Church was hit by a truck and Jud and her dad buried the cat in the pet sematary. Ellie also notices, once she sees the cat in person, that Church has acquired an awful new stench. “Can cats have shampoo?” she asks.

Around this time, Missy, unable to take her chronic stomach pain any longer, hangs herself in her basement. The Creeds’ attendance at her funeral prompts some existential questions from Ellie about life and death and what happens after. Given recent events, Louis tells Ellie he believes there’s something after life. Rachel, overhearing the conversation, is torn. She’s proud her husband can discuss death with their daughter in such a frank, loving way, but all the death talk reminds her of her childhood. In flashback, we learn Rachel had to take care of her older sister, Zelda, who had spinal meningitis, and whom her parents kept in the back room “like a dirty secret.” Zelda looks like a twisted skeleton, driven mad by her physical infirmity, and Rachel recalls how she sometimes wished Zelda would die. (Eventually she did, obvi.)

Because basically everyone and everything in this movie gets killed by a speeding truck, Louis and Rachel’s young son becomes the next victim to the mean road outside their house. In a truly troubling scene, Gage runs out into the road during a family picnic and is hit (off-screen) by a tractor trailer. In the days that follow, Rachel becomes nearly catatonic, while Ellie maintains that God could bring Gage back if He wanted to. Jud (always offering hot takes on mortality to other people’s kids) says he doesn’t think God works that way. Or does he?!

At the funeral, Rachel’s dad violently attacks Louis, yelling, I told her something like this would happen!” The resulting scuffle causes them to knock over the miniature-sized coffin and send little Gage’s body flying out. (Just in case you were wondering if this movie was going to pull any punches.) Louis goes home, sees his demon cat lying on his distraught wife’s chest and begins to wonder. Jud, drinking downstairs, already knows what Louis is thinking and attempt to stop him. He recounts the story of Timmy Baderman, a boy killed on his way home from World War II. His parents buried him up by the Mik’maq burial ground, and he returned, but death turned him into a deranged zombie, clawing at his own flesh, stalking neighbours. Eventually, the townsfolk turned on the Baderman boy and a small mob set fire to the Baderman house with the boy inside. “Sometimes death is better,” Jud assures Louis. “The Indians knew that. They stopped using that place.”

I unearthed my dead toddler in the middle of night. What could go wrong?

I unearthed my dead toddler in the middle of night. What could go wrong?

Ellie begins to dream of someone called “Paxkow,” and Rachel decides to take Ellie with her to her parents for a few days after Louis and her dad make peace. Louis has to work and can’t join them for a few days. But when the cat is away, the mice will play. And by “play,” I mean “dig up his dead son and perform an unoly rite to bring him back to life.” Pascow visits Louis as well as his daughter, and warns him again that the ground is sour. But Louis is undeterred. He reasons if Gage comes back wrong, he can always put him “back to sleep.” I guess because killing your undead toddler is a totes easy thing to do. That night, Louis heads to the not-pet sematary and starts digging.

Back in Chicago, Ellie is again visited by a ghost she calls “Paxkow” in her sleep. She tells her mom about “Paxkow” and that he’s a good ghost, trying to watch out for her dad. The name triggers something in Rachel’s memory, and the ghost of Pascow begins to, unseen, guide her back home. Rachel calls home and no one answers. Her dreams are haunted by the terrifying spectre of her dead sister Zelda, who says she and Gage are coming for her. Rachel decides to immediately take a flight home. Every step of the way, Pascow helps her, delaying flights so Rachel can make her connection, guiding car rental agencies to suggest other cars when all options seem impossible. She is, of course, too late. By the time she gets behind the seat of her rental car, Louis has already buried Gage in the place where the dead walk. Or, rather, piled a bunch of stones on top of his corpse.

Nevertheless, Rachel speeds home, driving so quickly she surely wouldn’t be able to stop if a child were to run into the road. Her tire blows out, so Pascow uses his ghost Force to make a trucker pick her up and drive her the rest of the way. (A trucker! Like the kind who ran over her kid!) That very same night, li’l Gage returns, dressed in his Sunday best, and, first-things-first, he secretly rummages through his dad’s medical bag and extracts the scalpel.

Across the roadway, Jud has fallen asleep on his front porch. When he wakes, he’s startled by small, wet footprints that lead into his house and the distant sound of giggling. Jud follows into the house to the sounds of a child exclaiming, “Hide and go seek!” Following the sounds, he enters his bedroom and takes out his hunting knife for protection. He’s just about look under the bed when Church yowls and distracts him. Gage, hiding under the bed, takes the opportunity to cut deep into Jud’s Achilles tendon with the scalpel. He then slashes his neighbour across the mouth, and finally bites into Jud’s throat, tearing it out.

The trucker brings Rachel to her door, and Pascow, riding shotgun but invisible to both riders, informs the audience he can’t help any further. Rachel goes to check on Jud, and in his bedroom finds Zelda, who says, “I’m going to twist your back so you never get out of bed again!” (Which is not really how spinal meningitis works.) Rachel blinks and Zelda has been replaced by her son, Gage, dressed in Zelda’s old clothing. “I brought you something, Mommy,” he says. Spoiler alert: it’s a scalpel.

Louis Creed, apparently a fairly heavy sleeper, wakes up to find Gage-sized footsteps on his floor and the scalpel taken from his doctor’s bag. The telephone rings and his father-in-law asks if Rachel arrived all right. Louis, in shock that something may have happened to her, pretends Rachel arrived fine. Rachel’s dad is insistent on talking to her, as Ellie has been hysterical with nightmares that her mom has died. Louis hangs up on his father-in-law. (That’s not going to win him over.) When the phone rings almost immediately afterward, it’s not him, but Gage, who spookily says, “First I played with Jud, then Mommy came, and I played with Mommy.” The final confrontation is at hand.

Louis crosses the street to Jud’s house with a hypodermic needle in hand. Church sits outside like a gargoyle, protecting the unholy house, but Louis lures the cat into a false sense of security with a raw steak, then jabs it in the butt with his needle full of death. Inside, Jud’s house appears filled with rotting goo, but it’s just an illusion. Upstairs, Louis finds Jud’s mangled corpse, then backs into the hallway, where – horror – his wife’s body drops from the attic, hanging by a noose. From that same attic, Gage leaps on his dad from above and begins slashing him with a scalpel. After a fierce struggle, Louis gains the upper hand and slowly stabs his undead son in the neck with the hypodermic needle. Gage topples backward and dies a second time.

Gasoline jug in hand, Louis begins the task of setting Jud’s house on fire. But he doesn’t leave the burning building empty-handed; he’s brought Rachel’s body with him. Pascow’s ghost returns to dissuade him from repeating his mistakes, but Louis has rationalized it to himself. He waited too long to resurrect Gage, he says, this time he’ll bring Rachel back right away. The final scene of the film shows a rotting Rachel, one eye merely a gory socket, returning to the Creed family kitchen. Louis and the undead Rachel passionately kiss, then she reaches for the knife.

 

No matter how much you want them to grow up to be doctors, don’t let your kids play with scalpels.

Takeaway points:

  • Pet Sematary succeeded as my favourite of the horror movies I’ve watched so far, probably because it’s one that tackles a theme that interests me immensely: how we (as a society, as a culture) deal with death. The various viewpoints presented – Jud’s frank discussion of death with his neighbour’s children, Rachel’s attempt to shield the children from death, Louis’s refusal to bow to death (fitting, given his profession) – present differing ways people cope with death. What really got to me was Rachel’s story about her sister Zelda, and how her family treated her (and her slow death) as a “dirty secret.” North American culture (and WASPy North American culture, in particular) tends to treat death as a dirty secret, as something that should be kept behind closed doors. The general thesis of the film seems to be that it’s better to accept death as part of everyday life. Visually, this point is garishly made when Gage’s little corpse is knocked out of its closed casket. As Jud says to Louis (several times), “Sometimes death is better.”
  • For Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans, this movie is obviously an inspiration for the episode, “Forever,” in which Dawn attempts to bring her and Buffy’s mother back from the grave. They make the same conclusion, that sometimes death is better.
  • The film also participates in that horror movie trope of “the mystical indigenous person.” “Indian” burial grounds always seem to have supernatural powers, and the Mik’maq burial ground in Pet Sematary is no different. This mystical treatment of a modern indigenous culture is a bit troubling, to say the least: as if slowly destroying indigenous society through a process of cultural genocide weren’t enough, we’re also going to make you our boogeymen. Enjoy!
  • Most of the movie I spent trying to place Jud Crandall’s accent. Apparently it’s a Maine accent, but I couldn’t help picture Jimmy Stewart who had drank one too many scotches.
  • Let us take a moment to praise the work of the cat actor who portrayed Church. I have never seen cat-acting like that featured in Pet Sematary. Church was played by seven different cats, but the scene that most impressed me was the death scene. The cat’s movements were so convincing, I was a little worried they just straight-up murdered a cat. Bravo, seven cats who played Church. Bravo!
  • In what seems like an impossible coincidence, Pet Sematary is the second horror film in two nights to feature a Ramones connection. The careless trucker who runs over Gage is blasting “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” at the moment of impact, and the end credits feature an original Ramones tune, “Pet Sematary.” To whit: “I don’t wanna’ be buried / in a Pet Sematary.” Too true, Joey Ramone.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Pet Sematary mostly lives up to the hype. Sure, there are scenes or lines of dialogue that seem a little hokey, but there are also really unsettling scenes, including the unbearable suspense leading up to Jud’s gruesome death and the truly upsetting sight of Rachel’s zombie-like sister, Zelda. Plus, the movie has a friendly ghost! One of my favourite things! But friendly ghost or not, I was still a bit creeped out.

Dazzling WASP wear and old-timey farmer togs, both appropriate outfits for a jaunt to your local pet sematary.

Dazzling WASP wear and old-timey farmer togs, both appropriate outfits for a jaunt to your local pet sematary.

Best outfit: Rachel Creed is by far the best-dressed character in Pet Sematary, but it’s hard to rank one of her outfits over any others. Perhaps her “jaunt to a cemetery” outfit – comprised of a crisp white blouse, long plaid shorts, and high socks – is the best of the bunch.

Best line: “He’s not God’s cat, he’s my cat! Let God get his own cat if he wants one!” – Ellie Creed, learning about pet mortality

Best kill: Two of the worst injuries I can imagine are having your Achilles tendon cut and having your smile widened by a knife. That Jud Crandall’s unceremonious death incorporates both at the hands of a toddler is, frankly, really impressive.

Unexpected cameo: It’s always a pleasure seeing Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) get work. And Blaze Berdahl, who plays Ellie Creed, is better known as one of the young sleuths on the 90s children’s television show, Ghostwriter. But best of all is the author of the book, Stephen King, portraying a minister at the housekeeper Missy’s funeral.

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: (1) Even if you’re sleeping outside, always wear shoes without open heels. I bet Jud regretted his choice of slipper when he felt Gage’s blade cut through his ankle. (2) When you’re buying a new family home, try to visit it during a weekday so you get a sense of how busy the nearby traffic is.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Pascow’s Ghost. Or, taken from a tombstone in the pet sematary: Biffer, Biffer, a Hell of a Sniffer.

Next up: Ju-On (2002).

31 Days of Fright: Paranormal Activity

Katie, not about to drop a bowling ball to show how comfortable her mattress is.

Katie, not about to drop a bowling ball to show how comfortable her mattress is.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! We kick things off with the found-footage sensation that became a cultural phenomenon: Paranormal Activity (2007), directed by Oren Peli. It was suggested by friend and former co-worker Christina Palassio, who was looking to recommend horror movies that don’t feature violence against women. Palassio was one of my mentors and work partners when I was publicist at Coach House Books, and now works at Community Food Centres Canada, an organization that aims to bring together people to grow, cook, and share good, healthy food in communities across Canada. I rented Paranormal Activity from my local, Queen Video.

What happens:

Paranormal Activity certainly wasn’t the first found-footage horror movie. The extremely nasty Cannibal Holocaust (1980) usually gets credit for that, though the effective Blair Witch Project (1999) was probably the first of the sub-genre to find widespread success. And horror films since Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages have claimed to be documentary realism. But Paranormal Activity was the movie that turned allegedly found footage into a supremely successful horror movie franchise. (To date there are six movies under the Paranormal Activity banner.)

The film opens with a thanks to Micah Sloat, Katie Featherston, and the San Diego Police Department, so we can assume things are not going to end well. The first clip dates from September 18, 2006, and the events of the movie will take viewers through October 10, all while maintaining the artifice that film subjects Micah and Katie are real people who were the victims of some sort of paranormal event.

Katie arrives home to find herself being filmed by her boyfriend with an elaborately large video camera. Why does Micah have such a complicated camera? To record all the paranormal activity that either has or hasn’t been going on, of course. Their house is fairly large (and even comes with a swimming pool), so when Micah mentions the camera costs half what he makes in a day, we know we’re dealing with a baller. While preparing dinner, Micah outlines the plot to the movie – that he’s going to set up the recording equipment in their bedroom to record overnight, so he can have proof of the supernatural phenomena Katie claims to have experienced – all while haphazardly brandishing a kitchen knife. (Foreshadowing?)

The crafty Katie (we see her both knitting and making jewelry) would prefer no more paranormal activity to happen in the house, but Micah thinks it would be cool to obtain evidence. He’s also keen on having a camera so he can attempt to pressure his girlfriend into on-camera stripteases. (He’s unsuccessful.) The first night, nothing much happens, save a few weird sounds after 2 a.m. In the morning, Katie finds her keys were tossed onto the kitchen floor. (Are you scared yet?) They decide to invite over a psychic, Dr. Frederichs, dressed in his best Ralph Lauren business casual. He learns a bit about the couple: they’ve been together for three years, she’s a student, he’s a day trader, etc. He also learns that Katie has been visited by spirits since age 8, when a shadowy figure would stand at the foot of her bed and she’d be unable to move. (This is textbook sleep paralysis.) The presence has followed her from house to house ever since. After the psychic is given a tour of their digs, as if in an episode of Haunted Cribs, he warns, “These hauntings feed off negative energy.”

An in-depth conversation regarding the differences between ghosts and demons follows, with the psychic deciding what Micah and Katie has is probably the latter. And demon-based stuff is not his wheelhouse. He recommends a demonologist, Dr. Johann Averies, to call if things get worse and makes his exit. But not before warning Micah not to try to communicate with the demon in any way. Later that night, the bedroom door opens and closes on its own volition around two. The next day Micah shows Katie the evidence, and he slowly starts to buy into the idea of a world beyond ours.

Micah is a day trader and plays guitar. Just when we’re pretty sure he can’t get any worse, he reads a book in bed on the occult and mansplains demons to his girlfriend. (Thanks, doofus, for reiterating what the psychic told you last night.) Katie says she’s through messing around with this demon, but Micah, playing literal Devil’s advocate, is of another mind. Plus, he argues, Katie never told him about her demon problem before they moved in together, so he should have some say in how they handle it.

Things get more paranormal. Audio recorded overnight seems to reveal an unnatural sound. Micah theorizes whatever is in their house is trying to communicate with them; he suggests using a Ouija board to communicate with it. Katie, completely freaked out, begs him to promise he won’t buy a Ouija board and will instead leave this demon thing alone. A few nights later (Night #13), the couple is awakened by a loud thump, which is then followed by a mighty roar downstairs. They go to investigate, but only see the living-room chandelier swinging all on its own. (No Sia required.) Katie begins to suspect the camera equipment is worsening the increased paranormal activity.

Micah, demonstrating how NewMusic videographers of old used to work.

Micah, demonstrating how NewMusic videographers of old used to work.

On Night #15, Katie bolts up in bed at 1:30, then stands and stares at the sleeping Micah for two hours straight (which does not, thankfully, run in real-time) before leaving the room. When Micah awakes, he finds Katie shivering in a swing chair beside the pool. As he coaxes her inside, they hear a massive bang. Something turned the television in their bedroom on to play loud static. Katie remembers none of the previous night’s events when she awakes the next morning.

Against Katie’s express wishes, Micah brings in the most demonic-looking Ouija board I’ve ever seen, explaining, “I didn’t buy a Ouija board; I borrowed it.” Because he’s terrible. This leads to a massive argument before the couple leaves for a night out. While they’re gone, the camera records the planchette of the Ouija board (which Micah calls a ‘cursor,’ like a noob) moving of its own accord before setting the board aflame. (That’s a loaner board, demon!) When they return, Micah tries to show his girlfriend what happened to the board, but Katie (who sounds very Texan when agitated), just screams at him to “get out!” “I think she’s upset,” the man-child, Micah, giggles.

He’s able to patch things up by swearing, in front of the camera, to abide by Katie’s rules and not purposely offend the entity, but Micah also endeavours to figure out what the entity was trying to spell on his borrowed Ouija board. Katie thinks things have gone far enough and wants to call the demonologist, but Micah remains opposed to inviting this Johann Averies into his house. Instead, he sprinkles baby powder all over the second-floor landing to see if something might walk through it. On Night #17 at 3:15, footsteps appear in the baby powder and wake Micah up. The footsteps lead back to a hallway closet, where Micah and Katie discover a ceiling panel has been left slightly ajar!

Micah sets up a ladder and ascends into the attic crawlspace with his camera. Digging through a pile of messy insulation, he discovers an old photo, burned along the edges. He shows the photo to Katie: it’s her as a child, in the driveway of her first house. Katie didn’t even know the photo still existed! She’s reached a breaking point, so she finally calls Averies, who is currently out of town. Desperate, she tries the original psychic, Dr. Fredrichs, again. But before he can visit, more poltergeisty events occur: their bedroom door slams and won’t let them escape one night, Katie feels a presence breathing on her, and a photo of the couple is smashed by an unseen force, with only Micah’s face suffering damage.

Dr. Frederichs eventually returns – this time, with glasses! – and provides no help whatsoever. He panics in the presence of the demonic entity, telling Katie he has to leave immediately, as he’s probably aggravating it. But Dr. Averies should be back in a few days, he assures her. The fitful nights begin to take their toll on the couple, who argue more. (Watch that negative energy, you crazy kids!) Katie frequently breaks into tears. On Night #19, something enters their bedroom and lifts the covers from their bodies.

Micah finds a website in which a ‘Diane’ (a possible name that the Ouija board might have spelled that night) recounts similar experiences that happened to her in the 1960s. (I’m curious as to the Google search that yielded that result.) The following night, Katie is literally pulled out of her bed by one leg and dragged out of the room by an unseen presence, which closes the door behind them. Micah makes chase and eventually rescues her, but Katie is understandably shaken. Furthermore, the entity has left a strange welt or bite on her side.

Plans are made to flee to a hotel, but are stymied by (a) Katie being found unconscious with a crucifix squeezed so tightly in her hand it draws blood, and (b) Katie (with a slightly demonic inflection in her voice) deciding it would be better if they stayed in the house. On Night #21 – the final night – Katie bolts awake again, stares at Micah for a couple hours, then goes downstairs. She starts screaming bloody murder on the first floor, and Micah leaps out of bed to find her. Once downstairs, he also begins to scream. We then hear footsteps on the stairs, and Micah’s lifeless body is suddenly hurled at the camera. Katie then enters in a trance, shirt covered in blood. She stoops to sniff at Micah’s corpse, then crawls over to the camera and lunges at the lens. Following this final shot, end credits reveal Micah’s body was found the next day, but Katie has been missing ever since.

For all the help this psychic was, he might as well have been wearing a red shirt.

For all the help this psychic was, he might as well have been wearing a red shirt.

Takeaway points:

  • Found footage has become something of a tired cliché in horror film, but there’s a reason it often works. The grainy footage of security cameras or camcorders mimics the look of local news broadcasts, making the scary bits more realistic. This is the same reason I maintain the scariest movies were shot in the 1970s: the film stock looks like real life. Modern film stock (or digital recording) makes everything look so detailed and shiny that it becomes ultra-real. Almost fantastical. The night-time video recordings of the couple in their bedroom are cousins to the genuinely creepy security cam footage of Elisa Lam and other such subjects of eerie urban legends. But too often this power of found footage is squandered on substandard jump scares, as is the case in Paranormal Activity.
  • One theme of this film is, as they might say on Twitter, #masculinitysofragile you won’t call a demonologist. Though Paranormal Activity clearly features a malevolent demon of some kind, is the real monster the insecurity of the male sex? Time and time again, the couple decides against calling noted demon expert, Dr. Johann Averies, all because Micah is uncomfortable having Averies in his home. He assures himself (and Katie) he can solve this paranormal problem on his own, as if a call for aid from another man would emasculate him. When the demonic entity strikes out at them, Micah responds with testosterone-laced vocal threats and angry tirades. Everything from the size of his pool to the size of his video camera defines Micah as a man insecure in his masculinity. And if Paranormal Activity shows us anything, it shows us the deadly consequences a fragile masculinity can have.
  • Likewise, Micah’s constant refusal to seek aid from Dr. Johann Averies – as well as his need to personally record evidence of the paranormal activity his girlfriend claims is happening (instead of just believing her) – mirrors certain segments of the political right’s ongoing war against expertise. Climate change? I don’t need to hear what some meteorologist says; I personally felt cold this past winter. When he reads up on demons in bed, re-learning what the psychic already told him, Micah demonstrates he won’t accept any information unless he learned or observed it himself. This is not unlike certain relatives of yours on Facebook, am I right?
  • Call the Demonologist sounds like an amazing, alternate-reality BBC answer to the show, Call the Midwife.
  • Prior to one night of paranormal hijinks, Katie is filmed applying deodorant before bed. Is this a thing people do? I have been putting on deodorant at the entirely wrong time of day?

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Paranormal Activity is not a terrible movie, but neither is it terrifying. The film is most akin to a parlour trick, which might shock and surprise in the moment, but has no lingering feelings of terror, no ongoing sense of unease. Do fans rewatch the Paranormal Activity movies? I’d sooner believe in Ouija boards spontaneously combusting.

Micah Sloat Club Essentials, available now from International Clothiers.

Micah Sloat Club Essentials, available now from International Clothiers.

Best outfit: The wardrobe in Paranormal Activity is normcore to the max, so it’s unthinkable to reward any of it with the title of ‘Best Outfit.’ I suppose the idea is that Katie and Micah are just regular folks like you and me – this paranormal activity could happen to anyone! – so they costume them as generically as possible. If I had to pick a standout look, it would be Micah’s “going-out” outfit, which will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a straight white man hit the clubs: collared shirt with vertical stripes (top couple buttons open), baggy designer jeans, boxy dress shoes. It’s the official uniform of men in Toronto’s Entertainment District, and just may have been the scariest thing in Paranormal Activity.

Best line: ‘Not a single thing you’ve done has helped.’ – Katie, with a pretty fair assessment of Micah

Best kill: There is literally only one murder in this movie, so, by default, it takes the prize. But as far as horror movie murders go, screaming off-screen then throwing a corpse into a camera is not going to make it into the Horror Hall of Fame.

Unexpected cameo: The cast is almost entirely unknowns, but Mark Fredrichs, who plays ineffectual psychic Dr. Frederichs, kind of looks like George W. Bush when he used to clear sagebrush on Casual Fridays.

Unexpected lesson learned: If you have the number of a reputable demonologist, do not sit on that. Call early, call often.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: APB Experiment #1

Next up: The Wicker Man (2006).