The paranormal movie is truly a staple of cinematic history. Ever since The Exorcist, ghosts, ghouls, and all sorts of unexplainable phenomena have invaded our screens. We’ve seen films like The Sixth Sense and Paranormal Activity arrive from this newfound fascination with the paranormal, but just like every other fad in the movie world, there are some stinkers to pair with the great movies. The problem is, judging the quality of these movies by the trailers seems to be an increasingly difficult challenge, and therefore people have been tricked into seeing some, to put it bluntly, metaphorical dumpster trucks on fire.
A little context is required for this entry, to understand the true awfulness of its contents. In 2013, James Wan directed The Conjuring. It was critically acclaimed and was a commercial hit due to its incredible scares, engaging characters, and haunting imagery. Indeed, some people lauded The Conjuring as The Exorcist for a new generation. However, when Hollywood smelled the money, we got the spin-off that absolutely nobody wanted. Annabelle.
Annabelle follows the origin story of a small sub-plot in The Conjuring about a creepy looking doll that has the uniquely terrifying ability of moving about on its own whim. Scary doll movies are nothing new, indeed, Chucky is still remembered to this day. However, Chucky was well aware of the ridiculousness of its premise, placing itself in sharp contrast to Annabelle, which took itself so seriously some of the "big scares" turned into huge laughs.
Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension
Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension has much in common with Annabelle. The original film was a surprise smash hit and is remembered to this day for its chilling viral marketing campaign. Before 2007, much of the horror genre was made up slasher flicks or contemplative indie art house films that failed to capture the imagination of a wide audience. Paranormal Activity perfectly bridged the gap between these disparate worlds creating a film that people just couldn’t stop talking about. Using a found footage method similar to The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity showed a fresh perspective towards the horror genre. However, just like Annabelle, studio interference was both inevitable and damaging as year after year sequels were pumped out trying to cash in on the name of the franchise alone. They grew increasingly poor until it peaked at 2015’s Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, which was tasked with trying to explain a convoluted plot line and completely remove the mystery behind its predecessors. Take my advice and stay far away.
You’ll begin to see a pattern here. The horror genre is great at two things in particular. The films never have to be particularly high budget, and they can be filmed very quickly, meaning that fads and phases can be cashed in on seemingly immediately. Such was the formation of the film Unfriended, which was released in 2014, in a similar atmosphere to that of Paranormal Activity in 2007. Movie goers were excited by its fresh approach to filming the scares and many lauded that it was in fact far more immersive for its unique screen capture filmmaking technique. However, as much as I can appreciate the interesting step to try and incorporate social media into the horror genre, it did not pay off in the slightest.
Horror movies tend to be a great representation of what society as a whole seems to find terrifying, and by watching Unfriended the only fear I had was that it would launch a whole new trend of cyber-horror for the foreseeable future. That’s to say nothing of the many plot holes that can be picked apart if you take more than a cursory look at the film. The more you study the film, the more you realize that none of the characters are likeable in the slightest, resulting in a deeply unsatisfying feeling when leaving the theatre.
One Missed Call
If there is one ugly aspect to filmmaking I hate, it’s the unapologetic rehash of foreign cinema in Hollywood to disgraceful effect. The 2003 Japanese film One Missed Call was a cult classic amongst lovers of Asian horror cinema. Its concept of voicemail containing the date of the recipient's death was interesting enough to spend 90 minutes investigating, but when Hollywood got its hands on the property, they positively butchered the interesting cultural introspection of the first in favor of warping the entire concept into a by-the-numbers slasher flick. In this format, it was hard to care about any of the characters, never mind their objective of staying alive. It’s like if Scary Movie 3 had a baby with Uwe Boll, but instead of being a parody, One Missed Call plays all of its scares with a straight, bored face.
Remember what I said about horror movies being incredibly easy to produce in a relatively short amount of time? This goes double for feature films that go straight to video, such as the appalling 1989 film Puppet Master. Like the rest of these films, context is pretty important, most notably that Child’s Play, the famous movie starring the murderous puppet Chucky, released the exact year prior. For a brief moment in the late 80s and early 90s, the horror world embraced that walking talking dolls and puppets are the scariest monster on the market and, in an effort to cash in on the short lived interest, Puppet Master was released in 1989. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the fascination with puppets and dolls as aspects of everyday life to play on in horror. A lot of horror is based upon warping something out of everyday life into something completely horrifying, and this short lived trend of puppets being the great movie monster led to some of the best Goosebumps stories, and even a great Batman villain, but it doesn’t excuse what was clearly a very thinly veiled attempt at making a quick buck.
Phantasm IV: Oblivion
The original Phantasm was released in 1979 and has proved to be a cult classic. The Tall Man is one of the lesser known movie villains, perhaps for good reason, but it’s hard to deny the charm of The Tall Man and his arsenal of murderous weapons. What I don’t think anyone had counted on was that the series would run for over 20 years, and to this day has still not finished. Phantasm IV: Oblivion was released in 1998 and really showed the age of the tired franchise. The films no longer desired quality but instead served as basic entertainment for loyal fans that deserved better.
Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings
Not counting Unfriended, I’m surprised it took this long for me to get a slasher film on this list, even if it is terrible. The original Pumpkinhead, which was released in 1988, was little more than a standard slasher film at the hands of a demonic monster and was received modestly both critically and commercially. Yet again, profiteers saw an opportunity of a quick buck and Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings was released in 1993, marking the beginning of a line of cringe-worthy TV movies based of a sub-par original concept.
Oh god. As much as I love film, a period of time I’d rather forget about is the infamous sexploitation films of the late 70s and early 80s. Some, like Ken Loach and Ken Russell, handled it with grace and with some form of commentary on the world around them. The Entity had no such intentions, and instead used pure sex appeal on top of perhaps one of the most generic names of a movie monster of all time to quickly move in and out of theaters nationwide and nab as many dollars as it could before it was inevitably lambasted by critics and audiences alike.
2008 marked perhaps the greatest fall from grace in all of cinematic history. M. Night Shyamalan was the darling of the horror movie scene after releasing the phenomenal The Sixth Sense but, after Signs, each film he released seem to illustrate a steady decline into mediocrity, and then into pure hilarity. The Happening has had years of people ragging on it, and I don’t intend to jump on the pile, but a casual search on YouTube will reveals hundreds of hours of people dissecting the terribleness of The Happening.
A lot of these movies that I’ve mentioned could have been written off from their very inception, but what annoys me the most about Ghost Ship is that the premise had genuine potential. An interesting story was marred by bizarre editing, ridiculous scares, and funny dialogue which dipped so far into melodrama you’ve got to wonder whether the actors knew the difference between drama and comedy. There’s nothing worse in film than seeing a good premise go to waste, and Ghost Ship is a prime example of such a practice.